THE KING OF THE BEACH
Venice Beach is wide. The shallow ocean floor of the central Santa Monica Bay has been filled with sand, trucked in from the desert. In the winter, the County puts sand fences at the edge of the beach, parallel to the bike path which runs the length of the bay. This is meant to keep the boardwalk (actually a wide asphalt path) somewhat clean, by stopping the sand and beach detritus much like a snow fence prevents drifts across a highway. Still, storm winds stir up the sand, and filter trash across the breadth of the littoral. About once a week, County workers in a tractor pull a wide rake thru the sand, plowing even grooves into the surface.
The first time I saw this, I said to Ann, "Look, they're grooming the beach!". It looked exactly like a ski run at Sun Valley, turned into corduroy after a night's run by the snowcats. The tractors would come out early in the morning. Usually, on my walk down to the waves before heading to work, I'd get "first tracks" through the clean sand. The grooves cut about four inches in, and the sand underneath was often cold and a little wet in winter. Sometimes, I'd see the tractors grinding away in slow motion, scraping the trash along behind them. They would swerve around obstacles like garbage cans and lifeguard towers, providing a curving relief to the otherwise monotonous straight furrows. One morning, I noticed they had cut a wider swath than usual around the volleyball stanchions near the gazebo at the end of Wavecrest. (I'd never seen a net there, but the steel poles were a permanent landmark, making it easy to head for home if the fog got too thick to actually see the Boardwalk buildings from water's edge.) At the base of the pole was an iridescent purple sleeping bag, only partially containing a huge black man, who must have been about 6'5", weighing over 250#.
I knew this guy. Daytime, he walked down Ocean Front, eyes clouded, staring far ahead and periodically mumbling. He was definitely scary looking, but like most of the Venice street people, totally harmless and predictable. He wore a loose fitting white caftan, almost Arabic in appearance. His stare was more likely a myopic squint. His most amazing accessory was a giant boom box.
Huge radios were de rigeur among intimidating young black men in Venice in the 70's. Fitted with extra bass boost, they would play a rhythmic, pre-rap pounding and chanting, decipherable only from within their culture. Never looking at the other strollers along the Boardwalk, nonetheless they knew the rest of us were profoundly bothered by the music and its volume, but would never dream of asking for it to be turned down. Besides, they were in constant motion, so the sound would crescendo and de-crescendo as they passed by, dopplering a bit as the box swung beside their legs. The noise was usually gone within 15 seconds, and so was just another background bit of color, like the waves or the fog.
But this guy, he wouldn't walk with his box. He'd leave it on the park bench at the bottom of Wavecrest, near the drunk guys' gazebo. They protected his stuff, and tolerated him, although he never spoke directly to them. I guess they figured if he was twice their size, they might need his help someday, and certainly didn't want to cross him. When he sat on the bench, he'd turn his radio on. And play Mantovani.
Mantovani - the epitome of easy listening. In LA, there is a station for every taste, and I suppose some people actually enjoy listening to Muzak-tinged elevator music all day. This guy, the King of the beach, was one of them.
He was King because he did exactly what he wanted, and no one bothered him, which seemed the essence of kingliness to me. He disappeared, like the other street people, after sunset, going to whatever hovel he'd managed to secure with his state disability subsidy. He must have been one of those stable schizophrenics who used to filled mental hospitals, but, with the advent of Thorazine, were turned loose to wander the concrete slums of the city. A decade later, we'd call them homeless. Now, we just called them crazy.
The King liked his Mantovani loud. During the day, this was almost tolerable, although I'm sure he knew that, to the 20-something would-be hippies around him, his saccharin sounds were just as irritating as his brothers' African rhythms. But on this morning, when he started sleeping on the beach, he had his boom box on the top of the volleyball pole, pouring out the strings and brass of a distorted re-incarnation of Percy Faith's "A Summer Place". And he was asleep (tranquilizers will do that to you).
I had my dog, Buff, with me. Great White Buffalo was a Golden Retriever, who shared two qualities with most of his brothers. He liked people, and he liked to fetch things from the water. As often as I could, I'd take him down to the surf, throw a stick over the waves, and watch him swim up the breakers, out to the stick, grab it and turn around. Then he'd paddle madly, trying to catch a wave to body surf in. He almost always kept his head above water.
This morning, on our way back, Buff sprinted over to the King to sniff him out. The King stirred, hacked a cough, and rolled over, sitting up just as Buff started his shake. Ear to tail, Buff made sure he got all the water off him, and onto the closest human; it was his way of bonding, I suppose. Then he turned around, sat down facing the King, panted and smiled.
"Hey, you got me all wet," the King grumbled to Buff. He reached into the gym bag he'd been using as a pillow, pulled out half a sandwich, and threw it to Buff. "Go away, now, boy. Let me sleep." His bass voice muffled as he rolled back into the purple bag, too tired to keep his head up anymore. The Mantovani swelled to its soothing climax, some watered down Beatles tune which deserved a lot better. Oh well, it could have been Bluegrass, I guess.
For the next week or so, the King kept court at the volleyball pole. One afternoon, I saw him in deep negotiation with a pair of shorts-wearing beach cops. One cop explained about laws against sleeping on the beach, the King stared imperially out to sea, and the cop's partner fingered the purple bag. The pair moved on, and the King folded up his bed into the gym bag, turned south towards the Marina, away from the drunk guys' gazebo and the volley ball pole he'd been calling home. We never saw him again.
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