Hand Painted Oils on Canvas, 2004
"Honestly, they can get you in Easthampton for wearing red shoes on a Thursday."
I was born in Virginia Beach and have lived here most of my life. I have this romanticized memory of Virginia Beach as a quaint seaside resort town that had a glamorous wartime life--German U-boats hanging out offshore, while the Dorseys and Sinatra entertained at the Beach Club--followed by a long slide into a more complicated and turbulent modern life.
But it was probably not that simple. Racial segregation was widespread until I was a teen. People who spoke out against the local political machine could found their businesses burned to the ground. And a huge military presence diluted the local population with so many people from other places that the local "culture," such as it was, was never as distinct as it is in many other Southern towns.
During high school and college I joined my friends in working in the local tourism industry. Most of the motels, hotels and restaurants were family-owned. Most were seasonal operations. We spent spring breaks scraping and painting outdoor furniture, cleaning pools, and doing all the other things necessary to get hotels ready for the summer season. We were bellhops, waiters, short order cooks, desk clerks, housekeepers and life guards. We arranged chairs and umbrellas on the beach for tips and sold ice cream along Atlantic Avenue at night. Whenever we could, we went to the beach to surf and to work on the tans that gave us the skin cancers that more than a few of us are spending our middle years getting rid of.
I always imagined my home town as a classier place than it was. Locals today complain about the hoards of young people from nearby cities clogging the sidewalks at night. But in my teens, it was rowdy sailors who prowled the resort strip, and Shore Patrol paddy wagons were stationed every few blocks.
Today, tourism is a year-round industry, owned by corporations and managed by professionals. I don't think local kids work in the resort any more. A lot of the workers are seasonal work visa holders from East Central Europe. A friend who used to be marketing director of a big theme park joked, "These kids from the former communist countries work well here because they're already accustomed to our style of management."
The visitors? They still come from big cities and small towns in search of sun, surf and fun. They're far more reflective of our diverse American population than they used to be, which seems to scare a lot of locals. Lots of them still go to the beach. But some appear far more interested in talking on their cells phones to their friends back in Brooklyn, Pittsburgh and Buffalo than they are in getting their toes into the Atlantic Ocean and letting the sun, surf, sand and salt water restore their bodies and souls.
I talked to a lady at the beach the other day who told me she and her husband drove here from Oklahoma, but that she didn't intend to actually go into the ocean. I tried to tell her how nothing can wring the tension out of your body and give you cause for a good night's rest like being knocked around by the waves. But she wasn't buying my line. Besides, she told me, they had to grab their things and get over to CBN to be in the audience for a taping of The 700 Club.