Her face invited swan dives, her blue eyes made him want to strap on fins, mask, oxygen tank. She was licking a cherry Popsicle. Her tongue was red and shiny. They were in the lunch area, sitting Indian style on the pavement. He reached into his brown bag, pulled out a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. For most of his 11 years he'd been a cut-off-the-crusts kind of kid, but no more. Not since they'd started eating lunch together everyday. She licked, licked, licked, then cho
Rin Tanaka was twelve years old when he first saw the movie On Any Sunday. The roar of Triumphs and Harley Davidsons, the soundtrack bursting with songs about freedom and flying and tasting the sun, Bruce Brown’s signature narration, that killer climax scene in which Steve McQueen, Mert Lawwill, and Malcolm Smith tear up the sand dunes—all of it enthralled him. But what really jumped off the screen and slapped him awake was McQueen’s 501s.
“New Levi’s was very expensive,” said Tanaka, a short Japanese man who, despite his fifteen years in the U.S., charmingly, often humorously, butchers English. “This is the reason I went to Tokyo, to Harajuku. In 1980 they just started vintage clothing business in Japan. Nobody called it vintage, just used.”
Tanaka has published twenty-one books, all of which feature his obsession with vintage Americana. His primary subjects are surfers, skateboarders, bikers, rockers, and hippies. His titles are specific: Motorcycle Helmet: 1930s-1990s, or Motorcycle Jackets: Ultimate Biker’s Fashions. He is best known for his My Freedamn! series, ten volumes strong and counting. On his website bio Tanaka calls himself a journalist and photographer, but he is more than this. He is a hunter, collector, timekeeper, and fetishist. Tell him you saw a rare 1930s biker jacket at a Salvation Army in Bakersfield, and it’s a good bet he’ll drop everything and charge up there.
“Put your hand on it,” she said, and he did. “Not there, silly.” She moved his hand to her heart.
They’d been eating lunch together everyday for the last two weeks. His mom always packed him a green apple. She’d shave the skin off with a plastic knife, the way her dad had taught her, then cut it in half. They talked about HR Puffnstuff, Scooby Doo, the fart Mr. Tapie ripped in the middle of class. Sometimes they argued. He was a Nestle Quik man, she’d recently switched over to the new Hershey’s chocolate powder.
“Feel it?” she said, pressing his hand against her heart.
Her heart was racing.
“What is it?” he asked.
“Gimme a hint.”
She looked out to the handball courts with a dreamy face. A bunch of third graders were playing Smear the Queer. “Starts with an L,” she said. “Rhymes with shove.”
In a mud-caked village in Guerrero, Mexico my heart went pitter-patter for this lovely woman. She spoke no English, I spoke little Spanish, but we both knew that four or five lifetimes ago we lived in the same town in the south of Spain, or was it Argentina? I was especially polite to her father. She spent a lot of time in the mirror before Sunday Mass. There was the soccer ball that rolled into her lap during a game with my cousins in the park, and there were the hundred swallows that batted their wings in my belly when she threw it back. We were never lovers, but we yearned for each other in a Garcia Marquez sort of way.
Two surfers sit side by side on a sapphire blue sea. A wave looms. Both stroke out to meet it. They wheel around, paddle, pop up to their feet. In front, regular foot, deeply tanned, sun-bleached blond hair, Janet MacPherson swoops off the bottom with balletic arms. She rides a 9’ Takayama ‘In the Pink’ model. She feels her way through the trim line the way she did back at Malibu in the days of Dora and Fain. She is seventy-six years old. Behind her rides Sean MacPherson. Tall, slender, tan, sandy brown hair, age forty-eight, also regular foot, Sean rides a 6’6” Al Merrick Flyer. His casual style harkens back to the seventies when grace and flow trumped big maneuvers. He smiles broadly.
I have not actually seen this mother-and-son ride take place, but it’s easy to imagine. Janet lives in Malibu, Sean in New York. On holidays they gather at one of Janet’s homes in Baja or Costa Rica. After too many plates of Thanksgiving turkey or too many drinks on New Year’s Eve, they slip out for a wave together. This family ritual has been going on for over thirty years.