A Swath of California Craziness
By DOUG LANSKY
© St. Petersburg Times
ENICE BEACH, Calif. -- Editors note: Today the Travel Section introduces a new column by Doug Lansky, a 20-something wanderer who rarely returns to his hometown in Minnesota. Lansky is currently traveling across the United States with his girlfriend, who is a doctor and native of Sweden.
Are you a chain-saw juggler looking for your first big break? An unappreciated, in-line skating balloon-animal twister? A lonely, geriatric break dancer? A militant vegan fire breather who can't get on Jerry Springer's show? Come join your brothers and sisters here on Venice Beach, America's smorgasbord of the rationally challenged.
This modest stretch of sand just south of Santa Monica offers an especially colorful slice of California craziness. Strolling down the beach, I stopped first for a chat with Bobby Brown, a 50-something-year-old man relaxing on a cushion next to a sign that read: "World's Greatest Wino! Trained in Jokes, Songs and Sexual Counseling." Bobby said he'd been a surgical nurse in Georgia and a caddy on the PGA tour before losing most of his eyesight.
After telling an obscene joke involving Bill, Hillary and Newt, Bobby moved on to some sex counseling. "Foreplay, foreplay, foreplay," he advised me. He didn't hold back on detail, demonstrating as best he could while not disturbing his comfortable position. I thanked him for the tips, gave him $1 and moved on.
There was no shortage of psychics and fortunetellers. All you need, it seems, is a card table and a few chairs for customers.
I stopped to chat with an astrologist who was sitting at a table with a laptop computer powered by a DieHard battery that was next to his feet. The only mystic element to his setup was the tablecloth, which had little stars and crescent moons and looked as if someone had spilled Lucky Charms on it.
For $5, Dennis (psychic name: "Denn") typed in my birth date and place of birth, then let his laptop chart the data. He interpreted my chart and told me I would be accident prone for a week and that I might become "obscene with desire, perhaps even experimental and kinky."
Midway through the reading, Denn's computer crashed, which I took as a bad omen.
"Don't worry about it," said Denn, kicking the battery and thus restarting the computer. "My other computer -- with a Pentium processor -- works much better."
I moved down to Luann Hughes (psychic name: "Luna") for a Tarot card reading. Luna looked as mystic as anyone on the beach: She had blond hair extensions down to her waist, faux fingernails long enough to take soil samples from the Earth's core and more crystals on her table than the planet Krypton.
I shuffled the cards three times, then said my name aloud three times and handed the cards back to Luna. She fanned them and instructed me to pick several. After examining the cards, she rattled off a series of cliches: "The world is your oyster." "Your cup of life is overflowing." "Don't worry, be happy."
Then, with a straight face, she said, "You are spending money on silly things with very little return."
Next to Luna was George French (psychic name: "Mad George"), a "master palm reader." He wore a Jurassic Park wristwatch, and the only thing on his table was a Diet Coke.
Mad George studied both my palms with jewelers' magnifying glasses for several minutes before he said a word. When he finally did speak, he was confident and specific. "One thing is certain," he began, "you are a hammer, not a plow."
He told me I would live to be 83. I would become rich at age 35. If I had been alive 200 years ago, I would have had two sons and three daughters.
"What about in this century?" I asked.
"With birth control and all that, who knows?" he replied.
It's hard to miss the most famous site in Venice: Muscle Beach. It's the outdoor weight-training facility where Arnold Schwarzenegger used to train.
For $3, I bought a day pass, swallowed my pride and stepped into the "Pit," as it's known by the regulars.
Almost immediately, I met Espen Tompter, a Norwegian trainer, and Stratos (no last name), a model/actor. They offered guidance.
"First," said Stratos, "you have to take off your shirt." I reluctantly doffed my top with about 30 spectators watching.
"Try not to be self-conscious," said Stratos, whose tanned pectoral muscles were the size of a Caesar salad.
Espen and Stratos helped me through a series of lifting maneuvers. At one point, a young woman called Stratos and me over for a photo. Ah, the glamor of Muscle Beach, I thought. Then she handed me the camera and asked me to take a picture of her and Stratos. I should have guessed.
After several more strenuous acts of physical prowess, I headed down the beach with my puny muscles screaming in agony. Fortunately, there are about 50 masseuses offering their services on the sidewalk. I picked one whose sign read "Shabba: Hands of Fire."
Shabba gave me the most painful, yet effective, massage of my life for $4 plus a roll of film. I felt every Bobby Brown-ism, every conflicting fortune and every muscular deficiency -- in fact, my entire Venice Beach experience -- get wrenched from my body in just 20 minutes.
Know Before You Go
-- Best time to go to Venice Beach: weekend afternoons.
-- Watch out for pickpockets.
-- If you're short on cash, feel free to start your own act. Doug Lansky appreciates hearing from readers; write to him care of the Travel Section, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731, or send e-mail to DougDylan@aol.com. SC: PG: 1E TY:
Originally published August 17, 1997