What It’s Like to Live in Daytona Beach
Daytona Beach moves in waves, like purple against the sea, airbrushed angels and what looks like Marilyn Monroe done up in Bedazzled cotton with denim tassels, as if to say Welcome, I’m some type of mermaid, nothing matters.
A bunch of guys with UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA shirts pound their chasers back. A volleyball hits the deck. I’ve got sand in my teeth. Something is thumping somewhere, but gets silenced the farther you get from the beachside bar, silenced by the boom of waves and the deep of the ocean horizon, a guttural clurng that you can imagine would eat steel and oar right up.
Bus route 70 follows Sunset Drive, taking the bridge over the Intercoastal Waterway to the strip of land between the sea and the fresh water, the strip of land where we live. It stops regularly beside the remains of old business and empty lots made romantic by the palm trees and magnolia blossoms.
People start running past the bus that’s parked at the station. There’s a chunk of purple hair-extension left on the cement outside the door. I had my headphones in, so I missed whatever event just happened.
Thought we were being invaded by aliens there for a minute or something, the bus driver says. Just a couple girls fighting.
He pulls the lever to close the door before we lurch out past the crowd. Most of them are smiling as they stream through the bus station and out into the sharp light, beyond where we can see.
This is Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s full of T-shirt shops and they all have signs that say “GOING OUT OF BUSINESS SALE” in neon letters.
T-Shirt slogan choices: I JUST POOPED, about thirty shirts with glittery images of Marilyn Monroe, OFFICIAL MOTORBOARDING ENTHUSIAST, and I HAVE A PhD (PRETTY BIG DICK), which is curiously available only in girls size small. Next to the racks is a tank full of thumb-sized turtles crawling on tiny inner tubes and palm trees.
During my first week here, while the boyfriend I followed from Iowa was at his new gig teaching composition to future pilots, I tried on a few. From a glass-walled hut blasting Skrillex I decided on a white one with PARTY WITH SLUTS in hot green lettering.
In March of 1993, 300,000 college students arrived in Daytona to party with sluts, and with MTV, who had filmed their annual “Spring Break” week in Daytona since the ‘80s. The 21-year-olds and their backpacks full of swimsuits and vodka in plastic containers descended en masse, on buses and shuttles, clogging the streets and barfing in the hallways of every hotel along A1A, the Scenic Highway that runs 72 miles from Key West to the top of Florida, straight along the Atlantic. It is the main road in most of the oceanfront towns; the bikers and the vacationers languidly follow the sunset from beach to beach.
Colin Quinn and Jerry Springer and Jenny McCarthy used to come here and scream next to bikinis and giant inflatable bananas and neon visors. They brought a pool onto the beach, a giant stage; they gave away prizes during trivia shows that involved drunken guys singing lyrics from 70’s rock songs and girls wearing shaving cream bikinis. You saw a sea of white faces, and they knew every single lyric, bobbed for LL Cool J against the backdrop of the ocean; their hands were reaching, always reaching. YouTube videos of MTV Spring Break shows two seas; one of hands and blonde highlights, the other blue and stretching.
At its height, spring break contributed $120 million to the local economy, but the number has fallen to $70 million in recent years.
The empty, breaking asphalt leads to a Subway, a dive bar, a Kangaroo, the Salty Dog, then down to the iron archway letting everyone know that it is the WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS BEACH, spitting up from the sand and sun.
Three blocks in the other direction, along Halifax, against the shore of the Intercoastal, the mansions either rot our bury themselves deeper and deeper behind thick, blooming hedges and iron gates or stone ledges. The residents don’t walk around town, don’t leave except under cover of Mustangs or family SUVs.
Either way you go you taste the rot and salt of a body of water that keeps absorbing our losses, spitting out foam and mist.
NEW DAYTONA OCEANWALK EXPECTED TO OPEN, BOOST ECONOMY, reads the headline.
In a development dubbed “The New Place to be for Family,” Daytona now wears a Joe’s Crab Shack, Mai Tai Bar, Bubba Gump Shrimp, Starbucks, Sloppy Joes, Cold Stone Creamery, a 10-screen theatre, and a Sunglass Hut. It’s all in a pink-and-purple multiplex, a square tower between hotels. Sloppy Joes is already closing, to be replaced by what appears to be a T-shirt shop.
Oceanwalk is next to Joyland, which was built in the 60s. Joyland is a rusted horror of sand-blasted machinery painted in bright colors. Three workers man the rides and lean against the ticket shack, staring at the non-customers who pass by. One family is riding the dragon-themed kiddie coaster and the metal creaks all down the beach.
The next morning, as I walk towards the stop, the stilled rides creak in the soft light and the seagulls tottle past in groups, pecking for fish bits washed to shore with the tide.
Two girls get on the bus just before I get off, two blocks from a warehouse club with a neon sign reading LOLLIPOPS, and sit behind me.
Maybe I should work at one of these places. At a titty bar. She passes some gum.
Yeah. Well you’d make a lot of money during Bike Week. I have a friend, she makes like at least 1000 per day.
There’s a cemetery across the street from the most famous biker bar in the world, The Boot Hill Saloon. It’s shaded by Spanish moss trees and hedges and it smells like rotting magnolia, a tropical grave. During Bike Week, a local couple gives “ghost tours” over the 24-7 drone of the engines.
The bikers were pretty nice. I felt safer when they were around, because then at least someone was around.
Most of the graves are cracked, crawling with lizards and weeds. At the end of the path there’s an archway and a walled off area, white and cold to the touch despite the heat that clings. There’s a cross and two graves and several benches, all carved from that cold, pearly limestone. The name on the archway is BURGOYNE.
In 1882, 35-year-old Charles Burgoyne took his third wife, Mary Macauley, from their home in New York City to Daytona Beach. There the 19-year-old bride was to decorate and settle into their new home, a mansion dubbed “The Castle” by locals. The property was 530 feet along Beach Street, and was surrounded by the same cold limestone walls that surround their tomb. She often spent her time in the music room or in the greenhouse or the dining room facing the water, where the large glass doors were kept open and the small green anoles were let to climb the walls and sleep undisturbed in the sun on the piano.
The couple never had children, and spent their time with music, philanthropy, their 65-foot yacht named the “Sweetheart,” and politics; in 1897 Commodore Charles was elected mayor of Daytona Beach.
There were dances and balls. Someone remembers that at one ball Charles gave each female guest a pearl necklace. Just before dawn the couple’s yacht was lit with small candles and several of the children dangled their legs over the railings, throwing stones into the glittering waterway. A horn from a passing barge sounded and they all cheered, clinking glasses, towards it and into the night.
In the morning the butlers took the empty oyster shells back to the bay, and the truck came to collect the tablecloths.
In 1919, Charles Burgoyne died of a heart attack. Mary didn’t leave the Castle again until it was sold to W.R. Lovett, a businessman from Jacksonville, in 1939. She was seen by young Daytonians for the first time in their life as she was escorted off the premises in black sunglasses, flanked by her lawyers and the local news.
But they found out later that “Mary” was actually a maid in disguise; the real one used the back entrance alone, going beyond those limestone walls for the first time in 25 years.
The boardwalk is sparse in the afternoons, with a few families and lots of biker couples, and then the locals. You can tell who has been sitting in this sun for years.
In 2012, 205 Daytona Beach businesses closed along A1A. A great many more within the city only open three times a year: for Bike Week and Biketoberfest, which each bring about 500,000 Harley enthusiasts roaring into town, and the Daytona 500.
Three kids are dancing on the dock across from our complex and one of them has a tuba. I can hear their shouting, their laughing, the baritone fart of the tuba bouncing off the waterway. In the vacant lot between us, the cat is stalking lizards, her haunches shaking. She disappears into the growth.
When Mary died of pneumonia in 1944, at the age of 81, she was living in the pink and purple stucco-ed Touraine Apartments off of South Grandview, three blocks from my bus stop. She was immediately moved, without a funeral, to rest next to her husband in the shade of their white tower.
In the Daytona Beach News-Journal last month:
A 240-foot-tall slingshot ride could go up on the Daytona Beach Pier by early next year, a ride that would be capable of shooting thrill seekers 380 feet above the sand at 70 mph.
City commissioners will decide Wednesday night whether they want to see the gigantic ride on the city-owned pier and if the city should enter into a 10-year contract with Daytona Slingshot, which wants to construct the impossible-to-miss amusement ride.
“I think it would be a huge plus,” said Dino Paspalakis, who along with his family runs the Pizza King, Joyland Amusement Center and Mardi Gras snack bar and amusement center on the Boardwalk. Another beachside businessman, State Road A1A gift shop owner Gary Koliopulos, also gives the ride idea a thumbs up.
The government has taken my check and disrobes every placement of my new life and the attempts to receive any owed funds results only in lies and treachery, the woman says. The sun isn’t even fully up for the day. They raped my brothers too, when I was young enough to know it, they sent them to the military to die by a plan made and carried out in 1976 and this among many other things is the system by which we gain and follow; I was always listening and so I finally was made able to understand this system of treachery.
The woman is wearing fatigues, a windbreaker, and a baseball cap. She adjusts her sunglasses, continues to stare out the window. No one is next to her, or in front of her; I’m alone in the back of the bus, three aisles back. Her skin is unlined but I can’t tell her age. They also took my daughters, for which I will never forgive them but there is no system for compensation and the financial field will grow and grow despite my continued legal ramifications. I have notified all agencies of my intentions to receive these funds that they stole from me that belong to me and my family.
I can still see some of them; a few college kids still come down every March, but MTV stopped filming Spring Break here in 1994 after the city voted to ban them, in the hope that the mayhem would stop. MTV moved the party to Panama Beach, where, in March of 2014, 375,000 students are expected to arrive and spend $100 million.
The kids that come here don’t look like the ones on TV. They have holes in their faces, when I look at them. I don’t know if they are in college, actually. I can’t tell anyone’s age behind this deep sun.
The lights move through the trees in a way that light isn’t supposed to in November: blinding and orange and so overly healthy. In the evening the haze drifts to the sea and the horizon, and the cries of the birds mix with the engines and waves.
We riders, the elderly, a few high school kids, and the bus station-regulars that route-hop all day, going somewhere and probably no real place, watch the heat shimmer off the sea in the distance. A plane is flying low, with a banner for GEICO, to attract the beachgoers.
I get off the bus several stops to early and go a block down, past three t-shirt shops and the arcade. I walk along the beach the rest of the way home, letting the sun burn into my black work pants, dodging the occasional clump of sunbathers or crabs sleeping in the sand. It isn’t smart to move to this town without a car, but it isn’t about being smart. It’s about having no choice. I’m no different than anyone else here. Or maybe I am. I’m just a tourist.
A man from the small cottage apartment follows me from the bus stop, asks me if he can paint my portrait for some money. He says his old lady can do crystals, too. His door is wide open and I think of all the humid air blowing inside, settling on their walls.
In five months, the cab that will take me to the airport and out of Daytona forever will be an old red minivan. Inside, the driver will have turned a laptop towards the passengers so that they can watch the Mr. T movie he has playing. He’ll be friendly and from New York, like all of them are. His string of crystals waves in the dashboard.
What’s beautiful is the sun, the sun off the sea and just before it’s totally set, because of the colors. It is even better in a mist, when the tide is rocky and angry, when you’re near the water and far enough from any voices aside from the sea’s.
The guy who gets on at the stop after me and never stops talking is from Brooklyn, and he has a lisp. His parents were in the mob. His father was a mobster. His brothers own an art gallery or something and they don’t like him, but his sister is a real sweetheart. He needs some more attention for his disabilities but the center never gives him any attention, just medication, all these medications he’s on he doesn’t even know half of them anymore. He’s a nice guy and doesn’t think women appreciate a nice guy and it takes a lot to just leave them alone but he’s trying to learn when a woman wants to be left alone and see, he’s doing a better job at it despite his tendencies, which is a struggle in his life. At the center the beds are hard and uncomfortable and, you know, you can’t bring women there. He’s seeing about getting a job but he just went off on the guy from 7-11 for being rude to him yesterday. He doesn’t normally take the 60 this late but his alarm didn’t go off and he doesn’t have a phone but he wants one The center is going to get him a phone. His parents put a lot of money away for him, the mob money, but his brothers sometimes prevent him from getting it. They are snobs; you know, art guys. He knows he has a problem but nobody will help him in regards to giving him the right attention for his problems. Brooklyn isn’t a dump anymore but he doesn’t want to go back there anyways. It’s always warm here, and the people are nice even if you can’t always trust them, and you can sit on the beach anytime and no one will bother you and the center gives out free bus passes so you can figure out things to do all day. You can have a good lifestyle here, even if you have no money on you, if you don’t let some stuff get you down.
Danielle Wheeler currently lives in Louisiana and misses Publix. Her first chapbook of poetry (which mentions both Katie Holmes and hot dogs several times), TEENAGE EXORCISTS, is coming out this summer from Slim Princess Holdings. You can find her online at dcwheeler.blogspot.com.