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COMMENTARY - Like Latin lovers on the shore

Summer nights in Virginia Beach I like to troll the boardwalk and pretend I am Bruce Springsteen in "Fourth of July, Asbury Park." I ramble on to my friends, pointing out points of tangent from the song and gesture wildly at the scenery ablaze with tourism and commerce and life. I hear them laughing. They always laugh, but I don't stop.

I see madcap maestros wheezing wilting jazz standards and plucking prissy pop songs on bombed out jalopy horns and ship-wrecked guitars on a corner under strings of jalapeño lanterns. Across the street, three-piece tramps in white gloves pimp magic tricks on fold-out tables for passers-by. Jugglers and jammers, clowns and caricature artists; every corner encages another exhibit in the great lost Atlantic menagerie. Tourists clamor about the midnight zoo, striking the sky with frantic flashbulbs that erupt into a hundred-handed thunderclap. They stab at their wallets for small bills, but freeze as fold-out signs remind them: no tips, these artists are paid by the city. Don't feed the animals.

My eyes scan slyly for pockets of disenchanted local lads skulking the side streets and parking lots of shady motels, poaching for the pale babes in too-bright vacation bikinis shielded by two-dollar tank-tops and denim cut-offs. The doe-eyed darlings prance about in oceanic oblivion, drunk on the salty air so long denied to their land-locked nostrils. It's a slapdash dance of shadows and street lights, vagrants and virgins. Only every fourth person and I know the steps; the rest make it up as they go, to one end or another, or most likely none.

A million things happen on the boardwalk every night and a million more are dreamt or schemed or hatched in back rooms never to pan out. Such is my boardwalk seen through Boss-colored glasses. In Springsteen's world, the boardwalk is populated with desperate and deeply spiritual characters. Their motivations, be they sustenance, curiosity, or a guttural urge to transcend the boundaries of a dead-end social stratum, are all informed by a subconscious poetry of urban life. Its cryptic existence reveals itself spray-painted on boxcars or scrawled in sidewalk chalk by children. And from this reservoir they draw hope from their despair, and retain romance amidst the ruin of their tattered carnival worlds.

Somewhere along the line the hope was lost and the self-reliant, city-reared romanticism divested itself of the rapidly changing population. Springsteen noticed it on "Born in the USA," and "The River," but never took a look back at that ocean side he left behind to see the full effects of the reckoning. With the Reagan Hollywoodisation of America, the people came to look for their happiness in pretty prefabrications. Everything had to be organized and advertised such that it could easily be plucked off a supermarket shelf or taken down in toll-free order. Yesterdays ramblers found their solace in cash machines and banking grids, life insurance and long-distance plans. Faded blue jeans ultimately disappeared and became business suits and designer labels. Everywhere the whimsy and wonder and pertinent possibility of a night at the beach was crushed by a religious zeal for sterility, safety and packaged goods.

It is always said that everything old becomes new again, and so too is it with the boardwalk. From the sterile shell of the 1980s it remerged and grew into the images I see now of tourists, trappers, indigents and entertainers. Styles have regressed enough and the city has invested enough money that I can walk through the waterfront streets and pretend that I live in a world of romance and hope and renegade beauty. Anyone with eyes and a knack for nifty adjectives could look at the boardwalk and make it any world they want to see: and I desperately want to see Springsteen's characters in my world. But I don't feel them.

As the corporatism of decades past became old and brittle, its sheep began to recognize the wolfish smiles of the mannequins that wore their clothes, sold their food, filed their taxes and performed any number of daily operations designed to keep them happily hapless. My generation arrived at a time of great reckoning, where the stage was set for the young and hopeful to reclaim the idiosyncrasy mortgaged by their parents and elder siblings. And in characteristic fashion, they balked. New-old styles emerged from the corporate void to satiate and remind us that we really were different after all, that we were cool, that our rebellion was genuine. A healthy dose of platform shoes, sun-dresses, retro sunglasses, board shorts and boot-cut pants made sure of that. Even those aware of the dupe embraced it tacitly. Rather than channel their anger-borne energies into a world-shifting artistic and creative explosion, they chose to stand back with cynical sneers and struggle through their stagnant world, self-righteous and indignant.

These are the characters of my boardwalk. They look the part of a Springsteen song, but they don't live it or believe it. Virginia Beach at night is not the secret haven where the street poets of yore reside. It is, like the clothes of its patrons, a replica, a duplicate, a bastardization of a time and place where frustration and pain mingled with a feral desire to dig the marrow out of life's littlest experiences and deepest tragedies. Where Springsteen had hope, it has cynicism. Where Springsteen had poetry, it has petulance.

But beneath the facades, I still see an urgency waiting to be realized in the eyes of every man, woman and child I see strolling the strip, such as might remember the Boss' lost canon and motivate the new generation of urban aesthetes. So I'll continue to walk the beach at night, and I'll salute the pretty-boy beachcombers, the smoked out skater-girl cynics, and even the mournful middle-class tourists. One day, seizing on a seismic moment, they'll realize what Springsteen knew all along: "Sandy, the aurora is rising behind us. This pier lights our carnival life forever. Love me tonight for I may never see you again."

Andrew Waugh is a Trinity senior.

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