Santa Monica Pier juts out into the Pacific like Jay Leno's jaw, a defiant, whimsical and improbable landing pad. Just 100 feet below, sharks are at play, scarfing the occasional hot dog and Coke cup that plop into their Sunday soup. Up on deck, L.A. is at play too. Here, on SoCal's splendid splinter.
Passing woman: "I just need to decompress."
Male companion: "How'd you get so compressed?"
Well, no doubt he had something to do with it. Besides, this is L.A. You can get "compressed" just waiting in line at Starbucks. Your vertebrae can fuse while praying for the light to change on Pico. Santa Monica Pier may not be the most relaxing place, certainly, but it's a start. The mere sight of the summer sea is like a sloppy kiss on the neck.
In two weeks, this sun-baked pier turns 100 years old. We're here to honor that; we're here to decompress. We're here, mostly, because it's not really summer until you've ridden a Ferris wheel or gotten cotton candy all over your smiling gob. We're here to bid goodbye to August.
So we climb aboard the roller coaster, the second most death-defying activity I will undertake all year (right after the Pasadena Freeway).
The good rides are five bucks a pop, so we invest in wrist bands ($22) that allow for unlimited access. "Madoff's bracelets," I call them, because it feels like a rip-off. Unfortunately, the pier is no great value. Like at a ballgame, everything costs twice what it should.
You can drop $20 at the midway games in a hiccup. In his prime, Nolan Ryan couldn't knock three milk bottles completely off a table with three very saggy bean bags. Yet we try. Three strikes and we're out.
We stroll the pier a while, pass that new trapeze school. Have you seen it yet? It's in a big area in the middle of the pier, open only a year. A gift certificate for this place would make a fine birthday present for someone you don't particularly like. The world is full of such people.
Honestly, I'll bet it's a buzz to swing high over the netting, the ocean as your backdrop. I make a note to try it some weekday when no one's around. "Forget fear," the sign says. "Worry about addiction." Never has a motto fit Santa Monica so well.
Soon we are at the end of the pier, watching urban anglers pull in the occasional perch and sea bass. Their sun-burnished skin looks like catcher's gloves.
Here's a tip. If, like that woman, you've come to the pier to "decompress," head for the elevator at the end of the pier.
For some reason, most people miss the viewing deck on the second level. It has glossy, varnished floors and a couple of empty benches. The viewing deck is usually a great place to steal some quiet.
Here's a tip (Part 2): In honor of its centennial, the pier will host a fireworks show Sept. 9, the first over Santa Monica Bay since 1991. The rub against L.A. is that it has no focal point. Believe me, this pier is a focal point. It's our Coney Island.
Back down we go. It's 4 o'clock now, on a Sunday afternoon. Santa Monica Pier has reached its bliss point. The crowd blossoms with the sun. Skimpy swimsuits. Big men carrying tiny dogs in their purses. Jugglers. Clowns.
At the pier's midsection, Alex "Fleks" Garibay is spinning like a roulette wheel in front of 200 happy witnesses. No one works harder, or attracts bigger crowds, than Fleks.
He's been here since 8 a.m., to stake out the right spot for his 4 to 7 p.m. break-dancing shift. His signature move is something called the "air-flare." It is the same flip-spin that cats make when you accidentally drive over their tail. At one break, he passes the bucket and collects a whopping $8.
"I do it for the looks on people's faces," he says.
Further along, we find Leeman Parker, 24, a droll magician with Steve Martin tendencies. He's got his back to a seafood joint, while making stuff appear and disappear. It's taken him 15 years to make his quick movements so invisible and smooth.
"There are entire groups of people who find this all very fascinating," he tells a crowd of 20. "They're called drunks. I wish you were all drunk right now."
Finally, we find Tim "The Bubbleman" Dillenbeck, who has been entertaining crowds with his homemade bubble machine for 15 years.
"Their happiness is my happiness," he says, as toddlers chase clouds of bubbles.
Dillenbeck is sort of an unofficial mayor. He's seen it all here. The vendors fighting for space. The city trying to police it. He has also seen shootings and huge crowds. Despite it all, he says, the pier enjoys a mostly mellow vibe.
Next time you're here, drop a dollar in the bucket and chat with the Bubbleman. He's part philosopher, part humorist and always a quirky-wonderful part of what makes a huge city so alive. "The wind is cagey. The wind is my mistress," he says as bubbles carry in the breeze.
As for his manic devotion to this old pier, he explains it all this way:
"No obsession is pure," he says, "unless it is carried to its ultimate and irresponsible extreme."
Not bad for a buck.