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Leaving Venice

Tom Moran

We made a thieves’ exit, five shadows in the early morning darkness. I had lugged the bags out earlier, four overstuffed suitcases containing everything that was left after movers had stripped the house bare. After sleeping on the floor in an empty house and being roused by the harsh sound of an alarm a few minutes before 3:00 a.m., no one was fully awake as we filed out of the house. I locked the door and the four of us—my wife, our two children, and our dog, a keeshond named Smokey—carefully made our way along the porch. The sky was starless. Clouds hid the moon and a foggy haze muted the street lamp at the end of our alley. The still air was thick with the rank aroma of decaying seaweed, and you could taste a faint bite of ocean salt when you ran your tongue over your lips. There was no sign of life in the black morning. No lights in the windows. No movement. We could have been the last people on earth.

I opened the garage and we climbed into the car as the electric motor strained to lift the big wooden door. The car’s engine came to life and I dropped the transmission into reverse. But I held my foot on the brake, reluctant to depart, knowing there could be no return. My family was leaving a house where we had lived in for nearly two decades. I had pounded in many of the nails that held it together. With the help of friends, I balanced on a ladder and lifted the big beams spanning the garage above us into place. I remembered the feel of a thin 1916 dime we found spading out the dirt where the house’s foundation would be poured, just a few feet away from where the car now idled. My dried perspiration and blood stained the sills, joists and studs encased in drywall, sheeting, and panels. We had worked hard, invested a wealth of sweat equity, to make this home. We were leaving, sneaking off now into the darkness like fugitives.

But the building around us was more than just a structure. It was center stage, a tiny cottage used in the 1920s for summer rentals when my wife and I moved in after our honeymoon. Under its roof our children had been consummated, took their first steps, celebrated birthdays, and buried goldfish found floating near the rim of their bowl. I sat within those walls in front of an old Royal typewriter churning out stories and books, my fingers wearing the markings off the keys, the rhythm of the type bars striking the platen, speeding up when everything was flowing, then sputtering when the flowing slowed, and halted. Upstairs, in my wife’s studio, she had stood for hours in front of large sections of stretched canvas, slowly daubing oil onto the surfaces with an unimaginable precision, the resulting images bright, vibrant, realistic but, not real. Like all homes, we had filled it with stuff and now it was stuffed with memories. It was where we had shared wine, cold beer, good food, tequila, and the occasional illicit substance, where we had entertained an array of friends, family, artists, poets, writers, and film makers. It was where my friend Steve stayed for a time in our garage, swearing that Governor Deukmejian had implanted an electronic device in his arm, subsisting on dumpster pizzas and terrorizing our neighbors with a stolen handgun. We had survived a gang attack and several earthquakes in that house, including one so severe it knocked the transformers from the utility poles that exploded beside the alley like incendiary artillery shells. A thief stole one of our cars out of the tiny drive. Police tracked down another car thief and found him in our garage hiding under the parked car. Another time burglars pried open the big garage door and left with my power tools. Now that same door was up and I finally began to edge the car out into the darkness. Now we were the ones stealing away.

We lived on one of the tiny islands carved out by the grid of small canals lying beside Venice Beach. As the garage door dropped closed, I slowly nosed our car up the alley, passing the homes of neighbors, mostly friends, a few bitter enemies. I turned right at the corner and our headlamps washed across a vacant lot where our keeshond had once fought a pitbull to a draw, a snarling slashing melee that left Simon’s thick fur drenched in slime from his antagonist’s fruitless attempts to bite through to flesh. Our car crept up the steep ramp of the old concrete bridge that spanned the salt water canal we had lived beside. In the darkness, the water was itself a black shadow, stretching out into the beach fog. For me the canals had been the symbol of Venice, the remnants of a dream that started to form late in the 19th century and took shape in the next. A tobacco millionaire named Kinney had wanted to recreate the grandeur of Italy’s city of canals. It was a typical California dream: ambitious, audacious, the manifestation of a very rich man’s conceit. The result was a place called Venice—but something far different from its Italian namesake—a seaside community that, for years, has been home to a diverse crowd of bohemians, surfers, performers, athletes, crooks, artists, celebrities, and degenerates of every stripe. It was a place I had grown to love.

I had written about Venice for years, interviewing young musicians hoping for a break, entrepreneurs looking for an easy buck, politicians and activists with promises for a never-to-be-realized future, and athletes looking to make their mark. Everyone had their tales and most were interesting, even the ones spun by characters I didn’t much care for, but the stories that intrigued me most were those told by old-timers, stooped ladies, and white-maned men who had been in Venice before it was Venice. Some remembered the bingo parlors, battle royals and dance marathons of the depression. Others recalled prohibition nights when dapper gun men shot out the street lamps to get a girl’s attention and jazz orchestras played at the Ship Café beside the Venice Pier. One told of working aboard one of Tony Cornero’s gambling ships and being paid in silver dollars. Others remembered the dreamer, Venice’s founding father, Abbot Kinney, a wealthy man who kept different denomination coins in each pocket so that he could easily find the right amount after he sized up a panhandler. The old timers’ stories captivated me and I found the streets of Venice populated with apparitions, ghosts of people like Sarah Bernhardt, Aimee Semple McPherson, John “Bull” Young, Lou “Two Gun” Alteri, Bill Harrah, Duke Kahanamoku, Marie Dressler, and a host of others who had all taken a turn on the Venice stage.

Our car slid down the ramp of the bridge, crossed two more, and we were out of the Venice canals. I turned left at Washington Boulevard and now, as we neared Marina del Rey, a car appeared, its headlamps ringed in fog. Our destination was the airport, where a plane would fly us to New York—a new job, a new life. The car was quiet, each of us unsure of what we were doing, unsure of what to say. Venice was behind us. The past was inching away. We were leaving for good. Even the dog remained silent.

I have lived in New York for many years now. People ask me often if I miss California. I tell them I don’t. What I miss, I explain, is my youth spent in California. But when they ask me a different question, when they ask me if I miss Venice, the answer changes: I do miss Venice. I miss Venice and its storied past. I miss its role in my story, my past. Isn’t it the same with all of us? Don’t we all harbor memories of the landscapes from our past that, for some inexplicable reason, form perfect backdrops, as the poetry of our own story is played out? Like my youth, those special places are now gone, lost to the force of change and progress and time's erosive flow. We have our reasons for leaving them: mine is opportunity. Eventually we discover how important those places were, as the scenes and acts of our larger lives unfold. I miss Venice, the old Venice, a memory of Venice. Yes, I certainly do.