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by Bob Sparrow
On July 4, 1905 tobacco mogul, Abbot Kinney dug some canals, opened a few shops and launched ‘Venice of America’ next to Santa Monica Beach, hoping to ‘recreate’ Venice, Italy and attract lovers of art, music and culture – it did not. Being the ever-astute businessman, he quickly scraped the idea of bringing the Renaissance to America and instead brought in exhibits, amusements and freak shows that attracted young counterculture artists, poets, and writers. I don’t know about artists and poets, but I’m here to tell you that the freaks have definitely survived – I was one of them last week, when I made my first visit to Venice Beach. With summer drawing to and end, the usually packed boardwalk had thinned out, the freaks were fewer in numbers, but no less freaky and it seems that even some of the homeless people had gone home. What I noticed was a lot of older guys walking around taking pictures – I guess we were the freaks.
In the heart of the Venice Beach boardwalk is ‘Muscle Beach’, where guys can workout in the open air on the sand. I thought it would be fun to drop in and do a workout, pump some iron, maybe throw in a clean and jerk. I was stopped at the entrance and told that I would give ‘Muscle Beach’ a bad name if I took off my shirt, and was admonished that if I tried to enter the workout area, a ‘jerk’ would certainly be part of my future.
Curious about what my real future looked like, I moved on to a nearby Psychic Fortune Teller. I knocked on the door to the psychic’s office or séance room or whatever it was, and a pregnant young lady, with a cell phone to her ear, appeared. She whispered that she was on the phone with the water company, who was threatening to turn off her water, and asked me to sit down. As I sat there for about 10-15 minutes I got to thinking, didn’t she know I was coming, and, do you really have to be a fortune teller to know that if you don’t pay your bill, they’re going to shut off your water.? I may be parsing words here, but isn’t it an oxymoron to have a pregnant psychic woman ‘expecting’ – shouldn’t she ‘know’?
With some trepidation I paid to have both palms and my face read. She examined my palms and told me, I was married and had 2 to 4 children. I think my wedding ring gave her a clue to my marital status and I’m guessing 80% of married people my age have between 2-4 children. I wanted to play along to see what other amazing revelations she had in store for me, so I said, “That’s unbelievable!” She smiled knowingly and droned on for about ten minutes, giving me such gems as, “You’ve had some conflicts in the past”, “You’d rather give orders than take them”, “You will travel somewhere” and other phrases she had memorized from Chinese fortune cookies. The only thing I really remembered hearing was “You’re going to make a lot of money next year” – I think that one was accurately divined. After rattling off hackneyed phrase after phrase, she suddenly stopped, got up and walked out of the room. It was like the meter had run out and my time was up, or she suddenly looked into her own future and saw the guy from the water company at the side of her house preparing to turn off her water. I left and walked down the boardwalk with a little more spring in my step, comforted by the thought that I was going to make a lot of money next year.
I asked about 10 or 12 people on the boardwalk where the canals were, and mostly I heard, “There are canals here?” I started to explain the Venice connection, but no one seemed really interested. I finally found the canals inland about two blocks off the beach. There are only six canals left, there were about twice that many originally, and they are only deep enough to accommodate very small boats and kayaks, but the homes around them were small, but quite nice.
If Abbot Kinney were alive today, he might be a bit disappointed that poetry and art are found on tee shirts, the music comes from homeless street musicians and the culture does not evoke the Renaissance, but the business man in him would probably appreciate the fact that millions still comes to see the freak shows every year.