By Steve Appleford
The girls next door must be lesbians, all seven of them, young and blonde in their soft college sweatshirts, somehow managing to ignore the loud drunk dudes in Room 3108. They are nice enough to these boys from Ohio, amused even, but they will not succumb. Not interested. Not even on this final night of binge drinking and reckless escape from the grim responsibilities waiting for them back at school. The annual Spring Break ritual of Panama City Beach, Florida, is where the sex and booze are supposed to flow cheap and easy for the thousands of acrobatic young men and women arriving every weekend for a desperate good time. So the boys in 3108 have watched with intense frustration as the girls next door spend their days laying on the beach or stumbling back to the hotel to drink heavily after dark, while still refusing to hook-up, feel-up, sex-up with anyone.
Some of the guys have developed a new motto: “Fuck Bitches.” It is both a sneer and a destination, a true double-entendre, depending on their luck with the ladies on a given night. Sex is not guaranteed, no matter what the leering video cameras of MTV and Girls Gone Wild! have promised them. But there is always beer, the crucial tonic and social lubricant, absorbed in truly epic quantities tonight and every night. Hotel rooms across the city are decorated with empty beer cans stacked into great walls and pyramids, standing as monuments to blind drunkenness and pointless endurance. Here at the Howard Johnson’s Hotel and party compound, empty beer cans float in the pool as a boozed-up hooligan climbs down from a second-floor balcony. A window above him is lined with hard liquor bottles, and small rooms all over the hotel overflow with parties fueled on beer, drugs and cigarettes, mingling students from America’s finest schools and its most obscure universities.
Room 3108 has enjoyed the occasional female guests passing in and out tonight, but this is a mostly male gathering. At least 23 of them are crowded inside a room that is about the size of a prison cell. Most of the furniture is stacked against a wall. A portable George Foreman Grill sits in the corner, ready for quick meals and protein. And dresser drawers are filled with supplies: condoms, shoes, balloons, cigarettes, beads, B12 vitamins to fight the inevitable hangovers, allowing these boys to wake up drunk and anxious for more abuse.
Standing on a bed is Brad George, a 20-year-old bouncer from Youngstown, Ohio. His head is shaved, “Slim” is tattooed onto a burly shoulder. The thick plastic tube in his mouth leads to a funnel in the hands of his brother and friends, who pour in three cans of delicious Natural Light beer for instant consumption.
It goes down fast, as everyone shouts: “Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!”
They each take turns at the funnel, sending icy brew into the beer bong as an old Guns N’ Roses CD of “Paradise City” spins on the boombox. All of them wear black wrist-bands required by the hotel for guests older than 21 and legally allowed to drink, but there is plenty of underage boozing here tonight. (Brad has a fake ID that says he is 23.) They are also taking a break from the $25 cover-charge at the clubs down on the strip, looking instead to do their drinking all night at the hotel, stumbling from room to room, as always meeting people on the balconies, in the parking lot, by the ice machine. In the last week, they’ve managed to spend just $700 between them, a small fortune for humble college students looking for a cheap good time in Panama City. And in the morning they will be gone, on the road back to Ohio and their classes on computer programming and high finance after tomorrow’s 8 a.m. check-out time, making room for the next round of fresh Spring Breakers.
Brad has had some luck with the ladies these last couple of nights over at Harpoon Harry’s down on the strip. He was at the bar maybe five minutes one night when a girl called him the sexiest man alive and offered to make-out, right then and there. Fuck yeah. And she followed him around the rest of the night, even into the men’s bathroom, as Brad’s friend demonstrates with a quick look at his digital camera. There on the rear screen is a glimpse of Brad’s face buried in the breasts of some anonymous girl. There are 40 more like it. (“Brad made out with the most bitches!”) The pictures are a common souvenir from Spring Break 2003: Women lifting their tops, dropping their thongs, kissing or licking each other, usually for nothing more than a string of plastic Mardi Gras beads, exposing themselves to the digital snapshot cameras of strangers, from there to be shared with friends back home or scattered to the infinite of the World Wide Web.
The girls in the next room will not be found there. Meghan, 19, did kiss a lot of guys in Panama City last year, all of them brief, anonymous, lusty encounters, but no nudity, no sex. This time she has a boyfriend back home in Virginia, and he’s already not happy about this return trip into the Redneck Riviera, where it is not unusual or even discouraged for a quiet coed to find herself at a nightclub drunk and grinding like a stripper for 2,000 hooting young men. Not Meghan, a speech pathology and art history major at James Madison University.
She has done nothing but drink and sunbathe and drink again, interrupted only when hotel security confiscated her room’s supply of hard liquor. Eight bottles. She and her friends are all underage, and a sloppy, drunken scheme to change their color-coded wrist-bands with a permanent marker convinced no one. But they were already drunk, and some chivalrous young men quickly re-supplied them, so now their room is again scattered with empty and half-empty bottles of plain-wrap vodka and cheap Aristocrat Gin. A copy of Cosmopolitan magazine sits nearby, along with cans of Campbell’s soup and the two small turtles bought today in town and named for two of the girls. All of them face a long drive back to the dorms at JMU 800 miles away in the morning. They will party only until 3 a.m.
Meghan reclines in the bed with Rebecca, Whitney and Jenny, beginning their final night in Panama City slowly. “There’s a lot of obnoxious boys,” Meghan says, her voice not angry but relaxed, a little weary. “When you go to the club you get groped. Then you get thrown-up on at the bikini contest. We see a lot of boobs. There will be circles of people, and inside girls are dancing and about ready to show for beads and stuff, and guys will literally run to the beach to see it. Kind of pathetic in a way.”
Caligula would have understood. The drink, the sex, the desperate frenzy of it all. Spring Break is a festival of sun and sin, where young high school and college escapees wash up on the beaches of Florida like thousands of breeding salmon. For some it’s a final binge of intense irresponsibility before graduation and a life-sentence to the daily paycheck grind. Look closely and you will see the future, tomorrow’s lawyers and chiropractors, would-be psychologists and TV commentators, a policeman’s daughter, all here for one more giddy dance along the edge. No longer kids, not quite adults, and some away from home for the first time, trashing hotel rooms for no reason at all, living like rock stars for a week amid oceans of cheap beer, geysers of vomit and young casualties everywhere.
It is an old tradition, not at all limited to this particular stretch of white sands and old resort hotels. There are foam parties in Cancun and Baja, wet T-shirts in Jamaica and South Padre Island, Texas, beer and hard liquor everywhere, helping another generation shed whatever innocence might be left. In the ’80s, Palm Springs became notorious for televised images of rioting young men stripping the bikinis off girls at mid-day, right on main street, before a police crackdown and showbiz Mayor Sonny Bono succeeded in banning the thong, finally sending serious Spring Breakers elsewhere. And they must always go somewhere in March, to celebrate and ignore the high holy days of Easter, to escape the pressures of school and the impending future. A first date can end in the shower with a temporary friend or tan and blotto in the back of a squad car. The fun never stops.
Panama City Beach is nestled in the swampy panhandle of Northwest Florida, once known as the Redneck Riviera, right on the Gulf of Mexico. The Confederate Flag still waves from the back of the occasional pickup truck here, can be seen in a few apartment windows or painted onto a custom T-shirt for sale at Wal-Mart. A last stand for the old ways. No one seems to care. It is a city of just 7,000 permanent residents, living along 27 miles of beach that during Spring Break attract nearly 500,000 swarming young men and women in urgent need of extreme pleasure. Panama City Beach police make 60 percent of annual arrests during March, the high-tide month for Spring Break, when a good 75,000 kids are in town on any given night. Fights, theft, evictions. City fathers have made some moves to clean up the darker implications of this hedonistic migration, but local businesses still fund a nearly half-million-dollar ad campaign to keep them coming, in 2002 even boasting of cheap alcohol and “booze cruises,” delivering about a third of the town’s annual economy in a single month.
On the beaches in March, the occasional couple with a small child can be seen strolling the white sands, looking lost, out of place, in some kind of unspecified danger. But soon they are gone. Offshore, there is swimming and boating and para-sailing, among other wholesome athletic pastimes, but most of the action is on the beach. It is where young women are held upside-down by their ankles and thighs by grunting young men for gravity defying keg-stands, where a drinker can demonstrate the amount of beer that can be inhaled into his or her body before it comes streaming back out the nostrils. Tossing beer kegs heavily across the beach is a sport for the muscled and macho, though most kegs remain buried in the sand, away from the view of cops, since kegs are illegal on the beach. It is where a heavy dude called Kiwi is sloppy drunk in a grass skirt and a bikini top made of two seashells strapped tight against his chest, as he stomps on the beach, moaning, “Keee-weee! Keee-weee! Keee-weee!”
Girls wear bikinis and shades while guys adorn their bare chests with puca shells and plastic Mardi Gras beads, careful to wear their baggies low, revealing the upper strap of their brand-name underwear: Jockey, Joe Boxer, Tommy Hilfiger, Ambercrombie & Fitch, labels too important to leave hidden. One must always represent. So must corporate America.
Right on the beach is a bikini contest on a small wooden stage, where young women in bathing suits take their turns beneath a banner reading “U.S. Smokeless Tobacco.” Some dude on the sand is having his head lathered up and shaved as women step up to dance to anonymous breakbeats, the true competitors shaking that ass and top onstage hard, except for those who don’t, and they are rewarded with silence from the testosterone crowd. Until the inevitable yell: “Show your titties!”
On a more elaborate stage nearby, two hosts invite up Spring Breakers to spin a carnival wheel, which offers a variety of challenges for some lucky guy or girl: “Kiss a guy,” “Get licked,” “Suck big toe,” “semi-naked.” Up onstage now is Alicia Wichner, 19, all the way from Springfield, Ohio. She is a little blonde chick in a flowery bikini, somehow dragged up onstage to judge a kissing contest: meaning that she is on her tip-toes to kiss the first of five contestants, a young black man with a smile on his face. “He’s got big lips!” she says happily. “My boyfriend would be so mad by now. He doesn’t get here until Monday.”
It is now that one of the hosts feels the time is right to once again lead the daily mantra of Spring Breakers everywhere. “You know, what happens in Panama City,” he begins, and he’s then joined by the entire crowd, “stays in Panama City!”
It is a policy and a prayer, a hope for the future, chanted with a drunken wink as your host drips choco syrup and whipped cream on your near-naked body. And your best bud gets it all on camera as the host declares into the microphone, “Keep in mind, this is for Verizon Wireless!”
Enter the foam pit at your own risk. This is what they tell you, printed in bold letters right above the sudsy dancefloor, where boys and girls are getting right down on it, dancing to the hits of the moment, rubbing sloppily against one another. The risks involved depend on your point of view. The chemical content of the foam is perhaps uncertain after several hours of horny dudes and sloshed chicks. And the inevitable groping is either a calculated risk or the whole point.
This is Friday night at Club La Vela, where the downstairs sports bar doubles as the weekly foam pit for young Spring Breakers loaded on booze: squealing, hooting, screaming, panting, giggling, with no immediate plans for this precious week in Panama City beyond laying out, partying every night, and maybe hooking up with a convenient body of the opposite sex. On the TV by the bar, ESPN is broadcasting a poker tournament among weird card sharps at Binions in Las Vegas. No one watches.
One girl eyes the foam from the bar. She is a 19-year-old communications major from North Carolina. She wants to be a TV news anchor. She steps into the foam. “I got six other girls here! They’ll protect me!”
Not everyone is so happy. “Coming here tells me there are fucking stupid-ass whores all over the United States. And I don’t want to touch any of them,” says Craig Platt, a scowling blond in a “Texas Greeks” T-shirt. His friend, Eric Knaver, 22, is a tall Texan with spent bottle caps folded over the brim of his cowboy hat, stepping from the foam with great sudsy muttonchops riding up his face from the layers of beads around his neck. It gives him the appearance of an elegant bluegrass crooner. He is a junior studying finance at Texas A&M. He says, “Yesterday was my fucking birthday, man.”
A week ago, Knaver and his three buddies drove all night from Houston to Panama City, slept a few hours, started partying. He is a sinner, a possibly collapsed Catholic among thousands of vacationing hedonists. But whenever Knaver attempts to light a cigarette, Platt grabs it from his mouth, shouting, “Lent! I’m holding you true, asshole!”
Over at the bar, young Pete Wilson, 21, is not concerned about the foam. He is sipping a drink, still in awe of the epic scene back at his hotel earlier this afternoon, when all Spring Break fantasies and fears collided into a dazzling whole. He has come from the single-digit climes of Rochester, New York, for this, and has arrived at a new appreciation for the barter value of cheap beer, which was enough to entice two young ladies back to his room by the beach. Sex was immediate. “I have experienced things down here that I have never seen before,” Wilson says, still in disbelief, his hair bright red, short and curly. “You walk into a room and you see a girl naked and she’s hooking up with you, a boy of yours, and then another kid behind her. I mean, she’s going crazy. You don’t walk into things like that when you’re in New York. I’m seeing a bitch ass-naked, giving my buddy the nastiest blow job I’ve ever seen in my life. And my other buddy’s strapping a fuckin’ rubber on and is about to stick it right in her fucking cooch, man. She had a friend, too. We brought both of them back, and they were just freakin’. They were spilling beer on my buddy and licking it off his chest. It was absolutely nuts. They were from Mississippi and shit. I couldn’t even tell you their names if I wanted to. I don’t even know. This place is crazy. This was Saturday afternoon.”
This is the best part: One of Pete’s pals couldn’t get it up. Whiskey dick! The thing was useless, soaked with booze and anxiety, a total waste. So as the girls are leaving, he yells out the window: “Whores! Whores!” They didn’t seem to notice. Or care. Because later that same night, Pete and his friends were back at La Vela and those same chicks were there and acting damn friendly. Soon enough, they were coming back to the hotel again, gladly trading sex for beer. And this is only Pete’s second night in town.
This morning, he and his pals picked up three new cases of Old Milwaukee and two cases if Busch Lite at the Wal-Mart, which rests at the hub of Spring Break society in Panama City. It is where all visitors must pass, where suitcases of Budweiser (only $15.17!) are stacked to the ceiling, and deliverymen in gray Bud shirts are wheeling in new supplies a few times a day. The year before, a quarter-million cases of Anheiser-Busch were delivered to the Wal-Mart store in March alone. A thousand more arrive every night. That keeps the parking lot crowded with cars and pickups and motorhomes all day, as Breakers stock up on kegs and cans, wine coolers and funnels, beads and bad T-shirts, surfing across the asphalt to their cars with full shopping carts.
Then, after they have been drunk and vomited on the beach, or partied and screwed at the hotel, many return to the big clubs. To Hammerhead Fred’s or Spinnaker’s or back to La Vela, which still claims to be the largest club in the world, proudly displaying a big fading MTV sign above the entrance from when the network paraded bikini girls and drooling guys on camera in the ’90s.
Club La Vela is a hedonist’s paradise, with a daily schedule of girls in bikini’s and soaked T-shirts, and a DJ blasting the season’s theme, sung by Khia against an ominous frenetic beat, and enjoying endless rotation on this throbbing pool deck: “Suck this pussy just like you should/My Neck, my back/Lick my pussy and my crack.”
Every day is the same. It is formula. The host, a grinning muscleman and former male dancer in shorts and wraparound shades, stirs up the testosterone for the daily bikini and wet T-shirt contests. Girls and guys will grind and rub and shake their bodies on command and hump the stage while surrounded by several hundred cheering hooting whistling Beakers sucking down beers and cigarettes and bucket-size fruity concoctions of hard hooch that go down real easy. Nudity is not allowed, though anything close to it is absolutely encouraged, right up to the limits of the law. So your host bellows into the microphone: “Guys, don’t show anything because even a small one will get us in trouble,” just as he begins the daily parade of perfect and imperfect young bodies onto the small stage. “We are here to insure that you all have the best possible time that you can! And right now it is time to start the WET AND WILD WET T-SHIRT CONTEST! All the guys, if you want to, get in the water and come up around the pool deck right now. The closer you get the more fun you’re gonna have! Are you ready?! Contestant number one in the wet T-shirt is Ruth. Come on up, Ruth! Make some noise!”
Ruth shakes it hard, and soon she stands before the host, her arms stretched out above her, full young breasts heaving below a ripped T-shirt, as the water hose sprays the fabric moist and snug against her skin, nipples hardening and clearly visible. She shakes it some more and the audience cheers crazily, in lust and excitement. Contestants who drift too close to the crowd get pawed by the guys, who are whooping it up. And on a balcony above the pool, a woman leans back over the railing as her shirtless boyfriend of the hour squeezes her breasts beneath a black bikini top, right there beside banners for Chrysler and the U.S. Army, for Arrid Total deodorant and Nair For Men.
Your host once again announces the girls for the finale and calls for “audience response voting” – Lana! (polite cheers), Kristen! (louder), Britney! (polite hooting), Kelly! (more of the same), Tish! (a little louder), Amanda! (big cheers), Ashley! (bigger still, and all for a $25 bar tab for third place, $50 for second, and admission that night into the fabulous La Vela VIP room for the top prize). The winner hardly matters and is immediately forgotten. The hunt continues, for the next thrill or glimpse of skin, with no clear rules or boundaries anywhere. And none desired.
The nightly journey to sex, drink and dementia must always pass Front Beach Road, where Breakers spend quality time cruising for dates and thrills. Cars with plates from across the South and all the way up to New England roll slowly down the two-lane boulevard, kids running between moving cars, alongside, hopping onto tailgates. Hot-rodded imports roar for the few feet between cars. A local cruiser blasts “Stairway to Heaven” from his Pontiac, drifting past motels and strip clubs and gift shops selling piercings and T-shirts (“five for $5”). A car filled with girls stops suddenly, freezing traffic behind, and is immediately swarmed by guys, rows of beads across their chests, ready for barter in the skin trade. A police squad car pulls over a pick-up with 11 kids in back, flashing the bright blue lights.
Local men from the ghetto across the bridge watch the street traffic from a Burger King parking lot. One of them has his two pit bulls on chains, his ’76 Impala blasting the newest hip-hop hits. Robert is 26, his hair braided tight, watching the scenery pass by and still talking about the few crazy ones at the big hotels nearby who don’t make it back home, all the “bitches jumping off the building, thinking they could fly. It happens every year.”
One busy stop along the strip is the Beach Package Store, self-proclaimed “Spring Break Headquarters – ATM Inside.” A crowd of locals in their 30s drink Miller Lite and icy shots of Jagermeister. Girls in shorts and halter tops stroll inside for supplies as “Freebird” plays on the stereo. Above the cash register and rows of hard liquor is a TV with the sound off, but a female news anchor stares grimly into the camera, as the headlines “Student Drinking” and “Women Gone Wild” flash above her.
Outside, Christians hand out roses, just five young cadets from the Maryland Naval Academy, down South to spread salvation at Spring Break. A bus filled with 66 of them traveled to Panama City for this. They are among nearly 3,500 Christians passing through Panama City during Spring Break each year, preaching an alternative to drink and debauchery. Much like Bobbie Watson of St. Louis, a 19-year-old stalking the beaches and sipping nothing heavier than Pepsi and Mountain Dew. “I used to drink,” he says. “I was a big partier in high school. If I hadn’t been saved by Christ, I’d probably be here doing the complete opposite. It just doesn’t seem like the kind of life I like anymore.”
The end will come, as it always does. Several of the old hotels are already closed, fenced off, ready for demolition. Even some of the bigger buildings have been knocked down, making room for condos and a more affluent clientele, closed forever to future Spring Breakers. Last year’s party spot is this year’s rubble. The ruins stretch out west along the sand. At the old Shalimar, with a sign that still promises a “heated pool,” all that remains is a jagged shell, its west wing ripped open. The few remaining rooms are scraped clean, down to the bare brick and concrete, as local scavengers load pickup trucks with old fixtures and aqua-colored doors.
Spring Break may one day abandon Panama City, just as it did to Fort Lauderdale (after peaking with 350,000 visitors in 1985) or Daytona Beach (which banned thongs), both of them Florida beach communities turning away student debauchery for a more sedate family constituency. Even in Panama City, which remains the largest draw for starving college kids anywhere, the crowds are beginning to shrink, and what’s left is the target of intense competition between clubs and promoters, bars and restaurants, gift shops and tattoo parlors. Longtime promoters can see it already, as rival events now occur at the same time on the same days, ensuring that virtually all fail to hit that legendary massive payday.
It will take time for the tide of college students to finally turn elsewhere, as even the town of Panama City Beach is at odds with itself, embracing the culture and profit of Spring Break while hoping to shift the tone away from wet T-shirts and unlimited drinking. It hardly matters in the end. The excesses of March are as ancient as the Greeks and Romans, as old Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello. And not everyone outgrows it. The need to escape is profound and eternal, regardless of the location of your blackout or the size of the party. Even a small one will get you into trouble.
From Spring Broke: Photographs by Nathaniel Welch. Essay by Steve Appleford. Introduction by Evan Wright, powerHouse Books, 2004.