When I walk down to the ugly grey beach of my hometown, I smell a mingling of the rotting of hamburgers with the cloying aroma of a hundred different brands of incense intermingling. I come back and try to go to sleep, but can’t as yet another drunkard stumbles down the alleyway, howling “to hell with it all!”
Before leaving for school the next morning, I have to chase my neighbor’s new bantam chickens out of the alley so I don’t run them over. When I finally get on the road, I inch through traffic and feel the bass vibrations of Bob Marley’s No Woman No Cry. The song seems to be on permanent repeat where I live, and it emanates from a beat-up station wagon covered in old campaign bumper stickers in the next lane over. I look down at my own outfit; jeans and a plain white t-shirt. Shouldn’t I at least have dreadlocks, as a nod to my neighborhood? Besides my righteous tan, what good has living in Venice Beach, California done for me?
None of this seemed strange to me when I was young. Growing up, I was awoken not by an alarm clock, but by the chk-chk-chk of a little wooden frog from Peru that my mother would strike with a small stick. Until I was ten, I never thought twice about my own modest household, with our extensive library of H.P. Lovecraft books and spookily unkempt bougainvillea in the front yard.
In my preteen years, I then began to see my neighborhood as simply too bizarre to appreciate. I would look the other way when driving by the office building shaped like binoculars. I couldn’t avoid gawking at Venice’s unofficial symbol, a twenty-foot statue of a ballerina-clown. Even the palm trees that line every street looked diseased and un-tropical.
But then I realized that beneath Venice’s tack lies true soul that is born out of funkiness. I once dropped fifty cents into a man’s dirtied 7-11 cup, and I confess that at first my charity stemmed out of fear the man would jump up and empty the questionable contents of his canteen on me if I ignored him. Now, though, the man, whom my childhood friend and I have dubbed “grandpa” asks us to join him in “prayer” when we walk by (I don’t know a whole lot about religion, and judging by his mutterings that vaguely incorporate Jesus Christ, marijuana, and the Eternal Light—whatever that may be—I’m assuming he doesn’t either). Truly, this community is a trusting one. Ultimately, though, I know I’ve made peace with Venice because I’ve learned to appreciate, if not fully to understand, the mold of a pink alligator in a modern art gallery down the street.
As I stroll down the boardwalk, I wait for a leathery-skinned rollerblader to pass by, his Scarlet macaw perched like a conscience on his shoulder. I know it’s perverse, but I’m almost thankful for the infamous Los Angeles smog which clouds up the twilight sky to produce an aurora of reds, pinks and oranges. Paper bags float in the water like jellyfish used to before pollution wiped them out. I think a factory dumps its garbage into the Pacific Ocean no less than four miles south, but I swim in the water anyway. Finally, as I pass rotting cadavers of washed-up seagulls, I see that even in this place that seems to be a relic of the 1970s, nothing escapes the effects of age. Indeed, although this place likes to keep up the hippie-dippie facade, mass gentrification has been happening for years. I dare not venture out on Abbott Kinney out of my own neurotic fear of being judged by the nouveau-Venice elite.
I’m not really a boaster, but I do have to admit that I’m fairly immune to being shocked and I attribute this quality to the environment of my upbringing. The weird thing is, my long-overdue acceptance of Venice and subsequent realization that I’m rather square in comparison makes me feel like the lawyer parent of a teenage punk. I don’t go to the weekly drum circles, I don’t smoke massive amounts of weed. Hell, I don’t even skateboard! As a kid, I would roam the streets of Venice aimlessly, literally hunting for a sign or person to let me know where I fit in, be it a ragtag group of kids or a half- empty bottle of spray-paint I could tag with, I didn’t know what. In retrospect, I realize that my fourteen-year-old self, barefoot with a bandana in my hair, face scrunched up in surly teenaged grief must have looked just as bizarre to outsiders as locals looked to me. And that’s a half-formed identity I can live with.