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Friday, February 8, 2013



I’ve always loved February in Venice: gray skies, salty air, grunion flopping on the shore trying to catch the next wave, beach empty except for a few strolling dreamers and refugees from personal disaster like me. And it was in February that I first found Venice - or, Venice found me.

But before I get into that, a little necessary scene setting:

Back in my day there was nothing open along Ocean Front Walk in February but a couple of herbal tea shops run by old Beatnik couples and a few dive bars. There was a by-god McDonald's just down from Washington Boulevard - but it was McDonald’s Venice style. It served up its own food – good stuff, like chili and cornbread and thick soups - along with the company sanctioned crap.

To get to the beach we used to stroll down Washington, passing the bird sanctuary, which was surrounded by high fences. Birds of all kinds flocked there during the migration season, mingling with the ducks that rescuers used to sneak over from the canals when the duck cops decided the feathery population needed to be reduced.

Still going west, you’d go by Shanahan’s Market where they had the best meat and freshest fish and veggies right off the farm, all at a reasonable price. If you were in a picnicking mood you could find the makings at Shanahan’s, including fresh bread, dynamite cheese, and a “wine surprise” barrel full of odd bottles of disputed, but cheap, provenance.

From there you’d go over a bridge that crossed the main canal – Grand Canal -  which struck south where there were beach cottages on one side and empty Hughes land on the other. There were always wild rumors about the Howard Hughes property. People saw the mysterious billionaire as either a devil or a saint and their opinion on that subject switched back and forth for no reason I could ever divine. Some days it was believed that Hughes was going to turn that land into a pristine estuary to protect the last vestiges of LA’s wild shore life. On others, people were certain that Hughes was going to turn the whole thing into a high-rise, nature-destroying  monstrosity.

If you cut south from the bridge, following the Grand Canal, you’d eventually hit the spot where the canal locks met La Ballona Creek, which led to the ocean. The canals were fed and cleansed by tidal action. But the city’s schedule to open and close the gates was erratic – believed by many to be controlled by real estate interests who wanted to drive common people out of the old homes on the canals. Left open too long, the canals would drain and soon the exposed mud would stink to high heaven. Left closed too long, the water would stagnate, with similar results. Thousands of citizen complaints would eventually get things working properly again – until the next meeting of the Venice Board of Realtors

Just beyond the locks were clam beds, left over from old shellfish factories that were torn down long ago, leaving all those bivalve riches behind. You’d find people of every variety and age scrambling over the beds, happily digging up free eats for the table. A couple of oil pumps were still operating in those days, looking like fantastic dinosaurs in the fog, going up and down, up and down, and adding their greasy scent to the air.

On most mornings you’d find scraggly bums snagging smelt off the Grand Canal bridge, which they’d take down to the beach to cook over driftwood fires. If the butchers at Shanahan’s were in a generous mood there’d be a little salt pork to spice up their breakfast, which they’d invariably wash down with pony jugs of Ripple Wine – made famous in Hoyt Axton's "Lightning Bar Blues: “I don’t want no diamond ring/Don’t want no Cadillac Car/All I want’s my Ripple Wine/Down in the Lightning Bar…” There really was a Lightning Bar but it was over in the flophouse section of Santa Monica and was owned by an old stripper known as “Betty Rowland - The Ball Of Fire.” (For a treat, click here to enjoy Hoyt's singing) I wrote about Betty Rowland later on in my newspaper column. 

Crossing Pacific Avenue there was a shabby biker bar on the right, which cooked up one of the ten best burgers in Los Angeles. Besides the bikers and a few daring burger fiends, you’d find old vets there drinking up their disability checks. One wheel-chair bound old fart had a wooden leg, hidden by work pants and when he wanted to gross people out he’d stab it with a big old pocket knife and let it stand up there, stuck in his leg. Even a couple of hardened bikers lost their lunch when they saw that trick for the first time. (I used that bit years later in A Reckoning For Kings: A Novel Of Vietnam.)

On the left, there was a dynamite little joint run by a Greek cook who’d jumped ship down in San Pedro back in the Fifties. The Greek made BLT's and fries that couldn't be matched for miles. He used to come out and listen to people read their stories and poetry aloud. Artists used to drop by and trade sketches for a BLT and the Greek covered his walls with them. There was usually a guitarist on hand – some better than others. And the marijuana smoke was so thick you could cut it.

Yeah, those were some pretty amazing “daze” at the Greek's joint.

Washington ended at Ocean Front Walk, famed even in that day for all the colorful people and underground entertainers who gathered there during the warm months to see and be seen. Of course, in February those people stayed sensibly home, leaving all that gray expanse to fools like us who preferred the beach in the winter. Cheap lithography hadn’t been invented yet in 1970, so you wouldn’t have found any T-shirt shacks. But there were plenty of little shops selling shells and candles and other tourist trash, which were mostly closed that time of year.

Back then a lot of carnival factories were still around – left over from the Abbott Kinney days when Venice was the fun capital of the Roaring Twenties' world. Rents along Ocean Front Walk were cheap then, so the carnival craftsmen hung on, and manufactured and sold their ware to roadshow carnivals all over the country. Some still made the prizes suckers vied for when they pitched hoops, or fired bee-bee guns at rigged targets. Others produced the games and even the portable booths. One place made all kinds of fierce animals and ghosts and skeletons for carnival “Love Tunnel” rides. You could look in the windows, clearing away dust, and see your childhood past all jumbled up in big piles of exotica.

About halfway down Ocean Front Walk was a lesbian biker bar. I used to sell freelance stuff to the underground tabloids and biker mags on the side – using a pseudonym to protect myself from my right wing bosses - and I could always get something really cool, including rude photographs, from the macha bikers and their very beautiful women.

From there it was a moody winter's walk to the distant Santa Monica pier where you could fish next to bumper cars, tucked away into canvas covers for the season.  

Venice in February - Yeah. 

And, like I said, it was in February that the two of us first met . I was living in the smog-choked San Gabriel Valley and with my enemies closing in, I made a mad dash for freedom. I owed several thousands of dollars to various hospitals and doctors because of some recent tragedies suffered by me, my young wife and my teenage brother. I earned $150 a week as a copy editor at a corrupt newspaper in the San Gabriel Valley whose managing editor was named – and I fucking kid thee not – Dick Tracy.

A month before my escape I’d been the paper’s investigative golden boy; but after uncovering unsavory real estate deals in the city of South El Monte that also involved higher ups at my newspaper I’d been shunted over to the copy desk. There I sat awaiting my demise while fielding calls from credit company thugs. The first one who contacted Mr. Tracy directly would give him the excuse he needed to fire me.

We owned two cars: a 1960 Rambler Station Wagon and a little 1957 British Metro that my wife got as a going-away-to-college present. The only thing I lacked was a destination and a job. In the Sixties you could flee your creditors – and even the California Department Of Motor Vehicles – by relocating only a few miles from the scene of your transgressions. They’d also popped my driver’s license for daring to be involved in an accident without car insurance, meaning I had to mail the license back to them. But, if I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t work, so I promptly patched over that mess by going straight to the local DMV office and declared that I’d mislaid my license. They gave me a temporary one, good for ninety days. When that ninety days lapsed, I “lost” my license again, and so on, until I was off their books. Thus, the transportation problem was semi-solved.

I didn’t have to go far to find work. Newspaper jobs were easily acquired in those days. There were hundreds of independent newspapers – both daily and weekly – up and down the coast of California. The bad news was, they all paid like shit.

Long story short, I soon scored a job at the Evening Outlook in the old beach city of Santa Monica. Making up – a little – for the lousy pay was the fact that the paper had a helluva dateline. The circulation area – besides Santa Monica – included Malibu, Topanga, Pacific Palisades, Beverly Hills, Westwood, West Los Angeles, Culver City, and Venice Beach. It also ran down the coast to include Westchester and Los Angeles Airport. UCLA was also in its jurisdiction.

Colonies of the biggest Hollywood stars and other important people lived in the area and the Rand Corporation was headquartered there. In not too many years one of their former employees, Daniel Ellsberg – a Malibu resident - would leak the infamous “Pentagon Papers” that blew the whistle big time on the Vietnam war. We even got to run them in my paper, defying The By-God Federal Government.

My prospective boss – Managing Editor Ron Funk -  was the scion of an independently owned daily newspaper that would soon celebrate its one hundredth birthday. The Outlook was the oldest continually-published daily in the history of LA County, a fact that impressed me mightily. I was doubly impressed when Ron said he wanted to start an investigative reporting arm of his paper. He couldn’t afford it full time but he said if I worked the copy desk twenty hours, he’d free up another twenty – plus needed overtime and expenses – to be devoted to investigate civic wrongs. The job also paid $160 a week, ten bucks more than that rat, Dick Tracy, was paying me. Ten bucks was a lot in those days. A week’s worth of groceries was maybe $15.

Everything was looking up, until it came time to find a place to live. Rentals were sky-high in the Santa Monica/Malibu area and the few that were vaguely affordable were unfit for vermin. We drove for miles, pouring what little money we had into the gas tank and Ma Bell’s pay phones. But no matter how hard we looked, we struck out everywhere. We saw more roach hotels, mushroom-growing hostels and termite-ridden lease options than seemed possible in such a small area. 

The only advice anyone could give us was that the one place we should avoid at all costs was Venice, California.

We were told Venice was dangerous, riddled with crime, drug addicts and crazies. Banks were redlining it because of the small ghetto of blacks who had lived there for most of the century. There were gangs, both black and Hispanic, as well several notorious motorcycle gangs, such as the Straight Satans.

On the other hand, from the newspaper ads, Venice was also super affordable. We were getting desperate. I stopped at the Santa Monica library to see what I could find out about the community. The history of Venice, I soon learned, was fascinating – it was founded by developer/dreamer Abbott Kinney in the early part of the Twentieth Century. Calling his dream the “Venice Of The Pacific,” Kinney constructed a network of canals fed by the sea through a series of complicated locks.

Graceful bridges arced over the canals and gondolas plied the waters, carrying vacationers from one fun spot to another. The fun spots were a series of amusement parks with all the latest thrill rides and tent games. A huge salt water swimming pool – said to be the largest in the world – hosted international swimming contests.

Kinney – a social visionary as well – went out of his way to hire black people who were fleeing the oppressive South. Besides artisans and laborers, he encouraged black artists and entertainers to flock to Venice, utilizing their skills in his attractions. He subsidized homes for his workers – the very places the elite of LA later condemned as a “ghetto.” Other artists, musicians and free-thinkers were attracted to the area and it soon became an important cultural center for the avant-garde.

Venice also became a favored spot for honeymooners – second only to Niagara Falls – and Kinney built charming bungalows and lovely rooming houses up and down the canals. Wonderful vacation homes were built by the rich, complete with docks for their small, but exotic boats that plied the canals.

Then oil was discovered on the beach in 1929 and everything went to hell. Derricks were thrown up, huge pumps labored 24-hours-a-day, gas flumes spouted fire and noxious odors. And in no time at all Venice was abandoned by all but the poor, the old and the Bohemians. The oil was long gone in 1968, the noxious atmosphere cleansed by balmy sea breezes, but the area still had not made a comeback. In short, it seemed like the ideal place for myself, my wife and my teenage brother – three young people with more prospects than money. It also appeared to be an ideal hideout from my creditors.

*     *     *

The following weekend we steeled ourselves and crossed over Santa Monica’s southern-most boundary and entered Venice. Everything that followed was pure serendipity.

On the car radio I remember that the Beatles were singing:

“In Penny Lane there is a barber showing photographs
Of every head he's had the pleasure to know.
And all the people that come and go
Stop and say hello...”

We were driving along Main Street and the sea breezes carried the sweet scent of incense and marijuana. I heard what sounded like many temple bells jangling in the breeze and saw that chimes and little bells hung from almost every doorway. Young people with long flowing hair wearing glorious costumes strolled the street. There were head shops with music blaring through open doors and colorful posters covering the windows. Leather goods and sandals and bells strung on rawhide were draped over old ladders, whose rungs were painted in rainbow colors. An LAPD car cruised down the street, the cops staring at the kids, the kids mostly ignoring them – although a few ducked into alleys and fewer still flipped them the bird.

We drove for awhile, checking out the scene, and everywhere there was music and incense and a small town kind of friendliness. We stopped and asked people about rentals and everyone was very open and helpful. My 13-year-old brother, Charles, was in Hormone Heaven, with all the girls giving him the eye and chatting him up.

The people we were seeing – kids from their early teens to mid twenties – were mostly part of what Time Magazine had recently dubbed the “Hippie Generation” in a much-ballyhooed cover article. The “hippie” was Time’s latest discovery. Not long before they’d posed the question on another equally famous cover (or infamous, according to your creed) titled – “Is God Dead?”

In my experience, Time Magazine had always been many months – and sometimes even years – behind what they deemed the latest fad. So when they discovered hippies it was a phenomenon already thoroughly imbedded throughout the culture. I mean, by 1968 John Lennon was already wearing Granny glasses. And as for God being dead, the hipster (cooler than a hippie) joke was, “Bummer, man. I didn’t know he was fuckin' sick.”

Even so – to give Time Magazine a break – it was one of the few times we had seen so many hip kids in one place. We were coming from the San Gabriel Valley after all, where hitchhikers with long hair were attacked in full view of the police. I mean, in the San Gabriel Valley Hippie Bashing was second only to Gay Bashing as a tavern sport. Elsewhere in LA, there were small enclaves of the rebellious young in places like the Pasadena train depot – recently abandoned and turned into a fabulous warren of head shops; a small area of the canyons in Sierra Madre; Hollywood, of course; one section of Melrose Boulevard; and parts of Hermosa Beach, formerly the surfing capital of the world. (Unless you are from Santa Cruz, in which case you will vigorously disagree.)

In short, the Venice we were driving through was a Bohemian paradise second only to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury.

We turned onto West Washington Avenue – a street that would later be renamed Abbott Kinney Drive - where we saw scores of shops specializing in antique furniture, used clothing and just plain junk stores run by Venice old timers. Hippie kids were streaming in and out, buying all sorts of strange and wondrous things for their cheap little apartments.

And everywhere we looked our eyes were treated by the artwork spread all through the neighborhoods we visited. Not just artful graffiti, but wonderful little paintings and sketches on walls and fence posts… tasteful nudes, flowers, pictures of animals, drawings of boyfriends and girlfriends – and even huge murals that covered the walls of old two-story buildings – obviously commissioned by the owners.

A young hitchhiker we’d picked up on the way – a New York City College refugee – murmured: “Beats the shit out of Greenwich Village. All this, plus it’s on the fuckin’ beach.”

An even greater revelation was the number of black people going about their ordinary business – shopping, picking up kids, going to the matinee at the Venice Fox Theater and just generally acting like this was their own neighborhood. Which, of course, it was. The deeper we got into Venice, the blacker it became. Something that did not exist outside the enclaves in Watts, South Central LA (of the race riots fame) and parts of Pasadena. Black people were not welcome anywhere else in LA. We, on the other hand, were young and white. And in the Civil Rights Marching era of February of 1968 many black people rightly assumed white people of our age were firmly on their side. Proven to us by the many friendly peace signs flashed at us by dark-skinned “brothers and sisters” of our generation.

Soon, we were getting ready to rent our first Venice apartment. It happened like this. We found the ideal place – the two-story townhouse I mentioned when I began this tale. We wanted it in the worst way. But the price, oh, shit, the price. One hundred and thirty-five dollars a month, which was more than we could afford. The lady who showed us the unit said we ought to visit the real estate office and see if we could work out a deal. I almost passed – no way would they come down enough so I could eventually pay off my creditors.

Charlie urged me to give it a shot. “Venice High’s so close I can walk to school,” he said.

I knew, of course, that he was mainly interested in hooking up with some of those pretty girls he’d met during our rental expedition, but I didn’t think that was a bad reason for giving the deal another go. My brother surely deserved a few pretty girls in his life, did he not?

So we went to see the rental manager at Sea Breeze Realty. His name was Scott and he was as gay as Liberace. There were few places in LA where a guy could be as openly gay as Scott. Venice, I soon learned, was a heaven for gays and lesbians looking for a normal existence where they weren’t being stared at, shunned, or attacked. Of course, they still had to watch out for the cops. The LAPD and the LA County Sheriff’s Department were notorious in the gay community for their brutal ways.

Scott looked over our application and when he saw that I was a reporter at the Evening Outlook he positively beamed. “Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter, are you?”

I laughed, adjusting my glasses, which were a little like Clark’s. “That’s right,” I said, “And my brother here is actually Jimmie Olsen, boy photographer. Notice all the freckles? And my wife… I said her name was Carol on the form, but she’s actually Lois Lane.”

There was more kidding, including some mildly risqué remarks about Carol’s white knit mini-dress, but Scott made his jokes so harmless that she blushed with the compliments.

Finally, I got to the point, saying, “It’s a nice apartment, Scott, but the rent is more than we can afford. On the other hand, we’ve looked everywhere and haven’t found anything that is livable. Meanwhile, I’m running out of time. I start work at the Outlook in a week. And we sure as heck can’t afford a motel.” I took a deep breath. “Is there any way you can help us?”

In any place except Venice, we would’ve been kicked out of the office. I was prepared for that, but hopeful. To his official Realtor credit, Scott snorted a couple of times during my little speech. But then he became thoughtful, tapping his pen on his desk. Then he said, “Relax for a minute while I make a call.”

He dialed and when someone answered he said, “Hello, Wee Willie, Scott the Magnificent, here.” He laughed at whatever Wee Willie’s witty retort was, then said, “You know that situation we were talking about, William? Well, I think I found the perfect person. He’s a reporter at the Evening Outlook and just dripping with honesty, so how lucky can we get?”

Scott turned his back, lowered his voice to a mumble and there ensued a fierce back and forth that lasted only a minute or two, but seemed like an hour. Finally, Scott said a cheery farewell and swiveled his chair around to face us.

“That was Bill Cohen,” he said. “And I think we can put a deal together that will make us both happy.” Then he outlined his plan. He said, “Bill and I have put together a little real estate investment company along with a few backers. We buy mostly commercial property, such as the apartments you were looking at. The thing is, we’re in the middle of a big expansion and can’t handle all the details. We need somebody to manage the units. Collect the rent and bank the proceeds. Rent the places out when they’re vacant. With an overview of increasing the quality of tenants by and by. Of course, the manager would also need to oversee repairs and improvements and deal with any tenant complaints.”

My heart jumped. “What does it pay?” I asked.

Scott said, “Well, only $25 a month to start. There’s only four units, you know. Even so, that’d reduce your rent from $135 to $110.” I frowned – still too much. Scott saw my frown and hastened to say, “But we’re in the process of buying the place next to the townhouses. There are 32 units there. All pretty shabby and mostly with deadbeats for renters. But we want to fix the place up, unit by unit, and get better rents. The place is ideal for college students and young couples starting out.”

“How much would I get then?” I pressed.

Scott shrugged. “Oh, I think you’d probably be living rent free, plus a hundred dollars a month salary on top of that. And a commission for each rental.” He gave me a big, big smile. “What do you think of that?”

I hesitated, then said, “How sure are you that you’ll buy those units?”

Scott said, “As sure as I am that Paul Newsman’s eyes are blue.”

I smiled and said, “In that case, why don’t we put that in the agreement now? That I get rent free, plus a hundred dollars a month.”

Scott almost jumped out of his swivel seat. “But we didn’t finalize the deal, yet.”

“Okay,” I said, “then write something up stating that all those things we were talking about are contingent on the deal. However, if the deal falls through, I want a statement that says my rent is pegged at ninety five dollars a month.” I offered my hand. “Okay?”

Scott laughed, then shook my hand. “Ever think of going into the real estate business?” he asked.

I said, “I think I just did.”



COMING MARCH 15-17: THE SECOND ANNUAL EMPIRE DAY Celebration! Fan Fiction Invited. Kilgour Jokes, New Recipes From The Emp, Commando Tips From Sten. Plus Prizes Galore! Click Here For Details

The entire 8-novel landmark science fiction series is now being presented in three three giant omnibus editions from Orbit Books.  The First - BATTLECRY - features the first three books in the series: Sten #1; Sten #2 -The Wolf Worlds; and Sten #3, The Court Of A Thousand Suns. Next: JUGGERNAUT, which features Sten #4, Fleet Of The Damned; Sten #5, Revenge Of The Damned; and Sten #6, The Return Of The Emperor. Finally, there's DEATHMATCH, which contains Sten #6, Vortex; and Sten #7, End Of Empire. Click on the highlighted titles to buy the books. Plus, if you are a resident of The United Kingdom, you can download Kindle versions of the Omnibus editions. Which is one clot of a deal!
Here's the Kindle link for BATTLECRY
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Two new companion editions to the international best-selling Sten series. In the first, learn the Emperor's most closely held  cooking secrets. In the other, Sten unleashes his shaggy-dog joke cracking sidekick, Alex Kilgour. Both available as trade paperbacks or in all major e-book flavors. Click here to tickle your funny bone or sizzle your palate.  



Venice Boardwalk Circa 1969
In the depths of the Sixties and The Days Of Rage, a young newsman, accompanied by his pregnant wife and orphaned teenage brother, creates a Paradise of sorts in a sprawling Venice Beach community of apartments, populated by students, artists, budding scientists and engineers lifeguards, poets, bikers with  a few junkies thrown in for good measure. The inhabitants come to call the place “Pepperland,” after the Beatles movie, “Yellow Submarine.” Threatening this paradise is  "The Blue Meanie,"  a crazy giant of a man so frightening that he eventually even scares himself. Here's where to buy the book. 


Diaspar Magazine - the best SF magazine in South America - is publishing the first novel in the Sten series in four 
episodes. Part One and Part Two appeared in back-to-back issues. And now Part Three has hit the virtual book stands.  Stay tuned, for the grand conclusion. Meanwhile, here are the links to the first three parts. Remember, it's free!

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