Getting up with the sun was still a new experience for us. Getting up after a fitful night of sleep pretzeled in Jim’s dandelion white Plymouth Business Coupe (which, after midnight turned into a cold storage locker) was equally new, and decidedly unpleasant. But getting up with a grocery sack of provisions … well, that made everything seem a bit better.
The groceries, courtesy of the missus and Aunt Jemima, were crammed with goodies … fried chicken, bread, apples, candy and all sorts of delicious edibles … plus an envelope with ten bucks in it!
“God bless ’em” I thought to myself as no self-respecting beatnik would dare utter such a thought out loud … but “God bless ’em!”
Thus, with bellies full, 5 gallons of gas in the tank and a few extra bucks in our pockets, we said goodbye to the bleak surroundings of the Warner Bros studios and headed to Venice West and the LA beat scene!
Civilization first came to Venice West, now known as Venice Beach, at the turn of the last century via one very rich tobacco tycoon turned developer, Abbot Kinney.
Kinney built a seaside resort along a mile-long stretch of gently sloping beachfront he’d purchased. He carved miles of drainage canals into the marshes that adjoined the beach (something we’d call an environmental disaster or desecration because we know better, don’t we) and christened the place, naturally, Venice.
Initially the place thrived, a Disneyland of the early 1900s with dance halls, games, roller coasters, gondolas with singing gondoliers and the like. But after Kinney’s death the place began a slow decline, accelerated by the Great Depression, prohibition and civic neglect.
By the 1950s most of its canals had been paved over. Oil rigs replaced amusement piers and Venice West had been re-christened The Slum by the Sea by Angelenos who steered clear of the place in droves.
Of course this decrepitude meant low rents, which in turn brought artists who could afford to live and work there. The beats of LA were among them, their center of gravity a cafe called Venice West.
Jorge and I arrived at Venice much too early in the day for any self-respecting beatnik to show, but we had nowhere else to go and hung-out until the beats, such as they were, came crawling out of their dens.
Unfortunately, there really wasn’t much of a scene there, especially when compared to SF’s North Beach… just a few dilapidated shacks and the cafe. It was like a Hollywood set … a facade with nothing to back it up.
To say we were disappointed would be an understatement. After spending a short time in a room featuring someone reading in a bathtub under a naked lightbulb hanging from the ceiling, my highly tuned sense of teen righteousness kicked in.
“Jim, let’s get the hell out of here! Let’s go! I can’t take this shit!” I shouted indignantly. “This is nothing but Hollywood crap! Come on, let’s GO!”
Okay, I’ll admit it. I had a distinct San Francisco bias at the time, but I also had to get out of there. I felt disillusioned and somehow betrayed, not so much the paucity of the LA scene, but because of it. I realized that the epoch of peace, beaches, money and love was going to take much longer than I’d hoped for.
The thought depressed me. Jorge however seemed perfectly content relaxing in an overstuffed chair surrounded by clouds of white stuffing, perfectly happy to stay or leave. If nothing else, he sure had an easy going temperament!
Following the disillusionment of Venice we wandered up the beach towards Santa Monica where we found a small grocery store, typical of an earlier time with a front porch, a wooden screen door, creaky hardwood floors and a Coca Cola truck parked out front.
Upon seeing the truck, in a classic Pavlovian response, we just had to have a Coke! The driver was nowhere to be seen and his truck’s cases of cola sat out in the open so … well, the opportunity proved irresistible.
We approached the vehicle trying our best to look casual, but we couldn’t quite pull it off. The driver had obviously seen this scenario before. As we neared his truck, he flung open the screen door, stormed out and yelled, “Hey! You! You kids! Get away from that truck! Go on, get!”
“Get yourself!” I shouted back indignantly, probably because he’d divined our intent, “This is a public thoroughfare … and we’re the public!”
After hearing this, the large, burly man in the Coke uniform started off the porch, at which point the store’s proprietress, an attractive woman of Mediterranean ancestry intervened.
“Hey, stoppa you!” she implored. “They fina kids. They no steal nothing … right you?” she shouted looking down at us.
“Oh, no mam. No. Nothing at all. Nothing!” we lied.
And normally we wouldn’t have, but we weren’t in normal circumstances and felt perfectly justified, almost obligated, to engage in this petty larceny … after all, it was a clear-cut case of survival of the fittest!
She called us up on the porch where she lectured the honest deliveryman about his deplorable lack of trust in the younger generation. Of course, as the customer is always right, he backed-off. But in spite of this and his sheepish demeanor, Jim and I could almost feel the anger bubbling-up inside the brute.
To say we were glad to see him drive off would be an understatement. And that’s when things took an unexpected turn. This proprietoress, our protectress, offered us a job!
After delivering her joyful news, she handed me a broom and told me to sweep the aisles. Jorge got a cart filled with canned goods to re-stock shelves.
We tried our best, but our best wasn’t nearly good enough. After a brief time she started displaying the early stages of a nervous breakdown right in front of our eyes!
Then she started to yell in a language we’d never heard before, ranting about things with which we were totally unfamiliar. She even grabbed my broom and started waving it at us shouting louder and louder!
Jorge and I figured discretion was the better part of valor and hightailed it out of there as fast as we possibly could.
We threw open the screen door, flew out of the place with the crazed grocer running after us yelling indecipherable profanities. As we ran down the beach she was still yelling at us from the porch, waving her broom in the air and cursing non-stop.
Naturally we felt bad about disappointing her, but truth be told, we also felt sense of relief. You see, we really didn’t want to work. We had full bellies and a couple of bucks left. We weren’t in school … so you could say we were on holiday! And we didn’t need to work … not just yet.
We were spoiled to say the least. As first shots from the post-war baby boom cannon, we took it for granted that things would always work out for us. Things would always fall in our laps … after all, it was of time of unprecedented prosperity with trappings of wealth all around. Globalization and international competition were words reserved for a distant future. The world was our country’s economic oyster and we were its pearls!
As children of the future (our given name in California) we could ignore the realities that had shaped the behavior of previous generations for untold decades. We didn’t feel bound by old rules and rituals, things like hard work and The Ten Commandments. It was going to be a new world and we were going to shape it!
God knows it needed it. Our parents and grandparents had made a hell of a mess of it. Damn near destroyed it! We, however, would create a land of peace, beaches, love and money.
And we, Jim and Joe, the first shots fired from a demographic cannon of unprecedented caliber would be in the vanguard! But in the meantime we were also very nearly broke and getting pretty hungry.
The next dawn found us at a bus stop somewhere in the Santa Monica area. We had no idea where we were, but at least we knew where we were going. I had a plan!
We needed money, so I figured we’d go where money was … Beverly Hills! We could find a few lawns to mow, rake-in a some bucks and kickback! No sweat!
The bus stop stood on a residential street in a quiet, friendly looking neighborhood. All in all it was a beautiful setting.
Spring mornings warm-up quickly in LA. The bees, were swarming in the tranquil morn, gathering nectar while dancing amongst a profusion of flowers whose fragrances and colors vied for their attention.
Of course our early wake-up time was bedtime for adult swingers … none of whom ever surpassed the legendary swingers who drove-up to the bus stop that morning!
An older, brown Chrysler sedan pulled up, even older than Jorge’s Plymouth … it had running boards! The driver, a man in a light brown fedora was a perfect ringer for fabled Frank Sinatra. Then I looked at the passengers … everyone of them was a ringer for someone famous as well!
Sammy Davis Jr.’s smiling face was hard to miss. Joey Bishop’s hangdog face was unmistakable. Peter Lawford’s sleepy-eyed aristocratic mug was recognizable even in the shadows of the back seat.
The infamous Rat Pack had come to our bus stop! And it was clear they were calling it a day after a night on the town.
I’d read an article about them in my mom’s copy of Time Magazine (the gospel of truth back then) … The Rat Pack prowled LA at night in old cars, haunting hot spots, partying and raising hell all night long.
We watched as superstar Dean Martin’s ringer exited the jalopy. He waved goodbye to his buddies and started walking towards us.
Jim stood absolutely still, frozen, unable to move and too stunned to utter a word. I don’t think he could even blink!
I just stared at the strange sight of this expensively attired American icon walking straight towards us.
Yep! There was no mistaking it. From every angle this was Dean Martin, and without question that was The Rat Pack driving away!
I tried to figure out what in the world a superstar like Dino could possibly be doing at a bus stop? But I figured, (a) it probably had something to do with his wife, so I wouldn’t get a straight answer even if I tried; (b) since we beatnik’s looked down on pop stars and their culture I really couldn’t show that I even recognized him; (c) Jim had lost the art of speech so he wouldn’t ask; and (d) I had bigger, more urgent needs … like how to get to Beverly Hills.
But it turned out that we weren’t the only ones at the bus stop astonished by events.
Dino seemed every bit as surprised seeing us, two young teens, completely lost, standing at his bus stop so early that the birds had only just begun their morning melodies and conversations.
“Hey! What are you guys up to?” he asked with a voice that convinced us beyond a any doubts that he was the Dino of stage and screen. “Where you guys going?”
I related our Beverly Hills Landscaper scheme and a summary of our saga to date. He chuckled, shaking his head in wonder. It was plain he found the entire story amusing, especially the Aunt Jemima bit.
“You don’t want to go there” he informed us authoritatively, “Nope, you don’t want to go to Beverly Hills. They don’t have sidewalks there and the police will pick you up sure as shooting.”
He paused, and after giving it serious consideration he went on, “Nope. You want to go to Pacific Palisades. That’s where! Pacific Palisades! And, hey, here’s your bus. Get off at Pacific Palisades. Good luck guys! Bona fortuna!”
And with that we hustled onto the bus, said goodbye to our celebrity and took off to Pacific Palisades and another LaLaLand adventure!
Next … Did the the Palisades pay off? What’d they find there? Find out for yourself in Lost in LaLaLand Part 4, THE PALISADES AND THE PINK CADILLAC, coming soon!
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