I'm sitting outside a beachside café in Los Angeles in the middle of an unexpected storm, yawning uncontrollably as I wait for a hangover-busting greasy breakfast. Luckily, I'm enclosed in one of those see-through plastic shelters cautious restaurateurs attach to their patios when they don't trust the local weather forecast.
Wiping the condensation from a grimy window, I can see impossibly slender palm trees swaying precariously overhead, a dog walker bent double against the wind as his frenzied mutt scampers among the waves and a wild-eyed man cycling past with a bulging sack of empty bottles, sporting glitter-covered boots and a fluttering red cape. Even at this damp, inhospitably early hour, Venice Beachremains the oddball capital of North America. After a spirited assault on the hash-brown-eating world record, I weave toward the door and launch myself into the wind as if parachuting from a plane. Since few locals are braving the tempest, I have most of Venice's broad, beachfront walkway to myself. Zipping up my Gore-Tex to strangulation level, I take the path of least resistance and allow the wind to blow me along like a discarded candy wrapper. The spiritual home of California's beatniks and dropouts, Venice has become increasingly commercial in recent years, with stores trading on the area's alternative provenance to sell more Che Guevara T-shirts. But it's always been the freaky locals that make the labyrinth of beachfront streets unique. While there are no bearded, tut-clas bouzouki players around today, several die-hard eccentrics are strutting their usual stuff. I pass a grim-faced transsexual in a silver tiara opening the shutters on a sex shop and a dogged fortune-teller who obviously predicted correctly: he's wearing a full wetsuit as he sits on a bench clutching his tarot cards with an iron grip. With my body tiring against the relentless buffeting, it soon feels like time to move on. Summoning an idling taxi parked near a Chinese massage parlour, I make for Beverly Hills, the antithesis of Venice's behomian, anything-goes mentality. Stepping out onto Wilshire Boulevard is like arriving in another country. Suspiciously, even the storm doesn't exist here, as if the expensive designer stores have paid off the weather gods. L.A.'s chi-chi shopping capital, this is where money talks loudly, persistently and with an annoying airhead superficiality. Peeling off my jacket in the now blazing sunshine, I stroll in the shadows of Neima Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, grandiose shopping cathedrals framed by faux-Victorian facades. Sashaying past the windows to check themselves out, their customers are manicured young women with unnatural tans, their perky, motionless breasts guarded by yappy lapdogs cradled like handbags - the kind of dogs that would roll satisfyingly along stormy Venice Beach like tumbleweeds. With a shopping budget these rich bitches - I'm talking about the canines, of course - would sneer at, I decide to save my spending money for an afternoon hair-of-the-dog drink in the lobby of hte nearby Beverly Hilton. More used to serving see-and-be-seen yuppies, the barman studiously avoids me: why waste precious time on a grubby back-packer when he could be brown-nosing high-tipping customers? When he finally slides over, I buy my G&T with a $100 bill to make him think I'm an eccentric millionaire who likes dressing down. He looks monetarily shocked, then rolls out an emergency ingratiating smile. Too late: no tip for you, pal. As he falls over himself to deliver two bowls of cashews, I plan my return to Venice Beach where the real nuts are much better company.