My trip to LA wasn’t all glamour and gloss as I took a trip to Venice Beach down on the coast. If you took the gritty maverick side of London’s Soho, a smidgeon of Amsterdam’s coffee houses and soupcon of Camden Market, whisked them altogether with some high jinkery, medicinal marijuana and full on sunshine, then Venice Beach is what would emerge from that hotpot and I loved it.
There is a sub-culture in Venice Beach. It’s a bit like a layer cake, the top is all decorative, expensively hand finished, funky and eye catching and at the very bottom of that sweet alcohol soaked sponge, are the homeless, the mentally affected and the Californian beach burn outs.
There are ‘grab’ tables which are usually full of hand made trinkets and various knick-knacks for sale. After a while the tables all kind of blend into one, but the sellers are full of character and worth having a natter with. Surrounding the grab tables you will see various local ‘dudes’ some famous, some trying to get famous and some plain crazy. There is a lovely black bloke on roller blades with a big white scarf around his head, there is the oily muscle guy who wears the teeniest stars and stripes g-string and entertains by rolling a metal ball all over his tanned muscles and there is the Chief who looks like an Indian chief and has the brownest, crinkliest skin texture that advertises why sunscreen is absolutely imperative. On spotting him I sprayed factor 50 on my face again. He is amazingly lovely though and can dance like the wind.
The Chief is usually in the middle of the big drum circle and their beating serves as a constant thudding backdrop to the ocean vista. People come from miles carrying drums, trash cans, plastic bins and anything that can be banged to make a noise and they play for hours. Apparently the police tried to disperse the drum circle but the Chief won that fight and the locals were split in their opinion about it. I stood at the circle as the sun was slowly dipping, the noise is amazing and you cannot help but dance, it really does entrance you. There are hordes of people playing, all classes, all colours, all ages, just beating and banging away, it is worth seeing if you ever go there.
The Police and local homeowners are desperate to dispose of the pill popping, hashish smoking, beer drinking bongo dancers, but it is those very people who make Venice so bohemian and hedonistic. Without them, it’s just a bunch of rich queens, spoiled dogs and a few long haired rich folk who recalled The Eagles before they were famous. Venice thrives on it’s patchwork of cultures.
I made friends with Talon and Puck, two homeless beach dudes. Puck honed wooden varnished walking sticks from driftwood and Talon made toy cars and the sold them on the concrete beach front.
Talon is the typical tanned long haired, broad smiling beach boy; he had been in Venice for 15 years now. He is so congenial, chatty and very welcoming, but around 6pm as the sun sets and the beer and dope kick in, he gets rather agitated, screaming and basically abusive to the polystyrene head that displays hair wraps at the next table to his. That white blank face gets some verbal shit, but it sits stoically on a spike with coloured plaits streaming over its eye-less face as Talon points and screams about its lack of understanding of his issues. Apparently that body-less head just won’t let Talon drink more Joose.
Puck was 42 years old, sober and had been homeless since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, so he made his way to Venice. He smokes some grass but avoids booze. As we chatted on the grass a big topless bloated man in his early 30s, with blood splattered trousers and bare feet came towards us. He was glazed looking and had a haunted face that slightly scared me. He asked for a ciggie then ran off.
“He is Vinny, he picks his hands till they bleed, and he wanders around begging in his bare feet, he will get bullied by the other guys because he has too many mental problems and can’t negotiate or make friends. He is one of the invisible people Janey, if that bloodied half naked man was in Downtown LA, an ambulance would be called, people would scream at the sight of him, but down here he is just psychiatric wallpaper, it’s horrifying and I worry that I might end up like him. The Christians will get him later, they will wash him up, give him shoes, try to force God on him and then kick him back out onto the beach and that will happen till he dies here” Puck explained.
There was a whole parade of drugged, drunk and deranged came past me that day.
Two lessons were quickly learned by this naïve Glasgow lass.
One- You can buy any drug from a man dressed as the Matrix on a bike but don’t ever smoke a cigarette on the grass at the boardwalk, as that can get you a $170 fine from a cop.
Two- Learn quickly that when someone shouts the words FIVE-O, you can guess that’s the police coming.
FIVE-O was shouted about three times and all the sunburnt guys sidled onto the pavement giving me sympathetic looks as an LA cop caught me and screamed at me for smoking on the grass.
“Look mate, people are smoking crack over there, men are buying dope, two people are practically having full on sex, a transvestite is hustling a woman in a wheelchair, but if I smoke a ciggie on the grass suddenly I am offensive?” He let me off after I apologised.
The amazing thing about the homeless people is their dedication to keeping their environment clean. They throw every single piece of litter into the bins, they recycle cans and plastic and left over unwanted food doesn’t reach the litter bins, if the homeless spot you throwing food away they ask for it immediately. They scour the grass picking up things aimlessly and constantly chuck stuff in the trash cans. They shout at tourists who drop stuff, it amazed me, but then again, if the open ground is your home, then you treat it well.
The local shopkeepers sell a beer called Joose, which is neatly disguised in a big colourful can and looks like a fizzy drink, but it contains 10% alcohol and is only $3 a can, which keeps the boozers well oiled. The sun beat down on Venice but as it set a cloak of menace descended on the place and it did get rather seedy. Puck made me leave at 6pm making me promise never to return when it was dark. “It can get dangerous Janey, I am being serious, go now” he insisted.
Venice beach was a real eye opener to me, the guys were so welcoming and I will truly miss Talon and Puck, my tour guides for the weekend._