Location: Venice Beach, CA.
I’m in Venice Beach, California, land of hippies, hipsters, homeless, surfers, artists, con-artists, lame-ass, lonely, eco-friendly, eclectic, misguided, uber urban misfits and more singles than you can shake a handmade-hemp-stick at. It’s a melting pot of pop-culture and quirky characters, fame-seekers and soul-searchers, vendors selling all manner of wares and tourists flowing in a never-ending wave.
I ride my bike on the Venice Boardwalk observing from a safe, speedy distance the disconnectedness of it all. I feel alone but not lonely. There’s an understanding—if not connection—in our unspoken and unconsciously acknowledged disconnect.
The place I’m staying is 2 blocks away from the famous Abbott Kinney Boulevard, a 1-mile enviro-ethical guilt-free shopping-spree zone. Over 100 shops proffering every earth-loving, socially-responsible, needful things one might aspire to acquire. There are plenty of hipster-haven Made-in-America recycled-material fashion boutiques (as many for men as for women), as well as stores promoting organic beauty supplies, refurbished housewares, furniture, knick-knacks (who doesn’t need another knick-knack?) and a veritable smorgasbord of culinary delights at Zagat-rated restaurants. Throw in a yoga house, Pilates centre and a circuit training gym, and you’ve got a well-rounded idea of the round-rumped patrons frequenting the “Hippest Street in America.” (GQ Magazine).
“The vibe is The Vibe.” My housemate describes Abbott Kinney in those 4 words.
The 2nd day after landing in L.A., I wander down to find the Annual Abbott Kinney Festival (AKF). According to the official AKF website, this is the largest community event of its kind in the country, drawing in 150,000 visitors each year. The entire street is blocked off to traffic to accommodate the swarming masses, display booths, food trucks and live music. The AKF gives back to the community and is a free event. This I like. The crowds: not so much.
But as I traipse through—trying not to covet every cute-as-ever! costume and resisting the caramel popcorn and pulled pork wafting my way (I’m sure organic and animal ethical)—I take note of the array of personal expression and beauty on display. Truly, truly, I say to you, this is the event to attend to witness the most concentrated assortment of lovelies (women and men).
I can’t help but stare at some of the amazing bodies wearing outfits fitted and/or shear, and I am caught, mouth agape, admiring an African-American woman seemingly chiselled from milk chocolate.
“Did you get that body doing yoga?” I inquire, shamelessly.
She smiles (a rarity in this district, more on that later) before catching herself almost being friendly, “And dance.”
“Of course! Amazing.” I say incredulously.
But she’s already caught herself, so the second smile is terse, “Thanks.”
I don’t consider until later that she might think me a lesbian. Whoops.
(Note: a few days later I see her modelling yoga wear in a photo shoot by the artistically graffitied skateboarding park on Venice Beach.)
I wander away from the body goddess feeling average but content, noting this unexpected, yet pleasant, reaction. I’m average-looking (here, for sure) and okay with it. Hmph. Somehow, there’s relief in this awareness and acceptance. “Besides, I’m beautiful on the inside.” I tell myself sincerely.
However, I am still a little self-conscious of my attire and appearance, which I determine is decidedly Canadian, or maybe just me—I’m in a thrift-store find summer dress with a wash of bright colours—either way, most of the people here (at least that I notice) are hippy-chic or simply hipster: the women wear long flowing muted layers and handmade designer hats over long, mostly ironed-straight, unassumingly highlighted hair. The men wear skinny pants rolled up (one layer only) at the cuff and boat shoes or handmade (in America) leather loafers, suspenders and/or (bow) ties, and some wear those same handmade hats; most sport beards of varying lengths.
Their appearance is their calling card, a visual declaration of the cultured club they belong to, easily recognized by other members of their clique. It reminds me of high school with its groupings of preppies, jocks, brains and outcasts. But this is Abbott Kinney. This hipster clique congregates within a congested 1-mile span.
Last year when I was wintering in the Venice area, I used to ride my bicycle down Abbott Kinney Boulevard to see the seemingly chic aesthetic of it all. Once I did alk down it (I’d thought I’d get an even better appreciation of it all on foot) only to find out about what ‘That Vibe’ really meant. I walked and smiled at other walkers, and I found them coolly dismissive. Clearly, I wasn’t a member. And this year, that trend continued, but it’s okay because I am beautiful on the inside and, thus far, it appears they are not.
There’s an espresso cafe on that 1-mile drag that always has a line-up. I still ride my (borrowed) bicycle (also not cool enough for the cruiser cycles designed to look worn and old) down the street forcing myself to remember the positive feelings I originally related to the area. One day when I ride by, the line-up is short, so I pick up my courage and park my bike and go in. I may never experience this again so I order all my favourites.
“I’ll have a decaf espresso and a decaf Gibraltar and a decaf latte—is the decaf as good?”
The barrista (in bow tie and suspenders) nods, “Get regular for the espresso.”
The. Best. Espresso. Ever. Anywhere.
I sit and watch the patrons for a couple of hours. The line-up never dies. Only a couple of people smile (hesitantly) back at me. I smile anyway. It’s almost a game.
I become a regular. For the coffee and for the ‘Judge not lest ye be judged’ spiritual practice. I will force this ‘love all’ out of me in this most challenging atmosphere.
After my daily Abbott Kinney spiritual practice, I reclaim my esteem by riding my bike on the Venice and Santa Monica boardwalk where ‘home-lacking’ residents are lounging on grassy knolls with ready smiles and appreciative nods and waves.
The other night I wander down to the pizza place on Abbott Kinney (the best restaurants are congregated on this intriguing street of dreamers), which is standing booths only and a small side patio open to the street that doesn’t seem to be part of the establishment, but where anxious eaters pause for a piece of heaven in a cardboard box.
I’m sitting with my pizza box open when a ‘home-lacking’ man walks by. I smile at him. He cocks his head, obviously surprised, pauses and sits down on the street close but not too close. He carefully displays homemade cardboard signs in precise handwriting.
“Will rap for food.”
“Spiritual healer by donation.”
“Peace, love, blessings.”
I ask, “You hungry?” I stretch out my hand with a piece of pizza and with peace, love and blessings, “It’s really good.”
He takes it, “Thank you.” He takes a bite, nods affirmatively. I nod and half smile, mouth full of salami yumminess.
My hands are messy, and I don’t have a napkin. He jumps up and goes in to get one and is followed out by a staff member who eyes him suspiciously. He hands me the napkin, and I smile at the staff person with an, “It’s okay, he’s with me.”
I’m supposed to be meeting my housemate at an ‘Eco Mixer’ down the street, but I’m having a bout of shyness and social resistance. Instead, I talk with Jacob for two hours, sharing a satisfying meal and fulfilling conversation. I’m surprised to learn that he’s read several of my favourite books: Eckart Tolle, The Power of Now and A New Earth; Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements, amongst others, and along with a few I haven’t read (yet.)
He’s articulate and well spoken, and I’ve caught myself in judgements and presumption, again. We talk about what I’ve now coined The Abbott Kinney Disconnect. Of course, he gets it, and it’s easy to see in action as people pass by without seeing him, without seeing the signs, stepping on the signs. This saddens me and, when this happens, I pretend I don’t see this. I’m not sure if he does or not.
The night before, I’d gone out for dinner with a friend to a fancy, exclusive, waterfront restaurant. We’d talked about some of the same spiritual topics, but it seemed somehow shallow. With my new acquaintance, it feels real, even if only for this moment, the power of now.
Jacob doesn’t ask me for money. I don’t ask him to rap. He shows me the new US 2-dollar bill someone gave him, and I hand it back with a tightly rolled twenty. I’m glad he doesn’t notice it and stuffs it in his pocket, then realizes it feels different and pulls his hand back out without unraveling the bill. He smiles surprised appreciation, “Thanks.”
“For the healing words.” I say.
After a while, I take my leave, feeling full and fulfilled. The only real connection I’ve made in my multiple visits to Abbott Kinney is with a man who lives on the street. And he is more beautiful than anything I’ve experienced on the hippest street in America.
Don’t worry, Mom, I’m still too shallow and vain to live on the street. (Where would I put all my designer shoes?)
What have I (re)learned?
Our outsides make us identifiable as insiders or outsiders, ‘beautiful’ or ‘not beautiful’.
We are all searching for connectedness. Connection is most beautiful.
When we stop judging, we find the beauty in others and ourselves.
Awareness. Catch myself being a judger.
Acceptance. Understand this is normal human nature (for me and for them).
Compassion, forgiveness, love. For myself and for others.