How Venice Beach Gang Bangers Taught Me Everything I Know About Travel

Jef Hartsel - Venice Beach 1988
Jef Hartsel was my first American friend. Venice Beach, 1988.
I

n late 1988, I arrived at Los Angeles international airport. Alone. No plans, no contacts, just a small amount of cash, and not quite yet an adult. After travelling solo across the world, for the first time in my life, I thought all I needed was a public phone, a Yellow Pages, a list of hotels, and a bus stop. This was the era of suit-cased-sized cell-phones, and they were strictly stockbroker accessories. The Internet didn’t really exist, yet.

After a couple of confusing public-phone calls late on that typically sunny LA afternoon, searching for a cheap bed for the night, I headed out from LAX and followed the palm trees to the corner of Winward and Pacific – the heart of Venice Beach. I didn’t know it, but the next 48 hours in Venice  – affectionately known as “Dogtown” – would have an enormous impact on the rest of my life.

During the last few minutes of daylight, I gleaned the Venice Beach I recognised from the movies. Skateboarders. California girls on roller-skates. Decaying faux-Italian architecture. On the surreal runway of the Venice Beach board-walk, the mix is tourists, stylish locals, and scruffy homeless drinking from brown paper bags. Everyone was engaged the typical daily routine of Venice – people watching, hanging out, and watching buskers ply their trade. I wandered up and down alone, and took everything in. Venice Beach was officially the most amazing place I had ever seen.

Soon after, when darkness descended on 1988 Venice Beach, the mood changed very, very, fast. People vanished. The side streets away from the boardwalk come to life for just a short while, filled with scurrying people heading away from Venice Beach, heading to anywhere else. Along the boardwalk, the turnaround from light to dark is breathtakingly quick – it didn’t take long before the popular crowded day-time-only area was completely empty, apart from the brown paper baggers.

Almost every shop and restaurant closed up for the night. Drapes were pulled. The whole daily Venice Beach metamorphosis from colourful hive of human activity, to an inky, quiet, and gritty corner of LA, felt strangely like stop motion. It was all new to me, but I had a feeling that Venice Beach in the Winter of 1988 at night seemed like a good time to return to my room.

It was a cheap apartment room, just a block back from the board-walk. Still somewhat jet-lagged, but, being propped up by elation and curiosity, my itchy feet quickly got the better of me. This was my first night in LA, I had to do something. And so, an evening stroll to further familiarise myself was irresistible.

I re-entered the darkness, and returned to the Venice board-walk.

It didn’t take long before I heard a lone voice.

“Yo.”

“Yo.”

“YO!”

I looked to my left.

He was standing alone, near the Sidewalk Cafe on Ocean Front Walk, under a dim street-lamp. Bandanna. Baggy Chino’s. Over-sized white tee. Slicked-back hair. Rocking a Cali style and swagger that kids the world over would imitate for the next several decades,  I knew, he was a gangster.

Chin up high, sizing me up, he starting walking towards me.

Only hours ago, I was strolling through the bustling circus that is the Venice board-walk. Now the sunlight had disappeared. At an incredibly rapid pace, my world was becoming lonely, dark, and a little scary.

Within moments, he was right in front of my face, and my heart rate was increasing.

“YO!”

“You wanna buy some CRACK?”.

The first line I ever heard, on my first night in Los Angeles, was an offer to buy some crack. I nervously replied.

“No, I’m cool….thanks..”

“YO, you wanna buy some COKE?”.

The conversation was moving along, but not really changing direction.

“Nah… I’m good”.

I’ve always been a glass-half-full kind of guy, but I knew this situation didn’t have a lot of upside from here. At this point, the only thing I was certain of, was that I hadn’t met my first American friend.

Shuffling. Looking wary. He looked around, then focused back on me.

“YO, you wanna buy some WEEEEED… holmes?”

Things were getting a little more reasonable now. Despite his scatter-gun approach to drug selling, in hind-sight, he was beginning to identify the target demographic a little more accurately.

“No, I’m OK thanks, no”.

The next few moments seemed to last a long time.

A very, long, time.

These are moments that are now burnt into my mind.

“WELL, WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU GET HIGH ON, MAN!?!?”.

His face changed, dramatically. My heart rate increased. The shadows seemed more sinister, his face, darker. There was genuine anger. I had visions of gats popping a cap in my ass. Or something like that. I think I could hear the soundtrack to Colors. Or maybe it was just MC Hammer. It was 1988 after-all.

Although it was hard to look away, after a few sneaky glances I knew I was really was all alone out here in Venice Beach. Apart from a group of four or five other guys, standing a little way over, keeping an eye on the proceedings. Dress, swagger, bandanna. Definitely the associates of my new “friend”. Heavy.

Like a drug addict getting a first hit, my brain, my heart, my body, was getting its first dose of genuine danger. I was getting worried. It was really dark out here, and the world, which over the last few days had shrunk substantially, just got a lot smaller.

“I’m just here on holiday, man. I’m from Australia.”

Still just him, and me.

“HOLIDAY? HOLIDAY? WHAT?”

What was a young Australian dude doing on the other side of the planet, in his ‘hood, at night? I don’t think he could quite believe it. I tried to explain.

” A holiday. From Australia. A holiday…umm…a vacation.”

Again, his face changed.

“YO…you’re on a VACATION, from AUSTRALIA? …well what the FUCK are you doing walking around HERE at NIGHT?”

That wasn’t a question, that was advice.

The situation had calmed down, as fast as it had escalated.

He motioned to his associates, I could tell it was an indication for them to leave me alone. I was OK. I took his indirect advice, and returned to the apartment room, fast. And, made sure I locked the door. But, it wouldn’t be the last time crack was on the menu, or danger was imminent, at Venice Beach.

Travel-wise, I now realised I had thrown myself in at the deep end. Heading to the other side of the planet with no plans at all, maybe, just maybe, could actually lead me to danger. I wasn’t even legally an adult in the USA, and whilst this wasn’t South Central LA – Venice Beach over the last few decades had been through a tough period that eventuated in a particularly mean-streak, every night.

Yet, within another 24 hours, it had all fallen in to place. I was rapidly learning lessons in travel that would stick forever. Always make friends with the locals. Your location is everything. Don’t be controlled by fear. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. Never forget where you’re from. Famous people are normal, even MC Hammer. And most importantly, don’t smoke crack. I was learning early in my adult life that travelling is the most complete, fastest, and realest education there is.

To this day, I am firm with that belief.

That Venice Beach gang-banger taught me, exactly, what the fuck I get high on.

I get high on travel.

And as the years rolled on, I craved for more. My name is Nate, and I’m a travel junkie. I’m addicted to the rush. The high.

My longest journey yet, commences in four days. I have no idea how long it will last, maybe forever.

And just like on the sidewalk of Venice Beach in 1988, again, I’m a little nervous.

My only fear this time, is that the addiction may have finally taken over.

Nate.

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Christian Hosoi - Venice Beach 1988
Christian Hosoi – One Of the Most Important Skateboarders of All Time. Venice Beach, 1988.

This is a photo of Christian Hosoi, Venice Beach, 1988. The Skateboarder in the background is Jef Hartsel. Both were professional skateboarders at the time, and Jef was my skate-buddy for a month or two in Venice. I met him on the first morning I was in Venice, at a restaurant called “Greek Out”. We connected, as Jef had recently travelled to Australia, and believed that girls from New Zealand were the hottest girls on Earth. I agree.

As for Christian Hosoi. Where to start. Christian is regarded as one of the most important and successful people in the history of Skateboarding, with an in inimitable style. Since this photo was taken, Christian went on to have a life of ups and downs, to put it mildly. He has been the subject of a documentary, and appeared in a vast array of magazines, and online articles. Christian, if you ever read this, you are one stylish mo-fo and I hope life is going well for you.

Jef Hartsel - Wally, Venice Beach 1988.
Jef Hartsel – “Wolly” Venice Beach 1988
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21 thoughts on “How Venice Beach Gang Bangers Taught Me Everything I Know About Travel

  1. It’s one thing to talk about traveling somewhere when a national holiday or huge event is going on, but to be able to say you’ve spent time in a place during a such a cool era is pretty amazing. That is one travel experience not many are able to say they’ve had and most never will. Very cool story – blown away by your writing in this one!

  2. What a great story. It’s tough to strike a balance between safety and adventure, but ultimately it’s only through experience that we learn where that balance is for us. I agree with Larissa in that it’s brilliant to be able to read a story like this, where the travel experience described is coming from the heart, and is personal to you.

  3. LA got you brave? I can relate. I spent 2.5 years out there and wound up throwing a dart into the heart of China. High on travel since then.

    Nice work Nate! Great story!

  4. This is an incredible story. Glad you didn’t give-in to gang banger hostility. Travel Addiction is much more thrilling and long-term of a high than any drug they offered you!

    1. Thanks Aygelina…totally agree – I learned my lesson on the first night, which came in handy as I stayed there for months!

  5. Nate, nice story! How bout you hit up your old hood over Easter and we’ll go see how time has changed Venice Beach!?

  6. Hey Nate,
    Your description of Venice Beach in 1988 is pretty much the Venice Beach we have in 2013 (well, weed is sold openly now). The other day I walked from Santa Monica to Venice Beach at night and that was not a good idea (at least my husband was with me). In fact, I am done with Venice Beach (I even wrote a post about it). Hope you can visit the ‘modern’ Venice Beach and describe what is different.

  7. I still have the Tshirt to prove it! “Muscle Beach/venice Beach” .. Gift from my adventurous son! Still wearing it at the health club .. Not bad for 25 years .. don’t make anything like in those days .. But then I’m one to hang on to things!

  8. Hey Nate, great story.

    I was actually there last week. Although it was only for a day, I was able to get a feel for venice beach. It was amazing! The people, the weather, the shops. It was a sight worth seeing. However, I alsoade the mistake to stick around til dark… WTF I had a similar encounter like yours with some gangbangers. Friendly at first, but with escalating tensions. I managed to get away from them, but I was 2 miles aways from my hotel. That walk had to be one of the longest walks of my life. Drug dealer after drug dealer. A bunch of gangs just looking. Where there used to be 200 people walking by, at that time I would be lucky to see anybody. I finally made it to the hotel and locked my door. Pheeeeew. What an experience.

  9. I am a 50 yr old Southern Ca. Los Angeles native and Venice boardwalk i the daytime is safe. As soon as it gets dark everyones gone. Theres a reason for this. Its a dangerous place. It has been since the early 1980’s and still is now. If you value your safety, be off of the Boardwalk there before dark period and dont hang out close to anywhere near it at night pretty much. Just some advice for anyone thinking of doing what this man here writing his story did. He was truly lucky. Even someof the baddest guys Ive known and trust Ive known some have told me years ago alot of years ago dont go there at night period. They said theres always bodies being found out there etc. etc. I enjoyed this story alot though. Thanks.

  10. What a great and accurate story! I moved to LA in ’82 (12 at the time) and after a short stint in West Los moved straight to Venice 6th and Vernon. The first week I got my ass beat everyday by one of the two home turf gangs until I finally got the O.K. from the older brother of a friend I had made. What a great time to be in Venice or the westside in general – backyard parties with Suicidal and other Venice punk rock bands, skating and hanging out around the boardwalk during the day and Abbot Kinney was still West Washington Blvd. and a night at the Brig generally resulted in a fight or possible stabbing. I still love the hood and the new breed of Venice “locals” (aka hipsters) have turned it into a glamorous spot (which is great for my property value), but I’ll always miss that gritty excitement that MADE Venice such a cool place to live.

  11. We might have passed each other at Venice, brother. I got lost down there one night back in ’88 just a few weeks after I moved from backwoods Florida–by myself, no contacts, nothing. One of the scariest nights of my life. Another one was when I got lost in Inglewood. And another one when I found myself in South Central at midnight one Friday night. High on travel? Not me. Just pure unadulterated fear. Thanks for the great story. Doing research for my latest novel.

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