Grand stands by the sea

Times Staff Writer

A well-tanned Kenny Rogers -- not that Kenny Rogers -- launches a footbag 15 feet into the salty air, twirls, and catches it, miraculously, on the outer edge of his right shoe before flipping it on top of his head. He is in the center ring.

All around him are skateboarders, bicyclists, in-line skaters, walkers, runners, dogs, volleyball players, fishermen, an old guy dressed in black punching and kicking at invisible foes, Hermosa Beach locals sucking down Coronas at the corner tavern, surfers carrying their boards beneath their arms like Bibles.

They're all down by the pier.

Here in Southern California, a pier is a balcony overlooking a stage of sand and sea, skin and sun. It's a pathway into morning's early mist and, later, as fine a place as there is to feel the embers of a day. At night, it becomes a lovers' lane. To walk upon a pier is to walk upon the back of a sleeping giant, wonderful and frightening.

And as the sun sets on Hermosa Beach, it's a place to chill.

There are 116 public piers in California, says Ken Jones, author of "Pier Fishing in California" (Marketscope Books, 1992) and a self-described "pier rat." Jones, of Lodi, has fished from them all, as well as from some, like Aliso Pier in south Laguna Beach, that have been dismantled -- the sea's fury too vast, the cost of rebuilding too great. Others, like the Malibu Pier are gaining new life. Now in the final phase of reconstruction, it is open for fishing and walking as work on the buildings continues. Businesses are expected to open next year.

In all, there are 22 public piers in Santa Barbara, Ventura, Los Angeles and Orange counties, no two of them alike. Jones considers the Ventura Pier to be the oldest in the state. Built in the early 1870s, just before Stearns Wharf in Santa Barbara, it also is among California's longest wooden piers. The longest in the state, at 4,135 feet, is the San Mateo Pier, Jones says. (An updated version of Jones' book is due out later this year. While the first edition was about 200 pages, the next will be closer to 500 and include historical information about each pier.)

Some piers are sleek, some creak, some are like shopping malls on pilings. Ride the rides and hear the music at Santa Monica. Feel the wind at Goleta. Dance all night at Club Curves, "where big girls come to party," in Redondo Beach. Stroll beneath the moon at any of them.

The Manhattan Beach Municipal Pier leads to the Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium, located in the historic Roundhouse, offering displays of ocean life including a shark tank. The Seal Beach Municipal Pier offers a view of the Long Beach skyline to the north, Sunset Beach to the south. At midday, people in business attire head to Ruby's Diner for burgers, fries, a taste of the 1950s and a view of the ocean.

The Redondo Beach Pier is actually a complex of piers, a microcosm of the region where people of all backgrounds, speaking different languages, wearing Laker jerseys and huaraches, stroll past shops and restaurants: Korean barbecue, churros, sushi, baklava, chow mein, pizza, live crabs in window tanks. Next to the bait shop, you can get a bowl of chowder or a green tea latte.

At Redondo, you can listen to the blues, or you can fish, shop, play video games or even search for justice. A branch of the L.A. Superior Court is located up by the Japanese restaurant. If you're headed for the slammer, you might consider take-out.

At Hermosa Beach, where the 36-year-old Kenny Rogers spends much of his days and nights with his footbags, the pier closes at 10 p.m., but others remain open 24 hours a day.

At night they take on a different persona, evident in the writing of Raymond Chandler: "There was a winking yellow light at the intersection," noted Phillip Marlowe in "The Big Sleep." "I turned the car and slid down a slope with a high bluff on one side, interurban tracks to the right, a low straggle of light far off beyond the tracks, and then very far off a glitter of pier lights and a haze in the sky over a city ... "

Day or night, people are drawn to them. As summer settles in, our friends from elementary school and brothers-in-law from Nebraska are preparing to head west, arriving in minivans loaded with children and anticipation. So, too, come college students, paroled into a few months of freedom.

Their expectations have been building ever since that cold February night when they were watching "Baywatch" and suddenly could not escape images of endless summer. The beach. The ocean. The stars. Lifeguards. Romance. Mickey Mouse. Slow walks upon a sleeping giant. So they called and said they were coming.

Get out the air mattress, hide the good wine.

Artist Elbert Price stops and turns upon the Goleta Pier. He extends his right arm and sweeps it across the landscape. Everywhere, he says, there is a painting.

The first time he saw this pier, located in the Goleta Beach County Park just north of Santa Barbara, he knew he must paint it.

"It's great organic sculpture," he says, "in that its purpose is so emphatically stated: 'I will support you upon the sea.' That's what the pier says."

Price, 76, lives in an apartment a block from Carpinteria State Beach with his wife, Shirley. Both are artists and work in studio boats docked side by side in the Santa Barbara Harbor.

"Out here, you're out to sea," Price says of the pier. "The pattern all over the world is for fat cats to come up and hog up all the beach and build high fences, hedges and trees and put guard gates up and then exclude the public. Piers are the ordinary person's access to the sea."

Down the coast in Ventura County, the Port Hueneme Pier a few years ago offered a different kind of support in the days following the crash of Alaska Flight 261, eight miles off the coast. It held friends and families as they prayed, as they waited and, in time, as they cast flowers into the surf for the 88 people who perished.

Except for a memorial built near the foot of the pier, everything looks the same, says Robert Mack, 41, of Oxnard. But it's not. He has been coming to the pier since childhood, but it feels different now. "Every time I hear a plane go by, I think about it."

It is a good place to think, he says, and often when he's here he remembers his father, who taught him to fish.

"He died nine years ago," says Mack. "I'd rather come here than visit his grave. He's more here than there." So he sits alone and watches the tip of his pole and beyond it the ocean where the dolphins sometimes rise in brief rainbows.

"It's good for the soul," he says.

Unlike grand bridges such as the Golden Gate to the north or Coronado to the south, piers require people to get out of their cars so they can stop and linger, smile and smile back. Bridges connect places, but piers connect people.

On Tuesdays at Balboa Pier, for example, you might meet Snookie Fath and her gang. Bob Anderson, 74, a retired English professor, might bring up a question about changes in scientific nomenclature or the writing of Edmund O. Wilson or the magnificence of a gelatin dish made of raspberry Snapple, sour cream and fresh strawberries.

Or they might be lamenting the fact that "there's too damn many people in the world." And not enough fish.

Snookie has been pier fishing for more than 50 years, introduced to the sport by her late mother, whose name was Sunny -- a.k.a. the Halibut Queen. Over time, Snookie and Sunny befriended other regulars who fished in the area. They continue to meet every Tuesday at Balboa Pier. At Christmas, they have a picnic at the foot of the pier.

Snookie and Sunny, in addition to fishing, used to bake cookies for the others. "What ever happened to those cookies?" Anderson asks. It's one of those things that has slipped away over time, like once plentiful bonito and, to a degree, fishing etiquette, courtesies like casting straight, not in front of someone else, not crowding your neighbors.

Snookie goes by Snookie because her real name is Vernona, the same name given to her mother and grandmother. Snookie has two daughters. Guess what their names are.

Sunny was a piece of work, people say. She said what was on her mind, and she spent as much time as she could fishing, reeling them in even when others were left holding their poles. She had a secret to her success: Before leaving the house, she would splash a drop of White Shoulder perfume on her hands.

"I start my day with it too," says Snookie. "The guys refuse to do it."

She also had a theory about proper fishing attire. "Mama was a great dresser," says Snookie. "She wore a beautiful hat ... and a real leather coat. She told me once, 'When you're fishing, my dear, it doesn't mean you have to look like a fisherman.' That will stay with me forever."

From their vantage point, about three-fourths of the way down the pier, they have observed weddings and memorial services, fistfights and sharks. Snookie's daughter once threw herself into the surf to save a man who had fallen into the water. A while back down at the end, a guy hooked into a dead body.

Piers, like people, eventually get old. They become worn down by time and the ocean's steady pounding. Over the years many members of the group, just like Sunny, have passed on. But the Halibut Queen is remembered, especially when the sky is blue, the ocean is gentle and the fish are hitting like firecrackers. She was drawn to the pier and its inhabitants, friends who cast straight and never crowded their neighbors.

Imagine the sky on fire. A pier silhouetted against the horizon reaches out to sea on pilings and latticed beams, above waves creating furrows and white foam. Beyond it a satin sun melts into dusk.

Throw in palm trees, a few pelicans, a cappuccino joint and you have the makings of a destination.

People are drawn to piers like the sweet center of a melon or an artichoke's heart. In the 19th century, piers attracted ships delivering and loading cargo, then railroads doing the same. Over time they became the destinations of fishermen and tourists, locals and locos.

Built by man, piers remain at the invitation of the sea, which can easily crumble them with its fury, prompting discussions of the costs and benefits of rebuilding.

It's difficult to assess how much revenue a pier brings into a community, says Ron Hagan, special projects manager for "Surf City," the city of Huntington Beach.

"The pier in actual dollars is a drain on the city," says Hagan. "But it's the city icon and draws about 7 million visitors a year."

Annual costs of maintaining the pier are $350,000 to $400,000, Hagan says, $100,000 to $150,000 more than it brings in through leases. But it also generates increased sales and bed tax revenue, he adds, and there also are less tangible benefits, like the pier's effect on the south swell, which attracts surfers, surfing events and enhances the marketing of "Surf City."

"In Huntington and Malibu, they're shootin' the pier," sang the Beach Boys, tanned Pied Pipers inviting one and all to flee the prosaic, the conventional and seek life in every wave, every beat of the heart. "Let's go surfin' now, everybody's learnin' how, come on a safari with me."

As summer begins, the safari continues, and upon reaching the edge of land, piers will beckon visitors to walk a few steps more. With each step they will get a little closer to a horizon where ocean meets sky -- and a little farther from all else, the complexities and stress, the prosaic.

"In a world gone mad," says author Jones, "there is still sanity on the pier."

So says the fisherman.

So says the artist.

So says the brother-in-law from Nebraska.

Times staff writer Duane Noriyuki can be contacted at duane.noriyuki@latimes.com.

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