GIVE ME MONEY
Ann and I loved to walk along the beach. We worked hard all day, 20 miles away in a ten story 200-bed hospital building, which was really just a backwater of the large County Medical Center. What little views we had of the outside world were either smog encrusted, or trapped between cars and trucks at rush hour. At the beach, we could believe the world of work and commerce was far away, or at least (literally) behind us.
For others, the beach was their world of commerce. Having little money made it easy to ignore their pleas and ploys, but everywhere you turned, someone had his hand out. On sunny weekends, the street artists showed up. For 50¢, you could buy a seven minute charcoal caricature of yourself from a taciturn, chain-smoking art-school dropout. Down the block, the glitter-drop guy would scatter multi-colored sparkles over a sticky background. Seen from a distance, he looked like someone shooting craps, endlessly rolling a seven. Up close, he seemed to be sowing a miniature field with tiny shiny seeds. Only when he finished could you see the magic he'd made.
The most successful artists were those who kept a patter up, pulling Boardwalkers in to the little semi-circle surrounding their open air studios.
"Now there's a lady who wants to see her picture above the fireplace." The guy was looking steely-eyed into me, with a curling smile below a pencil mustache. "Hey, hippie bro', you got dough - who else you gonna spend it on? Not that girl you got on the side - give it to the lady. She sees the artwork here, she knows what she wants..."
Down on the asphalt were a series of velvet Elvis type pictures of tigers and midnight mountain scenes. The guy could probably paint them blindfolded, because he looked everywhere but at the canvas, which he filled with rapid strokes of some psychedelic paint, shimmering as much after it dried as when it was wet. I had to stop.
"People actually buy these things?"
"Hey man, this is art. I've painted for all the big shots. Nixon got one when I was down in San Clemente. It's the only thing he took with him on that helicopter. You know that briefcase he carried in? It had a toothbrush, and my picture of Pat. She was easy to do - that woman could stand still for hours. But I only need three dollars and ten minutes. Just leave your little Betsy here with me, and I'll do her like I did Pat, while you go get a beer over there at Nick's, OK?"
We laughed and walked on.
Here was a kid with a guitar and an open case, some bills and change flung inside. It was obvious why he wasn't playing in a club. He could moan like Dylan, but damned if Bob didn't actually hit the notes when he "sang".
In the adjacent aural booth stood a ratty black guy, greasy lime green sweatshirt and ripped up khakis all he had on. He had a hand over one ear, a paper cup of change shaking in the other, his foot tapping on a flattened cardboard box, and a raspy vibrant voice half-humming, half droning the melody to "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" - "Um-umumum-um", just like Otis would have done it. He saw us and shifted gears into an upbeat wordless version of "Unchained Melody". He got me, and 35 of my cents, with his bimodal rhythm of coins and cardboard.
One step up from the boardwalk artists were the parking lot vendors. One of California's early referenda created the Coastal Commission, whose job included controlling development within one mile of the ocean. The Commissioners were instructed in the referendum to ensure continued public access to California's beaches, and provide for enduring views of the ocean through height and density limits. While they were mulling over how best to implement the voters' wishes, they imposed a moratorium on any beach development. In Venice, decrepit warehouses had been torn down, anticipating new condos to come. But they never did. The Coastal Commission condemned the vacant areas to become parking lots. Since the city already operated more than enough car space at either end of the beach, these lots became open air stalls for budding entrepreneurs. Guys would back up to the Boardwalk in a van or pickup, open the doors, and start selling the oddest things. T-shirts and caps made sense, as did shower sandals. Roller skate rentals got their start this way. Fresh fruit became popular for a while - bags of oranges would go for a dollar or two, or 25¢ for a grapefruit.
But socks? For some reason, selling socks on Venice beach was seen as a money spinner. Why else would dozens of unemployed dishwashers show up with boxes of plastic shrink-wrapped socks, at five for a dollar. At those prices, even I could afford to protect my feet from the cold kitchen floor, or the smelly interior of the newly popular Adidas running shoes.
I soon found out why they were priced so low. Jerry Lewis, so the story went, was allergic to dry-cleaning chemicals, and wore each of his suits until it needed cleaning, then would give them away to poor people. (This left me with an image of a herd of well-dressed Skid Road bums milling around East Hollywood in well-tailored, ill-fitting suits, stained with cream and drool). Well, Jerry would have loved these socks. These were the first disposable footwear. If they didn't sprout holes after one day in a pair of shoes, they'd surely disintegrate in the laundry. But at ten cents a sock, a dollar a week, what did it matter?
Once it became known that people on the beach were either in a trance or temporarily deprived of economic reason, mostly likely from the constant sunshine and repetitive drone of the waves, beggars drove in from everywhere to sell us all sorts of oddities. Anyone with a car and overseas connections to Sri Lankan or Bangladeshi sweat shops could apparently pick up the remainders of clothing orders and sell them at Venice for absurdly low prices. Since the beach police were rightly more concerned with drug dealers and gang warfare then unlicensed street vendors, the vacant lots soon took on the air of third world bazaars. Whole families would show up with steel poles and tarps, quickly erect a little gazebo, and hang up back packs, leather purses and fanny packs, batik-print dresses, key chains, flashlights, AM radios, blank cassettes, ball point pens - basically whatever they could scrounge from the docks at Long Beach or San Pedro. The beach took on the appearance of a permanent street fair.
Better capitalized entrepreneurs began to create and fill micro-niches in the economic ecology of the beach. Storefronts vacant for a decade or more were sub-divided, and rented by people selling, say, frozen yogurt. When this first appeared, it seemed self-defeating to me. Wouldn't freezing kill the active yogurt bacteria, depriving the eater of the primary nutritional value of the confection? But I soon realized the inventors were just a little ahead of the demographic curve - usually the case on the California beach. All they were doing was substituting 2% or non-fat milk for the cream in ice cream. The yogurt part was just a gimmick, providing a "healthy for you" aura. It soon became more than fashionable to walk down the beach carrying a cone swirled high with fruit-flavored frozen skim milk.
The boardwalk achieved full flower with the re-opening of a long-abandoned warehouse near the Venice community center. One day a dark blue deep yellow awning appeared outside the brick facade, followed a week later by Italian scripted umbrellas covering folding chairs and tables. A sandwich board subtly announced the soon-to-open "Sidewalk cafe and book shop". This seemed the ultimate linkage of disparate enterprises. Indeed, for the first year or so, two separate cultures peopled the inside (book store) and outside (cafe) of this single business. Then, almost overnight, people learned to take their newly purchased book, and sit at the table, sipping drinks and sopping up the sunshine. I briefly fell into a pattern of ordering a sandwich and mai tai, getting swiftly buzzed, and then walking down the strand feeling as untouchable as the wise-cracking drunk guys in their gazebo.
While the sidewalk cafe/bookstore was the royalty of beach proprietors, the undisputed masters of separating beach goers from their money were the pan handlers. Their techniques were as varied as their demeanor. Some would sidle up, trying to gain your confidence, spinning a story of wretched luck and desperate family members. Others would wait for you, locking eyes, and ask for a simple quarter for coffee or bus fare home.
But the absolute hero of them all, the one who had pared the shtick down to its subtle naked essence, was the guy we met one foggy Sunday morning. Sundays had a rhythm on the beach. No one appeared before ten, except dog walkers and aerobic drop bar cyclists, madly pumping from Santa Monica to Palos Verdes and back. By 10:30, the fog would lose its mist, and start to merely hang heavy between a brightening sun and rising surf. At eleven, a mystic cue would bring the legions from near and far, in shorts and sandals, to greet the parting of the clouds as radiance once again filled the ocean's edge.
Ann and I were walking south along the Boardwalk between 10:30 and 11 on this particular Sunday, watching the transition from the purely local populace to the weekend tourists looking for whatever it was that drew them to the beach. We noticed a uniquely unkempt bum weaving within the crowd, seeming to bump off each person's personal space bubble like some psychic human pinball. He wore a heavy, oversized Wallace Berry shirt which had long since lost its buttons and its color. Wildly uncombed hair and a purely utilitarian beard adorned his face and head. His deep-set eyes lay wandering and unfocused above his broken nose and cracking yellowed teeth. In his left hand he carried a paper bag, hiding his bottle of whatever. He seemed powered by the fumes within his lungs, emitted in a series of belches which drove him as much sideways as forward. Unshod feet scrapped along, their calluses harder than the tarred gravel asphalt. We came up to him from the rear, and noticed his sweat pants sported an "L" shaped tear starting near his left hip, just below the elastic waist band, extending over to the midline, then ripping down the middle seam. The resulting flap exposed one entire buttock and his hairy crack. He was either unaware, or uncaring, about this fashion statement.
As we approached, his random Brownian motion swirled him around towards us. One eye briefly focused on me. He held out his free hand, swayed dangerously forward almost into my face, then tilted back again. He breathed out the entire contents of his lungs through nose and mouth, burped, sucked in a breath, and said, in a gravely drunken slur, "Gimme money!". Seeing that he was barely conscious - his request for cash seemed almost a reflex action - Ann and I both laughed while I said, "No way, man!".
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