Labor Day’s Dividing Line

Walking the line: Larry and Jack walk the imaginary line which divides their Island properties. By defending it, they are defining it, and carving out their little piece of the shore. They are making the rules together through conflict, so everyone eventually will know what’s up. What’s cool, what’s not cool. Just like us! Larry and Jack walked this line almost everyday.

Labor Day is often used by humans as a convenient, social way to mark the end of Summer.

Of course this is not astronomically accurate as astronomical Summer still has plenty of time left before the solstice, which marks its astronomical end, occurs. And it is only meteorologically correct on those special years when the calendar conveniently cooperates and drops the Labor Day Holiday bomb precisely on September 1st: the actual end of meteorological Summer (which, I hate to tell anyone celebrating a last hurrah today, was 3 days ago… meteorological Fall has actually already begun!)

But science aside, Labor Day as a seasonal social marker down the shore is still as convenient as it is divisive. Take traffic for example. On just about any year, Labor Day Weekend is usually an extreme traffic crescendo, with the following Tuesday always showing an abrupt and shocking change. At the start of the generally-defined Summer season, on the other hand, heavy Island traffic builds slowly; it creeps up on everyone throughout May & June up until July 4th, when everyone finally can’t take it anymore, and then remembers that it is not going to subside until, of course, Labor Day.

Yet while it is clear that Labor Day Weekend marks some sort of dividing line, what exactly it represents is actually quite fluid. And in fact, how we see the transition of Island life at Labor Day Weekend says more about us, our perceptions of social class, what we value as social capital, and our unique circumstances and preferences, than it does anything about the actual change of seasons.

Long Beach Island is a habitat for animals; and that includes us. Yet unlike the Island’s native animals like the Piping Plover, Osprey, or Terrapin who live here because their biology and evolution have tied their existence specifically to this place, we choose it optionally as a habitat. We humans certainly don’t have to live, or even visit, here. In fact, a barrier Island is not really a good biological habitat for humans at all as we are a poorly flood adapted species and barrier islands are born to flood. Economically, the shore is gut wrenchingly expensive with coastal areas having some of the highest tax burdens, real estate values, and consumer prices in the world. Not only is it a choice for us, but it’s an extreme choice: one we make at tremendous expense, and enormous risk, for whatever it might be that we obviously perceive as a huge reward.

So it is no surprise then that humans put a strong value on the social value of the specific circumstances surrounding their decision to live any part of their lives in such a place. Whenever two strangers meet on Long Beach Island, or off-Island and the subject comes up, it is only a matter of seconds before the game “whose been comin’ here their whole life longer” gets started, and the special social brinksmanship of the shore commences. I love this phenomenon for two reasons. First, because I believe at its heart, this game is just a way for people to express to one another how deeply they love the shore and how strongly they are bonded to it. And second, because I always lose this game so have nothing at stake in it.

I live my best days in New Jersey, and I work in New York, so everyone hates me wherever I go. In New Jersey, folks take one look at my bright orange New York plates and I’m a BENNY; a lowly life form in the social pecking order. NY plates necessitate that I accept that, without recourse or defense. In New York, they learn I live in New Jersey and assume, correctly or not, that I’m an a$$hole. Clearly, to have truly valuable social standing on a habitat, the first rule is that it has to be your only habitat.

So while it is clear that day trippers and tourists rank low on this sociological ladder of the shore because they have no real skin in the game, so apparently do homeowners who winter in Florida or the Caribbean, own multiple homes, work out of state, travel excessively, and the like. That leaves us with folks who live only on Long Beach Island, and never leave. Yet even among this elite social class, the game is not over: how long you’ve lived on the Island, if your kids go to school locally, do you own a business, if you were born and raised on the Island, how many generations deep… all are valuable social currency which can continue to define who is really in charge, and who ultimately wins the Game Of Homes. You can hear this dynamic social game playing itself out quite loudly in conversations across the Island right now. No matter who you are, or where you stand on this imaginary ladder, someone is always waiting just one rung above you to kick your teeth out each time you attempt scold someone below. It can be a complicated and dangerous game! I feel relieved to sport NY plates.

The end of the Labor Day Weekend certainly marks the official end of the Summer tourism season, but it no more accurately marks the end of “Summer” sociologically than it does astronomically or meteorologically. And while it would seem clear and helpful to use the above mentioned sociological ladder as a way of defining what the division at Labor Day really represents for Island humans, it turns out that it doesn’t really help us at all.

For a common misconception among human tourists is that pre-Labor Day is Summer for the tourists and post-labor day is Summer for “locals.”  Yet that’s only really true for Island residents who work Summer seasonally-intensive/dependent jobs, or who don’t have kids. If you’ve got kids in school, or are in any way affiliated with the school system, Summer is clearly over on Labor Day despite the meteorology or astronomy, or your social status! Many multi-generational, full time, Island residents are taking their final swim with the day-trippers before the onslaught of school and sports begin, because they know they won’t have the time or the energy to get back to the sea, despite it being right down the block from their house, for the next several months.

Yet if, on the other hand, you are a retired Islander who smartly rents his or her home during the peak tourism season for exorbitant fees which you can live off of for the rest of the year, or work 24/7/120 in a bustling seasonal restaurant to make your stack… well, lucky you… your “Summer” might just be getting started.

“Everything is better in September” is an old Island platitude which, when true, is really, really true, but in some seasons is a disaster. Still, lots of people with the luxury of circumstance allowing them to take September and October off smartly choose it as their prime-time to be on the Island. This applies to everyone, from locals, to part-time residents, and even day-trippers. The call-of-the-fall is all of the bounty of Summer, none of the crowds, and perhaps the most gorgeous weather of the year. It is Summer 2.0 (and even Summer 1.0 for some.) Yet on the other hand, when we talk about crowding at the shore, it is often forgotten that some people love the chaos of the big holiday weekends, making it their can’t-miss time to be on the Island. Those folks would be bored to tears on even the most spectacular September day.

The truth is, Summer, like life, is what you make it. And what you make it starts with what you dream it could be for you. What the dividing line of Labor Day represents to each of us is simply a reflection of our own dreams, preferences, choices, and circumstances.

For me, quite specifically and above all else, Labor Day is the convenient sociological marker for the official end of the Island’s crown jewel and raison d’être: our local bird nesting season. Our Piping Plovers, Least Terns, Black Skimmers, and Oystercatchers have closed their books officially on another Summer, and I along with them. Most are already deep into their migrations if not already at their winter homes. Our female Osprey have begun to leave the Island, and the males and youngsters will be following soon.

Sure, I’ll keep myself thrilled and busy with all of the magnificently amazing things the Island-as-habitat has to offer in the post Labor Day season. Even winter will be amazing, I’m sure, as it always is. But a piece of me will be hibernating and patiently waiting the return of my favorite Islanders who, at least in my book, most assuredly sit at the tippy-top of the Island’s hierarchy of creatures who have-the-most-claim to the Island: our native animals. My life is bound to their season and they only have two: the one where they’re here, and the one where they’re not! So I’m crying today for sure. But that’s just me. What about you?

I suppose we are the same. The best season on LBI is always the one when you’re there, and have the time to enjoy those things which justify your very smart, expensive, and risky decision to be a human on a fragile Island.

Cheers to a another great season down, or away from, the shore… whatever that means to you!