When I saw the crowd panic all I could think was “shark?”
My friends Jenn and Greg got married a few years ago in July in Massachusetts in a beautiful ceremony at a lovely theatre with a lavish reception. As most of their friends couldn’t make it cross country for the nuptials, they did what so many couples do; they had an LA reception after the fact to share their joy. It was set for Saturday, August 22nd, according to the Facebook invite. Clearly, this was going to be a casual affair far closer to their personalities.
It was an all-day potluck BBQ at Dockweiler Beach. In lieu of gifts they just wanted our company and for us to bring something to share. They were going to get there early and pitch a tent by a fire pit. They did give their cell numbers in the invite in case someone had a problem finding them. It sounded easy as pie. Now I was not in any way familiar with Dockweiler Beach. My beach experiences in LA have been limited to Zuma and Pt. Dume in Malibu, Santa Monica, Redondo, Dana Point, Huntington Beach, and the Venice boardwalk while shooting the film Southland Tales. All lovely in their own way—from the rugged solitude of Pt. Dume to the carnival atmosphere of Santa Monica to the classic beach experience of Huntington and Redondo. My ocean beach experiences as a kid were all of Cape Cod.
Before Jim and I left the house I plugged in the address to the Google Maps application on my Blackberry and we were set with directions. I noticed it was in Playa Del Rey which was close to Marina Del Rey which is nice. Other than that, I did no research on Dockweiler. I resisted the impulses of my OCD. From their invite it seemed my friends were quite familiar with this particular beach. I would later come to realize that just because a compulsion is obsessive; it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad idea. As Jim is not a beach person and I can’t deal with the sun all day, we opted for the late afternoon/early evening portion of the party.
Since Trader Joe’s was out of our way, and food was low at the house, we planned to find a snack en route. A gander at sigalert.com confirmed that the 405 was, as always, a freaking nightmare through West LA, so we diverted to Sepulveda. We passed several grocery stores that looked like too much of a pain, so we drove on. Once we hit Culver Blvd I assumed we’d find a store. With so many houses, condos and apartment buildings, surely these people needed to shop for food. And they do, just not on Culver Blvd. Just as we were hitting the turn for the beach we spied a tiny liquor store. Excellent. All we needed were snacks and sodas. There’s something solid and reassuring about Fritos. Maybe it’s because I loved them when I was nine, or maybe it’s because they only have 3 ingredients: corn, corn oil and salt. Perfect beach food. Armed with our snacks, drinks and cooler, we set off to find the kids.
Good thing they put both their cell phone numbers on the invite. Dockweiler Beach is several miles long. Greg didn’t answer but Jenn picked up and informed us they were at a double-wide white tent with a bunch of colored beach umbrellas by the second parking lot. The south end, I confirmed. On our second pass of the beach we found street parking, avoiding the $7 fee and set off to find our friends.
First things first, I needed to stop at the restroom. There was a considerable line. Why you would have a several mile beach and one bathroom with seven stalls is beyond me. From the scuttle in the line I gathered that bringing your own TP was necessary by this point in the day. Luckily, I had Kleenex. All was well. Upon seeing the wet, mucky, sandy slime that coated the interior I was quite relieved to be wearing my sandals. They had the lovely three-foot high semi-doors meant to discourage rampant sex in bathroom stalls, which provide no privacy whatsoever if you happen to be over four feet tall.
We eventually found our group. They were not at the double-wide white tent, but next to it. The double-wide tent was occupied by a large joyful group who had also claimed the fire pit. Apparently, you must be at the beach before 8am if you want to claim a fire pit. Once we spotted our friends we realized it was fairly easy to distinguish our group, as we were the only gathering of white people on the beach that particular day. And by white, I mean translucent. Greg is our Dungeon Master for our regular Dungeons and Dragons game and he and Jenn run a theatre company, so we’re talking pasty Celtic/Germanic theatre geeks with a scarcity of melanin. When guys returned from getting more supplies from the car, Paul piped up with “This is why Tusken raiders walk in single file.” Tusken Raiders are the Sand people from Star Wars. The sand is tough to walk on so it’s easier to walk in compressed footsteps. This is the level of geekiness we’re dealing with.
Dockweiler Beach is directly west of the runways of LAX. The clouds were so thick that, although we could hear the jets taking off, we couldn’t actually see them. Until the clouds thinned and we could briefly spot the planes, disturbingly large and close.
We were having a good time, talking and munching. Jim and I had brought portable chairs so we were sitting facing the ocean and our friends when we heard screaming. I turned toward the noise and noticed people panicking and running in a crouched position away from the parking lot. My first thought was “shark?” because that’s the extent of my experience of danger at a beach. My keen analysis continued. “But the people are running from the parking lot. If it was a shark, wouldn’t they be running from the ocean? And why would they be crouching?—Sharks don’t fly.” Then I noticed the flashing lights of the Johnny-on-the-spot patrol car and I realized this was an entirely different kind of danger.
I am utterly unequipped for urban survival. I had failed to hear the six gunshots. The night before, a friend was talking about the Icanhazcheezburgers site about cats. What I heard was “iconized cheeseburgers” and wondered why people worshipped cheeseburgers. Jim would like me to get my hearing checked. I tend to agree with him.
Everyone is crouched and staying as low as possible. I’m still in my chair not really getting what’s going on. Everyone is low, except for Greg, all 6’4” of his Eagle Scout self. He wants to know what’s going on and if he can help. Jenn just hisses for him to get down. Greg, in a move that bodes well for the future of his marriage, gets down on the blanket with his new bride.
We’re all a bit in a fog. It seems unreal. Because this is not our life. We don’t deal with this on a daily, weekly or monthly basis or, quite frankly, ever. Everyone else, while initially panicked, seems to know the drill. Which is depressing in and of itself. I don’t think anyone should have to be accustomed to gunfire. After ten minutes or so, when the police seemed to have everything under control people get back up and resume their day. One friend is a freelance writer who can never shake his journalistic background, so against the protests of his girlfriend, he heads towards the action to find out what happened. The police have a couple of teenagers in handcuffs, so that appears to be that.
Dockweiler Beach’s appeal is diminishing by the minute. Its primary attraction is that you can have a bonfire. That is, if you’re one of the first twenty people on the beach the second it opens so you can claim a fire pit of your own. Greg and Jenn were, while quite early, not amongst the lucky twenty. Disturbingly, many of the folks that claimed fire pits didn’t actually use them. That was not true of the group next to us. They liked fire. Not only did they have their fire pit humming away, they had brought oil-filled tiki torches to mark the boundaries of their territory.
One of the young men in this group was wearing the most depressing shirt I’ve ever seen. In block lettering emblazoned across his chest was the lone word C-O-L-L-I-G-E. I don’t think he was wearing it ironically. Honestly, in Van Nuys, I am hard pressed to tell you whether I’m most appalled by the fact of the graffiti in our neighborhood or the indiscriminate slaughter of the English language.
After a few prayers and Jesus cheers come out of the group by the double-wide tent it becomes apparent that this is a church group out for a day at the beach. This reliance on Divine Intervention becomes obvious when the kids all start playing netless volleyball in amongst the lit torches. Lit torches filled with oil, volleyball being hit at high speed, kids running amongst the torches. Nothing could possibly go wrong with this plan. Apparently they’re good believers, or good volleyball players, or both, because they never create a human torch with a missed shot.
I forgot to mention the extra handicap they had in this game. In the middle of everything sat perhaps the most optimistic little kid I’ve ever seen. He’s maybe five. People are hitting the ball over his head. They are jumping over him, barely missing his face by inches. He hasn’t a worry or a thought of concern to spare. His whole focus, his whole world at that point, is the sand castle that he is intent on building in the middle of their volleyball court. Not only do the kids avoid self-immolation, they leave his sand castle intact.
While standing on the beach it is impossible to not dig your feet into the sand. Erin discovers that if you dig in so that your feet are in a high heel stance it feels great. If someone made a tempurpedic sand foam wedge they would make a mint. We decide it’s the incredible arch support that makes it so comfy. There is, however, one drawback. On a normal beach when you’re ready to put your shoes back on, you wipe off the sand as best you can and, with the exception of a few stray grains of sand, all evidence of the beach is removed from your feet. Not so with Dockweiler Beach. The sand at Dockweiler Beach comes off readily enough. It’s the residue that refuses to leave your skin without a thorough scrubbing in a hot shower. I’m not sure whether it’s the exhaust from the planes taking off since Dockweiler is at the Western end of the runways of LAX, or it’s the general air quality in the area, or the soot and ash from all the bonfires. Whatever the cause, the result is that Dockweiler Beach stains your feet black. Lovely.
When we get home I decide to check to see if there’s any news about the shooting at Dockweiler. I let my inner librarian free. I do a Google search for Dockweiler + shooting and get tips for filming. I try Dockweiler + arrest and get a story in the LA Times about five teenagers being stabbed at a bonfire at Dockweiler the previous Saturday. Then I hit on the LAPD crime map. You can mark any spot on the map and indicate a radius from 1-5 miles within which to see crime data. There’s a three day delay, but crimes show up as dots of various colors. In this case, green does not mean go and red does not mean stop. Red is burglary, green is rape. I don’t want to go where the green dots are. Navy blue is grand theft auto, purple is theft from vehicle, teal is personal/other theft, orange is Robbery (Violent), bright blue is aggravated assault, and yellow is not caution but homicide.
The incident at Dockweiler Beach was #091420995, bright blue, aggravated assault. According to the website aggravated assault is “unlawful attack by one person upon another for the purpose of inflicting severe or aggravated bodily injury. This type of assault usually is accompanied by the use of a weapon or by means likely to produce death or great bodily harm.” So really the only thing that kept those six rapidly fired shots from resulting in a yellow dot was bad aim. Thankfully, that incompetence didn’t result in harm to any of the innocent beachgoers from stray bullets. I’m glad the idiot with the gun was less accurate than the kids with the volleyball, but I’m still not going back.
Lisa K Wyatt is a writer living in California.
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