Life in Venice

“It is so miserable here, I don’t really want to do anything. It’s like seriously, actually, genuinely depressing.”

Caitlin Pence, Manhattan Beach, Calif.

These are, indeed, dark days in California. Unemployment is 12.4% (third worst in the nation), the state faces a $19 billion budget shortfall, the housing industry has hit the wall, the social safety net is being eviscerated and the gridlocked legislature is powerless to act.

Despite the superhuman efforts of Gov. Schwarzenegger and early warnings from former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld about the danger of becoming like “old Europe,” that spectre of gloom continues to envelop us.

“You see what is happening in Greece, you see what is happening in Ireland, you see what is happening in Spain now,” Schwarzenegger said the other day. “We are left with nothing but tough choices.”

However, Caitlin Pence of Manhattan Beach wasn’t talking about any of that.

She was talking about the weather. More precisely, she was talking to the New York Times about the weather along the beach in Southern California.

“Climatic Bragging Rights Are Waning for Angelenos,” the headline read in Sunday’s paper. The party is over. June temperatures were 2.4 degrees cooler than usual, and there were traces of rain four days in July. This disaster was likened to a September frost in Miami.

The Paper of Record was concerned that it might be December before Los Angeles “finds its rightful smug spot in the weather world again.” At least it’s nice to see the NYT retains its snarky, East Coast self-absorption year-round.

I suppose it’s all justifiably just a matter of perspective. Back East, where they’ve been frying eggs on their foreheads — or in the windblown, water-deluged Midwest — or down South, where the tarball season is in full swing — any talk of SoCal inclement weather seems obnoxious. But the fact is, there is arguably enough crap going on somewhere in the world every day to reduce the most anguished wail, by comparison, to the wimpiest of whines. And the folks in Haiti probably don’t have much sympathy for Louisiana fishermen.

My first summer at the beach was in 1977. I had just moved west from Bloomington, Indiana, with my future wife and was looking for an apartment and my first newspaper reporting job. We ended up gazing at the water through picture windows on the Venice boardwalk for $406 a month.

Venice has a storied history. Shortly after the turn of the century, Abbot Kinney built canals and developed it as a resort town just to the west of Los Angeles. Eventually, he turned the city into an entertainment tourist mecca with arcades and roller coasters. After he died, the city went to seed, its infrastructure deteriorated and it was annexed by L.A. Many of the canals were paved over and derricks went up everywhere after oil was discovered in 1929. The depression drove a final stake through its heart and Venice wasn’t much to speak of til a young counterculture of artists, poets and writers evolved in its mostly low-rent, European emigre community heavy with Holocaust survivors. The Beats of the ’50s gave way to the hippies in the ’60s and creeping affluence in the ’70s.

By the time I arrived, Venice was still a sleepy, underdeveloped community of artists, artisans and artist and artisan wannabes, but was literally moments away from becoming home to a whirring blur of crazed roller skaters, outrageous street performers and the world’s foremost supply of storefront T-shirt shops.

Robin Williams traded quips with local talent like Swami X just feet from my door. Actress Stockard Channing used to visit the guy living upstairs. I recognized all the film locations from Cisco Pike. And the music never stopped. Ed Brown (the Singing Piano Mover), Slavin’ DavidJingles, the Canaligators, Don (the Mad Cosmic Violinist) and, of course, this guy. Away from the boardwalk, where the sand meets the sea, the faint sound of drumming mixed with the steady rhythm of the waves in the earliest incarnation of the fabled Venice Drum Circle.

Wet drenched the zeitgeist.

Although Venice was home of the homeless before they moved to the suburbs, you wouldn’t really have known it walking around the beach. Maybe that was because they lacked contrast with the heavy influx of tourists yet to arrive. Or maybe they knew better than to get in the way of the Hare Krishnas, who paraded down the boardwalk every summer with elephants and dancers in tow.

All of this was chronicled in the Venice Beachhead, a free community newspaper that foreshadowed the kind of hyper-local online publication championed these days by AOL.

A year later, I was still unemployed but the newly rediscovered enclave was already transformed.

July 4th was a lost scene from Apocalypse Now, with drug-crazed celebrants gathered in circles in the sand firing rockets back across the boardwalk and onto our own rooftops. The atmosphere was so thick with smoke, and our brains so addled by the festivities, that you could barely make out Robert Duvall roaring in the distance about the smell of napalm in the dawn’s early light. OK. The movie was still a year away, but Coppola must have been somewhere nearby.

My girlfriend quickly got a job, but it was 15 months before I found something. Fifteen months of occasional temp work in the city and regular tan work at the beach. When I wasn’t walking my dog or sending out resumes and calling newspapers (you could cold call a prospective employer back then and they remembered who you were) I was learning to skate, jogging up and down the boardwalk, or reading in the wooden pagoda by my apartment, listening to nearly-blind Uncle Bill play his guitar and sing the blues.

It didn’t matter that I didn’t have a job. It didn’t matter that the idealism and hopefulness of the ’60s was giving way to economic uncertainty and that the rank commercialism of the approaching Reagan Revolution was transforming the boardwalk before my eyes. It didn’t matter that Uncle Bill tried to seduce my girlfriend. All right. That mattered a little.

As I approach my fifteenth month of unemployment, I am buoyed by the thought that I’ve been here before.

Perhaps it was being young and in love and on my own for the first time. Perhaps it was the sheer exuberance of finally having a vocation to pursue after years of doubt and pain. Perhaps the passage of time has dimmed my memory of the early struggle to establish a career. But I don’t recall ever feeling troubled by the prospect of an uncertain future in troubled times.

I think it was the perfect weather.