New York City is best experienced by night, in the back of a taxi, moderately drunk if possible. As the driver flouts the speed limit, the lights of the metropolis bleed together into a rushing current that sweeps through deserted streets. I was enjoying just such a late night ride, zooming over the Manhattan Bridge around midnight on Tuesday, November 2nd, 2010 (Election Day), gazing over the East River at downtown Manhattan when my editor called, saying he had some bad news.
I was sure he was going to tell me that Slater had dropped out of the Rip Curl Pro Search for God-knows-what reason. I had just booked my ticket that morning to report on the King’s historic conquest, and if he wasn’t going to be there, I was in for a long, hot week. I wasn’t the only one, either. Most of the surf industry’s money movers had descended upon the town of Aguadilla in Northwest Puerto Rico for the same reason. Short of Slater’s unexpected emigration, I wondered what might prompt such an ominous call.
“Remember how Andy Irons had to withdraw from the event because he was sick?”
“Yea, get to the point.”
“Well…he died today.”
“Jesus. What happened?”
The question stayed with me for the next 20 hours, in another taxi, on two planes, a layover in Atlanta, and finally, a two-hour drive across the North Coast of this funny little island full of rabid nationalists who love speaking English. It never left.
In other parts of Latin America, they call Puerto Rico America’s Only Colony, or the Fifty-First State. One of those is a slight; the other is a compliment. See if you can guess which is which. Ever since the US kicked the Spanish out in 1898 and made Puerto Rico a center of American influence in Latin America, the island has been a divisive force. It’s been responsible for some very good things and some very bad things. Whichever side you fall on, Puerto Rico feels like a mini-USA en español – from the Skippy Peanut Butter in the super market to the Church’s Chicken at the strip malls. Even the Puerto Ricans consider themselves Puerto Rican American, which is ironic because most Americans consider them Puerto Rican Puerto Ricans – or Mexicans.
When I arrived Wednesday night, all was quiet. The competition was on hold and all the pros were at an impromptu wake for Irons. But as I lay in bed with mosquitoes buzzing past my ears in the sweaty darkness, my mind swam with dark thoughts of Dengue fever, rattling prescription bottles, Miami hospitals, and Texas hotel rooms. Meanwhile, the pros drank to honor a life, to remember a friend, and hopefully, to make some sort of peace with a tragedy that didn’t make much sense. But the show must go on; the king must be crowned.
I spent most of the next day in the Aguadilla Marriot, devouring a free breakfast buffet, gobbling up the Wi-Fi, and generally basking in the air conditioning, which kept the entire compound at a comfy 45 degrees Fahrenheit. Perfect for fat Midwesterners, but downright criminal for athletes with zero to one percent body fat. The European guys were wearing scarves inside. The Aussies had socks on with their flip-flops. Rip Curl does plenty of searching, but they don’t rough it.