As they parked around what Google had indicated as the entrance to the Venice Beach Boardwalk, Alex reiterated, for the fifth time, her need to pee.
Nick had to pee as well, but Alex had been holding it in for longer, or had at least vocalized her condition earlier and more often. Thus it was Alex’s journey.
Though they were only in the city for about thirty-six hours, two-thirds of which had already passed, Alex had decided she didn’t like LA. Nick hadn’t formed his own opinion yet, but could understand where she was coming from. The traffic was as bad as everyone had said it would be. Still, it bothered Alex more than it did Nick, who had much more experience in traffic. Alex was a native New Yorker, and didn’t even have a license. Driving hardly made sense to her.
Nick killed the engine and was mildly surprised when Alex didn’t leap from the car. He removed the keys from the ignition and looked over at her. Despite being out of traffic and in range of a number of surrounding small-business bathrooms, she did not appear relieved.
He asked what was wrong. She said she didn’t know.
“No. It’s — I’m not relaxed. We’re supposed to be relaxing but we’ve spent most of the day in traffic.”
She went on to remark upon the weather. While in traffic, it had been sunny. Now that they were by the water, the sky was overcast. Also, Alex noted (as Nick well-knew) — that it was getting late. According to the friend they had met for coffee earlier that day, there were only a few hours of peak beach time remaining.
Nick again considered her feelings but also expressed his own. They were here now, the traffic had been definitively annoying but they were also trying to do quite a bit, around the city, in a single day.
Also, he reminded her, they both had to pee. This seemed the most pressing concern.
Alex didn’t reply directly but seemed to hear some of what he had said and, after a moment, asked for some time. He fell silent. He became privately annoyed. Time would still be there after they found a place to pee, in his opinion.
Eventually, they got out of the car. The simple action, while it would pale in comparison to the primal physical relief soon to come, provided some liberation from the lingering trappings of their previously trafficked state.
Nick fed the parking meter with what change he could scavenge from the front pocket of his backpack. Alex crossed the street to pee in a Starbucks — a modern urban tradition that immediately called New York to mind for Nick but probably also occurred throughout the western world and known oases.
Just as Nick was approaching the Starbucks, Alex emerged saying that she would not be using their bathroom. She had more choice words for why. She was upset again.
They argued for a moment, about the exact same things they had discussed in the car. Nick spotted an independent cafe a few blocks down. He remarked that it was time for his afternoon coffee, and suggested they go there for both that and mutual peeing. By now, he had to go badly as well.
Alex remained annoyed but agreed. They entered the cafe and Nick observed the interior and instantly liked it. The place had been designed, and seemed to be run (if early impressions were any indicator) without pretension. Yet by the smell and appearance of things, the proprietors appreciated quality.
Alex bristled at what she perceived as Nick’s dallying. She still just had to pee.
They approached the counter and were met by a pleasant, smiling, tanned Japanese man, who greeted them warmly and inquired as to how he could help. Nick felt comfortable replying that they needed not only coffee but also, urgently, a bathroom.
The man laughed and told them the bathroom was around the corner and in the back. Relieved, Alex smiled and expressed her thanks and went to pee. Nick got his coffee, paid for it, went to drop a dollar in the glass tip jar on the counter and noticed that he had been given too much change. He let the man know. The man laughed and said something about how dollar bills are always sticking to each other. Nick privately wished more of his money would stick to itself and also realized – with bemusement, if not surprise — that the man behind the counter was high.
Nick took his coffee and turned around to the counter of milks and creams and sugars and spices. He put the coffee down, isolated the cinnamon from the cocoa via a careful analysis of each shaker’s pores, and ultimately tapped some cinnamon into his coffee. He picked the coffee up, smelled it, and felt his body relax. Soon, he too would be high.
Nick put his coffee back down on the counter, found a lid, placed it over the cup and then picked the coffee up a final time and wandered to the back to find the bathroom.
It was located in an alcove, adjacent to the cafe’s kitchen, which looked disorganized but not dirty. Still, Nick wondered if Alex had found the bathroom clean enough. Ultimately, he reflected as he waited, that she must have. Or else she had given up.
“You’re lucky you have a dick,” she might say — not for the first time – if the bathroom didn’t end up meeting her standards.
Again, he couldn’t argue.
He heard a flush, running water, and then the churning of a paper towel dispenser (good sign). Then a latch clicked and the door opened and Alex emerged looking much relieved and not at all disgusted.
She held the door open for him and said she’d wait outside. Nick asked her to hold his coffee until he got back and she took it and went.
They couldn’t find the boardwalk at first. Alex wondered aloud whether they had started in the right place. Despite the relief that the bathroom break had provided, they both still felt disappointed by the weather. Also, so far, they hadn’t found much activity at the beach.
Nick squinted in the direction where he figured the boardwalk might be. Leaving Alex, he wandered to a bike rental hut nearby. A bored-looking man appeared from behind a partition and Nick politely asked him which way it was to the boardwalk. The man pointed and Nick, somewhat put off by his choice to reply inaudibly, briefly nodded his thanks at the same time that he was turning around to rejoin Alex.
He felt like a tourist. He didn’t like feeling like a tourist. At the same time, it was what he was, today, so he let it go.
They found the boardwalk and, soon, there they were – experiencing Venice Beach as tourists.
Overall, in a general way, the beach didn’t seem too dissimilar from Coney Island, or from other boardwalks Nick had walked in the past, both with and without Alex. On the other hand, its carnival feel seemed more stripped down, less urgent, more Californian, than anything in the east.
This minor proof of prevailing stereotypes comforted Nick, somewhat.
Everything was for sale.
On the inland side of the boardwalk, vendors stood outside of tiny alcoves selling the usual: t-shirts, pipes, various trinkets.
Fried food was infinitely available.
Unlike Nick’s first visit to Coney Island, he was not tempted to sample any of it. He was similarly disinterested in accepting any of the offers, extended lazily at intervals by either a stoned young white man or woman dressed in bright green scrubs, to pay to see a doctor about getting a prescription for marijuana.
Maybe he would have gone in for that at another, earlier point in his life, in different company (dudes) — but not today. Even in wondering how the process might go, Nick knew well-enough to leave the idea alone. He imagined that paying for the consultation would invariably lead to paying more money for terrible, over-priced weed.
Artists and musicians sold their wares or performed their crafts on the beach side, to the left of Nick and Alex.
Nick mostly swiveled his head while they walked, but paid more attention to the artists. They were his people. Even before any initial estimation of their talents, or any measurements of their offerings against his tastes, he felt his heart reach out to them in solidarity.
As they proceeded, hand-in-hand, with no agenda towards anything but the sensation of seeing (and hearing) the world around them, Nick and Alex, both — began to relax.
Walking felt good. The feel of Alex’s hand, soft in his, felt good. Even being among people who mostly appeared reduced, in stark terms, to culturally-defined roles of Sellers and Buyers — felt refreshingly honest.
They arrived at Muscle Beach. A small teenage girl giggled, almost fatally, as a very large, well-built man lifted her above his head, like a barbell, as her similarly afflicted friend struggled to steady herself long enough to take a photo of the action.
Alex’s gaze lingered on the exploit. Nick didn’t blame her, but privately lamented how long it had been since he had lifted weights.
A minute after they had passed, Alex wondered aloud if the man could lift her, too. Nick didn’t answer. He let the jealously ride, and found after a while that it had gone.
Reasoning the scenario out had helped. The muscled man, like the other beachside sellers, was in addition to a (essentially non-real) masculine threat — also a fellow artist. Despite his natural envy, Nick respected the man’s commitment and apparent excellence.
As it often did when contemplating things like art, commitment, and excellence, Nick’s mind then turned his own chosen path of salesmanship: his screenwriting.
Nick had arrived in LA while at a strange crossroads in his life as an artist. He was in the process of completing his tenth year as a writer. There was a clear reason he felt direct kinship with the street musicians and painters who were hocking their talents, with varying results, along the view of the beach. Apart from the comparatively higher costs of film production, he was, after all these years, in a similar position – casting for buyers from the outskirts.
This was not necessarily bad. In fact, Nick had lately, finally, begun to view his own exploits through a similar lens of pride as the one through which he now viewed his brethren on the street. He had come quite a long way over the years (thanks in no small part to Alex, who seemed for the moment to be engaged in her own private reverie). The challenge he now faced, however, was how to navigate the intersection he felt himself approaching, which very much resembled the two sides of the street he now walked.
His art, and his ambitions with it, had evolved now to the point where he felt confident not only putting himself out there, and seeking support in doing so (like the singers, painters, and sculptors on his left), but also, increasingly, crossing the divide between them and the others, who were definitively selling products, in pursuit of not only the means to provide for themselves but also profit and growth.
Nick knew, consciously, that he was not a product (though his scripts were). Still, even as he walked with Alex, reflecting upon this still newly mature point of view, he felt some lingering sentiments of doubt, which were themselves quickly latched onto by all vines of fear that could grasp them as they crept through the jungle of his mind.
More than anything else, Nick wondered whether he had truly arrived at this crossroads, or whether, instead, he had reached only the end of his patience – and then whether there were any real difference between the two states.
They remained quiet. There was plenty of sound to soak in, without either of them needing to add anything.
Salespeople sold, most of the fine artists sat quietly beside their wares, incremental live dance performances added some blooded life to the boardwalk’s otherwise steady, lackadaisical buzz.
A soulful young woman with large sad eyes strummed a guitar and sang softly. As Nick and Alex passed her, they paused, realizing almost concurrently that she was quite good.
“Do you have cash?”
Nick nodded, and gave five dollars to Alex. They turned around, approached the woman together. Then Nick slowed and hung back as Alex smiled, dropped the bill, and turned halfway back around to resume their walk in the other direction. The woman kept playing, but smiled at Nick and nodded her thanks.
The transaction had done nothing to dim the sadness in the woman’s eyes and voice.
He hadn’t supposed it would. She kept singing, and he held on to the sound as long as he could as they proceeded. But, invariably, the woman’s voice faded back to where it had come, from within the din of the crowd.
When the end of the boardwalk appeared in the distance, they stopped. Nick realized, quite suddenly, that his hand was shaking.
The coffee had been strong, and they were overdue to move on in their tourist-ing to a recommended nearby lunch spot. It would require walking back to where they had started and then driving ten minutes (to go a few miles). Nick addressed Alex and reported on his condition.
She then waited outside while he ducked into a convenience store for a snack. Inside, a gregarious old Korean man was faking his way through a conversation, with a couple of young women, about the wines he sold in the store. They were not wines that merited much conversation. As more people wandered in, Nick realized that he was the only person in the store not buying alcohol.
This was a new experience.
He paid for a protein bar and bottle of water, noted that the prices weren’t nearly as bad as he would have guessed, and went back out to meet Alex.
After a couple of minutes, once the protein bar had been swallowed, he felt better. They took less time to make their way back towards where the rental car was parked.
Still, they mostly remained quiet, as they walked and swapped the water back and forth between them until it was gone.
Nick wondered what Alex was thinking. She still didn’t seem to be enjoying LA very much, and it worried him. He neither liked nor disliked it yet, except for the weather, and the relative glut of parking, both of which were a relief compared to New York.
The city would have to be on the radar, if he were to proceed with his planned attempt to cross — or at least jostle his way into to a rare encampment somewhere in the middle — from the busking artist’s side of the street to the salespeople’s side.
He felt his jaw tighten. He paused, and wondered after the accuracy of his conclusions.
There was little fundamental difference between the artists and the salespeople. Most were working on slim margins, probably scraping by, spending just as much time hocking their wares or talents as they were developing or employing them. The real difference rested outside the neighborhood, where the big money was being spent by far wealthier — but when it came down to it, mostly, behaviorally identical — people.
It all came down to where the personal threshold existed, for each man and woman, didn’t it? How much were they willing to sell? What was the right price, what were the true costs?
His jaw tightened further. He glanced at Alex.
Again, she was deep in her own reflections. He realized, then, that there was no way of knowing what she was thinking. She could be worrying about the same things, probably if not certainly as they applied to herself and her artistic career. The constant state of persistent questioning came with the territory – but knowing or suspecting it was shared would not on its own have made the situation any less exhausting for either of them. Talking through their concerns might have helped, but for the moment they were not doing that.
Nick by now had built up a fairly effective practice of taking immediate note of any tightening of his jaw as a sign that he needed to breathe and let go. It could be that simple. He could relax his body and use this is a signal to his mind to follow suit.
He employed this strategy, and soon thereafter found a handhold in reason.
There was no way of knowing what the right move would be, what would happen, whether this abbreviated test trip was a success, a failure, or nothing at all of significance. He knew this, knew that all he could do was what he had always done (keep his head down and work), and also to do more of what has been helping much more recently, which was to actively pursue opportunities to grow and learn – in short, to ask for help.
“Let’s get lunch.”
They passed a small crowd that faced the beach, at the center of which was a thin, slightly-hunched, middle-aged Caribbean man with a folded bandanna encircling his head around the temples.
Nick craned his neck to look back as the man loudly corralled people into the painted white square he supposed the man was renting from the city for his performance.
Nick noticed that the man was holding an empty bottle of rum with the bottom broken off, and a large bed sheet, folded like a sack, that appeared to hold a heavy load of variously-sized, similarly broken glass bottles.
Alex’s gaze was drawn to the scene as well. The man continued to gather his crowd.
“Come in close! Come in close! Don’t be shy!”
Nick slowed. Alex did also. The man let go, partially, of the sheet, dropping it and its contents, not very carefully, in the middle of the square. He still held loosely onto the back two flaps of the makeshift sack, which he kept bunched in one hand.
Then there was a popping and a tinkling of broken glass as the front of sheet opened and several large pieces and shards were revealed. The man dropped the bottle of rum, atop the sheet and onto the sidewalk. The top broke off.
“Don’t be shy! Last show of the day, ladies and gentleman! Last show before I go back to the island!”
The man cackled loudly. The cackling had a hidden air of privacy about it, but Nick felt even this was part of the show — feigned madness but with a touch of the real informing the performance. He recognized the exploit.
He looked at Alex.
“I kind of need to know what’s up with that glass.”
Nick sensed a disappointing ultimate result almost immediately.
He remained watching, though, standing beside Alex, their bodies pressed especially close together to offset their discomfort at being part of an also-pressed-together crowd of strangers.
Partially Nick remained because it had been his idea to stop and watch — which was a decision they were now invested in, which he would realize later was part of the trick — but also he did so out of some morbid hope that the man would eventually perform some sleight-of-foot trick that might at least momentarily flirt with a real possibility of blood.
The man would, eventually, strategically, briefly — via a prior training that to Nick would seem incomplete and honestly not impressive enough, given all the build-up that would first come — make good on his unspoken promise to endanger himself.
But a matching act in New York, he knew even then, at the beginning of the performance, would not succeed.
New Yorkers would need to see a real trick, and would need to see it sampled more quickly. Fake blood might even work, but a true and obvious magician’s exploit would have to go on display, sooner and with escalating stakes, for a show such as the one they now witnessed to work effectively.
Then again, New Yorkers might not even be impressed by broken glass at all. They saw it every day, anyway. Nick additionally began to doubt if such a performance would even be permitted back home.
The man was at least a good performer.
He strode energetically about the circle he had created out of the crowd. As a few police officers in the distance ignored him completely, he continued to loudly cite and leverage an obviously overstated need to keep them from writing him a ticket, as an excuse to address lingerers directly, drawing them more tightly in on the circle, usually via an outdated and/or racist (but effective) name-calling joke.
Any white male was Eminem. Asian males were Jackie Chan. While he spoke to women as well, he did not assign them names in any matching fashion.
Nick considered this an important detail. If not a true endangerer of the self, the man was at least a practiced and ruthless performance salesman. He was going after men. He was highlighting the differences between they and him. The women, he flirted with — mildly, just enough to cause discomfort. Machismo. Race. Sex. He was aiming for the strongest, and most primally-based, social power structures he could manipulate.
For several minutes, the man continued to play the crowd, returning only to the pile of glass to tease various methods of harming himself with it. Each tease was well-timed to arrive just at the edge of audience impatience. All were abandoned abruptly once people were reintroduced to their initial dark curiosity, and followed by more crowd work, more jokes tinged with racial tension — until suddenly and quite unceremoniously — he performed what Nick guessed would be his only move, a definite but well-orchestrated two-step shuffle onto the pile of shards that was over as soon as it started.
Nick didn’t check for blood, figuring there wouldn’t be any. Indeed, there was none (or someone would have said something). He glanced at Alex, who looked bored and a touch uncomfortable. Nick also felt uncomfortable, and he wondered after the emotion, even as he realized that the show was already over even if it hadn’t yet ended.
The man brought out his hat, finally, and became instantly aggressive in soliciting payment for his services. He addressed couples, particularly, often playing a stoic unimpressed male against his more gregarious girlfriend.
Many of these couples had already been primed, by the man’s prior crowd work, for a direct ask. When he was done with them, he thrust the hat towards whole groups of tourists from foreign countries, briefly summarizing, in his own fashion, how the whole transaction worked and how much it was worth here in this country.
The man leaned over and addressed children, sending them to ask their parents for money. He eventually put the hat down, resumed his flirtations with the glass, and then, perhaps marking the beginning of his final act, the tone of his voice shifted again and Nick sensed hostility, within a now barely-veiled demand for compensation. This attitude had the effect of illustrating (and exaggerating) a non-verbalized accusation that the people who were left — and had yet to pay anything — were cheating him.
He wasn’t entirely wrong. He was leveraging his true talent beautifully.
While all this was going on, Nick felt Alex growing increasingly restless beside him. He turned almost completely around to face her this time, at the same time withdrawing his wallet. Alex nodded when he asked her if she was ready to go.
While the man was busy trying to extort an a Korean male tourist, who clearly resented being called Jackie Chan, Nick withdrew the two dollars of cash he had left on hand, quickly entered the circle, dropped the money and nodded curtly when the man swiveled his head to address the contribution.
A child ambled into the circle by the time Nick was almost out of it, dividing the man’s attention once again. In his performer’s tone, with the hostility gone at least for the moment, he quietly looked down at what was in the child’s hand and then told him to go back to his parents and ask for more.
They went to lunch, which was delicious and relaxing. Nick thought back to the man and his glass. He thought about his current existential dilemma.
He compared the two situations.
There had been something beautifully naked and honest about the man’s hustle. The racial aspect of the transactions, and the socio-economic reality in which they existed, too, couldn’t be ignored.
In a way, the artistry of the performance was genius. Re-considering the show in this light, as a white man who had paid to watch a black man threaten self-harm — led Nick finally towards both an understanding of his discomfort and an appreciation of the lesson.
But it also made him sad.
He did empathize with the performer, but even in his sadness he could not shake his disappointment in the hollowness of the man’s promise. The threat of the glass, upon which the entire artistry of the performance relied, had just been a guise for the more real and uncomfortable pressured reparations that the man had been in the midst of bringing to their final pitch when Nick and Alex had left.
The man could not be blamed for what Nick supposed was an underlying righteous anger that informed his performance. He continued to respect the effort, and to see the sense and appropriateness in it. There were artistic merits to his exploits. And he didn’t know the first thing about the man’s overall story.
Still, the man had made a clear choice, to organize his performance in the way that he had. He had chosen cynicism, of that common and damning sort which in Nick’s opinion cut even righteous effort off at its nub.
Nick, too, he acknowledged, had made a similar choice, in recognizing the dangerous potential of the pile of shards and deciding to stay and watch to see what would become of the man standing behind it.
Yet he had been waiting for a trick. For a real performance, steeped perhaps in the realities that informed its genesis — even if those realities were huge and hidden, as ugly as racism or inequality — but crafted from some burning desire to see a true and heartfelt empathic connection form between artist and audience. Even the blissful pause provided by true entertainment would have been enough.
He did not suspect that many of his fellow observers had dug into their discomfort as he had. Neither did Nick believe that the complete onus should be put on them to identify the possibility and/or to try.
It all just would have been better, he decided, if there had been magic.
Everything else, every invisible social strand or historical or ongoing sin, would have fallen away momentarily — if there had been magic. Nick believed that.
Enough people would have thrown their money in the hat. The manipulations could have been avoided, or at least abandoned after they had done their good work of bringing charged discomfort to the surface. There was always a threshold, in such cases, a chance point at which the artist could decide to pivot and forgive, to embrace true vulnerability.
That was the space in which art lived, Nick reminded himself. To be naked and honest but to also leave the audience with a promise fulfilled.
There was already enough threat in the world. Enough broken glass already scattered the paths of life. It didn’t need to be collected and repurposed in only half-honest ways.
Nick looked at Alex, smiling in the sun across the table from him, sipping an iced tea, and he felt at least momentarily up to the task of proceeding down whatever path might soon open up before him. He looked down at his beer, watched a bead of condensation reach critical mass and then slide down the side of the mug.
“The glass isn’t enough.”
He had uttered the words softly, almost as an afterthought. He looked up and saw Alex squinting at him. She was still smiling. She always smiled, when there was sun in her face.
“Just the threat off glass isn’t enough.” She lowered her tea and cocked her head slightly.
“You talking about that guy?”
He nodded. She picked up her tea again, wrinkled her brow ironically. The expression momentarily vanquished her smile. He could sense the decisiveness in her gaze, even though she wore sunglasses.
Then, as she often did, Alex described the whole situation much more simply, and succinctly.
“Yeah. That was disappointing.”
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