In my memory Ocean City is a pretty lonely place. Even though I was living with a friend, sharing a house with four other people, and working with a dozen more, the sharpest parts of that summer are ones I spent alone. This is true of anywhere, and why solo travel is more revealing than group tourism. Ocean City wasn’t either of those, though. It was a place to live for a summer that fit all of my requirements and fell into my lap. A house, they claimed, for little enough, a few blocks from the beach and the lively boardwalk that meant jobs aplenty. I can still feel the house, that amazing blend of wood and carpet, sand and dust that comes from being near the ocean and open to the weather. Some houses, too often boarded up against storms or families returning to their northern homes, claimed a different odor, that of disuse and neglect, of age and mildew, with the ocean’s presence as an afterthought, something to be sought out beyond the walls. Not ours. On Sparrow Lane, a little two-block curve of road between Bayshore and Robin, both of which ran along the inlet, it was a place that seemed to have no windows or doors, the air constantly suggesting the weather outside. We added to this with our plethora of fans, seemingly the only furniture college students in the north east ever really own.
Ocean City, on a map, resembles nothing so much as an accident, a mistakenly placed label over a long sliver of land separated from the coast of Maryland and Delaware. For most of it’s length the city manages no more than four blocks of width, from bay to ocean. Save for odd protuberances, small peninsulas on the bay-ward side like the one formed by Bayshore and Robin, which stretch west an incredible additional four blocks from Ocean Highway, which, running north to south is two blocks from the boardwalk and, usually, equidistant from the bay. Like most accidents, Ocean City has the feel of a place clinging to its name, and to life, with the manic rush of a really good party. It is a vacation town, an east coast boardwalk town, and a college one at that. Our house, filled with five mostly-impoverished students on break and holding down whatever jobs available, was by no means unique. The houses on either side were similar, and the trash in the big plastic blue can that sat by the telephone pole demonstrated a diet of Bud Lite and pizza delivery. A lot of OC survived on late-night pizza, which was good, because two of my roommates made it, often coming home at one or two with a pie they’d prepped for our house while they closed down the kitchen. I don’t know what it’s like now, that house, with it’s two-storey living room, the stairway winding up one side to a balcony, but if it’s just the same I wouldn’t be surprised, empty in the winter, housing another bunch of hopeful and hopeless students for the summer.
This college vacation town didn’t seem lonely. With groups of people on each porch, with games of drunken whiffle ball in the street, it had the constant late-night ruckus of a town built on the service industry, where no one got off work until ten o’clock. It was a place where a night out started when a friend who’s bouncing got on shift at a club, where activities on off-days consisted of going to visit the roommate that worked at the mini-golf range and playing a few rounds gratis. No, on the surface, or when somebody’s folks came to visit, it didn’t seem lonely at all, always bustling with people, always somebody on their day off going to the beach. But under that busy summer feel there was a sense of just how empty this place would be, in a few months, and just how little any of the people who had rolled up for the summer with their beach chairs and their shades on really cared.
I used to get up early, around five, to work the breakfast shift, a pretty good job, around fifty dollars for the morning if the place was busy. Funny to say, since I’d walked into the house at the last minute, the final roommate and the last person to arrive, but I had the best job of the house, which wasn’t as good as it sounds. I worked at a surf n’ turf place, right on the boardwalk. Attached to a hotel, and with a pool bar, we only did breakfast and dinner, which was a great gig, and the hotel meant plenty of people, even when the weather sucked and no one wanted to wander the boardwalk before dinner. When I woke my roommates would be sprawled out from the night, having come home at two with a pie and a sixer and gotten loud right around when I needed to get to bed, which didn’t bother me. At nineteen going on twenty I’d gone sober for the summer, and was up and unlocking my bike from the porch before the sun. Looking back those rides are a lot of why Ocean City seems so quiet, so lonely. Sure someone might be passed out on the lawn next door, but more often the road was empty, the city asleep, and the sun just beginning to climb. I’d bike down Robin to Bayshore, a couple of blocks, across the highway and out to the boardwalk. The buildings, mostly one or two storey, were all shuttered, locked and graffitied, concrete shops that in the evening would have tables out slinging barbecue or ice cream, with flocks of people eating, chatting, and roaring off again down the highway. Two blocks of old wooden beach-side residential, looking the way rental houses look after fifty years of weather and wear, and then two more of modern brick and concrete squares designed to sell something cheap to a whole bunch of people who’d never be back. Without the crowds, as the sun broke over the horizon, it wasn’t an inviting sight. I’d always remember my head waitress’s words then, crossing the empty four lanes of the highway on my mountain bike. “In the winter,” she’d say, when we’d talk about how busy the boardwalk seemed, standing outside the restaurant just before opening in the evening, “you can walk the length of Ocean Highway and not see a single car.” At five am it felt like I could do the same, as though the season had changed while I slept.
Then I’d get to the boardwalk, sharing it for ten blocks with the other bikers and joggers, mostly old folk up to see the sunrise on vacation. I wondered if they knew about the ruckus that went on, a few blocks behind their ocean-view rooms, until just about dawn every night. I wondered if they realized that the people living on food taken from the shop in which they worked, who washed with towels they stole from their hotel jobs, were just a block or two behind them, passed out on the lawn, having spent their marginal wages on the cheapest beer they could find within walking distance. And then I’d glide down the boardwalk, riding with no hands, and I’d watch the sunrise over the Atlantic, which, for all the Pacific says they’ve got, is a beautiful sight worth waking up for. The sun came up on that city like a curtain of orange and then pink and then yellow and then white, pulled up over this pale light blue wash that covered the sky. Everyone on the boardwalk, all hundred of us or so, spread out over the fifty blocks, would turn and watch, just stand real still in our own little worlds of amazement. And when it got to a certain height we’d all turn back to our jog or our hotel room, and I’d pull that swinging screen door open and head into the darkened kitchen.