Just a mile east of the Queens County line and less than an hour down the L.I.E. from Manhattan is Long Beach: a surf community of sorts, albeit one overwhelmed by high-rises and the constant roar of JFK air traffic. The ocean at the end of Laurelton Boulevard resembles Lake Erie more than the Atlantic that once served up the Perfect Storm.
“Pretty weak out there,” says Balaram Stack. “But we’re supposed to be getting a little wave tomorrow.”
Fifteen-year-old Balaram Stack is poised to be the single greatest surfer ever to come out of the tri-state area. A couple dozen trophies grace his mantelpiece, at least six sponsors have their hooks in him, and his quintessential surfer-boy face appears, larger than life, in Quiksilver’s flagship Times Square store.
As far as surfing goes, New York is about as far from the epicenter as one can get. It’s torturously inconsistent in summer, dangerously cold in winter, and void of any kind of high-caliber wave energy. But in the insular world of surfing, Stack’s a hero. And considering there hasn’t been a New York champ since the seventies, and that urban surfers get no respect in the beach-centric surf culture, it’s no wonder he’s become a local favorite—he’s the city surfer’s chance to prove the boys from California wrong.
Apart from the dream wave airbrushed on the brick façade, there’s very little to distinguish Long Beach’s Unsound Surf Shop from the outlet stores, Dunkin’ Donuts, and pizza joints that surround it. But inside, it’s Southern California. On a waveless day in August, a gaggle of sun-kissed teenagers in low-slung shorts and baseball caps gather around a TV set and stare unblinkingly as a sprightly Hawaiian on a red board goes up-down, up-down, up-down, across a perfect wave on a remote Indonesian break. It’s “Young Guns 2”—one of the many new videos that feature up-to-the-minute high-performance surfing footage. There’s no plot, just wave after wave of big moves and deep tubes cut to whiny punk rock. And it’s precisely this type of video that’s triggered a kind of globalization within the surf culture. The same way yak-riding Tibetans quote Tupac, young surfers from uncharted locales ape world champions like Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, and C.J. Hobgood. Their own champion, Balaram, is due back from the Lost Pro Junior tournament in Huntington Beach any second now.
Fifteen minutes earlier, the Unsound posse grabbed a little towhead with a pink nose, dragged him out to the parking lot, taped his hands and feet together, covered his eyes with surf stickers, tied him to a board rack, and left him to bake in the 95-degree sun. It’s less a specific cruelty than a surf-shop hazing ritual. Anything to while away the midsummer flatness.
Stack enters the shop in shorts and T-shirt and with skateboard under arm. He’s just returned from Huntington Beach.
“How’d it go?” asks one of the kids.
“Not good. Lost by point-one in the round of 96.”
The kids express condolences. They’re visibly bummed.
“This next wave’s sick,” says Stack in reference to the video, a way to deflect attention.
One thing you learn real quick about Stack is that he’s not comfortable talking about himself. He’ll morph into Superman the moment he hits the water, but on land he’s a sheepish Clark Kent. Part of it’s being 15, part of it’s adhering to the Surfer’s Code, which champions actions over words. It’s easy to take him for just another local skate rat. His buddies call him “Ball-sac” and rib him constantly. Had he arrived twenty minutes earlier, it might well have been him tied to that board rack. Unsound co-owner Mike Nelson has been watching Stack since the boy was 10, and says that Stack is almost oblivious to his own talent.
“He’ll go up against guys he sees in the videos with this awe, thinking they’re at a higher level than he is. But what he doesn’t realize is he’s one of ’em. And a lot of the time, he’s even better than they are.”
After staring at the video for a few minutes, Stack takes his skateboard and escapes to the parking lot in order to ride through a tunnel of overgrown foliage. There’s something unmistakably surflike in the way he bends his knees, cocks his arms as if drawing bow and arrow, and tickles the leaves with his fingertips. He may be riding a skateboard through a row of bushes, but in his mind, he’s getting tubed at Pipeline, G-Land, Cloudbreak. Somewhere far from Long Island.