After arriving in Galveston amid tornado watches under swirling end-of-days skies, and enduring downpour after downpour throughout a long Sunday afternoon and night, on Monday afternoon, it looked like photographer Daniel Kramer and I had at last found the Island's Spring Break.
We were on East Beach, long the scene of the Island's most debauched March-time frolics and the only beach on which alcohol is condoned, if not tacitly ignored by the police. There were three couples there, recently-graduated Aggies from Conroe and Bellville and other small towns, nipping on cans of Bud Lite and Coors Lite, playing a spirited game of beach volleyball without a net.
SLIDESHOW: Searching for Spring Break on the Beaches of Galveston
SIDEBAR: In Search of Spring Break: Then and Now
BLOG POST: Cover Story: In Search of Spring Break on Galveston Island
Nearby, some other guys were in a truck, driving a buddy toward medical attention — he had a two-inch shard of gafftop-catfish spine stuck in the bottom of his foot, which was starting to swell as it filled with evil trash-fish poison.
And there was the Mud Man. I had seen him minutes before walking away from the beach toward the dunes with a woman by his side. Suddenly the man collapsed in a tidal pool on the rain-sodden beach. As the man literally wallowed in this shallow, the woman walked on without so much as a single look back. The man grabbed mighty handfuls of sand and rubbed them into his hair and chest. "I am the mud man!" he shouted to no one in particular.
Here it was, at last, the real deal: sodden stupidity and freewheeling fun in what was going to have to pass for the sun. For the past 24 hours, we'd been seeking real-live college people killing their brain cells in the sand and on The Strand. In all our searches from one end of the Island to the other, from beyond Jamaica Beach to East and back twice, and into The Strand District more times than we could remember, we hadn't yet seen Mud Man's type in his natural habitat.
We had seen hordes of wholesome, well-padded families from places like Garland, Cedar Park, and Huntsville enjoying trading off sandcastle and seagull reveries in the afternoon with fried-fish feasts and massive ice cream cones on The Strand by night. (While Galveston's visitors were clean-living and upright, we found the locals to be another story, but more on that later.)
Where were the fireside beach soirees and teetering-on-the-brink-of-disaster beach-house deck parties of my misspent youth? Where the teenaged riots in Menard Park, the 97 Rock- and KLOL-sponsored megabashes of the 1980s and early '90s? Where were the beaches awash in the thrum and hiss of hip-hop drum tracks billowing out of Blazers and Broncos, the raucous cries greeting the flash of bikini breasts, the couples making out in the rolling greenish-brown surf?
My God, what hath the modern travel industry, social networking, and bazillionaire amusements / restaurants / cheeze merchant Tilman Fertitta wrought upon the sun-and-sin capital of my youth?
Only Mud Man stood in opposition to the last three decades of Landry-fication.
Kramer asked him where the girls were, because we knew Mud Man would know.
"Over there," he slurred, pointing a brown finger vaguely to the west. "Unless I ran 'em all the way off the beach."
My man...We knew you'd lead us to the promised land.
And sure enough, there were about a dozen where he had pointed, lounging on beach towels in their bikinis amid coolers. At last, here was a concentrated pocket of Spring Break, a bevy of bathing beauties come to town in search of Gulf Breeze-scented hedonism.
Not so much. As it happened, they'd come down from way up north on a Habitat for Humanity project, rebuilding homes for the poor in Beaumont. This was a day-trip to the beach for them. I was flabbergasted. I'd only heard of such altruistic youths before, and here were some in the flesh. While I was still trying to process that nugget of information, another added that they were students at UConn, which I initially heard as Yukon. And really, had they actually come from those forbidding glacier-streaked, aurora borealis-illuminated, gold-rich, grizzly-patrolled mountains, I would have been scarcely more surprised.
And as you got closer, we could see that despite the fact they had braved a near-flood to come to permissive East Beach, all of them, to a woman, were drinking bottled water. These were not sex-crazed hardbodies but secular missionaries. I thanked them for their service — sincerely — and told Kramer we could wrap the shoot.
And 24 hours before, despite awful weather, we'd had high hopes.
Our arrival in town Sunday afternoon was more doom-laden than I'd experienced in 40-plus years of going to the Island. The vista of the bay from the Causeway looked like something out of a stormchaser video, and after checking in to the Hilton on the Seawall, as we watched the "Local on the 8's" forecast on The Weather Channel, the wind lashed our windows. The national radar map showed a line of hellafied storms extending all the way from Iowa down to, and just barely through, Galveston Island. "What a bummer for the Spring Breakers!" passive-aggressively chortled one of those cleavage-exposing mean girls TWC is well-known for hiring as anchors. A bummer indeed.
In a lull between squalls, Kramer and I made a dash for provisions at the nearby Kroger. As we were leaving, I saw two young Italian women — exchange students, most likely — eyeing the dark gulf and wind-whipped rains from their refuge near the Kroger's doorway. Though I speak no Italian, I got a distinct "Why didn't we go home for Spring Break?" vibe from their muttered conversation and knitted brows.
After an hour or two more back at the hotel, during which Kramer and I concocted a possible contingency plan for an improvised photo-essay feature on the Hilton and its employees, the rains relented just enough for us to make a mad dash for the Strand district.
I checked in at the Hendley Market to get the low-down, and the always-friendly and knowledgeable proprietor told us of some shenanigans we could not afford to miss.
These came in the form of Barcycle, a local, Irish-themed, two-wheeled pub crawl. Each year for the past ten, on the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day, local young professionals and service industry workers don sparklingly electric emerald green attire, hop on their similarly-adorned beach cruisers and Schwinns at noon, ride amid The Strand District's Gilded Age architectural splendor from downtown bar to downtown bar and proceed, as one bartender told us, to "get tore up from the floor up" until along about sundown.
We caught up with this slow-motion death race in Saengerfest Park in the Strand area about four on that dismal Sunday afternoon, and already by then, more than a few of the riders could hardly stand up, much less pedal their green tinsel-festooned cruisers. I watched as a young glassy-eyed blond with pigtails keeled over twice in trying to navigate a thankfully empty parking lot. Someone else wiped out on Galveston's defunct trolley tracks and just left his bike there, where it sat abandoned for ten long minutes.
Beer was flying, bottles were breaking on concrete sidewalks and barroom floors, couples were making out on benches, and if it was puking you sought, you were in the right place. Kramer also spied a bearded young man pissing on the wooden doorway of a venerable Victorian warehouse. A young couple was having a teary argument right in the middle of a public square. In short, this was a daylight urban Bacchanal of the sort you don't often see this side of Carnival in New Orleans.
Will Wright, a Galveston graphic designer, was dressed not in green but in gold. He explained that he was not just a leprechaun but also the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, and as it had finally sort of stopped raining by this time, it felt appropriate talking to him right then. (Also, though he had imbibed a healthy amount, he was sober enough to conduct a lucid conversation.) He explained some of the tradition, notably, that it was held the Sunday before St. Patrick's Day as a sort of mindfuck for the tourists and other square folks. "We like people to see us all in our green and go 'Whoa, did we miss St. Patrick's Day?" he said.
By about dark, Barcycle was started to fray around the edges. It looked like a MASH unit: skinned knees, bruised elbows, a scraped chin here and there. What had once been a tightly-contained squadron of cyclists leaving on command to head to the next watering hole had frayed. Pockets of them were scattered from the Press Box to Murphy's to the Wizzard, quite likely the finest and friendliest downtown Galveston dive. There, the surviving cyclists were chomping down free trays of tequila Jell-O shots. (Those seeking folk authenticity should look no further: not only is Galveston rumored to be the birthplace of the margarita, but San Leon alt-newsman Gator Miller swears that the city was also the birthplace of the Jell-O shot. But that's another story.)
Before we took leave of Barcycle, a couple cornered me. The man looked me in the eye and with all the gravitas he could muster from beneath his shamrock-encrusted bowler hat, addressed me solemnly. "You must never write about this," he said, sincerity oozing from his hazel Celtic eyes. "This is ours. This is Galveston's. If Houston hears about it, it will be ruined." Sorry laddie...
After taking leave of this three-speed mayhem, the rest of Sunday was somewhat anticlimactic. We drove way out to the West End beaches seeking deck parties and campfires and found nothing but a serious car wreck in Jamaica Beach and flooded, wind-streaked emptiness on the shore. There was little more action downtown, or on the Seawall, and save for an encounter with a vaguely sinister little person named Fred who owns a hip-hip / R&B club downtown, and a zombie-like young man relieving himself on the front of the Seawall Kroger, little of interest was to be found.
Bright and early on Monday Kramer and I headed straight to East Beach. Again, I had very high hopes. After all, day one had not only been miserable, but it had also been Sunday: perhaps many of the wild Spring Breakers had yet to invade. Since it was still overcast and drizzly, and the town was enshrouded in a thin blanket of sea fog, I thought that while East Beach might not exactly be as warm yet, surely there would be some of the action we were seeking.
Umm, no. On the way down, a sinking feeling started to come over me, as Kramer and I had the highway to East Beach all to ourselves. On arriving at one of the entries to the beach park, my gloom deepened. A quasi-official-looking woman had parked her truck near the kiosk at the gateway, but hadn't even bothered to get out. Behind her, the beach was riven by freshwater rivulets, the sodden week's voluminous rainwater making its final dash across the sand and into the open gulf. But my assignment was not to document the water cycle. It was to find Spring Break. And it wasn't here. The beach was impassable. At that hour, there was nobody — NOBODY — there.
We turned around and Kramer flagged down a salt-crusted born-on-the-Island tow-truck driver. Kramer asked him where the action was. He told us there was more police scanner-chatter coming from the West End. We got back on the Seawall and zipped west.
And at the Seven Seas supermarket there was some excitement, though not what we were looking for. A Cintas box-truck had rear-ended a pick-up truck and then veered off through a restaurant parking lot, clipped a cook's Buick Regal, and smashed into the restaurant, where it came to rest almost on its side. But there was still no Spring Break action. (My question then and now: why was a truckful of legal documents being hauled through Jamaica Beach?)
"Y'all should head down to East Beach," an old-timer at the Seven Seas told us. He just laughed when I told him we'd just been told to come out here.
And so we headed back for The Strand instead. While Kramer lunched on a fancy ham sandwich at Eat Cetera, a chi-chi, very artsy deli/teahouse, I was out on the sidewalk, speaking to officer D. Sims of the Galveston police force. Sims was there with two ladies of a certain age and a well-dressed younger man who looked a bit like Dennis Quaid and seemed to be a big deal on the local arts scene. Sims told me Spring Break had been very quiet so far. "Galveston's tamed down quite a bit," he laughed, after I inquired about the wild Spring Breaks of my youth. (See "Then and Now.") "It's become more of a family destination."
And that's when it started to dawn on me. The Moody family, the owners of the Schlitterbahn, and more obnoxiously, Tilman Fertitta, had turned this place into a Gatlinburg-by-the-Sea, a sort of piecemeal Gulf Coast answer to Disneyland.
There are all those themed restaurants like Rainforest Café and dumbed-down seafood joints with children's menus, sippy-cups and crayons. And soon, very soon, Fertitta's masterpiece will be open to the public: on Memorial Day Weekend, his thousand-plus-foot, merry-go-round-, roller coaster- and Ferris wheel-encrusted Pleasure Pier will open to the public. And so Fertitta's corporate day-glo cotton candy vision of Galveston will be a step closer to utterly dominating this one-time island of piratical shadows and pastel-shaded debauchery.
That impression only hardened as we traversed The Strand that Monday afternoon. Everywhere we looked, we saw families, sometimes three generations of them. They were there with babies, toddlers, and most humorously, teenagers, some of whom were almost visibly attempting to break away from their parents.
The teenaged girls were the funniest, flipping their hair, sighing, rolling their eyes, checking their texts, broadcasting "I'm not really with him" and "Oh, God, get me out of here" in regards to their fathers, who followed two steps behind in gift-shop T-shirts bearing slogans like "DADD: Dads Against Daughters Dating." (I saw that very shirt twice in a single block borne by older dads of coquettish teens.)
Two frazzled but prosperous-looking fortysomething women from Georgetown near Austin were shepherding a half-dozen or so teenaged girls through the streets. After a single day in the beach house with all that pent-up teenaged energy, you could see the toll on the moms' faces. I asked the moms if they knew where the Spring Break craziness was and one of them said, "It's at the Walmart right now, buying beer."
Before we left The Strand, we were told by a woman who would know that not all of these parents were as well-behaved as we might think. At least not all the time.
Nicole, a heavily-inked late-twentysomething sidewalk tout for a Strand head shop / tattoos-and-piercing parlor, told us that come sundown, a great many of those parents would be chugging huge beers and margaritas, and not long after that, some of them would be slipping into her emporium for various types of needling.
She also shared the horrendous circumstances that had brought her to this station in life. Some years back she had moved from the Dallas area to rural Santa Fe, where she had fallen in love with a country boy who worked in a chemical plant. "I finally found my farm boy," she smiled. Two days after she sent out their wedding invitations, he fell over dead of a heart attack. There had been no warning signs. "It really sucks," she said. "He was a good man," she said, with the plain-spoken authority of a woman who had known many who were not. That had been a few months ago. She'd moved to the Island to forget, but to forget something more profound than the rigors of Chemistry 302 and US CIV 406.
We did bump into some Spring Breakers amid the hordes of families and the grieving Nicole. There were Katelyn O'Rourke and Katie Reese, two pretty college-aged girls from Pearland lunching on pizza and salad at Yaga's. They said they were just hoping that the weather would clear up. There were a trio of college kids — two Megans and a guy named Joey — who had driven all the way down here from Fargo, North Dakota. Kramer asked them how the 22-hour drive had gone. "It was awful," said one of the Megans. "Terrible weather all the way, it seemed like." Besides the weather, there had been little of note to break the monotony of that Great Plains-traversing Odyssey.
"There was a deer," said Joey. "I think that was in Iowa. Or maybe Nebraska."
And then there were two girls we'll call Becky and Alicia. Both 21, they were from the Fort Worth area, and one worked in an animal hospital, the other in a human one. I asked them why they had chosen Galveston for Spring Break.
"Florida was too expensive, and we were gonna go to Cancun, but we couldn't get our passports," said Alicia, a pig-tailed Latina with a beatific smile. "And we were just kinda sitting around up in Fort Worth and were like, we gotta get out of here, so we just drove down here."
They'd arrived on Saturday and by then had endured two straight days of rain. "Last night we thought we'd found The Strand, but it was really just some art walk," said Becky, a strawberry blonde with a mordant wit and Irish good looks. "So we walked...Through some art. It was pretty boring. And we tried to find East Beach but we couldn't get on it. My car would have drowned!"
Later that same night, Becky confessed that she had driven her car up on a curb. She wasn't a hundred percent certain that it really worked right anymore. "We're hoping to find a good car-shop before we leave," she said.
Earlier that day, Becky said she'd had margaritas enough to finally brave a dip in the gulf. "And now I've had frostbite all day," she added with a laugh. And what had they done during Sunday's torrential downpours?
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"Yesterday we were drunk at Moody Gardens," Alicia laughed. They said they had gotten there about 11 in the morning. "Our whole plan had been to sit on the beach and drink and do nothing," Becky said. "But it was raining. So we got drunk in our hotel room and then we went to Moody Gardens.
"Yeah, we saw the seals. It's the best thing ever when you're drunk," added Alicia.
"Basically, we're just down here getting drunk around old people," Becky continued. "And their grandkids. So if y'all find anything fun, let us know. Otherwise we're just gonna get drunk and walk around."