The Coppertone Archipelago

“What ever happened to Huntington Beach?”

The thought floated into my mind quite against my will. I mean, I never cared much for the place and hadn’t thought about it for nearly fifteen years. And the question would never have entered my mind, I suppose, but for two reasons: First, I was stranded jam-packed in traffic on southern California’s 405 Freeway, right below a road sign announcing the Beach Boulevard exit; and I happened to be reading, between ten-yard gains, favorite snippets from John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”

Cannery Row,” wrote Steinbeck, “is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps…” Now, to anyone who knew the place well twenty or thirty years ago, it sounds as if he was describing Huntington Beach. It started me thinking about what it had been like once; maybe it was the exhaust fumes or the photochemical smog, but bits of a thirty-year acquaintance with Huntington bubbled from gray cells not preoccupied with the freeway foxtrot of clutch-gas-brake. I could smell the sour alleys and greasy hash browns and piles of coconut Winter Wax. …and I was shocked to discover that I suddenly missed it. Perhaps enough time had gone by, perhaps grimy old Huntington was distant enough in the past that I could contemplate it, as did Steinbeck the Row, through the rosy tint of nostalgia.

It is hard to like a place that has oil wells in its vacant lots, but I don’t think I ever tried. I have known the town since the early `70s as a fledgling Newport kid and, later, long after I had moved up to central California, it figured prominently in my brief campaign as a professional surfer. Yet I was never comfortable in Huntington Beach. I doubt I was the only pro surfer who lost heats there on purpose, just to be able to wash the dirty ashcan sand from one’s hair and get the hell out.

But now, decades later, creeping toward the Beach Boulevard offramp I once likened to the Bridge of Sighs, I felt differently. Over the past ten years or so, locust swarms of bourgeois bohemians have gentrified all the Cannery Rows that remained in southern California. In the end it wasn’t bulldozers or the Irvine Company that shoveled the last grave dirt over the old beach towns, but chubby pink men in PT Cruisers. Enormous doses of dot com cash and baby boomer equity have sterilized the coastline of eyesores such as Huntington, ridding it of all the “weedy lots” and “the gathered and scattered” squalor I knew as a boy. The last dirt clod war ended long ago, the last starving artist tossed from his studio to make way for a Thomas Kinkade franchise, the last beachside trailer park encircled and devoured by million-dollar luxury homes. Gone too are all of the old eccentrics and local oddballs that once existed in the margins, all run off or cast into bronze as cigar store Indians for latte bars. Confronted with such large scale antiseptic gentrification, shabby old Huntington Beach now seemed quaint.

Of my earliest memories of Huntington, chief among them is a sense of desolation I felt on the approach. Between the last bridge out of Newport Beach and the Huntington Pier there stretched a seemingly endless span of empty beach, a no-man’s-land separating blueblood Newport from blue collar Huntington. It was probably only five or six miles long, but to us Newport kids, crowded onto ship-like fingers of sand, it was a deserted and windswept wilderness. Sometimes, when the allure of thousands of gleaming new surfboards proved too much for us, we would make bicycle treks to Huntington, to spend the day wandering in and out of the dozens of surf shops bunched around the pier. Pedaling along Pacific Coast Highway for what seemed like hours, we followed the line of bright yellow Coppertone Suntan Lotion rubbish cans that stretched in a vast, unbroken chain from River Jetties to Seal Beach, little atolls of color and shape jutting from a featureless gray sea of sand. We stopped to replace our bike chains and pull pant cuffs from the sprockets and retrieve soda bottles, all the time ticking off the landmarks: the sewage plant, the moldering estuary, the power plant that looked as if it had been flung on a trebuchet from behind the Iron Curtain to plop down in the estuarine mud. Then there was the ramshackle boatyard that seemed more a graveyard for sad little clapped-out boats and the dashed dreams of those who had owned them. Then came the first oil wells, nodding over their tiny plots of cracked mud, and next the Duke Kahanamoku statue – and then you were at the pier.

In the `70s, surf shops clustered by the dozen from the T-branch formed by the intersection of Main Street and PCH. Laced between the shops like interstitial fat were head shops, biker bars, and greasy spoons; the mingled smells of patchouli oil and sour beer and sandalwood candles added to the intrigue, giving the whole downtown the seedy, somewhat dangerous air of a foreign souk. Overhead were banked rows of second story apartments, their open windows festooned with Fountain Valley hippie chicks who, breasts peeking through macramé vests and red faced from too much sun and Schlitz, sang selections from “Houses of the Holy” as they leered down at the pedestrians waiting to cross PCH.

Most of the surf shops were quartered in strange old buildings, full of antechambers resembling Prohibition-era speakeasies. Behind the main showrooms, a labyrinth of dark low warrens wormed toward the alley, and the lucky gremmie, if he wasn’t shoed away, might catch a glimpse Behind The Curtain: a shaping bay glowing in florescent side lights, with a dust-covered magician pushing a growling planer across a blank, or perhaps a rack of freshly hotcoated shapes fuming toward cure, or maybe just a couple of dudes in Mexican wedding shirts passing a bong around.

Each shop possessed its own royalty topped by a central figurehead, part of a rigid and intricate caste system that governed the streets and waves of Huntington. Viewed from the present day climate of anti-elitism that has overtaken surfing, it seems astounding that there was a time when everyone was supposed to know his place. Regulating behavior everywhere from the queue at the Surf Theater to pole position athwart the pier, the classes began with the lowly jarheads and inlanders, then ascended into the porifera genus of hodads and gremmies, and finally climbed into the pantheon of hot local surfers, jesters like Chuck Dent, and any shaper who had just returned from Hawaii. One was always overhearing someone say, in a hushed and reverent voice, that such-and-such a shaper “just got back from the Islands.” All a shaper had to do was saunter into a shop wearing an authentically faded Country Surfboards T-shirt, drawl “Howzit, brah” amid whispers that he had “just got back from the Islands,” and within minutes orders would be piling in a tottering stack upon the counter.

Indeed, there was a time when there existed between Huntington and the North Shore a dynamic cross-pollination, one that did not seem to exist in, say, Santa Barbara or San Clemente. Perhaps it was the social dexterity of the unpretentious and streetwise Huntington surfer that allowed him to be readily absorbed into the stubbornly opaque Island culture. Certainly, Huntington Beach was, in its heyday, one of the toughest places in the world to ‘get wired.’ In fact, many visiting overseas surf stars often required local escorts – the only place outside Japan they needed to do so – who squired the foreigner through the intricacies of Huntington life.

The complexities were, for the newcomer, often inscrutable and always frustrating. To find the pier from the freeway, a divining rod would have served better than a compass. For, which ever way you made your approach you were deceived by the illusion that all the streets were arranged in a straightforward grid – only to discover the ‘grid’ was actually a diabolical helix that warped you off to the north-northeast when you could have sworn you were heading west. Upon reaching the coast, the visiting surfer faced a bewildering choice of parking strategies: an assortment of meters, some charging by the minute, others by the hour; and side streets, each with their own arcane coda of street sweeping days; then there were the pay lots, offered by both the city and innumerable bootleg operators, who sat with cardboard signs in empty lots. Wherever you parked, the chances were 50/50 that your new Bay Standard ‘Aloha’ racks would, by sundown, be bolted to someone else’s VW.

And of course you had to know where to eat – Terry’s or Jan’s Smoothie Bar, not Jack-in-the-Box – and where and when and which bathrooms were safe – use the facility beneath the pier and you might think you had wandered into a wrap party for “The Rocky Horror Picture Show.”

To cross Pacific Coast Highway took forever if you did it lawfully at one of the few stoplights, though as a rule most surfers, ever impatient, ran the gantlet of notoriously redneck cops who waited in ambush to gleefully bust the ‘longhair’ jaywalkers.

The water temperature plunged and surged daily. It might be 70 degrees one day and 55 the next, according to the influence of the abrasive afternoon sea breezes. The wildly variant water temperatures, combined with the slimy surface layer of Long Beach petro-effluvia, demanded pinpoint accuracy in the choice of surf wax.

Yet, the game was really afoot when the visitor gained the shoreline. First there were the lifeguard towers, stringing off into the vanishing point like sentry towers along a DMZ, each answering to the omniscient headquarters looming over the pier itself, its mirrored windows like the sunglasses on a cracker sheriff. Chief among ‘Minipax’s’ duties, aside from stamping out sand fights and skateboarding, was the enforcement of the ‘blackball’ statute, which struggled each summer to separate, like rival gangs, the vast herds of migratory bathers from the flashing switchblades of surfboard noses and skegs.

It wasn’t until you paddled out that you realized how enormous was the pier. Compared to the dinky wooden wharf I surfed next to in Cayucos, the Huntington Pier towered over the paddler like a great mothballed dreadnought. There was always something creepy and surreal about it. Paddling out amid the mass of fishing lines hanging down like combs of baleen, the echoing coos of countless invisible pigeons roosting in the braces, and the thick concrete pilings caked with barnacles that had tasted flesh, always made me feel as if I had taken a wrong turn toward the river and into “The Carnival of Souls.”

The pier always spooked the hell out of the Australians, who had none at home and in any case were raised on open-faced and honest surf. For Huntington certainly possessed some of the shiftiest and most dishonest surf on the planet. The miles of straight unbroken coastline spawned a ferocious longshore current, which arose each time the surf climbed over three or four feet. Larger southerly swells, in particular, were torn apart by the sideshore flow, broken into rudely segmented close-outs that toppled kink by kink for miles at a time. During big south swells the current sucked you toward Long Beach at a rate of knots, and swept past the plastic clowns and oil derricks that served as line-up markers. On and on you were pulled, through descending rungs of caste in the surfing crowd strata, deeper and deeper into the fossil record of prehistoric Downey surfcraft – and suddenly, discovering you had drifted into the turf of some end-of-the-street surf clan, you found yourself barked at by some guy with a mullet who lived in the kind of apartment with tin foil over the windows.

There was a long period – from the early `60s until the late `80s, when every surfer who wanted to make his mark had to pass through the Huntington furnace. The fiendish currents always played havoc with surf contests held at the pier, and all too often events degenerated from Royal Hawaiian Sport into a madcap hybrid of high-speed ‘Frogger’ and medieval joust. The competitor learned to ‘shoot the pier’ – or he collected his $50 T-shirt and went home. And competitive surfing in Huntington – always a Kafka-meets-Orwell experience whether you donned a Toptex helmet or an OP singlet – was rendered even more bizarre by the fact that each contest was held, without fail, on exactly the wrong side of the pier for the season. Thus, the Katin Team Challenge took place in winter on the north side of the pier, therefore stymied by the south-flowing current; The OP Pro, on the other hand, held in summer on the south side, was beset by the aforementioned north-flowing drift. Spectators, hanging over the pier railing, enjoyed box seat views as their favorite surf stars fluttered and scrabbled, like birds sucked toward the vortex of a 747 turbine, to avoid ingestion by the barnacle-toothed pilings.

I remember a heat in the OP Pro where … well, that’s another story. Besides, Huntington flew from my mind as the phalanx of cars ahead of me on the 405 lurched forward like a slipping fault line – this was the last chance to take the Beach Boulevard exit. Here, according to the ancient and venerable formula of surf magazines, I should have impulsively turned onto the offramp at the last second and followed the constellation of McDonald’s until Beach Boulevard spilled onto Pacific Coast Highway. I would park and walk thoughtfully out onto the pier and, leaning on the rail, sigh and beseech the gods, “Whither Huntington?” And then – according to the formula – I would spy in the distance a knot of towheaded young surfers working over a shorebreak reform, thrashing like robust salmon fingerlings in a hatchery, and with deep satisfaction I would think, Ah, The Kids Are Alright. The lark is on the wing and the snail on the thorn and God in His Heaven. Huntington survives.

But I drove past the offramp without hesitation, northbound and non-stop until the cement turned to sage, thank you. One thing I have learned from a lifetime of reading things other than surfing magazines is that You Can’t Go Home Again.

I don’t know Huntington Beach any longer, but perhaps you do. Perhaps you live and surf there now and are too young to remember the old days when it was Surf City, USA. If so, why not just consider this recollection as a starting point. Why not write something of how things are there today, and send them to SURFER. Then, it might be possible to piece together, from the resultant mosaic of soundings, a new chart of the Coppertone Archipelago.