The kinds of drifters we get in Venice seems to change with the tide; human driftwood that rolls in and out periodically. Over the summer it was packs of wolf-eyed young men of indeterminate ethnicity, almost invariably wearing hooded sweatshirts. Many of them had tatty backpacks. They roamed the boardwalks and alleyways in Venice in clumps - they seemed sober, quiet, and a little menacing. From time to time we'd get them, especially on a Sunday night when the drum circle was in full swing, sitting on our porch while the neighborinos were sharing some cold drinks and company outdoors. They'd stroll right in like they belonged, trying to play it off like they lived there too, though it was all too obvious that they didn't. Perhaps not coincidentally, police activity dramatically increased in Venice - cops on horses, quads, bikes - in cars, and in the official bird of Los Angeles, the police helicopter. By night, spotlights would stab down out of the sky, accompanied by the roar of rotors.
As Summer rolls out and the nights become crisp and cool, a new gaggle of folks has rolled in. Now there is a huge flock of homeless derelict young people. They're of both genders, but all of them have such deep tans and such caked on filth that it's clear they've been living out of doors for a long time. I don't know if they travel in a caravan, or if they've all just accumulated here like so much jetsam - but they've very much taken up residence at the end of my street. They're both colorful and repulsive - it's clear that most of them are, if not outright alcoholics, then using liquor to dull down whatever pain it is that keeps them on the move. They're loud and perpetually drunk. From a distance they scan like the sort of New Bohemians celebrated in works like "Rent" and one wants to believe that they're just free spirits. But even a few moments close up makes the reek of alcohol and unwashed bodies all too clear. They shout at each other constantly, like a perpetual low-brow frat party. They make unkind comments about passers-by, and often provoke confrontations - particularly when hassling attractive women. After a couple of weeks of this, of the constant seedy atmosphere of a desperately unhappy party fueled by fortified wine and belligerence, I'm sick of it. Enough of them, though, are young men who are lean, empty-eyed, and wearing remnants of a military uniform that it's clear they're veterans. Maybe wounded in body, certainly wounded in spirit - they've been vomited up on shore and left here. Maybe they're in a bad way and underserved by the veterans administration. Maybe they're wandering for a while when the weather is fine and they've got some money in their pocket and no particular destination. Or maybe they're just derelicts who bought uniforms at an Army Navy store...but I don't think it's the latter. I recognize the haircut, the tan lines at the collar and biceps, the upright stance and lean soldier's body. I'm both repulsed and moved - on one hand, every veteran today is a volunteer. Have some pride, some dignity - the honor of the service is yours to hold and keep. On the other, it's a terrible war they've been to, and precious little honor to be had there - the Army today is vastly different than the service I was in. I see them and know that if fate were just slightly different, it might be me. I've seen too many friends come home from the sandbox torn apart and badly patched up - empty men who were once full of energy and ideals, and now only anger and sorrow. I expect there will be many more of this type before there are fewer.
In Winter, we get more of your standard-issue drifters. They're not quite homeless, they often have RV's or mini-vans that they park for days on end in the few good spots that don't need to be shifted due to street cleaning. It's then that you'll find me driving around looking for a parking spot, shaking my fist at the "goddam gypsies" by the way. These characters are more colorful than dangerous - often out of their minds on one substance or another, but infrequently sullen or unkind. In fact, an important part of the scenery in Venice is these folks, who often shuffle through some weird performance art to make some money on the boardwalk, or just hold up signs like, "Need $$$ For Weed" or "World's Greatest Boozer". Obviously most of them are addicts, and that's probably why they live the way they do. But some of them are just eccentric free spirits for whom a different place to sleep every night is just a lifestyle choice. They're as much a part of Venice as the murals, hucksters, musicians and surfers.
There's one particular guy who's story I'd really like to know. Some of these folks I don't doubt you've seen on TV - like the highly-oiled body-builder who wanders around in a leopard print g-string carrying a shotput; the guy in white robes, dreads who plays his electric guitar with a portable amp while zooming around on roller skates. You might have seen them. There's one fellow - a broad-shouldered man with sun-bleached long blonde hair, and the deep tan that old sailors get, who used to walk around in an ankle-length Burberry trenchcoat. In the mornings, he'd wheel out a stand-up piano, and play it on the boardwalk. He was unlikely looking virtuoso, with thick fists and stocky build, like the village blacksmith. But when he sat down to play, his focus would be asbolute, and he'd extemporize on beautiful themes - soaring and swooping themes both elegantly sad and profoundly joyful. It was a wonder to behold, and I've often left as much money as I could spare in his empty pickle-bucket. I've tried to asked him where he played, but he was guarded, silent, and unresponsive. When I saw him walking around, even in the company of the other drifters who would make a little camp behind the open air market on Windward Ave, he was never speaking, brows furrowed, eyes on something and somewhere else. His demeanor was somewhere between a heroin high and autism, and I could never make out which or what. For a long time now, though, there's been no sign of him. But I saw him again this morning while running. His long coat was gone, his hair was tied back in a neat pony-tail. He wasn't wheeling his piano around, but rather, ridiing a bike alongside some cohort or acquaintance, talking most garuously. I wonder if he got clean and sober, and with his use went the music? I don't know, but I'm curious.