Wednesday, September 16, 2015

The Tyranny of Self-Flushing Toilets

The stretch of sand below the piedmont that is Torrance swings north along the Esplenade to Redondo Beach. Just over the southern hill is PV Cove with its fearsome crew of Bay Boys who guard their wave-filled fiefdom with aggression. Or so they say. I've never tried to surf it. That hill, the Palos Verdes one, dripping jewels of houses over-looking the Southern Los Angeles sea, is equally ostracizing in its pomposity. By contrast the Torrance beach feels meek in understated apology and further up the industrial looking Redondo looks undeservedly rough and tumble.

I like to say that Ian taught me how to surf. I tell that to people. To his friend whom he introduces me the night before our our paddle out, and to my colleagues when I needlessly tell them the backstory of the old buddy I'm going to visit. I don't know why I like to say it. Ian overhears that explanation to his friend and grimaces, truthfully explaining that he did not teach me how to surf. It's truthful because it's true. I'd already been struggling with a board for a few years before becoming regular surf mates with Ian in the early 90s. I could already paddle out, catch a wave and head down the line. I could already get pummeled and kook out. I was already making more time for surfing that I was for my class load. And I truthfully corrected Ian in return. Because Ian taught me how to surf. He taught me to relax and to look relaxed and to try and match his laconic precision. It would set the tone for what I subsequently and still find pleasing in style. As I think about it, I'm not sure anyone else would take such inspiration from Ian on a surfboard. I'm not sure if my esteem is purely a hangover from some youthful drink of the different, or whether his surfing has some objective pedigree of cool. But I am still inspired by his surfing now, which is funny given the parameters he's placed on it.

I'm staying at a Hyatt in Long Beach for a couple days working on an advertising project about soccer players. I hadn't even thought about getting in touch with Ian before halfway through my plane ride, the realization of his possible proximity dawning on me only when I check a map to see where the video shoot would be. Right there, on the other side of those forbidding Palos Verdes bluffs sits Torrance. And if there is one thing about Ian, it's that he's from Torrance.

There is this absurd moment of confusion that overcomes me when traveling through suburbia. I've heard other people mention the same thing: "What do people do here?" It's this standard question that comes from somewhere deep in the psyche that still hasn't wrapped a brain around the idea of paper money, of service economy, of packaged foods and 24 hour telephone support. It's like a lizard brain if it were a Belle Epoque bailiff lizard dressed up in a cravat and bowler or an industrial boom Scouse lizard with a soot covered face trudging home from some factory. It's that lizard brain captured in the American Gothic painting. What people do here is beyond that part of me. Go to work? What work?

The answer comes a day later when I am interviewing one of the soccer players who shows up for the project I'm working on. A skinny good looking Latino kid with a big scripty tattoo running down his right forearm, he's got a dozen incredible moves on the ball he can pull off in humbling succession. As a way to loosen him up for the interview I asked him what he had for breakfast (nothing) and then if he had a eaten anything that morning (a snack at nine consisting of a Monster energy drink.) "Not even a cup of coffee when you get up?" "Coffee makes me go to sleep." He had been up since before dawn in a warehouse on an assembly line, checking to make sure the contents of a box were correct before pushing it down the rollers. Five days a week then five to six nights filled with a kind of soccer that has taken over unused tennis courts that dot the south coast.

Whom one chooses as a hero is not a choice at all. The little hagiographers between our ears are slaves to predestination like all the others bits of us and Ian loves to surf sofftops. Which makes perfect sense. He still takes out one of his multiple longboards that litter his chicken infested backyard if the waves are perfect. "Do you still ride shortboards?" I glance at a beautifully dusty little blue fish poking out from under his daughter's massive trampoline. "Oh no, if it's big I'll take out the Costco softtop. You can catch everything on those." God, it makes so much sense.

I'm tickled and frustrated by other's meaning of the word "flat." The night before our morning surf, I drop by Ian's house just as he's finishing up burger night with some friends. Last to go or left behind is his old friend Craig, a former surfboard, and more recently, paddleboard shaper turned full-time house renovator. Solely his own house. We talk about the chances for waves in the morning. Craig makes the "pfffttt" noise and shakes his head. "You guys out to SUP over the to the cove!"

Ian tells me he rarely stands up anymore when he surfs. Thanks to some seriously dodgy knees, he is content to ride waves in on his belly or to body surf. The waves are indeed minuscule looking. We pull up along the Esplenade at about 7 AM, a little group of high schoolers already in the water down the beach attending their first class of the day. "Did you have surf class when you were in high school?" "Ha, no."

The water is bizarrely warm. Even Ian thinks so. He keeps mentioning how warm it is all the way to the sand, not getting colder the deeper our legs dangle as we are accustomed to. And it's crystal clear in that crystal clear way that's a touch unnerving. At one point a very large dark object glides fairly close by at a blurry pace. We are both relieved to see a mammoth seal pop its head up twenty yards south. The waves are maybe belly high, more like upper mid thigh, and just shapely enough where we are surfing out in front of the volleyball poles to gift us a bagfull of super fun little rides. Fun enough that I feel compelled to hoot a little as I catch some. Ian surfs mostly on his belly, but deigns to stand up on a couple choice lefts on his favored goofyfoot. "I've gotten more incredible barrels surfing on my belly than I ever did standing up." I have to believe him. I try a couple on my belly, but my knees work ok enough and I am still caught with a childlike exuberance to squat down and drag my hand across a tiny face, speeding down the short line pretending I'm a Shaun Tomson Gulliver happening upon a Lilliputian Backdoor.

I say out loud more than once (and a few more times internally) that I could "do this all day." Ian just nods. His surfing is just like his conversation: matter of fact, eschewing hyperbole to the point that one might think the neighborhood in his brain that would produce even the most slightly exaggerated statements was firebombed when he was a kid.

Craig mentioned he might join us for a paddle but doesn't show. I ask Ian if Craig would think this is too flat to surf. "No, he'd be having fun." I ask Ian how this little stretch works everyday, if he he can stroll down the hill and get this sort of thing in the morning whenever he wants. "This is about as flat as it gets."

After two days of shooting young Latino style masters, I find myself at LAX with a case of slight back spasms and a stuffy nose. Pet peeves are around every corner in airports. People moving too slow. People hurrying too fast. The absolute crap food and the uncomfortable chairs. The fact that they no longer display the Economist in that easy-to-find spot next to the cash register at Hudson News. I actually enjoy taking my shoes off at the security gate. But what really gets me is the automatic flushing toilets. You think you've set yourself up just right, covering every bit of plastic porcelain, saving your precious skin from indignity, and as soon as it's all just perfect "gwashhshshs fllfffshshshshshshs!" all your best laid plans sucked down the hole.

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