California is known for its eccentrics, and for good reason. The culture and the climate both encourage people to venture outdoors—people who in other states would remain hiding in the woodwork or at least getting weekly therapy. But where did they all come from? History reveals that the California Gold Rush of 1848 drew dreamers, schemers, underachievers, and neurotics to the state, and despite finding nothing of value in the hills, they decided to stay. Now they’ve had time to produce something like eight generations of inbreeding.
Southern California has more than its share of oddballs. Former child stars, now homeless, lurk on street corners handing out bad poetry for spare change. Environmentalists demanding justice assault mall patrons with protests and new car dealers with explosives. Acting students—working in every restaurant, café, bookstore, and crack-house—care more about their careers than your order. These people have no boundaries and believe the world owes them, if not a living, then at least a large beer.
We recommend you steer clear of the state. On one short ill-fated visit, we swear we encountered most of the region’s nutcases all in one place. It’s called the World’s Greatest Free Freak Show, but we didn’t know that when we arrived in Venice Beach, an ocean-side community south of Santa Monica. We had only heard of the famous boardwalk along its beach, where athletic joggers share space with bikini-clad rollerbladers, where dog-walkers and skateboarders somehow co-exist.
We found the town easily enough and spent the first carefree hour sightseeing for a parking space. Once we made it to the beach, we were immediately impressed with the high quality of its characters. We’re not your average tourists—not by a long shot—but even we could never attain this level of weirdness. The beach area held the cream of California’s crop of crazies. This was no easy feat, considering that rental prices in the community range from “High” to “Oh My God.” Where these people actually slept was a mystery. Maybe they flew in every morning from San Fernando Valley.
The beach scene was a carnival atmosphere, where anything goes. We’re not saying we were solicited for sex or drugs, but we won’t deny it either.
The least deviant people we encountered were the bodybuilders. Flexing and squatting and grunting, they exercised at Muscle Beach, an outdoor gym that sits right on the sand. It seemed narcissistic for someone to exercise in front of curious, funnel cake-eating onlookers, but then bodybuilding is narcissistic by nature.
All along the boardwalk, littering the sand like gnats, were “buskers,” “artists,” and “merchants.” Usually such terms evoke visions of people with talent and ambition, or at least teeth. Most of these “businesspeople” looked like they lived where they sat. Some looked as though they’d somehow survived on handouts without moving since 1972. They certainly hadn’t changed their clothes.
Then things turned worse. A Jimi Hendrix wannabe latched onto us. He played his electric guitar with mock emotion through a portable amplifier strapped to his waist while rollerblading through the crowd at high speeds. He followed us, skating backwards to “Purple Haze” until we paid him a couple dollars to leave. Even then he circled us a few times before darting off. We were glad to see him go; he stunk—not his guitar playing, his body odor.
This stolen image (we never got to photograph our assailant) only hints at the weirdness that is Venice Beach.
Of course, Venice Beach has lots to offer besides the people who inhabit it. Coffeehouses and boutiques line the boardwalk. The shops—with names like Surfing Cowboys, Johnny B. Wood, and The Modern Dog—sell almost everything, from hemp clothing to modern furniture. We’re talking Eclectic with a capital E. Since rents are so high, you might find that one-in-a-million whatever, but you’ll have to pay through the nose for it.
By the end of the day, we felt raw, sunburned, overwhelmed, and broke. All in all, that’s not necessarily bad, but it wasn’t the kind of day we had expected. Sometimes, you just chalk it up to experience. Other times, you realize you just picked the wrong day to stop snorting marijuana.
Lessons Learned: The reputation of a place (any place) gets cemented in the distant past. By the time you arrive for a visit, you’ll often find, as we did on this occasion, that the area has deceived you in a bait and switch. Whatever you expected, you’ll likely find a shallow representation instead. Venice Beach has its charm, but it’s like the grubby, bohemian artist who insists that he’s still relevant. To you and me, he’s not.
How We Saw It
Communication Breakdown: 2
Customer Dis-service: 3
Discomfort Level: 3
Grunge Factor: 5
Inactivity Guide: 1
Spontaneous Consumption: 4
Fun Fraction: 4/5
If You Won’t Listen to Us
Nearest Airport: Los Angeles International Airport
Native Population: 38,000
Normal Attractions: Muscle Beach, beach volleyball courts, the boardwalk and its businesses, plus the people who inhabit it. In other words, it’s all about the sun. And commerce.
Final Point of Interest: Downtown Venice actually has some cool bars, nightclubs, and art galleries.