The Death of the American Summer
A long time ago, the phrase “American Summer” meant something special. It was reminiscent of minimum wage jobs and weekends free. People would slave through hours of highway traffic to spend a day on a crowded public beach. Young men and women would spend hours at the local parks and town centers. Boys would play pickup baseball in the public diamond or basketball at the public hoops. Girls in their summer clothes would saunter through the town’s main streets. The word “internship” meant nothing to the young people who spent their days flipping burgers and scooping ice cream and their nights at the drive in.
I guess some things just die.
I was walking down the boardwalk at Seaside Heights, and I was alone. The air was filled with scents of cotton candy, salt water, and seven dollar cigarettes. The night was anything but quiet, with the laughter of small children running around, as well the chants of the old men who ran the wheel games. Sure, it was the perfect summer night, the air wasn’t stifling and there was a slight breeze, but something was off. Where were the people my age? Where were the college kids? Sure, there were high schoolers, and of course the young adults who had probably been in the work force for a few years, but no college kids.
I’ve gotten to know the locals of the Seaside boardwalk quite well. In all my years of spending summers there, I’ve learned their names, heard their histories, and watched them come and go. There was Fat Bob, who just disappeared one day and I never saw him again. There was Margie, a single mother who had to stop running the prize wheel after her daughter got sick. There was the old man I had called Leo for years, only to find out in the summer of 2017 his name was actually Dean. But who wasn’t there? Where were the kids trying to make some money before going back to school?
I was walking through the tables at the Collingswood Flea Market, and I was alone. Well, realistically my grandfather was with me, but he was about twenty yards away, and at his speed, he’d catch up to me in a few months. The tables were filled with junk, remnants of bygone eras and better times. The cracks and indents of the merchandise filled with sand from the nearby beaches, brought to this lot by the sandy feet of local beachgoers, wind sweeping it everywhere.
I saw the middle-aged burnout who sold comic books and TV guides, his dreadlocks gently swaying in the late-summer breeze. I saw “LP” wandering around, an old WWII veteran who frequented the market. His nickname, he used to say, came from the fact that his “skin is like a record, black and full of lines.” I saw the unnamed crossdresser, a local to the Collingswood Flea since before it was socially acceptable. Finally, I saw the Mexican tech dealers. They sold interesting products for sure, but my Spanish was terrible, so haggling for prices was nearly impossible. But who wasn’t there? Where were the kids of the dealers? Why were middle aged and elderly women running the concessions? Where were people like me, haggling for old junk?
I was walking through my hometown, and I was alone. It was mid-afternoon and instead of my usual drive to get coffee, I decided to hoof it. The coffee shop was ran by a forty-year-old man, and the employees were at least five years out of college. Ice cream was being scooped by fifteen year olds. Burgers were being flipped by middle-aged wage laborers. Where the hell were the kids?
It seems to me that, as much progress society has made recently, we’re losing important things from the past as well. Young people are so concerned with resume boosters and having office experience that they’ve forgone the simplest of life’s joys. Being a kid. Sure, it isn’t the prettiest of work, I understand that. There have been days where I’ve felt queasy from the smell of fried crab and lobster tomalley on my work shirt, or have been covered in swamp sludge from heel to knee, but there was still value to what I was doing. I was making enough money to get by, and I had a semblance of freedom. There was no worry of jackets and ties or waking up at 6 A.M. to get into the city.
So what changed? Are we all a generation of go-getting doers? Does the promise of a possible networking opportunity outweigh beer money? Or are some jobs just below us? I’m looking for something that doesn’t exist anymore. Maybe the era of driving with the windows down, fleeing sunset, are gone. It saddens me to say it, but kids just aren’t allowed to be kids anymore, and it’s a crying shame. What ever happened to the American summer?