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WESTSIDE / COVER STORY : A Lifestyle Worth Its Salt : People Who Can't Be Far From the Sea Arrange It So That They'll Always Have Sand in Their Toes

June 22, 1995|TOM JENNINGS | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Frankie Garrett leans back in the director's chair outside his hair salon, takes a swig of cold beer, breathes in a long drag of sea air and smiles at a woman in a sun dress walking by.

"As long as the sun is shining and I'm within 500 yards of the beach, life is good," said Garrett, the well-tanned co-owner of Bangs, a Santa Monica hair salon on Main Street, a short two blocks from his beloved Pacific Ocean. "Everything that we need is right here."

While the majority of Southern Californians make their pilgrimage to area beaches during the warm summer months, Garrett and others like him live year-round a life that's more a Midwest fantasy than reality for most Angelenos.

They work as lifeguards, scuba divers, parking attendants--anything to keep them a stone's throw from the sand. They don't have much money, especially by L.A. standards. They don't own the million-dollar beachside homes or have $200 dinners at Shutters at the Beach hotel. Instead, they live in small, rent-controlled apartments or modest homes they built themselves.

They don't really care if they're missing out on the urban scene--after all, that's what they're trying to escape. Instead, they trade bigger homes and apartments inland for something that everyone wants, but few people are willing to sacrifice to get--beach access, all the time.

"Our freeway is the beach and our boss is the ocean spray," said Garrett, who rents an apartment two blocks from his shop. "We don't go east of Lincoln Boulevard, nunca , never. That side of the world doesn't exist for us. We live here, we shop here, we work here and, God willing, we'll die here. Life began at the ocean; that's where life should be."

But Garrett, who admits to being "over 30," said he and others like him are "the last of a dying breed." For 10 years, he and his partner, Avidis Jessippe, have operated their shop. They open every day at what he calls "Gary Cooper time"--high noon. They sit in the sun, clip some hair, take bike rides, clip some hair, walk to the beach, then drink some beer.

"People are always walking by and telling us they wish they had our lifestyle, but few people are cut out for this," said Garrett, who sports a salt-and-pepper ponytail, a mustache and leathery tanned skin. "The men envy us because we have freedom. The women want to hang with us because we're fun and we're tanned. I'm the quarterback of sunbathers, baby. Nobody can tell me I'm wrong."

Jon Johnston, a professor of sociology, anthropology and social psychology at Pepperdine University in Malibu, is an avid beach-goer who has speculated why some people have a mystical attraction to water that forces them to seek out the ocean at all costs.

"The sea symbolically represents new beginnings," said Johnston, who has been at Pepperdine for 20 years. "You can sit there and look at the waves, imagine faraway places and wonder what's on the other side. You could be sitting in Laguna Beach or Waikiki and see the same thing--blue."

Living in a beach state of mind can be a release for people on "psychic overload," he said.

"People have several choices when modern life gets to be too much," Johnston said. "One choice is to get angry and frustrated. That's how you get people like these postal workers coming to work and shooting their fellow employees.

"But another, more reasonable choice is to disengage, to find a place where it's always beautiful, even if they have to sacrifice a lot to be there," he said. "People used to criticize the poor for buying Cadillacs. But for the poor, that car was the one thing they could be proud of. It's the same with people who live the beach lifestyle. They may not have a lot, but look what's outside their front door."

Jefferson Wagner, 42, decided 20 years ago that he would combine his love of the ocean with a way to make a living. He opened a surfing shop in Malibu and created a legend for himself. He's known as "Zuma Jay."

"I did a circumnavigation of the globe in the early 1970s and decided that I could never be far from the water," said Wagner, who can see waves from his modest Malibu home. "I don't have a Ferrari or a Mercedes but I've got the sand, and that's all I want--my toes in the sand."

What drives these people to seek out such prime location isn't a high-priced address. Instead, Wagner said, it's the ability to live a more relaxed life, with fewer cares and worries.

"The only law out here for me is the tides, the law of high tide and low tide," he said. "In the winter, when there are fewer people around, you can wander down on the sand and be the only person for miles. It's a humbling experience, but it's also freeing. You can't get any more in touch with nature."

Wagner is sharing his love of the beach with his 3-year-old daughter.

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