Bryan Harron starts his shift at dusk in the cockpit of a sea salt-stained tractor, the radio set to anything but jazz and a Big Gulp in the cup holder. He is constantly looking over his shoulder.
“Sometimes teenagers try and jump on the back,” Harron said, “like a skateboarder grabbing onto a UPS truck.”
At midnight, when the moon shades the two-mile beach along the Cape May coast, Harron pulls onto the sand, bobbing up and down in the leather seat of the tractor.
He moves slowly along the beach, letting the lights on top of his municipal tractor guide him. Moving at a pace of about 6 miles per hour, he experiences the Jersey Shore in as little light as possible. But what he finds in the dead of night would surprise most beachgoers.
Dead turtles. Live seals.
Couples sharing a candlelight dinner.
“They made me a plate,” Harron said.
And couples sharing amorous moments on the sand.
“People have no shame,” Harron said.
The lights on the tractor are bright, so folks get the hint.
He’ll find people fishing at night, some reeling in 8-foot sharks and 36-inch stripers. And of course when people go swimming at night they always leave their shoes behind.
Harron traverses the beach in a tractor pulling a contraption that sweeps the sand clean — the Shore’s “sandboni.” It picks up trash, sure, but it also sucks up treasures.
Keys and wallets and rings and cellphones.
“If it falls out of your pocket on the beach,” Harron said, “I’ll find it.”
The machine is fitted with about 500 little forks that dig between two to six inches into the sand, picking up cigarette butts and the like, and kicking it into the hopper. The contraption was originally intended to efficiently pick potatoes out of the ground. It’s fitted with an attachment, which is a screen that sifts out the rubbish from the cherished.
He flattens tons of sandcastles, and smudges out names and messages written by toes in the sand.
If he comes across something seemingly valuable, like jewelry, he’ll take it to the police department in case somebody calls.
Harron cleans beaches seven days a week between Memorial Day and Labor Day. It takes about five or six hours, with two guys driving machines.
It’s a night shift. He comes in around 7:30 or 8 p.m. and works until 3 or 4 in the morning.
Other beaches have different schedules. In Wildwood, for instance, the tractors covering the largest beach at the Jersey Shore send out three or four guys, and they run from 4 a.m. until noon.
“Guys like to sign up for it,” said Joe Picard, the city’s public works superintendent. “I always wanted to drive it. I wouldn’t mind doing that gig for the summer.”
Most beachgoers don’t see the sandbonis. They just see their work, the circles and faded half-moons lightly carved into the beach on the freshly swept sand.
Harron sees a part of town at a certain time that the typical person never gets to see.
Just to break the shift up, he’ll stop and talk to people he sees at night. A group of people were attempting to take a family photo in front of the boats, so he put the tractor in park and volunteered to take it for them and stopped to talk with them for a bit.
He prefers the night shift. Most of the time he’s by himself. Nobody’s on the beach. No headaches.
He just puts on the radio and the air-conditioning and cruises.
“Nobody bothers you,” he said. “It’s almost like being on vacation, but you’re still at work.”
Harron, 29, was born and raised off the island, near the bay in the Villas, a graduate of Lower Cape May Regional High School.
“I like the chaos of the summer,” he said. “And then by the end it’s nice to get that ghost-town feel.”
He’s been working with heavy equipment since he was 14. In 2010 he was doing other odd jobs when he heard of the opening and thought, “Pension and benefits, what the heck?”
“It’s something I fell into,” he said.
He moonlights as the volunteer fire chief in the Villas, and he’s the father of two little girls.
“God blessed me,” Harron said, pausing to add: “I’m outnumbered.”
When he’s on the night shift, his days are spent at the water park with the kids and getting stuff done around the house.
“I sleep when I can,” he said.
When his shift ends, he drives the tractor through the streets of Cape May and off into the sunrise, a cloud of sand wafting overhead.
“The little kids love it,” he said. “I honk the horn and they wave. I tell people all the time, I’m just a big kid playing in the sandbox.”