January 14, 2005 | Ronda Jambe

Impressions of Venice Beach

Last year was the first time I’d overnighted there. My previous visits were long ago and blurred by their brevity. I recalled the body builders, the colorful murals, the hippie grunge and the biggest of the sidewalk cafés.
This time was different. Traveling with a grown up son, rather than excitable children, changes the dynamics considerably. Less pressure, time to wander on my own. And staying at the Cadillac Hotel, right on the beach, made it easy to step into the scenery and blend with the locals. That’s where the discoveries began.
We arrived at a ridiculous hour, about 3 hours before dawn. Nothing was possible except napping in the hotel lobby, admiring the lobster mosaic on the floor while waiting for a coffee shop to open and our room to be available. As I’d recently started to learn mosaics, Venice turned out to be a rich source of inspiration. Better than murals, the walls opposite the hotel combined paint and mirror inlays. As the night faded, they became a colourful backdrop for the people that gradually gathered, as I watched from our room above. It was like the visual overture of a musical, shop keeper sweeping, setting out tables and chairs, a lone bike rider weaving in and out of view. Later I spoke to the cyclist; he turned out to be a burned out computer game developer. He’d turned away from the stress, was enjoying a quieter, healthier life. His preoccuption with health products was probably a good idea, given the tobacco stains on his fingers.
As templates for lifestyles, the patterns were familiar, but the volume seemed turned up. The hippy atmosphere and grunge were still there, but this time I could see it interacting with layers of affluence. A short stroll away I found the Santa Monica Gallery, where I stopped to see an outdoor mosaic and tile exhibition, gliding casually inside the display area without dropping the fiver they expected for entry, ever mindful of the pitiful value of the Australian dollar. The prices indicated serious collectors were around. Inside the gallery, a very nice range of paintings told some of the local history. Santa Monica has been through a few epochs, and is one of many places in California that makes me feel at least 100 years too young. The paintings had the rich plainness of a less busy, more hopeful age, a comforting feeling I’ve almost lost in Australia, but still get in New Zealand. An elderly volunteer, hearing my accent, asked with a wink if I had seen any celebrities yet in Hollywood, then tapped gently on my arm to show me one. There she was, in the flesh as she was in the movie I’d seen just a few weeks ago. Even celebs like to see local art and craft. And the restaurants, shops and cafes parallel to the beach strip were clearly haunts for people with more money than the fringe dwellers who unpacked their swags each evening across from the Cadillac.
In LA every aspect of life and culture is influenced by the movie industry. Even my son managed to pick up a TV producer. She thought it quaint that he should want to call his mum and by time he finally rang the next morning I was bordering on hysteria. I told him he can do his sex tourism on his own from now on. Time for cutting some strings, and cutting myself some slack. But I couldn’t help but be amused when he pulled out a trophy photo pinched from her fridge door as proof for his friends back in Canberra. An attractive happy looking woman in her mid-30s.
A vigorous massage from a Chinese guy that looked and sounded like Shrek helped to ease my tensions. I reflected that I was glad I didn’t miss my own days of wandering, and also that I hadn’t been traveling with my mother at 21. Even the massage parlour was more intense than an Australian equivalent. Documents to sign, legalities to observe, conditions apply, payment up front, etc.
Back on the beach things were more laid back. A young shop girl was playing a new Sade CD, and she didn’t even know about Smooth Operator. That reminded me of my own epoch and cultural time zone. At the start of the 70s I nearly became an LA woman, a missed chance to maybe make it with Jim Morrison. On Venice some elements of hippie culture, like Nehru shirts and gathered cheesecloth skirts, have become standards. Other dimensions, like the wonderful paths for pedestrians, bikes and bladers, took on fresh relevance. Venice Beach got that part of urban planning 5 star right, decades before Cairns put in its Esplanade. No road on the beach, keep it for people. My greenie soul pocketed that wisdom for evangelizing in Moruya on the New South Wales coast, where a fledgling bicycle path struggles for funding. I will show them my pictures looking down on the misty path with perfectly placed walkers, skaters and cyclers. If only images could capture the smell of the fresh sea mingled with brewing coffee, just at dawn.
While my son was out adventuring, I was taking in the air and the music at an outdoor bar near the Cadillac. Soon got talking to residents, mellow to a fault, easy going, savvy and having politically correct fun. Fellow liberals, always good to have my beliefs affirmed in the land of free enterprise and rational torture. But then, I’m just another bi-coastal expatriate, prefer sticking to the red states rather than my guns.
It was easy, too, to talk to the drifters hanging around the little knolls and benches at dusk. Some were setting up sleeping bags, others getting ready for a smoke and a jam session. One said he comes by to see if anyone he knew before was still around. He used to be homeless, fell into it through cascading errors of fate or judgment, can’t remember his specifics. But he fell out of it again, climbed his way into a decent job, seemed relieved to have scaled that summit. I felt a pang of hope for my older son. The former games designer also voiced contentment, but seemed to have seen better times. A skinny woman, also eager to tell her story, swore solidly about the bastard guy who’d stolen from her, turned her life upside down, left her with nothing but debts. I almost pitched in on the chorus with my own saga. She too looked a bit haunted, we both know you can’t outrun your past.
The mix of the down trodden and the recently reprieved, along with the blend of happier types who will never tred there, kept the stew of hope on simmer. We may be forced to sleep on the beach now, but we get by, and next year you may find a place here with us. So be nice. It made for great tolerance of those on the outer. Besides, the boundaries are too fuzzy. Lots of semi-survivors frequented the handy grocery shop across the lane from the Cadillac. And who’s to say they are any less functional, or in worse psychic shape than me or you? Their side-wise glances told me not to pity them or feel smug. Maybe I should dress better.
Muscle Beach was still fun. Does someone pay the puny white guy to act as a foil to the gorgeous bulgy blacks? It could have been a tableau from a comedy skit, including me among the women drooling from the bleachers. Was it my memory playing tricks, or was there a smaller proportion of gorgeous people strutting gliding and chatting? Freaks still abound, but it seemed a more middle aged core of strollers than I recall. Maybe the demographic has changed.
One evening I wandered into a modest gallery, it had a funky look and the glow of lights and a small crowd inside seemed inviting, as did the prospect of free food and drinks. It was a launch, an opening, a display of work by a homeless guy. His death gave a purpose to the gathering that his art work alone wouldn’t have summoned. Like many of the drifters, he had mental problems. But the testimonies from those who knew him or befriended him or had only just encountered him fleetingly told a bigger story. There was real humanity in the room, an understanding of the deep waters chance can capsize any of us into. One attractive couple from New York spoke of their time on the streets. Clearly they hadn’t done it rough for a while, but they were reverent about their deceased friend. My own curiosity, a stranger without real reason for joining, was accepted without question. The presence of another scholar, preparing a book on Venice, was a legitimate rather than a voyeuristic dimension. He answered my questions about Venice’s history, how it had evolved. Being by the beach was not always the first choice of the rich, and it’s good karma that they continue to share it with the poor. The long strip of pathway, stretching to the Santa Monica pier, reinforces a theme that to me underpins Venice: this much is for all of us, status dissolves here in the ocean spray and its thunder absolves.
Other images and conversations fleshed out my too brief visit to Venice. There was an English working traveler at the hotel reception, knowledgable about the district and preparing to move on to another point of exploration. As the evening light softened, other voyagers displayed pride, against all the odds, as they settled their blankets into cosy huddles for the night. For whatever length of time, for whatever reason, their lives were at least temporarily locked into this place and its people. As we packed ourselves and baggage into the airport transit van, off to our next world, wondering when we might return, I silently wished them well.

Posted by Ronda Jambe at 12:19 pm | Comments Off on Impressions of Venice Beach |
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