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Raising 'Cane

The Rockaways surfing set gives Dennis a hero's welcome.

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Dick, who drinks at one of the bars on Beach 116th Street in the Rockaways -- the Queens beach celebrated by the Ramones as "not hard to reach" -- scrunches up his crow's feet and professes no fear of Hurricane Dennis. "We got protection here," he explains, alluding to the X of masking tape on a second-story window. The tape is left over from 1991's Hurricane Bob. Or maybe it dates back to Hurricane Gloria in 1985. In that case, Dick says, "someone ought to wash that window."

Waiting to be blown away is an end-of-summer ritual out here in the southernmost reaches of Queens. On the last day of August, however, it seems as if the Rock will survive yet again: The National Hurricane Center is predicting only an 8 percent chance of New York landfall for Dennis. "Eight percent?" a teenager strolling past the charmingly chic-challenged Rockaway Park Hotel asks scornfully. And that isn't the only thing that doesn't impress her about Dennis: "How come they never name hurricanes Latifah?"

Such nomenclature issues matter little to the surf boys and girls out behind the C-Town Plaza by the Beach 86th Street jetty. 'Cane time is their time, and today their boards are waxed and ready. Dennis may be dawdling out in the Atlantic, deciding whether to flatten North Carolina, but he's kicking up crests all the way to Maine. Throughout the five boroughs, the call is going out: The Rockaways are rocking. Never mind what exotic places those low-flying planes from Kennedy are coming in from -- when the barometric pressure drops and the ocean churns, the outside world falls away and nothing matters but the swell. "This isn't California -- you catch it while you can," says Bert Erml, a strapping 23-year-old with a Fu Manchu. Bert, once of Prague, now of 108th Street in Forest Hills, rode the Q53 red-line Triboro bus to the Rock, where he spent the night sleeping under the boardwalk with only his pale-yellow fiberglass board and towel as a windbreak. "It was freaking freezing," Bert reports -- but what choice was there? High tide hit at six in the morning. "And the wind was fresh," he rhapsodizes.

With the storm heaving waves as high as six and seven feet, swimmers are banned from the water, but the 25 or so surfers are stoked. Bert, who earns a living as a bike messenger in Manhattan, confides that he likes speed. This makes his mom, who learned to be careful in the former Czechoslovakia and is at the beach to watch her son surf, nervous. She worries that Bert's Trek 7000 messenger bike has "no brakes," and also wonders if Bert should wear a wet suit while surfing. The water is cold, and the other surfers are wearing theirs. Bert rolls his eyes. Wet suits "confine me," he says. "In November, I'll wear a wet suit." Paddling out to sea on his board, he shouts over his shoulder, "You don't wear a wet suit on the last day of summer!"


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