Wednesday

{ Venice Beach, behind the scenes }

** I've been digging through old Docs and notebooks as I'm working on this Winnebago Diaries book, (no point in writing something twice). But before I'd sold myself on writing this monster of a thing, I was toying with the idea of just warming up with a book of shorts from Venice Beach, that strange and beautiful place I loVe and hate.

Anyway, Venice will have a big part in the book I'm working on, but here's a rough intro to the book of shorts ... I'm sure I'll add more stories here on the blog later, but for now, here's a little taste to set the stage. 

  --- > you can see pics of Venice in this older {blog} we posted ... just scroll way down : )

But here, it's just words words words.

enjoy ! 

________________________________


There’s a place in Southern California, a bohemian community on the beachfront, awkwardly sandwiched between two upscale cities like the screwed up middle child that nobody knows what to do with.
That problem child’s name is Venice Beach, and I love her for everything she is and for everything she refuses to become. When I talk about Venice Beach, I’m talking about the actual beach, and more specifically, the crowded 3-mile stretch of boardwalk.
It’s a place of a thousand, 50 thousand, faces - daily, and that’s just the background, the visitors. The real show is in the boardwalk locals and vendors, performers, cops and bums. It’s a scene that shouldn’t exist in the way it does, and in this day and age, and not only does it persist to exist, but it does so against the will of powerful people of both state and private interest.   
At a glance, you know the place is untamed..  infected with the freedom gene and carrying a spore that can spread. You need merely to sniff the air in certain spots and pickup the mixed scent of burning incense and hot tanning oil, marijuana smoke, deep fried carnival food, pizza parlors and bum piss, and you’ll know you’ve reached the freak show on the shore.
This place was built by the people, and the power behind its lasting construction comes from the year 1791, from a constitutional amendment, the first in fact, that guarantees the freedom of speech, the press, religion, and peaceable assembly.
So … over 3 decades ago, cloaked in the constitution and moving somewhat timidly, a small group of artists and thinkers, activists, gypsies and performers took up stakes on the empty Westside of the boardwalk to vend to some of the biggest walking crowds of any beach in the country.    
The boardwalk is wide and long, and actually made of stones and cement, not old-time boards. And skirting the beach side from end to end, like a linear shantytown, you’ll find hundreds of vendors staking claims beneath broken canopies and faded umbrellas.
The vendors and performers are the main attraction, consistently drawing millions of people per season. They’re the unpaid and under-appreciated city workers who show up early to design their unique 10 X 10 urban sets and provide the unexpected show that is everyday life and survival on the cluttered boardwalk.
Hollywood could never cast this revolving mix of characters. They’re an endangered wildlife that needs to be preserved, studied and appreciated, but in the recent past, the draw of progress, lazy enforcement and the fear mentality has led some higher powers to try and forcibly wash the whole scene down the storm drain and out to sea.
Most of the vendors are honest hardworking people who find themselves driven to snap and snarl between each other as a result of the intensity of hunting one’s living on the street and the lack of organization.
Territory is high on the list of things to go tooth and nail over. Some vendors have an almost superstitious view of where they need to setup, and who they don’t want to be setup beside. Some neighboring booths are too big and hide their display, and some neighbors are too loud or draw a jostling crowd that will swamp visibility, and at times, trample their display. Fortune tellers don’t want to see the like on the same block, and the craft people see China-made junk sellers as a waste of real estate and a leech on the neck of the already limited spaces where people are meant to express their art and creativity.
It’s true that there’s a lot of drama between the sellers. Most of which could be avoided with a little work. Fights breakout, people are bullied, and the police are called daily. Animal nature has a way to simplify these struggles, but a pecking order is not soon to emerge on the boardwalk, and every new greyhound bus arriving from afar, or lost job in the extended family increases the chances of new faces showing up on the scene, and a roosting spot must be found.  
Working members, for the most part, must stay put in their cubic space, and in the daylight hours, the vendors are contained, happy and occupied with the catch of the day. After morning setups, they give the city, and society, little trouble. It’s the “others” that worry men and mothers so much, the drifters and drunkards, crazies and convicts.
The crowds and unwieldy nature of the boardwalk draws all sorts of critters to the scene. Some of the most interesting people I’ve watched and met in Venice came from this subsection of the community, those not tied to any one space and not occupied with the practicalities of sales, producing their art and doing business.
Most of them have some sort of hustle in the throng of things. Some fly a sign for spare change (the younger drifters call it “spanging”), and others help vendors setup their booth, break down, or hold spots for a few dollars a day. The alleys behind beach bungalows are scoured by the more industrious, and discarded household goods are cleaned up and carted off by bike trailer or shopping cart, later to be sold on the move. I’ve collected many books, tins, wood picture frames and wine crates from these salvage hunters, and at such a deal. “Ahhh .. Give me two dollars.” Sold. But then there are others who will offer you a brand new $300 beach bike for $20 Best not to deal with these types .. I've seen angry bike owners pull riders from the crowd, "That's my bike!!" Or there are others who may lift something from a vendor’s table while they’re busy pitching a prospect.
I’ve seen “helpers” become partners in these street businesses, and partners become enemies. Every kind of royal deception occurs there, but with plastic 20th century stuff. Shakespeare could rhyme about thievery and deceit all day, but first you’d have to explain to him what a cell phone is and what one might do with such a stolen thing. 
Some are fresh out of prison and others are hiding out from going there yesterday. I’ve been told that cops from other districts dump crazed wanderers on the Venice walk in the night, hoping they’ll take to the community or at least forget where they came from. Occasionally, you’ll see mad men with bloodshot eyes wandering the cotton-candy crowds in full daylight, talking to themselves and arguing with unseen enemies all around. But besides jail, an accommodation which must be rightfully earned in the state, there is no place for these people, so roam they do, forgetting appointments at the free clinic or selling their meds for pizza and ice cream money.
Venice is an all-purpose asylum, art exhibit, freak show, peddler’s pass and bazaar, and within the reach of the constitution, this kind of thing, I’m told, could happen to any open public space if the spore caught on and people stood their ground. I talked to an adviser to the city attorney about this amidst a meeting of the “peace-keepers” and he said, “We just hope to God they won’t.”    
The next-door neighbors know all of this, they read about the most severe of cases in the local papers and talk about it in the town hall meetings. And on Sundays, they may even feel the tribal beating of hundreds of drums coming to them from across the sand as people from all walks gather on the beach to play the old week off into the sunset and welcome the new.
This is all too much, so police from upscale Santa Monica (north) and the yacht town of Marina Del Rey (south) guard an invisible fence line with the intensity of boarder patrol agents. Pushing peddlers, drifters and riffraff back to Venice through the wide holes in the mesh, they ride black, sand-spitting quads across the beach and marshal-up in dark-tinted SUV’s. And on special nights, you’ll hear them clip-clopping on the backs of tall, thoroughbred horses like leathery old cowboys on a manhunt.
If you’re one of those long-haired freaky people, it’s best not to leave Venice on foot going north or south. West could work .. if you’ve got your pirate ship on the ready, and there are some hideaways east in Culver City, far beyond the cleansing sea breeze. But Venice is a special kind of birdcage, bright and sunny and big enough for the whole microcosm of life to exist, and to be honest, most people don’t want to leave once they settle down and find their place. In the freak culture, there’s safety in numbers.
The cops and officials within Venice itself realize they’re stuck with their inhabitants and busy themselves with 24-hour damage control, casting a wide net meant to catch only the biggest of fish and let the rest alone … for now. They want Venice to graduate, so to speak, sweep the trash from the streets, put in parking meters and up the rents, but it’s not that easy.
Thanks to a small group of activists and human rights organizations, and inadvertently, the beloved Coastal Commission, all the city’s attempts at gentrification have failed, and the people persist, wild and loud and free.
The rents have gone up, so the old resident artists moved out of their studio apartments and into retired school buses, motor homes and vans.
Little by little, the microbreweries and high-end burger joints sprout up, optimistic but reserved. The independent shop owners grow tired of waking the same slumbering war vets on their front step every morning, and young women wonder what’s safe, but Venice makes no false fronts.
West of Lincoln Blvd, you’ll notice that her guts are spilled for all to see, on the streets and in the alleys … in the old man’s candlelit face, reading in the window of his homesteaded van, in the intensity of the young can collector, racing daylight, and the morning garbage trucks as he works the weekend’s stuffed trashcans by headlamp. It’s skid row with a sea breeze, a Kafkaesque sideshow with a third act bordering on Orwellian. You’ll see ..  
As I said, the most interesting and alive parts of Venice happen on and around the boardwalk. There are a few veins of action running east, away from the beach, like Rose Avenue and its intersection with 3rd street, side-show ground zero.
To some extent, the beach shuts down at night – vendors can’t sell past sundown - and a backwash tide of cars and men and pushcarts flow out into the neighborhoods, filling side streets with small camps and battered rusty autos like hermit crab shells.
By night, one must hide out, knowing it’s illegal to reside in a vehicle. With the morning comes the safe haven of the boardwalk, the place where we belong. I, too, for years was a vendor on the walk, selling my writing like a delirious sailor, sun struck and starving, and telling stories of the end of the map and swimming serpents like dragons.
But I was shy, at first, and for a long time in fact. And my lovely girlfriend (turned wife) sold my books while I pretended to nap on the grass or hide my face behind the leafed open covers of a book. “We’re doing shifts,” she’d explain, “It’s my turn to man the booth.” But I only came over to sign a book at the end, rubbing my eyes and bowing my head to them.
But that wouldn’t do, and sometimes she had other gigs that paid much better than the beach, so we’d have to split the deck and each make our own bread for the day.
So I blossomed from a shy little dandelion directly and immediately to a Venus flytrap, green and sticky and giving them the madness they were looking for in the beach, the surprise they’d heard about from friends, for everybody has a story about Venice Beach: The sea gull soaring over the boardwalk, who against all odds and the mathematics of gravity, had pooped directly into their mother’s eye. The stolen bicycle and subsequent missed curfew. The random hookup below a lifeguard tower, or the henna tattoo (mixed with black hair dye) that took a month to wash away. Something is always going awry below those shaggy palm trees, and much of this book will be revisiting these points in history and studying the place as a the living breathing thing that it is.
When the places was truer than it is now, for things have begun to sway, I felt the drumming pulse. I saw it all like a child with the na├»ve thought that somebody had to be minding the ship, but it wasn’t so. Growing up in the middle class suburbs of Scottsdale Arizona, this place filled any boredom holes that I might have thought I’d had …  retroactively, all the way back to the day I was born and then some. We lived on the city streets, too, the wife and I, in our self-renovated 1975 Winnebago.
The daily drive back and forth from our costly apartment in Long Beach was too much to bear, and food money became gas money, and in my hunger, I grew enchanted at the sight of the street people, living in their rolling homes, beachfront, free as the pigeons, so we sold our stuff and stored the rest, and moved out of society and into the sideshow. It was the best decision we ever made, still is … 7 years later as I write these words.
But let’s get on to the boardwalk and out of this intro. I think I’ve set the stage sufficiently for now, and this whole book will be cutting deeper into the marrow of the thing, so we’ll move on. I’m peter, by the way, and my queen-of-the-trailer-park is the lovely lady, juwels. So now we’re all friends : )
More to come, loVe,
- p&j  

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