Bay Street is the surf spot at the end of the Pico line, the bus we catch at dawn from Cousin Pete’s apartment in West L.A. Bay Street is like a diagram of our evolution. The palm tree-lined street that slopes down to the beach is a popular skate spot, frequented by the Dogtowners we grew up imitating. The wave out front is a playful beachbreak, perfectly suited to our “cuts” and occasional “rollercoasters.”
On a foggy afternoon, Cousin Pete, Brother Steven, and I ride knee-high silvery walls. The beach is empty. The surf is so tame that rather than paddle, we wade back out to the lineup. Between waves, Pete steps on something. “Whoa!” he shouts. “Come here! Quick!”
Steven and I slosh over. Pete clutches a box. It’s about the size of an encyclopedia, covered in moss and barnacles.
“It’s money!” says Pete. “I guarantee you it’s money!”
Cousin Pete and Steven are the same age. But where Steven is cautious, Pete is reckless. His latest stunt involves laying flat on his back, placing a firecracker on his belly, and lighting it. This quickly advances to two, three, five, then ten exploding firecrackers, his red face smeared in a grimace, his peach-fuzzed chest blotted in gray and pink burns. Pete claims that the closeness he, Steven, and I enjoy is a result of our identical twin mothers sharing breastfeeding duties. “We’re pretty much the same age, right? So you gotta figure that when your mom got tired she passed you over to my mom, and vice versa. That makes us almost brothers.”
We set the box on Pete’s board and push it to shore. It weighs about twenty pounds, though it’s hard to tell whether this is because of its contents or all the goop stuck to the outside. It looks ancient.
“I’m buying me a brand new Pro Series,” says Pete. “6’8”, wing pin, custom shaped by Robbie Dick!”
We carry it up the beach, across the scalloped high tide line, and onto dry sand. Six hands grope for an edge or a lip but there’s none.
“Hang on!” says Pete.
He runs up to his backpack and returns with a small penknife. We take turns scraping at the vibrant green moss and razor-sharp cockles that draw blood from our cold, wet knuckles. It feels primitive, Indian-like. Pete stabs at an edge, tears off a clump of shells. He says that his Pro Series is going to be maroon on the bottom and yellow on the deck. A ghost of a letter appears, a C. “Bitchen ass!” says Steven. Pete whoops. Then an R and an E. With great urgency we claw off a sheet of slime and read—
CREMATED REMAINS OF…
Beneath it is someone’s name, and beneath that, in official-looking, boldfaced text—
DO NOT DESTROY
In the two-part “Brady Bunch Goes to Hawaii” episode, Bobby finds what he thinks is a lucky tiki, but what turns out to be “tabu,” the cause of Alice’s hula accident, Pete’s confrontation with a spider, and Greg’s near drowning in a surf contest. He learns through a Hawaiian elder that the only way to reverse this is to take the tiki back to where it belongs.
Following this line of thinking, we set the box on Pete’s board, walk it back to the water, and with bowed heads, with an intense blast of the willies, drop it right where we’d found it.
I was seventeen and delusional and Carl Lewis was breaking world records and the Stones had just released Dirty Work and godhead Gordon Gekko was proclaiming “Greed is good!” and I blame all the above for my foolishness. That and the fact that I had my eyes on a pro surfing career, sixteen years of Catholicism which manifested in binge/purge self-flagellation, and a sun-drenched short attention span, which is to say that one day I’d read about Ivan Lendl’s intense training program in Tennis and go sprint a few miles on soft sand, and the next I’d become possessed by Iggy Pop’s Raw Power and aspire to challenge myself on more, shall we say, psychotropic fronts. The tug of war—or better yet, the head-on collision—of these conflicting ideologies never dawned on me. I repeat: I was seventeen and delusional.
So I’m at a friend’s girlfriend’s Pepperdine University graduation lunch at an upscale French restaurant in Malibu, nibbling a tarte a la tomate and sipping Dom Perignon, when my pal Teddy kicks me under the table, nods in the direction of the men’s room, wipes his hands with his flamingo pink cloth napkin, and excuses himself.
I follow him through the “WC” door and into the toilet stall.
“A little sumpin’ sumpin’ before the main course,” he says, and pulls from his sport coat a wrap of the white stuff.
He scoops up a tiny mound with his overgrown pinky fingernail and I—fffff—snort it right up, nearly swallowing his finger in the process. He does the same, we check ourselves in the mirror, sniffle like a couple of flu-addled Eskimos, then join the Last Supper-like table with smug grins.
Aside from the time Cousin Pete and I rubbed a bit of residue on our gums when we were thirteen and Dogtown-obsessed, I’d never properly done cocaine. I’d heard it referenced in endless songs (Clapton, Stones, Grandmaster Flash), I knew about Belushi’s last hurrah in Bungalow #3, and I’d seen Woody Allen’s famous sneeze scene in Annie Hall, but I hadn’t a clue about its euphoric properties, how divinely agreeable it was with my inhibited, inferiority complex-ridden temperament.
Pre-men’s room I was surrounded by a bunch of preppy, Benz’s-on-their-sixteenth-birthdays, spoilt rich kids. Post-men’s room I could not have felt more for Carolyn with the nose job and pretentious table manners, Joel with the hairy chest, gold chain and suspicious tan, and Sophia who lunched at the Ivy, summered in the Hamptons, and failed to make eye contact with our affable Hispanic waiter. These were my co-conspirators. I wanted to mmmmwah, mmmmwah them on both cheeks, stick my tongue in their ears, make confessions.
We picked at our salads and chattered excitedly. There was talk of all night cramming for finals, Sunday afternoon martini gatherings at Bianca’s parents’ Colony house, and the best hotels to stay at during Cannes. Shortly after the grilled Norwegian salmon steak with champagne-raspberry sauce arrived, Teddy gave the secret nod, and then again prior to the crème brulee and espresso. We inhabited a world far from sororities, Aspen winters, summer internships at Paramount and William Morris; we were beach bums with decent cutbacks and logo-bedecked thrusters, but thanks to the gak, we were all team spirit, charming our friend’s girlfriend’s grandma, tapping glasses with tea spoons and making toasts, spouting on about new chapters and golden futures.
The party moved over to the graduating girl’s beachfront apartment on Malibu Road, which could easily have been a set from Wall Street or Less Than Zero or a west coast Bright Lights, Big City. Nagel prints covered the walls of the track-lit living room, Wham! played on the stereo, mulleted men in shoulder-padded Armani suits cavorted on the black leather sofa with frost-tipped women in Thierry Mugler dresses while the waves slapped and hissed a mere tennis ball’s toss away. That I would attend parties that would parody this heyday of mine twenty years down the track was of course far beyond my myopic imagination. We wore our Zinka and Jimmy’Z and Reebok high-tops with total conviction. Self-irony was beyond us.
There were a good eight or ten more snorts throughout the night. Teddy was a huge hit. I was so naïve that it took about five handoffs of those tiny triangular wraps for me to figure out that he was dealing the stuff. I remember huddles around the glass coffee table, rolled up hundred dollar bills, index fingers smearing upper gums, single nostril sniffles, cum-like beads of dripping snot, and senseless, hypercharged conversation. I remember tapping my feet to Shiela E’s “The Glamorous Life” and grinding my teeth to Depeche Mode’s “Just Can’t Get Enough.”
I never danced. Sadly, I spent my teens and twenties thinking that dancing was uncool, which cost me dearly on the sexual front. In fact when I stop to ponder this now I imagine myself a kind of forty-year-old Ebenezer Scrooge being led by the Ghost of Summers Past, only instead of neglectful fathers and Tiny Tims, there are curvaceous blondes in cut-off pink sweatshirts and sleek brunettes in fishnets and push-up bras smacking gum and calling me to the dance floor with determined, pink nail polished index fingers, and instead of whimpering with regret like Scrooge, I slug myself in the jaw repeatedly.
There was no sleep that night. The six or seven of us who were too jacked to drive grabbed pillows and writhed in fetal positions on couches, bean bag chairs, and the faux zebra skin throw rug. I remember listening to the ocean, the couple having sex in the next room, the drill sargeant-like voice of my guilty conscience. The NSSA Nationals were a couple months off and what the hell was I doing going on a fifteen-hour cocaine, champagne, beer and vodka bender? Had I not been so wired up I may have been able to sleep my way back to common sense, but as it were I spiraled into self-disgust. I felt that same dirty feeling I felt after sleeping with bad perfumed, cigarette-smoking valley girls I was philosophically at odds with. Which left one obvious solution: Go surfing.
I tip-toed out of the house and hopped into my powder blue ’66 Karmann Ghia I’d bought a few months prior from Murray, a Third Point hero, who, when he’d handed over the keys, said “I’m just happy to let her go to someone who can surf.”. It was a great first car. I distinctly remember the “St. Christopher Be My Guide” button resined onto the center of the steering wheel, and the “Live to Ride, Ride to Live” wings stuck on the back window, which even furthered the sense that I was being sworn in, that the keys were to something far more than just a car.
I burned past the high tide shorebreak of Zuma, which six or seven times a year transforms into North Shore-like perfection; careened through the curves of Point Mugu, where minus tides coupled with strong north wind swell gave us tiny glimpses of Queensland pointbreaks; whirred past the farmlands and domestic abuse-addled barrios of Oxnard, where Mexican hookers with pot bellies peddled their skanky wares in front of the paderia at lunchtime, then turned left into Ventura Harbor, where Santa Clara Rivermouth’s shapely sandbars drew committed waveriders from Rincon to Trestles.
But it was unsurfable. There was swell, but the tide was so high and sandbar so deep that rather than break the waves would double up into a heaping shorepound. So I did what I always did when my conscience was eating at me and the surf was uncooperative: I ran beach sprints. Sweat out the sins of last night, I reasoned. Good things come to those who train.
This is where, with hindsight, I envisage Lendl and Iggy at war. The tennis racket vs. the microphone stand. Snowy white Adidas shorts and shoes vs. beer-soaked Levis and Doc Martens. Only I had nothing in common with either. I was a sensitive, hungry suburbanite desperate to scale my way out of the mire of mediocrity.
I stripped down to my skintight lycra boardshorts, smeared a gob of Bullfrog across my nose, popped AC/DC’s Back In Black in my mustard yellow Walkman, and began trotting toward the rivermouth. I hadn’t had a sip of water since, what, lunch yesterday? I sprinted and sprinted and sprinted. I’d set my eyes on a piece of driftwood or Doritos bag fifty yards ahead and make that my goal. I huffed up the fertilizer-scented offshore breeze, I felt my heart banging against my breastbone, I wiped the salty sweat from my forehead. And then after forty minutes, when I felt good and purged, I got back in my Ghia and headed home.
The 101 from Ventura to our house in Westlake Village was a good thirty-minute drive. Denny’s, auto malls, monolithic shopping centers, miniature golf courses, and farmlands lined the highway. It was like a pendulum of lukewarm America swinging back and forth before my eyes.
The fatigue set in right around the Camarillo Grade, a steep, two-mile incline that forced me into the slow lane. By Newbury Park I was fighting to keep my eyes open and by Thousand Oaks I was letting out blood-curdling screams every half-mile or so to scare myself back to wakefulness. When I got off the freeway at Hampshire Road I felt a huge wave of relief. Pass the Kmart with the grindable banks, pass the cul de sac where Brittany the magical French kisser lived, pass the mini mall where Ron kicked the shit out of the black belt in 10th grade, and I was home. I was mentally rehearsing my arrival: toss board and wetsuit in garage, wash feet with hose, plop face down in bed…
I remember urgent voices, blinding light, and stale coffee breath. I can’t recall whether the “How many fingers?” actually happened or whether this was pasted over from some TV or movie I’d seen, but such is the nature of memory in the 21st century. I remember a tray of medical supplies, a defibrillator, a greenish curtain pulled shut, and then I remember reaching down to ensure that my legs were still there, feeling a surge of powerful emotion.
“Do you know where you are?” asked the bearded doctor.
“I was driving and, umm…”
“You’ve been in a car accident. You went head-on into a tree.”
“Your car’s totaled. Fortunately you didn’t hit anyone. Can you remember anything?”
I tried, but my thoughts were jelly. I muttered an “Umm—”
“You were at a stop light. The woman in the car next to you says you were convulsing, as in having a seizure. Are you epileptic?”
“Have you had seizures in the past?”
“Any serious head injuries or migraines?”
“Relatives with epilepsy, seizure disorders?”
“No, not that I know of,” I said, then after a brief inner debate gushed it all: “Look, I did cocaine last night. Like a lot of it. I think we started around two in the afternoon and didn’t stop ‘til well past midnight. I also drank a lot of vodka and didn’t sleep and then went running—“
There were X-Rays, EEGs, CAT scans, and various blood tests. It appeared that there was nothing wrong with me, though there was a slight blemish in one of the brain scans, which looked exactly how my seizure felt: bright, overexposed, like staring into the sun for too long. The doctor said it could easily have been a flaw in the machinery, but to be safe he prescribed me 500 mg of Dilantin, which I diligently popped every morning for four years.
Because Karmann Ghias have the engine in the rear and boot in the front, the tree trunk tore into the metal unobstructed, leaving a vicious “V” and mangling the axle. I ended up selling it to a junkyard in Van Nuys for something like fifty bucks. I can still see the black metal dashboard and steering wheel that got scalding hot in the summer, the ancient AM radio with chrome buttons, the oval glove compartment door that had a habit of falling open whenever I went over a bad bump. I regret not taking some kind of memento—the rear view mirror or that ironic St Christopher button.
I hitchhiked for the next year. It wasn’t easy getting rides with a six-foot surfboard, but in retrospect, it set me on a kind of slow-paced, experiential journey that ran counter to the linear, blinkered path of competitive surfing. I vividly recall getting picked up by the disgruntled, wolf-faced longhair in the jacked up, primer black Chevy truck who blasted Journey, chugged Miller Lite, complained incessantly about his “fuckin’ bitch of an old lady.”
Along the palm tree-lined stretch of Palisades Park in Santa Monica, I got a lift from a balding, stone-faced gentleman in a candy apple red Mercedes 450SL convertible. He wore loud sunglasses and a purple bandana around his neck. After requisite small talk (he lived in Beverly Hills, worked “in the film business”), he turned to me and asked, “So, are you bored?”
“No,” I said. “Not at all.”
A mile up Pacific Coast Highway he asked again, and then a mile after that a third time, adding a suggestive scan of my midsection.
“What do you mean by bored?” I asked, anxious to get it out on the table.
“I’m gay,” he said. “I like men. I’m attracted to you.”
I told him I was straight, that I felt uncomfortable, that I wanted to get out.
He pulled off on Sunset Boulevard and let me out in front of a Taco Bell.
“Thanks for the lift,” I said, then punkishly added, “Hope you get your dick sucked.”
As if I’d misunderstood him, as if this would suddenly change everything, he looked at me with hopeful eyes. “I meant”—he nodded toward my groin—“me…you.”
I politely slammed the door.
To further LA clichés, I had a commercial agent at the time and went on auditions that were forty miles from my suburban home. With luck I’d get picked up by a commuter headed downtown; on a bad day it would involve six or seven short lifts, a couple bus rides, and a lot of walking. I’d pack up my headshot, Thomas Guide, a thin paperback, and a large bottle of orange Gatorade, and set off three hours before call time. I met insurance salesmen, prostitutes, Deadheads, and an alarming number of middle-age men with seemingly no destination.
Through my entertainment industry friends I would attend elegant parties in the Hollywood Hills and Malibu Colony, some of which I’d arrive to either by foot or benevolent stranger in jalopy. The contrast between standing on the side of the road with my thumb out, to suddenly sipping expensive scotch poolside in the backyard of some stately mansion was bewildering.
My life would take on a similar duality in coming years. There’d be spartan, humble life at home and glamorous, fantasy world on the road. There’d be my older brother’s descent into heroin, and subsequent rehabs, prison stints, suicide attempts, and eventual death; and then there’d be monthlong gallivants along the shores of sun-kissed foreign countries that’d include fierce battles against the world’s best surfers, caramel-skinned groupies, and a moment of rapture in Durban, where a beach full of adoring fans would applaud me and my fellow semi-finalists as we’re drenched in champagne and confetti.
My Lendl/Iggy complex would dog my career. I’d wash down my 500 mg of Dilantin with soymilk, ginseng, bee pollen, and sub-lingual B-12 in the morning, then knock back Jack Daniels and Cokes and smoke bong loads at night. I’d do cocaine exactly two more times: once at a house party in Sydney, where I’d snort a thin, caterpillar-like line and feel a surge of euphoria then fall flat on my face, killing the collective buzz and feeling hideously embarrassed; and again at a Fourth of July party in Venice Beach, where I told myself I was just making sure I wasn’t allergic, then came to with a stranger slapping me in the face and the entire party peering down at me. A ginger-haired medical student took me into the bedroom, gave me a glass of water, and checked my pulse. She sat down in the adjacent leather chair, assumed a cross-legged, shrink-like position, and asked, “So, you want to tell me what’s really going on with you?”
When I revisit these scenes now it all comes back: the hubristic highs and gutter-licking lows, the sense of being a Superman one day and a total fraud the next, the quest for self-mastery but also that strange titillation with self-sabotage. And while it’s tempting to cast this as some troubled youth from which I’ve fully emerged, truth is, I still wrestle these same elephants.
She was twentyish and full-lipped and Joanna Newsom-like and he was paunched and middle-aged and fighting off bitterness with sarcasm. They were standing in front of a vegan restaurant on Santa Monica Boulevard. The smell of seitan filled the air. Yoga mat-clutching actresses giggled into their iPhones. Shiny black Range Rovers motored past.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” he asked her.
“An organic farmer,” she replied, and went on about kale and dandelion root and Brussel sprouts.
“What about you?” she asked.
“Celebrity. Don’t really care what kind. It could be like a Snookie or The Situation, that’d be fine with me.” He moved in close and cupped his mouth. “I’m in it for the endorsement deals,” he whispered. “I want to get as much money as I possibly can. I want to be as high profile as possible. Cases of Cristal will pack my seven-car garage. AVN award winning porn stars will fill my speed dial. My bling marriage to Belladonna will end a few days later in bitter divorce. Then it will be revealed on E that she’s pregnant with my child. Paps will stalk us. I’ll wear a black baseball cap and loose-fitting Adidas sweatpants and sip ventis in the Malibu Country Mart. In crowded elevators I’ll enunciate top-secret movie deals to my agent. I’ll be patronizingly friendly with the Hispanic busboys at the Ivy. A 15’ by 15’ Damien Hirst spot painting will preside over my silk-sheeted king-sized bed. I’ll be at the top of the waiting list for Richard Branson’s space travel. I’ll appear on Jon Stewart stoned and disheveled. I’ll be so hideously obnoxious, but I’ll be a reminder that the hideously obnoxious can actually do good in the world, ‘cause I’ll donate large chunks of money to humanitarian causes I know little about. My White American Savior Complex will be bigger than your White American Savior Complex. I’ll get with that Kony 2012 dude and run nude through the streets of San Diego. People’ll know me. You’ll know me.”