Venice Beach, city of detectives. Where there’s a palm tree, there’s Jack Lord, there’s Horatio Caine. I checked in at a small hotel near Ozone Avenue, not far from the boardwalk. From my window, I could see the young palms and the back entrance of the On the Waterfront Café, a good place for lunch. The coffee arrived in a white mug decorated with an engaging blue starfish floating above their motto—Where the Brew Is as Good as the View
. The tables were covered with dark green oilcloth. I had to keep swatting flies away, but that didn’t bother me. Nothing bothered me, not even the things that bothered me.
I noticed across from me a good-looking fellow like a young Russell Crowe sitting across from a girl with a lot of pancake makeup. Probably covering bad skin, but she had an inner thing you could feel across the room, decorated with dark glasses, dark bob, fake leopard coat, a born replica of a movie star. They were immersed in their world and I in theirs, imagining them as detective Mike Hammer and the glamorously detached Velma. While I was writing this all down, the pair left unobserved, their table cleared and new napkins and clean utensils laid, as if they had never been there.
I always liked the beach in Venice as it seems vast, a wide expanse that increases at low tide. I removed my boots, rolled up my pants and walked along the shore. The water was extremely cold but therapeutic, my sleeves soaked from scooping up seawater to splash on my face and neck. I noticed a single wrapper caught up in the waves but didn’t retrieve it.The trouble with dreaming
, a familiar voice trailed, but I was lured away by the sound of peculiar birds, big squawky ones, standing at attention and right on the verge of speaking. Unfortunately, a small part of me was already debating whether birds could actually speak, which broke the connection. I circled back, questioning myself why I had regrettably hesitated when I am well aware that certain winged creatures possess the ability to form words, spin monologues and at times dominate an entire conversation.
I decided on the Waterfront for dinner but went the opposite way and passed a wall covered in murals, Chagall-like scenes from Fiddler on the Roof
, floating violinists amidst tongues of flame that produced a disconcerting sense of nostalgia. When I finally circled back and entered the Waterfront, I thought I had made a mistake. The layout looked totally different than in the afternoon. There was a pool table and nothing but fellas of all ages with baseball caps and huge glasses of beer with slices of lemon. Several looked at me as I entered, an unthreatening alien, then went about the business of drinking and talking. There was a hockey game on a big screen with no sound. The din, the drone, was all male, amiable male, laughing and talking, broken only by the tapping of a ball with a cue stick, the ball dropping into the pocket. I ordered coffee, a fish sandwich and salad, the most expensive plate on the menu. The fish was small and deep-fried, but the lettuce and onions were fresh. The same starfish mug, the same brew. I laid my money on the table and went out. It was raining. I put on my watch cap. Passing the mural, I nodded to the Yiddish fiddler, commiserating an unspoken fear of friends slipping away.
The heat wasn’t working in my room. I laid on the couch, bundled up, half watching the Extreme Homes
channel, endless episodes featuring architects outlining how they built into rock and sloping shale or the mechanics of realizing a five-ton revolving copper roof. Dwelling places that resembled huge boulders replicating real surrounding boulders. Houses in Tokyo, Vail and the California desert. I would fall asleep and open my eyes to a repeat of the same Japanese house, or a house that represented the three parts of The Divine Comedy
. I wondered what it would feel like to sleep in a room manifesting Dante’s Hell.
In the morning, I watched the gulls swooping by my window. It was closed, so I could not hear them. Silent, silent gulls. There was a light rain and the hair of the high palms swayed in the wind. I put on my cap and jacket and went looking for breakfast. With the Waterfront closed, I settled for a place on Rose Avenue that had its own bakery and a vegetarian menu. I got a bowl of kale and yams, but what I really wanted was steak and eggs. The guy next to me was chattering away to his partner about some country that was importing giant carnivorous snapping turtles to get rid of the corpses floating in a sacred river.
There was a used-book store off Rose. I looked for a copy of The Third Reich
but there were no books by Bolaño. I found a secondhand DVD of The Pied Piper
, starring Van Johnson. I couldn’t believe my luck. I could hear Kay Starr, the mother of the crippled boy, singing her poignant lament. Where’s my son, my son John?
Which got me thinking of the missing children. Kids and candy wrappers. They had to be related, though maybe not in the same proximity. Incredibly, there wasn’t a word about the missing kids in any of the papers. I was having my doubts about the whole thing, though it was hard to believe Cammy would make up such a story.
I walked through an arcade on Pacific, stopping at a door that said Mao’s Kitchen
. I stood there wondering if I should enter when the door opened and a woman motioned for me to come in. It was a communal kind of place, with an open kitchen fitted with industrial stoves and pots of steaming dumplings beneath a sign that said The People’s Grub
along with faded posters of rice fields on the back wall. I was reminded of a past journey when my friend Ray and I went looking for the cave near the Chinese border where Ho Chi Minh wrote the Vietnamese Declaration of Independence. We walked through endless rice paddies, pale gold, and the sky a clear blue, staggered by what was an ordinary spectacle for most. The woman brought a pot of fresh ginger, lemon and honey.
—You were coughing, she said.
—I’m always coughing, I laughed.
There was a fortune cookie on my saucer. I slipped it in my pocket to save for later. I felt connected to the modest peace offered with the fare, thinking about nothing. Just wisps of things, meaningless things, like remembering my mother once told me that Van Johnson always wore red socks, even in black and white movies. I wondered if he wore them when he played the Piper.
Back in my room I opened the cookie and unwound the fortune. You will step on the soul of many countries.
I’ll be careful, I said under my breath, but upon second glance I realized it actually said soil. In the morning, I decided to retrace my steps, go back to the beginning, return to the same city to the same hotel in Japantown steps away from the same Peace Tower. It was time to sit vigilance with Sandy, clawing his way through cellular extremes—not, as was his custom, to explore an imagined system, but to plumb the depths of himself. On the way to the airport it occurred to me that the Pied Piper story was not essentially one of revenge but of love. I got a one-way ticket to San Francisco. For a moment, I thought I saw Ernest passing through security.
Copyright © 2019 by Patti Smith. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.