Monday, August 31, 2009

Sights and Smells: Venice Beach, California

For photos illustrating this post, go here.

When I began going to Venice Beach some time in the mid-Seventies, it was struggling against the ruins of 60’s peace ‘n’ love; druggy, dirty, dangerous and filled with vagrants. Every vestibule reeked of stale urine, and was often occupied by someone living in a cardboard box. Paint peeled off the buildings in sheets and sometimes windows fell out of their casements. Trash blew along the boardwalk like tumbleweeds. Coming out of a tavern off the pier once, I saw a coyote trotting down Washington. He was retaking an old territory.

But there was a vitality and realness to it all. There were still artists’ studios on Market Street then. There was the restaurant without a name near Pacific and Windward, immortalized by the Doors song “Soul Kitchen,” where you could get really good food -- breakfast or meat & three -- for a couple of dollars. We were eating there the day I saw my first corpse. The coroner’s van pulled up in front of an old bungalow across the street, and presently they brought out the body of a fortyish man, bearded and cyanotic, not bothering to cover him. We shrugged and went on eating our eggs -- some junkie’s death -- but I never forgot it.

I didn’t actually go to the beach in those days, just hung around the boardwalk area, taking hundreds of photographs which I can’t find now, drinking coffee at the Sidewalk Cafe, or just walking around. It wasn’t until later, during the ’84 Olympics, that I actually lay on the beach with towel and sunscreen. It became The Thing to Do during those two weeks, because so many foreign women sunbathed topless, as at home, and the American girls followed suit. If the cops rousted you, you simply pretended that you didn’t speak English and didn’t understand them. Pretty soon, they gave up.

Anyway, we went down to Venice on a Sunday afternoon a couple of weeks ago. It’s been about twenty years for me.

It is, thankfully, still tattered. But it seems that the whole place has become a sort of show. I’m not sure who the target audience is, but I suspect that it might be me.

As I looked around, I realized that just about everyone promenading up and down the boardwalk was some sort of mark. The bands were playing for them; the guy who snaps a mousetrap onto his tongue was performing for them. Even the “kick me” guy was there for them, I

It’s not as though there weren’t street performers years ago, or trinkets vendors, or freaks. It’s just that these were professional freaks. People who made their livings as freaks. And I, once a participant, had become an observer.

One thing hadn’t changed much: the smells. Clouds of incense, rolling out of stores and vans. Patchouli oil-scented skin. Pot. A group of guys walked ahead of us, smoking a blunt, right out on the street, and why not? (It’s practically legal -- there’s even a storefront doctor’s office where one can procure, or so I’m told, a pot prescription, for any number of vague ailments.) Sunscreen. Stale urine -- ah, Venice! -- and overflowing trash bins. Dreadlocked hair. B.O. in every strength and variety. County-fair food from the stalls and restaurants.

Even blind, I would have known exactly where I was.

With eyes wide open, though, I could see that they’ve extended the vending area out onto the sand, and that these new vendors have tents like at art fairs. I could see a sign advertising an apartment Jim Morrison had once lived in (step right up!) as a tourist attraction. A sign advertising the “Venice Freak Show.” Another sign that said “Venice Beach parking $20.”

Not much was the same. Some of the street performers. And the smells.

I think that we use scents as references because, in a way, we have to. The visuals change so quickly now, faster and faster. It is scent that slows down time, reminds us in that incomparably visceral way that we’re still here, that the past did exist, that it's there to be called upon, and it’s free.

Photos by KM Borow, all rights reserved.


Perfumeshrine said...

How time flies and how things change...even in the boho art scene.
Scent: "it's there to be called upon, and it’s free."> ah, but is it? :-) (even the garbage cost money to buy in the first place goes my reasoning...but maybe I'm overanalysing)

As always, a pleasure to read, dear P!

Olfacta said...

Thanks E! And yeah, the garbage itself isn't free, but it beats $20 to park!

Rappleyea said...

Terrific essay! I loved it. Re: your comment about hanging onto smells as the visual changes so quickly - but so do the smells! I'm finding that I can either chase expensive and elusive vintage, or try to find something in the new chemical soups called perfume that I can tolerate. I suppose being nostalgic about the past means I'm officially old!

Thanks for the insights. ~Donna

Olfacta said...

Hi D -- Thanks! And I don't think nostalgia means you're old, unless you believe that everything was better than it is now (to which I would reply with one word: dentistry!)

I'm having trouble with the chemical soups too. Spending more time cruising fleabay auctions than is probably good for me. But I have found some good things at good prices.

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm new to your blog. I came across it doing some Googling for scent profiles. :) I've always been interested in why different smells make me think/ feel different things, and I'd like to know more about the science behind it too. I loved your thoughts about "scents as references"--it's so true, and something I was never able to articulate myself.

Just went to Venice a couple weeks ago. You are dead on about the smells! Everything does smell like pee and patchouli and pot! I kind of like the professional performers, but hate how I constantly feel like if I look at someone, I need to fork over money.