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Karen, a production worker in Manhattan's fashion district, looks like she's on a serious mission as she leans back in her chair, coffee-brown stomach displayed to the sky, eyes closed. She opens them to explain, "This is our job on the weekends."
When they were first married 17 years ago, they had a contest to see who could get darker. "She won," he says, still obviously not over the defeat. The contest appears to be ongoing, with both of them starting out each tanning season in the middle of April in Queens' Cunningham Park. Once on the sand, they lather up with Bain de Soleil Orange Gelee, regularly spritzing themselves with a water bottle to help reflect the sun. Occasionally, when they feel they're overdoing it, they'll resort to Hawaiian Tropic Number 8 creme.
Michael, in optical sales, explains how tanning comes before all else during the season. "Two weeks ago we had a wedding on a Saturday. It was the first nice summer day. We didn't go. Her stepfather's granddaughter is having a bat mitzvah in Illinois in August. We turned it down. We're anti-social when it comes to the summer."
Just across the Jones Inlet on Field 4 at Jones Beach where the under-20 set jams together, blasting radios, flexing post-adolescent muscle, running in and out of the water and sneaking beers from coolers, I search for smartly jaded teens amid a sea of kids who have never known an AIDS-free world or a sunscreen-proof summer or a cigarette ad on TV. I find only one.
"I used to like tanning when I was younger, but then my grandmother got skin cancer," says a 20-year-old, tongue-pierced woman from Massapequa. She won't give her name because she's an erotic dancer, but explains that this summer she's forcing herself back into the sun because, in her work, a nice tan is a necessity. Still, she's covered in SPF 30 for protection. The leathery older set, she says like her great aunt looks "disgusting." And she fears for her friends, who use baby oil when they lay in the sun.
The rest of the young beach is pretty tan tanner overall than the rest of the beach. It's as if skin cancer has never been discovered. "I'm actually a tanaholic," says Chris Greco, 26, an auto-body worker from Elmont who says he's in the sun at least twice a week for five to six hours at a time, combined with twice-a-week visits to a salon. "I haven't been here in two weeks and I feel pale white right now," he says, a bit of panic rising in his voice as he stretches his lithe, deeply tanned body onto a freshly shaken blanket.
Every group I visit (and there are only groups here) appears to have a tan leader someone whom the others point to when I tell them what I'm looking for. "He's obsessed," they'll say, or "She's here every day." But a group of teenagers from Whitestone all fit this bill. They're all slathered in Coppertone Gold with no SPF protection. No one seems fazed.
"I never put anything on," brags Brian Diminich, 18. A couple of them admit to occasionally putting sunblock 36 on their faces, just to avoid blistering and peeling. But the others don't find it necessary. "I don't really care," says Colleen Morris, 17, when asked about the risk of skin cancer and wrinkles. "I feel sick when I'm pale."
Confused and lightheaded from the sun, I abandon the field of tanners, and the young woman's words rattle in my brain as I plod across the rest of the wide Jones Beach fields. Sick when I'm pale. Sick when I'm pale. I feel like I'm crossing a desert, my face hidden safely under the brim of my hat, my sundress covering my stomach and legs. But then I realize something shocking with a reluctant stab of joy: My arms, exposed by now for hours, sunscreen 30 surely wearing off, are turning quite a lovely shade of gold.
A Poison to Call Your Own
Those who are not afraid come in many different forms: the quasi-dark ones who work with a low-grade sunscreen like SPF 8 or 15 and are careful not to burn; the tanning salon regulars who never set foot on the beach because they don't like sand; the clueless, who fall dead asleep with no lotion or oil but a magazine lying across their stomach.
Then there are the truly obsessed. And I'm starting to understand them.
They take calculated risks, knowing that cancer lurks, daring it to get them. They wear seatbelts or pass up drinks or avoid drugs or take vitamins instead. Still, doesn't everyone have to choose a vice? Because tempting fate maintaining some sort of personal control by choosing not to wear the helmet or the sunblock or the wrist guards can be fun. And freeing. Besides, it'll be 30 years before you know whether the boogie man got you.
Tommy Azimi of Woodmere, a 34-year-old nutritionist and a personal trainer, chases color on Long Beach, lying with nothing but a lounge chair, headphones and his own homemade tanning potion vitamin C, flax seed oil, avocado oil, zinc, kosher salt and crushed anti-oxidant capsules. "Before I put it on my body, I put it on my salad or on eggs for breakfast," he says.