One constant through my decades of surfing was a desire to be Tom Curren. In addition to aping his style in every way, I shared his notion that working in the surf industry was like a polyp. “Can I live with the polyp?” he asked in an interview with Matt Warshaw. A second constant was a rendering of a mountain and wave at the nose of all my boards. Nothing more than a mylar decal, meaningless to most of humanity, it was my polyp. My blessing was my curse.
By my mid-twenties, my work experience was scant. I’d delivered Coca-Cola with Mo “Daddy” Sanford a couple summers, then delivered Chinese food for a few years. Neither got in the way of surfing, nor were they what you’d call serious jobs. With Mo, most of what I did was laugh. Getting a few bucks afterward was a bonus.
Riding waves was bringing in a few hundred dollars a month, but as a married man with bills to pay I needed something more substantial. Besides, my car reeked of chow mein. Quiksilver, where I’d been a team rider for nearly a decade, already had a world beater from the East Coast. What they didn’t have was someone to stick around and do their dirty work, aka promotions.
When the boys in the OC doubled my monthly retainer to a cool grand, my only questions were, “Where do I sign?” and “Will I start acting different now that I’m filthy rich?”
The euphoria lasted all of a few hours as there was important tasks to be done. My first directive was to cut half of the surf team, which had swelled beyond control thanks to an ill-advised local tryout. No problem, I was friends with these kids, I’d just dial them up and let ’em down easy.
“Whaaaaaat?! Nooooooo, you can’t do this!” The first call, to a grom in Sandbridge, didn’t go well. The poor country boy was distraught, certain we’d made a mistake. He’d been surfing every day behind his house and was expecting a ticket to join Slater on tour when the axe fell.
I weathered his breakdown and assured him the sun would rise tomorrow, but that wasn’t the end of it. I got a call from his mom, then his dad, both insisting their child was on the verge of greatness. By the end of my first day, my hair had turned mostly gray and I wished I hadn’t deposited my check.
My job description, aside from overseeing the surf team, was to promote the brand, to make people think that Quiksilver was the coolest thing since the Harlem Globetrotters. “This is a dream job,” Lord Business told me, before making me learn and sing the ‘Everything is awesome, everything is cool when you’re part of a team’ song that would later be popularized in The Lego Movie.
The job had perks, most notably the summer runs up the coast with Matt Kechele. I used to doodle surfboards in my notebooks with the Matt Kechele Airlines logo from Quiet Flight. He was a pioneer of aerial surfing, a charger at Pipe, Kelly’s first mentor, and a world tour competitor. His legend status was cemented by the fact that older guys in VB seemed to hate him although they didn’t know him. I didn’t know Matt either, beyond getting schooled by him in heats from the moment I turned pro.
Keck is the quintessential ageless grom, a middle-aged Tom Sawyer, always ready with a joke (This guy walks into a psychiatrist’s office wearing nothing but cellophane panties. The doctor looks at him and goes, “Bud, I can clearly see you’re nuts”) and always in search of adventure. I was lucky enough to join him as he surfed for eight hours straight in Costa Rica, hunted giant rats in Cuba, scored epic unridden surf off the Indies Trader in the Caribbean, and taught thousands of kids to surf in between.
I learned to run camps from Matt, and I’ll never forget the first one we did in Ocean City, New Jersey. There was a deaf kid in the group, but Matt didn’t know it. Keck was giving his introductory speech on safety, and the deaf kid wasn’t looking at him. “Hey kid, pay attention.” I tried signaling for Matt to cool it, but he didn’t get the message. “Hey kid, over here. Quit staring off into space.” Finally, the boy’s friends piped up, “He’s deaf,” and Keck melted into the sand.
Aside from many memorable shenanigans with Matt, my work experience with Quik was utterly forgettable. The bloated marketing department was filled with guys who carried the task of “making Quik seem cool” into every facet of their being. I was a round peg doing everything in my power to avoid being squeezed into a mountain-and-wave-shaped hole.
All I wanted was to keep surfing and avoid getting a “real” job. Somehow, I held on to the position from 1994-2006, through a one-year stint as a teacher, two years as a full-time editor for Swell.com, another year writing Kelly’s book, and finally as a full-time Quik employee with benefits and stock options, even a company car for a time.
Handing out stickers was hardly my mission in life, but it paid a helluva lot of bills.
In the end, after more than 20 years with the company, during which (despite my inability to take the job seriously) I’d say I was worth what they paid me, the money tree finally ceased yielding fruit. They said I could stay to run surf camps. My golden parachute was the privilege to continue promoting the mountain and wave, only doing it for free. I respectfully (cough, cough) declined. Peeling those stickers off the nose of my boards, while bills were stacking in my mailbox, was strangely liberating.
Even if I’d been a good company man, best case scenario I might’ve held out a few more years. Once the economy tanked, they canned even their most corporate of yes men. It feels good to have gotten out with at least a shred of my soul intact.
What kills me is something I heard from one of the marketing gurus after I surfed to the finals of the ECSC pro division in my mid-thirties, eliminating a few young Quik athletes along the way. Rather than being stoked for me, he reprimanded me. “Come on, dude,” he said, “you’re not supposed to beat your teamriders.” I was never very good at faking it.