Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Superstar

Everyone had an imitation of the Superstar, but most imitations rarely did justice to the genuine article. The Super would greet any member of the beach patrol with his patented “strong” sign - arms outstretched with fists clenched, forearms facing up, elbows locked to the hip, and arms angling slightly from the body. His head would be slightly tilted, and his eyes would be bursting from his head in excitement, and then he’d say your name like he was introducing you to a crowd of people who have been waiting all night for your appearance – “Senior senior guard John Hatch.” (He once introduced me to a woman in Fred’s with a string of seniors followed by guard, followed by superstar triathlete … The woman, in turn, was introduced to me as the most beautiful woman on the island, and the Super was right about that. My rap could only disappoint after such an introduction, and no doubt it did.) Those were the common elements to any imitation, and from there they’d vary according to the dialogue the imitator had chosen to commit to memory. And there was also his distinctive walk, which I can do in a heartbeat but which defies description.

The Superstar, or to his friends, Super, was a man in his early fifties living on the Jersey island town of Stone Harbor. His real name was Dave Shuster, and rumors circulated about how a series of calamitous personal events led to his transformation to the Superstar, but no one could ever verify the stories. What we did know was the Super was an unforgettable character, an unofficial mascot of the beach patrol. He was short, maybe 5’6”, bald on the top, with graying black hair forming the dreaded horseshoe around his head; he had a hairy chest in the days when such was considered virile, and one hopes that he had faded from the scene before men with shaved chests became the fashion. His bar outfit – and there was only one – was a button down polyester patterned shirt, light in color, with a pair of khaki pants and a pair of boat shoes.

Friendship with the Super was strictly hierarchical based upon your years as a lifeguard – you could be in the middle of a conversation with him in Fred’s tavern, having a grand old time, and as soon as a guy with a couple more years spent guarding in Stone Harbor sauntered into the bar, he’d abandon you like a warm drink to go pay his respects, but not before telling you that his close friend, senior senior guard … had just entered the bar, eyes again alight like a kid on Christmas morning. And he knew exactly how long you’d been a guard. For a guy who clearly didn’t have it all going right upstairs, he was a bit of a savant. Once when I was back in Stone Harbor a year or two after I had stopped guarding, I asked the Super what year I began guarding, and he knew it within ten seconds. I had to think longer than that just to know that he was right.

“It’s a psychological thing with the Superstar,” Dave once told me, “I don’t eat shark and shark don’t eat me.” He relished the nickname bestowed upon him by the patrol, and openly referred to himself in the third person as the Superstar. Being eaten by a shark was a real concern for the Super, because his animating passion was swimming from the jetty on 114th street down the one 122nd street, about a half-mile stretch he was granted the privilege of swimming each day on beach patrol hours. He was one of only two who enjoyed any such privilege, the other being the universally respected Mr. Harper, who was sort of the anti-Superstar. At one point in time, Harper was the oldest person to have swum the English Channel, and each day he’d swim the 2.5 miles from 122nd street down to 83rd. He was treated with great respect, and was very amiable – he seemed to exude a Jimmy Stewart like goodness and strength. But poor Mr. Harper was the nemesis of the Super, who begrudged the senior competition as the islands foremost octogenarian swimmer; he probably had no idea who the Superstar was, but one suspected he was at the forefront of the Super’s mind.

The Super didn’t swim freestyle – he swam some version of what he called the “crawl”, which looked like freestyle, only he’d practically turn over on his back whenever he’d take a breath. Somehow the stroke seemed fitting – a normal stroke would have seemed more the eccentricity when it came to the Super. He liked to speak of his unbreakable bond with the beach patrol, which he would demonstrate by interlocking his arms and grabbing each hand to the opposite forearm, and challenging you to pull his arms apart. And sure enough you couldn’t do it; I distinctly remember Chris Nailer in the bar Touche literally lifting the Superstar up by his forearms and then slamming him down, up again and down, over and over, and still the bond remained unbroken.

He was fixture at all lifeguard racing events, where all of his energies would be focused upon providing strategy tips to the entrants to the open swim. These swims would be out to a flag a quarter mile offshore and back to the beach – the standard strategy would take into account the anticipated effects of the current, and so the swimmers would tend to enter the surf as much as 100 yards up the beach from the flag. The Super would have not of that, as he would advise the swimmers to be like Janet Evans and make a b-line for the flag. He’d stand perched at the beach patrol headquarters with binoculars in hand, watching each and every swimmer ignore his advice. And for all but one, he could point to their ignoring his advice as the cause of their loss.

He didn’t lack for a sense of humor, which he would most often reserve for spinning wild tails in response to any questions concerning his personal history. He once told me that he had broken out of prison, where he was serving time for armed robbery, and that he had his prison ID card to prove it. Pressed to produce the evidence, he would take out his wallet, grab an ID, and then flash it for a fraction of second before stowing it away again. He also told me that his routine when he left the bars at night was to go home and study the tidal charts in planning a swim across the inlet (where the ocean meets the bay) from Stone Harbor to the Woods, the next island south. Even Eddie Ifft wouldn’t make that swim, but that’s another story.

We had our fun with him, but there were some on the patrol who genuinely looked out for him. Vizzard once dragged me the Super’s to check in on him after a stretch where no one had seen much of him. He dreaded the winters, when the island would practically evacuate, and he’d be left with the locals who knew him only as Dave and not the Superstar. I would occasionally write to him in the winter, and I think he may have even written back once, but mostly he wouldn’t respond. He’d apologize as soon as he’d see me at the beginning of the summer, an apology that was totally unnecessary. I remember distinctly sending him a postcard from Idaho with a picture of a gigantic potato being hauled on the flatbed of an 18 wheeler, with my message telling him I’m sending him the potato for him to begin carbo-loading for the summer. My reward – when I saw him next he gave me a navy Fred’s Tavern sweatshirt which I wear to this day.

In my last year as a guard, for some reason the Captain of the patrol revoked his privilege, which really took the wind out of his sail. That was his one claim to status in town, a claim that no one else cared about, but it meant a lot to the Super.


Anonymous Michael Yong said...

Dear John,

Thank you so much for writing this great story about the much-loved Superstar. We all have our own fond stories to tell about him and your recollections were to relive. Does anyone know where he is and how he is doing?

Your JG,
Michael Young

12:48 PM  
Blogger Hatcher said...

Mike Young - there is a blast from the past! I was actually talking to Vizzard last week, and he informs me that the Superstar lives off of the island, in some development near Avalon Honda. Apparently the years have been hard on him - Vizz mentioned diabetes and progressive problems with the bottle. Apparently there is a family our there that looks out for him the way we the patrol once did. And you'll always be a Senior Guard in the Super's eyes.

12:52 PM  
Anonymous Michael Young said...

Dear John,

Thanks for the info. My brother, Charlie, told me about your site, he loves reading your stories. He told me there was a story on the Superstar and I couldn't wait to read it. You are a great writer, keep up the good work.


Sr. Sr. Sr. Guard Michael Young

4:18 AM  
Blogger Eddie said...

I dare you to trash my swimming abilities!!!

7:19 AM  
Blogger Hatcher said...


What swimming abilities? I'm tempted to tell the story of your nightmare come true - drifting into the inlet in the midst of a NorEaster with clenching tightly to some adrogynous boy-surfer while Cunius tries to swim you to shore. Only problem you tell it much better.

7:30 AM  
Anonymous Snuffy said...

Nice story Hatch. Came across it and your blog "Googling" SHBP on a slow day at work...

Scarey to think I rowed the boat for Melandro's test and passed him. I guess Duck had some power over me...

1:14 PM  
Blogger David Lloyd said...

I just googled 'The SuperStar' and found this Essay. Nice job Hatch.Well done.

3:23 PM  

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