Secret Lives

Seaside living and the illusion of leisure

Here at the beach, we rise early, even in summer. Pay no attention to those tourist paintings of hammocks and unmade beds. Dawn breaks to the noise of dogs being walked and lawns being watered, streets being swept and trash being recycled.

At Coast Highway stoplights, ranchero music drifts from gardeners’ pickups. Cafés open. Lifeguards suit up. Maids and busboys bustle into hotel service entrances. In dark bedrooms, adolescents hide under the pillows as their alarms ring. Once, their forefathers had “fun, fun, fun” in their T-birds and slept until noon. That was then.

Now beach kids cling to their summer shifts at surf shops and frozen yogurt counters. Even the ones without jobs hustle to club sports and summer classes. One South County SAT boot camp goes six days a week, six hours a day, plus three hours of homework from June through August. Sells out every year.

Outside beach cottages, breadwinners emerge, dressed for the office. There goes Cathy from across the street, go-cup in hand. There goes Steve the road warrior, bound for the airport. There goes Mary to her job at the county, and Rose to the hospital.

Indoors, telecommuters open their laptops and moms launch the daily hunt for backpacks and renegade flip-flops. Julie pulls out of the garage in a Suburban full of kiddie carpoolers; Cheryl’s Escalade disgorges a water polo team. 

In short, we work. This is the dirty little secret of seaside living. Everyone around us may be on vacation, but that doesn’t mean we get a holiday. People move here imagining that life is just one long afternoon under a beach umbrella. They stop for lunch and look out onto our sidewalks and think, “Don’t people here need to earn a living?”

Yes, we do. Those window-shoppers? Other tourists.

With the exception of our first landlord, a guy nicknamed “Half-Day Ray” who inherited his grandmother’s beach house and visited it until his skin looked like cowhide, no one we know here actually ever has time to just hang out by the water. Even Half-Day had a day job, his name notwithstanding. Our first summer at the beach, we scarcely stopped working long enough to earn a sunburn. I put on a bathing suit exactly twice.

We work, because just being here is so much more expensive than it is inland—and because beach communities have a reputation to live up to. People here can’t just earn a living; we must earn a living while seeming leisurely.

If our toil is too obvious, out-of-towners won’t imagine themselves unwinding here in cute second homes. Day-trippers won’t want souvenirs of the time they’ve spent watching us not-seem-to-work while they’re not working. There’s a demand, not for us, exactly, but for a certain commodified version of us, and we damage our brand if our summer utopia looks too much like a day at the office. No one wants to relax on the sand while people exchange business cards on the next towel. No one wants to know that, in our mellow-seeming way, we, too, walk through the valley of the shadow of the 60-hour workweek.

So we work and we hide it, like seabirds on the water—calm  on the surface and paddling furiously beneath. Our work clothes look like resort wear. Our greetings sound like surf reports. Our small talk is about the trip we allegedly just took and the trip we’re allegedly planning.

And if, somehow, the conversation goes job-related, we change the subject—not because we can’t relate, but because it’s our job to make summer living look easy. Your day off is our livelihood, here at the beach.

Illustration by Brett Affrunti

This article originally appeared in the August 2012 issue.

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