Not too long ago, I was walking along the strip in Venice and saw a man holding a cardboard sign. For 10 bucks, the sign said, you could kick the guy in the crotch.
I had to ask: "How's business?"
"Slow, bro," he said, as if he was trying to unload Popsicles in the dead of winter.
Ah, Venice — where just about everything is for sale.
Along Ocean Front Walk, you can buy beach stuff, of course — bodyboards decorated with dolphins, sunscreen jacked up to the price of shiraz.
You can buy tourism stuff — toe rings, $5 flip-flops that will last roughly the distance back to the parking lot.
And you can buy the stuff that makes Venice so gloriously seedy — a 5-foot-tall bong for $400; a piercing for your ear, lip, belly button; or that little thing that holds your tongue in place.
So it's been a little odd this summer to hear some of Venice's old-timers decry the commercialization of their bohemian beach.
The concerns have arisen with the arrival of Venice's zip line, an attraction that seems to stand out largely because it is appropriate for kids and operated by trained professionals. It's become an unlikely flash point for a debate over Venice's future — about its soul.
Operated by an outfit called Flightlinez, the zip line runs 571 feet over the grassy park that separates Ocean Front Walk from Venice's pillowy sand. Riders are strapped into a harness on top of a 43-foot tower on one end, and then "zip" overhead to another tower. It's over in less than a minute. The attraction opened July 22 and is scheduled to stay until at least late September.
Flightlinez has tried gamely to lean into Venice's foibles.
The company gives 15% of profits to the city, which plans to use the money to improve trash collection and keep the restrooms clean and running. Local artists were asked to paint murals that hide the operation's less aesthetic pieces, such as concrete blocks required to keep tension on lines — "to keep them from looking, you know, nasty," said Brina Marcus, Flightlinez's director of sales and marketing.
The other morning, Marcus was removing a blue tarp from a heap of equipment and discovered a homeless woman underneath. The woman was not happy to be awake.
"Here, darling. Let me get that off of you," Marcus said. After taking stock of the exchange, a homeless man told Marcus that if she was ever wary of waking someone up, he would help — you never know who you might find under a tarp or in a sleeping bag, he said.
But not everyone sees the zip line as a benign addition to the carnival.
Gail Rogers came to California the old-fashioned way. She was working as a teacher on the East Coast when, during her summer break, she was driving toward New England with her boyfriend. "San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear Flowers in Your Hair)" came on the radio, with all its promises of a "whole generation with a new explanation."
"Turn left!" she blurted out. She soon found her way to Venice, which was not only a quintessential California beach community, but also appealed to her Jewish heritage — "a little like Rockaway Beach."
It was 1972, and Venice was in the throes of its counterculture bliss. There were few shops along the waterfront — "just free speech," Rogers said. There were acoustic-guitar players, surfers, skateboarders, preachers and spiritualists.
"My friend who is a developer teases me — calls me a 'no-growther,'" said Rogers, 68, who taught school for another 30 years in Southern California before retiring. "That's not true. I've learned that I have to change. Things are different now. But it's a beach. It's still a beach."
In other words, despite wholesale changes — the ebb and flow of gangs, modernist mansions where once there were affordable bungalows — it's still counterculture. Rogers, whose appeal briefly stalled the zip line last year, concedes that there's plenty of commercialization here. But it's homegrown, funky commercialization, not some out-of-towner Disneyesque thing requiring a signature on a waiver.
"It's antithetical," she said. "It's artificial."
I get it.
I was born in Laguna Beach, and last time I was there, my fish tacos were being supplanted by miso-marinated sea bass, my beloved Lagunatics were being replaced by rich men in pressed linen shirts, with one too many buttons undone.
Years earlier, I'd felt it in New Orleans, covering Hurricane Katrina. A couple of months after the storm, I interviewed performer Harry Anderson, a true lover of the city. He said his biggest fear wasn't that New Orleans wouldn't come back, but that it would come back like Pirates of the Caribbean — a nod to something that once was and no longer is.
But I keep coming back to the guy. With the sign. With the crotch.
I brought my 9-year-old daughter to zip the other day, and while we walked along, I had to explain why there was a glass pipe for sale in the shape of Hello Kitty; why there was a man stomping on shards of glass for money; why there was a T-shirt for sale that said "I pooped today"; why there was a friendly looking, older gent sitting on a stool holding a sign reading "NEED CASH 4 WEED."
I'm not Ward Cleaver — but can we throw the kid a bone?
I talked to Mia Caryell, one of Venice's "street kids," she said, though she's 32 years old. Caryell was sorting her belongings right under the zip line. She spent the night in a nearby alley. She too said she loves Venice, its character and its characters. Caryell said the zip line can get a little noisy; most people seem to scream the first time they ride.
"But I think it looks fun," she said with a shrug. "It doesn't really get in the way of anything. And Venice has so many different vibes. I mean, everybody's got their own Venice."
That sounded about right to me.