Four would-be Backstreet Boys from Cleveland's eastern suburbs roam the square. Cute, with gel-slicked hair and baggy shorts, they're looking for a place to stay. Since Put-in-Bay is celebrating its inexplicably popular Christmas in July, the ferries are running later than usual. The last one usually leaves for Port Clinton by 12:30; tonight, they will shuttle back and forth until at least 2:30.
But the Backstreet Boys have no intention of leaving. At 2 a.m., they're still looking for women. So far, they're batting .000.
"We heard it was called Put-Out-Bay," says 21-year-old Jake Dashnaw, "but every time we meet chicks, one chick's going to pull the rest of them away, because she's not getting any."
"You gotta have a boat," laments Josh Sweetapple. "Girls love the boats."
Put-in-Bay promises the biggest party on Lake Erie, a summer-long free-for-all where everyone is a stranger and no one wants to stay that way. It draws bachelorettes from Youngstown and single men from Detroit, boaters who arrive early to get a space and daytrippers who grab the ferry to swill a beer or six. The main drag boasts 12 bars. On weekends like this, they're packed.
The island is the MTV Spring Break of the Great Lakes, a paradise where the women are hot, drunk, and ready to give it up -- or so the reputation goes. Visitors boast of bare-breast sightings and promiscuity, easy pickings and wild times. Mardi Gras beads are the island's main currency, a fact that leads to giddy hope: If a 50-cent strand can deliver two naked breasts, anything seems possible.
So the men hunt in packs, Hawaiian shirts covering tattoos and sagging abs, bleary eyes always on the alert. The women are more stratified: Twentysomethings seem content to reap flattery and free drinks; the older ones, with their Daisy Dukes and dark tans, look for a nice divorcé with a power boat. Everyone is on the prowl.
It's not always fulfilling. At the end of the night, most will go home alone. On Put-in-Bay, you can see it, you can touch it, you can even suck it, but chances are, you're not gonna get it. On an island full of imported pleasure seekers, the real reward always seems to be one step away -- at the next bar, in the next boat, on the next block. No one wants to go to sleep. No one wants to miss it when it finally arrives.
Dashnaw and his friends aren't thrilled by their experience. "It's too small," says Jim Peroni.
"It's not special, for the money and the trip," Dashnaw says.
Still, at 2 a.m., they keep searching.
Put-in-Bay isn't really an island. It's both a village, in the narrow center of South Bass Island, and a township, which includes the islands of South Bass and Middle Bass and a smattering of smaller ones. At 164 square miles, the township is the largest in Ohio, though only 8 square miles are land. Its curious name is thought to be a bastardization of "Pudding Bay."
In the decisive battle of the War of 1812, Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry repelled the Brits here, later sending his famous message: "We have met the enemy and they are ours." Within 40 years of Perry's victory, the island had become a vacation destination. The first major hotel, with 1,000 rooms, was up by 1870. The Hotel Victory, built in 1892 and later destroyed by fire, was said to be the first in the nation with a coed swimming pool.
Today, the island has 400 residents. Only about half stay through the winter; the high school graduated just five students last spring. Though the homes are mostly modest cottages, none sells for less than $200,000, says real estate agent Kay Drake, save those in the prefab Island Club, a development residents fought for almost 11 years. Lakefront prices rise to a minimum of $350,000.
The island's economy is based almost entirely on tourism. The 312-foot Perry's Monument, with its panoramic view, gets 250,000 visitors a year, says Maggie Beckford of the chamber of commerce. The Ottawa County Visitors Bureau estimates that tourism brings the county $20 million in taxes annually.
Families go to Put-in-Bay all week to see the monument, the caves, the state park. Boaters often show up as early as Wednesday to secure space at the main docks. But Put-in-Bay doesn't really heat up until Friday. That's when the party crowd arrives.
By Friday evening, downtown is packed. The docks are full, and the hotels have been booked for months, but eager partiers still stream off the ferry, duffel bags in hand. The island can accommodate fewer than 1,000 overnight guests, Beckford says, but Police Chief Rick Lampela says that Christmas in July, like most summer weekends, draws more than 20,000.
Residents avoid the weekenders. "We just don't go downtown on Saturdays," Drake says. On Friday nights, her friends meet at the private Crew's Nest club to sip vodka tonics and Chardonnay under graceful umbrellas. Then they head next door to the Put-in-Bay Yacht Club for a casual dinner. The women all wear capri pants and tasteful sandals; around Drake's neck is a P-I-B pendant, the "I" shaped like Perry's Monument, dotted with a diamond.
The Crew's Nest crowd is offended by press coverage depicting the island as the Midwestern mecca of sin. "We take it as personal," Beckford warns. "It's a personal attack on where I choose to live."
The clubs are only a block from downtown, but it might as well be five miles. "Journalists see Delaware Avenue, and they see everyone drinking, and they only write about that," Beckford says. "And that encourages like behavior and people who think everything goes up here."
But Drake admits that the tourism has its benefits: "We wouldn't have all the nice restaurants if we didn't have that." Besides, she has few other complaints. "When you live in paradise 12 months out of the year, you've got to put up with a little shit."
By 9 p.m. Friday, the dock is deserted, a ghost town of cigarette boats tied three or four deep, many draped with twinkling lights. One sports a plastic Christmas tree decked with cans of Old Milwaukee.
The party is on Delaware. Boaters and ferrygoers jostle each other on the sidewalk, ready for action in loud island prints and gilt plastic beads. The bars shout their welcome with flashy signs and garish colors, music beckoning from darkened interiors, drifting out amid laughter and catcalls. Above the smells of lake and beer and fried food floats a current of excitement.
In front of the Beer Barrel Saloon, home to a 405-foot bar -- the world's longest -- a boisterous crowd watches the street, illuminated by the blazing green neon of the saloon's plastic palm trees. The women strutting by are dressed to please -- short shorts and even shorter tops. Two bottle-blondes mince along the sidewalk, heels higher than their skirts are long, arms flung around a balding man in denim shorts. Miller Lite pins blink from their cleavage.
At Mr. Ed's next door, a group of aging and openly leering frat boys has staked out the front row of the patio. Sunburned men on the second-story porch are more aggressive. "One, two, three, show us your boobies!" they chant, hoisting their beers. When they get no response, they step up their calls. "I said boobies, motherfucker!"
A woman with a Coppertone tan pauses on the street below. She hoists her T-shirt to display her rack. The men roar their appreciation. College boys in golf carts pump fists. Reams of plastic beads rain down from the porch.
A busty blonde on the porch follows suit, blouse up and breasts on display. Whooping men in baseball caps and Kent State T-shirts whistle. The beads fly up.
Leering, the island's default activity, is more restrained inside the Beer Barrel. Men stand packed in large groups around the patio, sipping Budweiser tall boys and waiting for a smile, eye contact, any hint of approachability that will pass for interest. They approach their prey with one-size-fits-all lines: Where are you from? Where are you staying? How come you don't have any beads?
Within a minute, the runt of one group has his arms around a woman's waist, cutting her off from his friends to thwart their moves. He's chattering about anything he can think of, a full-court press in a Hawaiian shirt. His friends watch jealously until they spy a tipsy bachelorette in full bloom, from her condom-festooned veil to her Nine West mules. Life Savers are fastened to her T-shirt; she's selling a suck for a buck. Suckling admirers already encircle her, but the guys make a beeline for her anyway.
At the Boardwalk, Joe Earnest and four friends are lounging at a picnic table. The band is playing Christmas carols. Chuck Pennscott of Atlanta wears a Santa hat, a necklace of blinking Christmas lights, and as he soon reveals, a jockstrap bearing a red-cheeked Santa. "It's Christmas," Pennscott shrugs.
Earnest, a goateed 37-year-old, shows off a snapshot of his bride-to-be. He still thinks of her as the cute new girl at work he was afraid to ask out. Five months passed before she asked him. Two years later, he asked her to marry him. "You wait this long, you want to be sure," he says. It's now 64 days to D-Day.
Tonight is Earnest's bachelor party. When the group finishes at the Boardwalk, they'll hit the Beer Barrel and then head down the strip, one bar and one beer after another. If they see some boobs, that's OK, too.
Earnest insists his bride understands what Put-in-Bay is about. His friends smile indulgently. "I don't think she knows everything," says Victor Rohner of Swartz Creek, Michigan.
"If she knew everything," says Mike Roe solemnly, "she wouldn't allow it."
When she was in high school, Jillian Brandt hated working on Put-in-Bay. Now, after graduating from Bowling Green, the Port Clinton native is back for one last summer, figuring out her next move while she rents golf carts and bicycles to ferrygoers.
Her attitude has changed. "Now I'm 21," she says gleefully. On some nights, such as Christmas in July, she stays late. She's gotten to know some of the boaters. "I'm looking for a sugar daddy."
Brandt concedes that the island's sexual vibe often goes overboard. "There's a lot of sexual harassment here, all the time," she admits. Few men bother with fresh lines. What's your name? Do you want a beer? Wanna see my boat?
"You just have to write it off," Brandt says. She gives as good as she gets, and the boaters admire her for it. She doesn't see many other women complaining, either. "Hey, a lot of girls like it," she says. "They come here for the attention."
Everywhere, deeply tanned women strut their stuff in packs, a feminine solidarity rarely seen outside sorority houses. Women who snipe at each other's cellulite on the mainland are thick as thieves here. It's a bachelorette culture, a girls-just-wanna-have-fun mentality that means squealing and dancing up to men, then retreating to the group at the first sign of inciting too much excitement -- a noticeable hard-on, say, or an invitation to come alone to a boat.
It's safety in numbers. Police Chief Lampela says only three or four sexual assault claims are filed each year -- a modest number, considering the crowds and raised blouses. But that doesn't mean it's easy for a single woman to navigate. Even on quiet back roads, men in golf carts brake with a breezy "Hey, beautiful." A woman can't stop on Delaware without being surrounded by college boys jockeying for position. If they are obnoxious, they ask to see her tits. If they're nice, they'll tell her she's the most beautiful girl they've seen all night, all weekend, all year.
Even a drunk sitting near the docks, mascara running down her chubby cheeks as she cries that she's lost her husband, draws a crowd. She's far from friendly. She shouts in a thick accent as they try to help her, as if they're to blame for her husband's imagined betrayal. But they can't drop their game. "Are you sure you want to find him?" asks a big guy in Tevas and khaki shorts. "Why not stay with me?"
"Fuck you," she fires back.
Women on the island rarely admit to looking for love, even of the one-night variety. "I want to dance, have fun, be with the girls," cries Anne Savage, tiny and adorable beneath her bachelorette veil. Her friends squeal and give her sloppy hugs.
Likewise, few women confess to actively hunting for beads. Everyone wears them, but they're not like that, they protest. "I bring my props with me," says Meme Brown, laughing as she shows off her beads. "It's all about class."
Three drinks later, it's a different scene. "You wanna see these?" calls a woman in her 30s, grabbing at her tank top. Her hair is frizzy from too much peroxide, her skin dry from too much sun. She finds plenty of takers.
While some women accumulate tier after tier of beads, others are content to wait for freebies. "Half the guys give them away," notes Elizabeth Mason of Fair Haven, Michigan. "You don't have to flash."
Cherie Miller of Catawba puts her age at 391/2. She can't help but be amused by the bimbos strutting their stuff, though she tries not to be catty. She remembers when she strutted. "I used to be 20 years old," she says. "There were women who looked at me and said, 'Bitch.' I can't be like that."
But Miller admits the flashing gets annoying. "Dude, beads cost 50 cents," she says. "I can buy plenty of beads for myself."
Her friend, an athletic blonde named Chris, agrees. "'Show us your tits'," she mimics. "Who wants to do that?"
Miller casts a critical eye at her 391/2-year-old breasts. "Sometime I want to flash mine and say, 'Little girls, this is what's going to happen to you in 20 years!'"
The Beer God of Put-in-Bay is burly, thirtysomething, and lives in Ann Arbor during the week. His sidekicks occasionally slip and call him Steve. But it's "Beer God" embroidered on the back of his baseball cap. And it's as Beer God that he's praised when the singer Westside Steve introduces him to the crowd at the Gazebo around 4 p.m. Saturday.
The Beer God loves being the Beer God. "We'll walk around the island, and people will go, 'Omigod, it's the Beer God,'" he promises.
"Seriously," says his thinner sidekick, Dale, with a proud second-banana smile. On the back of his cap is "Cabin Boy."
While the Beer God brags he's the most interesting man you'll ever meet -- paramedic, law student, pizzeria owner -- his is a typical Put-in-Bay résumé. He was engaged, they broke it off five months before the wedding, and he bought a boat. Every other weekend, he docks in Put-in-Bay. He's as close to a regular as it gets.
A mound of a man in a beer-spotted T-shirt, he's no dream date, but at least he knows it. When Westside Steve stops playing to let the Beer God bless the beverages, he is characteristically modest: "Ladies and gentlemen, from the book of Budweiser, we hereby bless thy beer as it enters thy body, for it allows ugly people like me to have sex."
The Beer God is amused, the crowd is amused, and the sun is shining. Later, when a mustached redneck spills his brew onto the pavement, the Beer God ambles over with chalk to outline the stain, police-style. Girls in sundresses crowd around to take pictures.
"We just thought of that one," says Dale, pleased.
Despite his minor following, even the Beer God isn't necessarily getting laid. He opines that the island is drawing more couples. "Hardly any single women," he says. Dale nods.
It's a common complaint among the island's men. They estimate the ratio at three men for every woman. The more self-pitying suggest it's closer to four to one.
"We've got six guys on the boat," confesses Crestan Miller, a doe-eyed kid in Abercrombie shorts. He can't be older than 21. "So far, it's all dudes, no ass."
"You see more women on the ferry than you do here," says Fremont native Buzz Mathias. His eyes roam up and down Delaware, taking in the glitter, lights, and crowds. It's his 12th time on the island this summer. "We just come here to get drunk."
Unlike women, men don't claim to be here for the bonding. They're looking for tail. Unfortunately, their tactics couldn't be less conducive to achieving that goal. They arrive in big groups. If they talk to women, it's usually to request a look at their breasts. And while this may impress their hooting friends, it does little to ignite romantic sparks in their prey. Most leave in a close approximation of the group they came in.
Some are disappointed. "I thought there would be more women," Miller says.
One of the Beer God's pleasures is a trip to the Jet Express dock to watch the last ferry leave -- and the inevitable sprint to catch it. "They start running, and they wipe out and get bloody little knees," he says. "It's so fun."
If people miss the ferry, there is no contingency plan. Natives sometimes charter their boats to take the wealthy home. For the less fortunate, there are benches at the ferry station for the wait till morning. "When that boat goes, it goes," Lampela says.
The ferry sounds its horn at 12:31 on the dot, and the Beer God chuckles like a benevolent ogre as five tipsy latecomers sprint around the bend. "Hey, wait!" one yells.
"Hold that boat!" cries another. The Beer God is laughing.
"They told us 1 a.m.," insists one man, panting forlornly as the Jet Express pulls away. "It's only 12:30!"
A reporter asks what they're going to do next. One suggests he could sleep with the reporter. Another sighs. "They used to let you sleep in the park, but I got arrested for that," he says.
"I'll sleep in the water," slurs a third. He's drunk. The Beer God smiles.
Chief Lampela had never been to Put-in-Bay before interviewing for a police position in 1999. Already in his late 30s, with a master's degree, he had been rejected by several departments near his home in Willoughby as too old or too educated. When Put-in-Bay offered part-time seasonal work, Lampela accepted.
He was confronted by the island's wild side on his first weekend. "You're stunned," he admits, "and then you just get into it." By the end of the summer, the department offered him a full-time job. This summer, the chief retired, and Lampela was named his replacement.
The job can be crazy. Lampela says his work in psychiatric wards was great preparation. He's only half-joking. "The summers get you to a point of no return. You're so busy, you think it can't get any crazier," he says. "And in the winter, it's all gone." Thirty-eight officers are on duty most weekends; during the winter, there are only three on staff.
The island has had its controversies. Last year, after complaints from visiting families and a call from then-Mayor John Blatt, the Ohio Department of Public Safety sent in its investigative unit, says Agent-in-Charge Earl Mack. In the course of a month-long sweep, 71 people were arrested, most charged with open container violations or disorderly conduct.
The bars fared worse. Eleven were cited for unsanitary conditions and for allowing fights and drunkenness. The Boardwalk is appealing a 40-day liquor-license suspension. The Beer Barrel, slapped with a 10-day suspension, is also appealing. The bar still has two pending cases for underage sales. Frosty's Family Pizza has paid fines totaling $1,500.
Blatt resigned last month, reportedly due to fallout from angry business owners. (Blatt declined comment.) His replacement, Bernard "Mack" McCann, who owns a number of downtown bars, did not return repeated calls for comment.
"What happened last summer did get people's attention," Lampela says. Both the Beer Barrel and the Roundhouse installed Plexiglas sheets around their patios, separating rowdy patrons from the even more boisterous street below. Bouncers now hawkishly check IDs at the door and prevent open containers from leaving. Arrests are down, from about 60 per weekend in the last few years to an average of 35 this year, Lampela says.
"It's a little more subdued this year," says Susie Evert, a cheerful blonde stringing Christmas decorations around the Gazebo bandstand. "If you're a bar owner and you get shut down for a week, and it's a weekend like this, you lose a lot of revenue. Everyone is being more careful."
Westside Steve has played the Gazebo every day of every summer for 14 years. He watched the island get progressively busier since the advent of the Jet Express in 1989. It peaked around 1996, he says. Past years have been somewhat slower. This year is slower yet.
He blames "harassment" from liquor agents, which in turn he blames on the village fathers. "The only people who vote live in the township, and they're rich old guys who've got their money, they're done partying, and now they want to shut it down and make it a private playground," he says.
Everyone knows someone who scored on Put-in-Bay. Brandy Minier of Oak Harbor knows a guy who got lucky at the base of Perry's Monument. Other people tell of sex on boats, in hotel rooms, in the square. The square, at least, seems a little far-fetched, since the sprinklers turn on promptly at 1 a.m. and the police keep vagrants moving. But the facts rarely get in the way of a good story.
Some visitors tout their own prowess. "I have never been here and not gotten laid," brags Bruce Fatiert of Lakewood, swaying his hips in a beery approximation of sexual rhythm. "If you want to meet a girl from a trailer, come here."
Others mysteriously allude to sexy encounters, but go no further. "What happens on the bay stays on the bay," says Fremont resident Dan Slack, echoing the island's most common refrain.
For all the talk, few people seem to have made a connection by the time the bars close on the busiest weekend of the year. Late in the evening, they are still grazing in single-sex groups. In front of the Beer Barrel, the fake palm trees have been darkened, but two fresh-faced women in capris draw plenty of attention. "Show us your tits," calls out a man in a golf cart. His friends laugh; the girls roll their eyes. Across the street, a pool of chunky vomit simmers below a park bench, no violator in sight.
The sport continues on the other side of the square. To his buddy's delight, a man loaded with beads is humping one of the cannons facing the harbor, but the bachelorette party on the dock ignores him. At the Jet Express landing, women waiting for the ferry are dancing with boaters. A computer geek watching the scene has an epiphany: "I think nipples are actually more important than tits." His friend murmurs assent.
The dock party will continue long into the night. "The music starts when you wake up, and it goes until at least four in the morning," says Rachelle Partee, a dark-haired beauty from suburban Detroit. "It's where everyone wants to be." The boaters with dock space are lucky; latecomers have to dock in the harbor and take a water taxi in to the action.
While it's still no slam dunk, boaters find it easier to score. Because rooms are limited and booked months in advance, women have been known to take the ferry over without guaranteed housing. Then, legend has it, they head for the docks.
"Being on a boat totally ups your chances," Slack says. He'll go no further, repeating only, "What happens on the bay stays on the bay."
Ted, who won't give his last name and says only that he's "fortysomething," started living on his boat after his divorce. "She got the house, you got the boat," jokes his friend Paul.
Ted corrects him. "She didn't get the house. I sold it."
Ted brought his boat up Wednesday morning to get good dock space. He knows its power. "Women just get off the ferry and walk down the docks with their suitcases, looking for people to stay with," he says. Then what happens? Ted is tight-lipped. "Anyone who sets themselves up like that, think about it," he says.
If it seems unfair that men have the power in this equation, Ted is nonplussed. "The men own the boats," he says. "And hey, the other power controls everything."
Most of the boats look as if they could sleep only two or three comfortably, but as many as five or six people emerge from the cabins in the morning. All day, they dance and drink and lie in the sun, checking each other out and shouting innuendoes at strangers, their beer kept cold in foam cozies. When the bars close, they return to the boats and crank up the music.
Cherie Miller is staying on Ted's boat. She's getting tired of the noise. "My idea of a vacation is a cabin in the woods," she says. "You come here, you pay all this money, and you can't even get a seat at the bar."
"It'll be time to go home tomorrow," Ted admits.
At 2 a.m., the party rages on. It's the last night for almost everyone on the island, and no one wants to go home without a story. On some boats, dancing has turned into groping. On the dock, a young woman pulls away from the strangers she's been grinding and makes an announcement: "For the record, I don't like any of you," she says, mostly sober. "I'm just friendly." The men nod.
Megan Duchon and her friends are hunting for beads. Tall, thin, and ash- blonde, Duchon looks like she could be a model, and she has been. Her friends are also good-looking. It isn't hard for them to get what they want.
Which, says Duchon, is the point. "The girls have the power. We set the rules."
Judging by the loops of beads around her neck, Duchon has done well. She charges two strands for two breasts and gets it, something she's proud of. "It's the first time girls have total control of something," she says. "If you don't like what they offer, you can walk away. It's kind of sad that it has to do with boobs, but oh well."
Some of Duchon's companions do more than show their breasts; they show thongs, make out, offer a feel. "It depends on the beads and the guys," one notes. She won't give her name.
The girls are on the dock when a guy ambles up, followed by a few friends. He is short, macho, wearing a wife-beater. "I'm so fucked up," he announces. "I'm not used to this shit. I'm from Miami."
But he has his game on in no time. In exchange for beads, he hooks up with the nameless girl, first with his arms encircling her, then with his hands sliding up her shirt. No one pays much attention. He lifts her shirt and sucks on her breasts. There are small moans of pleasure, perhaps hers, more likely his. Then they start kissing again.
Another of Duchon's friends is ready to move on, so she interrupts. The Miamian insists the girl can stay with him.
Her friends are firm. "These are my girls," one says. "They come with me."
The man is resistant. "But she wants to stay with me," he whines. "She loves me."
Duchon steps in. "She doesn't love you," she explains patiently. "It's just the beads."
With that, the women depart, leaving the men alone on the dock, waiting for the next pack of women, the next opportunity, the next story to tell.