Venice Beach, Chicken Legs
by Jim Rose and Melissa Rossi from
the book "Freaks Like Me"
Venice Beach was a zoo, a madhouse, a
mile-long strip of the showiest, most egotistical performers in
the country wedged side by side, performers competing for
attention and money, all trying to outdo each other. That cement
ribbon of Pacific-hugging boardwalk west of L.A. was a pulsating
snake of eccentricity: palm readers, hair wrappers, sand
sculptors, break-dancers, baton twirlers, jugglers, flexing
musclemen, flipping gymnasts, mime, comedians, accordions,
skateboarder daredevils, unicyclists, and trillions of
rollerbladers, of which Hari Kari, the shrieking serenade, was by
far the most obnoxious.
Tourists by the thousands poured onto
the strip, tossing dollars and change into the hats laid down
before them. "Chicken legs"—that's what the locals called them
because of their sickly pale skin. So many cruised down this strip
that Venice Beach was the second-largest tourist attraction in
California, behind only Disneyland. It was a street performer's
I was finally there to do the big
show. The show I'd been working on for a year. Here on Venice
Beach I could put on as many shows as I wanted, as many as the
crowds demanded. I figured they'd be begging for ten, twenty, a
At first I was a little worried. Since
the beach was a free-enterprise zone, one of the few foot-traffic
centers in the nation that tolerated street performers, I would be
competing against the top-notch buskers from across the land.
But strolling along the beach taking
in the chain-saw juggler, the fire-eater who could balance a
his chin, the bug-eater, and even the limbo king who jumped around
in glass, I felt smug.
Because the one and only thing Venice
Beach didn't have was my act. And it was the real thing—authentic
feats learned in the streets of Europe from the masters, acts that
were gonna blow the masses away. Nobody else was doing anything
like I was. For my first show I would put my face in glass, pound
a screwdriver up my nose, lie on a bed of nails and have people
stand on top of me. Those stunts alone were more than any other
show on the beach could offer, more entertainment then you could
anywhere. I figure that would turn me into a rage. All I had to
do was stick my basket out there, and retrieve it at the end of
the day. I was gonna clean up. Those thoughts looped around and
around in my head like a salesman's self-promotional tape.
With six hundred dollars to our names
Bebe and I checked into a cheesy motel. Our room was tiny, the
size of a closet, so small the cockroaches were hunchback. The
only piece of furniture was the lumpy bed with springs bursting
out; tacky seascapes adorned the walls, which were so thin, you
could here the neighbors screwing and beating each other up all
night. It was heaven. Or so it seemed, because I was on a manic
high having finally landed where I knew I should be. I was going
to rock. I was going to rule. Starting manana, I'd be the most
sizzling on the beach for the whole summer.
I had a few thing to learn. And the
first thing I learned on Venice Beach is that you need to get into
a fistfight every morning just to get your spot. After taking in
the scene that first day, I'd figured it out. There were no
booths to rent, no lottery to pick your space. It was survival of
the slickest, and the quickest. Whoever gets there earliest get
So I ran to the boardwalk at six the
next morning except for the seagulls swooping, the old men with
metal detectors sweeping, and the joggers sweating, the place was
But everywhere along the boardwalk
there were towels. I figured they'd wash up during high tide,
though I wondered how so many people could lose their towels in
one day. Then I noticed they each had tape on them. And on each
strip of tape was a name.
It dawned on me that these spots were
theoretically reserved with towels marking the claims. Vacant
towels without humans to guard them.
This would never have gone over in
D.C., in New York, in Europe, or anywhere else, A dinky, ragged
towel even with a name taped on it does not a reservation make. So
I ignored them and promptly set up my bed of nails at a prime
location near the Asian food stands, An hour later the
contortionist whose towel I'd kicked aside showed up and booted me
off his space. I moved on without hassle. There were other towels
to claim. I set up again, not far away, but at nine the juggler
whose towel had been down showed up and likewise bid me sayonara.
I moved on down the strip and the same thing happened over and
over, with everybody snarling at me, "Hey, man that's my space!"
and holding up their towel as if it were a real estate title.
Finally there was only one towel left
that no human was sitting on. I stomp to that towel, claiming it
as my space, and set up. This spot I was ready to fight for,
because there was nowhere else to go.
Well they were big, they were mean,
they were break dancers. And when they showed up an hour later,
they kinda wanted the towel reserved space of theirs back. I
explained that they couldn't reserve a spot with a towel' I argued
that I'd been there first, so that spot was mine. I pleaded to let
me have it 'cause that was the right thing to do.
I tried to amuse them, showing them
how I could pound a nail up my nose.
The trio of young toughs remained unconvinced and unmoved, noting
that it would be even easier for me to pound stuff up my nose
after they’d shot a bullet through it. So they got their spot
I packed up my bed of nails, my
hammer, my bag of bulbs, shuffled back to the motel, and then
headed out again to figure out how this deal worked. That whole
day I just cruised back and forth across the beach, watching shows
and trying to chat with my neighbors.
Unlike the Europeans these street
performers were initially very territorial and not a helpful
bunch; they were like alley cats, each one pissing an invisible
line, and ready to take out anyone who challenged it. And I was
like a little puppy dog wagging its tail, wanting to join in their
scene. Finally a chain-saw juggler, sick of the panting puppy,
tipped me off. He told me about Mom.
That's what everyone called her, the
sweet, plump, and hunchbacked old woman who lived down the way in
a shack. She was the one that put out the towels every night at
three a.m. And though she looked unthreatening—dressed in a ratty
pink robe, her hair in curlers, her slippers always sliding one
step in front of her foot—her word packed a wallop. Mom ruled the
boardwalk, being the unofficial landlord of the beach, dispensing
justice left and right. And she had plenty of locals who supported
her power, locals who'd grown up with Mom, borrowing money from
Mom, and locals who wanted to keep the status quo
towel-as-reservation system in effect, so they could just slide in
and set up on their towel at noon.
I traipsed over to Mom's beach
bungalow, to apply for a space. Unfortunately, it being the high
tourist season, everything was rented. Fortunately, some guy a
watercolorist, I believe was behind on his rent. I tossed her ten
dollars for the day, and she ripped off the piece of tape with his
name on it, and stuck on a piece with mine. And she tossed down
the ripped blue towel with my name taped on it the next morning.
So I got my spot. I finally got my
spot. A good spot too, midway along the strip, right by
Westminster street, just down the way from Gold’s Gym, Where the
musclemen flexed their glistening pecs in the sun for all the
beach babes to see.
Bebe and I went out that night and
celebrated with a pricey meal beachside, living it up with steak
lobster and bottles of wine, because I’d finally made it to Venice
Beach, and knew the next day my coffers would be brimming with
traveler’s checks and tourist dollars. The next morning I laid
down a red tarp and set up my bed of nails, arranged my bag of
light bulbs and nose pounding equipment, and then without
announcement or much ado I began, knowing that the chicken legs
would swarm around when thy caught sight of what I could do.
First I pounded a screwdriver up my
nose, then I threw my face in a pile of glass and had Bebe stand
on my head, Then I lay on the bed of nails, and for the grand
finale I made an escape from a straitjacket that was chained. When
I began, nobody was watching’ when I ended nobody was watching. My
wicker basket that I’d put out for donations remained empty.
Undaunted, I started again” pounding
the screwdriver up my nose, throwing my face in glass, lying on
the bed of nails, writhing to escape a straitjacket. Once again,
nobody was there at beginning or end. I performed my act again
more indignantly this time and still nobody was watching.
Thousands of people strolled right by me and with little more than
a nervous glance they all kept on strolling. But my basket wasn’t
empty: a seagull flew by and crapped in it.
“Don’t worry, Jim,” Bebe consoled me.
“Tomorrow will be a better day. In France bird shit is good luck.”
I love the French’ they could find a fortuitous meaning in an
So I came back the next morning,
hoping that the bird-shit luck would kick in. I set up and started
my show but once again, nobody cared. They kept walking by,
waddling by, running by, skating by. When Bebe stood on my head
while my face was in glass, a couple sidled up hand and hand and
sneered that if they wanted that kind of entertainment, they'd go
to an insane asylum. By the end of the day my basket was emptier
than before' even the seagulls were snubbing me. "Maybe luck only
comes from the shit of French birds," I joked.
"To be continued"
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re-printed with the permission of Jim Rose.
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