The Last Great Flophouse in Venice Beach

Down and Out in Paradise


Go far enough west in this country and you find the place where God cannot exist. When your VW runs out of gas or when you step off the Greyhound, dirty and sleepless, or when your feet hit the tarmac looking for a new Hollywood life, this place will be there waiting for you. Maybe back east your dad beat the hell out of you or your girl ran off with the quarterback or maybe you’ve got stars in your eyes like every other joker looking to break into the business. Whatever reason you come to California, there it will be, this place with no God — waiting for you.

It even has a name. The Duffy Street Apartments in Venice Beach.

Honest weird Americans flock to Venice Beach to live by the blue openness. It’s pop culturally known in postcard snapshots: Schwarzenegger at Gold’s Gym, bimbos roller-skating down the boardwalk. In reality, it’s all different kinds of lost souls. Trust fund crust punks high on medical weed talk Socialism outside the hostel near a nightclub where B-list celebrities DJ for junior agents and up-and-coming douchebags. The canals are the only thing Venice has remotely in common with its Italian namesake. They were built by a man named Abbot Kinney. His dream of building a cultural utopia gave way to crass commercialism 100 years ago. The main avenue that bears his name is a final insult from beyond the grave. It looks like a shitty romantic comedy backlot. Boutique after boutique and overpriced restaurants with names like Grain or Chop.

The Duffy Street Apartments are a last vestige of a sadder more desperate Venice Beach. It’s where the wayward go, the misfits and degenerates and pathologically lonely. It’s got holes in the walls, dried blood in the carpet, a parking lot full of broken glass and bearded men huddling around trash cans full of fire. It’s a white brick building two blocks from the boardwalk with smashed windows sealed by blue plastic sheets and duct tape. It’s tucked into a weird corner of town between a Google office building that looks like huge binoculars and a CVS with a 20 foot tall dancing half clown/half ballerina above its door. Money is all around Duffy Street, but none sticks there. It’s a black hole where no light can live.

Duffy is a flophouse that advertises sunny beach-front apartments online for super cheap. But when you get there you realize the sunny apartments are taken and the only places left are 300 square foot rooms without kitchens and shared hall bathrooms. The old bait-and-switch.

The first floor is full of surfers from Australia or South Africa, there for the waves. They work under the table in weed dispensaries or washing dishes and spend the weekends scouring the boardwalk for “California pussy.” They have knotted dreadlocks and smoke multi-chamber bongs and blast Bob Marley bootlegs. These kids are harmless but will have their stereos stolen forever. They spend a few months with the truly vicious characters in Duffy and then pack their bags for Echo Park or Manhattan Beach.

Your room is on the second floor and looks out over the alley behind the building. Each night you see fights and car thefts and homeless people shooting up and sharing bottles of gin. You hear the bums sing their bum songs. Just random melodies with no words or sometimes a fragment of “Hey Jude” or “Tambourine Man.” These are the leftover hippies, battered wives and Vietnam Vets. All the people our country forgot about.

A married couple in the apartment building on the opposite side of the alley do a little Streetcar Named Desire routine once a week. She throws all his clothes out the window when he comes home late and yells down at him that she never wants to see him again. And he screams her name (it might was well be Stella) and after hours of screaming someone calls the cops. She takes him back and then you hear them fucking all night. The bums cheer them on.

Your room is blank. Just an air mattress. You’ve got your books stacked up and your ten year-old laptop and a brown box for a table where you roll joints and eat food. No AC, so you hang your head out the window and hope for a breeze.

You don’t make friends with your neighbors but you know about their lives because the walls are paper-thin. Next door, Jack has a new girl every night. Jack likes coke and hip-hop, he’s from the valley. His window is so close to yours you could almost reach into it. One night you poke your head out hoping for some relief from the heat and there’s a naked blonde being rammed from behind by Jack. “I didn’t believe you!” she screams to him. “I didn’t believe you!”

Across the hall is a bodybuilder named Don and his lover Maggie, who could be twice his age. She’s always on him about cleaning the apartment but there’s nothing in there but a futon. And down the hall is Harvey who always leaves his door open. Harvey’s a hoarder with tropical birds. You’ve never seen him leave his apartment or change out of his burgundy bathrobe. If he talks to you, it’s always in the form of some maddening warning: “Monsanto will kill a million babies in the blink of an eye!”

The most gruesome place of all in Duffy is the shared bathroom down the hall. A small blue-tiled room with a shower, a sink, and a toilet that smells of death. You might find the toilet overflowing or puke everywhere or drops of random blood in the morning. Late in the summer, you catch a serious staph infection on your ass that balloons to a baseball-sized pimple. A doctor at an urgent care in Marina Del Rey has to lance it open. You scream blasphemous things but no God is there to hear you. Just this doctor who asks if you have a girlfriend that might be able to change the dressings on your wound and when you say no, he says he’ll have to do it for you three times a week. “This could be life-threatening,” he says. He asks you personal things and gives you free visits and you think maybe this doctor is hitting on you, but realize he’s really just nice. From Canada.

Then one night you’re laid up in your unholy apartment, resting, unable to sleep at 3am, listening to the bums singing in the alley. Nursing your ass, you hear Don and Harvey yelling at each other.

“I don’t give a fuck,” says Don to Harvey.

I don’t give a fuck,” says Harvey to Don.

“Fuck you,” says Don.

“Fuck you,” says Harvey.

It goes on like this for a while and you hear Maggie screaming and you hear other people in the hall now, but you don’t dare even crack your door for fear of getting caught up in it. You have to pee but it’s too risky to try to make it to the hall bathroom so you just go in an empty beer bottle. Screaming is nothing new here. Madness and fear are the normal state of affairs.

“Put the goddamn bat down,” screams Maggie. And you hear bodies slam. You’ve long since stopped calling the cops. They always show up sooner or later and sure enough you hear the sirens coming. The commotion moves downstairs and you take one of the high octane narcotic pain pills the nice Canadian gave you and fall asleep and dream of home back East.

The next morning, there’s blood all over the hallway and in the bathroom and down the stairs.

“What happened,” you ask Jack, who’s standing shirtless in his doorway with his arm around a redhead in a bikini.

“Some guy stabbed Harvey,” he says, as if he’s telling you it’s raining outside.

“Is he okay?”

“It was some of Don’s boys that did it,” Jack says. “Harvey didn’t like them and he tried to kick them out.”

“But he’s okay, right?” you ask and notice for the first time Harvey’s door is closed.

Jacks shrugs. “All I know is he’s gone. They took him away.”

Harvey’s door is never open again. One morning you find a note under your door. Handwritten and photocopied that says, “No more fighting up here. Call the cops if you see something. Nobody let in the guys named Chronic, Diablo and Jeff.”

Sometimes you think of all the true artists and thinkers that have died in places like Duffy before they make it. Geniuses lost to history. Someone throws away all their paintings or poetry or cures for cancer. And they scrub their rooms and find a new sucker to live there.

Soon they will crush Duffy with a wrecking ball and its residents will move into the streets or sober up and have families or end up in jail or maybe die along the tracks of some train they were riding to a better future that never came. And, yes, you were one of them, but soon enough you’ll leave Duffy too and find a cheap place with roommates or maybe you’ll give up and head back east and suffer the winters again. You’ll leave Duffy in the rearview and try and forget it, but it won’t ever leave you, no matter how hard you try. You’ll think maybe there was a God at Duffy, after all — a different kind of God.

“How could you leave Venice Beach?” strangers always ask. “The endless blue sky and sun, it’s the best place to live.” And you almost believe them when you remember opening your window at Duffy sometimes and reaching your head out to hear the faint music of the ocean. Though of course it could’ve be the sound of traffic on the interstate.