These islanders get to make a living spending their days on the beach
There are many quintessential summer jobs for American teenagers. The public pool or beach lifeguard, the ice cream scooper, the apprentice landscaper.
But in Galveston, there’s another position generations of teens have found as a tried-and-true way to make some summer cash: the beach chair and umbrella attendant.
For decades, the most crowded spots on Galveston’s 30 miles of beaches have been furnished with rows of chairs and umbrellas that are rented out to visitors seeking shade and comfort.
For many of the vendors, the people who man the chairs — set them up, break them down, collect money from patrons and chase off those who don’t pay — got their start by working the beach as teenagers.
“I feel like it’s one of those high-demand jobs,” said William Schuster, a Galveston native and city councilman who has worked a summer gig as a beach umbrella vendor for almost 15 years. “It’s a popular job that kids want to do. A lot of times, people my age love it that much that we’ve been here over a decade.”
Working the beach can be fun, Schuster said.
“It can be different every day,” Schuster said. “You meet customers from all over the world sometimes, which is cool. I just met a group from Norway. They went to all the cool cities in America. They went to Las Vegas, New Orleans, then in Houston, then they came down to Galveston.”
It’s not unusual for Schuster to become Facebook friends with people who rent his chairs, he said.
But the job is a job, and there are conditions that some people don’t want to deal with all the time. Beach workers don’t just get to lounge around all day and take a dip in the Gulf of Mexico to cool off. The long hours in the hot sun can be hard, he said.
“You’re out here at 7 a.m. every day until 5:30 p.m.,” Schuster said. “You’re constantly walking. Checking out customers. Making sure that customers don’t just slide in. You can lose some weight in the summer time. I go through cans of sunscreen.”
There also can be moments of panic. When a summer storm blows in, beach vendors make mad scrambles to pack up and shut down. A strong gust of wind can send an open umbrella 30 feet in the air, Schuster said.
Beach vending isn’t entirely a free-for-all. The Galveston Park Board of Trustees, which oversees tourism, leases territories on the beaches so vendors aren’t fighting over spots all along the beach. And there can be confrontation between vendors and visitors who don’t want to pay.
“Back in the day, it used to be the Wild West,” said Frank Maceo, a Galveston resident who started working on the beach at age 15 and has continued to off and on over the years.
“The park board didn’t really exist, and the police didn’t really have their stuff together. If you had to deal with people, you close the umbrella on them because they don’t want to sit in the sun.”
If that doesn’t work, a vengeful worker might throw some leftover potato chips near the seat stealer, and let the island’s seagulls take care of the rest. (Maceo insists that’s just a thing he has heard about other people doing.)
It might be that growing up on the beach is what keeps people working out there, doing the timeless job year over year.
Jason Worthen, owner of Gulf Coast Water Sports, is another local who got his start as a vendor by working as a high schooler. Worthen started his own beach service in 2001 after working for one in the 1990s.
Worthen occasionally will be approached by a well-meaning person who, enamored of their day on the beach, say they intend to retire to the island and do what he does.
Worthen rarely sees any follow-through from those people, he said.
This is a job islanders of a certain stripe have to grow up to love and thrive in, he said.
“The job is very appealing,” on its face, Worthen said. “It fits for some people, who want to be on the beach, who need a paycheck. But a lot of people who think they want a summer job, or parents want them to work, work a week and quit. Their feet are too burned, they’re too sunburned. I see it all the time.
“But I do it and I love it. For me, I love the beach and it works for me. I love my job, I think it’s perfect for me, but I don’t think it would be a good fit for everybody.”