He wore white pants, blue shirt, red scarf, and a white helmet with a red M on the front. His face was round, boyish. He seemed tangible to my kindergarten mind, a fellow thumbsucker and tee-ball-whacker, but in fact he was eighteen, a driver on the international racing circuit. His car was white, weapon-looking, with a three-pronged front end. Its name: the Mach 5.
My first celebrity crush was maybe the perfect kind of celebrity crush. He was beyond flesh and blood—he was a cartoon character. I found him every Saturday morning on Channel 13. The opening theme song made me salivate with joy.
Here he comes, here comes Speed Racer, he’s a demon on wheels…
Speed Racer presented a world far more interesting than the one I inhabited. There were high-speed battles against Mammoth Cars and X3s. There was Speed’s hot girlfriend Trixie and his cool little brother Spritle and their pet monkey Chim-Chim, who brought new life to the stuffed monkey I slept with at night. There was Mom and Pops, who showered Speed in love, provided a cozy respite from the dangers that lurked outside. There was that incredible way in which Speed got in and out of his car, a kind of dance/leap/swagger.
Speed bridged me from the Hot Wheels I played with in the living room to the Big Wheel I vroom-vroomed around the neighborhood. My two brothers and I took turns reenacting scenes from the show. We fought over who got to play Speed—pinching, biting, hair-pulling, the occasional mag-wheel run over an unsuspecting foot. We negotiated deals. If there was only enough Cap’n Crunch for two bowls, for instance, then whoever got to play Speed had to make due with Dad’s Cheerios. Halloween presented a fairly colossal problem that was settled through rock-paper-scissors.
Looking back, it was less about Speed than the forging of a certain kind of relationship. Speed was a hero, a role model, a spur. He taught me how to mimic, how to sublimate. My Big Wheel was not the rain- and sun-faded hand-me-down from Kevin and Steven; it was the powerful Mach 5. The sidewalk was not a mere strip of pavement at the top of Escalon Drive; it was a racetrack. I was too young to know melancholy and existential dread, but Speed was stirring in me the tools I would later use to combat these things.
And he prepared me for Evel Knievel.
I was six. The training wheels had recently come off my red Huffy bicycle. On “Wide World of Sports” we watched Evel jump nineteen cars. That night, in our bunk beds, my brothers and I replayed every last detail: his star-spangled leathers, his Harley Davidson XR750, the blue cape that he discarded before doing the big jump, the way he got us biting our nails and clenching our fists with heebie-jeebies. “How did he get the name Evel?” we debated at length. I figured it was the name his parents gave him. Steven thought it was a nickname. Kevin came up with something vaguely Faustian: “He’s broken every bone in his body and he still jumps his motorcycle over nineteen cars? That’s beyond human!”
On the following Saturday morning I did not watch “Speed Racer” on Channel 13. Instead, I went out to the garage, grabbed a couple scraps of plywood, a few bricks, and every Tonka truck in the bucket. On the sidewalk in front of our house I set up a kind of Evel Knievel miniature: launch and landing ramps with five trucks in between. I remembered that Evel wore protective headgear and ran back into the house to get Dad’s aviator sunglasses and Kevin’s Notre Dame football helmet.
“C’mon,” I called to my brothers, who were playing soccer in the backyard. “You guys gotta see this.” They followed me outside. “That’s your seat right there,” I told Kevin, pointing to the left side of the Tonka trucks, “And that’s yours,” I told Steven, pointing to the right.
They sat. I rode a ways up the sidewalk, turned around, and gunned it. But as I got close I hit my brakes, stopping with my front wheel on the ramp. Evel had done this in his nineteen-car jump—a fake out.
I scratched my crotch, adjusted my glasses, and brought my index finger to my tongue and pointed skyward (I wasn’t sure what this last part meant, but I assumed it had something to do with Evel’s religious beliefs). I surveyed the three-foot gap and Tonka trucks waiting ominously below. Then I rolled backward, rode two driveways up the block, spun around, and began my approach.
I peddled hard, my bike rocking back and forth between my legs, my mouth making the waaaah, waaaah, waaaah sound of an XR750. I felt winged. But the instant I hit the ramp it buckled under my weight. Instead of launching skyward like a bird, a plane, a six-year-old Evel Knievel, I crashed head-on into the flotsam of bricks, Tonka trucks, and plywood. My handlebars crossed up and I spilled forward, smacking the pavement with my chin. The sunglasses flew one way; the football helmet—which I’d failed to strap on—the other. Blood splattered my Mickey Mouse T-shirt. I tried my hardest not to cry.
“Where does it hurt?” asked Kevin, borrowing Mom’s line.
I pointed to my chin. He escorted me into the house. In the bathroom, Mom smeared away the blood with Betadine. It bubbled and stung.
“Do you think I broke the bone?” I asked hopefully.
“Not quite,” she said.
Big Wheels, bicycles, then skateboards. For my 11th birthday my parents got me a Bahne deck with Chicago trucks and Cadillac wheels. It had a fabulous glide, but it only really came to life when I discovered Skateboarder magazine. The year was 1977. On the west side of Los Angeles a band of teenage skaters known as the Dogtowners tore apart streets, sidewalks, drainage ditches, empty swimming pools, anything smooth and banked. Their pictures in Skateboarder captivated me. I wanted to skate like them; I wanted to look like them. Most of the Dogtowners were poor kids from broken homes. They dressed like Jeff Spicoli.
Vans deck shoes —navy blue
Tube socks all frayed and strectched out
OP corduroy shorts with boxers hanging out the bottoms
Levis corduroy pants, two sizes too big
Surf T-shirts (Blue Cheer, Natural Progression, Zephyr, Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax)
This was what my back-to-school clothes list looked like. What my loving mother did not know was that I took my spankin’ new gear out to the street and scraped it on the pavement to get it looking more “Dogtownerish.” Tony Alva wore a pimpin’ porkpie hat, Shogo Kubo wore a rising sun headband. I wore both.
Watching the Dogtowners in the surf movie Go For It was a real treat, but skating with them at Kenter Elementary School in Brentwood truly lit up my world. They possessed an insouciance, a flow, an inner music. I studied every last detail: the way they hopped the fence like panthers, held their boards as if they were rifles, pushed three times then charged down the blacktop bank in a low tuck, knock-kneed, hands like Merlin the Spellcaster. They carved up and down, up and down, drawing graceful, poetic lines, crossing-stepping to the nose here, ducking into an imaginary tube there. It was exactly the kind of projecting I was familiar with. They were riding the concrete bank as if it were a wave. In their heads they were surfing.
Skateboarding led me to surfing, surfing led me to three West Coast titles and a sponsorship from Quiksilver. I turned pro in 1986, did five years on the world tour. My pictures were in the surf mags. I signed autographs on the beaches of Rio, Biarritz, Bondi, Capetown. And even when I was at the top of my game I was still a mimicker and a hero worshipper. Before paddling out against the very pros I was trying to beat—and sometimes did—I studied their acts the way I studied Speed Racer on television at age five (Gary Elkerton scraped toes on the sand like a bull about to be let loose in a ring; Tom Curren shuffled hips, cracked knuckles).
And don’t let’s get started on this writing business. I’m a forty-eight-year-old man-child bouncing to the characters in fiction, emulating the writers and comedians I admire, still mimicking consciously and unconsciously. Not that I haven’t tapped my own inner voice, but more like that voice enjoys dancing around in other people’s shoes. I find that the monotony of yet another sunny day in Los Angeles can take on a happier hue if I imagine myself as The Dude from The Big Lebowski. Stuff that torments me, scares me, ties my stomach in knots—I think what Louis CK would do with it and it somehow lightens.
Not long ago I was giving a reading at a literary festival in Cornwall, England. It was a difficult passage about a close friend of mine who drowned while surfing in giant waves. I started improvising, telling the story as I remembered it, when suddenly I was seized by a combination of raw emotion and stage fright. I completely lost my train of thought. A hot flash washed over my face, my palms sweat, I froze up. And then George Carlin stepped in. In “Fart Jokes” he doesn’t so much crescendo as he simply runs out of material. “I have no ending for this,” he says/I said, “So I take a small bow.”
This lineage of inspirational figures, these lives that have given spirit and sparkle to my own, all trace back to Speed.
I first encountered Oscar Niemeyer’s work in a book. I was staying in Rio, Barra da Tijuca, a “nouveau” neighborhood notorious for its horrible architecture. Niemeyer’s architecture had curves, abstract forms, sexiness. I learned of a home called Casa das Canoas in São Conrado, not far from Barra da Tijuca, and I went straight there, on the bus. Casa das Canoas is located up a long winding hill, which I walked up, backpack over shoulder, sweating in the heat. I passed a favela, a pair of shirtless men carrying a 1970s television set down the sidewalk, a colonial home of vibrant blues and pinks.
My entrance to Casa das Canoas did not go well. The home was fenced off. I pressed a button, got no reply. Pressed it again, got no reply. Suddenly a gate to the far left of the house opened and a car exited. Coming from a youth in which we hopped fences to skate empty pools, I saw this as my in, and shimmied past the gate before it closed. As I approached the home an irate proprietor came storming out the front door, shouting at me in Portuguese. I dug deep into my reserves of sincerity to talk him down. After slapping heart with hand several times, the global sign for ‘I’m an honest man,’ he finally calmed down. And gave me a tour of the house.
Built for Neimeyer himself in 1953, Casa das Canoas brings the exterior into the interior, which is to say there’s a lot of floor-to-ceiling glass, with striking views of the tropical jungle and the shimmering ocean way down below. The house is curvaceous in the way that the human body is curvaceous. There’s a big granite boulder that has been integrated into the space. There’s a pool that sits just outside the living room. It feels something like a tree house, but instead of the homespun, dark-wood vibe, it’s sculptural white, modernist. It feels aspirational, a place to make epic work, or, in Niemeyer’s case, design epic buildings.
So began my fascination with Oscar Niemeyer. I visited Edifício Copan in São Paulo, a 38-story residential building with a sinuous façade that suggests levity, a curtain billowing in the wind. I went to Niterói Contemporary Art Museum in Rio, a UFO-looking building set on the edge of a cliff, with sweeping views over the water. And I read Niemeyer’s memoir, The Curves of Time, while staying at Barra da Tijuca in 2011. At the time I’d become obsessed with bodysurfing. The Rio coastline is textured with those iconic granite rocks, the kind found in the living room of Casa das Canoas. They create wedgy waves with almost no shoulder. On a board you’re rocketed into the flats, but bodysurfing you match the speed, you stay in the pocket, the ocean pulsing through your belly. I somehow likened this to Niemeyer. That reading of and flow with the environment, that oneness with nature.
Passages from The Curves of Time that have stuck with me:
“I am not attracted to straight angles or to the straight line, hard and inflexible, created by man. I am attracted to free-flowing, sensual curves. The curves that I find in the mountains of my country, in the sinuousness of its rivers, in the waves of the ocean, and on the body of the beloved woman. Curves make up the entire Universe, the curved Universe of Einstein. “
“In my lectures I have always emphasized that I do not consider architecture terribly important, and there is no contempt in my words. I compare architecture to other things that are more connected to life and Man; meaning the political struggle, the personal contribution that each of us owes to society, particularly to our less fortunate brothers. What can compare to the struggle for a better and classless world where all individuals are equal? In spite of this opinion, architecture has kept me very busy, leading me, as I do now, to defend my works and my point of view as an architect, and to debate architectural issues with a passion that life, so fragile and insignificant, seemingly does not justify.”
“On several occasions I have mentioned genetic information and how, in my opinion, it accounts for our qualities and defects, thus influencing our reactions. I shouldn’t complain about this hidden being within us that genetic information creates and which so often dominates us. I have already mentioned how this “double” controls me when I begin a new design, taking me by the arm and leading me in trance along the pathways of fantasy to the new, unexpected shapes that are responsible for this architectural spectacle.”
“I once imagined that the followers of contemporary architecture, grown tired of so much repetition, would someday become disappointed with the dogmas they once fiercely advocated and choose something different, finally assured that invention must prevail. This is occurring now, but once again they are making a mistake by tacitly following the adventure of postmodernism, reproducing the same building designs but adding anachronistic and outdated architectural details. This is the same “gratuitousness” they once criticized and have now admitted in its most simplistic form.”
“I have always confronted life as an unwavering rebel. After reading Sartre, I viewed life as an unfair and unrelenting tragedy. When I was a young man of only fifteen, I was anguished to think of man’s destiny, doomed as we are to total abandonment, and defenseless against it. I was frightened by the idea of someday disappearing forever. Like everyone else, I have tried to erase such thoughts and instead take advantage of the pleasures of this brief and joyful passage on earth that fate grants us without consultation. I have felt the ecstasy of the fantastic natural world around us, and, arm-in-arm with my friends, I cast aside the disturbing thoughts that so afflicted me when I was alone. I wore a mask of youthful optimism and contagious good humor. I was known as a high-spirited and spontaneous personality, a lover of the bohemian lifestyle, while deep inside I nursed a tremendous sorrow when I thought about humanity and life.”
In the summer of 2015 I traveled to the Maldives to write a travel piece. I learned that the Maldives is the flattest country in the world, i.e., they have the lowest high point (lowest high point. I love this!), i.e., first to go underwater with the effects of climate change. I wanted to make a short film of some kind, wasn't sure what, I brought a GoPro camera, I am fascinated by our selfie culture. I wondered if there might be some kind of theme of self-obsession in there. The first day I arrived I mounted my camera to the nose in classic narcissistic fashion (pointed backwards, mirror-like), I paddled out to Sultans, a wave loomed, I pressed PLAY, stroked, hopped to feet, pumped, flung myself at the lip to do a floater, and like a cartoon the lip dislodged my camera (I didn't insert it properly) and it sunk to the bottom (I didn't put on the foamy float thing). I tried to find it but I couldn't. So I rode a few waves. Then I thought, 'Gotta find the thing, I traveled all this way, and I want to make some kind of film'. So I paddled to the boat, grabbed mask/snorkel/fins and went searching. After about ten minutes I found it. It had been rolling the whole time. There was like 45 mins of this wave/dislodge/raked over bottom of the sea/find footage. I passed it along to the brilliant director/editor Isabel Freeman, from NY, resides in London, editor of "Stephanie in the Water." She teased out a frame—elation, loss, back on the horse—as well as the excellent Terry Riley/Don Cherry tune. I wrote a VO script based on love and loss (my wife died suddenly three years ago). And there you have it.
I was obsessed with the “Dogtowners,” a band of raffish, pot smoking, wildly gifted skaters from Santa Monica and Venice. I studied their pictures in Skateboarder, noting not only their knock-knees and splayed fingers, but also their facial expressions. Tony Alva pursed his lips. Stacy Peralta edged his tongue out of his mouth. When Mom offered to buy us back-to-school clothes, I flipped through the Dogtown articles and made a list: oversized Pendleton with red checks, Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax T-shirt, low slung Levi’s cords, tube socks bunched at the ankles, two-tone Vans deck shoes. After shopping at the Oaks mall, I took my new gear out to the backyard and grinded it against the pavement to make it look more “Dogtownerish.” I drew Dogtown crosses on my notebooks and my desk at school. I drew imaginary Dogtown crosses on my thigh with my index finger. I read about the elfin “Jay-Boy” Adams’s death-defying trick in which he skates at full speed up to the moving Pacific Ocean Park bus, skids into an extended Bert that literally throws his lithe, horizontal body under the bus, then snaps his board around seconds before the rear wheels crush him.
Out the back, a fifteen-foot wall of water looms. I scratch frantically and barely make it over the crest, which gives me a brief glimpse at the procession of waves that follow. It’s otherworldly: silvery, smooth, impossibly large lines stack to the horizon. In the magazines they call this “corduroy” but in fact it looks sci-fi. It’s everything a surfer dreams of, but on a scale that is deadly. It stirs both rapture and dread.
Hawaiian John Shimooka whips around and drops over the ledge of a wave that looks six times taller than he is, an avalanche of whitewash exploding behind him. Brazilian Fabio Gouveia catches a beast that caps on Second Reef, a gentle entry followed by a heaving inside section.
I catch a wide shoulder, an icebreaker, and ride it to the channel. With a surge of half-confidence I paddle deep into the pit. A wave looms: it’s double overhead, pops up extremely fast, and is so steep and hungry to throw me shoreward that it takes only a stroke or two to catch. I pop to my feet, attempt to angle down the reef-ribbed face but instead airdrop and land in a kind of jackknife and abruptly halt. There’s a millisecond in which all goes calm and mute. Then with a loud, violent explosion comes the lip on my head, which feels like a refrigerator dropped from a second story window. It squashes me flat on my board then ragdolls me in a thousand different directions. My heel grazes coral, my board slams me in the back, my jersey peels inside out and dangles from my shoulder. I feel nauseous, violated. Only when I break the surface do I realize that my left knee is severely wrenched.
Malibu was our playground. On the half-mile stretch of sand between First and Third Point, we encountered rakish surfers, scraggly bums, nervous Vietnam vets, and leather-clad punks. Out in the sparkling waves, West Val stoners, East Val preppies, Hollywood vampires, Santa Monica blue bloods, Venice gypsies, Topanga hippies, Colony gazillionaires, and beer-swilling Wall Knuckleheads all converged, creating a magical soup that educated us in ways no school ever could.
We’d catch rides from parents, aunts, distant cousins, friends of friends’ older sisters—anyone with a driver’s license headed west. Full of butterflies and ambition, we’d pull our boards from the car, sling our backpacks over our shoulders, and cross the pearly gates entrance to First Point. The hot sand under our feet was instant liberation.
The lineup was one of the most crowded and heated in the world. One morning Angie Reno dropped in on Cliff, a 6’4”, 220 lbs. Herculean regular foot. They exchanged words, dunked each other’s heads under water, then took it to the beach. Angie threw a few scrappy punches. Cliff wrestled him to the ground. Angie squirmed free, ran over to his longboard, punched the fin out, and went after Cliff, using the fin as a kind of hatchet. For a second we thought we were about to watch a scalping of the Last of the Mohicans variety, but Cliff knocked the fin out of Angie’s hand, and laid into him. The smack of fist pounding wet, blubbery torso sounded the way smashing watermelons do. The following day Angie showed up at the wall with a crazed look on his face. In his pocket he clutched a gun. Before he could get to Cliff the lifeguard intercepted. Angie was taken away in handcuffs. We did not share this story with Mom and Dad.
Our crew consisted of my brother Steven, Cousin Pete, John Fiedler, a few Agoura High surf pals, and a dozen or so fellow teenagers we met along the way. We set up camp on a berm overlooking the inside section of Third Point, dubbed the “Kiddie Bowl.” Amid the hundreds of surfers in the water we engaged in our own little unspoken competition. The hierarchy was constantly shifting. A single excellent ride during a sizeable south swell could make you king for a week. Likewise, a cowardly hesitation could render you the laughingstock.
Between surfs we “terrorized.” Lunches were sabotaged; boards were set adrift in “Polio Pond,” the fetid creek that drained into Third Point. Locals were scrutinized and nicknames were assigned. “Fruit Loop” rode a pink and yellow twin fin and wore striped Dolfin shorts. He strutted up the beach with cigarette dangling from lip, bleached blond hair in a great bird’s nest of a pompadour. He surfed with an incredibly low center of gravity, almost sitting, and spun a dizzying number of 360s. Once we counted seven on one wave.
“Coke” was sunburned, barrel-chested, wetsuit-less even on cold days. He surfed, as Cousin Pete put it, “like he hasn’t taken a shit in three weeks.” Entering the water one bright summer morning, he nodded to thirteen-year-old John Fiedler.
“What’s that?” asked John.
“Wanna buy some coke?”
Towheaded, bowl-legged “Cock ‘n’ Balls” trotted across the sand to Third Point, yellow single fin underarm. At water’s edge he took off his boardshorts and draped them around his neck like a cape. He surfed for hours in the nude. Was it a celebration of surfing’s freedom and pure expression? Or was it was genius crowd control? No one dared drop in on him.
Greatest moments? Hard to say. A torrent of them, really. I have vivid recollections of a sleepless night in Rio de Janeiro in 1990. I was jetlagged (jetlag can be more intoxicating and transformative than LSD), I was listening to the Rolling Stones “It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll” on my Walkman. I kept rewinding “Time Waits For No One.” It created a sense of urgency. There was a life that I was reaching for, and somehow the song contained it. I was in Rio for the Alternativa Pro, and like every surf contest, I visualized myself winning it. That life, that higher self, that inner Superman was there for the liberating with every event—an amazing sense of renewal and self-invention in the pro surfing game. It was like 4 in the morning. I was pumped. I wanted to put on my clothes and ride the elevator down and cross the street to Praia do Pepe and sprint the soft sand beach in some kind of primal roar. But I thought better of it. At that time Rio was one of the more dangerous cities in the world. So I just kept listening.