A writer regales a day spent navigating the smells, sights, and sounds of one of L.A.'s most popular (and notorious) beaches.
Earlier, I hurled my shoe from the window of my fourth-floor hotel room. And who knows, it might not have been an accident at all… The news is so baleful and brutal these days people are throwing anything out the window, like flatscreens, husbands, underwear, and hope.
I was trying to get the sand out of my Sperry when I lost my grip and flung the goddamn thing like a drummer loses a drumstick during the bridge. My shoe eventually came to a stop on the tin roof of a bar two floors below, and the place wasn’t scheduled to open until 4 or 5 p.m., which meant after a few hours I’d have to trudge over there with one shoe on and attempt to convince the manager that I’m not a wild, mumbling boardwalk crazy attempting to gain access to his roof for some godawful ominous reason. And it would surely get even more awkward and weird when I’d inevitably have to invite the stunningly gorgeous host to my room just so she can poke her head out of the window and see that I’m not putting her on; that I am indeed a guest of the Air Venice, the hotel next door, visiting from afar with only a small backpack worth of clothes and that right shoe being the only one I have between here and New Mexico, and to hell with buying new ones.
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But I lucked out. A pair of construction workers in hard hats were working on something down below, and I could see that they had a small ladder, but one just big enough to get access to the tin roof. The sunburnt and agile tinier of the two retrieved my shoe in a flash and handed it to me with a giggle outside on the street below. I gave him all the cash I had in my pocket and a grateful thank-you-so-much-sir! type pat on his shoulder. He was still laughing when he walked back behind the hotel. I imagine this’ll be one of those “oye, remember that one time…” kinda stories he’ll regale for the rest of his life.
But this is the kind of wild madness that happens in places like Venice Beach. The odd, infectious, avant-garde, crusty energy gets into your bloodstream. Soon, shoes start flying out of windows, $2.95 red birria tacos for dinner every night, and a daily desperate attempt to tamp down that creeping urge to get a tattoo of a third nipple for no reason at all.
Now, with both shoes back in my possession, I found my way to the Venice Ale House, a pub and snack shack smack dab on the boardwalk. I grabbed my small yellow, legal notepad and began taking notes, and they go a little something like this:
Venice Beach…Tent City. A woman writhes and bops to music only she can hear. A rich white man driving a pearl-white Tesla pulls out of the nearby parking lot while a homeless man in a wheelchair and tattered sunhat passes out by the entrance of this place. “Sir…sir!” the hostess in short-shorts shouts at the old man. He wakes. “You need to move, okay?” she says. “You need to move over there; you’re disturbing our customers.” The man nods and rolls to the other side of the boardwalk along a row of ripped tents and dirty teddy bears. A group of wiggy, rowdy yuppies get rowdier and yuppier with every quaff of their cocktails with limes and sprigs of mint. A drunk in suspenders and a fedora runs into my table and spills half my beer. “Bastard!” I bark. To hell with this place. Time to go.
I left my warming, half-spilt beer on the table and decided to trudge to the shore. A stunning girl was lying on the sand, taking in the sun, and sneaking sips of rare mezcal from a small silver flask. We chatted for a bit about Mexico, tacos, and the mezcal it takes eight years to harvest, then she offered me a taste. “Thank you,” I said. “Some jackass spilt my beer over there.”
Two tanned lifeguards with beer guts were doing push-ups in the sand below the lookout when I recalled that thing my grandfather told me about them; that lifeguards in places like Venice Beach and Santa Monica aren’t just keeping an eye out for drowning men in dark-blue Speedos or Great Whites with a taste for human thighs, but also for lubricated folks who pass out on the sand under a vicious sun. “S–t, they’ll suffer third-degree burns if no one shakes them awake and drags them into some shade,” he said. The moral here is to keep an eye out for your friends under a brutal sun and, if you are going to drown, wear Speedos that look like a buoy so they can find your ass or at least whatever is left of your thigh.
About an hour later, sun-kissed and full of sand in every crevice, I walked back to the boardwalk to take more notes. The hour was growing late and the drinks and drugs and a full day of a brutal sun was boring deeper on every single mad jackal there. More wild dancing. More bad singing. Venice Beach is, indeed, a place of the wildly rich and the wildly free, but which is which? Who is who? That man there in the tent is rich with freedom. The pearl-white Tesla driver is flush with dough–but who, in the end, is the free bird here?
And never mind that slide into some philosophical gibberish. The word count is running out and so is the day. More notes: Everyone seems to be tripping on the same page or at least riding the same wave, which isn’t entirely the result of drink or drugs. It’s the energy of this place. Sex. Art. Athleticism. That real kind of liberation folks hear about but rarely experience for themselves. A family man pushing a stroller has that wild kind of look in his eye that means, at any moment now, he’ll strip down and run stark naked into that artist’s easel, roll around in the reds and sky blues on the wet canvas, and then bolt colorful and naked into the ocean screaming, “I think I see China, honey! Swim! We can make it!” You could see he felt the rush and urge, but he didn’t act on it. Later, he’ll travel back home to Middle America where he’ll take up painting and nude modeling.
I, myself, don’t have a home, at least not one of my own where I can hang my hat or bake the kind of brownies that cures both insomnia and anorexia. Right. No apartment. No house. Not even a van down by the river. This doesn’t mean I’m homeless. I invariably have somewhere to go. A couch to surf. A train to ride. A hotel and pool where I can pound more keys and file more stories. I’m a roving writer and reporter, the kind that finds himself at Venice Beach for no real reason at all.
When the sun sets on Venice Beach it’s time to get the hell out there. The beasts come out at night. So, I ambled my way to nearby Main St. where fancy people were drinking fancy wines at candlelit sidewalk tables. Too rich for my blood, I thought. Down the way, I found more $2.95 birria tacos and ate like a king sitting on the curb around the corner away from the fatcats and their fat-cattery. By 10 p.m., the streets were brimming with vodka-soaked stumblers in high-heels; over-compensating bro-types in high-priced rides revved their engines to impress the ladies crossing the street, drowning out the nearby voices screaming for more pizza. I got back to my room and pulled out the silver flask. The stunning mezcal-sipper had gifted it to me along with the smooth mezcal inside. I opened all the windows and fell into a deep sleep to the soothing sound of the waves crashing upon the shore.
The next morning, I got word that another story was waiting for me back in New Mexico, the state where I store more shoes. The piece, they said, is on the Navajo Nation. The rumor is that the Diné may reach herd immunity before the rest of the U.S., if it ever does. “All right,” I wrote. “I’m on my way.”
I landed back in New Mexico and got a room at the Hotel Chaco in Albuquerque. After checking in, I decided to do some work by the pool, so I took the elevator down in my boxer briefs that I hoped people would assume were just really tight swim trunks. I ordered a Corona, salt on rim with a lime shoved in. “What’s that on your chest?” the server asked me.
“Nipples,” I said.
“Yeah, but shouldn’t there only be two…?”