The word local, when applying to people, suggests that the opposite is more likely. When you grow up in a tourist town, as I did
, being a local has its pros and cons. When everyone else leaves, you stay. You wave goodbye to station wagons full of kids your age, if you're fortunate enough to know exactly when their parents are leaving. You are sometimes an untouchable
. Being "one of the locals" at a beach resort has bad connotations; you're some teenage kid who's let loose to roam the streets
with no supervision, a kid parents may warn their kids about. A kid whose parents it is assumed, since they live there full time, hold tourist jobs in the tourist industry
and therefore can't be trusted with children. You have a year round tan
I remember the first time a boy showed interest in me. I must have been 8 or so. He had wide brown eyes and long brown hair. He was staying at the hotel that was owned by my friend Shannon's dad. There was a swing set in between the bungalows where we'd clothespin sheets and build forts. He bought me an ice cream cone and we rode the carousel in the amusement park where my father owned a go-cart track. He would come home with burlap sacks of tickets and together we'd sort them by color: blue in one pile, orange in another. When they broke down the track for storage at the end of the summer, I would go around collecting all the change that had slipped between the wood planks as people skidded around and around. I never saw that boy again and my father had to sell the track when it couldn't turn enough of a profit to feed my mother and I.
The first boy who told me he loved me (we were 14, maybe) did so by letters from New Carrollton, Maryland, where his family lived. They had a townhouse in my neighborhood and came down every few weekends in the fall, and Sean would find me. We met when we were both working snack kiosks in a nearby amusement park. I learned to make cotton candy and how to kiss that summer. And then, I never saw him again.
Making friends with other locals is sometimes difficult, for the kids my age were not as well leashed as I was and fell into bad behavior: vandalism, drinking, smoking, stealing. Because I wanted badly to make friends, I let other kids walk over me a lot. They would use me for free rides on the roller coaster because my dad got passes, or for free pizza because I worked there on the weekends. In a way, I think they also used my innocence too, training me to want what they wanted, this boy or that one. I lost my virginity in an empty apartment with boy I'd met that night, and I never heard from him again. These boys went to the public school like the girls did. I guess it's no big surprise that I couldn't wait to get as far from that town as possible when I picked a college. I had never even been to Virginia, and I didn't care what the school was like. I wanted out.
There are some tender things about being local. You know many secrets that aren't easily found, little nooks of a place where no one would think fun things could be found. You almost look forward to the end of the summer, so you can have your town back again in its emptiness, it's empty buses rumbling down streets blown over with sand and leaves, where all the traffic lights are set to blinking yellow and red. You learn that being alone isn't such a bad thing, not as scary as you once thought. You walk around a lot with no real purpose or direction because you know where everything ends. The feeling of being left behind becomes so common that it doesn't hurt anymore and becomes standard, which makes it hard to adjust when you move away, as it has been for me.
Being local toughens you up, makes you grow up fast, but if you never leave, you may not reap the benefits of knowing what you know. Otherwise you're just another overused tour guide, rattling off things that you know already to be true. You're constantly teaching other people about your town, and about you, but you don't remember to ask them about them. Being local is something you can take with you, something you can apply wherever you go. It may take some of the fun out of visiting new places, but it does make you feel more in control. And being local is something that never leaves you.