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Free Shrink Rap

Brothers Paul and Emmett Loverde are sitting in folding chairs next to the bike path at Santa Monica Beach. A folding card table in front of them has a sign: "Free Advice."

A young man approaches and asks: "How do you succeed in this world?"

Emmett replies: "Hard work and focus, and — "

"I try hard work all the time, and I don't get no work," the man says. He has a bit of an edge but also an underlying vulnerability.

"Opportunities are everywhere," Paul says patiently. "A lot of times you find them in places you didn't expect."

The feedback sounds a bit general, but the recommendations soon become more specific.

"I'm open to everything right now," the young man says. "I even tried McDonald's, warehouses — and I can't get it."

Paul recommends that the young man call 211, a local social-services, job-related hotline. The man thanks them and leaves.

Paul and Emmett are here most Sundays and occasionally on other days, set up alongside the bike path near Venice Beach. Most passersby keep walking, but a fair number stop: a man pondering bankruptcy; a woman from a foreign country considering divorce, most likely it's an arranged marriage; a man just out of prison after 26 years, seeking advice about how to connect with people and stay out of trouble.

"He seemed like a really nice guy," Paul says. Emmett suggests he start volunteering. "It's a great way to meet people who have a good heart," Paul says. "And he thought it was a good idea."

Some inquiries are lighter. "One guy wanted to know whether he should invade a small country." Emmett says, "He was a riot. He made that up so he could sit down with us for, like, an hour and tell us all kinds of stories. He was British, and very chatty."

"One New Yorker stopped and told us a bunch of jokes, and he was really good at it," Paul recalls; he then recites one of the comedic gems (punch line, wife to husband: "Compared to all of your friends, you have the biggest penis").

The Loverdes don't make a dime from this advice business. They do it because they like it. Or perhaps because they need it.

Emmett, a playwright, author and screenwriter, attended a party four months ago and was distraught over his lack of personal connection.

"I was having a horrible time," he says. "I disliked all the conversations I heard, and it wasn't until I was leaving that it seemed like there was anyone I could even talk to."

Immediately afterward, he went to the beach and set up shop, soon recruiting Paul, a chef and former buyer for Whole Foods up in the Bay Area.

The brothers radiate a folksy sincerity belonging more to the world of a Frank Capra film than to the TMZ/Twitter vibe that is L.A. 2010. Emmett has the demeanor of an eminently decent tech guy, or maybe an employee of a bait-and-tackle shop. Paul is a little scruffier and seems like a more approachable — and humorous — Sean Penn.

"One girl asked us — in front of all her friends — about her ex-boyfriend," Paul says. "They're still friends, and he's sort of seeing somebody else and she's upset cause she still loves him."

"We came up with a couple different ideas," Emmett says. "She and the four friends who were with her started talking about this thing. She brought it out in the open. She, like, played with the energy of it."

"The trip is — somebody's talking to you and they're telling you the answers to their questions as they talk," Paul says. "So you're trying to get the answers out of them, and then give 'em back to 'em, so they realize that they're telling themselves —"

Emmett cuts in: "It seems like a lot of times people want to be nudged in the direction they want to go in. A lot of times you're more likely to tell the whole truth to a stranger than to a friend. You figure you have nothing to lose."

Emmett is friends with a psychologist who wants to join the "Free Advice" table team.

"She said her job as a psychologist is not to give advice, her job is to be fully present with her client.As a shrink, you're really not allowed to chime in with, 'Snap out of it.' "

Emmett and Paul are not similarly encumbered.

A kid walks up to the pair. "I have a blunt, where should I smoke it?"

"This is Venice down here," Emmett says. "You can pretty much smoke it anywhere."

"Oh, sweet," the kid says.

"Thanks for the advice!" adds a female companion.

"Just keep your eyes out," Emmett says. "But don't say I said that."