JUSTIN HOCKING is a quiet person, but his influence buzzes through Portland's literary culture—a sound so steady and constant you can almost forget you're hearing it, like how the roar of the ocean becomes background noise after a few days at the beach.
In nearly eight years as executive director of the Independent Publishing Resource Center, Hocking shepherded the IPRC through a massive expansion from their cramped old digs on SW Ash to their current space in Southeast. He co-created the IPRC's certificate program in independent publishing, which offers a graduate-level education for a fraction of the price of grad school. And, most crucially, he's overseen the creation of thousands and thousands of pages: Zines have been stapled, cards letterpressed, books designed and printed and sent off into the world.
Now it's Hocking's turn: His new memoir The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is about how surfing kept him sane when he moved from the west to New York City; it's also about Moby-Dick, skateboarding, friendship, loneliness, girls. (Fittingly, the book's launch party offers attendees a chance to make their own letterpress print featuring art and writing from the book.) The Mercury is proud to present an exclusive excerpt from The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld, which is available now from Graywolf Press.—Editors
There is a wisdom that is woe; but there is a woe that is madness. And there is a Catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the blackest gorges, and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces.
~ Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
The situation you find yourself in: late twenties, low-paying job at the local skateshop, six years into a college education, no career prospects, and the only thing you feel you can do with any competence or enthusiasm is roll around on a piece of wood with wheels.
They say you've learned a foreign language when you dream in that language. You dream in skateboarding. In your dreams, you roll through indoor shopping malls and ollie entire escalators.
When you aren't skating you pretend your fingers are two little legs—you fingerskate on everything, you do finger Smith-grinds on the edge of the dinner table at the fancy Italian place your girlfriend likes. You worry that the food's too expensive, although you always seem to scrounge up enough money for new skate shoes every month or two.
On the ride home Nicole wants to discuss the future of your relationship. It's raining as you drive, trees dumping leaves in messy piles. She says the problem is that the two of you see different versions of the future. She wants marriage and kids; she's not sure what it is you want. As she talks you look out the window for skate spots, even though the streets are all washed up with rainwater. You look for banks, slick marble ledges, handrails, old motels that might have empty pools. You notice yourself doing this and it isn't that you don't care about the person sitting next to you. She looks out the window and sees houses, yards, families, stasis. You're seeking something entirely different: the possibility of motion.
You hang out with a 17-year-old kid nicknamed Bronco because he used to ride junior rodeo. One day during your skateshop shift he writes the word "scrotum" on the TV screen with black Magic Marker. You put up with these minor annoyances and the fact that he's 10 years younger because he's one of the few people you know who's still down to skate at a moment's notice. He ditches high school whenever you call.
You and Bronco skate through the streets at night. You pay particular attention to the different textures of the roads and sidewalks as you roll: the cracks, rows of brick, tile, asphalt, each with its own vibrational frequency. Sometimes if you skate enough, your mind becomes less like a grease fire and more like a candle flame.
One day you and Bronco skate an empty pool nicknamed Satan's Armpit. You take a bone-crunching slam and your hip turns purple and black with yellow marbling, like a murky mud puddle with a gasoline rainbow. You can't afford a visit to the doctor, where you know you'll pay $200 to have some square tell you to ice it. All you can do is buy a pair of used crutches at the thrift store.
While you're hurt you sit around the house reading Thrasher, complaining to Nicole, and having imaginary conversations with an amorphous middle-aged businessman, a guy with two kids and a mortgage and a high-paying career in the tech industry.
"You're still skateboarding?" he asks, straightening his tie. "You're almost 30. Why don't you do something with your life?"
"Let me ask you something," you say.
"Shoot," he says.
"Do you own a car?"
"Of course. An Explorer and a BMW."
"If you think about it," you say, "both cars and skateboards have four wheels and two axles. Both roll forward and backward. They're both modes of transportation invented in America. Except that your mode of transportation has a combustion engine that spews thousands of pounds of pollutants, making the whole planet hotter and dirtier and shittier. And the fact that everyone drives your chosen mode of transportation is the reason a bunch of assholes from Texas struck it rich and bought their way into the White House so they can colonize the Middle East and secure our oil interests. So yeah," you say, "I still skateboard."
He looks at you for a moment, clearly unimpressed. "Let me get this straight," he says, "you don't own a car?"
You say no, though it's a bald-faced lie; you've owned plenty of cars, including your current pickup, which gets bad gas mileage and needs $500 in muffler and brake work. And you've actually had this thought while skateboarding on balmy days in the dead of a Colorado winter: Maybe global warming isn't so bad after all.
You and Nicole break up. It starts in the furniture store, where she wants to purchase a sofa. After a decade this is what puts you over the edge: a $1,900 neo-Victorian couch. You can't deny that skateboarding has something to do with it. Designer furniture and a wife and kids don't compute in your head; skateboarding is the only equation you've ever been able to decipher.
Nicole packs up and moves out, takes all the silverware but leaves the empty tray. This image sticks in your mind: an empty container, the outlines of knives and spoons and forks. You are the shape of your old self, stripped of all silver. You hang black-and-white skate photos and an old Consolidated deck with Neil Blender graphics on the wall in your bedroom; you do this the very night she leaves. You drape a strand of Christmas lights above the window and this is all you have to keep you going: images of your friends skateboarding and a few tiny points of light.
The friends you used to skateboard with every day now have to make babysitting arrangements a week in advance just to meet you at the skatepark on a Sunday afternoon. You decide to skate by yourself but it starts snowing on the way to the park and it doesn't stop for a week.
You own a T-shirt that says "Skateboarding Saved My Life," and another that says "Skateboarding Ruined My Life." You wear them on different days, depending on your mood.
In the middle of a bleak January, Bronco finds you sleeping on your living room floor. He says a trip down south is what you need. Two days later you're driving through a blizzard, snow swirling on the road like ashes. It warms up by the time you hit New Mexico and you skate a few dinky parks filled with prepubescent kids on Rollerblades who keep asking Bronco, "Are you sponsored? Are you sponsored?" You feel ridiculous, a grown man hanging out with a bunch of kids. You decide not to skate—you sit in the car, trying not to think about how immature it was to let go of a beautiful, intelligent woman for this.
When Bronco drives, you read a dog-eared copy of Moby-Dick, the story of an old man who held on to something so long that his whole ship sank.
Then: You drive over a mountain pass. On the summit there's a sign that says, "Elevation 9,000 Feet." Bronco tells you to pull over. He gets out of the car—you're not sure what he's doing. He grabs his skateboard and bombs the hill, like it's the most natural thing in the world. You watch as he leans into a sharp corner and almost gets hit by an oncoming truck. You drive a half mile down and pick him up. His elbows are dripping blood; he is breathing hard and smiling. He gets back in and the whole truck fills up with energy, like invisible steam. You hope that maybe he is alive enough for both of you.
In Phoenix you sleep on your friend Brian's living room floor. Tall oleander bushes, palm trees, and sandstone hills surround his house. The evening sky is bold blue. You sit on the porch drinking your post-breakup cocktails: AriZona Rx Stress Iced Tea mixed with crushed-up kava kava supplements. You hope you can drink enough to fall asleep and not wake up in the middle of the night gripped with anxiety, regret.
You speed across white Phoenix freeways listening to Hot Snakes, Minor Threat, Modest Mouse. You zip past 20-foot saguaro cacti and green glass skyscrapers reflecting hazy sunlight. You hang your arm out the window and feel warmth on your hand; you're almost to a skatepark called Paradise Valley; you have that loose buzzing feeling you only get en route to skate something epic with your friends.
You eat lunch after skating every day at a hole-in-the-wall Mexican joint called Los Betos. You and Bronco like the bean and cheese burritos so much you consider getting "Los Betos" tattooed on the inside of your biceps.
Bronco has no money and when you offer to buy him dinner at a sit-down restaurant he orders fried ice cream. You explain that fried ice cream is not an entrée but he eats it anyway.
On your last day in Phoenix you and Bronco sneak down an alley lined with one-story ranch houses, past a couple Mexican kids jumping on a trampoline. At first you think the backyard trees are filled with big golden Christmas lights, until you realize they're real-life, honest-to-God lemons. You crawl over a cinder-block wall and find a bone-dry swimming pool behind an abandoned HUD house.
The pool is the shape of a whale, the shallow end like a tail.
You carve over the pool light, your wheels singing across sea-green plaster. For a while there is nothing in your mind but rolling. You are sweating hard for the first time in months. You decide a frontside air is the thing. You try it four times, feet slapping on the cement as you run out.
"Bring it home!" Bronco shouts.
But you sketch out on the landing and flop like a dead fish into the concrete maw, slamming directly on your bad hip.
Here is your latest situation: You are 29 years old and lying in a dirty hole in the ground, eight feet below the surface of the earth. You cannot move your right leg. Your palms feel like they've been stung by a whole hive of pissed-off wasps, and the Arizona sun feels hot enough to burn a hole through your black T-shirt. You're praying you won't have to go to the hospital because you have 50 bucks to your name and now that you're living alone you have no idea how to pay next month's rent. According to the imaginary bureaucrats in your head, you're way too old to be skateboarding, though you're still thinking maybe you can get up and try the frontside air one more time before the pain really sets in. But your already-arthritic hip hurts so bad that you want to just die right there in the deep end, to be sucked down the drain and swallowed into the sandy ground.
Then Bronco slides down and kneels beside you. "Come on," he says, grinning, "let's get your ass up out of here."
From The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld. Copyright © 2014 by Justin Hocking. Reprinted with the permission of Graywolf Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, graywolfpress.org