The last time I did this I forgot one of my booties and fucked the whole thing up. It’s not like this piece of rubber was optional. There was no way I was going in without it, so the whole effort was a waste. There was a different time that I forgot a leash.
Not that I don’t like staring at the ocean and seeing the massive waves pounding the beach while surfers in hooded rubber get barreled between the jetties, but if I was going to drag my ass out of bed to catch the 6:45 out of Penn Station just to put my feet in the frozen sand I would have left the surfboard at home. This isn’t a sightseeing mission.
Taking it easy huh? I’m grumbling to myself as I stuff my 5mm wetsuit in a backpack. Good work.
Two booties this time. And gloves, also two. Two of everything.
Taking it easy. It never works. Not the getting up to catch a pre-dawn train out to the beach in November, the part before that. The part where I was going to stay home and take it easy so this part would be easier and I would be less prone to forgetting shit.
Leash? Got the leash. Two leashes. Things break and its not like I can just run to the car for a backup.
I’m taking it easy tonight. Easy to say, I guess impossible to do. I’m not surprised, this is the usual way things tend to play out for me. Whether it’s The City or a beach town in Costa Rica, going to bed early has never been my strong suit.
You’ve got to laugh at yourself sometimes.
Good thing I grabbed that bacon egg and cheese on the way home. I know I did this because the deli foil with the paper on one side and a couple bites worth of sandwich are sitting on the counter next to a glass with some melted ice in it. I’ll grab another on the way to the train.
Why didn’t I pack this stuff before I went out? At least this time I pulled it all into a pile, all the sets of two. I never feel comfortable just grabbing a packed bag and heading out, even if I had packed it beforehand I would need to see it all again just to check. Wetsuit, two booties (preferably a left and a right), two lobster-claw gloves, leash, towel. The full seal suit.
I’ll grab food on the way to the train – bacon, egg, and cheese on a roll. Did I just say that? And a coffee. Do I hit that deli on 29th, or just my regular one on 22nd. I just saw that guy an hour ago.
Am I doing this or what.
Put the Nirvana Unplugged CD in the discman, and just go.
Please just don’t let some early morning jogger be in the elevator. The last thing I need is some ‘what issss thhaaat?’ conversation with an early riser. If I had to choose, I’d rather deal with some walk-of-shamer who won’t even make eye contact, too confused about where they even are to talk about surfboards in elevators in New York City. They’re just hoping they aren’t in Staten Island and that I don’t notice their pants are on inside out.
Really, I just hope the elevator is empty.
In the short time I’ve been home the doormen have changed shifts. Ten years in the building and I’m still not exactly sure what time this transfer of power happens, when the keys change hands. I simply come home and see one guy and leave and see another. I know when I come home and the night guy has already left that I’m going to have a long day, plus I don’t like talking to the day shifters when I haven’t slept yet.
I have a different relationship when I come home and Steve, the night watch, is there. I sit down on the bench and we chat for a while, me telling stories of something crazy I saw on my walk home or who that girl was the other night, him telling me about the times the Hell’s Kitchen guys used to come down and beat everyone with clubs right in front of the building, a full on riot right there on the corner of 23rd and 8th.
The daytime guys just get a hurumph of a good morning. You just can’t even start a conversation with someone who just woke up when you haven’t even gone to sleep yet. I’m more comfortable with the night-crawlers.
The morning guy was looking groggy but always shook his head and smiled when I left early with a surfboard. This guy from Queens had never had anyone else in this building in his 20 plus years of manning the front desk who surfed, plus he had seen me come home in early daylight hours enough times to know that I probably didn’t get the best nights sleep last night. Or maybe he could tell by just looking at me.
Out the door, hood up and wearing a bulging backpack and carrying a 6’4 JC in a sock under my arm. It’s still dark and cold, but at least the streets are empty so walking up 8th Ave with a surfboard isn’t too much of an issue. I’m used to the funny looks, and the shaky hands.
I hit the deli on 29th because there’s no time for going backwards, even just one block. If I miss the 6:45 the next one isn’t for another hour. An hour in Penn Station under these conditions is a nightmare not to be considered. I grumble out my order and go to make a cup of coffee. None of this third-wave hand made pour-over, or even a Starbucks in sight.
Starbucks wouldn’t move into the space below my building, the one that is a burrito shop run by Asians, for years. Coffee regular, this sludge needs plenty of cream and sugar. At least it’s relatively fresh at this hour, plenty of street urchins and drunks swinging through on their way back to the trains from the clubs on 10th Avenue, hoping beyond hope they don’t have to wait an hour in Penn Station. They will have to wait though, they never make it.
They’re worse off than me, I grin to myself. Nothing like seeing a club kid from Jersey heading back to the trains at six in the morning to make you feel good about yourself – black bags under their eyes, walking around barefoot on the urine-soaked Chelsea sidewalks because the stilettos have crushed their feet and no one invented that vending machine with slippers in it yet, just enough ecstacy or whatever cheap pill they could find running through their veins to get them home, the whole carriage having already turned back into a pumpkin, the rats scattering afoot.
The day those amateurs have ahead of them makes you feel better about nursing a regular weed and vodka hangover with maybe just a hint of coke – nothing that the fifty degree water won’t knock out in an instant. Plus, I already had that hour of sleep and a shower, so all things considered I’m a pretty upright fucking citizen.
The best thing you can do on a train commute is walk onto the train just as the doors close behind you – the perfect efficiency of a Swiss watch, no standing around. Of course, running things that tight leaves you open to even the most casual disruption – getting caught at a light, stopping to help a woman down the stairs with a stroller (yes, New Yorkers do this random act of kindness all the time), or more commonly, having to run over one of those psychopaths who stand there like escalators are an amusement park ride and don’t know how to move to the right. These assholes get an ‘on your left’ in the same way a ship blows its horn at a sailboat, you’re coming through either way.
I generally try to leave a few minutes to spare, but these early surf runs tend to be a less than casual affair with little to no room for error. Once on the train, however, there’s nothing left to do but enjoy the warm, burnt coffee and maybe doze off a little.
Over the years I found that hitting Long Beach, if the swell permitted, was preferable to some of the other NYC surf options since the train is an empty commuter that dead ends into the beach. Technically it’s also possible to jump right on the E-train and end up in Rockaway, but thought of rumbling along on a subway in my condition always made this a non-starter.
Taking the empty Long Island Rail Road may cost more, but having a cushioned triple-wide seat to yourself in a train car, board safely in the overhead rack, with only a handful of other people is worth the few extra dollars compared to rocking along on a subway. What if you had to stand? It’s unthinkable.
The other advantage is that Long Beach is direct and at the end of the line, so without the need to switch trains or worrying that you’ll miss your stop, you are free to doze off or just zone out.
Getting off the train, you are just a few easy but cold blocks from the beach. In the summer, there are designated surfing beaches, but none of those rules apply in the off-season. Just cut across Park Avenue (not that Park Avenue) from the station and take the shortest route to the sand. Once there you climb the ramp to the boardwalk and finally get a glimpse of what you have now traveled for over an hour to obtain. You’re hoping its good, but it’s also one of those things where you’re going in pretty much either way.
Too big, too small, too cold, too windy, flat. All of these things are possible, and actually probable to the description of perfect. But having made the trip you’re most likely going in. The too stormy version of what you see being the most likely description to end in the complete failure of dryness.
Having a chat with an old-timer on an early-morning walk and watching which way any other surfers might be walking against the current that swept them down the beach, you start to take in all of the subtle information that the beach presents – wind, swell, temperature, general nausea, both yours and the sea’s.
But it’s time to duck behind the boardwalk and change from the cozy comfort of your warm layers to the stark efficiency of a rubber suit. Of course, changing into a wetsuit, is easier than changing out of one, the first hurdle here being more a mental one of not talking yourself out of surfing altogether.
I’ll never forget the first time I surfed in winter, making the distinct change from a person who surfs when conditions are relatively benign to walking right out into a freezing cold ocean as if a human had any business being there. This didn’t happen on accident as it requires the conscious pre-planning required by obtaining all the gear necessary to make it even a remote possibility.
Wearing warm booties and a 5mm wetsuit, I can still envision just watching the water swirl around my legs my feet seemingly dislocated from my body, knowing full well that without this thick layer of protection this wouldn’t be possible for a second. Walking further, the water up around my waist, still in awe of the dislocation between the reality of the water temperature and what technology was allowing me to do, the first duck dive bringing back reality, an unfiltered contact between my skin and the raw element of nature in which I am now completely immersed. Even now, this feeling of not belonging is always present, a strange out of body experience punctuated by the occasional electric shock to the system as icy water floods through the wetsuit and you look for the surface in the dark, churned up water.
The reality of being a surfer in New York, at least for me, is that I actually don’t surf a lot. I don’t even swim much. So there is always a certain degree of anxiousness and apprehension when I climb that boardwalk as to what I might expect. When there are no waves there are no waves, not like out west where you can go surf small waves all the time. When a storm comes through it gets big. Big and ugly. And cold. Lots of rubber.
For my untrained arms and lungs this presents a challenge. I’ve just traveled over an hour to come out and surf, but hoping it isn’t so big that I just spend the time getting my ass handed to me. Thumping beach breaks make for great pictures, but terrifying paddle outs, especially when the rip current is taking you from one jetty to the next with just a couple of duck dives.
What I’m hoping for here is something manageable, but the part of the swell where it’s on the fading side and clean always seems to come on a Tuesday. There would be times when I could surf on a Tuesday, but they would come later.
Sometimes you see clean barrels right off the beach in Long Beach, the kind of surf that without the grey tones and highrises in the background could be in any surf mag photo. Other times you actually score that perfect, for me, swell where it’s chest high and clean, difficult enough to paddle with all this weight and resistance, but manageable and not life threatening. Is it ok to just enjoy an easy surf sometimes – lots of waves, minimal time spent gasping for breath and scratching without hope for the horizon as the outside bombs inevitably catch you out of place, too far inside?
This happens sometimes, which is why I make the trip, why I change into the wetsuit behind the boardwalk where I can find a break from the wind.
If I wasn’t already out of it from lack of sleep and residual chemicals flowing through my system, I’m definitely running on fumes by the time I get out of the water. This is it, the end, completely spent.
Changing out of the wetsuit is effort, complete and total – booties coming off numb, tingling feet, big toes clumsy and useless, the sand feeling like shards of glass and the wind hitting exposed skin like liquid nitrogen. Getting one arm halfway out, I have to stop and catch my breath, going easy, working with the flow and being partially stuck, resting to breathe and stare out at the waves where you left your last ounce of energy.
Nothing was saved for this part, the work, the changing and the trip back home, so it all happens in a fog. Getting back into soft jeans and a hoodie begins to bring you back to life, blood warming and life coming back to frozen and shut down extremities. I could just lay on the sand and sleep for days, but I keep moving.
Back on the boardwalk, maybe a quick chat with the old-timer with the dog, rarely with other surfers. This is all pretty much a solo effort, few words spoken since leaving the apartment, and maybe none on the way back except to order more coffee, grab more food. Start stoking the internal fire that is an empty pit, a cold stove with no flame.
Heading back to the train, backpack heavier now that everything is wet, some sand between the toes that still feel strange and detached, I keep moving. Maybe a stop at Unsound Surf Shop just to get that connection, the how was it, the simple grin and nod that I take as recognition for the effort made. Can always grab some wax, this thing you don’t just find everywhere in the city.
I never feel like lingering too long here, no restaurants, but I don’t know why. Maybe at this point I just need to get home, maybe it’s because I’m still lugging a surfboard around. It somewhat depends on the train station, this eternal ticking clock of commitment – if you miss this train, or stay for a coffee, you might have to be ready to kill a couple of hours. I feel like I just can’t stop, this time seeming too insurmountable, so I head to the train station get on the train with the door closing right behind me.
I stash my surfboard again in the overhead rack normally used for work attaches and gym bags and overnighters for business trips, settle back into that triple-wide seat that allows me to spread out and lean on the window, watching the world slowly begin to move by without my effort. The train will dead-end back in Penn Station so there’s no risk of missing my stop, so I again allow myself to enjoy that state of half-sleep.
The work is done, the effort has been made. The last push through the city, sidewalks now alive with people. Too tired to move, you want the other people to just part like the Red Sea and let you get home, but the city doesn’t work that way. Even in this spent state you have to work around people and cars that jam intersections.
I’ve time traveled back to where I am completely out of place, a world not made for six foot surfboards under your arm. The ten blocks seems to take an eternity.
The doorman holds the door and gets another hurumph of a thanks. Again you pray for an empty elevator, but the lobby has more life now and people stare and ask questions.
I just want to go to bed.
I have messages, about the night before, about meeting for brunch. These people who I left in the early hours of the same morning but went home for a proper rest, assuming there was a good chance I did the same.
But clearly this is no time to take it easy.