Long before the Venice canals became a red-tiled, Spanish villa retirement paradise, but around the time when 500 of our beloved and diseased ducks were murdered by the Department of Fish and Game, my neighborhood used to have edges, not hedges. “Don’t you mess with the heroin-addict lady at the corner, and don’t jump in the water unless you want diarrhea,” my fellow street children would warn as part of my initiation into the Linnie Canal Rockets, the early-’90s juvenile gang and dance troupe whose members welcomed me into their hearts and converted garages. In between stints doing the Running Man, ambushing old ladies with projectiles and whispered obscenities during their duck-feeding rituals, we’d tear across the broken-up waterfront sidewalks on bikes and three-wheeled blades, navigating belligerent geese and Neighborhood Watch minutemen, while shouting with fierce territorialism: “Whose dirty canal? OUR DIRTY CANAL!” In place of the baby-proof playground where tanned Latina nannies now take delicate toddlers to roost, there was a somber and infamous collection of logs called a “park,” looking like the setting of a Korn video, always closed at 6 p.m. — when it became the “rape zone.” We’d double-dog-dare each other to stay here after nightfall, until the sound of a cigarette being lit or some other imagined poltergeist would leave us scurrying to Mom.
Just two blocks away, the Venice boardwalk beckoned us to be naughty, especially on Sundays. Prior to its “cleanup,” this festering strip of Coney Island riffraff, occasional gang violence and wonderfully bold flirting constituted our theater of life, where we could observe disapproved behavior without being complicit in it. Some of my most scintillating memories involve walking behind attractive, done-up ebony ladies and observing the head-turning commotion in their wake, and another time, seeing a one-mile radius of boardwalkers drop to the ground in unison after a gunshot. Diplomat offspring from my French private school heard my sometimes-inflated stories and begged to sleep over; when we’d get to the beach, however, their lack of street smarts resulted in stolen boogie boards or bike-path rash from not knowing how to overtake a pushy skateboarder.
Nowadays, in my early 20s, I watch the new batch of canal delinquents try to live up to that name, pitifully and without heart. Sure, they’ve got new moves and hot bikes, but can they do the tootsie roll on one leg while on the side of a bridge? No they can’t! Venice will always remain a Montessori playpen for creative and mischievous children, even amidst a gentrified backdrop, but it’s sad when I see kids who could be up to no good banished to their entertainment systems deep inside gargantuan houses. Occasionally though, an enterprising 10-year-old, perched high up in a tree, will hurl an expletive or pelt me with some branches, reminding me that all is still well in the land.