On a Waveby Thad Ziolkowski
“More than an account of a sport mastered. It’s a sharp, self-conscious portrait of the artist as a young grommet.” –The New Yorker
In this prizewinning poet’s wry and exhilarating coming-of-age story, a precocious boy discovers a new world–and a new understanding of himself and his troubled family–on the gleaming waves of the Atlantic Ocean.
Evocative and quietly mesmerizing, Thad Ziolkowski’s On a Wave is a poignant look back at adolescence, a memoir of his surfing years that Time magazine called “a sun-bleached 1960s period piece–a wistful, white-collar daydream.”
As a disenchanted, unemployed English professor, Thad decides one day to sneak away from his temp job in Manhattan and catch a wave off a dingy Queens shoreline. In the meager cold waves, he contemplates how he could have possibly become a semidepressed, chain-smoking, aimless man when for a few shining years of his boyhood, he was invincible.
His lapsed love affair with the ocean begins amid the late-sixties counterculture in coastal Florida. After his parents’ divorce, nine-year-old Thad escapes from his difficult family–notably a new brooding and explosive stepfather–by heading for the thrilling, uncharted waters of the local beach. In the embrace of the surf, he is able to stay offshore for years, until his life is upended once again, this time by a double tragedy that deposits him at a crossroads between a life in the waves and a life on land. Lyrical and disarmingly funny, On a Wave is a glorious portrait of youth that reminds readers of Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time.
“Provides a deluge of nostalgia more than any surfer magazine, high school yearbook or newspaper about the Apollo space missions ever could. It’s Endless Summer during the Age of Quaaludes. A Me-Decade Blue Crush with a Led Zeppelin soundtrack. A marijuana-scented Stand By Me meets Big Wednesday. If the sunburned surfer from Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Jeff Spicoli, moved to Florida, turned into a poet and chronicled his youth in Surf City, USA, it might read something like On a Wave.” –Peter Neil Nason, The Tampa Tribune
“More than an account of a sport mastered. It’s a sharp, self-conscious portrait of the artist as a young grommet.” –The New Yorker
“[Ziolkowski’s] memoir of his surfing years is a sun-bleached 1960s period piece–a wistful, white-collar daydream.” –Lev Grossman, Time
“Though Ziolkowski’s language is as brisk and frothy as Hawaiian surf, what makes this memoir so affecting is how he mines his emotional life as a child.” –John Freeman, The Los Angeles Times
“A book for the beach . . . buoyant.” –Esquire
“There isn’t a sentence that reads false or contrived. . . . Even if you’re not among the enlightened aquamen who worship the waves, this book is a well-written and insightful journey into the emotional maelstrom known as adolescence.” –The San Diego Union-Tribune
“I’m not a surfer, but I love this book. It’s beautifully written, each sentence a poetic marvel. I take On a Wave to be not only the story of a boy’s obsession with surfing, but the story of his search for aesthetic experience; the book presents–in the form of an accessible, graceful, hypnotic narrative–a philosophy of escapism, of our need to flee banal circumstance and seek out the trance of a high style.” –Wayne Koestenbaum
“On a Wave will surely join the likes of Daniel Duane’s Caught Inside and become a classic of surf literature. But non-surfers will enjoy this book too: It has a message for all who have loved and lost, only to love again.” –Terry Tomalin, St. Petersburg Times
“[On a Wave] will have you happily swimming in a sea of nostalgia. . . . Whether or not you’ve ever been on a surfboard, this funny and poignant story opens the heart to the sublime thrill of perfect swells and reminds us of the pain and delight of youthful passion, best friends and first kisses.” –Pat MacEnulty, The Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel
“Exceptional. . . . A well-written coming-of-age story about growing up in the 1970’s surf culture on the Florida coast. . . . Even though the story is about surfing, Ziolkowski touches on the magic of childhood wonder and ritual we all go through as we come of age. . . . Ultimately, this memoir is more about our first childhood dreams and ambitions.” –Brad Hawley, Aniston Star
“Ziolkowski recreates the beach town of his era. . . . [His] ocean is dangerous, but nurturing. His shore life is even more complex, and his account of a surfing adolescence is revealing and poignant.” –Annette Clifford, Florida Today
“The elegant language and simple story roll with rhythm, conveying the Zen appeal of surfing and washing up gems.” –Scott Carlson, Baltimore City Paper
“Even if you’re not among the enlightened aquamen who worship the waves, this book is a well-written and insightful journey into the emotional maelstrom known as adolescence. . . . The vividness with which the author explains his indoctrination into surfing’s tribal society resonated within me as keenly as a tuning fork.” –Terry Rodgers, Florida Newspaper
“Engaging and satisfying. . . . [On a Wave] is part of a trend toward serious nonfiction about surfing. . . . This quietly mesmerizing wavelogue belongs atop the tiny–but, one hopes, growing–canon on insightful surf writing.” –Jeff Ostrowski, Bakersfield Californian
“Descriptive, funny and heartfelt. . . . When you have read this book you will want to run to the nearest ocean-front and dive into the waves with a surfboard. It will make you wish you had time to enter the magical world of sea and sun, of sun-bleached hair and bloodshot eyes, riding with the wind on glassy waves and falling into the foaming seaweed breaking on the shore.” –Polish American Journal
“This surfing memoir will find a receptive and empathic audience in anyone who has ever felt the desire to escape the doldrums of adult life and relive the glory days and freedom of youth.” –Booklist
“[A] touching, poetic book. . . . [An] enjoyable memoir, equal parts surfer tale and bildungsroman.” –Publishers Weekly
“A wistful, elegiac remembrance of a surfing adolescence mingled with a search for life’s authentic experiences that marks poet Ziolkowaki as old for his years . . . . [Told] in short, unhurried sentences that bite.” –Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This engaging memoir of Ziolkowski’s coming of age under the sun and in the sea ultimately defines a surfer’s childhood struggle between the harsh reality of land and the idyllic serenity of the water.” –Library Journal
Pen/Martha Albrand Award for First Nonfiction–Finalist
It was the end of my first week temping in Manhattan and I was still blinking my eyes in the fluorescent light, a bit dazed to be here. Two months earlier I’d been teaching American literature at a famous, leafy college upstate, hoping for the renewal of a one-year contract”in vain, as it turned out. Now, down to the last of my money, I was proofreading an engineering trade journal.
I squinted at the words on my computer screen, part of an article comparing different grades of cement for bridge pylons: ‘machine extruded hollow core slabs . . .” Does ‘machine extruded” need a hyphen?
I decided to take a trip to the bathroom to think it over. I took a lot of these trips. It meant borrowing someone’s security pass.
She looked at me blankly. She was about my age, in her mid-thirties.
“You know what?” she was saying into the phone. “I just don’t care”I don’t!” She never stopped talking. I knew all about her life.
“Your pass?” I mouthed.
She waved at it as if drying nail polish.
There was a travel brochure pushpinned into the wall of her cubicle. On its map of the Caribbean, she’d drawn an arrow to Jamaica and written, “Me in the SUN… February!”
It was August.
I buzzed myself through the security door. Coming down the hall was a man in a suit. The people who worked here were pale even by New York standards. But then there was no need to go outside: the building housed a gym, dry cleaner’s, drugstore, salon. There was a mall in the basement, a walkway to the subway.
And in February, there was Jamaica.
I’d grown up in a place nearly as sunstruck – melbourne Beach, on the east coast of Florida. That was another world altogether, though one I’d been thinking about again for the past few days, since a new magazine had commissioned me to write an essay about surfing.
Not a tenure-track subject, surfing, or something I’d considered writing about until now”now that there seemed to be nothing to lose. Yet I’d surfed for so long and with such fervor that I probably knew more about it than anything else, PhD or no PhD. I also knew that for most people it meant Jeff Spicoli and Keanu Reeves’Bro! Dude! Gnarly! That it was a bit of a joke.
The essay would run in an issue devoted to sports, but to me surfing had always been closer to religion. There’d even been a sort of pope, Duke Kahanamoku, remote and sanctified in
Hawaii, the Rome of surfing. Which was probably the real reason I’d never written about it: I might fail to do them justice, those years in the pagan cathedral of ocean and sky.
I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. “Righteous!” we used to say, and that’s how we’d stood: straight, shoulders thrown back. I had an armchair slouch now. My hair, once bright, was a lank dishwater blond; teeth yellow from Camel Lights; pad of fat around my waist, care of Guinness.
But it was the eyes that troubled me most. “Stoke” is the term for a sweet sort of zeal. On the eve of a trip, a surfer might say, “God, I’m stoked about going to Fiji!”
If there was any in my eyes now, its fires were banked.
The last time I’d surfed was seven years earlier, on a lark during a vacation in Mexico. I’d still been able to do it. But first, I’d had to rent a board. In my day, not having one’s own board had meant one thing: you were a tourist, an untouchable.
Nothing had changed. When I’d asked a surfer where to rent, he’d continued staring ruminatively at the waves, gestured vaguely and drawled, “There.”
I’d looked back along the long coast of palms. “Where?”
He’d simply repeated the indifferent wave of his arm. “There.”
Another thing I recalled: a wave that passed by out of reach the next day, hurling itself up and out in a kind of living crystalline architecture.
“It’s so’beautiful!” I’d blurted to another surfer.
“Whoo!” he’d corrected me.
Back in my cubicle, I looked through a file of material I’d been gathering. Here was an article about surfing in the New York City area. There were surf shops in Long Island and New Jersey, even in Far Rockaway Beach, Queens, at the end of the line on the A train. New York was right on the coast, after all, though it had always seemed surfing’s opposite: a grid of smoky streets, museums, bars and clubs, rivers of people.
I leafed through a recent issue of Surfer magazine, the Bible when I’d had religion but which I hadn’t read for at least fifteen years. Waves were beautiful, of course. As for how people rode them now, it was more or less the same. Oh yes, I knew this world. I could feel in the pit of my stomach the speed and G-force of the guy streaking high along a feathering blue wall. In another picture, leaning into a turn, he dragged his hand on the water and I sensed the grain of it on my own fingers, felt the board skittering across the slightly ruffled surface.
By the last page, my lips were parted, my breathing shallow. I had to suppress an urge to get up and pace around the office to blow off the steam.
What was going on here? I thought I was supposed to be over all this.
I glanced again at the article listing the Far Rockaway surf shop. There was a phone number.
I drummed my fingers on the desk, typed a hyphen into ‘machine extruded,” deleted it, looked again at the number.
Then I picked up the phone and dialed.
‘surf shop,” a woman answered.
It was like speaking into a time-travel telephone.
“Hello?” she said.
Glancing around for my supervisor, I whispered, “Um, so’how’re the waves?”
“About two foot, sometimes three. Definitely ridable.”
“And you’re at the end of the A line?”
“You have to transfer to the S at Ozone Park.”
“And you carry boards?”
“That’s right.” She was getting impatient.
“What about renting? Do you rent boards?”
“We don’t usually, but you can talk to the owner about it. He’ll be in later.”
“Thanks!” I told her, “thank you!”
She’d already hung up.
I wrote the word ‘research” on a piece of paper, underlined it. Was I about to do what I thought I was about to do? It seemed a little crazy, but suddenly what seemed crazier was that I hadn’t done it sooner.
I called my girlfriend, Juliana, at her job.
“I’m going surfing!” I whispered.
“I called this surf shop in Far Rockaway, on the A”the woman there said there’s surf today and””
“Thad’s going surfing in Queens!” she told someone.
‘so I’m going to rent a board and, you know, go out!”
“You sound excited!”
“Well, have fun!”
The way she said it reminded me of how little fun I’d been lately.
I hung up.
My supervisor was peering over my shoulder.
“Anyway, Tad, if you’re done with the proofing, we can’t, you know, really be billed for whatever else you’re, uh, working on, okay?”
“Well, I’m done,” I told her. I doubted any bridges would collapse for lack of a hyphen.
“Great. We’ll see you Monday, then.”
Ten minutes later I was on the subway platform.
I studied a map. On the way to Far Rockaway (“Far Rock,” I’d heard kids call it), the A train passed through three of the city’s roughest neighborhoods: Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brownsville and East New York. A vision of getting off a few stops too soon””White boy says he’s looking for a surf shop!””flickered in my head.
But when the train pulled in it was packed with working people, not thugs. This was basically the poor version of the commuter train to the suburbs: security guards, cleaning women and maintenance men on their way home from the first shift. Eyes closed in exhaustion, they rocked from side to side. More people squeezed on at Wall Street.
The train seemed to inch along, stopping frequently, and the longer it took to get there, the more unlikely it seemed that there could possibly be anything so lighthearted as surfing to be had at the end of the line. The expression “You can’t get there from here” came to mind. Then we rode up into daylight at Ozone Park. I pressed my face to the window.
In the distance, a blue coastal sky flared upward. I got off on the open-air platform to transfer. I paced. I clapped my hands once then grinned at a man with a fishing pole who frowned warningly and looked through his tackle box.
Fifteen minutes later, I found myself on Far Rockaway’s main drag. It was a weird place”half ghetto, half beach town from the fifties. Low cinnamon-colored public housing loomed above the side streets. To the right, traffic flashed past a sooty Wendy’s and what looked like an Off-Track Betting branch, but in the direction of the ocean were festive custard and ice-cream parlors and hot-dog stands, though concertina wire was coiled along the roofs to discourage cat burglars.
For the first time in years, I broke into a jog, passing four kids with a boom box who didn’t break rank until I nearly ran one of them over.
“Fuck you up!” he called, but so halfheartedly that he might have been saying “Have a nice weekend!”
Near the boardwalk was what looked like a welfare hotel, and a pair of grizzled winos or crack addicts sunning themselves like lizards on the stoop; across the street was the surf shop, a bunker-like affair with posters covering the windows. But I had to see the ocean first. I wasn’t completely convinced it would be there, at least not in surfable form. I pictured an R. Crumb cartoon: dead sea, stink lines of pollution rising off it, the occasional toxic bubble bursting nastily at the surface.
But there it was, green and immense, technically the same one I’d grown up alongside in Florida. The surf was two feet, maybe three, and choppy, with whitecaps flashing along the horizon.
But there were waves, there were waves, there were waves!
I lit a cigarette, tossed it away and jogged back to the surf shop.
It was the gloomiest one I’d ever been in, but it smelled like all the others’a perfume of neoprene, resin and surf wax that made my heart flutter. There were racks of clothes and wet suits and what looked like a hundred boards to choose from in a showroom in back.
Behind the counter was a woman engrossed in an issue of Cosmopolitan.
“Hi!” I said, out of breath.
“Hi.” She glanced up then went back to reading.
“I’m the one who called about an hour ago’”
“Anyway, I really want to rent a board, if possible””
“Well, like I said, we don’t usually rent.”
“You said I could try talking the owner into it,” I reminded her.
“Oh. He’ll be back in a minute.”
“Great! Would you tell him I’m back here looking at boards?”
“You got it.”
I went into the showroom and stalked down the aisles of boards, running my hands over their rails, hefting them. They had grown sexier, sleek and potato-chip thin, and most were shorter than in my day, with hard rockers and three fins instead of one. They were also three times the cost, ranging upward of six hundred dollars.
Round-nosed long boards, like the tanker I’d learned on in 1970, hung from the ceiling and stood in racks, there having apparently been a renaissance of this style. I hefted one. They were far lighter than the originals. Mine had nearly bashed in my skull a few times.
The owner walked over. “Interested in a long board?”
He was in his late forties, balding, chubby.
“I’m more of a short-board man,” I huffed. I couldn’t seem to catch my breath.
“I hear you,” he said, as if humoring me, “but a long board’s your best bet for the surf around here.”
“Well, see,” I told him, “I was hoping to rent a short one, though”I know you don’t usually”but I grew up surfing and I’d bring it back in one piece, so’”
“Yeah,” he said. “I don’t do that.” The tone was: what sort of idiot do I look like?
“Even if I leave my wallet and stuff as collateral?”
“Look,” he said, flipping a hand in the direction of the street, “this is Far Rockaway.”
I spread my arms. “But I’m not from Far Rockaway!”
“Check these out.” He led me to a rack along the back wall. “They’re on sale.”
I read the decals on their decks: Fat Albert . . . Surfboards Australia . . . Plastic Fantastic? I’d owned a purple Plastic Fantastic when I was thirteen. How unexpected it was to see the druggy cartoon-creature logo again. But hadn’t these lines stopped coming out in the seventies?
“When did they start making these again?”
“Nah.” He snickered. “They didn’t”I just got the rights to use the logos. It’s a nostalgia thing.”
“Ah,” I said, “aging baby boomers and all that?”
‘so who shaped them?”
“Oh, my people,” he said vaguely.
I looked the boards over again. This decal scheme was cheesy, like putting Karmann Ghia hood ornaments on a generic car from the nineties. On the other hand, I’d never been much of a purist.
Worried suddenly that it was getting late, I asked the owner for the time. He consulted a waterproof wristwatch: “Four forty-five.”
I may have avoided thinking much about surfing since I quit, but I sure dreamed about it a lot. They treaded the border of nightmare, these dreams, with most of the action being composed of anxious attempts to go surfing, usually as the light failed. I’d had one the other night: I was trying to find a board so I could go out before the sun went down. I finally did, but the waves were coming in through the lanes of a bowling “alley, and just as I was figuring out how to catch them, the board turned into a pool cue.
The events of the afternoon’the hive-like office, the endless subway ride, now this strange shop in Far Rockaway’resembled nothing so much as one of those dreams.
More or less at random, I chose the faux Surfboards Australia. It cost $280. With a pair of baggies, a leash and board bag, the price would be well over three hundred.
From an ATM machine up the street, I withdrew the limit, $400. I felt giddy.
“Esteemed former colleagues of academe,” I thought. “I am now about to blow my last college paycheck on a surfboard.”
They replied in the mournful tones of a Greek chorus: “This hardly comes as a surprise to us.”
When I got back to the shop, a boy of about eleven, scrawny and freckled and sunburned, stood at the counter with his father, who had wallet in hand and a look of tight-lipped reluctance on his face. If there’d been a thought bubble over his head it would have said, “How was I to know the kid would mow all those lawns?”
With a sigh, the father strode into the back room.
The boy turned to follow, but then, as if he couldn’t contain himself a second longer, he beamed at the clerk and fairly bellowed, “I’m gonna get a surfboard!”
I nearly broke up laughing. This was stoke at its purest, a white-hot flame. I wanted to catch his eye and smile encouragement, but he was already moving away.
I grabbed a pair of baggies from the rack and changed into them in a booth, stuffing my pants and underwear into my book bag as the owner bore my board and leash out to the counter.
‘so where’d you learn to surf?” he asked when I emerged from the changing room.
“Down near Cape Canaveral”you know Melbourne Beach?”
“Sure, yeah, I get down there every once in a while in the winter.”
“Yep,” I said as I tied the leash to the tail of the board, “I was hard-core back then. I used to surf contests and everything.”
Now why was I telling him this? True, he might give me a better deal on all this equipment if he knew I’d once been ‘serious.” But that wasn’t it.
I’d once surfed on a team, riding “for” a manufacturer from whose shop I could pick any board I liked, free of charge. Now I was nobody. There was no reason I should be treated any differently. Yet my ego, like an unhappy ghost, cast about for its former place.
Cringing inwardly, I heard myself allude to my days as a team rider.
“Is that right?” said the owner.
Then he punched at a calculator. “Board, baggies, leash, board bag, plus tax. Rounded down,” a glance at me to be sure I appreciated this munificence, “that comes to $375.”
I counted out the money.
“Oh, I’d better buy some wax,” I said a little glumly, holding out a bill.
He waved it away. “I’ll throw in a couple of bars.”
It was the same brand I’d used in the seventies: Sex Wax, shaped like a hockey puck.
“Have fun,” said the owner as I headed for the door.
Fun. Had it ever, even in the beginning, been that simple?
Outside, I looked at the sky and let the question drop. There was enough light for two or three hours of surfing, and here, like a rolled-up flying carpet, I had my own board again. It was as if a spell had been lifted.
I hustled down the empty sidewalk. The wind had died and the waves were glassier and a little better than before. Oh boy, oh boy.
Then my shoe crunched on a crack vial and I decided it might be better to move down the beach a bit.
I ran along the bike path for a block and a half, kicked off my shoes and socks, fell to my knees on the beach, tore the plastic wrapping from one of the bars of Sex Wax and began rubbing it on the deck.
Down by the water, a man digging in the sand with a boy and a girl looked over at me curiously then smiled. I smiled back. But I was already smiling.
A roar poured from the sky. I looked up to see a jumbo jet lumbering in from the ocean. It was trailing black exhaust and flying so low I could nearly read the name of the airline on the fuselage. It scraped past a cluster of public housing units and entered the mauve haze above Queens.
I scanned the surf. There was a middle break about thirty yards out but I decided on the shore break, where the waves were shifty and short but had more punch. I would also be able to keep a better eye on my stuff.
I wrapped the leash around my ankle, peeled off my shirt and ran down the sand. The man and two kids stopped digging to watch me plunge into the shallows like a horse.
The warm foamy water spattered my thighs and baggies. I held the board out in front of me and leapt, floating briefly, and when I came down and started paddling, a deep Ahhhh! rose from me like a vapor, all the toxins of New York, the cigarette smoke and second-guessing, alcohol and elbow-throwing and worry about work. Every cell in my body opened its mouth in astonishment and sang with happiness.
This truly was the same Atlantic I’d grown up in. The rhythm of the water, the way the waves moved through the bluish late afternoon light”it was like opening a book to a poem I’d memorized in childhood.
After a minute, a wedge-shaped peak lurched up in front of me. I turned and paddled for shore. I noticed the pressure of my chest on the board, the spray in my face, a blade of light on the glassy surface below.
Then, as it gathered me up, I hopped to my feet. It was going to be a short ride. Sucking everything up into itself, the wave prepared to close out in shallow, sand-choked water.
My mind went blank; I leaned into a turn and rose back up the face of the wave. Then, without really deciding to, I attempted an off-the-lip”which was a bit like climbing on a bike for the first time in forever and trying to pop a wheelie.
But I did it. Or rather, it did itself: the nose of the board punched through the crest of the wave and snapped back around and at the bottom I stayed on my feet, bouncing up and down in the knee-high white water before flopping off the board.
When I surfaced, another jet was bearing down on Queens. I’d forgotten where I was.
I looked back at the beach”at the housing projects, the man and kids. It was all still there, of course, but I was seeing it as through a membrane. Land no longer seemed real.
The ocean did, though. Even here at the foot of a crumbling Babylon, it was alive and well.
Paddling back out, I heard again the boy in the shop announcing that he was going to get a surfboard. As if he’d just learned that his soul was immortal.
I was hearing other voices, too, waves calling”over here! No, over here! I heard my own voice as a boy, high-pitched and ecstatic”Whoo! All right, now!“and those of my friends, when I first discovered surfing, and that it could save me.
Excerpted from ON A WAVE
©2002 by Thad Ziolkowski. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.