Ocean Issue editor Patrick Moser interviews surf publisher Steve Pezman.

 

The Custodian

 

Yes, I can write about a lot of things

Besides the summer that I turned sixteen.

But that’s my ground swell, I must start

Where things began to happen and I knew it.

Mark Jarman, from “Ground Swell”

 

I’m sitting in Steve Pezman’s office in San Clemente, California. Pezman, along with his wife Debbee, has published The Surfer’s Journal for the past twenty years, arguably the subculture’s most admired magazine. For twenty years before that he edited and published Surfer magazine, often called “The Bible of the Sport.” Considering how many words and images have passed through his hands on their way to public consumption, I can’t think of anyone who has had more of an influence on surfing in the past four decades than the man sitting across the desk from me. I had many questions for him, mostly about what it means to be a surfer in the twenty-first century. He should know. He’s taken care of our collective identity for the past forty years. He still surfs from time to time, but as it turns out, he doesn’t call himself a surfer anymore.

If “surfer” meant someone who stands on a surfboard and rides waves (the meaning when the word was coined circa 1908), then things would be easy for me. But there’s lots of guys who no longer surf yet consider themselves surfers. And there’s guys like Pezman, or our most respected chronicler, Matt Warshaw (author of The Encyclopedia of Surfing and The History of Surfing), who surf but don’t like to call themselves surfers. Why not? What does it mean when the custodians of our sport hang up their colors? Is the surfer identity in crisis?

Don’t laugh. It wouldn’t be the first time.

The first crisis hit in the early sixties. This is when the surfer identity became activated (to borrow one of Pezman’s environmental terms). That is to say, by this time “surfer” wasn’t what you did, it was who you were, which is a more serious matter. You can tell because surfers get upset and write editorials. Here’s Pezman’s predecessor, John Severson (founder of Surfer), blowing a gasket in his own magazine, summer of ‘61:

The surfer has become the UGLY SURFER, and while a surfboard sticking out of your car once labeled you as something unique—a real sportsman—or possibly just “one of those crazy guys that rides waves,” it now seems to carry the label of “bum!” The real surfers are disgusted and have reached the end of their patience. It’s the start of a new era in surfing—or it’s the end of surfing!

Coastal communities in southern California had cracked down on the juvenile delinquent element in the sport (the “ugly surfers”). They set up a curfew, restricting the hours waves could be ridden. Severson and others in the surf business community feared the worst: surfing might be banned altogether. The end of surfing!

So they circled the wagons. They founded the United States Surfing Association “to protect and preserve the sport of surfing.” Surfer took the lead in presenting a scrubbed-up version of surfing to the world: ads with young men on the beach in suits and ties, columns introducing the sport’s “personalities,” articles tracing the sport’s rich history, glossaries detailing the subculture’s special vocabulary. What Severson and the others did, in fact, was codify what it meant to be “a real surfer”: how they spoke, what they wore, their idols and traditions. It was a new era in surfing, in Severson’s words, and by explaining themselves to others, surfers suddenly defined an identity for themselves.

“There are those who set examples,” reads another editorial, “but bad ones. Loud, thoughtless, trashy, non-aesthetic. This publication wants to inspire those people to realize their higher selves by celebrating the artful surfers who are setting good examples for us all.” This is not John Severson in Surfer, but Steve Pezman thirty years later in the premier issue of The Surfer’s Journal. Surfing still needed a custodian in the early nineties, one to help protect the sport against a new enemy that also closed beaches and threatened surfers’ lifestyle: pollution. The “ugly surfers” this time around were those who, if not the main sewer rats, at least contributed to the stench. “I believe surfers have a role on Earth,” Pezman writes in the same editorial, “to be the protectors of the wave zone.”

Twenty years after that editorial, I look across Pezman’s broad desk and ask the man who helped color surfers green to tell me when he’s been most disappointed in them as protectors of the wave zone.

“If you look at where surfers are dropped off to walk into Trestles from the highway,” he says, referring to one of southern California’s most iconic surf spots, “it’s a shit pile. Cigarette butts. Crap all over the place. I go there with a trash picker-upper once a week and clean it up. Surfers are pigs, just like the rest.” And he laughs. His tone is quintessentially southern Californian, a region (my birthplace) where people speak slowly and draw out their vowels. The cadence is easy on the ears, the vocal equivalent of year-round temperate weather, a marvelous lilt of the stoked and the stoned. Pezman is nearly seventy now, a large man. “Beatific” is how Matt Warshaw describes him in the Encyclopedia of Surfing, and I can see that. There’s a bit of the Happy Buddha about him as he reclines in his chair. A philosophical waxer, a goodwill listener with patience to spare.

Except perhaps for the loud, the thoughtless, the trashy, the non-aesthetic. “They just throw their crap everywhere,” he says. “It’s ridiculous. Especially I hate the beach being used as an ashtray. I get really pissed off. I really ….” He looks toward the window, his mind searching for the right words to express his feelings. After a moment he shakes his head. He either can’t find the right words or doesn’t want to get into it. “It just really bothers me.”

“Because surfers should be different from other people?”

“They should be.”

“Why?”

“Because, it’s like they’re shitting in their own drinking water when they do that.” His smile, never very far, returns. “Don’t mean to be gross.”

“If you call yourself a surfer,” I say, “you should clean up after yourself. You should have a different aesthetic.”

“Yeah, that’s right. We put all kinds of labels on surfing, but it’s sensitized us to the interface between ocean and land. So our role in the total picture is to share our sensitivity with the general populace.” He tells me about a campaign he started, “Pick Up Ten.” Every time surfers check the waves, they bag ten pieces of trash. No preaching, no posing, just environmentalism by example. All of a sudden it’d become a movement, he says, and you’d undo the thoughtless act of ten people, and pretty soon the beaches would be scoured. He laughs again. “I tried to kick that off with editorials in the Journal, but it didn’t work. Or maybe I wasn’t persistent enough—I thought it was catchy: pick up ten, pick up ten, pick up ten.” He recites the words like an old jingle, then shrugs. “Because I do that. And it really makes me feel good.”

But he doesn’t like to call himself a surfer. And it’s not because of the trashy dudes messing up beaches. Or not directly. “Surfing was a lot cooler when there were five thousand of us instead of five million. It felt a lot more special. You were in on a secret deal. We thought of ourselves as surfers to differentiate ourselves from the herd. And now that surfing is a herd, I don’t like to think of myself … you know, people would ask me, what are you? I’d say, I’m a surfer. What do you do? Oh, I’m a surfer. So I identified strongly with that. And that’s what made it a herd.” He laughs, then grumbles about the information surfers now find on the Internet. “I used to walk out on Huntington Pier in the evening and say, ‘It’s going to be good at Rincon tomorrow morning.’ And now everyone knows what I used to be unique in knowing. So that kinda bums me out. There’s nothing you can do about it.” He tells me he doesn’t wear surf-branded clothing because it’s passé.

I glance at his T-shirt, the Nike swoosh around the pocket. Nike acquired Hurley back in ’02 and currently sponsors Carissa Moore, the hottest up-and-coming woman on the World Tour. Pezman knows all that. But surfing’s so big now, the connection between surfers and their sport so watered down (excuse the pun), what is and isn’t surf-branded clothing hardly registers. I think of Severson’s editorial in ’61: A surfboard sticking out of your car once labeled you as something unique—a real sportsman—or possibly just “one of those crazy guys that rides waves.” I understand where Severson and Pezman are coming from. The real surfers are disgusted and have reached the end of their patience.

What’s it mean to be a surfer in the twenty-first century? It means you don’t call yourself a surfer anymore. But identity, like a snug-fitting T-shirt, doesn’t shed so easily.

 

And if the years before and after sixteen

Are colorless as salt and taste like sand—

Return to those remembered chilly mornings,

The light spreading like a great skin on the water,

And the blue water scalloped with wind-ridges

And—what was it exactly?—that slow waiting …

 

In 1971 Pezman started a column in Surfer, “Our Mother Ocean.” Being environmental (as opposed to just mental) is such a core part of surfers’ identity these days, I wanted to know where it came from, when it started. I ask Pezman what compelled him to write about the environment at a time when most surfers didn’t vote green (if they voted at all), they smoked it.

“Oh, it comes with the job. It’s like being elected to a high office. I might be an asshole before you get there, but all of a sudden sitting behind the desk makes you change a little bit and grow into the responsibility … you know, you were lucky you got a position and you have to respect it. And not be arrogant. When you’re the editor of a magazine, you wield a lot of power through having a voice, a pulpit, and so you have to not think that you’re a big deal, it’s the pulpit. And you have to be generous, you have to be kind, you have to be thoughtful. You can’t abuse people with that.”

I guide him back to the question: “So this responsibility for the environment …”

He nods, provides historical context. The population of Huntington Beach skyrocketed in the sixties. From eleven thousand to 116,000 in ten years. Such crowding throughout southern California meant more infrastructure, more coastal development, more conflict. As a newly hired editor, Pezman felt a responsibility to think out loud for the surf community. “In the sixties,” he says, “when Ron Drummond was fighting to save Dana Point from the harbor, it didn’t catch my attention.” He crosses his arms. “I wasn’t interested. I didn’t participate. There he was, one of just a scant handful of people fighting. I drove by there to go to Trestles from Huntington and you know”—he makes a buzzer sound, derisive—“Look at that funny guy out in a canoe!” His gaze wanders, and he leans back in his chair. “He used to canoe surf Dana Point and was really a great character, really fabulous. He published a book in 1931 on body surfing, just a seminal guy.” Pezman looks at me now, for emphasis: “At low tide he piled a bunch of rocks on the mud flat out at Doheny and saw that it would make waves when at high tide they were covered. Made a reef.” He smiles as if to say, Who the hell makes his own reef? “He was like really a cool guy.”

He pauses, tilts his head toward the ceiling. “How old was I in sixty-five? I was in my early-mid-twenties, old enough but not activated at all in that way, enough to do anything or say anything. But in five years, at twenty-nine, I became the editor of a magazine. And all of a sudden I had a conscience.” He laughs. “So I think that’s an interesting thing. ‘Cause there was no groundswell of support for Ron Drummond.”

“Because the harbor went through.”

“Yeah. Wasn’t like there was millions of surfers. They built a cofferdam around that whole area and pumped the ocean out and all the lobster and fish were just flopping around, and it was really ugly. They bulldozed the bottom, and they made a harbor out of it. It was really gnarly. That would never happen today.”

It wouldn’t happen today because there are millions of surfers. Pezman’s proudest memory of surfers as protectors of the wave zone came recently, in 2008, when some of those millions got together and stomped a big sewer rat: a sixteen-mile toll road proposal that would have cut through San Onofre State Beach and dead-ended at Trestles, the break Pezman visits once a week to pick up trash. “When we finally won the toll road fight,” he says, “which we didn’t think we would—when the Federal government, the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, decided on the side of environmentalism instead of on the side of money, which is a rare day in hell—that just blew us away. And we were so proud of the effort that we’d sustained.”

“It was well organized, as far as I could tell.”

“Organized and constant and relentless. There were a couple of pit bulls that we had, Bob Mignogna and others, that were just relentless and activated the sleeping dogs.”

“So you’re hopeful for surfers of the future?”

He considers my question. “I think there are changes to the surfing community. It’s becoming multigenerational so those values are instilled as family values, and from an early age. But there’s a whole segment of the surfing community that’s resentful about Billabong sponsoring surf schools. They call ‘em ‘kook incubators.’ Because no one that surfs wants there to be more surfers. So who is being served by surf schools? There’s commerce being served, but not existing surfers. Now Paul Strauch has a Hawaiian viewpoint. He says, ‘No, the world would be a better place if everyone surfed.’”

“That’s a nice attitude to have. In some ways.”

“So those are the two poles. The magic, the enjoyment, the plus-factor of riding a wave is pretty constant, pretty durable. So that’s going to continue to inspire future generations to do it. People want to put wave pools in Arizona or wherever. We kinda scoff at that, but would you rather have a static swimming pool to have fun in, or would you rather have a swimming pool that makes a wave you can ride a Boogie Board in? I mean, that’s cool. And it’s surfing. I think it bodes well for surfing and for surfing-related environmentalism. It’s an interesting thought that surfing will continue to exert an influence, and a positive one. The negative things about surfing are just attributable to human nature, not to surfing. All the evils, all the disgusting things about us, they’re just part of surfing, too.” He falls silent. “I need to join a meeting. We’re finishing a line-edit on an issue today and shipping it out. But I don’t mean to rush it, because I enjoy the conversation.”

I glance at my notes, every question checked off. I don’t feel confident that I got what I came for. “Maybe one last thing.” I look up, stalling. I have no idea what I’m going to say next.

He waits for my question. We’re in more or less a big warehouse, but the offices inside are comfortable, spacious. I don’t hear loud noises coming from the hallway, just individuals walking quietly about their business. The Surfer’s Journal is a bit of a Wonka factory in my mind, confecting surfer identity and shipping it around the world. I don’t want to be shown the door yet. I want to get in Pezman’s Wonkavator and visit every corner of the building, sample his secret ingredients, fly through the air on Fizzy Lifting Drinks, then bust through the glass roof and capture it all. I want to be the boy in the candy shop who asks the ridiculous question, How does he do it?

“You don’t think surfers should preach,” I begin. I don’t have the right words to tell him what I’m looking for, and I don’t want to sound ridiculous. Maybe that’s my mistake. I shake my head, close my notebook. “Doesn’t matter,” I say.

Pezman saves me. “The most powerful mode would be to set an example. ‘Cause if you say, ‘Hey, pick that up,’ it just offends people and makes them mad. But if they look at that guy and say, Why is he … ? What’s he doing? Then it’s a more pleasant way to spread the practice. And more powerful because it dawns on them instead of being, you know, bitch-slapped.”

“Like Hawaiians,” I say, following his lead. “That ethic. You know, you don’t tell people what to do, you learn by watching.”

“Well, they’ll bitch-slap you, too.” He laughs. “Yeah, but no, you’re right. You observe, and you honor them with that. I’ve heard a lot about that from Paul Strauch, and once you demonstrate that you’ve learned through observation, they respect you and invite you in and you have the privilege of certain things you didn’t have before. And they start taking care of you. And they take care of each other.”

“It would be wonderful to have surfers, or people who live on the coast, to be like that.”

“Yeah, it’s something to aspire to.”

“Coastal custodians.”

Pezman shifts in his chair. “A coastal custodian … that’d be, that’s an interesting ….” He sits up, intrigued. “You know, you could almost start an informal association of people that just practiced that way. Gave each other trash picker-uppers for Christmas, or tried to spread that ethic and make it something that was admired. Make it a league.” He nods. “Yeah, make it a league. You’d have to do a ritual to get in. Make it highly desirable.”

“You could get a little decal.”

We look at each other, say it together: “Coastal Custodian League.”

“That’s good,” he says. “Want to start it?”

 

I see myself so clearly then, and painfully—

Knees bleeding through my usher’s uniform

Behind the candy counter in the theater

After a morning’s surfing; paddling frantically

To top the brisk outsiders coming to wreck me,

Trundle me clumsily along the beach floor’s

Gravel and sand; my knees aching with salt.

Is that all that I have to write about?

You write about the life that’s vividest.

And if that is your own, that is your subject.

***

Patrick Moser is Professor of French at Drury University. He also holds an MFA in fiction writing from the University of Arizona and writes on the history and culture of surfing. He has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and was awarded the Carol Houck Smith Contributor Scholarship at Bread Loaf in 2012. His essays have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, Sport LiterateKurungabaa, and The Surfer’s Journal. His essay “The Reports of Surfing’s Demise Have Been Greatly Exaggerated” was listed in the “Notable” section of Best American Sports Writing 2012.  His books include Pacific Passages: An Anthology of Surf Writing (University of Hawai’i Press, 2008) and Surfer’s Code: 12 Simple Lessons for Riding Through Life (Gibbs Smith, 2006), a collaboration with 1977 world surfing champion Shaun Tomson. A new book with Tomson, The Code, will appear in July, 2013.

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