WILDWOOD, N.J. — The empty cans of Natty Ice were scattered in the sand, spilling out of the plastic bag, working out to about two beers per person. It was noon on a weekday on the beach near Morey's Piers, a perfectly cheery day for this group of college-bound teenagers from Philly to spend at the Shore. Six cans of the 30-pack were still in the car.
Sure they were drinking underage, they said, but they were doing it in a way they considered responsible. They purposely picked a place away from families to set down their backpacks. They were starting early in the day and would taper, and at least one of the group was not drinking at all for driving purposes. When it was pointed out that the Natural Ice cans were in open view, they quickly tidied up.
"We're not looking for any trouble," said one 18-year-old. "We're just looking for a nice day out."
These chill teenagers, along with thousands of other teenagers like them from Philly and its suburbs and elsewhere who descend on Shore towns with their igloo coolers ready to party, have proven vexing for the small towns along the beaches and their police.
Arriving in adult-less groups, staying in houses they secured online with a willing adult's credit card, crowding into one person's summer house, or just sent off to a night on the boardwalk by parents looking to kick back themselves back at the summer rental, the teens are taking over the public spaces of some towns. It's an old story, perhaps, but one that has escalated in recent summers.
But it's not only Club Wa that was lit that weekend.
Shore towns were inundated with rowdy and underage drinking teens, in places such as the Sea Isle City promenade and beach, as well the boardwalks in Wildwood and North Wildwood or spilling out at night in the Longport playground or crowding into run-down rentals on side streets.
Hundreds wound up with underage drinking citations and Municipal Court dates, teenagers hailing from suburban enclaves such as Havertown, Yardley, Hatfield, Ardmore, and Lafayette Hill, cited by officers working the beach beat in uniform (Wildwood, North Wildwood, Margate) or undercover (Sea Isle City), and placed inside a police substation that looks like a shipping container to await their parents (Sea Isle again). Some, notoriously, were cited and held after fighting and being filmed as they were thrown to the sand by a police officer (Margate).
"It was out of control," said Mike Monichetti, owner of Mike's Seafood in Sea Isle. "Some people told me they had to move two and three times. The drinking — not even in coolers. Blatantly. People couldn't even walk down the promenade with their strollers, they were elbow-to-elbow with these kids. It was just bad. Liquor bottles in the trash cans on the boardwalk.
"Sea Isle is proactive in the police department, but how much can you do with [500 to] 700 kids? You'd think it's the Wild Wild West."
Wildwood arrested 101 for underage drinking the week of June 12 to 18, at least 40 of whom were from Havertown. In North Wildwood, increased police presence kept a lid on fighting, police said. "We have officers up on the boardwalk," said Capt. John Stevenson of North Wildwood. "We have 13 officers and a supervisor up there out looking for underage drinking. We have officers assigned to the beach."
Curfews have been successfully challenged, and are generally not enforced, he said.
In Avalon, Beach Patrol Capt. Murray Wolf says lifeguards were able to scatter two groups of about 25 teens on the Ninth Street beach with a simple strategy, he said.
"We charge them for beach tags," he said. "That throws a damper on it."
A $6 charge might be all of a threat some teenagers need to move on. What else is to be done?
In Margate, Wawa is paying for a police detail to close down Club Wa and return Wawa to its primary function of late-night hoagie runs.
Is the answer as simple as "more for them to do" such as a bowling alley, as some say in Margate, where neighbors recently objected to a miniature golf course? Should lifeguards, most underage themselves, be checking those coolers?
"For me, I love the kids," said Moe Salama, working the Bust 'em up balloon-dart game on the Wildwood boardwalk. Certainly there's plenty to do in Wildwood for teens, but that does not mean they're not also drinking.
Margate Commissioner Maury Blumberg, the father of teenagers, notes Margate once had two bowling alleys; the Wawa location itself was once a miniature golf course. Town officials are considering opening up recreation buildings at night but know older teens are unlikely to ditch the vodka-in-Gatorade-bottles lifestyle and head there.
"You have to keep them moving, find something for them to do," Blumberg said. "Go to the baseball field. There's baseball games all the time. There's things that the kids could be doing."
And what about the parents? On social media, local parents called out their Pennsylvania counterparts for seeming to abandon norms of keeping tabs on their kids when they're at the Shore. It's as if the entire Shore, a place adults already view through rose-colored glasses, is seen as a place they can simply let the kids run free, or drop them off without worry, like that one house all the kids seem to wind up at where parents are not quite sure if there are any adults at home and don't ask. Just text if you need a ride home!
"It sounds like it was parents saying 'Sure, have a good time and go to the Shore for Memorial Day weekend,' " said Leigh Turner, a mother of two teenagers who lives in Margate year-round. "It was really kids just going wild. There was nobody there saying, 'What time are you going home? Where are you going to be? Who are you with?' For me as a parent, I found it very sad. I hope that when my child goes into somebody else's community they're not behaving that way."
Mayor Mike Becker said he believes Memorial Day Weekend, coinciding with post-proms and Senior Week rituals, will be the worst of it. As for the crowds, he is mystified. "Where do these kids stay?" he said. "We have no hotels." But on sites such as Airbnb, there are hundreds of rental options in Margate ready for booking.