Tuesday, March 1, 2011

An Ethnography of Naples Beach Culture

Karen and I are visiting her parents in Naples, Florida. Tradition demands that a list be made of things we want to do because without being pressured into a detailed list of what you are going to do, you can’t possibly enjoy a vacation.

I grew up on beaches in Southern California. Naples’ beaches are somewhere between actual beaches and the wave pool at King’s Island, in that Naples has salt water and sand but the wave pools have waves. It’s like attending an Elvis impersonator concert: you can’t get the real thing so this is close enough. Therefore, going there and pretending I’m still 24 years old and this is a real ocean and a real beach is on MY list – but only mine.

KAREN: We have to make sure that John gets to go to the beach.
MOM: Of course, John wants to go to the beach so we’ll work that in somewhere. Maybe we can drop him off on our way to the store and pick him up after. An hour is good enough, right?
DAD: Does he want me to go with him? I hate the sand, the sun, and the water but I’m willing to go if he doesn’t want to be alone with no one to ask him when we’re leaving.

So I borrow their lawn chair and a couple beach towels and go by myself, unsure whether I should just make the best of it or sit in a passive-aggressive funk resenting the fact that these people – her parents born in New York and Karen born in Ohio – just can’t grasp the experience of going to the beach.

I wander onto the beach and trek past the clumps of people already there to find an open space to sit. Naples is on the west coast of Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. In my previous ethnographic studies I learned it is local custom to sit on the beach facing the sun. This means that before noon people are facing east, away from the water. If they are not there to enjoy the gulf, they could have just stayed home and sat around the pool at their condo development.

I refuse to conform, so I walk to the outskirts of this tribal grouping and deposit my chair facing the water. As I pass the arrays of natives, I wonder if they should have been turned away from entering the beach, as they seem to have been over served. The oldest members, all born Caucasian, have skin tanned to a color that occurs naturally in hardwood coffee tables, but not in humans.

The texture of their skin is what you would get if a Mexican Hairless dog mated with a lizard and the monster spawn of that union were fried from a lightening strike thrown by a horrified God. The old women wear bathing suits that reveal cleavage resembling an ancient, dry riverbed. Bald old men sport bandages and scars from skin cancer surgeries on their darkly freckled heads.

I used to think that if smokers carried their desiccated, blackened lungs on the outsides of their bodies more young people would be deterred from continuing the habit. But the evidence at the beach belies that theory. Despite the obvious, outward destruction of the elderly bodies displayed in the sand, young people join in the sun worshipping along side them. It’s like an outdoor cancer ward where future patients can grab a bed in advance.

I spread my sun block and went for a run/walk down the beach, then jumped in the gulf waters and swam for a while. Returning to my spot I found that four women had placed their chairs not more than six feet beyond mine, facing back to the east so that when I sat down I would be looking right at them – and they at me.

Did they not see my chair right in front of them or was this actually a tribal effort to get me to comply? As there was now a row of people on either side of my chair facing the opposite way from it, when I sat, it was going to be as if I were in a glass elevator, looking to the outside while everyone around me was facing the door.

That isn’t the only thing that makes me uncomfortable. The chair I had borrowed from my in-laws was not a beach chair. They don’t own a beach chair, made for lounging with your legs splayed in the sand. This was a lawn chair, intended for sitting upright while drinking lemonade, remarking how the world had gone to Hell since they split the Major Leagues into divisions, and selling your used possessions to strangers roaming your driveway at the yard sale.

What makes me even more uncomfortable, depressed in fact, is that when I seat my pale, flabby body in it, I look as if I belong there. I wrap a towel around my shoulders as if to dry myself off and maybe shield myself from the wind, but I’m actually trying to hide. I can’t help looking at these women who have positioned themselves in my space.

But as I look, I realize I have no need to feel self conscious, the main reason being that the women have sunglasses on and are splayed in their real beach chairs so that they face upward, toward the sun and must either have their eyes closed or their retinas are burned worse than their skin.

The women are middle aged, in the interim stage between the supple, healthy tan of youth and the dried, stringy mahogany of beef jerky. So I observe them, not with hatred or prejudice on account of the unnatural color of their skin but with a feeling of being an outsider in a culture I don’t understand. I can choose to be intimidated or console myself with a false xenophobic pride.

I scrunch my lawn chair a bit deeper into the sand, put my Redondo Beach t-shirt on and return to the pleasure I felt when I first arrived. I am thankful that, with my failing eyesight, I can’t see the reflection in women’s large sunglasses of an old man facing a large body of salt water that is not an actual ocean, but a gulf full of no waves. I imagine myself instead as my 24-year-old self, sitting on a real beach in Santa Monica California - right up until my in-laws return to pick me up and transport me back to reality.


Jenny said...

What a weird beach experience!!! The notion of positioning yourself to face the sun is bizarre. But, I suppose if there are truly no waves, there's not much of a point looking out at the gulf?

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