By Ian Lovett
“It’s all commercial fucking vendors.”
That’s the first thing I hear as I approach the crowd outside the police station waiting for the lottery. At 8:10 am the place is packed—the majority crowded around the station itself, where they do the drawing for the I-Zone, the commercial vending area at the south end of the boardwalk. A smaller group has formed around another table 50 yards towards the skate park, where they draw for spots in the P-Zone—donations only, and traditionally, or supposedly, or theoretically, the area for artists. But these days, this territory too is under siege from the commercial fucking vendors.
I find Roger halfway between the two crowds, holding a Starbucks cup and mingling. He was about the first one to put his ID card in the P-Zone lottery, and we watch as others do the same. They walk through a makeshift gate up to a table surrounded by caution tape and drop their cards into the tumbler. Two men sit at the table, overseeing.
Scotty shows up on the stroke of the 8:30 cutoff, parking his van out front of Danny’s, right where Roger said he would. Bobby shows a couple minutes later. Donna’s son—a juggler—slinks over as well, looking mostly asleep. “You seen my mom?” He’s 20, Roger says, and never gets up this early. She must have coerced him down here this morning, hoping to double her chances after she didn’t get a spot last week.
Bobby peers over the caution tape. “Who’s lucky?” He looks around. “Chief blew his luck last week.”
“Better get your card in,” Scotty says. “They’re about to start.”
Bobby gives up his search, stepping inside the gate to drop the card in himself. Another man stands on one of the steel gate’s bottom rails. He tosses his card towards the open tumbler, just missing. Inside, another man picks it up. The tosser waves at him, signaling to give the card back, but the second man drops it into the tumbler.
“Awww, man. You jinxed me.”
A guy in a sombrero stumbles around inside the enclosed area. Roger refers to him as “Hatman,” although pinned to his hat is a Styrofoam sign that reads, “Dollhouse Dude.”
“You want to put it in down and to the left,” Bobby says. “Usually, it’s a right hander who’s reaching in to grab them, and it more natural for them to reach back to the left.”
“Excuse me,” Scott says. “I’ve gotta go put my card in.”
“Scotty, you bastard,” Bobby says. “You tell me they’re about to close it and you’re just standing out here biding your time.” He turns towards me. “You want to be either the first one or the last one. The ones on the top and the bottom get spun around. The other ones just get stuck in the middle. Watch, Roger’s gonna be the first one picked.”
They all stand around, exchanging stories and trade secrets like this—how to phrase a donation request so people won’t take all your stuff for free but an undercover cop won’t ticket you. The group refers casually to undercover cops—just part of their reality. Richard got ticketed a couple weeks ago for selling stuff he didn’t make himself. Since then, he’s changed to selling religious paraphernalia—prayer beads and crosses and the like—despite lacking any religious predilection of his own.
Donna’s telling a story. She looks like she’s been around this block more than a few times, her face weathered—lined, hardened, tough, and yet somehow resigned—with a wiry body and long, wispy blond hair to complete the package: this is a women who’s been there, done that, and can seriously tell you your future.
“So as I’m putting my box down, I came on this girl putting a bucket down in my spot. And I say to her, ‘You can’t save a spot for tomorrow morning at 9 at night,’ even though I’m right there doing the same thing. And she asks me what I’m doing and I change the subject and I say, ‘What do you sell,’ and of course she’s selling some cheap bracelets and shit she bought downtown for 50 cents and wants to sell here for two bucks. And I say, ‘You know it’s donations only here, you can’t set a price.’ And she says, ‘I can take donations.’ And I say, ‘No naming prices—donations only.’ And she says she can take donations. And I say, ‘Oh yeah? You can let everything on your table go for one dollar?’ And she just sort of looks at me and I say, ‘You set up here, everything you got, one dollar.’” She hold up her index finger to help make the point. “And she says, ‘Maybe I’ll go set up somewhere else.’”
The group loves this, everyone laughing from the belly. No sign of nerves on display, at least not yet.
At 8:40 the drawing begins. One of the men closes the tumbler and gives it a couple turns with the handle on the side. Everyone presses up towards the caution tape.
“Why is there crime tape?” says Bobby.
“A crime is about to be committed.” They all laugh again, repeating the phrase. A crime is about to be committed.
The emcee opens the lid again and pulls out a small handful of cards. He spreads them out on the table.
“The first five…” his partner announces into the megaphone.
No one in our group is called. They all step back from the ring again while the first lucky five go select the spots they want. It’s a dance that continues all through the drawing, with the crowd approaching and retreating in time with each round, paying intermittent attention. Sometimes, Roger tiptoes right up to the tape, peering over, so he can see if his card comes up before they even announce the names. Others, he goes off to talk to some acquaintance, not bothering to watch at all. Collectively, the little group looks vaguely amoeba-like—it changes shape as size, losing one person here, gaining another, shifting up towards the caution tape and then back.
Deana joins the group about halfway through the drawing, an overlarge plaid shirt hiding her hands—it looks like her husband’s, perhaps pilfered from him to help fight the morning’s chill. “Roger,” she says, “you have to turn your phone on.” She smiles slightly, a look at once very warm and slightly shy, a bit hurt, even. Last week she gave him a phone, and offered to share her minutes with him.
She also lets Roger and Scotty shower at her house—Wednesday is their shower day. And she has them over for dinner. Donna does the same, sometimes. Scotty says he just about fell asleep in Donna’s shower last week.
At this point, with more than half the hundred P-Zone spots already gone, no one from the group has been called. Finally, Roger gets picked, then Bobby. In the ring, Hatman’s card has been picked…except it’s his Driver’s License, not the card you need to purchase to enter the lottery. When he’s reclaimed it from the emcee, he holds it up for the crowd. “Look. I can drive. See?” Then he lies down inside the ring.
“He’s a riot,” Bobby says. “Although he’s sat down in front of my stand before. That pretty much ends business for that day. I don’t know if he’s actually drunk—he seems to turn it on and off pretty easy.”
When three-quarters of the spots have gone, Roger offers to let Scotty do one day in his spot if he doesn’t get called. It’s been a rough week for Scotty’s business—he left his bag full of henna oils outside his van, and someone ran off with them. The oils are his primary business expense—he mixes them every day or two, so as to get the optimal stain. Lots of others supposed henna artists don’t even use real henna, he says.
They use black hair dye, which looks great at first, but fades after only a few days, not to mention it’s toxic qualities. At his stand, he has a sign that reads, “Henna isn’t black.”
In the meantime, he’s borrowed some oils from Gil—another henna artist, who convinced Scotty to start doing henna in the first place, taught him how to mix the oils and everything.
As the lottery winds down, Scotty seems to abandon hope of getting picked. He limps around (old back injury), schmoozing, moving from one group to another to another. He dips in and out of a pretty good faux British accent, which he usually employs when he’s kidding. He’s looking out for spots, trying to see if anyone ended up with two, or got one but might not be able to use it this weekend. Or something. If it comes down to it, he’ll just get there early and set up in a spot where someone didn’t show. And if they do get booted, he’ll try to move to another spot.
“I have a lot of people I look out for here. And they look out for me. Like Roger. Roger’s a close friend, for sure.” He’s speaking regular American English. “Once I get called,” he says, “I’m sure as hell looking to see if I can help those guys out. And they’ll help me out.”
In five years here, there’s only been a handful of weekends when Scotty hasn’t found somewhere to set up. He can’t afford not to—he’s not some vendor up from San Diego for the weekend: this is his livelihood. And his home.
A crowd is gathering. The drawing is about over, but another kind of show is getting started. A lot of the people gathered here are performers, after all. And, well, they’re performing.
The main attraction is a young couple fighting. She’s going at him with full force, swinging and kicking. He deflects her blows calmly, batting her gloved hands with his palms. He’s training her, it looks like—kickboxing practice. But also a show. And these two apparently go at it for real, as well, just like this, right on the boardwalk, but no gloves. Or, at least, it’s a realer show.
“I should go,” Bobby keeps saying. He has to get to a flea market in Redondo where he picks up metal for his wind chimes. But still he stays. They all stay.
They all complain about the lottery, this game of chance that determines their livelihoods for the week. They complain about the commercial fucking vendors. But the lottery itself, it’s almost like a community meeting—everyone who lives and works here gathered together, trading tips, telling stories, not trying to sell anything. It’s a gathering of their whole community in what is, really, a mostly social setting.
I ask Scotty if he likes these Tuesday mornings. “You know,” he says, “I guess I do.”