The Ragged Edge
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It's high summer, and the Urban Man has gone to check on the ragged Western edge of American freedom. Meaning, of course, that I'm visiting L.A.'s Venice Beach. I want to idle among incense-sellers, t-shirt merchants, and jive artists. I plan to savor its happy confusion and incoherent prophecy.
Now, America has always promised two very different kinds of freedom. On the one hand, we were given freedom of opportunity—meaning we're allowed to build small businesses and large houses; shop Pottery Barn and drive black Escalades.
On the other, we were promised the freedom to evade opportunity—to wear dreadlocks, crash in doorways, or sit on curbs strumming unfocused chords on cheap guitars.
At least, in theory.
Each year, it gets harder to actually live outside the bright circle of American ambition. More and more we license street vendors, outlaw panhandling, and require everyone to carry three kinds of insurance. Certainly, we offer our bums less and less respect: tell fewer of their tales, write them fewer songs.
Venice Beach is one of the rare places you can find both kinds of freedom living shoulder to shoulder. There's plenty of opportunity—you can open a t-shirt shop or a granite-topped sushi bar—but you can also exercise the right, as Kerouac put it, "merely to live." You can go down to your last dollar and achieve poetic catastrophe with your head held high. Surely, that's why Venice is such a popular tourist spot—the second busiest local destination after Disneyland.
I figure people come here not for a mere L.A. freak show, but to confirm that that second kind of freedom still exists. To see if we can, even now, locate the genuinely beat, the self-made misfit, the Huck Finns and Neal Cassadys of our time.
And yes, best of all, each time the visitor experiences the grime and disorientation of the boardwalk, he can congratulate himself on the better choice of freedom he has made. Today, as the Urban Man joins this pilgrimmage, I turn away from the t-shirt places to explore the final trailing edge of the continent—I mean the row of vendors on the west side of the promenade who get their spaces on a free-speech lottery basis. For now, this remains one of the least regulated zones in the fifty states. Here, anyone can do henna tattoos, distribute angry tracts, or lay out sculpture, beautiful or ugly, without fear of rent or insurance.
As always, I note how uncertainly these folks anchor to the coast, and how, beyond this last defensive line, there's nothing but the sea.
I approach a sun-baked man with dirty beard who has laid out a few tangled strings of beads on a blanket. We lock eyes, and I consider initiating a discussion about the two kinds of American freedom.
I could quote Alexis de Toqueville. Or better yet, maybe I should explain how back in his twenties, the Urban Man also embraced Venice Beach. Here I occupied a room of peeling paint, wrote obscure poetry, and joined the drum circle at sunset. Maybe I should explain how one day I threw out my futon welcomed the liberation offered by day planners and premium payments.
I could mention the big payoff.
But of course, our encounter is not about the debate between two brands of American liberty, it's about the obligation one kind still owes the other. I mean, if I don't buy a string of tangled beads, how is this man going to stay anchored to the ragged western edge of freedom?
At last the Urban Man pulls out his wallet and makes the purchase. Then, like any rank tourist, I hurry to my car, lock the doors, and head home.
Photo: Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images
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