Panama City Beach comes to life as much as it can during the month of April, when the crisp sea air starts to warm with the promise of summer right around the corner. In April, college students flock to this town that lies along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico. The population — normally around 12,000 people — temporarily expands. 20-year-olds fill up the beachfront hotels. They have less common sense than they have money, heavy in their pockets.
Friday morning, we arrived — a weekend trip. Our hotel was a three-minute walk from the beach. There was not too much else around. A Wal-Mart. A Waffle House. A gas station whose parking lot played host to teenagers, drinking beer and smoking cigarettes out the back of their trucks. A KFC that had closed for good, neighboring a McDonald’s that was rife with business at all hours of the day or night. A Coyote Ugly Bar — I wondered if the atmosphere inside would be anything like that film with that blonde actress, but I never got the chance to find out for myself.
The town reminded me of the Vegas strip — the part that is less densely populated, a little bleaker. It reminded me of a long poem by T.S. Eliot, “The Waste Land” — not because its content has anything to do with Panama City Beach but because “April is the cruelest month” and because everywhere I looked, I only noticed waste. A town of waste. A land of waste. A wasteland.
On Friday evening, a friend and I took a cab from our hotel to go to a club, far from the water. Everyone else we knew stayed. When we got there, she moved swiftly past the bouncers, but they refused to let me in. I’d forgotten my license, but I remembered my temper.
“Listen,” I said, my voice rising. “Do I look fifteen to you?” I tugged at my shirt, which had a university logo on the front. “Look at what I’m wearing. Clearly, I’m a college student.”
That logic made sense to me at the time. It had been longer than I could remember since the last time someone had refused me entry to a club or bar, and I didn’t have time for this — it is easy to be rude when you embrace that kind of mentality.
“There isn’t even anyone inside,” I protested when the bouncer shook his head a second time. This club, like almost every other venue in Panama City Beach — with the exception of the beaches themselves — was somewhat desolate. The beaches themselves were crowded with so many people that there was barely any room to lie down or to walk around. There were also cops — so many of them, riding Segways, patrolling for underage drinking and rowdy public intoxication. In general, cops scare me, but cops in Panama City Beach scared me more than usual. They are more hardnosed because they have less to do, relatively speaking.
My friend suggested that I take a cab back to the hotel and return with my license.
“Promise you’ll come back, okay?” she said, pressing a wad of cash into my hand for the fare. She would stand outside and wait for me, but she didn’t want to be there alone for too long. She had arranged to meet a group of people she knew from home, but none of them had arrived yet, and foreign cities can always be scary — especially ones like Panama City Beach.
The cab driver who picked me up in front of the club was a heavyset man in his 50s. I climbed into the passenger seat, and he smiled at me — a wide, near-toothless grin. His eyelids drooped and crinkled at each corner. Country music played softly from the radio. Something McBride.
“Are you still in school?” he asked as we started to head along the road that led back to my hotel.
He asked me what I was studying. I told him. My friend texted me, asking how much longer I thought I would take. He told me that his daughter was in college and that she was studying exercise physiology — he tripped over the second word a few times — and nutrition science. I didn’t know what either subject entailed, but they sounded official and impressive — like they involved a lot of scientific matter that was too heavy for me.
We rounded the corner, passing the gas station across from my hotel. A couple of teenagers sat on the curb, sucking on cigarettes. I stared at them as we drove by — slowly, because the light at the intersection in front of us had just turned green and because the traffic peaked at this hour in Panama City Beach. I wondered what their parents thought they were doing — they were baby-faced, no more than fourteen or fifteen at the most.
“Does your daughter go to school in the area?” I asked.
The cab driver shook his head.
“No, ma’am,” he responded — lengthening his syllables like a real Southerner — and told me that she went to a small college whose name — which started with a V — I forgot a minute or two after he said it. She was up in South Georgia, a few hours away from home.
We pulled into the hotel driveway. As I unfolded the bills that my friend had given me earlier, smoothing out a five to hand to him, I asked him whether he missed his daughter and why she hadn’t chosen to go to school in the area. He’d mentioned that his family had lived near or around Panama City Beach for generations, after all.
“She’s graduating in May, and she has a job lined up in Georgia,” he said, shrugging and not quite answering my questions at first. After a few seconds, he added solemnly, “There’s not much here. I’m glad she’s getting out.”