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 paradise.

 

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 day.

 

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 chainsaw on 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 the spot.

 

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 deserted.

 

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 little 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 back.

 

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 and 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 air-raid siren.

 

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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