Nowhere was smoking more epidemic than on the Boulevard, where young women pushed baby strollers with one hand as they lifted cigarettes with the other; where fifteen-year-old girls licked ice cream cones from their right hands and puffed cigarettes from their left; where bands of dirty, foul-mouthed, buck-toothed teens roamed in their Winston Cup T-shirts and Marlboro Country caps; where Joe Camel, surrounded by his cool dromedary pals, gazed out from a front window display in the Castaways and other Boulevard convenience stores. Ocean Boulevard is the tobacco industry’s dream.
Smoking was one way these “Boulevard Rats,” as they called themselves, won acceptance to this special club. They came to the Boulevard as refugees from broken and abusive homes, many driven out by the men their mothers chose to live with. To many of them the Boulevard was the closest thing to a family they had known in years. If smoking was the price they paid for belonging, it seemed small enough to a seventeen-year-old.
Runaway children came to Myrtle Beach from hundreds of miles away, with their frantic parents often close behind. In the summer of 1999, posters appeared periodically on Boulevard windows and lampposts, with the face, name and other data on missing teens. I saw a middle-aged man in front of the Pavilion, handing out fliers to all who passed, asking if anyone had seen his daughter. Some parents sent private investigators to Myrtle Beach, looking for a lead on their children.
It was as stylized as Westside Story, except these young punks had no gangs they could belong to. And for the most part, they had no jobs, no cars, no families, no place to live. But they had the Boulevard and – for a few hours each day – some companionship as they bantered and whistled at the girls and set up their next drug scores. They were almost celebrities in their belligerent nonconformity, returning year after year, thousands of them living on the streets, sleeping on the beaches, turning tricks, panhandling, fighting, crying, begging, going hungry, going to jail.
Like millions of others, they came here because they heard Myrtle Beach held some balm, some elixir that would give them hope and happiness. Most of them would only have their hearts broken one more time. Some would go berserk and we would read about them in the newspaper after a night of mayhem or tragedy. Others would grow more jaded and cynical; a few would even grow up.