American Reporter Correspondent
St. Simons Island, Ga.
March 3, 2009
WORKIN' FOR THE YANKEE DOLLAR
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. -- When you live in a coastal region almost totally dependent upon tourism to stimulate the economy, it's quite obvious that one hand washes the other - if I may use the old British expression for bartering. It's no secret we're "workin' for the Yankee dollar." Unlike the song, the working force here does not on "next day, sit in hot sun and cool off." More likely, they are cooling their heels waiting for a call and a job.
How did this happen? I don't know economics from ergonomics but the papers, blogs and networks were shouting that we were in dire straits. Dire Straits? Last I heard, Dire Straits was a British rock band. Well, it does pay to listen up when it's coming at you from all sides. I started noticing what was going on around me.
Our favorite restaurant had fewer customers and even fewer on the wait staff. People would leave a position and not be replaced. We asked our waiter what he was noticing. "Fewer customers; fewer servers," he said.
We were assured that all their regular customers were still leaving a generous 20% for their servers but even they were cutting back by ordering far lower priced meals. Twenty percent on a $50.00 tab is not as great a tip as 20% on their former $80.00 tab. The time involved serving is the same and although the wages and tips are falling short, the Baby Sitter's fee is an ever constant. Her time is the same and her care giving is as well. There are no variables in her job, good times or bad.
In shops designed for browsing, there are no attendants at all. No cheery "may I help you" interferes with the customer's true desire to walk around and think; if you see something you want you want to buy, just call out and someone, usually the owner, will come from the stock room.
There are noticeably fewer immigrant laborers grooming the public areas and roadways, and at the same time I see a greater assemblage of workers at pick-up points hoping for day work.
Layoffs are obvious in all workplaces. There is no notice to customers or a sign in the window. If it's your favorite restaurant you are left to wonder why. The rumors begin: Lack of enough customers to stay open but they still have a lease they must fulfill. Many shops waited until after the holidays hoping for a big season to carry them through. It didn't.
"Everything Must Go - 75% off," the sign says. And then as we peek through the windows we see bare shelves. Moving vans are in the parking lots. U-Haul trucks are readied for a long journey. Since many shopkeepers came here from somewhere else (believing they had found the path to over the rainbow) they don't remain amid us to start over. They go back "home," believing the grass is greener there - this time.
Unlike Manzanella Beach, Trinidad, made famous by The Andrew Sisters during World War II, where those islanders were "workin' for the Yankee dollar," we on this island are not sitting around drinking rum and Coca-Cola. We have been called "a drinking island with a golfing problem," but that line is said with a wink and a smile.
However, just like Manzanella, we do work for the Yankee Dollar - as well as the European Euro - we are a tourist's Shangri-La, a mystical place with history, literature, sunshine, golf courses, ocean front beaches and all the restaurants, art galleries, and charming knick knack shops you could wish for as you thumb through the racks for postcards to send home.
A few doors down in this Village, as it's called, is a bait and tackle shop just 100 ft. from the pier, where fishermen are leaning over the water-soaked wooden railing with poles or nets to catch or pretend to catch. They smile proudly for the photo opportunities and start telling tall tales of the ones that got away. The Yankee Dollar is what keeps this little island afloat.
And don't we know it! We attract tourists in ways that make them think coming here is their own idea. But, this year it seems their own idea is that they can't afford it. Not that coming here isn't a bargain because it really is with all that it offers. Although the unemployment rate in this county is highest in the state of Georgia, it's not only here that the economy is tanking, it's all over.
With entertainment savings going into the food and housing budgets, parents are teaching their children thrift by camping out in their living rooms, popping corn in the fireplace, playing Twister and Scrabble. Instead of dining out, they have potluck dinners with neighbors and get a group together to go bowling. They form baby-sitting co-ops.
Whatever they are doing, they are not coming here. The old American spirit is influencing their decisions and they feel good about that. There you find the plus side.
We're on the minus side. We have the same American spirit but it has been put to good use in making this island a place to escape the monotonous aspect of life where tourists live and earn their livings. It's a popular place for Spring Break, more for families than for the college crowd.
It's where their children and grandchildren visit our retirees to enjoy bicycling around our tree-lined paths or taking a boat ride together, sharing the delight of seeing cavorting dolphins.
This year, one after one, cancellations started coming in affecting every area of our economy. And yet, there is something bright and cheery on the faces of everyone here. It's almost as if Winston Churchill were talking about St. Simons Island and not England when he said long ago, "This tight little island will somehow survive."