By Ian Lovett
The lot is empty. That’s the first thing I notice—the lot at the end of Rose where they always park is empty. I suddenly get what permit parking would do to this place. At night, everyone parks up in “the avenues,” as Roger refers to the rest of Venice.
And the place is abandoned. Abraham still has some stuff set up—a couple paintings, plus the sidewalk where he’s marked his territory, treating it like one of his potato sack canvasses. But the rows of bodies I’d expected, curled up with blankets in preparation for the next morning—they’re just not there. Not the night life Scott had referred to.
I walk south, towards where Roger usually sets up. He’s not the only one out there, but I spot him from 100 yards away, his pants flaring off distinctively from his skinny legs, even in silhouette. Only once have I seen him in any other pants.
“I thought that might be you,” he says. “I thought, Eon is tall.” He laughs, a sort of adult male giggle that sounds at once forced and slightly out of control. And he calls me Eon, pronouncing it like the measure of geological time. He’s on his feet—awake, alert, speaking loudly despite the man in the sleeping bag not ten feet away.
“This is Bob,” Roger says.
Bob tries to stand, the sleep sack tangling in his feet.
“Don’t get up.”
He’s halfway prone when we shake. Then he curls back onto his side on the asphalt.
“Bob’s been sleeping here since he left his girlfriend. What? A couple weeks now?”
“Three weeks,” Bob says, eyes still closed. It’s 4am.
It’s 4am. But the street lamps are on. And Roger’s still talking loudly. Far from uncomfortable with my tagging along, he seems to enjoy having someone to talk to. “Do you know much about religion?” he asks. He’s reading a novel about Islam. I’ve also seen him reading Shakespeare. And Tom Clancy. He reads more than anyone else I know in LA.
I say I know a little bit about a lot of religions. Roger says the same. He was baptized at age 13, but he describes it as the result of a trick, almost. Some group came around offering fun and games, and he ended up with a baptism and a couple months of fleeting piousness.
On the edge of the sand, next to the boardwalk, there’s a squarish cardboard box on top of another, flatter one. I remove the top one and sit on the other. We’re still talking about religion—haven’t gotten to any of the questions I want to ask, like how this whole spot-saving thing works.
The boxes, it turns out, are how spots are saved. Along the sand at the edge of the cement, a string of cardboard boxes stretches all the way up to Rose—same thing the other direction. To me, they’re indistinguishable—cardboard boxes, one just like the next. But Roger names off who each one belongs to—Bobby (not Bob who’s sleeping next to us, but Bobby), Donna, Scotty, Flower, Novak, others. He’s saving all their spots, a whole block. I am sitting on Roger’s own box—a realization that makes me want to plunge my head into the sand beside me. I stand up as soon as I can. I have no idea what people value here.
Next to us is a spot belonging to the “Jamaican Connection.” He and Roger have been clashing for months. The Jamaican Connection would leave his box on the block Roger saved, and Roger, when he showed up that night, would move it. “Not just move it—get it off the boardwalk entirely.” Then, the next morning, when he asked Roger what happened to it, Roger would feign ignorance—he throws his head skyward, shrugging his shoulders, hips forward, arms back, in an ostentatious show of ‘I have no idea.’
But today, the Jamaican Connection put his box down right in front of Roger, announcing himself, so tonight Roger doesn’t feel like he can reclaim the spot.
Reclaiming spots is just the reality of what goes on. If he weren’t here, Roger says, the “Chinese Connection” would come do the same to him. He assumes the same ‘I have no idea’ pose to show what the Chinese Connection would say to him.
I don’t quite understand how such alliances are formed—why Roger saves spots for Bobby and Donna but throws the Jamaican’s box away. It seems to have something to do with those who live down here v. those who come in for the weekends—except Bobby comes in for the weekends from Pasadena. Definitely something to do with artists who sell handmade goods v. corporate goods. Or something to do with seniority—how long people have been coming here—except Roger himself has been here less than a year. Or those who make their livelihoods on the boardwalk v. those who are just supplementing incomes. Or something. Like the boxes themselves, it’s a system that I, the outsider, don’t yet understand.
His opposition to the Chinese Connection—Roger admits he actually doesn’t know if he’s Chinese or what—is easier to get my head around—he saves too many spots. He lives just a couple blocks up, and if Roger weren’t here, he’d come down with his whole family and take up three, four, five spots.
Many Mexican families do the same, he says. At the lottery that Tuesday, 570 had entered the drawing for 200 spots. Many of the Mexican families, though, entered in all of their relatives—again, three, four, five people. This froze out many others—the locals who live here and had only themselves to enter. And this week, one local had had enough. “Don’t you see what’s going on here?” he yelled. The others had remained mostly silent.
Round 5, when light starts to creep over the horizon, more people begin to show up. Vladic, a “spiritualist,” appears and starts setting up his stand the next block over. Roger calls him Bobby, too—but not the real Bobby. He became Bobby when someone who forgot his name and called him Bobby by accident. He didn’t like that one bit—and so of course became Bobby from there on out.
Bobby—not the real Bobby—opens up a turquoise umbrella. He ties it down and drags boxes back and forth, stepping back onto the empty boardwalk periodically to survey his work. “Bobby likes to move stuff around just so,” says Roger.
Runners go by with increasing frequency. Bobby departs again, his stand half ready for the day. The first van pulls into the lot at Rose. Bob stays quiet in his sack. Seagulls trickle south past us.
“They go up north to nest,” Roger says. “Up to Malibu.” At dusk, he says, they flock north in large groups. Now they return in pairs and trios.
I’ve hung out with Roger a dozen times now, but I’ve learned more about him this night than all our prior meetings combined. As the light continues to spread, he says something I hadn’t expected, after hearing Scott rail against the lottery: he admits he’ll be happy when the full lottery starts. This is the last weekend he’ll have to be here at 4am. Next week, with the start of summer, even the donation only P-Zone spots like the ones he’s saving will be part of the weekly lottery. And Roger will get to sleep a little.
“Roger is not making a buck,” he says. “I do it donations—whatever you can give, same as selling in the P-Zone.” Bobby—the real Bobby—and another of the weekend vendors throw him $10 for saving their spots, maybe $5 extra if it’s a good weekend. The vegan guy gives him an organic cookie with “everything” in it.
He laughs his laugh again. “No, no, unfortunately, not that I know of.”
Scott lets Roger help with his business, so he doesn’t give anything in addition, and others throw him what they can, depending on how the weekend goes. All two sleepless nights a week guarantees him is $20 and a couple vegan cookies.
“Why do you do it, then?”
He never quite answers the question. Donna, the fortuneteller, she’s the one who suggested it. As far as I can tell, it seems like it’s part of the process of working his way into this community, of a new guy gaining acceptance from people who’ve worked on this boardwalk for years and in some cases decades.
“I just need to make enough to park my van in the lot every day.” The lot costs $5. “Everything else is gravy.”
“What about food?”
He eats all his meals for free. Lots of local churches bring food around, plus some other “private citizens.” One church puts on a skit before they let anyone eat. “Always with a—a certain theme,” he says. “The last one there was this one guy dressed up as an angel, with wings and everything, and another one dressed up with horns and a tail and the whole bit. You can guess what that was supposed to represent.” He laughs.
“So anything else you make is just coffee and Henry’s and whatnot.”
Bob stays unmoving on the sidewalk, not ten feet away. I can’t quite bring myself to accept that he’s asleep—he chimes in occasionally, though only when Roger solicits a comment. Otherwise, he at least does a good impression of someone sleeping on cement, under streetlights, right beside two guys having a conversation, as joggers and seagulls pass by.
“You don’t sleep out here?”
“No. I don’t feel safe.”
“So when do you sleep on weekends?”
“I don’t really.”
He talks about Lee again—the guy who found someone asleep in his spot and, without asking him to move or saying anything at all, hit him over the head with a piece of hard plastic. Split the guy’s head open, lucky not to break his skull. He’s going to court now, though I’m not sure if he’s still “at the pagoda” in the meantime.
When Roger first told me that story, he said Lee had “mental issues.” He would yell at people sometimes, but he’d never gotten violent before. “Surprised it hadn’t happened sooner, to be honest,” he said.
And there are plenty of others. A lot of crazy people down on the boardwalk. Most have someone who takes care of them, Roger says. He tells me about this guy who also hangs out by the pagoda, a vet. Every week or so, his ex-wife comes by with his son, and he plays with his kid while she watches his stand. Plenty others don’t make any money off their stands. They sell art, except they never sell anything. Maybe one piece in the 9 months Roger’s been here. People take care of ‘em’s how they get by.
We look up at the moon. The sky’s getting brighter, light enough to see even without the street lamps now, but still the half moon glows.
“It’s a little overcast,” Roger says. “It’ll burn off before noon.”
“How can you tell it’s overcast? I can’t see the clouds.”
As we’re looking up, two guys approach—a tall, curly-haired blond guy, and a shorter, stouter companion. They enter our conversation as though they’d been out there with us for hours. Or, that’s what it seemed like, anyhow. Before I realize what’s happened, the taller man has moved on, and the man I’d thought was his friend is whispering some confidential information. He’s being followed by a submarine. Sometimes he catches sight of it, though, of the red light on its periscope.
It’s as if we’d conjured him with our conversation. His soliloquy moves seamlessly from blue balls to titties to dogs bending over right in front of him back to blue balls. Always back to blue balls—they are his touchstone, the Molly to his Bloom.
Roger and I dance around him, trying to engineer an escape. We turn away, step onto the sand, look out towards the water. At first, I occasionally respond to him, but when it becomes clear that he intends to stay as long as possible, I quickly curtail anything more than mmm hmm. I walk halfway down the block, then back, not wanting to strand Roger, who walks in little circles, trying not to get too close, not to look too engaged. At one point, the guy puts his hand up for a high five, which, after a hesitation, I give.
When he finally leaves, finally, walking back the way he’d come, the sun is peering out over the water. “You try not to get trapped in those conversations,” Roger says. We both laugh. You need to be able to laugh like this if you’re going to stand out here at 4am, in this place where, as Roger puts it, “two worlds wash up together. The shells wash up on the beach. And the rest of humanity washes up here too.”
Vans pull into the lot. One guy, Roger said, only leaves for about half an hour sometimes, then comes right back in when it opens at 4:30. But now, almost 6, it’s starting to fill up. Roger’s parked up near Gold’s. The seagulls keep passing by on their way south, the joggers in both directions.
“If you hang around a little, you’ll get to see my lady,” Roger says. “She’s this Asian lady I’ve been watching for a couple months. She walks by every day, like clockwork.”
“You ever talk to her?”
He laughs again. “No. Scotty makes fun of me. I don’t even know her name.”
“When’s she come by?”
“Always between 7 and 9.”
Such movements mark the time here. The seagulls’ daily migration, the joggers and the walkers, the vans coming and going from the lot, the vendors setting up and breaking down their stands, and of course the tourists and beachgoers they make their living off. Roger, on these hectic weekend days, is the only constant, spending all day in this spot as everything moves around him. When I leave him, just after 6, he’s still there, just where he’ll be all the rest of the day and the next night and the next day.
He says he’s trying to make enough to get back up towards the Bay Area where his parents live. Or, at least in theory he’s trying. But he’s made something of a life for himself here—he’s part of a community, with friends and coworkers and a role in the marketplace. He already has a van. If he actually wants to go up north. I’m sure he will. But for the moment, I think he’s still moving in here, not moving out.