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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.

Two Red Things by Steve Mentz

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.


 

The ocean has many colors. Whenever I look into its blue or green or gray or foaming white face, I think it’s telling a story. It’s remembering something, splashing together lost histories. What does froth murmur?

The Atlantic is childhood.

The Pacific is youth.

I grew up near the Jersey shore and spent many hours walking its uneven sands. That beach is still the landscape through which I read all waterfronts: a gently sloping expanse of gritty beige sand, punctuated by tar-stained wooden jetties that may or may not contain beach erosion. The water is warm in the summer, and the surf rolls on a human scale. Lots of kids start with boogie boards and graduate to surfing, but not me. I never rode the waves any way but on my belly, head down, hands knifing the water in front of me like the prow of a blind boat. If you catch the wave right, it carries you all the way up the beach and leaves you high and dry, face down, eating sand.

In my early 20s I lived for one year in Venice Beach, California, in an apartment on Westminster Avenue, two blocks from the Pacific. I needed to move suddenly in early September, and a guy I barely knew who played rugby with me said he had an apartment I could move into right away. It was a basement unit in the back of the building. Wind off the ocean blasted sand across the parking lot through my ground-level kitchen window above the sink. Everything tasted crunchy that winter, but I had a place. The building super lived upstairs, with a bumper sticker on her apartment door that read, “Skateboarding is not a crime.”

My Atlantic talisman is a red beach towel that I lost on a Sunday afternoon in May or early June of 1991.

My Pacific touchstone is the chorizo omelet that I ate for breakfast on Martin Luther King Day, 1994.

These red things aren’t wet. I am a swimmer, but these objects hold my past selves at a slight distance from the water. Towels dry you off. After breakfast, you’re supposed to stay out of the water for half an hour. I’m not sure why I remember these things, but I do.

 

1. Red towel. Bay Head, New Jersey, 1991

The red towel left me on a grey afternoon in spring, a few months before I left the East coast. It happened in Bay Head, between Karge and Harris Streets, where family history mixes with silica. I had come out for a swim after dinner with two friends, but we ended up not going in. We carried beach towels, including the red one that I lost that afternoon but whose exact terrycloth match sits today in my swim bag. Both of the towels used to sit folded in the bathroom closet of my family’s house at the shore. I must have taken the one I still have with me when I moved to California later that year.

The boy wasn’t that much younger than I was. The papers later told us he was a senior in Point Pleasant Beach High School, ready to graduate that spring. I was then maybe a half-dozen years older. He was frantic, soaking wet in jeans and no shirt, running in circles and gesturing with outstretched hands.

He didn’t look at us, didn’t notice we were there. He splashed back into the water as we watched. He fell awkwardly in the surf, then thrashed his way back up onto the beach.

The story as we later learned it was that he’d been at an afternoon concert at the Garden State Arts Center up the parkway with his buddy. They’d gone for a quick dip in the surf after driving back from the show. Only one had surfaced.

He ran back into the water when the police arrived, but pretty soon he came out and listened to them.

We stood there watching as the police diver slowly and deliberately poured himself into his wetsuit and assembled his diving gear. The solitary boy now sat on the sand, staring at the surf. My friend Maryam walked up behind him and draped the red towel over his shivering shoulders. He didn’t notice.

They found the body an hour later, after the three of us had gone back inside.

 

2. Chorizo omelet. Venice Beach, 1994

My Pacific story is happier. It begins with disaster. At 4:31 am on the morning of Martin Luther King Day in 1994, a massive earthquake hit the Los Angeles basin. Its epicenter was in Northridge, and it topped 6.7 on the Richter scale. Between the pre-dawn quiet and the holiday and some luck, casualties were low.

I woke up in my basement apartment with thirteen stories of concrete dancing above my bed. Not a Californian, I didn’t know to duck under the doorframe. I sat in the dark and shook along with everything else for what the seismologists measured as twenty seconds. I didn’t understand what was happening.

Along with most of the other residents of my neighborhood, including my skateboarding landlord and the two rugby players from New Zealand who were living next door in a converted closet rent-free so that they could play for the Santa Monica team, I wandered outside after the earthquake. The sun didn’t come up for a couple hours, and the street lights were all out, but we could see by moonlight, and besides we knew where we were going.

I walked across the concrete path where I used to roller blade onto the flat gray beach. There was nothing to see. The surf churned invisibly in front of me. I stared for a while, listening.

When I came back from the beach I sat under the red and white awning of The Sidewalk Café, where I often ate Sunday brunch by myself. I ordered a chorizo omelet, as usual. The power was still out, but the gas was working so they could cook, and nobody bothered about the bills that morning. We were all glad to be out from under concrete. I talked to people I’d seen before, but whose names I didn’t know. As the sun came up, we peered together across the expanse of beach until we could glimpse a shimmer of Pacific.

 

What do these stories mean? Are they symbols of mortality and failed rescue, of solitude eased and community almost-restored? Twin parables of human fragments scattered amid harder substances on disparate beaches? The stories tell me that I remember red, the warm color of a towel laundered in my parents’ house, the darker shade of Mexican sausage peeking out between layers of eggs. For years I asked questions of the ocean and received no clear replies.

My final answer, it turned out, would be conventional: marriage, and a coast unlike either New Jersey or California, the south-facing Connecticut shoreline on Long Island Sound. But that’s another story.

 


Steve Mentz is Professor of English at St John's where he teaches Shakespeare, oceanic literature, and literary theory. He's written two scholarly books, including most recently *At the Bottom of Shakespeare's Ocean* (2009), edited two more academic volumes, and also published many articles on literary culture and the maritime environment. His works in progress, performance reviews, and swimming autobiography can be found on his blog, The Bookfish (www.stevementz.com).

You Don't Look Like You're From LA by Annie Heringer

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.



When people ask me where I’m from, I tell them, “Los Angeles.” But, if pushed to be more specific, I have to reveal I actually grew up in Pasadena. Some people get angry. “Pasadena is not in Los Angeles” they say, seeming to accuse me of pretending I’m a real Angeleno. Pasadena is indeed its own independent city, not part of the City of Los Angeles and in pointing­ out my geographic vagueness, these people are also tugging at an old, deeply buried inferiority, the heart of which begins at the Pacific Ocean.

Pasadena lies twenty-five miles from the coast, at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains. When summer winds blow smog inland off the water, it stops in Pasadena, the mountains holding it in like soup. That’s when it’s best to escape to the beaches where the air is much cooler and cleaner. But try to reach the coast on a hot day and inevitably you sit in traffic, becoming the very thing that is causing the smog-soup that you are trying to flee.

Nevertheless, my family did make the journey to the beach a few times each summer. At some point growing up though, I became aware that the rest of the world views Southern Californians like some privileged, sun-bathed tribe that practically lives at the beach. I began to wonder where my own rights had gone, especially since my family had once lived at the beach too—in a neighborhood called Mar Vista. Even people who don’t speak Spanish know that name means ocean view. But when I was four, my parents forsook my foothold on happiness to move to what they thought was a more wholesome, landlocked city. 

Pasadena summers were hot and a typical day was largely spent indoors in the darkened cool, with lots of TV watching. When I was ten, I became obsessed with Gidget, the 1960s TV series about a whitebread, teenaged girl who was always at the beach and a huge surfer—even if the footage of her riding the waves was so clearly shot in front of a green screen. But the show’s fakeness was what I loved most: a perfect, unattainable Technicolor vision of what growing up in LA should be and therefore perfect fodder for my growing complex about living a life that was far from it.

In high school, I became friends with a girl who was a grade older than me and had a car. She had long blonde hair and unlike me, was very tan. We would often go to the beach together and on one of our long drives to the coast, my friend asked me if I could be only one thing—tan and fat or pale and skinny—which I would choose. I remember really considering my answer. I have the kind of skin that sunburns easily and I was incredibly self-conscious about it. Being tan was the mark of being from LA, part of the club. I would try lying out in my backyard in small increments, then check for any forming tan lines at night. But my skin would just sprout more freckles. Definitely tan and fat.

By the end of high school, my friends and I were into music and art, activities that were generally in opposition to a sunny, healthy Californian lifestyle. The last time I went to the beach before leaving for college was a school-sponsored trip for the graduating senior class. A caravan of yellow school buses ferried us out to the coast. It was a brisk, early summer’s day in June when the water temperature felt barely above freezing. It didn’t matter—we threw ourselves into the surf en masse. Our school was big and we must have numbered in the hundreds and to my surprise not a small number of my classmates were wearing t-shirts and shorts in the water, either out of modesty or because they didn’t own a bathing suit at all.

The fact is that the majority of students at my school did not look like Gidget—they were African-American, Latino and Asian. Some of them surfed, but most of them didn’t and no one but me seemed to have a complex about growing up so far from the beach. Everyone was really enjoying themselves. The golden light sparkled in a thousand points on the water.  A soundtrack of shrieks, then breaking waves, played in an endless loop.  My obsession with erasing my inland-identity suddenly seemed small and, above all, stupid. Los Angeles is a huge, sprawling place and to limit it to the community that lives by the ocean is to ignore a massive part of its history and culture. In a few months, I would be thousands of miles away in a cold, New England city, but that day I was living the LA dream. Did my Pasadena roots give me any less claim to it?

In college, I got all sorts of comments when I told people where I was from. “You don’t look like you’re from LA,” felt hurtful, but I knew what was meant: I didn’t look like the people on TV or in the movies that were supposed to be from Los Angeles. I knew that if I clarified that I was from Pasadena, I would just be reinforcing the misconception about what true Angelenos look like. I thought about my high school and all the different people that call LA home—including millions of Latinos, a population that has been there since the city was just a pueblo on the river. “Well,” I would answer, “I am from Los Angeles.”


Annie Heringer is a documentary filmmaker and television producer currently living in Berlin, Germany where she feels more from Los Angeles than ever.

Sand in My Joints by Antoine Wilson

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.


Bald guy in his twenties paddles out next to me, introduces himself. Jason. Friendly, eager, not your standard head-nod type. Afterward, every time I paddle out at that spot, he's there, talking to somebody in the water. He introduces himself to me again and again. He tells me he's now friends with a local surf shop owner. One day, it's head-high and stormy. Nothing crazy. Jason paddles to the outside, announces that it's the biggest he's ever seen it out there. Nobody says anything. And then, as quick as he appeared, he's gone. I think I see him in a supermarket once. I ask if the guy surfs the spot, he says yes, I ask if his name's Jason. No, he says, it's John. I never see Jason again.

This is in the nineties. An older guy cruises past on his stand-up paddleboard and harasses us. You're just sitting there, he says, I'm getting a workout. You must be cold down there, he says, up to your armpits in the water. He looks just like late Picasso. He preaches to us the virtues of his watercraft. He's obviously a madman. Fifteen years later, stand-up paddleboards are everywhere.

We see a massive triangular dorsal fin in the water, about ten yards beyond where we're sitting. We freeze at the sight of it. Definitely not a dolphin. The fin tilts away from us until it's flat with the water. We see the barnacles first, then the massive body of the whale, lumbering up the coast.

I go to a therapist for a little while. I tell him that surfing keeps me sane. He tells me he's a surfer too. A few sessions later he tells me that a guy at the beach who teaches surf lessons (whom I thought was cool) is an asshole.

We're up early. No hyped swell, no traffic. We come around the bend past the power plant and there's a young woman on the bus bench, next to a giant backpack. Either she's just been kicked out, or she's bumming her way down the coast. D says, Check out this chick. Our windows are up and she's quite a distance away, but somehow she tunes into his attitude and flips us the bird, arm outstretched.

It's not crowded and the waves are average, but it's sunny and there are a lot of people on the beach. After my session, I'm walking up the sand when a beefy guy steps toward me. I can't tell if it's fat or muscle. He smells of alcohol. Hey! he says. You! I walk over. You live around here? He says it like a challenge. I tell him, yeah, my house is around the corner. His demeanor changes completely. You were killing it out there, he says.

W and I head north looking for uncrowded waves. Check a spot and a sketchy-looking guy pulls up. Tattooed and ripped, he's got the edge of someone who has just been released from prison. I ask him where he's checked the waves. We compare notes. His name's Eric. He turns up later, at another spot, and W calls him Mike. It's Eric, he says. When we get back in the car, we bust up, in part because we're safe, and in part because the guy's name totally should have been Mike.

I'm waiting for a table at a sushi restaurant when I spot some guys I think I went to school with. I talk to them, trying to figure out how I know them when I realize they are professional surfers. Years later, I bump into one of them on a remote beach. I've just ridden the biggest, gnarliest wave of my life. How is it out there? he asks me. Big, I say. Looks it, he says.

D gets better parking than I do, so after I'm suited up I go to meet him on the beach. He's lying on the sand. I figure it's his stretching routine, but when I get there he tells me he stepped into a hole he didn't see. I ask if he thinks he can make it back to his car. He says yes. I tell him he should get home and ice it. The waves are really good that day. Afterward, I listen to a message on my phone. He's in the ER—his ankle is broken. He won't surf again for a year.

Guy who looks like Peter Gallagher snakes me. White leash. I call him off the wave but he doesn't pull out. When it's over he looks scared but also like he has no idea why I'm mad. I never see him in the water again. I see the real Peter Gallagher in a restaurant, but I don't say anything.

Paddling for a wave, I hit something solid with my hand. After I drop in, a dolphin ejects out the back. I realize I've just snaked him. I want to apologize but he swims away.

I'm checking it early and there's a guy standing on the beach, sipping a coffee. Contractor truck, white t-shirt, square shoulders. His dog is running around and does his business not far from where I'm standing. I put a stick in the sand to mark the spot. On the way back past the guy I tell him about the stick. He asks me if I thought he wasn't going to pick up his dogshit. I explain that I was only trying to do him a favor. His eyes narrow. He mumbles a what the fuck. I tell him that I'm just trying to keep my beach clean. He says, Your beach? Your beach? Then he tells me that he was born in this town, that he's lived here all his life, and that I should get the fuck out of there. I say, look, I walk out here with my kid and I'm tired of dodging dogshit—surely he can understand. He tells me again to get the fuck out of there. He won't look me in the eye. I tell him I didn't mean any disrespect. He's looking at the ocean. His ears are bright red. Get the fuck out of here, he says. I realize that he's not threatening me. He's not puffing his chest. He's warning me. He doesn't think he can control himself. I walk away. Later that morning I return. The stick is still there, but the dogshit isn't.

One morning D and I are pulling on wetsuits in the parking lot. I tell him that I hope Jerry Garcia dies before someone tries to drag me to a Grateful Dead concert. After our session, we hear on the radio that Jerry Garcia has died. For fifteen years, I make sure not to wish death on anyone. Then one day I look up his time of death on the internet. Two hours before I said anything. I go back to casually wishing people dead.

My brother's friend tells me he can get free parking at the beach lot. When we get there, he drives toward the exit end, rolls up the curb, over a grassy median, across a sidewalk, into the lot. Years later, I realize I haven't seen the guy around for a while. I ask my brother about him. Turns out he's in prison.

The waves are comically small. I decide to paddle to the pier and back for exercise. I pass a guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, standing in the water up to his thighs. He's staring out at the horizon, a haunted look on his face. I ask him how it's going, but he doesn't respond. On the paddle back from the pier, he's still there.

I'm walking down the beach after a session and I see a girl in the water calling for help. She's lost her board and is panicking. I paddle out to where she is and help her onto my board and get her to shore. Once on dry sand, she doesn't thank me, which I find odd. Years later, when I help someone else in trouble, I know not to expect any thanks.

I paddle out with D into big, stormy surf. After a half-hour of trying to make it to the outside, I'm getting pummeled by a set when I realize I have no business being out there. I go in.

Surfing at night, the takeoffs are blind, done strictly by feel, but once I'm looking down the line, the light from PCH illuminates the contours of the wave. Paddling back out, I hold a glowstick in my mouth so my friends don't run me over.

Browsing in a bookstore after a morning of good waves, I tilt my head sideways to read a title and the ocean pours out of my nose.



Antoine Wilson wrote the novels Panorama City and The Interloper. His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Best New American Voices, and The New York Times, among other places. He is a contributing editor of A Public Space. He lives and surfs in Los Angeles. You can find him at antoinewilson.com or on twitter: @antoinewilson.

On Sand by Lisa Kunik

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.


 

I grew up in a 1950s ranch house cradled among the pine trees towering over Coldwater Canyon in Beverly Hills. We were only thirty minutes from the ocean, yet to my recollection my mother took me to the beach only twice. One time we built lopsided sand castles on the public beach just north of the Santa Monica Pier and the other we were guests of family friends at the Surf and Sand Beach Club. From both occasions I remember little except the checkerboard of light glittering across the waves. The mental snapshot is so iconic I suspect it’s been influenced by TV and picture postcards, or perhaps falsely generated altogether.

We rarely spent time at the beach because my father said so. He detested the sand. As a boy he’d summered at a cabin in Michigan near the lake, where he preferred to stand gloomily beside his mother with his hand resting on the kerchief protecting her freshly set curls rather than swim and skip rocks with the other children his age. Stories of muggings along the Venice-Santa Monica boardwalk in the 1980s only compounded his aversion, resigning our family to admire the sea only from the safe and civilized distance of the occasional Ocean Drive restaurant patio.

It’s hard to say whether I inherited a wariness of the sand or my lack of exposure exacerbated a genetic predisposition. It wasn’t until my senior year of high school, when my parents separated and also when I got my driver’s license that I drove to Venice Beach on weekends simply because I could. The colorful beachfront community wasn’t defined by the beach so much as by its eclectic residents—artists, screenwriters, bodybuilders, surfers, and dreadlocked tweakers—and that bohemia resonated with me, or at least I wanted it to. I walked Abbott Kinney without traversing the sand. A handful of times I rollerbladed along the boardwalk and lunched at the beachfront Fig Tree Café. Yet I never took a post-rollerblading dip in the ocean or stripped down to a bathing suit to lie out in the sun. In fact, I don’t recall ever stepping out onto the sand. Still I thoroughly dusted myself off every time before getting back in my car. I cringed at the thought of sand trapped in the grooves of the floor mats or the crevices of the cup holder. Driving home on Santa Monica Boulevard, the Pacific receding to a butter knife sliver of blue at my back, I always felt satisfied with my ocean-side exercise, accomplished without contact with the beach itself.

After college I moved to New York. Manhattan was surrounded by water but you wouldn’t have known that from my 13th Street apartment, which faced an airshaft, or my desk in an art gallery in the Fuller Building on 57th Street and Madison. I craved high rises, dive bars, and ethnic cuisine. The pavement embraced me, and I liked it. When each summer nearly all of Manhattan made a mass exodus to the beach, I was more interested in landlocked outdoor summer concerts, easily-snagged restaurant reservations, and air-conditioned museums.

I first met my husband in an elevator in the Fuller Building, and then again several months later in the hot tub of the Loews Miami Beach Hotel during Art Basel Miami. (That night he skinny-dipped in the ocean. Needless to say, I didn’t participate.) August 2005 we drove Highway 1 from San Francisco to Los Angeles, stopping for several nights at Deetjen’s Inn in Big Sur. We hiked a crumbling cliff-side path with mythic views. It was foggy and fifty degrees, the kind of sleepy and still day best for curling up in the hotel rocker and browsing the Inn’s in-room journals, which later that day we did. But that morning we were out on the trail, hazy and undisturbed, digesting impossible views. We had sex overlooking the Pacific. We weren’t lying in the sand with waves tickling our feet. We weren’t sprawled on a Mexican serape working off a picnic lunch. We weren’t liquored up and laughing our way through our irreverence. We had most of our clothes on. We were awkward and shaking, half hidden behind a rock and praying a couple of unsuspecting hikers didn’t happen upon us.

I went into labor with my son at 32 weeks. In the 44 hours I was hospitalized before delivering I often found myself imagining the placidity of a Sugimoto seascape. Why I sought solace in a mental image of the ocean I can’t explain since I had no personal association with the sea and serenity. I met my son in the NICU at Mount Sinai. I was instructed to wash my hands. Everyone who touched my son needed to wash his or her hands or use hand sanitizer. My son spent 18 days in the NICU and the next 4 months confined to our apartment to assure he didn’t contract RSV, respiratory syncytial virus. I don’t recall the delicious baby smell of his hair. Life was Purell. Once, at around 9 months, I was helping him stand near a slide in the playground when a nanny told me, He is not an egg. Her 10-month-old charge was crawling on the rubber playground flooring, hands and knees covered in sand and broken leaves. I couldn’t imagine my son ever getting that dirty.

Our worry in his first twelve months was not just about germs, and when he was cleared at his 12 month well-child visit of any developmental delay, we marked our relief with a trip to Los Angeles. On Christmas Eve day we drove to Venice for lunch. Naturally my husband suggested showing our boy the waves. 

I recalled a walk on the beach I’d taken with my father in Montecito the summer before last when I was still pregnant—yes, somehow I’d cajoled my father into a waterfront stroll. The entire walk he’d commented on the trash, the occasional splotch of oily residue from the offshore oil platform in the Santa Barbara Channel, and how generally “awful” and “filthy” the beach was. Meanwhile, my husband was already standing barefoot in the Venice Beach sand with our son on his hip. He was smiling at me in the buoyant way he does only when we’re in LA. Everything will get wet and sandy, is what I was thinking. “I’ll stay here with the stroller.”

I watched my husband and son recede toward the shore. For a moment I grieved the missed opportunity. I should be taking my son to experience the Pacific for the first time. I am, after all, the one from California. Soon they were fiery flecks backlit by the afternoon sun and a brilliant watercolor splash of sky. My husband was pointing, first at a surfer, then at a passing seagull. I looked through the viewfinder of our camera but even with the zoom lens I couldn’t see their faces. I clutched the handles of the stroller.

My husband returned to the boardwalk, squatted, and plopped our son down in the sand. Intuitively our boy raked his fingers, fast and furious, through the tiny grains. Sand flew everywhere. My husband kept pointing at our son as if raking sand were the most novel thing he’d ever seen. Then the obvious but unforeseen happened—our son tipped over, face first. My husband righted him, lifted the bill of his sunhat and brushed the sand from his cheek. No sand had gotten into his eyes or mouth, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. My son had, for a moment, engaged me with a patch of beach.

I happened to be taking a video, which I’ve since watched probably a hundred times, smiling every time. My son’s lips are furled in elated concentration. Sand is stuck to his pants and the damp and dangling straps of his sunhat. He is a propeller of sand, and a propeller of life. He is reckless and vital. He is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.



Lisa Kunik is a Brooklyn-based writer and gallery director originally from Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared on Anderbo.com and LostWriters.net and her author interviews in the Brooklyn Rail and Small Spiral Notebook. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Sarah Lawrence College.

Open Water by Julie Sarkissian

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.


I grew up in Orange County, California, twenty-five minutes from the Pacific Ocean and some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, but as a teenager, it was swimming pools that preoccupied me. Any old person could go to the beach, but not everybody had a swimming pool, and the people who did were important. And if you were lucky enough to be invited poolside, so were you.  

It meant a lot to live in a house with a pool. A pool meant people would always want to come over and you got to decide who got in and who stayed out. A pool meant not only could you get people to come to your house, you could also get them to take off their clothes. And you didn’t even need to bother yourself with the pesky task of entertaining your guests; the pool was its own entertainment. Above all, having a pool meant money, meant your family was smarter, luckier, or just plain better than the rest of us. And having a pool often came hand-in-hand with the ultimate Orange Countian status symbol: the gated community. Being behind the gates, next to or in a pool meant you were somewhere that most people couldn’t be. It meant you were special.

In stark contrast to the luxurious communities I coveted, my parent’s home was in “The Canyons,” a highly anomalous part of Orange County made up of three small canyons protected from development by land grants and inhabited by an eccentric crowd of nature lovers, horse lovers, and conservationists. My parents’ ranch-style house was modest with a wrap-around deck and huge garden, no television, no perfunctory sitting room or formal dining room, no extra fridge in the garage to be stocked with snacks and bottled water, and certainly no pool. My parents prized the natural beauty of the canyons above any other aspect of their home or property; a value system I thoroughly rejected. What good did a backdrop of some mountains do for my social standing? I couldn’t invite people to come over to look at the hills. If I had a house with a pool, I wouldn’t be embarrassed to invite people over, I assured myself as I lay awake at night fantasizing how drastically my lot in life would improve if my family would only start subscribing to the OC dream. I was certain that with the right house, behind the right gates, with the right pool, people would finally see me for who I was really meant to be: popular, powerful, rich. Elite. And I would start seeing myself that way, too.

For all the time I spent obsessing about how to be invited to the right pool, I spent more time at the beach than I did poolside, since my grandmother lived in Newport Beach. Newport is a big, popular public beach, displaying a diverse intersection of native culture, wildly diverse if you account for it being in Orange County: tattooed rockabilly twenty-somethings who live in the local rentals, wealthy, plastic-surgery-preserved older couples who live on the beach front property, Mexican families who swim fully clothed as if they hadn’t planned on going in but just couldn’t resist, dogged beach combers with metal detectors who will diverge from their path for no man, parents in heated sunscreen negotiations with young kids, and, of course, your heart’s content of surfers. The sand is crowded with blankets and bodies, the wind crowded with cries from volleyball players and horns from bicyclists as they nearly collide with the skateboarders, and the air is crowded with the smell of salt water and salty foods, sunscreen and barbeque. But I was always distracted at the beach by my social neuroticism, trying to figure out how--if at all--cool, going to the beach was, and ultimately deciding that the beach could not be cool whatsoever if this many people were allowed to go. As I had learned from the swimming pools and the gates, places were only as cool as the percentage of people who weren’t allowed in.

At eighteen years old I headed to Princeton for college. I had long prayed to be part of a homogeneous elite; oh how my wish had been granted. Students at Princeton looked the same; their skin was the same northeastern shade of pale, they wore the same business casual attire, carried the same beat up LL Bean backpacks with the same sense of irony. They spoke of the same boarding schools and vacation locales. We had all taken the same aptitude tests and gotten the same grades, but I didn’t feel special, chosen, or powerful. And as for feeling rich, I was so pitifully behind the curve that I had only been praying about having one nice house; I wasn’t even aware that I should have been asking for three or four.

Though I missed my friends, I didn’t miss their swimming pools or track houses or gates. When I wished I could go back, I didn’t wish to transport myself to a pool so clean the grout between the titles sparkled as white as teeth in toothpaste ads, in the backyard of a house so indistinguishable from its neighbors that I routinely resorted to playing eeny meeny miny mo with the front doors before knocking when visiting my best friend. When I desperately wanted to talk to someone from home, it wasn’t to give a gatekeeper my name, or tell them that I was on the permanent guest list. Living that life had been my dream, but now it didn’t feel anything like home.

What I did dream about, and talk about, and remember in details I hadn’t been aware I was absorbing at the time, except to scrutinize degrees of lameness, was the beach. The Fun Zone with its famous frozen bananas and ski ball and Ferris wheel, the Asian families in long sleeves and under umbrellas, school children on field trips, the fake boobs, the leathery skin, the surfers, the fisherman, the docks, the crab restaurants, the rollerblades, the volleyball players, the sand castles. Remembering Newport brought me back home because it was filled with all the different people who also called Orange County home.

I had long rejected my parents’ philosophy that natural beauty should be available to everyone and that free things could have great value. In my mind, belonging to everyone meant belonging to nobody. If nobody owned it, then how could it have value? Owning things that other people didn’t was how the world knew we were special. But at some point during my homesick meditation I realized that what makes Newport magic is that despite its desirability, it doesn’t have any gates, your name doesn’t need to be on any list, and there aren’t any membership dues. Along with the waves and sand and the feeling of forever that looking out at sea inspires, the culture that its open door policy creates makes the beach priceless in a way the most extravagant pool never can be. 


Julie Sarkissian is the author of Dear Lucy, published in 2013 by Simon and Schuster. Other writing has appeared in The New York Times, Tin House, and The Huffington Post. She graduated from Princeton University and has an MFA from The New School. A native of Orange County, California, she currently lives in Brooklyn with her husband.