Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Everything You Need and More

You will see crazy things there, my friend said. I said that that sounded like fun. I would like to see some crazy things. It was late Tuesday morning, and I only had a couple hours to kill before I needed to start driving north towards San Francisco.

If you read the Wikipedia description for Venice Beach, you might think it sounds like the kind of beach/boardwalk area that only exists in '80s movies with bitchin' soundtracks: "Venice Beach includes the beach, the promenade that runs parallel to the beach ('Ocean Front Walk' or just 'the boardwalk'), Muscle Beach, the handball courts, the paddle tennis courts, Skate Dancing plaza, the numerous beach volleyball courts, the bike trail and the businesses." Skate Dancing? Muscle Beach? Someone hand me my funky neon Ocean Pacific shorts, because I am all over this shit like a Flock of Seagulls.

And maybe that's what it was like, once upon a time. But, fast forwarding three decades, I found that description fell woefully short of reality. And how can one describe such a place, where reality is a relative term? Here's a start: Venice Beach is probably the only place on earth where, in a single visit, one could go surfing, get a prescription for medical marijuana, sit down for a tarot card reading, and purchase a hyper-realistic charcoal pencil drawing of Justin Bieber.

But that, too, is inadequate, only summarizing that which one can do and buy at Venice Beach, and not what one can see. What really makes Venice Beach what it is are the street performers. And I use the term "street performers" loosely, for lack of more fitting nomenclature. They aren't so much street performers as they are very unusual people who do and say very unusual things in a public setting.

I hadn't walked 100 feet from where my friend dropped me off when I saw a very muscular dark-skinned man standing atop a stool, wearing only a wide-brimmed hat (presumably to protect him from the sun) and bright yellow banana hammock (also, presumably, to protect him from the sun). He was giving some sort of sermon to passers-by, something about children and war (from what I could gather, he was in favor of children, and opposed to war). In one hand he held a very large and very living snake. In the other hand he held two. He was only the second-strangest person I saw at Venice Beach.

The strangest person snuck up on me unintentionally. I had just ended a call on my cell phone when we nearly bumped into each other. He was wearing a red bath robe over shorts with pink hearts on them. On his head was a pirate mask, but instead of wearing the mask on his face, he wore it like a hat, so it looked like he had a second, limp face coming out the top of his head. Under his arm he carried something large and white, which I mistook for a very large animal bone. "We have everything you need!" he insisted. It was unclear to me what he was selling.

I walked past the man and slipped into a nearby bookstore. I was browsing books on a display, but I couldn't stop myself from peering through the storefront window and observing him; he was still trying to sell whatever-it-was to the people on the boardwalk. I realized that he was not holding a bone at all, but rather the leg of a mannequin. He set the plastic leg on top of a small plastic table, which had wheels on the bottom, and straddled the leg. "Would you like to ride a leg today?" He asked, demonstrating how one could, in fact, go for a ride on the leg.

My friend nodded as I told her about both men, unmoved, as if I were telling her what I ate for lunch the day before. There are people, she explained, who were just made for Venice Beach. "But they're happy," she said, "which might be more than I can say for myself."

The man with the snakes sometimes stopped to wave and say hello to the locals, mostly joggers, who probably came through every day. He looked comfortable, as though he knew he belonged. Even the man hawking leg rides would sometimes turn to a nearby friend and smirk. There is no doubt in my mind that he wanted to be there that day, and no where else, doing no other thing than demonstrating how one might ride the mannequin's leg.

Vacation had brought me to Venice Beach, vacation from a life in which I spend an overwhelming amount of time in my home office, trying to stay concentrated on conference calls, or making sure my bulleted lists are consistently aligned, thinking how I'd like to be anywhere but there, doing anything but that. Who, I ask, is the crazy one? On whom is the joke being played?

Bonus pics from Joshua Tree/L.A.:

Mastadon Peak at Joshua Tree.
More from Joshua Tree.
Ferocious Dorrie.
Not-so-ferocious Dorrie.

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