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Phillip Lopate describes the shape of Manhattan Island as‘a luxury liner, permanently docked, going nowhere’. This feeling of being tethered to the land, unable to get to sea, was a feature of New York life for much of the twentieth century. New York was an island without a coast. The West Side piers that once welcomed the Lusitania spent most of the twentieth century crumbling or behind barbed wire, while the East Side’s coves and points were cut off from pedestrians by six lanes of the Robert Moses-designed Franklin Delano Roosevelt Drive. It wasn’t much easier to reach the shores of Brooklyn, Queens or the Bronx, either: with a few exceptions, they were largely reserved for municipal or industrial use, and easiest to see from the Staten Island Ferry (en route to the borough with the most beaches). Now, slowly, the city is reclaiming its shoreline, with some spectacular results.

Beach Days: A Cost-Benefit Analysis by Steph Cha

This piece is a part of WATERFRONTS, a series of personal essays engaging with the waterways of New York and/or Los Angeles, presented in collaboration with Trop.

My last proper Los Angeles beach day was in June of 2008. I was a summer associate at a law firm and one of the recruiting events was a Saturday morning surf lesson at Venice Beach. I didn't really want to go, but it was free for me and I liked that it was costing that terrible place a neat chunk of money. I don't remember the surfing lesson. I don't remember touching a board, or going near the water, or having a single minute of fun.

I do remember what happened next.  I'd arranged to meet up with high school friends for a full beach day after the lesson. My friends weren’t coming right away, so I shut my eyes for a minute to enjoy the morning sun while I waited. I woke up when they called me a couple hours later. I had an angry sunburn painting me head to toe.

We quickly discovered that we were on opposite ends of the Venice Boardwalk. I walked for thirty minutes to meet my friends halfway. I was tired and stinging, and the day was getting hotter, and I have rarely been so miserable as on that long walk through the chaos of Venice, schlepping my beach day supplies over raw red skin. When I finally found my friends, I was embarrassingly close to tears. Any nice beachy times we shared that day are lost to me. All I remember is the pain.

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With my yellow-tinged, skim-milk complexion and my constitutional distaste for the smeary sensation of sunblock, I have had many bad sunburns over the years. Even so, that ’08 Venice Beach sunburn was probably my all-time worst, because it fried up my whole face. That same night, my friends and I went clubbing (it was that brief window in my life, when I could commit to two trying activities in a single summer day), and I did the best I could with a complexion that looked, more or less, like it had been achieved with a cheese grater. I got blasted, made out with someone I was pretty meh on, and for some unknown reason took a thousand pictures. My friends and I still laugh at those pictures.

I’ve since accepted that I need to wear sunscreen. I have also never spent another day on the beaches of LA.

It's not that I don't like the beach--I actually love it, as long as it's right outside my hotel room. I enjoy waking up, throwing on a swimsuit, borrowing a towel someone else has to wash, and then plonking down for a while with a book and a fruity cocktail while the sun and sea breeze ease me into a gradual tan. Have you ever been to Hawaii? I highly recommend it.

But LA is big, and most neighborhoods are not in walking distance of the water. I’ve lived here almost my whole life, first in the San Fernando Valley, and, more recently, in Los Feliz, between Hollywood and Downtown. Both places are about thirty to forty-five minutes of freeway away from the beach, without significant traffic. A round trip between my house and the water would cost at least an hour and a half of pure drive time. In an hour and a half, I could walk to my favorite bar and back about six times. Alternatively, I could walk there once and have three Bloody Marys. It is a very rare beach day that can top three Bloody Marys.

And it’s not just the driving, either. A few weeks ago, I went to a friend’s baby shower, way the hell out in the Pacific Palisades. Since we were already out there, my friends suggested going to the beach afterwards. I was all set to agree, but then I realized what I would have to do to get ready. I made a list in my head: pack towels, sunscreen, and a change of clothes; either ride across town and sit through a baby shower with a bikini bottom riding up my ass or change awkwardly in the car or in some sand-and-filth-crusted beach restroom. To figure out all these beach day logistics, I would also have to wake up ten minutes earlier than necessary. In the end, I woke up just in time to get ready for the baby shower and the decision was made by default. My friends went, and later that afternoon, I liked their pictures on Instagram. They looked happy, sun-fed and healthy.

But what did I really miss? A parking nightmare? A struggle to find an unoccupied rectangle of sand? At best, a beach day yields a few solid hours of hot sun and cold water, some relaxation on a thin towel with a good book to block the strongest rays from burning right through my eyes. Not bad, as things go, but not a super high return on investment. I don’t see the point in working so hard to relax when my couch is honestly pretty nice.

If I ever leave LA (never) I'll miss the tacos, the bookstores, and maybe the cocktail bars with Edison bulbs. I'll miss the sun. But the beach? Eh. Hawaii would still be a plane ride away.


Steph Cha is the author of Follow Her Home, a feminist hardboiled detective novel. She lives in Los Angeles and mothers a basset hound.