This feature is only available to registered users and subscribers
Please log in to continue
It’s Tuesday in August. The summer’s been a rich El Niño but tonight is small, the tide swampy, waves few. Nearly two dozen surfers steep in the creamy waters at Waikiki’s Queens. All around, silhouettes hunch on longboards. They stretch the length of Canoes and form distant packs at Publics, Pops, Threes, and Fours.
With no trade winds, the air stays hot and thick. Tourists perch on hotel balconies. They slide in tired flows up and down Kalakaua Avenue. As the sun sets, they ramble out onto the cooling sand for photos.
Throughout Waikiki, ambient noise fills the air. Hawaiian music echoes off the towers. Shrieks of laughter ring out from the keiki at Baby Queens. At twilight, the waterfront torches are lit, the Koolau mountains blacken, and Town begins to glow.
Toots, also known as Arthur Anchinges, has his back to it all. The longtime resident of Waikiki by way of the Philippines—middle aged, shirtless in white Birdwells, tattooed in the manic style of a bathroom stall—stands on a tremendous white log that glows in the pink dusk light. Toots is well beyond the lineup, some 30 yards farther than another guy who’s 30 yards farther. As he scans for waves, his board rocks beneath his feet. A single bump passes through but Toots holds steady, vibing both still and restless, solemn and impatient. In Waikiki, humanity is nearly inescapable. It lives and breathes around you. But Toots has found a place apart.
In the Queens lineup, the wave that he lets go begins to form. A half-dozen locals have intuited its path and placed themselves near its future peak, but tonight there’s no real jockeying. Jockeying would belie confusion or some other lineup bullshit. For the after-work crew, it’s all copacetic.
A woman, tattooed in the spotty aesthetic of Toots himself, is where the wave will be. She makes no sudden moves. This being Queens, and Queens being a well-studied and ritualized surf spot, not one single person misreads her stillness for passivity or opportunity. The wave is hers. The others make way with as little margin as possible, signaling their own place within the Queens spiral. She spins her board casually. Two strokes and she cross-steps down the line.
With nothing out back, the lineup gets chatty. People ask after friends and family. Everyone is comfortable, except those few tourists who bob silently in their own minds. On smaller Town days the ocean is flush with big and beautiful, often strange and ancient longboards. During especially long lulls, people slide off their surfboards and inspect each other’s crafts. Knowing your neighbor is knowing what they’re riding. For those who want it, surfing in Town becomes a ritual act of community. Given time, the ocean is where your people are.
It’s during this sort of lull when white flashes on the horizon. Way out, Toots swings his massive board—featherlike and impossibly fast, faster than massive boards ought to swing—toward the beach. Behind him is something subtle, but Toots has read it and Toots would know. Queens surfers are usually caught a little off guard. They spasm like gators in a swamp, scurrying east and west. But as Toots descends he pulls water to match the wave’s speed, then glides for several long beats before hopping to a deep crouch. It sounds idiotic, but his is a real classic sort of crouch. His feet are parallel and pointing forward, arms extended as he prepares to head-dip the first section, everything held just so. Only in surfing can a crouch be so expressive.
The wave begins to stand but Toots stays low. He holds the crouch with a look that’s not steely or blissful, but intense. His cheeks draw air. His eyes open wide. Backlit by the sun, he slides through the lineup as a dark form, raw and featureless, a body made abstract in the night. Toots does not cross-step. He does not stomp the tail or cut back. He holds the crouch, shifting his weight in subtle ways, clinging to the pocket, eschewing all that he could for something purer.
Part of what makes Toots’ surfing compelling is that it feels simpler in the details. He does not, even on small waves, surf with dainty preciousness. He moves cat-like and styles. He hangs heels, thrusts his hips forward, or sits on the nose with legs extended. He does whatever he wants without looking frenetic or neurotically precise. A surfer’s style can be best witnessed in their approach to precarity. Good surfing takes a hairy situation, or creates a hairy situation, and handles it with a sort of kinetic beauty. Even in his playful or sketchy moments, Toots surfs with a maturity that feels appropriate to him and to Waikiki.
He belongs on big boards, that much is clear. He also seems to belong at Queens especially—here in the birthplace, the oldest of surf places—where his classic surfing feels dense with meaning. On that great big glider, as the ocean blackens and crowds fade, his wave riding is a dance that projects through the eras. His surfing has the ability to transport the observer. Seen through a grainier lens, he no doubt could be a Waikiki beachboy from the 1930s. For Toots and Queens and Waikiki, time is not a perfect circle. But tonight it feels that way.
With darkness goes the lineup. Suddenly, the chatter that floats across Waikiki’s breaks is no more. Music and bass thump gently from far-off restaurants to where Toots catches every wave that he can. With no competitors he is rapacious and tireless. He knee-paddles out and takes whatever comes to him. He catches and catches until, eventually, he too is no more. The water is black and empty of people, but filled with Town’s light. With his log over his shoulder, Toots walks up the beach through the sticky air. He showers near the Duke statue before walking off into the Waikiki night.
Surf culture has always had its muses. Every generation summons those individuals who embody what surfing is, has been, or could be.
When surfing imagines itself as a “tribe” or subculture, these individuals serve distinct purposes. They teach initiates what it means to be a surfer. They show the keiki (and surfers broadly) who their people are. As media entities, they manifest the shared language of surfing’s aesthetics. Ultimately, these standouts are the culture’s ideology distilled. Through our collective imagination, they act as mirrors reflecting surf culture to itself.
Over the past few years, Toots has been summoned. To most, he comes as a photograph—in magazines or on social media—seen longboarding, dark and tattooed, fit and intense, a masculine contrast to the balletic, waifish forms that have recently defined the old-school, longboard aesthetic. Why Toots has attracted the photogs and magazines, he’s not entirely sure and not particularly interested. He seems to understand, or know intuitively, that an interest in one’s own attention—and to value or ever come to need this sort of attention—is not a thing to have or do.
And yet, Toots is an undeniable subject. His classic surfing, the particular character of his DIY tattoos, that he wears old Birdwells iconic to Californian longboarding, his being Filipino, his obscurity to those beyond the Waikiki breaks he surfs almost exclusively, that he exists to most as an image without history or context—this all makes for fertile ground in which to cultivate an evocative surf story.
Knowing nothing of Toots, it’s possible to project meaning onto him. He is what you’d imagine to find in Town. He is what a Waikiki stylemaster would look like. His sun-soaked body, his demeanor, his very presence and command is of a place and time and people, which is to say it feels like he belongs.
Between Waikiki’s malls and towers lie pockets of houses and low-rise walk-ups from an earlier era. Toots lives on the upper floor of one of these two-story holdouts. The apartment is single-wall construction, plantation style, board and batten above a concrete masonry base. Thin walls separate rooms from each other, as well as the writhing streets of Waikiki below.
The apartment is clean and well furnished. Everything has its place. A spectrum of books, from The Tao Te Ching to New Atheism to Ayn Rand to commercial best sellers, fill various shelves throughout the apartment. Albums and surfboards live in nooks and bookcases, or lean against walls. The interior glows with incandescent light. Toots’ girlfriend has hung art of waves and surfboards and beach scenes from the 60s longboard era.
Toots gestures at an L-shaped couch and offers a beer with a smile. Some sort of relaxed acoustic music plays softly from speakers. He says they just moved in a week ago. He says changing apartments marks the end of an era and the beginning of another.
A dryer hums gently from outside. A car rolls through the gravel driveway. Toots is not big, but he’s solid. When he goes to grab beers his posture is perfect, stride light and soundless. He has gray-flecked hair which stands, by ways unknown, quite high off his forehead. When he speaks he leans forward. His manner is soft-spoken, not in a timid or passive way, but like he’s sharing a secret and doesn’t want to be overheard. At the same time, he is alert in an indefatigable way. It’s hard to imagine him ever zoned out.
He talks about coming to Oahu from the Philippines. In the early 90s, a 23-year-old Toots and his then-wife, who was pregnant, had planned on San Diego. But they never made it. After stopping on Oahu and bouncing around Town, they settled in Waikiki and raised their daughter. He found work where many young transplants do, washing dishes in a Waikiki restaurant and later as a line cook. English was never an issue. Part of Filipino independence involves lasting American influence. This includes military bases, access to natural resources for US business interests, as well as English-language schools. Toots sums it up as hundreds of years of Spanish colonialism, then American after that. But he doesn’t dwell. He talks about growing up in the Philippines and how he learned to stay away from the ocean. He’d never surfed, had never even considered surfing, before coming to Oahu. It was not a thing to do.
Waikiki came as a revelation. The heart of Town—where generations of Hawaii’s keiki learn to play, where tourists and locals, settlers and Hawaiians make a ritual of these waters—was the special world he came to inhabit. All places have their unique ways of being and belonging. In Waikiki, surfing could not be avoided.
But belonging in Hawaii is no simple task. In the early days, Toots would often get in trouble. The hierarchy that governs surf lineups, and lineups in Town specifically, had yet to make itself clear. And while he’d grown up in a Philippines that is deeply structured by its own colonial past, he’d not been raised into Hawaii’s particular situation.
Toots recalls some firsthand teachings from an array of legends and standouts who long frequented Waikiki’s breaks. Rabbit Kekai, Ben Aipa, Lance Hookano. He rattles off a half-dozen people who taught him the way (with varying degrees of nuance and kindness). He speaks wistfully of this time, as one might of a loose summer childhood. Waikiki was different, he says. The sand was different. The waves were different. The old faces are gone now, or at least rarely seen. It feels like a different time.
In Toots’ list of teachers he, very notably, only mentions Hawaiians. This is not unusual, but it is remarkable and important to him. Town’s lineups, from Diamond Head to the breaks fronting Ala Moana Beach Park, have long been expat scenes. The foreigner is a steady presence with which the native Hawaiian has long negotiated. Conversely, foreignness is a fact the settler surfer, born in Hawaii or immigrated, is made to reconcile. For the immigrant, belonging to a lineup can go quite a ways to belonging—or at least feeling a sense of belonging—to Hawaii.
That Toots is likely mistaken for a Hawaiian, at least among the hordes of tourists who surf Canoes and Queens, is not a topic that arises. But, like anyone who learns to surf in Hawaii, he stresses the tenets of Hawaiian surf conduct: respect, humility, and a broad willingness to learn from the native people. Toots speaks reverentially of the old days, and those friendships that a life spent in Waikiki entails.
Getting consistent waves in Town can be challenging. Toots recounts a strategy he learned from Rabbit. When the lineup condenses into gridlock, he was told to sit way outside and let everything go. Don’t paddle. Don’t flinch for anything. Sit still and let it all pass. Let so many waves pass that it spooks the lineup. Create a presence through absence. Then take the wave you want.
Before it became a Cheeseburger in Paradise, one of Toots’ first jobs was at a sushi restaurant. From the dining area he could see across Kalakaua Avenue to Graveyards, Queens, and Canoes. During shifts he’d study the ocean, Queens in particular. In the early days, a young Toots succumbed to obsession. He talks about marathon sessions, paddling from Publics to Bowls and back, sometimes multiple times, catching waves at every break along the way. He’d plan to get out, but would not get out. Eventually the sun would set, or some evening obligation would force him in. On days off he’d surf quite literally all day, coming in briefly to stave off dehydration at the showers. It’s unclear whether Toots’ obsession ever sunk into the realm of addiction, which seems to involve a degree of unhealthiness for the addict and their relationships. He never puts it that way.
In any case, surfing came to structure his life. Learning through his twenties, with – out the freedom of childhood, forced the issue. For the adult learner, surf fanaticism is often defined by a sense of lost time. The desire to progress—to develop style and competency, and to belong to a break and lineup—competes with the responsibilities of adulthood. That Toots gelled with classic longboarding is no accident. He is a thoughtful and purposeful thinker. With a big enough board, Waikiki is surfable year-round. He’s studied the masters on film and at Queens. No place is more studied than these waters.
Nearing three decades later, Toots still froths to surf and plans trips regularly. He says there have only been brief periods of stagnation, where riding the same board or the same wave strikes him as repetitive. Admitting even the slightest degree of boredom is the only lapse in his enthusiasm all evening.
Nowadays, Toots works as a custodian at Kaimuki Middle School. It’s a short bike ride past the Ala Wai Canal and up the hill. The job is steady from 6:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., which allows him to surf until dark. The routine is predictable, which is what matters. Big decisions, he says, are determined by whether they’ll complicate his life generally, and ability to surf specifically.
His girlfriend, who’s out walking the dog, is a steady frother too. That they both understand each other’s need to surf is no doubt fundamental. He squints his eyes suspiciously and says she’s getting good, a little too good, and laughs.
Self-dependence, though, is his inescapable refrain. Our world is hellbent on trapping us in joyless jobs and depressing debt, mindlessly chasing carrots into thick and suffocating shit. Toots’ advice is to proceed with extreme vigilance. Guard against that which presents itself as normal and necessary. Do not take any trappings for granted. As such, Toots does not own a car. It has not been necessary. He is also wary of new commitments, especially those tied to financial obligation. People want to pay him to do ads and market clothes, but he’s mostly resisted. Interviews and write-ups seem weird and off-putting, but he’s generous enough to accommodate.
As the evening winds down he leans forward from the far side of the couch, extending his hand to reveal a tattoo that reads, “Freedom: To ask nothing. To expect nothing. To depend on nothing.”
It’s a quote from Ayn Rand, whose writing has long spoken to a fanatic strain of self-reliance in American culture. Toots says he rereads her books often. Rand’s words, like his tattoos, serve as reminders that reaffirm and externalize the belief in self-reliant individualism. Toots’ many tattoos are self-inked with a secondhand homemade machine. If he’s to have them, the thinking goes, they ought to be his tattoos. Shaping surfboards, which he’s done for several years, figures similarly. From outside, a dog leash jangles and Toots shifts his weight. Soon we will be pau.
In speaking with him, it’s obvious that Toots’ life is spun with theories and internal logic. His is an introverted and intellectual existence. Things are contemplated. Things are done for reasons that serve purposes. His surfing has come to reflect this inner world. That he styles between low-key, studied reservation and ta-da flamboyance is no contradiction. Like his tattoos that are both loud and personal, he is himself both visible and shy.
People are complex. Everyone must rationalize their existence to make sense of the world and their place within it. The surfer is no different. How does one understand the absurdity of all this time spent in the water? What does Toots make of his strange rise from Town’s rank-and-file obscurity to something a little less so?
Quite suddenly, the culture wants him. It wants to use him, to reproduce him, to take his image and create a story. It wants him to hawk lifestyles and products. It wants to imbue a quiet man with meaning and purpose that’s beyond him.
So much in our world traps and alienates and objectifies. With great effort, Toots has largely avoided a chained existence. Surfing has played a vital role in this. Like all surfers, he remains that rare creature whose pastime submerges him in something real—the ocean, waves, the feeling of raw energy. Through the noise, surfing remains an endeavor wholly his own and his to define. But surfing has also been a way to belong.
In Hawaii, the ocean calls. And in it you find your people and your place. When asked, Toots scoffs at the notion of ever leaving Waikiki. This is home. This is where he belongs. This is the realest place he knows.