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Justin Hocking reads the first chapter of his new memoir, The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, forthcoming from Graywolf Press in March.
Ophelia, Part I
Late summer 2005 and everything’s underwater. The news warns us that New York City could be the next New Orleans—flooded subways, ten thousand shattered windows. Lower Manhattan as the new American Venice, streets turned into canals, the seafloor studded with broken glass. The storms spin up from the Gulf in alphabetical order: Katrina, Lee, Maria, Nate. None make it very far north, not until mid-September, when Hurricane Ophelia ravages the Carolina coast, floods the Outer Banks with a foot of rain, and wreaks $70 million worth of damage.
On September 16, Ophelia arrives off the coast of New York. From far above she’s your typical hurricane, a crown of cotton thorns. But down below, she thrashes the surface of the sea, capsizes ships in her self-destructive fury.
Like so many of us new to the city, she wants everyone to remember her name.
But even she can’t handle the pressure, can’t make it here in New York, and just days later Ophelia drowns herself in the North Sea. Her suicide’s wake sends undulations of raw energy back toward Gotham. Smoothed out by hundreds of travel miles, this energy arrives in the form of perfectly shaped swells at Long Beach, Lido, Montauk, and the Rockaways.
Places that I watch obsessively, via satellite.
Curled over my computer at 6:00 a.m. in my Brooklyn apartment, I’m tracking the storm, reading the reports—Chest-high to head-high swells with sixteen-second intervals, excellent conditions, go surf now!—when an incoming text sparks my cell phone.
Waves look perfect, the message reads. We’re ditching work. U coming?
It’s from my friend Dawn, who despite working seventy-hour weeks in the fashion industry is a Texas-bred tomboy—she surfs any chance she gets, in any conditions, with a bad-ass exuberance that I admire. Having already called in sick, I step into surf trunks, load up my board, and swing by Dawn’s apartment. She and Teagan are waiting on the curb in shorts, flip-flops, and hooded sweatshirts, their surfboards propped against a brick wall lashed with silver and blue torrents of graffiti.
We drive east, through Bushwick’s drab cement grid, then arc over Maspeth Creek and English Kills—tributaries of Newtown Creek, a Superfund site spiked with ten million gallons of spilled oil—these ruined waterways like New York’s trackmarked veins after a century-long overdose. Brooklyn spits us out into Queens, past cinder-block car washes and fast food joints and a cluster of graveyards: Linden Hill, Mount Olivet, Lutheran, and St. John—the only shards of green space for miles. Singing along with Teagan’s collection of Smiths songs, we angle down into Woodhaven and Ozone Park, under crumbling subway trestles, past Indian restaurants and windowless strip clubs and cell phone stores, and on through Howard Beach’s rows of seventies-era Italian banquet halls and seafood restaurants, all of it a blur in the borough’s slow southward tilt to the coast.
We get the first tangy smack of salt water on the long bridge over Jamaica Bay; it’s here that the pace of our conversation picks up, echoing our pulses as we approach the sea.
Teagan is sharp-witted, a fast-talker. Quick. So much so that she’s been dating one of our mutual friends, Adam, without me knowing it.
“We’ve dated on and off for like six months,” she says. “The problem with Adam is that, like most boys, he wants a girlfriend to take care of him, fix his problems, and deal with all his bullshit, but he also wants to sleep around with everyone else in the world. I’m telling you: men are all lost.”
“I can vouch for that,” I say. I’m suffering multiple variations on this lost theme at the present. For one: I’m in a failing long-distance relationship with a soft-spoken skater-girl named Karissa. I want her to still love and stay faithful to me, even though she lives two thousand miles away, in Colorado.
Then Dawn discusses her own chronic boy woes, and I follow up with my ex girlfriend woes, until the conversation turns to work, another consistent letdown.
Like me, Dawn and Teagan are sick of working such long hours, cooped up in cubes. They envy our male friends, most of whom are professional skateboarders, artists, bohemians, underemployed construction workers, overemployed drinkers.
“Can you imagine any of our guy friends working in an office?” Teagan wonders out loud.
“Justin works in an office,” Dawn reminds her.
“Oh, right,” Teagan says. “How did that happen?”
I can’t blame her for forgetting, for wondering. It’s seriously incongruous with my career trajectory up to this point—backpacking guide in the San Juan Mountains; summer camp counselor on Mount Hood, Oregon; skatepark manager; creative writing instructor at a Colorado university. The fact that I work a corporate job on the sixteenth floor of a Midtown high rise both surprises and depresses me on pretty much a daily basis. A sad facsimile of my true self up there, wearing slacks, hunched in a cubicle, compulsively checking the internet surf report.
Finally: the toll bridge to the Rockaway peninsula, the long thin jawbone of Long Island.
I pay three dollars and fifty cents in exchange for a horizon that’s lost to me back in the city.
We park and ferry our boards up cement stairs, across the wooden boardwalk, down to the beach. As we walk barefoot across morning-cold sand, the sky unfurls above us, reclaiming from the city all its stolen blue bandwidth.
This is what all the hype’s about: perfect, sun-shimmering sets of head-high rollers coming in smooth, sixteen-second intervals, the ocean an endless stretch of blue-gray corduroy, the waves scrolling in silver and then peeling evenly into whiteness.
The best swells I’ve ever seen, anywhere.
But while Dawn and Teagan busy themselves with surf wax and wetsuits, I stand shivering on the sand, heart racing, not sure if I’m ready for hurricane-grade surf, though by this point Ophelia has been downgraded to tropical storm status.
It’s here, as I stare into the stirred-up maw of the Atlantic, tuned in to its relentless, percussive crush, that the association finally clicks: these waves are the aftermath of a storm named after English literature’s most famous drowning victim. The fifteenth system in the worst hurricane season on record, the result of warming seas, a warming planet.
I’ve come a long way in getting over my fear of the ocean, but I’m still new to surfing, and on a day like this the gnawing apprehension persists. I moved to New York City with a naive sense of enthusiasm and hope, but now that I’m actually trying to get my life together in this place with so many social undercurrents and financial riptides—now I’m spooked.
“Come on, Justin,” Dawn says after I express my Shakespearean anxieties. “These are the best waves of the year.” She pulls up her wetsuit zipper, stretches into a deep forward bend. Armed with her surfboard, she charges down to the jetty, where the swell thunders in at its tallest, most powerful point. I hang back on the beach, where part of me wants to drop anchor, play it safe, surrender to paralysis. But there’s a deeper pull at work, a stronger longing to get up and get moving—to hazard the risk and follow Dawn down into the churning sea.
Excerpted from The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld with permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota. Copyright © 2014 by Justin Hocking.