Earlier this week a young man drowned several blocks away from where we’re staying. We were told this by a beach patrol guy in a beach cruiser who pulled up and blew a whistle as my brother and I as were beginning to wade into the water. He advised against swimming as there were riptides, which is what caused the unfortunate bather’s death. Apparently—according to the news report we saw later—the victim, 19 years old, couldn’t swim. Riptides can be deadly but I don’t fear for my life when going in the ocean here, where I’ve been going in since I was in the single digits. We chose not to get in, so as not to be flaunting our indifference to this well-meaning advice. But think of it: how often do you keep right on driving past the evidence of an automotive fatality on the same road you’re on. Driving kills way more than riptides do. Going in the ocean without being able to swim is a bit like driving when you aren’t sure how to drive.
Both things—driving without knowing how to drive and being carried away by ocean tides—happen in dreams, as things one fears. The fact that we stood there sort of abashed—I mean, we deliberately go in swimming after 5:30 when the bothersome lifeguards leave the beach—put today's song into my mind. “A riptide is raging / And the lifeguard’s away / But the ocean doesn’t want me today.” I’m not really sure I wanted the ocean that day. The wind was relentless and, even apart from riptides, there was a strong undertow. And beach fishermen—anglers—were fishing where we like to go in. Knowing where to go in matters. Having survived the ocean in my teens, twenties, thirties and forties, I don’t really think it’s going to get me in my fifties. Though I suppose it could. Waits’ song, from his masterful album Bone Machine (1992), sketches what is, to my mind, the only way to approach the possibility of death by drowning.
“I’d love to go drowning / And to stay and to stay.” There is something mighty blissful about going into the ocean and letting it take you. There’s the feeling of a certain kind of fated will. Its power as a natural phenomenon. The song is a morbid little sketch of someone contemplating a very intimate relation with the ocean. It’s the place where “mischievous braingels”—brain-forged angels, I suppose, sort of like mermaids—beckon him into the surf, to “open my head and let out all my time.” Waits is the master of a certain oddball poetics that lets him create characters by means of phrases. The guy speaking this song is a little twisted, a little schizo perhaps. And that’s the point. He’s listening for the “voice” that will say it’s OK to go in and not come out again. But the ocean doesn’t want him today.
“All they will find is my beer and my shirt.” Great bit there, as I’m one who, when in the water, keeps looking back at the stuff I left on land—usually just a towel bag, occasionally a folding chair—because I never venture out of its sight, as it were (a remnant from the days when we were kids and my mom sat there as the figure we steered by, keeping within swimming distance of “home”).
I’ve been in riptides, minor ones it seemed to me, from time to time. It’s not pleasant and makes you at once aware of how much latent power there is all around you in the ocean. It buoys you, the water does, but only so far, and only so long. And when you go out of your depth and the beach looks far off, you suddenly realize how immense it is, as if there’s no end to it. But, well, if it doesn’t want you, then I guess you’re free to go.
I’ll be back tomorrow to play.