Who's on Third?

Third Street Promenade in Santa Monica is a monument to commercialization that seems to have found a quasi-natural rhythm of its own. For all the retail frenzy that assaults the senses, it has a certain appeal if you just let it come to you.

Don’t set foot in this bodacious bazaar with a bad attitude, however, or you’ll quickly grow annoyed by the fortune tellers and street performers. Not to mention the restaurant hostesses who accost you if you make eye contact. I once had words with a college-age kid who wanted me to sign a petition. I’m offended by their guile; they sidle up to you and initiate a conversation like you’ve known each other for years, calling you “dude” or something. I don’t know you, I thought. You’re being presumptuous if you think I want to discuss saving the children or saving the whales. Am I cold and heartless, I wonder?

If you’re already having a bad day you’ll grow quickly irritated by the self-absorbed who don’t look where they’re walking or think the rest of the world wants to hear their story, told in a voice of self-importance and accompanied by exaggerated gestures and raucous laughter.

Most Santa Monicans will tell you they try to avoid Third Street. It’s for tourists, after all. Amateurs. I was once one of them. But, walking to the gym, it started to grow on me, precisely for the reason I would normally avoid it: the people. I’ve found I become energized in a crowd of strangers. It’s probably my Midwestern upbringing, from years of opening the front door to nothing but the song of birds and crickets.
Even the animal topiaries say "Look at me, look at me!"

Stroll down Wilshire toward the ocean and turn left at the Barnes and Noble, past Banana Republic, Monsoon (Asian fusion cuisine) and Chipotle Grill and prepare to experience a slice of southern California that’s not exactly the traditional Santa Monica.

The first sensory experience that greets me is the big bearded guy in a stocking cap, playing guitar with a portable amp. He seems affable, almost approachable. He’s perched just beyond the imaginary border of the Promenade so he doesn’t have to obtain a performer’s license. This guy seems to live in that grey area between homeless and mainstream. You just can’t tell. He has a plastic cup for tips but I never see him overtly begging. His guitar clashes with the voice of the elderly man sporting an Amish beard singing Tony Bennett karaoke style only a few hundred feet away. Don’t these people have to audition first? 

If it’s spring or summer you see and hear tourists from everywhere – San Antonio or Santa Ana, Birmingham or Burbank. Personal style is paramount; everyone has a look. Swarthy young men in aviators and tight shirts, a couple days’ growth of beard, sipping a glass of wine with their girlfriends in leggings, flipflops and oversized sunglasses. The Latino with gelled hair and an Angels jersey hanging with his hermanos. The mother-daughter pair weighted down with bags from Kitson, Anthropologie and, God forbid, Abercrombie & Fitch, striding purposefully to their car so they can retreat to the leafy havens of Brentwood or Pacific Palisades.

One day I encountered a protest march. It was a Sunday in early June, a good time to play to a large audience. They were shouting about genocide in Turkey, although as a group they didn’t look particularly oppressed. Some people stopped and observed the spectacle, others walked by in a hurry to get to their cars and beat the traffic. I went home, did some research and learned more of the citizen unrest in Turkey and its oppressive government. You can learn something useful here, and I’ll bet you won’t find that claim on the chamber’s web site.

Just the names of the stores are a delight for the imagination: Pink Ice, Hard Tail, All Saints, Journeys, Rip Curl. And then there are the more traditional names: Apple, American Eagle, Kenneth Cole, Tiffany and Tumi. Around the corner on Arizona, attracting anything but misfits is The Misfit –a nightclub that is unabashedly hip with its beguiling, even intimidating dark interior.

My sense of smell is always rewarded and it adds to the experience: That athletic store smell of shoe rubber that greets my nostrils as I approach the Adidas store, the marvelous array of scents from perfume vendors and the more earthy flavors from the kiosks bearing incense and other spiritual products.
What June gloom? The Farmers Market is happenin'.

A trio of athletic and gregarious black men attracts an impromptu audience with acrobatics and dance moves, set to a throbbing beat from a rather sophisticated sound system. They’ve plucked two people from the audience for a demonstration – a spry grandmother and an attractive blonde twentysomething, of course. I keep walking because I’ve seen this show before on Venice Beach.

Approaching The Coffee Bean I find myself involuntarily taking deep abdomen breaths in anticipation of the pleasant, rich aroma of coffee. I note the patrons – more leisurely than the crowd on foot – sipping and chatting, fiddling with their iPhones or staring absently into space. That’s the life, I tell myself.

The pizza joint next to the AMC theaters now has gluten-free pizza, and I promise myself I’ll give it a try sometime. You poor fools, I tsk-tsk to myself as I pass Johnny Rocket’s with the patrons shoveling cheeseburgers and downing milkshakes. You’ll regret it later. (I’ve turned into a nutrition snob.) On the southeast corner of Third and Arizona the people who brought you Chipotle are opening their third Shophouse Asian Kitchen here – the only others are in Washington DC. Yeah, it’s trendy like that here.

Tourists from Germany, Japan, Australia throng Third Street. They seem less casual than the Americans – more earnest and observational. Often it’s difficult to tell if someone is from another country or a person of non-US lineage living in Los Angeles, this city has become a kaleidoscope of nationalities. Whatever. The diversity inspires me and feeds my energy.



  1. Great blog John - the buzz can be felt through your prose! I visited withe the family as tourists a few years back and loved it.

    As for your tsk-tsk'ing the Johnny R patrons, I strangely miss a decent US style burger but there are none to be found in Cape Town.

    Keep the blogs coming
    Frank O'Neill

  2. Thanks, Frank. Sorry to hear no good burgers in Cape Town. Come back to SM and I'll treat!