"Hey, got any extra Jimmy Buffett tickets?"
The two 50ish retirees, both wearing sunglasses and hoop earrings, laughed as they tried to get passersby to stop and chat awhile, a Southerner's favorite pastime on sleepy summer days. And on this overcast afternoon, with a cooling breeze from the Gulf of Mexico, there was plenty to talk about.
"It's usually bumper-to-bumper traffic this time of year," said Bunny Munoz, a lifelong resident of the Alabama coast.
Her friend Rita Kruger motioned me to join them on a weather-worn bench on the boardwalk. "Normally, we wouldn't be able to find a seat here," she said. Behind them were two red flags, one atop the other, which means it's illegal in Gulf Shores to go into the water on this late June day. A smattering of bathers ignored the warning, and a couple of them were scrubbing the soles of their feet at an outdoor faucet.
Sand near the Gulf Shores boardwalk was, as it usually is, white, soft and so porous that it was hard to walk on. But midway to the Gulf, where the lapping surf had turned the sand tan and made it firm underfoot, there was brown oil, looking as though it had been drizzled and sprayed by an abstract painter. When a gust of wind blew our way, the smell was pungent: wet sand mingled with dirty petroleum. Tar balls looked like dog droppings but were sticky on bare feet and sandals.
Nibblin' on sponge cake,
Watchin' the sun bake,
All of those tourists covered with oil....
This year, Buffett's "Margaritaville" lyrics have taken on a whole new meaning.
"When they clean the beach up, it's just beautiful again," Munoz said. "There's white sand the next morning."
Do they clean it up much?
"All the time," Kruger said.
No one on the northern coast of the Gulf of Mexico, from Louisiana's New Orleans and Grand Isle, to Mississippi's Gulfport and Biloxi, to Alabama's Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, to the Florida Panhandle's Perdido Key, Pensacola Beach and on to Destin and Panama City, is even pretending things are good now.
Certainly not since the last days of June, when the oil gushing from the ruined Deepwater Horizon rig 41 miles off Louisiana reached the Mississippi, Alabama and Florida Panhandle beaches just days before the peak of the summer season.
The situation changes almost by the minute, including some hopeful news late last week about capping the well. But with damage not likely to disappear any time soon, people I talked to on my visit at the cusp of high season were angry about the spill and anxious about their livelihoods, especially in light of a tourism forecast that shows room occupancy about half of what it was last year.
Yet residents here, like those across the Gulf Coast, have rebounded in the past from wicked hurricanes and storms. Disasters bring them together. Giving up is not in their makeup.
Singer-songwriter Buffett is one of them. He was born in Mobile, Ala., about an hour northwest of here, and later lived in the artsy town of Fairhope, facing Mobile Bay about 45 minutes northwest of Gulf Shores.
Last Sunday, Buffett gave a free concert on the beach at Gulf Shores; the 35,000 free tickets — 12,500 to house and condo rental agencies as booking lures — were snatched up in 10 minutes.
At that concert, he changed his "Margaritaville" lyrics slightly.
"Some people claim that there's a woman to blame," the original song said. "But I know it's nobody's fault." On July 11, that phrase became, "But I know it's all BP's fault."
The crowd cheered.
Buffett is a partner in the new 162-room Margaritaville hotel, his first, which opened June 28 in Pensacola, Fla., an hour east of here.
In that regard, he is a kindred spirit with the owners and managers in the vacation rental market in this area. There are 16,000 accommodations — hotel rooms, houses and condo rentals — in Gulf Shores. That's partly what attracted 4.5 million visitors last year, a number that is expected to drop by half, even with a slew of no-deposit reservations and discounts of up to 50% off regular summer rates, said Kim Chapman, public relations manager of the Alabama Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The tourism boom began after 1979's Hurricane Frederic, which nearly destroyed a smaller Gulf Shores and Orange Beach but created a building boom that made this area a major beach resort.
In 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit.
Near the cashier's counter at Mikee's Seafood, a block from the beach, are parallel lines like those parents mark on walls to measure their children's height. The lower, at 12 inches, is the water level from Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which did little damage here. The higher mark, 6 feet, is a reminder of Ivan, which turned much of the beachfront into kindling.
Gulf Shores and Orange Beach rebuilt. Again.
And now there is oil on the beach. Tourists are canceling reservations. But residents hope they can meet this newest crisis with an old resolve.
"People are asking what they can do to help," Chapman said. "One way is to come visit and let us show them what we have here."
"Other than going into the water or chartering a fishing boat, there's plenty to do" on the Alabama side of the 32-mile island that extends for a few more miles into Florida's Perdido Key.
For example, Fort Morgan, a Civil War fort at the western tip of the county's beach road, is open daily and offers candlelight tours on Tuesday evenings in summer. Arnold Palmer designed three of the region's numerous 18-hole golf courses.
Shoppers may find nirvana just north of Gulf Shores in Foley's Tanger Outlets, where a $498 Coach purse sold for $149 not long ago. And those who like beach kitsch may giggle when they see two of Gulf Shores'souvenir/T-shirt shops; one is entered through a door in a purple and white polka dot octopus, the other through a wide-open shark's mouth.
There's also a water park; a zoo where children can pet a baby monkey or kangaroo; a small amusement park and putt-putt golf courses.
There are clubs with live music — country, blues, rock that you might not hear in California and names — Pink Pony Club springs to mind — you probably won't see out West either. Some are remnants of the old Alabama beach style, once dubbed "Redneck Riviera."
Weekend crowds at the Flora-Bama honky-tonk near the state line are legendary for partying and for leaving brassieres draped over the rafters. I was surprised to see children eating here at 5 p.m. on a recent Monday, shielded by the hour and day from the beer-swilling, dancing-to-live-music mob and seemingly oblivious to the display of undergarments overhead.
Although you'll find fast-food chains, the sit-down restaurants are local — and still serving seafood. Buffett's sister, Lucy, owns Lulu's, which faces a marina on the intracoastal canal.
Tacky Jack's Tavern in Orange Beach is known for its seafood and "Mexican Garbage" cheese and beef nachos with tomatoes, onions, black olives, sour cream, jalapeño peppers and salsa. (President Obama ordered that when he ate dinner here in June.)
"We're trying to support the local restaurants," said Robert Vealey, who drove 14 hours with his wife, Lisa, from their home in Ohio. They had hoped to get tickets to the Buffett concert and didn't but stayed anyway.
"We really like this area," said Robert, a steelworker. "It's laid back."
We watched as 20 or 30 men wearing hazmat suits assembled on the beach. A convoy of trucks rolled on the hard sand among three middle-aged people sitting beside the surf and families playing farther back on the beach. The cleanup was about to begin an hour or so before sunset.
We stayed awhile longer, watching and talking, even laughing, maybe as an antidote to what we saw on the beaches.
"If we couldn't laugh," Buffett sang in "Changes in Latitudes, Changes in Attitudes," "we'd all go insane."
For info: Gulf Shores/Orange Beach, Ala. (800) 745-7263, http://www.gulfshores.com. The beaches are 200 miles, or about 3 1/2 hours, east of New Orleans.