After five years in the Middle East, my wife, daughter and I moved last year to Los Angeles, which turned out to have more in common with Beirut or Baghdad than I might have imagined. The specifics here were, of course, different — malnourished sea lions, homelessness, gentrification, tourism, nimbyism — but the manner by which I began to grasp them was similar. To find out more about where I lived and why it felt so insane, I decided, as I'd done many times (from Sanaa to Beirut, Baghdad to Doha), to take a long walk, in this case from Marina del Rey to Pacific Palisades.
When I first visited Baghdad, where my wife was working as a reporter, we spent most of our time behind walls, in a heavily fortified compound. The most vivid moments, however, came on foot: exploring a hotel ruined in a 2010 car bomb or walking along the Tigris River, cracks from a pistol echoing and a rocket exploding nearby. In Beirut, where we lived just before L.A., I found it much easier to meander the city's revitalized downtown, but the real story occurred where I couldn't easily go — various smoky mansions or the battlefield in neighboring Syria.
Part of the thrill, in Los Angeles, was that I could simply walk out my front door and feel equipped to encounter the city in a meaningful way. On a recent Wednesday, I set out to see what I could find.
I locked up my bike at the southern end of Marina del Rey, and all I could hear were the planes and a deep rumble from a sheriff's boat patrolling the marina. It was low tide and the seaweed in the breakwater lay still, the surface flat; it might have been a perfect time to see a marine mammal although many, I'd read, were sick or dead. "Do not eat contaminated fish," said a sign, listing some: "White croakers, barred sand bass, black croakers, top smelt, barracuda." In a few glances, I spotted a brown pelican, a gaggle of tiny sanderlings, three ducklike surf scoters and four long-nosed marble godwits.
I walked to the jetty's end, with its sewage-y tang, and a homeless guy made camp, murmuring to himself.
I took to the beach. Part of California's allure has always been this image of paradise, where, in theory, a natural place largely without human history was ours to make our own. In Istanbul, where I'd lived before Beirut, the weight of the past had felt heavier. I lived in an apartment building abandoned most likely by the Greeks, who'd fled my neighborhood during the 1950s pogroms. Before that, the nearby tower, built in the 13th century, had been a base for the Genoese trading empire. Taking the tram from the airport, you'd see on the side of the road a heap of Roman columns of a quality that might be the centerpiece of any museum in a less historic place.
On the sand between Marina del Rey (established 1955) and Venice (1905), I thought about the various deals my wife and I had made to live somewhere that was allegedly so new and nice. In Istanbul or Beirut, if you dug deep enough, you'd hit a Roman sailboat or Byzantine fortress; the question of human habitation there was long settled. The balance we were still finding here, meanwhile, had a curious way of feeling more solid than I expected.
At high tide, three Ikea bags sat there, filled with kelp. Provided it hasn't rained recently, the beaches along this stretch, from Topsail to Will Rogers, more or less earn A-pluses every year from Heal the Bay. You could probably eat this kelp. And as long as you washed the clams and scallops found just off Venice Beach, they were fine too.
Venice has been many things but it's never been boring — a neighborhood trying to enforce various specific rules concerning safety and property ownership while working not to squash the spirit that had made us all want to come there in the first place. As a result: no dogs, no open fires and please don't stab each other during the Saturday night drum circle.
Just then, I heard yelling.
"Stupid, fucking shit!"
A deeply tanned young woman was wearing only one shoe, and with the other she was smacking the face of an older man.
"You can't do that shit," she said, pointing at his sign requesting money.
People stopped and stared. Under a tall palm, on grass that was still green, I stood there with a mix of emotions. I did not feel the fear I'd known during a bomb blast or shootout. But I experienced a familiar sadness — the recognition that the weak among us could attempt to act strong but, no matter what, someone would eventually pick up a shoe and take a swing.
In Santa Monica, the air was without enhancement, spiritual or medical, the sidewalk was clear and without menace and, as I put one foot in front of the other, among the towering apartment buildings, I had to acknowledge the sensation of plunging into a sun-bleached purgatory of relentless cheer. Even the guy picking up trash was wearing an I Love L.A. T-shirt.
At Shutters, rooms were going for $525 a night. The navy guys were ripping though calisthenics reps, and if you weren't paying attention a fast-pedaling cyclist might break your hip. I climbed the stairs to Santa Monica's historic pier, built by the WPA in the 1930s, the kind of project that would never pass muster with today's anti-growth sentiments. At a desultory amusement park on the edge of some of the wealthiest real estate in the world, bumper cars slowed for another round and an old man pushed a disabled woman, her chair bouncing roughly over rough deck boards. I worried for her neck and thought about how eventually it would all slip back into the sea.
An LAPD chopper hovered and a guy with a teardrop tattoo threaded a bit of bait onto a hook. In front of a chain restaurant, I passed Ron Livingston, star of the movie Office Space, out for a stroll with wife Rosemarie DeWitt and their daughter. There were also four motorcycle dudes sipping vodka and a woman in dirty blankets sprawled out on the sand.
My skin was starting to burn, and my knees were starting to ache. Ten miles in, I saw a row of mansions unfurling below the California Incline, a 100-year-old on-ramp to the Pacific Coast Highway. Cary Grant once maintained a house here, and F. Scott Fitzgerald used to party at 707 Palisades Beach Road. At 2 p.m. on a Wednesday, on a grill that looked as if it had never been used, there stood a half-empty Dos Equis, filled with stubbed-out Camels.
"I looked at Facebook and I started comparing my life to my friends," said a woman carrying a surprisingly large dog. Below the secluded canyons of Pacific Palisades, I crossed over a tributary called Rustic Creek, in which sat a rusting bicycle. Beside the Pacific Coast Highway, yellow and purple and orange flowers bloomed here and there, and behind one perfect blossom I spotted the quick movement of an enormous spider. In the shimmering heat, a lone woman lay on hot sand, applying oil. Overhead, a hawk circled and a film crew set up for something important, I assumed, but when I got there and took a look at a busy-looking woman's clipboard, the first item on the list was an order for the marinated steak plate.
On the edge of Malibu, I came face-to-face with an imposing fence belonging to the Bel-Air Bay Club, founded in 1927, membership by invitation only, with reportedly six-figure annual fees. I walked the edge of Bay Club property, taking care not to cross the line until I hit wet sand — our right, all of us. A club employee stood there with feathered hair and a collared shirt, arms crossed. Standing in the water, I felt his gaze.
Under his careful eye I felt new to everything but moved by what I'd seen so far and wanting more. I dove into the cool water, surprised by how quickly I was in over my head.
Nathan Deuel is the author of Friday Was the Bomb.
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