Text and photographs by Kelly Helbig. This article originally appeared in the July 2006 issue of Cape May Magazine
I was born with a plastic beach shovel in my mouth.
Yep – I’m a certifiable beach bum, through and through, born and raised – I even got married on a Cape May beach this year. Just the smell of Coppertone rouses up nostalgia and I’m 8 years old again, covered from head to toe in sand, digging up sand crabs, body surfing from the earliest my parents could get me to the beach (usually 9 a.m.) And we’d stay until 4 in the afternoon. Now that’s a work day I can live with. I can still remember that water-logged feeling I would have in my chest as I scrunched up my tight, sunburned skin once the cold water of the hose hit me. And then the nap that always followed shortly after, no matter how many times I said, “I’m not sleepy, I’m not sleepy attt aaaalllll.”
I just finished working…my first job. I have an hour-and-a-half before my shift at my second job starts. Sun is shining. Sky is clear. I live in Cape May. I have an hour to kill. Is there any doubt? I rise and scream the Beach Bum chant I’ve retorted since Pampers hung out of my beach bottom, “Let’s go to the beach!” Sure the dishes are in the sink, the clothes overflowing in the hamper, the dogs are…..are… well, they’re somewhere around here, but I live in Cape May! A beach bum living in a beach town! Fearing members of the Beach Bum Cult, upon hearing that I passed up free time and did not go to the beach, might exile me to some remote beachless state like Oklahoma, I leave the chores to a rainy day.
Off I go. No, I didn’t forget anything, silly. I’m a pro at this. The car is already packed with all my necessities for an hour, a day, a week-long vacation at the beach. Certifiable Beach Bums are always prepared.
What’s in my bag you ask? Good question! I keep my beach bag fully equipped with a frozen bottle of ice water (I never go to the beach without it!), blanket, towel, change of clothes, some deodorant (never hurts!), crackers, gum, book (DaVinci Code by Dan Brown), cell phone, iPod, money, plenty of SPF lotions in all degrees, lip balm (again, I never go to the beach without it!), and, a must-have for all beachgoers, my beach tag (seasonal). It’s more than a beach bag. It’s a survival kit. You thought I was kidding when I said I could be there for a week long vacation?
And then it dawns on me, what do other people pack in their beach bags to survive a day on the beach? I make a note that once I find a parking spot, I’ll walk around on the beach and find out.
I cannot believe my luck as I find a spot on Beach Avenue right next to the promenade. As I deposit my first quarter, I see other beachgoers running to their cars to deposit money into their meters. From May 1 to October 31, every day, from 10:00 AM to 10:00 PM, all meters are 25 cents per twenty minutes and only accept quarters. So if you drive, aside from blocking traffic while pulling up next to Cape May’s promenade while you unload your spouse, offspring, and beach paraphernalia and you drive off to find that elusive parking spot, ALWAYS bring quarters with you to feed the meter.
Fifty minutes still left before I’m expected at work. Plenty of time to enjoy the beach! Yahoo!
Walking up the stairs to the promenade, I see the new “Welcome to Cape May Beach” sign. Posted right next to the Welcome sign are Beach Tag prices. I have a seasonal pass ($25) but I stop to see what the prices are for day trippers ($4), 3 day ($9), weekly, ($13 and note these are valid from Saturday to Saturday), and seasonal passes are $25 (if purchased before April 1, they’re only $15).
The beach tag person, Lorraine, waves with a friendly “hello” as she quickly glances me over for a tag.
“Do you have a tag?” she asks.
Do I have a tag! I confidently reach into my beach bag’s inner pocket and pull out my beach tag.
“That’s last year’s tag,” she says with a smile.
My mouth drops. Ashamed, I start kicking at the sand with my big toe and hang my head. Fearing other beach bums might overhear my conversation with Lorraine, I quickly hand her $25 for a new beach tag. With a smile, I whispered, “Thank you.” I make my way over to Vince.
Vince is the young man selling chairs, umbrellas, beach boxes, tents, water, soda, and iced tea on the beach. He looks pretty cool sitting under three green umbrellas. All umbrellas are color coded according to their respective beaches. “How much for an umbrella?” I ask.
I inquire about chairs ($5), boogie boards ($13 all day), drinks ($1.50), cabanas ($15 daily) and beach boxes ($55 for a week, $90 for 2 weeks, $125 for 3 weeks and $375 seasonal). Vince stresses that, if you want a beach box, call ahead and get your money in by February or March at the latest. The sooner you get your check-in, the better your chances will be to have a beach box at your disposal. I opt not to get a chair today and head down to the water.
Before I do, I reach in my beach bag to grab lip balm and …where is it? Oh this can’t be. OH, MY GOD! I forgot my lip balm!! I panic and look around nervously that others have caught on to my ill-equipped beach bag and are already starting to whisper, “How could she?” and “Did you see what she did?” Well, no need to panic really, I’ll only be here for a half hour. I think it’s time to find out what all these other beachgoers pack in their beach bags – or leave behind?
I spy three beach savvy-looking girls not too far away from me and I walk over to ask them. “What’s in your beach bag?”
Friends Ashley, Justine and Kate, all summer locals of Cape May, are lying out enjoying the beautiful day. These women came well prepared. Ashley has her iPod, water, sunscreen, book, and, “Chapstick. DEFINITELY Chapstick!”
I feel my neglected lips drying with each passing second.
Justine has her water, cell phone, wallet, change of clothes, lotion, and chapstick. Their friend, Kate, has her iPod, sunscreen, dry tanning oil (same effect as tanning oil, but it goes on dry), water, cell phone, clothing, and a mirror. A girl’s gotta look her best in this heat.
My lips are starting to pull at the corners, seeking some sort of moisture as I walk over to Ashley and Kurt, sitting on their beach chairs with their bags between them. Kurt always has his keys, wallet, sunglasses, cell phone, towel, and lotion.
Ashley, who’s munching on a granola bar, carries a granola bar in her bag, along with her purse, electric sunglasses, Teddy Grahams, water, lotion, towel, and Chapstick. My lips tighten at the mention of this and purposely split to inflict pain upon their unfit owner, me.
Moving on then, I find a familiar family sitting not too far from Ashley and Kurt. Aiden, Heather, Holly, and Dixie, all locals of Cape May, are not only enjoying a beautiful afternoon at the beach, they are also celebrating Aiden’s last day of Kindergarten from Our Lady Star of the Sea School. Heather, Aiden’s Mom, not only packs for herself, but for Aiden as well. Her bag includes lotion, water, Exit Zero, The New Yorker Magazine, toys for Aiden, beach tag, visors, towels, and keys.
The family loves the beach and they always have a beach box where they store all their chairs and umbrellas, which makes any trip to the beach a lot easier. Aiden, who has been very eager to share what’s in his beach bag, namely his water gun, takes off at top speed as I start talking to Holly.
Holly always, always, ALWAYS has a bottle of frozen water with her, a book, her visor, and her beach tag. And completing the family, Dixie brings a book, money, her sunglasses, and a visor.
Suddenly, I hear Aiden calling over to me. He has run over to his family’s beach box and I can’t quite make out if he is just showing me where it is or is trying to coax me into helping him retrieve more Super Soakers that might be stowed away for safe keeping.
With every word I speak, my lips tighten even more and the tiny pings and pangs remind me that I will never come without my lip balm again.
My time is now down to 15 minutes as I start heading back and bump into Kelly, Zack, and J.J. Kelly, a local of Cape May, brings a magazine, money, a towel, lotion, and water. Zack is a bit more daring when venturing onto the beach and brings nothing at all, except money.
“I just come with whatever’s on my back!” Zack states proudly.
Zack’s friend from school, J.J., hails from Galloway and, other than his sunglasses and some money, he has the same devil-may-care attitude.
“I bring nothing at all and come with just what’s on my back”.
Die-hard beach bums!
Five minutes before I’m expected at work, I’m getting closer to the promenade and lip relief, when two girls wave me over. They see I have a camera and would like me to take their picture as well. I say sure, as long as I can ask them what they have in their beach bags. Michelle has oil, a radio, and brings her chair. No beach tag?
“Nope, I just walk right on!” she exclaims.
Her friend, April, also a local, brings her towel, a chair, her wallet, lotion, and, since she drove today, a lot of change for the meter. Usually, she parks far away on an undisclosed street that doesn’t have any meters.
Meter! I didn’t even think of the meter! I’m not sure which will pain me more: my lips, once I apply some lip balm, or the ticket that I imagine is nicely tucked under my windshield wiper.
One minute left to get to work. No ticket and still time remaining on the meter! Now that is a good day on the beach! I’ll be here again tomorrow, I’m sure of it. Maybe I’ll see you there!