My wife and I are going to Annapolis to attend her fortieth high school class reunion next weekend, so we thought we’d take a side trip down to Ocean City, Maryland. Although I spent a lot of time there in my youth, I haven’t been for quite a while, and I’ve missed it. So we got a tiny room in a funky motel with a fabulous view of the inlet and Assateague Island off in the distance, and although we didn’t have as many tattoos as most of the other folks populating the ramshackle building, we felt right at home.
When I was a kid, my family camped up and down this coast, at Rehoboth, Delaware, Indian River Inlet, and at the Frontier Town campground in Ocean City. As a teenager, I started hitchhiking the roughly 200 miles from my Northern Virginia home to the beach almost every weekend in the summer, my guitar in a plastic case on my back. I can’t believe I did that, but somehow I managed to avoid being dismembered by some ax murderer.
Anyway, I would hang out on the boardwalk, playing James Taylor songs and Neil Young songs and some of my own songs, and attempt to meet girls, sometimes succeeding. I would hang with fellow vagabonds and go with my new-found friends to seedy apartments to crash on beer-and-Cheeto encrusted couches, or I would sleep in some out of the way vacant lot, on the beach, or in a building where I figured the cops wouldn’t spot me. Man, that was the life!
A few years later, after a bad band break-up in Richmond, I returned to Ocean City to lick my wounds, guest of a kid I had met who had the run of his parent’s vacation home in Dewey Beach that summer. I got a gig at a crab place on the boardwalk, sitting on a sunken patio singing to the passing crowd above me. It was a bit surreal, since people rarely stopped to listen, but at least I didn’t have to worry about repeating songs. As I recall, I got paid $20 a night and all the crabs and beer I could consume. I wasn’t that big on crabs at the time, but I remember drinking multiple pitchers of draft beer, then climbing in my big Dodge station wagon for the 15 mile drive to Dewey, and opening up the roaring V-8 engine on the deserted highway until the needle swung past 100, the cool night air blasting in my face. It’s a miracle I’m still alive.
Downtown Ocean City still looks very much like it did when I was there 40 years ago. At the end of route 50 is the little church that sponsored a “coffeehouse” in the basement, where I tried out the songs I had scribbled on miscellaneous scraps of paper. Up on the boardwalk, you can still get some greasy fries from the fry boys at Thrashers, and a creamy cone from Dumsers Dairyland. Knots of teenagers still chase each other around, the girls showing daring amounts of skin and the boys pretending not to notice. The carnies pitch their games, and screams punctuate the night from speeding thrill rides.
But away from the old part of town, gigantic condos and hotel tower into the sky, covering every open space on what is basically just a wide spit of sand at the edge of the ocean. There must be hundreds of thousands of rooms available now, in what was once a sleepy little family resort. Plus, go-cart tracks, crab shacks, bars, miniature golf courses, t-shirt shops, mo-ped rentals, surfboard stores, and a thousand other businesses. It’s kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around all that development, and reconcile it with the simpler time in my memories.
But no matter. In a few years, when the ocean starts rising, it’s going to get mighty damp there. And then it will truly be, “Ocean City.”