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A Walk on the Promenade

By Frank Gruber

It was a day like any other. I walked up the Promenade from my office in the old Crocker Tower. Destination: lunch, and the post office. I fell behind a young man. He was speaking passionately -- using his hands and his voice -- to no one in particular.

"Uh-oh," I thought, "there's a new schizophrenic on the block."

But that wasn't all. Not the half of it. The young man was not only raving, but he was raving in French!

"Uh-oh," I thought (again). "This could be really bad."

Homeless tourists?

The implications were profound. Disturbing. If the French were so diabolical as to send their vacationing mentally ill to Santa Monica, what would stop the Italians, or the Japanese, or, as market Communism raises their living standards, the Chinese, from doing the same!

My mouth went dry as I contemplated vacation charters of mentally ill tourists, parking their buses at Santa Monica Place, shopping, then wandering around town talking to themselves.

As it turned out, my fears were unwarranted, based on the facts at hand. The young man stopped to emphasize a point. Keeping my distance, I passed him, and stole a closer look. A cell phone wire dangled from an ear. Presumably he was speaking to someone at the other end of the line who also spoke French.

He had a cell phone. He wasn't homeless. But he was a tourist. These days I don't know what's worse.

Homeless people are terrible. For one thing, they exist, which makes the rest of us feel guilty for being sane, or sober, or if we're not sane and sober, for having enough money to stay out of trouble. Or for just having enough money.

The homeless on the Promenade do nothing except lie around and beg for your support -- not unlike George W. Bush in the third debate, and just as aggravating. They drive customers away from the Promenade, but apparently they need to do a better job since the stores are complaining that their customers can't find places to park.

But then there are the tourists. Yikes. Wandering around, buying things, sitting outside writing postcards. Having fun. Assuming we natives are happy because we live somewhere they want to visit.

The worst for me is that I can't figure out why they want to come here in the first place.

I know from the old hotels on Ocean Avenue and the big photographs inside the Bank of America that Santa Monica has always attracted its share of tourists, but why?

The beach? Be serious. Except for six weeks between mid-July and Labor Day the water is too cold and/or the sky too cloudy for anyone except a Canadian.

Art? My apologies to the Arts Commission, but dinosaur topiaries do not a Piazza Navona make.

Culture? Well, Whole Foods has good yogurt.

History? Uhhhh. Can we count the Engler Bros. piston sign?

So why do they come? And in such numbers that certain normally fair-minded Santa Monicans go berserk when they see anyone with a camera around his or her neck asking for directions to the Pier?

If I didn't have an opinion, I wouldn't be writing this column.

Call me a hopeless romantic totally out of touch with how Santa Monica has been ruined by hordes of visitors, but I still get a thrill when I hear a foreign language. I smile when I see half a dozen Japanese kids with their hair dyed fashionably brown giggling as they stroll the Promenade.

It's not just the foreigners. I like it at Rose Bowl time when Michiganders, with big "M's" on their sweatshirts, or Wisconsonians, with hunks of plastic cheese on their heads, fill the streets. I like it when the Pier creaks under the weight of families from Whittier escaping the heat.

My favorite book about cities and other places is called "The Geography of Nowhere." As you might guess from the title, it's about America, in particular about what's been built in America the past 50 years. That's the "nowhere."

"Somewhere." What does that mean? Do we live, "somewhere?"

The tourists remind me, or persuade me, that I live somewhere. Because the tourists think Santa Monica is somewhere, too. A real place. And that's why they come.
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