Brian’s sister is here from Virginia this week. Julie is such a combination of boho hippie, crafty housewife, and real estate agent that it is hard to pinpoint her. But it is easy to love her. Everyone does. She makes friends in a sentence. She looks oddly like Brian, if he were somehow small and pretty. She has a boisterous laugh.
The hippie portion of Julie used to live in Venice Beach, California, near the boardwalk. She had a dog of chow red and black tongue whose short hair and square head suggested nothing of chow otherwise. His name was Bear, and they would go to the beach drum circle together, or to the free feast at the Hare Krishna temple, or just wander the boardwalk.
We attempted to do the same last night, all three of us. Bear passed away only a few months ago, but we thought of him and his red well-behaved ways. None of us has been paying attention to the news over the weekend. We hadn’t heard about the deaths Saturday night. We arrived at the Hare Krishna temple, but there were no tables set out. “We’re doing a huge thing on the beach. There’s no feast here tonight,” the monk in peach robes said when Brian asked him. So we drove to the beach and parked.
They were disassembling the feast. Brilliant tents of primary colors made a warren of temporary streets, but most had nothing beneath them any longer except people stacking folding chairs or moving boxes around. Two booths were handing out flimsy paper plates of whatever was left in their chafing dishes. Above the canopy, people flew past on a zip line. The acrid smell of marijuana floated past us from the skate park.
We ate cold and delicious food on a sandy patch of grass. The fries were sweet, the pasta salad sharp with vinegar, but my favorite was the curry-breaded cauliflower. Police cars were everywhere. We watched the black and white SUV’s roll past on the sand. The sun set behind the hills making black silhouettes of the palm trees. We could see the drum circle in the distance, listened to the beat wafting on the air.
And then there were sirens.
The police broke up the drum circle.
“I wonder what’s happening,” I said.
“We should go over and find out,” said Julie.
“I don’t know,” said Brian.
“Are you out?” said Julie. “Yeah, it’s probably better if we don’t go over there.”
“I’m in if you’re in,” I said. “I’m kinda dying to know what’s happening.”
“Well, let’s get closer anyway,” she said.
There was nothing to see. By the time we walked a few yards, the circle was gone, disbursed.
“No! I have to know!” I said.
We passed a man holding a drum over his shoulder, gesticulating to a lady near one of the stores.
“Shh!” said Julie. “See if he says anything.” We laughed, but we all got quiet. Nothing.
We passed t-shirt stores selling offensive graphics. I stopped to take a picture of the Venice Beach Freak Show sign. In a row of apartment buildings, someone had turned their living room into a palmistry boutique. On the sidewalk, someone had painted a creepy clown face. Harry Perry rode past on his rollerblades strumming his electric guitar, dreads streaming in the wind beneath his turban. A man walked past with a dog of chow red.
“Must pat the redness!” said Julie. So we stopped.
“Too bad about the drum circle, huh?” said the man.
“Yeah, what happened?” I said. “Why did they break it up?”
“Oh, pot,” he said. “They’re all over here now because of last night, you know?”
“Last night?” said Brian.
“Yeah, the deaths. It was on the news, some guy jumped the barrier and killed a bunch of people by driving on the boardwalk. There’s a vigil down by Rose, and a bunch of news vans. You know where Rose is?”
“I know where Rose is,” said Julie.
The vigil was small, a five foot square piled with stacks of flowers, votive candles illuminating every spare inch. Three or four people had lawn chairs out and were tending to the little flames. Passers-by stopped with bowed heads. We walked past. The crowd had grown when we turned around to walk back to our car. A reporter stood in front of the pile now, microphone in hand. I thought about what this man would probably be like, intoxicated and confused. Maybe hopped up on pot like those at the circle. I felt bad for him, and regretted the choices he made.
NPR had the story on the radio this morning. It was nothing like I had thought. This man, although undeniably mentally ill, was not intoxicated with anything. He drove around the barriers and aimed for pedestrians. If it hadn’t been for the loud scraping sound of a bicycle his car was dragging in its wake, more people would have died two nights ago. The man is in custody. They’re just releasing the names of some of his victims.
According to my professor Tom Zoellner, good Non Fiction is supposed to make a point about something. I have no points to offer, uness it is this: Blame the crazy atmosphere that is Venice, blame the lack of barriers on some streets, blame whatever you wish. “This incident would have been difficult to stop because the individual was determined to harm people,” said the cop on NPR this morning. It was no one’s fault but the perpetrator.
I can also offer sadness.