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THE PALM BEACH POST SUNDAY, MARCH 29, 1998 7D it, Jr-s 9 w I i 'VvV. ... taste nor bad aim will necessarily get you thrown off anyone's party list. III m to i B i 1 ill i iAM fw, " i i : i ? -, r Little more r 5than shadows - of Spring J Breaks past, -tbe small crowd JtfS : at the Elbo J&ERoom on Fort Lauderdale's gpeach doesn't : hint at the-gladness of the l 1970s. It is inevitable, I suppose, that I meet a girl who breaks my heart. i Tara, a junior majoring in elementary education, is drinking beer as she tells me she almost died of alcohol poisoning during her freshman year. "For hazing, we had to do shots blindfolded," she says. "After six shots, I took off the blindfold and just drank the whole bottle." Her blood alcohol level was more ? than four times the legal driving limit 1 when someone finally realized she needed to go to a hospital. She recovered in time to drive with friends from Kentucky to Florida on Spring Break. "There were four other girls, but the room wasn't crowded because we were, never all sleeping there at once," she says. "We'd go out every night and meet different guys and usually sleep in their rooms." Last year was different: She drove , down with three guys she met the day before. They were very nice, she said. They smoked marijuana all the way. This year, she came with her sister- these days, a bong is a contraption consisting of funnels and flexible tubing. They crimp fill the funnels with beer and guzzle The first to finish wins, but may not know it or two. is 4- :i v .... ' '" " " X , , , . ;1 r. Or t wind, which buffets me across the state and down the east coast. It's mid-morning when I get to town, hoping for a good, top-down look at the beach. But it's just too cold: mid-50s, and really shivery in the open. So I walk through some downtown stores instead and ask whether the crowd is building. The consensus: it'll be bigger than last year because the weather's worse in Panama City, but nothing like it used to be. Daytona reigned over Spring Break for most of the mid-1980s. Then, like Fort Lauderdale, it found more profit and fewer headaches in a more diversified tourism portfolio. But no one will mistake this for South Beach. Diversified here means NASCAR fans one week, bikers the next. The kids still come by the thousands anyway, but they have to share the beachside with old men playing boccie and be wary of stepping on toes in bars that warn, "No weapons, no colors, no attitudes." I walk the beach later, as the kids cruise past. Cruising is a ritual at every beach, but in Daytona it's done on the beach. For $5, you get to drive back and forth along a dozen miles of hard-packed sand all day. The shouting, wiggling and waving are otherwise undistinguished, except that lots of the hands hold beer cans and the Volusia County Beach Patrol is quick to explain why this is not a good idea. Traffic stops every few feet as yet another car is flagged over and another dozen cans are poured into the sand. Daytona doesn't allow drinking on the beach even if you're not in a car. No open containers on the streets, either. Walk out of a club with a beer in your hand and you may get a quick tour of the city's construction-trailer Spring Break jail. (You can get sprung by surrendering $53 of your get-home money; no court appearance necessary.) This place is a bit tougher on the kids than Panama City but still cuts them plenty of slack. A 19-year-old who is so drunk he stumbles into late-night traffic is hauled out of the street by a cop, who calls a taxi. "Yeah, he's underage and he's drunk, but the idea is to keep him safe," says officer Mike Oteri. A few blocks away, Sgt Stephen W. Szebo has just finished making the dub rounds with his brother, a state bf-verage 'ft) ,...-u" ' To kids the tubes, away. for a day pytona Beach is strict, but not heartless. When officer Mike Oteri finds this Spring Breaker stumbling into traffic, he calls a taxi instead of the patrol wagon. 'Less-cooperative revelers win a visit to the city's construction-trailer holding cells a few blocks from the beach, where pals can bail them out. :x 5j "Sorry, man. The hairline." ' The kids find this entertaining. I'm SJedged among a group from Michigan Jjate, between Andrew and Carolyn. An-3rew has a fresh, wide scab across his lt cheek.- - C t.3 agent. These kids are no real trouble, except for the ones who think they know the law better than he does. "Everybody's father's a judge," he says. He loves the Canadian kids. "They're taught that you're guilty until proven innocent" he says. "They see a cop, they're scared." Midnight in the rooftop lounge at the Best Western. Kate, an exercise science major from Miami University in Ohio is showing extraordinary school spirit and elasticity in the wet T-shirt contest. The presence of schoolmates in the audience helps seal her triumph by acclamation, but she might well have won without them. The boys seem enthralled by her energy and grace, not to mention the stud through her tongue. When I ask later why she entered the contest, she says only: "It was fun." So much fun, that all her friends are going to try. Amy is pleased to note that tomorrow will be her turn. I'm certain these girls must be moved by something greater than the $50 or $100 prize money, but no one I ask comes up with a better explanation than the Party Shark back in Panama City Beach: "You know how 45-year-old men act when they're away from home at a convention? These girls are no different." DAY 7: Daytona Beach I peek into lots of party rooms, but I don't smell marijuana anywhere. I wonder: Did this generation really learn to just say "No"? Several tell me that what they learned to say is, "Hey, get your own." Grass has become what cocaine was 20 years ago: an expensive indulgence shared in closed rooms by invitation only. Beer is the propellent of choice. The kids' ideal intoxicant would taste like Frosted Flakes, but they settle for light beer and they dilute anything stronger. I meet a kid who says he's drinking Southern Comfort and Gatorade. He is unable to answer further questions. "We don't know who he is," says one of the girls staying in the room. "1 ie showed up the other day and tried to pee in the closet I pulled him out of there, but he peed off the balcony .j On Spring Break. I learA, neither bad I J and three other girls. They'll all take care of each other, she says. And they all know to be careful. "Except last night I did something ., stupid," she says. "I took an open beer from a guy I didn't know." ; Tara acknowledges that she's heard the warnings about GHB and other drugs that men sometimes slip into drinks they offer women. "But I figured it was OK because he was older," she says. "I guess that was a pretty stupid thing to think. But I was already drunk." ; I decide it's time to sound like an old crank. i "Tara, you could have been hurt. You need to care more about yourself and use your head." "I know, I know," she says. And she excuses herself to get another beer. DAY 7 becomes DAY 8 The kids will have to get jiggy without me tonight. I'm beat. I fall asleep despite Surround Sound parties above and below. By the time the sun's up, I've got a. solid three, maybe four hours of snore time. I hit the road for home, top up all the way. A break from Spring Break We have a nice birthday dinner with Auntie Arp and Uncle Walt. I make the mistake of telling my wife what the Party Shark said about Richie Tarzian. This will not pass quickly. While I'm home resting, a 19-year-old from New York falls eight stories from a balcony at the Hobday Inn on Panama City Beach. He survives, landing on the thatched roof of the Tiki bar. Six days later, a 22-year-old from , Ohio dies after falling three stories off a balcony in Daytona Beach and crashing through a plexiglass roof. At least two others around the state are seriously , injured in similar falls. LAST STOP: Fort Lauderdale I briefly consider a trip to the Keys, where I hear the kids are having a blast But the longest drive I can stomach is to South Beach, where a handful of Spring Breakers stand out. They're the ones who aren't driving Hummers or Bim-mers. Finally, I swing north to Fort Lauderdale, where the shadows of Spring Breaks past tumble across the beach from the balcony of the Elbo Room bar. A half-dozen kids from the University of . Massachusetts are looking out toward the rolling surf. "This is really a beautiful place, isn't it?" asks Bob, sweeping his right hand out toward the ocean. That's the attraction now: Fort Lauderdale is a beautiful place. Beautiful shops, beautiful restaurants, a beautiful . beachfront that has been rid of the arcades and T-shirt shops that were its signature for so many years. This was, by far, America's favorite ' Spring Break destination from the 1960 premiere of Where The Boys Are until the early 1980s, when the city told the boys to go somewhere else. Truth is. Fort Lauderdale never really welcomed the kids warmly. Old timers resented their vulgarity. Business owners resented their penury. Only a handful of cops seemed to enjoy the annual opportunity for nightstick calibration. Everyone seems to be glad it's over with, although it will never really be over. Some kids still come because this is, after all. Fort Lauderdale, scene of ' their parents' (and maybe their grandparents') wild youth. So, here I am at the Elbo Room, Spring Break shrine, at a time of day and year when you once could not think about driving onto A1A, much less of finding a place to park. I got a space on the street a block from the beach. I walk a block or two north to the enormous, new Beach Place shopping mall and pay $4 for an iced coffee. There's no line and no waiting for a seat in the courtyard, where I lean back and watch the blue ocean fold itself neatly against the shore, over and over. Let the kids guzzle BuL This is my idea of Spring Break JJ "I have no idea at all how it hap-tjpfcned," he says. J. J I suggest that drinking to the point jthat one can't remember that sort of filing might be a problem, but Andrew j$assures me. "I'm not going to pass out tonight ; because I'm tripping," he says. "If you do I enough acid, it'll keep you up while you ; drink." j I 1 I thank him for the advice and turn to I chat with Carolyn. It's obvious from her appearance and manner that she's smart and sophisticated, a 20-year-old marketing major with enough poise and charm jthat she needed no fake ID to bamboozle James into serving her. .- So I'm curious: "What do you think of all these guys who scream at the girls all day?" The guys around the bar become hysterical. Carolyn turns red. So does her friend Melissa. It takes a few moments before I get the message. - "You mean, you two did that?" , They nod, and laugh. ' "We just thought it would be fun, and it was," Carolyn says. "For the first and last time," Melissa adds. "We were drinking and everyone eggs you on," Carolyn says. "It's harmless, as long as you're separated by all those balconies." Andrew is the only guy at the bar 'who isn't laughing. "You looked really beautiful," he says. ' Carolyn reaches in front of me to slap Jhis arm. "You saw that? You're not supposed to be looking at me! You're my friend!" ' ' ; I suggest that, boys being boys, Caro point. "Only dirty girls do it on Spring Break." DAY 4: Panama City Beach Overnight, the wind has blown one of the Tiki roofs into the Gulf, and there's a half-inch of water along the exposed corridor outside my room. I have to stand in a puddle as I wait for the elevator. My shoes haven't been dry since Friday. The bars close at 4 a.m., but kids are still coming in for hours after. I spot the Connecticut boys returning from the evening's hunt "How'd it go?" "Great," says Jason. "We went to a few clubs. We met lots of chicks." "And?" "Well, you know how the clubs are. You can't really talk to anyone. As soon as you offer to buy a girl a drink, she thinks you're coming on to her." "And?" "To be honest? We struck out" Even on a Sunday, Club La Vela at night is thunderous. Rock shaking the walls in one dance hall, hip-hop in the next Purple neon, silver strobes. Even in the rain, hundreds mill under the overhangs as hundreds more wait on line in the parking lot Now I get the club's slogan: "Party with thousands." At the bars, the ritual is eternal and affirming: guys buy drinks for girls who might if they're lucky, let them hang around long enough to buy more. I ask some girls if it bothers them to get hit on every few minutes. Nicole answered: "The guys follow us around like puppy dogs. We love it" DAY 5: Panama City Beach The radio announcer says many schools and businesses will be closed in the coming days because of floods. He goes on to offer advice about snakes and other hazards. I decide to leave before the rivers crest DAY 6: Daytona Beach I leave the rain behind, but not the1 lyn and Melissa ought to get used to ine 'kidding because they'll hear it from these guys for as long as they stay friends. I also wonder whether they worry about the signals they may have sent to others interested in more than a quick peek. "I don't care if they hit on us," Melissa says. "Nothing's going to happen." L Carolyn leans close to sharpen the - - L '