AN INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN STEINBERG
SoCal, June 2014
Interview by Ken McKnight
It was Hunter S. Thompson who was quoted as saying; “There are those creative people who have the ability to make order out of chaos.” One such innovative, clever, chaos-sorter, wave warden would have to be Jonathan Steinberg, or as he is want to be called, “Steiny.” Many of you might know him simply as, the “Harmless Neighborhood Eccentric!”
Firmly ensconced on the Westside of Santa Cruz, Steiny is as hardcore a waterman as you’ll find anywhere. He has years of experience, solid credentials in the lineup and surfs (mats) daily. He also delights in sitting in his proverbial lawn chair just up the street from the Surf worlds ground zero (known to others as the center of surfing), Santa Cruz’s own Steamer Lane, and takes it all in. It is here that he smilingly watches and studies the chaos as it unfolds daily. And then reports on it.
Besides his solid mat riding skills, family duties, dedicated work schedules, long ocean history and wicked sense of humor, Steiny undeniably has one of the most creative and fun social media internet locations, http://harmlessneighborhoodeccentric.blogspot.com/ , on the web.
This is the forum where he lays out, for all to see, the Santa Cruz surf and mat world like no other has done before or with so much class. This blog is a conveyor belt-like, moving portrait, of our surf lifestyle that you only have to sit back and enjoy with such offerings as, “Does this wetsuit make my butt look big” or “I was a terrible Hippie!”
Oh yeah he also has a huge fin fetish! Oh to be in his fins!
Clever, life-stylish, in the moment, the quintessential mat guy, Jonathan Steinberg, the Harmless Neighborhood Eccentric.
Sit back, pull up your own lawn chair and listen to the conversation we had with Steiny this past spring.
Here and Now is, Steiny
UKMS - Steiny, What’s happening? You live in Santa Cruz right? How have the waves been up your way lately? How often are you in the water?
Steiny - Hello! I live on the Westside of Santa Cruz, not far from the lighthouse. We have had a really generous winter/Spring 2014 for waves, it has been great. I surf as much as a guy with a full time job, a family and community obligations can surf. I think my record is 31 days in a row. This winter I went on a stretch of 18 day straight
UKMS – The West Side is your go to spot. Do you have any problems catching waves there? How does the local crew share the love with a mat rider?
Steiny - The crowds are daunting but I do get my share of waves. The town breaks are super crowded and aggressive but I work the edges and corners of the crowded breaks and have some reliable less crowded spots to enjoy. I have lived in the neighborhood for over 30 years, most of the people who the regulars, are friends or at least friendly. I am part of the rotation in the line-up. If I have an issue with someone in the water it is usually someone new or a visitor. Being happy working the corners helps. I have absolutely no need to be the alpha male, sitting at the peak and hogging the good ones. When you aren’t a problem you aren’t a problem!
UKMS – Obviously you have the ability to ride a bike to go find waves. Must be great with a mat?
Steiny - Yeah, I rarely leave the neighborhood to surf (or do anything really) so I rarely drive to surf. I didn’t own a car for quite a while and it wasn’t much of an impediment to my surf life. When I ride a surfboard I ride my bike to the water with it under my arm. A mat and fins is even easier, just put them in the bike basket.
UKMS – Tell us a little about yourself, if you don’t mind. Where did you go to University to get your degree? What is it in? What do you do for work?
Steiny - Let’s see- I turned 55 this April. I have been married for 27 years to Susan, my kind and generous wife. We have a son, Paul, who is 25 and is a good solid man. I went to UCSB and studied Religious Studies, I was especially interested in how religions start and how societies, economies and agriculture grew with them. I am in my second career. I am a HR Manager at an international environmental non-profit. It is a very good job and it is a joy to work at a mission-driven organization. My first career was in agriculture. I was a vegetable grower/truck farmer for nearly 25 years. That was cool and fun too but very difficult as a business.
UKMS – What is it that you love about riding a surf mat over other surf vehicle?
Steiny - Well, I like all sorts of crafts but I enjoy being able to surf the edges and corners of crowded town breaks and using waves that few others see. I can do this on my mat. I love the speed, the simplicity and the community with other prone surfers. I do enjoy riding surfboards too but the past few years I have become more and more mat-centric
UKMS - When did you first ride mats?
Steiny - We rode rental Converse Mats as kids at Zuma, it was so fun, so I have been aware of mats since I was a grom. I grew up on the rural edge of the San Fernando Valley and went to Zuma a lot. As an adult I found a mat in a dusty pile in the back of the Arrow Surf Shop maybe 15 years ago- it was one of the red and blue Taiwan mats. I goofed around on that for a few years but didn’t get it fully dialed.
UKMS - Who introduced you to them?
Steiny - As a kid, I guess my brother but when I asked him about it recently he didn’t remember riding mats at all. Patrick Trefz, the photographer let me know about the old stock mats at Arrow. Later, when I got my first Paul Gross mat then my interest really took off. I probably found out about Paul Gross and 4th Gear Flyers through Swaylocks and some hull-riding friends. Hull riders seem to gravitate toward mats.
UKMS – How hard was it for you to ride a mat initially? Did you get the “Magic” right out of the gate or was there a steep learning curve?
Steiny - The first time I borrowed a quality mat (a Dale Solomonson) and tried to ride it in a bigger lined up surf I had a hard time paddling out and then getting the mat to go down the line and not slip out. I got pretty frustrated. Maybe the second or third time it came together and I got in trim. I was hooked
UKMS – Where did you learn your mat technique?
Steiny - I had nobody to ask- all trial and error. There were very few matters around when I started. It’s funny- you know people mat but since we all tend to stick to our spots you never see them. At my spots there are a couple paipo riders, a couple boogie riders, a couple matters- we have a little group who seem to hit it around the same time, look for the same conditions and tides. That helps- strength in numbers! I am still learning and still developing technique! My matting is a lot like my surfing. Cruisy, down the line, no tricks surfing. Nothing fancy.
UKMS – Did you grow up surfing, knee boarding, Boogs. Etc. and where did you ride your first wave?
Steiny - We grew up just inland in West LA County in Calabasas. It was a very nice place to grow up in the 60s and 70s. The Taco Bell Mansions were just starting to spread when I left in 76. We used to body surf Zuma, Topanga, Paradise Cove. I have really fond memories of riding Styrofoam belly boards. We would buy them at Thrifty and if they lasted 3 or 4 weeks we would consider ourselves lucky. I can remember one lasting a season- it must have been blessed! I had a pair of funny adjustable fins too. I found those fins in my mom’s garage 20 years ago and they became my son’s first fins. My brother pushed me into my first wave on a surfboard in 1970 at Zuma- I pearled right away and took the board to the forehead with a nice gash and bruise. We had some explaining to do that night! I was a pretty sickly kid but my older brother was good about getting me to the beach, making sure there were boards to ride and wetsuits to wear. Since my mom lived in the house we grew up in until her passing we could mine her garage for our old surf relics. Old tide books, surf magazines and crispy wetsuits are fun even if they aren’t useful.
UKMS – You and I talked about growing up near LA in the Sixties and even know some of the same characters? Liddle, Glen Kennedy? Did you ride mats back then?
Steiny - We rode the canvas rental mats at Zuma- super fun! Our mom used to drop us off at Old Topanga and Mulholland with our lunches and beach gear so we could hitchhike to the beach when our dad was at work. She did not like to drive the canyons. My Mom would say “It’s OK, hippies will pick you up”. And it was true. If a parent did that now the neighbors would call child protective services. The world has changed so much. Guys like Glen would pick us up hitchhiking. I remember him well. I know Kirk from later. I remember Greg’s shops in Tarzana and Agoura too.
UKMS – How has mat surfing changed your ocean life, or has it?
Steiny - Mat surfing helps me to deal with the crowds better. Also, I get to enjoy a smaller subset of the surf community. It reminds me of the time before the long board boom when if you saw someone riding a log you either knew them or at least had friends in common. Really, I mostly ride a mat because I enjoy it. If it weren’t fun why would I do it? It is so great to streak down the line on an open face. I still ride my surfboards, mostly bellied boards: gliders, hulls, and minis but my mats are the go-to vehicles most days.
UKMS – Hey, you live in the Red Triangle and ride a mat with swim fins on. Are you afraid of sharks? Have you had any encounters?
Steiny - Well, the sharks are there for sure. I spent most of my working life on the North Coast; I have seen Fluffy a few times. Thankfully, I have only viewed the big guy from the beach. Lots of friends have been chased out of the water here and a couple of them have survived attacks. I have got spooked and got out of the water up north and south of town more than once. Pretty creepy! I am pretty shy about surfing the sharkier breaks on my mat.
UKMS - Who are some of the others, if there are any?
Steiny - There are maybe 10 regular mat riders around here but like I said earlier- we each have our own spots. My regular surf partner is Brian Himlan- he mats sometimes but mostly he is a paipo guy. He makes beautiful paipos under the Longship Designs label. Brain is an amazing surfer. No matter what craft he rides prone or standing he rides with appropriate style.
Other mat, paipo friends include Meg Cocchi (a wonderful surfer and a wonderful person), Jed Boulton, Erik Oberg, Scott Kennedy, and Jim Newitt. There are a couple SF guys who come down and mat with us on the Westside too. I’ve also noticed several women who switched to matting when they were pregnant. Hopefully, they will stay on their mats when they return to the water after their births.
I often do mat by myself. I sometimes sit with the groms feasting on the leftovers on the inside. Its fun to surf with kids.
UKMS – What is your go-to mat currently? How many mats do you own? What’s in your quiver? How often to you go to other mats to try them?
Steiny - I ride Paul Gross Mats- 4th gear flyers! I am loyal to Paul and an enthusiastic rider of his mats: handmade in California by Paul himself. Without Paul there wouldn’t likely be a modern mat scene. Plus, he’s a Giants fan!
I have four of Paul’s mats. My daily rider is an older Omni. I love it, for me it is the best all around. I still have my first 4th Gear Flyer, a four pontoon classic. I accidentally grabbed it on my way to surf a few weeks ago and was really pleasantly surprised how really well it worked, it had been a while. I have a mini- it works well but is sorta different. Faster right out of the gate but less “squirt” like it has less gears (3 on the tree?). The mini is nice to duck dive and ride in beachbreak, I ride it in situations where I used ride paipos- wedges, beachies, side waves.
I have a one-off bigger white mat that Paul made for Jamie McClellan. I wasn’t so sure about it when Jamie sent it out but then I rode it on a big day and it held quite well and went quite fast! I had no problem hitting 4th gear on that.
I have a handful of cheaper Aussie mats that travelers brought me back as gifts. They work alright and are fun but not stunning at all. I do have an older Taiwan 4 pontoon that I traded a surfboard fin for, I haven’t ridden it yet but it looks and feels proper- like a mix of the mini and the classic. I recently found some sixties mats at a yard sale. One of them is holding air- I plan to ride it soon.
UKMS – Your blog, “Harmless Neighborhood Eccentric,” is clever and a lot of fun! There is a lot of mat stuff as well. Not to mention the art, street scenes and a sense of the socio-political tonque in cheek human look at life! What motivates and drives this?
Steiny - Glad you like my blog! I have a lot of fun doing it.
The blog satisfies my creative urges. It gives me a place to store my photos and a soap box to stand on to harangue my fellow citizens. I like to think of the blog as an online installation. You can break down the elements or enjoy it as a whole. I get a few hundred visitors on a good day. I think it’s funny that people are interested in it. I often have people tell me they check it out regularly.
UKMS - Do they consider you a Harmless Neighborhood Eccentric?
Steiny - I am what I am. My poor wife!
UKMS - Have you ridden any of the older type canvas mats?
Steiny - We rode canvas mats when we were kids and I have ridden a few as an adult. Fun but not the performance of the modern mats.
UKMS - How are your inflation rates these days? What is normal and comfortable to you and how often do you adjust inflations?
Steiny - I tend to ride my mats relatively well inflated- more inflated than most modern mat Jedi’s but not as hard as the old canvas mats. You can see in photos of me matting that I favor fuller inflation. If I blow them up well and then hit the cold water they shrink down to an inflation level I like. I don’t adjust them much. I mostly ride pretty long lined up waves with a long paddle/swim back. Not lots of flat spots to navigate and I like to float and have the holding power of a fuller mat.
UKMS - What fins are you using and why? Have you tried a lot of different fins? I liked the fin installation/art piece on the blog. Was that your doing? Are you an artist?
Steiny - The Fincident was an installation I did at The Great Highway Gallery in San Francisco. Lots of photos from the neighborhood, thrift shop frames and orphan fins from the beach and yard sales. I guess I am an artist; I am lucky to have opportunities to create and show. I have many friends from surfing who are working artists and curators. They give advice and have opened doors for me. The blog also has introduced my sensibilities and style to a wider audience. I am a bit of a late bloomer. I didn’t start curating until my 40s and had my first show in a gallery at 51.
I switch around fins a bit. I was a Churchill guy for decades. I still have my green soft Churchill’s from the 70s. I wore Redley’s for a while then switched over to Duckfeet. The past few years I have been wearing MS Vipers or new formula Duckfeet with booties (cold days cold water) and DaFin when I surf barefoot. I have long very narrow feet, not everything works.
UKMS - Do you lose your mat much?
Steiny - No, not much. Well, sometimes in my garage- it’s sorta a mess.
UKMS - Do you ever swim out with a limp-towel mat cause the paddle out is too austere? Or are you the kind of mat surfer who just takes the hit until you make it past the lineup?
Steiny - I blow up my mat on the beach or cliffs and then tough it out. I can duck dive it pretty well- push it under right before the white water hits and then pop it straight up as the wave passes.
UKMS - How has the mat world changed for you over the last five years with the push of Social Networking? Do you find it beneficial or too trendy?
Steiny - I am having fun with Instagram and blogging. I like seeing other people’s lives and making friends. I don’t feel as isolated in my surf craft choices, musical taste or artistic leanings. Random young people seem to know about mats and matting- they had to learn it somewhere- the internet?
UKMS - Current mat buzz... Tell us a bit about the Hostage Situation.
Steiny - Ah, the hostage crisis. The hostage crisis occurs every 5 years or so on the Westside. When the neighborhood sandbars set up well, it doesn’t really matter how big or small the surf is or where the tide is at- there will be waves. During the hostage crisis nothing else gets done- no shopping, no cooking dinner, no laundry, the lawn doesn’t get cut- Nothing! We go straight from work to the water every single day- surf till you have nothing left, eat, sleep, work as little as possible and repeat. During this year’s hostage crisis I surfed 18 days in a row and 22 out of 24 days. Many of those days include two or even three sessions. Like I said earlier, the record for me is 31 days in a row. That was during the hostage crisis of 2007
UKMS – Do your wife and son surf and/or ride mats?
Steiny - My wife can and has ridden mats, the last time she did she got a legit, deep, in and out barrel. We went to Mexico and she was getting nice daily little barrels with a tray and fins. She has really good wave judgment and is a strong graceful swimmer. Susan is an amazing person; there isn’t much she can’t do! She doesn’t like crowds, cold water or wetsuits much so she rarely goes out these days but when she gets the notion she gets it done with style.
Our son rips no matter what he rides. He rarely mats but when he does he gets good long rides. He has promised to mat with me more this year. He is a lifeguard, swimmer, surfer and excellent bodysurfer. Matting will come easy to him
UKMS – Have you done much traveling for surf in your career? Where and when? And, have you traveled at all to ride mats?
Steiny - When I was younger I traveled to Hawaii and Mexico a lot but wasn’t riding mats much in those years. I went to New Zealand last year and only brought a mat and fins. It was great. It was so nice to travel without a board bag.
UKMS - Do you find it difficult to tell others that don’t mat what this bag of air is all about and why it is so much fun?
Steiny - I don’t know, some people get it, some people don’t. If I had a dollar for every older guy who said: “Surf mat? I used to ride those in the 60s” I’d be rich!
It’s weird who gets it. I had one of the most insightful and in depth chats about matting and Greenough with one on our neighborhood chronic public inebriates. He used to ride canvas mats in the 70s and was tripping on the beauty of the 4th gear flyer. When people see you get a good one and go fast they usually get it.
UKMS - Have you ventured much into the higher gear range as far as speed goes?
Steiny - I have hit some higher gears, yes. My neighborhood wave can be pretty fast, open and long
UKMS - Where do you see yourself in the next two years with your mat surfing?
Steiny - More of the same: having fun, seeing my friends, riding my bike to the water. A surf trip or two would be great, Australia? New Zealand? Ireland? Hopefully I will stay fit and healthy. I really want to live a life full of appreciation and not have much hate, resentment or judgment in my heart. I want to accept people and be accepted. Not always easy but the joy I get in the water helps me be my best self. Surfing puts saltwater salve on my soul!
UKMS – Maybe take us through your dream mat wave?
Steiny - I would love to mat first point Malibu on an un-crowded warm sunny day. Alas, that is not in the cards.
UKMS - And if you had a crystal ball what would the Future of mat riding look like?
Steiny - The future of mat riding? I don’t know. I hope it includes me.
Thanks for your interest in my scene- I hope you all get good waves and are happy. Your readers can email me at email@example.com
UKMS - Steiny, thanks so much for taking the time to share your story and your fantastic shots with us.