The Other Side of the Walk

To the best of my knowledge, the people on Venice Beach known as hair-wrappers are not drunks, junkies, gangbangers, satanists, child abusers, bandits, rapists or suppliers of nuclear triggers to Saddam Hussein.

Then why, I hear you ask, are they being hassled by cops, old men and middle-aged ladies who find them disgusting, unsightly and the purveyors of discredited 1960-ish social filth like love and peace?

I don’t know.

But I do know there’s a lot of noise being made over a handful of them who sit on blankets on the west side of the boardwalk weaving beads, bells, bangles and feathers into the hair of tourists from places like Allentown, Pa., who walk away feeling, like, you know, man, chilled out. They don’t have hip of their own in Allentown.


The hair-wrappers are generally young women whose attire is faintly reminiscent of the flower children of three decades ago who made love, not war, whenever the opportunity presented itself.

While maybe a little scruffy, they are far from disgusting. A critic told me her biggest objection to them is they’re dirty, but one wrapper, among a dozen, assured me one day they had all showered the night before.

I didn’t ask how she knew that. There are some things I just don’t care to know.

At any rate, the wrappers have been the subject of meetings by cops, beachfront activists and City Council members. Even the ACLU wants to know, are First Amendment rights in jeopardy here or what?

The boardwalk at Venice Beach is divided roughly into three sections. On the east side are the merchants who rent space for up to $4,000 a month to hustle T-shirts, sunglasses, bikinis, sandals and other items of necessity.

On the west side is an awesome mix of artists and performers that include mimes, healers, singers, psychics, tumblers, fortune tellers, comics, religious zealots, chain saw jugglers, limbo dancers and world-savers of various sorts. The wrappers joined them later.

Between all of this wander the tourists, almost 10 million of them last year, and everyone has a reasonably good time staring at each other. Some of the performers, for instance, had never seen a beehive hairdo before, and the ladies from Allentown were pleased to show them off.

Inevitably, however, money raised its ugly head in sandy Eden. The merchants who pay rent on the east side became p.o.'d at the people on the west side of the walk who were not paying rent but were still soliciting cash for their activities.

The cops began clamping down, the ACLU sued the city and then Councilwoman Ruth Galanter introduced an amendment which said, in effect, everyone ought to leave the west side boardwalkers the hell alone as long as they only request donations and do not charge a fee.

But then along came the hair-wrappers, and while the social activists are now protected by the city, and the artists and performers by the First Amendment, no one is sure into what category the wrappers fall.

As a result, they are beginning to feel like Palestinians in Tel Aviv.

I was asked by friends of the wrappers to give them a look-see, as we say around the city room, so I stopped by one day in an effort to determine who and what they are.

They claim to be artists and good Americans whose hair-wrappings included patriotic red, white and blue beads during Desert Storm and yellow beads for the hostages still held in Lebanon. They accept donations of $5 and $10 a wrap. Or no dollars, I guess, if you are so inclined.

“Before the craftsmen came to the beach,” one of them said, “there were nothing but winos here. What would you prefer, wrappers or winos?”

I put that question to an opponent of the wrappers who replied, “Winos.”

“The cops have been a pain,” another wrapper told me. “One of them said I ought to get a job at Taco Bell. This is a last refuge for people like me.”

“All we’re trying to do,” a beachfront opponent said later, “is to keep the area from looking seedy. Let’s face it, a lot of them are just that.”

I attended a beachfront committee meeting and was surprised at the animosity shown toward the wrappers. There was even reference made to one wrapper’s mother, to which the wrapper replied angrily, “That’s really uncool!” It struck like lightning. To be uncool in Venice is the social equivalent of pimples in Malibu.

But thank God the debate will end soon due to evidence of historic intervention.

One adherent has announced that wrapping is an art form handed down by the Pharaohs to the Grateful Dead. If so, I say it deserves royal dispensation to flourish in Venice as it did in ancient Cairo, and that should be that.

What was good enough for Jerry Garcia and the Pharaohs is good enough for me.