By Lena Lencek, 4/26/2002
I have two passions in life: beach and academia. I've been a professor longer than I care to admit, and I've loved the beach even longer. But I've never gotten around to combining the two until this spring, when, along with thousands of college kids, I headed south to Panama City Beach, Fla.
MC booming over music and noise: "Welcome. Welcome to Panama City Beach!"
Sure, I needed a break. But let's get real -- it's a little late in the game to stuff myself into a wild bikini. My interest in spring break is purely academic. I want to test the premise that the teenage beach is "a paradise of noble savages whose innocence is a shield against the cynicism, complacency and materialism of their elders."
Party Guy: "Oh man!" (howling, whistling) "...tell me you're not going down to The Zoo with all those teenagers!?"
The Zoo is a stretch of Front Beach Road that runs parallel to the Gulf of Mexico. It's 10:00 a.m. on Saturday morning and the traffic's moving at a crawl. I leave my car by the side of the road and chat up some college men from the Bronx.
Lena: What are you planning to do down here?
I admire the clarity of their agenda, and wish them luck. They'll need it -- all seven of them are staying in one room. It's hell for the housekeeping staff, but management encourages the "slumber party" motif because it keeps costs attractively low.
College Girl: "It was cheap. We're poor."
I follow a "pod" of coeds into the lobby of the Boardwalk Beach Resort. It looks like the staging area for disaster relief -- piles of luggage, sleeping bags, pillows and cardboard boxes bulging with junk food litter the floor. The line for the reception desk snakes past tables stacked with discount club cards and passes for open bars at nightclubs.
Girl: "Wherever we can get in for free, is good!"
Actually, the hotels are a lot like dorms --only noisier. Days are for hanging out at the beach, nights are for cramming -- not the academic, but the hedonistic kind. In fact, this is starting to look just like a topsy-turvy version of campus life. For the "Three 'R's'", substitute the "Three 'B's':"
Guy:"We're looking for beautiful women..."
Guy: "...I want to be out on the beach..."
West Point guy: "We're going to try to stay drunk the whole time."
Just a few yards into the sand, a group of boys fresh from Alabama is demonstrating the fine art of funneling. Funneling, I learn, means guzzling beer directly from a bong that's improvised from a gas can connected to a plastic tube.
Jake: "It can hold about three beers.
I can't keep my academic brain from registering that what I've just witnessed was an initiation, a rite-of-passage from the rat race of academic achievement to the simple, mindless pleasure that's supposed to be youth. It's time I hit the beach. I feel the need for a Hallmark moment. Call it a visual palate cleanser.
I've never seen finer, whiter sand -- miles of powdered quartz and granite, sparkling and perfect for setting off a deep tan. But no one's in the water, and no one's paying any attention to nature.
Coeds: "We're just cute girls. We're not trashy, just cute."It's dune-to-dune bodies. Gorgeous girls in bikinis and guys so good-looking you'd swear you had blundered into an Abercrombie & Fitch photo shoot. Bizarre haircuts, tattoos, buff bodies -- nothing less than an 8-pack.
Lena: "I notice you're all look really buff. Have you been preparing for this trip?"
It can be a cruel scene, though. This is where the physical "haves" are quickly sorted out from the "have nots." The only people wearing clothes are the ones with nothing to show off. Panama City Beach has no bathing suit police, and no rules against public displays of nudity.
Lena: "What's the 'hottest' thing that's happened down here?"
As far as I can tell, though, it's all watch, don't touch. Even with all that bare flesh, there's an atmosphere of innocence and, yes, good, clean fun: volley ball, tug-of-war, freeloading…
A short way down the beach, students swarm around a city of tents emblazoned with the logos of corporate sponsors. This is the freebie-area, where, among others, Coppertone, AT&T, Jeep and Sprite peddle the American dream.
Corporate rep: If you want to, you can get online, e-mail some people, so come on -- check us out here at the Dr. Pepper and café. We're open for you so you can be here."
Young corporate reps organize games and contests around the clock. Most of them, as far as I can tell, involve disrobing in public and simulating sex. I talk to a rep for Trojan condoms:
Rep. For Trojan condoms: "For those shirts, we'd have guys run to the water, get a mouthful of water, come running back, do ten pushups, then spit the water out. We'd call that 'Salt water recovery drill.'"
Did I mention that I had brought along my 15-year-old daughter, thinking she'd enjoy the scene? The poor kid's shell-shocked, not to mention mortified at being seen in my company. She parks herself on a lounge chair in the Sony Tent, the only person on 27 miles of beach reading a book.
The sense of déjà vu grows stronger by the moment. Quasi-nudity aside, spring break is feeling less like an escape from college than a riff on academia. The same registration drill, the same hectic schedule of activities -- only here, instead of running from class to class, it's running from club to club, scene to scene.
Announcer: "Ladies and gentlemen, the world-famous BIKINI contest!"
I run to a new scene, Club La Vela, a pulsating, vibrating mall of theme clubs, where, on any given day or night, you can groove on everything from hip-hop to bootie, techno trance to '70s disco.
MC: "Let me introduce myself. My name is Scott Lapardi. The last name is the name of the game."
The ground in front of the entrance is littered with cigarette butts and empty condom boxes. The woodwork reeks of stale beer and cloves. And inside, as 50,000 watts of turbo-sound concuss my brain, hundreds of real-life, ethnically diverse Barbies and Kens mill around a tropical swimming pool.
MC: Are you ready to PARTY????
The MC whips the crowd into a frenzy. Buckets of beer and spiked punch make the rounds. There's a lot of pelvic thrusting and extreme body contact. And, it's only 4:00 p.m. in the afternoon.
In the company of strangers, inhibitions melt like ice cubes in the sun.
Guy: "You know, you come and you let loose. Hopefully, you'll never see any of these people again -- hee hee."
With nightfall, the drinking and partying ratchet up several decibels. The clubs are wall-to-wall hormonal pandemonium. On the strip, traffic comes to a grinding stop as crowds stream around, and over and through, the cars like a raging flood. Everybody's lost the power of speech. The kids communicate in a rudimentary vocabulary of moose screams and mating calls.
In the morning, they'll have to hose down the hallways and dance floors, but for now, Panama City Beach is one giant, throbbing erogenous zone. I hustle my daughter off to bed, and lock her into our soundproof room.
Back on "The Strip", I talk to some locals.
Lena: "What's the mood?"
With so much de-compensation and de-sublimation going down, I wonder about the safety of the Spring Breakers. The Chamber of Commerce takes pride in creating a framework that lets kids have it both ways: wild AND safe. Since 1992, the authorities have practiced on over 1.5 million "Breakers" to help them finesse the line between fun and folly, abandon and abuse. But there is a dark side to the fun and games:
Ambulance siren sound starts up.
The gossip is that there's a very high rate of date rape, although officials will neither confirm, nor deny, any figure. They do, however, arrange for a triple strength police presence on the beach and on the strip. With so much action, I wonder, how do the locals cope?
Local: "You wanna know what I do? I run and hide. I avoid Panama City Beach, as if it's a plague all the time during spring break because I do not want to deal with the traffic jams, the headaches, or the 20,000 hormonally challenged drunk teenagers running around."
I couldn't agree more. It's 3:00 a.m.. Deafened, stinking of cigarettes and stale beer, I go looking for my car. I'm going to high-tail it out of this Eden of Adolescence and escape to my adult world of cynicism, complacency and materialism. By the side of the road, I stumble on some girls I'd met earlier in the day. They're getting ready to enter one of them in the karaoke contest at Spinnakers.
Jacqueline singing Britney Spears' "Not a Girl, Not yet a Woman" for karaoke contest: "I'm not a girl, giggle giggle, not yet a woman giggle All I need is time, A moment that is mine while I'm in between I'm not a girl Yeah."
I guess that about sums it up: Spring Break -- the ultimate "in between."
From Panama City Beach, Florida, I'm Lena Lencek for The Savvy Traveler.
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