THE CENTER OF THE UNIVERSE
From the glassy waters of the bay, Jandee's looked like a turquoise mirage. With no wind, the smog filtered west over the beach out to the ocean, and the heat waves curling up from the sand threatened to hide the place altogether.
Bobbing aimlessly on the Hobie Cat, Ann and I looked up from our seasick torpor just as we drifted by the pizza place at the end of Wavecrest. Set amidst the tan and brown stucco of the neighboring buildings, Jandee's blue-green vibrance (we didn't know about "teal" back then) seemed not so much out-of-place, as ruling the place. The waters of the bay, though flat, had just enough swell, and the Hobie Cat little enough ballast, to set the inner workings of my stomach on a search and destroy mission into the upper reaches of my esophagus.
It was all I could do to raise my head; seeing Jandee's, I mumbled out my hallucination: "Look at Jandee's. That's the Center of the Universe. We gotta get back there." With that, I threw up over the side, and waited for a breeze which never came.
We'd bought the catamaran with Rick, used, the year before. When he left, we had to buy him out, and that meant we had to go sailing twice as much to make it seem worth the $1500 we spent. Cats got moored at the far end of a slip, all the way against the concrete walls enclosing the marina. Easily maneuvered, they were the only vessels capable of making the sharp turn into that tight space. Sort of like the VW beetles of the sailing world. Actually, a Hobie Cat is more like a Fiat Spyder or Mazda Miata - small and swift, and finicky. With no keel, and large sails, you could actually tip over the buggers, which we did several times in the middle of the main Marina Del Rey channel. The instruction manual said, quite authoritatively, that, with a total weight of 350 pounds, the craft was easily righted by turning it cross-wise with the mast pointing into the wind. Then the two sailors pulled down on ropes tied to the pontoon rising out of the water. In theory, once the mast came out of the water, the sail would catch a breeze, and drop the upper pontoon back down flat. It never worked that way for us. Either we couldn't pull the boat down at all, or we pulled too hard, and flipped the mast back down the other way on top of us. Two or three such efforts usually exhausted us, and we would have to call on a friendly passing power boat captain (there was always one churning up or down the channel, day or night) to gently tip the mast up towards us.
Once upright, the Hobie had no peer among the sailing craft there in the world's largest small boat harbor. Once past the jetty, and into the usually reliable afternoon southwesterly onshore wind breezing across Santa Monica Bay, the main and the jib could vault us up over 25 knots with ease. Flying parallel to shore (we never wanted to lose sight of land, as we had no clue how to tell distance, direction, or speed), we got to know the landmarks from Hermosa Beach to Malibu very, very well. Chief among them, from our point of view, was Jandee's, the turquoise painted pizza house at the end of our "street", Wavecrest.
Though blessed with street signs, and even stop signs at the intersections with Speedway, the "streets" of Venice west of Pacific Ave were actually pedestrian only walkways, two sidewalks wide. At the end of Wavecrest, Nick the Greek had his corner store, selling daily papers, Thunderbird wine, and condiments to the locals, and apartments in the three stories above to the affluhip. Across a wide asphalt turn around, Jandee baked his pizzas and provided a landmark bright as any light house. In the evenings, walking down to the beach, we stop by Jandee's, and pick up our first whiff of the sandy salty ocean air. The asphalt we stood on had been patched many times in the past eight decades. The police had installed squat metal posts to prevent cars from entering Ocean Front Walk via Speedway. They'd pulled one out some time back, and the hole had been haphazardly filled over. The blacktop kept spilling into the void, making a ragged entrance into whatever lay below. On one particularly dreamy night, we never quite made it down to the water for our nightly walk along the sand. As a matter of fact, we became becalmed right there by Jandee's, Ann watching the Venice street life parading in front of us, and me just conscious enough to wonder why there was a hole in the middle of the street.
"Here it is!" I mumbled ecstatically. My eyes got wide, and I felt a little dizzy as I peered into the post hole by my feet.
"It's always here, every night," Ann replied. "They come down here every night. Did you ever wonder why they come here, why they walk along the beach every night? Look at them! I wish I had my camera."
I paused for thought, trying to connect what I saw below me with what she was saying. I knew she was trying to tell me something, but the epiphany clouding my brain was only intermittently letting in random, disjointed snatches of consciousness. So I just let my mouth do the talking. "Well of course they're here. This is the Center of the Universe, isn't it? They feel the power, even if they don't know it's here. We're so lucky, to live so close to the epicenter."
"What are you talking about!?"
"Right here!" I pointed down. "This is it; that spot, that hole, right there ... that's it, that's the Center of the Universe."
Ann laughed, like she was humoring a drunk. "Really? Why?"
I didn't know. "Can't you feel it? This is the place we always come to, where we feel most ... I don't know... connected!"
"Look." I suddenly felt lucid. "Right here, this place, this spot, can't you feel it? It's the place we see from the water, when we're on the Hobie Cat. This is how we know where home is, when we see Jandee's. It's so ... purple! It just stands out, out here from the water. Remember, when we look to shore, we always say, 'There's Jandee's'. It's home! This is where we live!"
"Yeah?" Ann's question asked for more explanation. She thought I was nuts, I could tell.
I didn't know what to say - I couldn't even think it. But looking back, I know what I felt. We'd become a pair, and built all the things that make a couple's life. We had jobs, we had a house, we had dogs, we had friends, but most of all, we had a place and a present history. Venice was where we'd become us, and this hole in the street felt like the vortex center, a whirling black hole yanking us into the street life along the Boardwalk, into the surf life along the littoral. Like strings on a Maypole, the pieces of our lives - of our life - played out around the ground surrounding Jandee's, at the end of Wavecrest.
Out on the Hobie Cat, I felt a little better. We were still becalmed, but, by looking straight at Jandee's, I found I could overcome the wretched feeling of nothingness which is the hell of mal de mer. I started to sing. "City girls just seem to find out early,/ How to open doors with just a smile/ A rich old man, and she won't have to worry/ She'll dress up all in lace, and go in style". By the time we got to the chorus, Ann had gotten over her laughter at my totally tone deaf singing voice, and came in with harmony to make Emmylou Harris jealous.
"You can't hide your lyin' eyes/ And your smile is a thin disguise/ I thought by now you'd realize/ There ain't no way to hide your lyin' eyes". Our voices, at least to my untuned ear, made a perfect fit for the Henley/Frey song. Ann, from up on the hill north of Sunset, had always been my little rich girl. But she'd never had lying eyes; I only saw the truth in her. The breeze picked up a bit, just enough to take the edge off the swell, but not enough to take us home. Yet.
"What should we sing next?" I asked.
"Remember Meat Loaf? Remember when we saw him at the Civic?" Ann looked dreamy, leaning back against the pontoon, legs resting on the stretched mesh platform which served as our deck.
"Oh, that guy was something else. But I can't sing like him."
"You can't sing like the Eagles, either, but that didn't stop you."
"I know. We sound pretty good together, I think."
"Yeah, we do. But remember Meat Loaf? Remember what he did at the end of the show? His a capella?"
"Oh, yeah! That!"
Meat, of course, was a very big guy, with a very big hit record - Bat Out of Hell. The critics hated it, but for some reason, the thing sold 9,000,000 copies. Jim Steinman had written anthems of unrequited teen-age lust, sort of Beach Boys meets Phil Spector, as penned by Bruce Springsteen. Funny, poetic, and loud. And only Meat Loaf, all 300 pounds of him, was up to the challenge to bring it across with the right amount of vocal power, seriousness of purpose, and just a hint of humor. That night, we watched his theatrical renditions of songs like "Paradise by the Dashboard Light", complete with lascivious tongue kissing and hip thrusting while Phil Rizzuto's play-by-play staccato'd in the background. For his encore, he came out and did one of his slow-dance numbers, "Heaven Can Wait". For this piece, he was all alone - no bass, drums, piano, organ or guitar behind him. He started singing quietly, like some Texas-sized tenor trying to win a Tuscan love. He crescendo'd toward the song's final verse, and then, like he was disgusted with the artificial qualities it transmitted, he flung the microphone down on the stage, and finished the number not only a cappella, but sans any amplification whatsoever. We were near the back of the 3,600 seat Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and we didn't miss a note. The big guy just went deep inside himself, found his center, and sang it back at us, warbling on about never letting the angels slip away. When he was done, and bowing with his long hair scrapping the light sconce at the front of the proscenium, the whole audience sat stunned for a minute - awed silence seemed to be the best response to his performance. Then, applause, whistles, and chants of "Meat!Meat!Meat". We wandered out into the night, and down to the beach for the walk home after the show.
The moon was rising early that night, coming towards full a few days later. Silvered wavelets barely rose above the bay, calm with the evening's coolness. Distinctly quiet between each break, the waters sounded less like LA at full bore, and more like some hidden cove on the Sea of Cortez. We could almost imagine ourselves alone under the South California sky. To our left, the moonlight bounced off the buildings along Ocean Front. The bums were gone, even the drunk guys' gazebo was vacant. The low-slung Venice skyline stood silhouetted against the LA lights from further inland. Jandee's turquoise beacon caught the fragrance from the moon, and called us home.
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