postcard-from-l-a: Seeing L.A. through new eyes as Chicago kin hit Venice Beach

Second of two parts.

PART 1: Blood is thicker than traffic as family awaits in Venice

Been over to the Westside several times recently with decidedly mixed results. In particular, I find Beverly Hills to be an experiment that just didn’t work — an over-marbled fiasco. Meanwhile, that ocean? Love it. As accessories go, it’s hard to beat. Brings out the blue in your eyes. Or the red, depending on the day of the week. The sand and ocean just make everything around them better.

Such as Venice.


We’re celebrating in Venice, not just the salt-crackle of the ocean air but also some visiting relatives from back east who don’t really know L.A. yet somehow decided that this funky beach town would be an excellent spot to settle in for the week.

My sister and her family are staying at this hipster hotel, the Erwin, where they make the ice cream with frosty liquid nitrogen right at your table or serve you rooftop drinks and hand out blankets when the sun skinny-dips into the sea.

Indeed, the visiting Chicagoans seem quick to catch the local rhythms — how it’s sweaty hot at 11, yet you need a sweater by 6. They learn to drive everywhere between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when possible, to avoid the bear traps of the local rush hours.

They take surf lessons, visit Catalina, see a taping of “The Ellen DeGeneres Show,” come to our house for barbecue and beer, then return to their buzzy little hotel by the beach.


I thought it an odd fit for the Midwesterners, but Venice has been a revelation for them and about them. They are open to its grungy quirks in ways I wouldn’t have predicted. That my sister brought along two of her daughters, ages 19 and 24, didn’t hurt. After a few days, the oldest (Amy) talks about maybe moving here.

I mean, it’s easy to see why. Venice is perpetually adolescent and a little naughty. One local asked my brother-in-law for a page of his paperback to roll a joint with.

But more and more, I appreciate places that are willing to be what they are, not some faux Main Street full of Cheesecake Factories and other clones. And Venice certainly is an original, though I wouldn’t want to live here, nor could I afford to.

Jeesh, I can barely swing dinner.

Now, the boardwalk has plenty of places for the proletariat to grab a $5 meal, my usual preference. This being a bit of a reunion for our kids and their cousins, we splurge instead for the $1-million sushi feast at the glitzy place on the corner.

Sure, $1 million may seem like a lot for dinner, and I’m pretty sure some of the fish is rolled in toasted Pop-Tarts — too sweet, too crunchy.

The lovely and patient older daughter takes it upon herself to order the first round of sushi, which is like handing a fire hose to a jumpy orangutan.

Soon out of the kitchen comes a flood of overpriced fish, including something called Uni Dynamite. Bad enough that we’re consuming mercury and other heavy metals. Now, apparently, we are also consuming explosives.


“This is sooooooo good!” one of the cousins chimes.

Yeah, nobody does dynamite quite like L.A.

Is it worth it? Well, the Yellow Fever Roll alone runs us $18, which seems a little pricey for a plate of Yellow Fever, but maybe that’s just me.

Tell you what, though, the out-of-towners are completely charmed by L.A., roll with its oddities and its traffic, the $9 beers, even its occasionally snotty waiters. I apologize and explain that no one shows a level of disinterest in your well-being quite so much as a wannabe movie star from Rochester or Allentown.

“But they’re so cute!” one of the cousins says.

In the end, it’s good to re-see your city through the eyes of others. When Posh and I moved to L.A., we thought it’d be a one-night stand, a good career move that might last a year. Twenty-five years later, we’re still here, cursing the traffic and the lame pizza, mocking the boob jobs and the insane home prices.

We’re still here — sometimes smitten, other times appalled.

Late into the night, we kibitz and laugh. I tell them how I often miss my hometown, where my sister still lives: the crimson autumns, warm rhubarb pie and public schools that look like elite college campuses.


My baby sister, a recent empty-nester, confides that she’s increasingly frustrated by the inherent isolation of such suburbs — neighbors separated by fences, wide lawns and protocol.

So, for now, she has Venice, where you can trip over an anarchist on the way to dinner, then pay a fortune for a small plate of uncooked fish.

Isn’t life always greener on the other side?

twitter: @erskinetime