One night in Venice Beach...
Just Another Night in Venice Beach.
There certainly won’t be gunshots. That’s ridiculous. This is Venice Beach, not Compton. Though to be fair, I haven’t the slightest clue if Compton is truly scary. Perhaps Compton is a modern-day Pleasantville that’s somehow been misrepresented by the media, the middle-aged, and the past. I don’t know. All I know is that as I settle into the lumpy sea-green couch behind me, I can’t fathom there’ll be gunshots.
A gunshot rings out.
I’m not sure if this is what my friends had in mind when they said I’d miss the creativity and vibrancy of artistic LA when I moved out to the suburbs roughly one year ago, but the gunshot nonetheless comes with an echoed immediacy. I’m stunned by how close it is to me, to my friend, and to the sea-green couch I’m about to call my bed for the night.
My friend Jerry and I had been talking for an hour, conversations ranging from kids to music to in-laws. Mostly though, we talked about the film industry and the fresh things happening within it. Jerry and I could always be counted on to talk for hours about the actors, the directors, and the work currently inspiring us. We’d known each other for over a decade, and in that time certainly had our relationship ups and downs. Like any good story, the outward people we were on the day we met had now completely reversed. When I first met Jerry, he was a doting boyfriend intent on the domestic future he and his partner seemed destined to have. Jerry wasn’t a square, but he certainly wasn’t the binge-drinking emotional train wreck I was. Still, our differences meshed and Jerry and I became fast friends. Now, years later, Jerry lived in an eclectic area of town just inside Venice Beach. The Pacific Ocean sand was literally fifty feet away, and artists of all types dotted the cracked sidewalks and pop-up food stands. Conversely, I had moved to Santa Clarita. The only struggling artists there were the soccer Moms who opened up strip mall patisseries because they thought it might be fun. I was married, Jerry single.
Jerry’s life had exactly the type of artistic integrity some of my other friends spoke of. Namely, it was what they perceived as the real deal. Jerry struggled, just like all of us did, but if we were on the outskirts of the thriving heart of the city, Jerry was part of it. One stroll down Venice Beach boulevard will give you a taste of the carnival atmosphere Jerry had joined: frustrated painters, acoustic guitars, and apple-bosomed Midwestern transplants cohabitated with an uneasy truce of acceptance. As long as you weren’t wearing a Banana Republic slim-fitted dress shirt or pontificating on the greatness of Dane Cook, you were generally accepted. And from the looks of things on this particular Saturday night, the weirder you looked, the better.
For me, my life was the best it had ever been. I was happy, personally and professionally respected, and in relatively good health. In fact, it had been quite a dramatic reversal of fortune from where I was roughly seven years ago. Back then I had a habit of playing Jeff Buckley’s “Hallelujah” at five in the morning while contemplating to all those around me if life was wasted on people like us, most notably me. Yeah, I was that guy.
But fall in love, learn to love yourself, and jump headfirst into what you really want to do creatively has a way of changing your outlook. I still liked Buckley, and sometimes he has a way of tempting me back to the beta version of me, but not enough to risk everything I’ve built up by staying positive.
Still, no matter how happy, how comfortable, or how ambitious a man is, there always remains a nagging feeling that something real is out there beyond your grasp, and if you’d just get in the car and go for it, the artistic heights you wish to climb will somehow be reached. In short, the thrill of a dangerous adventure resides inside you at all times, like a nesting doll that tugs at your outward appearance.
For many years, I lived in less than ideal circumstances while pursuing a career in the film industry. I don’t want to exaggerate it. It was the San Fernando Valley, not Compton.
Shit. I did it again. People of Compton, I apologize.
Anyway, through the years I lived in all manors of apartments. All cramped, all with other people, and all in my mind just a pit stop on the way to the future. I’ve had my car stolen, my girlfriend stolen, and in many ways, my Midwestern innocence stolen. I lived with a friend in my living room for five years. Another friend couch-surfed for eight months, and still another friend bailed on our living arraignment two months into living together. Worse of all, I‘ve had a brick thrown through the front window and every room turned upside down. Strange side note- the robbers stole cheap sunglasses, a piggy bank of dirty pennies, and my roommate’s weed, but not the computers and cameras we had at the time. I get the weed, but bad Oasis-style 90’s wraparound knockoff shades?
Point is, when I lived in those conditions, I wrote dozens of screenplays all while sweating through AC breakdowns and angry women I spent late nights with. I made a bad movie filled with bad decisions that started with my leadership. And when I started seeing harder drugs and harder people showing up at the after-parties I was attending, I simply chalked it up to life experience and put it into my stories.
I wallowed, a man swimming against the tide of who I wanted to be and where I wanted to go. It’s real easy to be delusional about your well being if those around you are part of the circus too. I liked those people. I still like those people. They have character, even if that comes with a tinge of danger and unknown conclusions. But they weren’t exactly healthy for my growth.
And so when I first moved away from the valley, to a small stretch of land barely known to most Angelinos, a town called Montrose that could double for quaint towns of middle-America (and does, on many film and TV sets), my creative friends recoiled in concern.
Would I still write? Was I giving up? Would I survive the quiet tranquility of day-to-day life without the madness that I had bred into my everyday dealings? They needed it, so I must need it too.
The truth was that instead of hindering my energy, Montrose awakened it. I didn’t necessarily write more, I just wrote more focused. I studied. I learned. I got better and I put words into action. It started with a book, then onto a short, and eventually into a full feature film. I developed new friends, a new outlook, and slowly lost the artistic façade that I felt took over from who I really was. It’s easy to pose; it’s a lot harder to actually do the work.
Last year, my wife and I moved farther away, into a quiet house 45 minutes from anything even remotely considered hip. We have an Applebees, a Chillis, and an Olive Garden. The younger me would have turned my nose up at such a place, feeling it represented the sterile, sanitized, corporate vision of the 90’s. Here khaki wasn’t just a pair of pants, it was a color scheme for every store just down the street. Friends scoffed. Sure, I had made my movie in Montrose, but this was an entirely different breed of suburban monster I was charging into battle with. My intuitions and artistic expressions were bound to be burned from my soul! Or something dramatic like that. Part of me secretly worried if that was true, and if this older version of me was way too concerned with school ratings and not enough with the latest Lars Von Trier release. Anxiety grew, despite my suspicions that any concerns my friends had were projections of their own artistic output.
Sure, I was going where it was safe, but I have to tell you, it’s a helluva lot easier to write something succinct with space and quiet than it is with a dude in my living room getting it on with his girlfriend. I mean, how the hell am I supposed to get a cup of coffee with that going on?
To Venice Beach.
I was working late one Saturday night in Malibu, with a scheduled appointment early Sunday morning in Malibu as well. Knowing the traffic demons of LA were very real, and the idea of driving 2+ hours both ways based on the times would suck up all sleeping time, I called Jerry and asked to spend the night. I had wanted to see his place anyway, as again, part of me will always be drawn to the grittiness of a place like Venice Beach. Jerry happily agreed, and truthfully I looked forward to a peek into the other side of my brain. Maybe I did want the setting Jerry had and maybe it would make my work stronger, or at the very least more interesting.
It started with parking. People in bustling cities will tell you about the indie record stores, the cool furniture shops, the organic food, and the speakeasy like parties filled with the coolest music. They don’t tell you about the parking. The parking is a disaster and in my experience has proved to be a disaster no matter what major city you’re in or what time of day you’re looking for a spot. Venice was no different, and navigating the one-way streets was outlandishly amusing. Think I’m kidding? Go try to decipher the various street signs around Abbot Kinney and you’ll understand. Wait, I have to be up by eight but I can be back by ten? Wait, what day is street cleaning? On which side? Wait, what the fuck is that saying?
I walked the few blocks to Jerry’s apartment and immediately sunk into the couch that would become my safety net. I hadn’t crashed on a couch in well over five years, and even then found it somewhat embarrassing based on my age (I’m 36 now). Still, I was feeling the vibe, and looking forward to waking up next to the ocean, sure to be met with a community of people of which to share stories with. Jerry was new to the writing game, and I felt a jolt of excitement as we watched something he’s working on, seeing that first writing glean in his eye that I once knew so well. His color-coded post-it notes were a sign of his commitment, and they crisscrossed the entire length of his slanted back bedroom wall. Yeah, I could do this. I could go back here.
There was even something appealing about the open-aired windows, a temperature falling somewhere between just comfortable and slightly sweaty. You felt the pulse outside. It was 3 am, and people still mingled about. Jerry and I talked about how each one of us felt like we were on the cusp of breaking the waves we had fought against for so long. Jerry was the one friend I had that had stuck around when others retreated. For as long as I can remember, Jerry and I have been going at it. We might have different routes, but we’ve always been on the same road. And when others called it a day, packed up their mid-size cars and went in search of something full of less pain and less rejection, Jerry and I stayed. We took hit after hit, but never succumbed. I respected Jerry, and he respected me.
And right in the middle of this trip down memory lane and the buzz of what tomorrow brings, the gunshot went off.
It fell silent in Jerry’s apartment, and suddenly it didn’t feel so hip.
Have you ever been really close to lightning? The crack of thunder that accompanies something so powerful and so close to you is jolting. You immediately become clear of how all consuming that is, something you take for granted because you’re never been faced with it in such close proximity. That’s how the gunshot was. It wasn’t somewhere in the distance; it was close by. Extremely close by.
Time slowed, and even the curtains flapping in the breeze seemed to acknowledge the moment, slowing down like an important shot in a Paul Thomas Anderson movie.
A few beats later, Jerry and I made some jokes in an effort to defuse the heightened moment. He went to his room and I stretched my legs into the couch.
Maybe it was that gunshot, maybe not, but the next six hours weren’t exactly filled with deep sleep. In Venice, the streets never fully go quiet. There’s always someone just outside your door, prowling the night like a vampire. Two men got into an argument about something unknown, and the rage escalated for fifteen minutes. Shopping carts filled with people’s lives slowly rattled down the street. Not an hour went by where I wasn’t startled into awakening. What was going on out there? And whatever it was, would it really improve my creativity simply because of the insanity?
Waking up, I showered and prepared for my appointment. I was thrilled to see daylight, hear cheery dialogue outside, and see incredibly talented people set up their wares on the boardwalk. They were living the life, and I wondered if I was a fraud because I couldn’t wait to get back to my backyard and my computer.
Maybe I am.
But I don’t feel that way. I have my memories of a crazier time, a potentially dangerous time where many times I didn’t really know the backstories of the people I mingled with. I still like places like Venice Beach, in much like I still like a crazy former friend or lover.
As I was leaving, Jerry told me of a story that happened to him recently. A guy living up the block was high on crystal meth, along with some other drugs, which sent him into a state of hallucination. Whatever weird drug cocktail he concocted and ingested that night was rearing its effects, a bad trip into parts unknown. He banged on Jerry’s door for an hour, scratching and clawing in an effort to get inside. When that didn’t work, he tried the roof, and didn’t stop until the threat of officers and handcuffs freaked him out further and he scurried off down the street. His roommate came and apologized to Jerry the next day.
I asked Jerry if he was scared.
“No, not really. It’s just another night in Venice.”