Teen Life on the Strip Before Urban Renewal: The Las Vegas of Virginia

Paula Smith-Vanderslice

The strip at East Ocean View could be divided into two parts—everything that was paved and everything that was sand. In the winter, wind would rearrange sand over what had been sharp asphalt, concrete and stucco edges that defined the beach residents’ homes, old hotels and newer motor inns, and nightclubs and bars, massage parlors, adult paraphernalia stores and the streets they lined. Navy seamen who were AWOL, absent without leave, from the Little Creek Amphibious Base, knew they could find live music year round at the Purple Onion bar, where Shore Drive curved toward the base. Shore Drive was East Ocean View’s main street for talent, and vied for distinction with Main Street talent in downtown Norfolk.

For a girl of thirteen in the early 1970s, life had just begun to be defined; in school achievements, friendships, and her new neighborhood. It was so different from her old one in Maryland with its moms and dads who had something to do with the university. East Ocean View seemed to exist because of the U.S. Navy. Most dads were in the Navy, and most moms were married to men who were. Women who weren’t married to seamen could work on one side of the coin at convenience stores, restaurants, fast-food franchises, or on the flipside at massage parlors or as prostitutes, training teenaged girls.

Since there wasn’t a junior high school in the neighborhood, kids were bused to the other side of Little Creek, to Azalea Gardens Junior High. Little Creek was a psychological boundary, as well as a physical one—between those close to poverty and those closer to better. At Azalea Gardens, the girl could strive to be her best, as her old neighborhood network had taught her. She excelled, winning the respect of her peers, and made new friends, although leaving the old ones behind had been hard. The bus became the link over water to a better world.

After school, life in East Ocean View was basic. A walk to the shore’s edge showed, to the east, the jetties of rock just wide enough for a Navy LST ship to fit between, on its way to or from the amphibious base. Like a futuristic giant, the grey metal hulk eased slowly through the water, carefully guided by an unseen hand and state-of-the-art equipment. On the other side of the jetties, the bridge at Lynnhaven Inlet stretched toward the Cape Henry Lighthouse—the last bit of land on the southern shore before there were no more mouths, the Atlantic Ocean. Turning around 180 degrees, one’s eyes would pass over the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, north along the line of the bridge-tunnel until it disappeared into the horizon, northwest to Hampton Roads, and west along miles of lights to the edge of West Ocean View.

The fragile strip of sand separated human habitation from the richness of saltwater sea life, and defined activity for those who couldn’t afford to live twenty miles away at Virginia Beach, with its streets middle class families everywhere gambled over in the Milton-Bradley board game Monopoly. Retaining walls were ignored by sand crabs and residents alike, but when the bay became angry they served their purpose, to keep nature at bay.

For millennia in the Tidewater, people have made their living on the water oystering, fishing for local favorites spot and croaker, among other fish, and trapping the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. In the aftermath of the Industrial Era, the bay would come to harbor waste, such as Kepone runoff from rivers inland. The post-industrial Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations vied to be heard over the clamor of Newport News shipbuilding. The U.S. Navy’s vessels have given way to man’s experiments over the past few centuries from wood to ever-thinner, nearly impenetrable metals as the weapons they carry have become more chemically concentrated, piercing, and powerful.

The girl knew nothing of this as she spent her sunny weekend day tying a piece of raw chicken to a string she had gotten at the H & B Market. She cast the string out into the bay after wading out a few feet onto its sandy bottom. Boats plied the water in the distance, out past the swimmers. She dunked her body, and stuck her head under the salty water. The outboard motors whirred. She stood up, and the sound of the motors was changed in the thin line between water and air to a sound harder and less close.

The string pulled against her grip, and she stood for several more minutes. Then she followed the string hand over hand until she came to the chicken leg. A half dozen crabs clung to it. She put the collection of shell and flesh in a paper bag and went to see her friend Equator’s mother, who she knew would boil the crabs in a big pot of beer and water, with spicy seasoning, as her Navy husband liked it. After dropping off the food, she went home to see to her own mother, a college graduate document translator turned factory worker.

Her mom had fallen on hard times that alcohol abuse can cause. The girl’s inheritance had been lost in too many alcoholic spurts of generosity, to the tune of $5,000 telegrams. Still, the girl felt that her mother needed her. Their $95 a month four-room apartment, although sparsely furnished, seemed adequate for them and her stepfather, George, and stepsister, Josie.

George worked as a foreman in sheetrock drywall construction piece work, and also drank too much. He loved to party, and so did his daughter. Josie was fifteen, and the confines of school could no longer hold her from the world of adults and the chance at a better life a young man could offer. She had been the only child of eight siblings to come north from Louisiana to live with her father when he and her mother divorced. Two years older than the girl, Josie beat her up from time to time, venting her own frustrations when she was at home and not out with her friends on the poor side of town. Josie would go on like this for a couple more years until she had twins at seventeen. She and Diego, who was in the Navy, would marry and move to Pensacola, Florida.

The girl liked to go to the Ocean View Amusement Park for community cleanup day, where in turn for bagging trash on the beach kids could ride free unlimited rides all day with their work vouchers. A fun friend to ride the rides with was Linda. She was a pretty blonde girl a year older who lived a block away on 21st Bay Street. They enjoyed the thrill of riding the old wooden rollercoaster, the Rocket, over and over again. They got to enjoy this coaster before it would be demolished during filming of the Movie, “Rollercoaster,” in 1976 when the girl’s future boyfriend Alfonso would become a local extra on the set. He was one of many anonymous faces in the background of luminaries Richard Widmark, George Segal, Timothy Bottoms, Henry Fonda, and Susan Strasberg, whose faces were valuable and worth protecting with security. It was through Linda that the girl met her brother Sean, who would become her infatuation in a few years.

Linda was one of several pretty—and not so pretty—neighborhood girls who would not see their way to high school without becoming pregnant and having their babies first. It was a way of life in East Ocean View in the ‘70s, before AIDS. Sexual promiscuity and an informal illegal drug economy, with prostitution underlying it, seemed to define much of the fabric and personality of the girl’s community. It would remind her of a song that came along a few years later, “Emmaline.” Linda was like Emmaline. Her name should be written high across that silver screen. At least she did make it to glamorous Virginia Beach, of Monopoly board game fame, to live with her older sister.

As she had in her old neighborhood, the girl liked to read books, but there was no community library to go to. When she became bored, she would walk the beach to the west, the way she could go for miles without a body of water blocking her footsteps. Sometimes when George and her Mom were hungover from noisy drinking the school night before, she would skip class since she hadn’t been able to do her homework, and escape to the uncluttered landscape and fresh breeze of the beach. She would watch the seagulls and whitecaps, so beautiful compared to the smoke-filled room, endless beer cans and cheap Ripple wine bottles that littered her home. Nobody bothered her on the beach. She could retreat into her shell like a hermit crab.

Josie was living away from the apartment now. One time she visited she brought the book, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, by Hannah Green.

Josie said, “Since you like to read books so much, read this.”

The girl dutifully took the book and read about a schizophrenic’s fantasy land called Yr. The girl had a tendency to want to live the characters in the books she read, but this book was too depressing, like her home surroundings. The girl read books a lot, but being open to this book’s meaning made something snap in her mind. She tore up the book. No, life wasn’t like this! It reminded her of her next door neighbor, Stella, who was divorced and had her two children taken away, since the court ruled her an unfit mother. Stella played Janis Joplin records. She looked like Joplin and tried to imitate her. She was found one day in her apartment a couple days after she had passed away when neighbors hadn’t seen her for a while and had the resident manager investigate. The girl attended Stella’s funeral and met Stella’s ex-husband and two children, who also had a hard time comprehending why their mother had overdosed.

There were no other teenagers living in what George called “skid row,” a dwelling of 15 one-story apartments, known by the non-fancy numeric address of 9553 22nd Bay Street. There were some younger kids living there, one white boy and a black boy and girl. The white child’s father grew marijuana on the side of their end unit along Pleasant Avenue, shielded from view by weed growth along the boundary fence. The girl didn’t play with him or babysit him. For some reason, their paths didn’t cross. The girl’s mother said to her that when the boy waved at them, he reminded her of a young old man. Instead, the girl crocheted, and being entrepreneurial, sold the afghan she made to the other children’s mother, and babysat them sometimes. She also did a needlepoint of the words, “Tennis, Anyone?” to hang on her dilapidated bedroom wall. The words seemed glamorously out of place since there was no tennis court around, but hopeful. She found that babysitting was a good, decent way to make money. Babysitting was something she could do, since she didn’t have any other work skills. She babysat for a prostitute sometimes at the Palm Hotel a block away, and also for a young Navy couple.

It was fun to go with Linda and Josie at night in back of the Ship’s Cabin Restaurant and dance topless in front of the bay window showing breasts that, at least for the girl, weren’t yet fully developed. The Ship’s Cabin was a fine restaurant, one that would in the 1990s survive the urban renewal attempt for the neighborhood by the city of Norfolk, when entire square blocks had been leveled and people who could only afford low rent had been relocated. Most diners at the restaurant came from other communities for its excellent local seafood, and while dining their view sometimes included a surprise—local girls dancing free of charge.

The 7-Eleven across the street catered to young sexual interests in a benign way, where the girl and her friends could sometimes persuade anyone not a minor patronizing the store to buy Playgirl and beer. When the girls walked on Pleasant Avenue behind the Shore Drive Motel, a car would sometimes slow down and the twisted person inside at the wheel would proudly expose his mighty organ. He would proposition them, and they’d wave him on. Louie from St. Louis would sit at the edge of the road with his Rastafarian weave and tell stories about his travels in Europe to anyone walking by who would listen. It surely seemed like there was another world out there, and that they were missing it.

The girl didn’t get an allowance from her parents. Her mother received food stamps. Blue Laws in the Commonwealth of Virginia prohibited sales of certain items on Sunday, so her mother had to plan accordingly to buy liquor, otherwise the adults in the family would go dry at home. The girl bought groceries sometimes, when there wasn’t enough food to eat in the refrigerator. Her only reinforcement of what constituted a good diet came from learning nutrition in middle school, and from what her grandmother from a hardscrabble Montana upbringing had taught her during two-week summer visits to Pennsylvania. Sometimes she didn’t eat enough, but she never tried to starve herself or make up for it by eating too much, either.

She had good sense that way. There was no money for her to buy new clothes, so she wore Josie’s hand-me-downs. Every once in a while, she shoplifted—nothing larger than nail polish from the Woolco department store across from the amphibase—giving in to peer pressure and every teen girl’s desire to be more attractive. She never got caught, but was never tempted into greater forms of theft, either. A thread held. She was smart enough to know that even living on skid row was better than the punishment of being caught and sent to the detention center.

When the girl became sixteen in 1975, she found that more and more her free time was spent being asked on dates by boys. Some were known to her only from school during weekdays at class and some were boys from the neighborhood, the latter half less likely to be well off than the ones from school. The neighborhood boys rode the school bus with her, and sometimes their parents saw each other at the market. Sometimes she would get a ride with Sean, Linda’s brother, for whom she had developed a serious crush. One kiss was enough to know, and she found out how deep her feelings went for him compared with the other few boys she had kissed. She hadn’t even had such a strong feeling toward Jack, with whom she had done the nasty. What she felt toward Sean was worth holding on to. She cherished their time together. He seemed to love her too, she thought, but she was still the girl on the poor side of town. What she felt for Sean would prove to be as unrecoverable as a grain of sand on the wind, as he was more interested in impressing a pretty girl across town, over whom they would break up. Sean wanted better connections than the girl could give.

A person can’t go very far in Norfolk without crossing some body of water. Once she had crossed Little Creek, she knew she was in a Norfolk of more possibility, as evidenced by the nicer houses and types of cars in people’s driveways, and in the landscaping of gardens that suggested human beings who could love nature, not just booze. Some attempt of this was made a couple blocks off the beach also, where wind-driven sand was still in the soil. People’s behavior was also less wild the further away from the beach one went.

The girl had no church within walking distance, and she desired to sing as she had at her old Episcopalian church in the old neighborhood. Since they had no car or even a telephone, she had to read postings in the food market or talk with people who came to her front door. One such visitor, a pastor, told her about the Ocean View Church of God, a new church several miles away. She’d never been to a “holy roller” type of church, but agreed to go, because of the genuine friendliness of the pastor.

Open prayer sessions were sometimes held in a building next to the Purple Onion, but that was where wayward, addicted adult souls were saved, down on main street, Shore Drive. The girl wanted to go to a real church, where there would be other kids and a Sunday school. She sought normalcy. Her Mom hadn’t been to church since the girl was small, and George and Josie didn’t go, either, although the girl had held hands with Josie at the Shore Drive prayer session.

Drugs were to be had, especially from Charlie, who also lived on skid row with his sister, Lisa, and their mother. Teens in the ‘hood still settled their differences with their fists. Guns hadn’t made it onto the teen scene there. They heard that their friend Wanda was in prison in Texas for murder.

At Lake Taylor High School, racial clashes and threats from some students resulted in overturned silverware in the cafeteria, fights between black and white students, and a shutdown of the school on some days. These were the famous busing riots of the 1970s. At Lake Taylor, just about everyone, black and white, was bused to school. The lake the school was named after was obscured from view behind a line of trees, a cruel design flaw to minds needing a break from “the box,” their affectionate name for the square, nondescript building their school was housed in. The girl never saw the lake during her entire three years of high school because as soon as she arrived by school bus she was locked into her class schedule until it was time to board the bus home at the end of the day. The only way to see the lake was to skip class, which the girl didn’t risk doing on school grounds.

School itself was a form of escape from her dreary home life. School was a way to get together with girls from nice homes in her class, the class of ’77, who she wouldn’t see in her neighborhood. Their mothers told them to stay away from there. Sometimes the more fortunate would do the McDonald’s drive-thru in their cars they had gotten as their 16th birthday present. They also rode around drinking beer and then, being stopped by the police, would have to use a subtle act of persuasion to be set free, promising never to do it again. In wilder moments, after the Titans won a football game, one of them would jump on their friends’ car and ride around the parking lot on the hood, somehow miraculously staying on. After riding around with friends learning a stick shift in a Chevy Vega, they got beer from someone who wasn’t a minor. The girl got drunk, and vomited. When her date asked her what was bothering her so much that she would get drunk, she said she felt that her life was over.

Since neither her mom nor George owned a car, the girl was limited mostly to transportation by her prized bicycle her mom bought for her on her birthday with factory earnings. Her mom was number three in seniority cutting swimming pools at General Foam Plastics Corporation. Sometimes, though, the girl could borrow their neighbor Steve’s old ’64 T-bird, with its zigzag coat hanger radio antenna, on excuse of having to go grocery shopping, if the car was available, since she had her learner’s permit. With such a strong engine, she would go speeding down Shore Drive in a heady burst of freedom. She was a good driver, and it seemed like her senses were reawakened, flying away from her stuck, poor, alcoholic environment.

It was fun to wear her bikini and ride her bike all the way to those Monopoly streets, Atlantic and Pacific Avenues, since no one had the money to ride the Trailways Bus, even that far. Car horns blew their approval as the traffic whizzed by dangerously close. As there was no telephone at home, her neighborhood communication was limited. She talked in person with guys in the Navy looking for a date and other high school kids on the school bus. She collected money for the March of Dimes with junior high kids she knew. It was a highlight of her limited existence to present the collected $50 to Soupy Sales, the “What’s My Line?” game show regular, at the Telerama’s location, the then-new Omni International Hotel in downtown Norfolk, over deluxe French fries, the only food they could afford and still have money for the city bus trip back home to the fringes.

Living at the beach, one had a laid back image to maintain, but at sixteen a girl who lived there year round had to be very careful who she knew. One day, when she was sitting outside to escape the humidity and heat, since they had no air conditioner, a man, posing as a doctor, said he wanted to examine her breasts. He said he would pay her $1,500 for allowing him to tell her story for True Confessions magazine. She took the chance, since it was a large sum of money. He seemed sincere, so she let him inside, and he proceeded to fondle and kiss her breasts. Next—he made it sound like some kind of experiment—he wanted to have sex with a condom. She thought this maneuvering of her body was all happening pretty fast, but thought that if she could get the money, her problems would be over. She felt hardly anything during sex with him, and was detached from the whole thing. He said he had to go back to his practice in another city, Denver, and that he would call her at the 7-Eleven phone booth at a specific day and time to deliver her cash. She waited there and then, and the call never came. That song, “You’re No Good,” personified him. Her last bit of trust in people was slipping away with what was left of her innocence.

She became depressed after that, and skipped about two months of class altogether that year. Her once stellar grades slipped so low that she wound up somewhere in the middle of her class. She didn’t want to see a guidance counselor, because that would draw attention to problems at home. One night, when George and her mom were in a drunken sleep, she looked around at the mold covered and peeling bathroom ceiling and walls and realized she had to get out of there. She took cash from her Mom’s wallet, and fled.

She caught the last Greyhound bus of the day bound for Richmond. Once she arrived a few hours later, she hid under an overpass after she had walked away from the bus station for a while. She started walking again after a rest, and realized she was hungry. She had a few dollars left, and bought some Twinkies and a Coke at a 24-hour truck stop. She didn’t know anyone in Richmond, and had no idea where she was going. She had gone as far as her money would take her. It got to be very late, and she saw on the truck stop’s clock that it was 1:00 a.m. She couldn’t stay there, but had to keep moving lest someone try to ask favors or ask where her family was.

She left, and didn’t walk far at that hour before some cops pulled over and asked her if she needed a ride. She said no, thanks, but they followed her and asked her where she lived. She couldn’t make up anything, since it wouldn’t do her any good anyway. When she told them she lived in Norfolk, they asked what she was doing in Richmond. When she couldn’t come up with any good reason why she was alone at sixteen at 1 o’clock in the morning in another city, they realized she was a runaway.

The girl got into the patrol car with the police and rode to the station. After answering questions, she was told that her next of kin were being notified. She was escorted to a small cell, which turned out to be a solitary confinement cell. The cop apologized that that was the only holding space they had, since they were pretty full. The room had a cot and a door with a small space to look through, but it was otherwise dark. After a couple of hours, one of the cops told her that her mother was wiring money through Western Union to pay for her trip home, and that some other police would be at the bus when she got off in Norfolk. She hoped she had scared her mother enough to make her stop drinking.

When she got home, her mother yelled at her for bringing attention to the alcoholic situation at home. A police interventionist counseled her mother that her daughter might be taken away from her for good. Her mother said she didn’t want to be put through this embarrassment again. The girl felt awful.

Her mom kept drinking after that. George kept drinking with her and getting laid off from work, until he heard that his mother in Arkansas was terminally ill with cancer. After eight years of common law marriage, George left her mother to return to his.

The girl sat on the beach and watched the waves lap at her feet. The horizon seemed to stretch forever to the north to the naked eye, as it always had. She looked out from the southern shore. Boats crisscrossed close in to the shore, out of the way of the deep water shipping lanes. A storm was coming; she could smell it in the way the wind changed. The East Ocean View sand, a mid-Atlantic beige the color of her skin in winter, swirled around her feet. She knew that if she didn’t seek shelter soon, it would become her scalp, as well.

Her life was changing, like the tide. Change was predictable, but was change all there was? “The wise man builds his house on solid ground.” That was what she had missed lately. Solid ground. Wisdom. Solidarity in her family. When she’d needed her mother to pay attention to her, her mother now payed attention to alcohol instead. The girl remembered how her mother used to be, when she cared about her appearance, dressed nicely, looked so nice, was pleasant, and had nice friends. Before too much smoking and drinking. Then, the alcohol stole the caring away from her mother. Achievement in class didn’t matter so much anymore. Nobody cared to see her do well. Not like in her old neighborhood.

She could practically lay there at home like Stella, the Janis Joplin look-alike, since her parents weren’t really acting like caring adults. But, she didn’t need to alter her mind with drugs. That was what had killed Stella. Stella had been a nice person to talk with, before the drugs took over and robbed her natural personality and made it disappear. Or alcohol, which had been taking her mother away from her for too long. The girl had seen what it had done to her. What life could they have had without too much alcohol? Freedom. Was it just another word for nothing left to lose? Maybe freedom depended on people appreciating it.

She looked out from her thoughts and saw that the sky had darkened to an angry grey. She noticed that everyone else had gone, and that the beach was deserted. Waves were crashing against the shore. Washing away the sand, but then rearranging and replenishing it, giving it back. Now emptied of people, it was still so alive. It was parents drinking too much too often distorting their own emotions that was damaging, emptying, of minds and emotions. This, too, would have to change. But she wouldn’t be able to wait for that kind of change much longer.

Life on the edge. She could give up and sink, or swim. Could there be a better life with people than this? She remembered Louie, the man with the Rastafarian weave. The girl decided that there was more in life to know, and she had a feeling it wasn’t too far in the future. Even though her future was uncharted waters, she decided to swim.


Paula Smith-Vanderslice’s articles have appeared in: The Diamondback, The National Mall Newsletter, Hunger Notes and started the Hunger around the Nation features (World Hunger Education Service), and Skylights (Capitol Visitor Center).