Friday, August 18, 2006

The New Yorker Covers the Clark Foam Fiasco

If you're into surfing or the surfboard business and don't subscribe to The New Yorker, go to your local newstand now and pick up a copy of the August 21, 2006 issue. You've got the right issue if you see "Surf's down! William Finnegan on the Howard Hughes of boards" on the promo flap. "The Howard Hughes of boards" refers to Gordon "Grubby" Clark, the owner of Clark Foam—the world's largest supplier of rigid polyurethane foam cores (blanks) for surboards. Clark Foam unceremoniously shut its doors on December 5, 2005, which became known as "Black Monday." The closure led to a state of semi-panic among Southern California's custom surfboard makers, who had no immediate source of blanks to continue production. Clark Foam had 80% to 90% of the U.S. blank business for custom-shaped surfboards. William Finnegan, the best-selling author of Cold New World: Growing Up in Harder Country and A Complicated War: The Harrowing of Mozambique, co-author with Matt Warshaw of The Encyclopedia of Surfing, world-roaming surfer, and staff writer for The New Yorker delivers an eloquent, feature-length analysis of Clark Foam and the surfboard industry in the magazine's August 21, 2006 issue. Unfortunately, the six-page article is only available in print or from LexisNexis, but it might appear in The New Yorker's digital archives after an appropriate hiatus. Your local public library will have a copy or you can obtain a back issue for US$9.00.

As if making amends for the digital oversight, the magazine offers archive links to a two-part article about the San Francisco surfboard scene that Finnegan wrote in 1999: "Playing Doc's Games: Part I and Part II." "Doc" refers to Mark Renneker, M.D. (a.k.a., "Doc Hazard" because of his near-sightedness), probably the most famous of the Ocean Beach surfers. I first learned about Dr. Renneker's devotion to cancer education and screening when he was the principal investigator of a demonstration project at the West Oakland Heath Center.

Note: If you believe "San Francisco surfboard scene" is a typo, check out this photo by Q. T. Leong.

Finnegan received a B.A. from the University of California at Santa Cruz and an M.F.A. from the University of Montana. Cold New World received the New York Times Notable Book of the Year award, the Los Angeles Times Best Nonfiction of 1998 selection, and was one of the Voice Literary Supplement's Twenty-five Favorite Books of 1998. Finnegan was the Sidney Harman Writer-in-Residence (Fall 2004) at the Baruch College, City University of New York. His writing won the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism from Hunter College (2002), a Citation for Excellence from the Overseas Press Club (2000), and the Sidney Hillman Award for Magazine Reporting (1998).

In addition to the books mentioned earlier Finnegan is the co-author with Philip Gourevitch of Crossing the Line: A Year in the Land of Apartheid and author of Dateline Soweto: Travels with Black South African Reporters". He's also one of the authors featured in Robert S. Boynton's New Journalism compilation. According to his bio from the New Journalism site, "Finnegan is currently working on a surfing-themed memoir about male friendship."

Photo courtesy of Baruch College.

Note: If you wonder why this dramatically off-topic post is here, I was in the polyurethane foam chemicals and surfboard business in the late 1950s through the early 1970s. In his fax announcing the closure of Clark Foam, Grubby Clark credited me, Chuck Foss (my company's distributor to the Southern California surfboard industry), and Harold Walker as having "pioneered the first successful blank business selling blanks directly to surfboard builders." The full story is here.

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