“You a yid?”
“A yid, mate. A fucking yid!!!!????”
* * *
The onshore winds had died but the sand and water they kicked into the air were still making the sun light bounce around in semi-squint. Chris said, “Its only Shaun Tomson out there. Have fun,” and laughed. We were out at Bulito on the Hollister Ranch, forty five minutes north of Santa Barbara. The Hollister Ranch is California’s only stretch of coast that is private and is still a working ranch. I remember a surf mag mocking it, somewhat, when I was a kid because they were selling one-eleventh of a parcel that you couldn’t build on for $10,000. The magazine said something about it being unfair to cut out the public but also silly for someone to pay $10,000 for a glorified parking spot, although it was parking with access to some of California’s best surf and most beautiful coastline. Now that same eleventh of a parcel sells for $450,000, cash, no loans. My friend Chris has done well in his life. He owns a mortgage on a house and the eleventh at the Ranch. But he doesn’t own a fancy house. He bought a fixer upper out of foreclosure in a small town away from the coast so he could use his cash to buy the eleventh of the parcel so he could camp and surf with his kids. I was there with my family as his guest. We were picking up our dog.
Shaun Tomson won a world title and his bio will tell you he started and sold two multi-million clothing brands in the 1980’s. On his website you can watch videos of him teaching Kathie Lee Gifford to surf and appearing on CNN. I remember a photo of him on a yellow board with a red lightning bolt, dark blue neoprene vest, inside a light blue cavern of a wave, his brown hair flowing back as if going at an unknowable speed, his eyes looking down the line. The photograph is almost straight up. The photographer had to have taken a beat down capturing that shot. Tomson is iconic, timeless. I remember him on the cover of G.Q.. He seemed so much whiter and braver than I would ever be. My pro surfing career began and ended with those two photos.
His weakness was his brother. His brother owned a surf shop in Santa Monica called Surf Beat. I tried out for the surf team when I was fifteen. Shaun was there. The waves were overhead and the older surfers, already some of the top riders around, dominated. I was a grom in the water with men and teen men. My mom had died seven months before and I remember feeling the sharp edge of insecurity of a kid who just lost a parent. As one often does around there hero’s and people that appear more beautiful, athletically gifted, and powerful, I wanted to appear perfect, and powerful and confident. I didn’t want to appear as i was, wounded, a manboy who just failed to blow life into his mom. Tall and gangly, I was self conscious to begin with. I struggled to get waves. I struggled to surf the waves I got well. Shaun Tomson was to Malibu what The Fonz was to Cleveland. I was just getting hip to the stories of his brother’s weaknesses. The girls loved Shaun for his good looks and physique. They loved Paul, the rumor had been, for his blow.
* * *
You don’t grow up in West LA without bumping into and having to decide whether or not to talk to celebrities. In the water, at a remote spot, with one other person, celebrity or not, you pretty much have to say something. But how do you break the ice with Shaun Tomson, with a guy who is supposed to be very nice but also has famously beat up more than one surfer who got in his way. Between waves, I mentioned trying out for his brother’s surf team. Not good. Paul, his brother, I knew, had basically snorted away the surf shop and other properties in a sad coke spiral. But Shaun was gracious. He turned the subject back on me, quickly, by asking what I did for work.
“I’m a poet,” I said without hesitation. I was trying to get better at not apologizing for my craft by not adding how I supplement my income the way every poet I know does. But saying that “I am a poet” is like saying you’re a surfer in the Midwest, there usually is a barrage of bullshit, cringe worthy replies I have to navigate through.
“No shit?” “Here they come” I thought. “He better not fucking lead with Roses are Red…”
I turned and picked off a wave.
He turned and dropped in on me.
I bottom turned and hit the lip behind him and watched as he took a high, unique line and made the section. When he paddled back out he said, “cool, we actually shared a wave together!” Which we did.
“So,” he said, “If you’re really a poet, than tell me who this is” and began reciting a poem. I couldn’t understand him. “Yeats, mate!!!! You don’t fucking know your Yeats???!!!!”
Yeats was an early favorite of mine but there are only about a dozen of his poems I can nail hearing them while driving alone in a car. Add in the ocean, an icon, and a thick South African accent – forget it. He looked at me doubtfully.
“How are you a poet?”
I told him I have a graduate degree in poetry. That I’ve published books of poetry and read occasionally around town and at Universities throughout the country.
I picked off a wave. Got a short ride. I love the light at Bulito, the way the point can twist south so that when you drop in on a wave you look away from the fading sun at the smooth bay stretching towards the mountain range that is the backdrop to Santa Barbara.
He picked off a wave. We circled each other like this for fifteen minutes until I was sitting alone on the outside when he paddled out again and said, if “you’re really not shitting me, than tell me who this is.” When I looked at him, blown away that, again, Shaun Thomson was reciting poems to me, he said, “Neruda, mate! You don’t know your Neruda?”
After, at twenty three, I saw that movie “Il Postino” about Neruad in exile, I went out and bought his odes. But I had no idea what poem he was reciting to me. At forty five, a full thirty years after I tried out for his brother’s surf team, I was surfing with Shaun Thomson once again and once again coming up short except this time it was in the field outside of the water I had dedicated my life to.
I took off on a wave that broke ahead of me, leaving me no where to go but straight. A non ride. I paddled back out.
“Tell me you your name again. I’ll look up your book.”
“You a yid?
“A yid, mate. A fucking yid!!!!????”
“Um, yeah. I’m kind of like Jew Buddha Lite but yeah, I’m Jewish. Where you going with this?” He’d always been King Blue Eyes but this was getting uncomfortable.
“I’m a yid too!” he shouted, enthusiastically.
“My real name is Tomchinsky! My father changed his name when he emigrated to South Africa.”
On his website, he is listed as an inductee to the Jewish and South African Hall of Fame. Now, King Blue Eyes was more Jewish than me too. I caught a wave, laughing, and went in to tell whoever would listen.