Generation X-rated

Each March, America's student population flocks to the beach to enjoy the extraordinary hedonistic ritual of Spring Break. And nowhere parties harder than Panama City Beach, Florida
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The Independent US

The girls next door must be lesbians - all seven of them - young and blonde, somehow managing to ignore the loud, drunk young men in room 3108. They are nice enough to these boys from Ohio, amused even, but they will not succumb. Not even on this final night of binge drinking and reckless escape from the grim responsibilities waiting back at college.

The girls next door must be lesbians - all seven of them - young and blonde, somehow managing to ignore the loud, drunk young men in room 3108. They are nice enough to these boys from Ohio, amused even, but they will not succumb. Not even on this final night of binge drinking and reckless escape from the grim responsibilities waiting back at college.

In the annual Spring Break ritual of Panama City Beach, Florida, sex and alcohol are supposed to flow cheap and easy for the thousands of young men and women who arrive each weekend throughout March. So the boys in 3108 watch with frustration as the girls next door spend their days lying on the beach, stumbling back to the hotel to drink heavily after dark, while still refusing to hook up, feel up or sex up with anyone.

No matter what the leering cameras of MTV and cable TV shows such as Girls Gone Wild promise, sex is not guaranteed. But there is always beer. Hotel rooms across the city are decorated with empty cans stacked into great pyramids, standing as monuments to blind drunkenness and pointless endurance. Here at the Howard Johnson Hotel, and its party compound, the cans float in the pool as a boozed-up young man climbs down from a second-floor balcony. A window above him is lined with bottles of spirits, and small rooms all over the hotel overflow with parties fuelled by drink and drugs, mingling students from America's finest schools and its most obscure universities.

Tonight, at least 23 young men are crowded inside 3108, all in a room that is about the size of a prison cell. The furniture is stacked against a wall. A portable George Foreman Grill sits in the corner, ready for quick meals. Dresser drawers are filled with supplies: condoms, balloons, cigarettes and B12 vitamin supplements to fight the inevitable hangovers. Standing on a bed is Brad George, a 20-year-old from Youngstown, Ohio. His head is shaved; "Slim" is tattooed on a burly shoulder. The thick plastic tube in his mouth leads to a funnel in the hands of his brother and friends, who pour in three cans of Natural Light beer. It goes down fast, as everyone shouts, "Chug! Chug! Chug! Chug!" They each take turns on the "beer bong" as an old Guns N' Roses CD plays on the stereo. In the morning, after tomorrow's 8am checkout, they will be gone, on the road back to Ohio and their classes in computer programming and high finance, making room for the next round of fresh Spring Breakers.

Brad has already had some luck over at Harpoon Harry's, down on the strip. He'd only been at the bar for five minutes when a girl called him the sexiest man alive and offered to "make out", right then and there. Brad's friend's digital camera flashes. There on the screen is a glimpse of Brad's face buried in the breasts of an anonymous girl. There are 40 more like it. The pictures are common Spring Break souvenirs - women lifting their tops, dropping their thongs, kissing or licking each other, exposing themselves to the cameras of total strangers usually for nothing more than a string of plastic Mardi Gras beads - to be shared with friends back home or scattered on the world wide web.

Caligula would have understood the desperate frenzy of it all. Spring Break is a festival of sun and sin, where young high school and college escapees wash up on the beaches of Florida like thousands of breeding salmon. It's a final binge of intense irresponsibility before graduation and a life sentence of the daily pay-cheque grind. Look closely and you will see the future, tomorrow's lawyers and chiropractors, psychologists and TV commentators, all here for one more giddy dance along the edge. No longer kids, not quite adults, and some away from home for the first time, trashing hotel rooms for no reason at all, living like rock stars for a week amid oceans of cheap beer, geysers of vomit, and young casualties everywhere.

It is an old tradition, not limited to this particular stretch of white sands and ageing resort hotels. There are foam parties in Cancun and Baja, wet T-shirts in Jamaica and South Padre Island, and beer and hard booze everywhere, all helping another generation shed whatever innocence might be left. In the Eighties, Palm Springs became notorious for televised images of rioting young men stripping the bikinis off girls at midday, right on the main drag. That was before the police crackdown - Mayor Sonny Bono banned the thong, sending serious Spring Breakers elsewhere.

Panama City Beach is nestled in the swampy panhandle of northwest Florida, once known as the Redneck Riviera, right on the Gulf of Mexico. It is a city of just 7,000 permanent f residents, living along 27 miles of beach which, during Spring Break, attract nearly 500,000 swarming young men and women in urgent need of extreme pleasure. The Panama City Police Department makes 60 per cent of its annual arrests during March, when 75,000 kids are in town on any given night. City authorities have made some moves to clean up the darker implications of this migration, but local businesses still fund an ad campaign - costing nearly half a million dollars - to keep them coming, delivering about a third of the town's annual economy in a single month.

On the beaches, the occasional couple with a small child can be seen strolling on the white sands, looking lost, out of place. But soon they are gone. Offshore there is swimming and boating and parascending and other wholesome pastimes, but most of the action is on the beach. This is where young women are held upside-down above beer barrels by grunting young men for gravity-defying "keg-stands", and where drinkers demonstrate the amount of beer that can be poured into their bodies before it comes streaming out the nostrils. Tossing beer kegs across the beach is a sport for the muscled and macho, though most remain buried in the sand, away from the eyes of the cops, since the kegs are officially banned from the beach.

IT IS Friday night at Club La Vela, where the downstairs sports bar doubles as the weekly "foam pit". A sign reads: "Enter at your own risk." The chemical content of the foam is uncertain. And the inevitable groping is either a calculated risk, or the whole point. One girl eyes the foam from the bar. She is a 19-year-old communications major from North Carolina. She wants to be a TV news anchor. She steps into the foam. "I got six other girls here, they'll protect me!"

Not everyone is so happy. "Coming here tells me there are stupid-ass whores all over the United States, and I don't want to touch any of them," says Craig Platt, a scowling blond in a "Texas Greeks" T-shirt. His friend attempts to light a cigarette. Craig grabs it from his mouth, shouting, "Lent! I'm holding you true, asshole!"

Over at the bar, Pete Wilson, 21, is sipping a drink, still in awe of the epic scene back at his hotel earlier this afternoon, when all his Spring Break fantasies and fears collided to form one dazzling whole. He has come from Rochester, New York, for this. Cheep beer was enough to entice two young ladies back to his room by the beach. Sex was immediate. "I have experienced things down here that I have never seen before," Pete says, still in disbelief, his hair bright red, short, and curly. "You walk into a room and you see a girl naked and she's hooking up with you, a boy of yours, and then another kid behind her. I mean, she's going crazy. You don't walk into things like that when you're in New York."

Club La Vela could be a hedonist's paradise. Every day is the same. It is a formula. The host, a grinning muscleman in shorts and wraparound shades, stirs up the testosterone for the daily bikini and wet T-shirt contests. Girls and guys grind and rub and shake their bodies and hump the stage on command while surrounded by several hundred cheering, hooting, whistling Breakers. Nudity is not allowed, though anything close to it is absolutely encouraged, right up to the limits of the law. "Contestant number one in the wet T-shirt is Ruth. Come on up, Ruth! Make some noise!"

Ruth stands before the host. She's wearing a ripped T-shirt, her arms stretched out high above her head, as the water hoses the fabric against her skin. The audience cheers crazily, in lust and excitement. Contestants who drift too close to the crowd get pawed. Finally the host calls for "audience response voting". Lana! (Polite cheers.) Kristen! (Louder.) Britney! (Polite hooting.) Amanda! (Big cheers.) Ashley! (Bigger still.) The winner hardly matters and is immediately forgotten. The hunt continues, for the next thrill or f glimpse of skin, with no clear rules or boundaries, and none desired.

On Front Beach Road, Breakers spend quality time cruising for dates and thrills. Cars with plates from across the South and all the way up to New England roll slowly down the two-lane boulevard. Kids run between and alongside moving cars, hopping on to tailgates. A local cruiser blasts "Stairway to Heaven" from his Pontiac, as he drifts past motels and strip clubs and gift shops selling piercings and T-shirts ("Five for $5"). A car filled with girls stops suddenly, and guys immediately swarm around it. A police squad car pulls over a pickup with 11 kids in the back. Local men from the ghetto across the bridge watch the traffic from a Burger King parking lot. One of them has his two pit bulls on chains. Robert is 26, his hair braided tight; he watches the scenery, still talking about the ones at the big hotels nearby who don't make it back home, all the "bitches jumping off the building, thinking they could fly. It happens every year."

Outside the Beach Package Store (self-proclaimed "Spring Break Headquarters - ATM Inside"), Christians hand out roses, just five of the young cadets from the Maryland Naval Academy down South to spread salvation at Spring Break. A bus filled with 66 of them travelled to Panama City for this. They are among nearly 3,500 Christians who pass through during Spring Break each year, preaching an alternative to drink and debauchery. As is Bobbie Watson of St Louis, Missouri, a 19-year-old stalking the beaches and sipping nothing heavier than Pepsi and Mountain Dew. "I used to drink," he says. "I was a big partier in high school. If I hadn't been saved by Christ, I'd probably be here doing the complete opposite. It just doesn't seem like the kind of life I like anymore." E

'Spring Broke', a book of Nathaniel Welch's photographs, is published by Turnaround, priced £23.50