Jersey Shore's beach tag checkers stand their ground
Armed with a pair of sunglasses, something to read, and an impressive commitment to their cause, the beach tag checkers of Margate and Ventnor endure high tempers and temperatures to protect their beaches.
Among the characters - and excuses - they run up against are the guy who swears his mother has his tag, the girl who left it back at the condo, and the ever popular "I pay taxes, just let me on the damn beach."
In New Jersey, one of the few states in the nation where you have to cough up some cash to stick your feet in the sand, summer badge checking is a coveted job, but simultaneously a lesson in customer service. Katie Fox, 18, succinctly describes the gig that she's had for five summers, thus earning her the nickname "the Mayor": "I get paid to get a tan. I pretty much just sit here, it's great."
But life isn't always so leisurely for the 28 checkers in Margate and 24 in Ventnor, who make between $8.25 and $9 an hour. Shoobies wander in with no knowledge (or so they claim) of the tag toll. Regulars stroll down from their costly Shore homes and respond to requests for the plastic proof of purchase with an eye roll and a sarcastic retort.
"If you can afford to rent a second home at the beach, you'd think you could pay $15 for a summer to use it," said Bill Walsh, who supervises the beach tag checkers in Margate.
These two towns have some of the cheapest badges in the state ($15 for a seasonal; $10 for a week, after June 1). The badges, cross honored between the two Shore towns, bring in about $200,000 for Ventnor, said Capt. Bill Howarth, of the Ventnor City Beach Patrol. Margate took in $322,757 last year.Most checkers are ages 14 to 20, and almost all are female. (Though a 14-year-old male rookie made history on July 5. More on him later.)
It would be easy, of course, to sit back and let people enjoy their stay without going through the awkward hassle of confrontation. But taggers take their job seriously. If you're 12 or older, you need a tag.
Take sisters Alessandra and Angelica Jimenez - or as Walsh calls them, "the enforcers." The pair, 18 and 19, who are now based in St. Petersburg but formerly of Margate, still work summers at the shore and have one of the busiest Margate beaches at Decatur Avenue. It's also one that backs up to a bar.
"People can be harsh. My sister and I are on this beach because we don't let people go," said Alessandra, who will attend New York University in the fall.
If someone comes up with an excuse for where their tag is, Alessandra makes the person go get it - and if it's elsewhere on the beach, they have to leave collateral with her.
"I've had people leave car keys, iPhones, their home addresses, pairs of shoes."
Alessandra's sister, Angelica Jimenez, works one street over. The two compete for who sells the most badges in a given day. Angelica, who studies acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, has a keen eye for fakers.
"Oh, yeah, people try to act their way onto the beach." Some have even tried to climb over an embankment behind her back to sneak on.
"It's just like, seriously, guys?"
If a conversation gets heated - which can happen with the bar goers - they call for backup. They'll tell a lifeguard, who will radio the supervisor, Walsh, a former football coach at Holy Spirit High. All checkers also go through an orientation, where they are presented with different scenarios and train with veteran checkers before they start on their own.
Of course the bothersome bathers are the ones who stick out, but there are many friendly faces who offer water and treats, jokes and life updates.
"I love just talking to people, finding out where they're from," said Julia Iannelli, 16, a badge checker in her hometown of Ventnor.
Iannelli describes herself as "generally a pretty chill person," and the demeanor works well in this business. Real and fake sleepers are awkward to deal with, followed closely by real and fake language barriers.
On a Friday afternoon at the Dorset Avenue beach she passes a couple sitting on a blanket, drinking beer (not technically permitted but she's focused on the beach tag ordinance). "Excuse me, do you have beach tags?" she asked politely, shifting her weight from side to side, but standing her ground in the sand.
They don't. She explains the pricing: $10 for the week, $15 for the season, and no, there are no daily or hourly rates. They look from her to each other about five times before deciding to go get some cash and come back. "Sometimes they just sit there, looking at each other, expecting that after a while it will get too weird and I'll just leave," Iannelli said. "But I don't."
The job is in high demand. Both towns had more applicants than jobs.
Many develop a sixth sense for violators. "See those two teenagers over there? They definitely don't have them," Iannelli said.
How can she tell?
"They only brought a towel with them."
At the far north end of Ventnor (the last beach before Atlantic City), Nick Naticchione, 14, is patrolling Vassar Square Beach.
It's the worst assignment you can get. The beach borders Atlantic City - a free-beach city - which means anyone without a badge can simply walk four steps and be fine.
"I hate this beach," Naticchione said. He prefers to be on his feet. He likes the excitement of a sale.
He got it July 5.
"That day was different," he said, peering out over the beach bathers, hands folded on his lap. He was assigned to New Haven beach, a popular funneling-in point near the library.
Normally Naticchione goes around every 30 minutes to check for tags. But this time "there were so many, I just didn't sit down," he said.
Within an hour he had to call for change. Three hours later he needed more tags. By the end of the day Naticchione had sold $1,005 worth of beach tags - a Ventnor record.
For his efforts he got the standard $8.25 an hour plus 25 cents commission for each seasonal tag sold (it added up to an extra $9.75).
"I also got this," he said, pointing to a navy blue Ventnor Beach Patrol cap on his head.
Naticchione shrugs off the accomplishment, his laser-focused eyes following a couple walking onto his turf.
"It's what I get paid to do."