Scrubbing down an outdoor bar top with disinfectant, Pam Vereen remained upbeat even though she had no customers.
Normally on the Friday night before Memorial Day, Atlantic Beach would be a buzzing street party, one full of bikers, vendors and onlookers here for Bikefest. Yet as 8 p.m. drew close and storm clouds crept in, the place was a ghost town. Still, Vereen danced to the funk and R&B thumping through the speakers outside The Kitchen, the restaurant her sister-in-law runs.
“I’m having a ball,” she said. “I’m just excited, you know, because this is how I support myself — making enough during this Bikefest.”
Technically, this weekend isn’t Bikefest. The festival, known better as Black Bike Week, was officially pushed back to Labor Day because of concerns about COVID-19. But local businesses still hope to make some money this weekend, the milestone 40th anniversary of the rally.
The beachwear shop at the corner of U.S. 17 and Atlantic Street offers a two-for-$10 special on bike week shirts. Off the Hook, the nightclub beside The Kitchen, has opened its doors to patrons.
Brenda Rowell Bromell, who manages The Kitchen, said that although attendance was sparse Friday, she’s hoping for a better turnout as the weekend progresses. She suspects many bikers will come because they made hotel arrangements before the COVID-19 crisis and could not get refunds after the rally dates changed.
“They ain’t got no other choice,” Bromell said. “[They are] sticking between a hard place and a hard rock.”
She’s waited on customers in Atlantic Beach for three decades and she appreciates what the rally means to the town. Both the event and the place have similar roots.
Known as “The Black Pearl,” Atlantic Beach was created by black business owners in the 1930s. During the era of Jim Crow and segregation, the town became a destination for people who were not allowed on other local beaches.
Likewise, Bikefest began in 1980 when a group of area bikers created a block party where black motorcycle riders and their families would feel welcome.
Bromell's late brother, Ransone Rowell Jr., helped start the rally with the Carolina Knight Riders motorcycle club. She calls the festival the “black inheritance from our forefathers.” But it’s also about greeting familiar faces.
“My favorite part about this is seeing my friends come back again and having a good time,” she said. “Everybody being casual … a big old family reunion.”
Brandon Nowling, 37, has been coming to bike week since he was a teenager. Even though the official event has been postponed, the North Carolina biker rode over this week with his uncle and brother-in-law. They were relaxing outside The Kitchen Friday night.
“I ain’t going to never stop coming,” he said.
Although Nowling couldn’t recall ever seeing the town so quiet on a Memorial Day weekend, he understands why.
“This pandemic’s got everything messed up,” he said. “Come down here tomorrow. There will be people down here tomorrow.”
He’ll likely be back for Labor Day weekend, too. If there’s something Bikefest-related happening here, he usually makes the trip.
Like other longtime supporters, he knows the history of Atlantic Beach and what the town and the festival mean to the black community.
“Nine times out of 10 I will [be here],” he said. “It gives you something to look forward to every year. … We start getting ready for this thing around about April. We drag grills, tents, enclosed trailers [and] come down here. This is what we do.”
CC Frazier, 26, has been coming to Bikefest since she was 18. She missed the last two years, but she’s made every other festival since her inaugural trip. This week, she came down from her home in Ohio with a group of friends. Walking outside the Off the Hook nightclub Friday night, she said the rally dates didn’t affect her plans.
“We got family here, friends here,” she said. “We didn’t come for a bike week. … It just so happened to be bike week and then they canceled it, so we still just came anyway.”
For some travelers, this weekend is simply a break from weeks of being cooped up during stay-at-home orders. And yet for others it’s about tradition.
Those working in Atlantic Beach see this weekend as a chance to make some money during a tough time, and perhaps bring in a little more at the official festival later in the year.
Vereen, the 55-year-old cleaning at The Kitchen, needs the work. She said her husband had a massive stroke and is paralyzed. She finally got her blood sugar under control amid a struggle with diabetes, but she still has health challenges.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” she said. “I really didn’t know how I was going to survive. It got to the point where it was depressing me.”
But she made a point of being optimistic Friday. Even if she saw just two customers, she said, the place would be clean and welcoming.
“I want to show them that we’re practicing what we have to do to stay healthy out here,” she said. “We’re going to have fun."
Vereen has lived in Atlantic Beach for 35 of the 40 years the festival has been here. Regardless of whether there’s a bike rally, this is still home.
“I like to see people together being happy and enjoying themselves,” she said. “I love that. That’s what I see out here. I don’t want to be anywhere else. I love it here.”