For every story in the City of Baltimore during the winter, there are a baker’s dozen to be had down the ocean between Memorial Day and Labor Day.
Here is a glimpse of a handful of snapshots–caught like flies on sticky paper when my family vacationed at the Hitch Apartments in Ocean City before our vacations became air-conditioned–over the opening holiday of the season.
“Remember when you guys were little …”
This was said by a woman bicycling down the Boardwalk early Sunday morning, May 30th, to a relative bicycling beside her. That simple phrase, “Remember when you guys were little … remember when we used to …,” is the essence of Ocean City, where my family has vacationed all my life.
Each summer creates singular memories–lots of good, some bad (from a rained-out weekend to pedestrian tragedies)–to be rolled out across summers yet to come.
That Pavlovian prompt, “Remember when you guys were little …,” arrives the moment I approach the Route 50 bridge connecting Worcester County to the ten-mile sandbar that becomes Maryland’s second largest city during the summer.
It hits when I see the light bulb sombrero of the Alamo Court Motel.
This is the kind of place where Tom Waits might sweat through a long weekend writing a few new songs about dime store watches and rings made out of spoons.
It’s where my family spent a long week back around 1971 with our cousins, the Adornato family. Maddeningly close enough to the ocean to smell it, but not close enough to see it.
“Your cousin Stevie ate a grilled cheese sandwich every morning,” my Mom remembered, unable to recall why we stayed there, only that “it wasn’t a happy time.”
But this past weekend–40 years down the road from our Alamo summer–was happy, a contented couple of days; just Mom and Dad and me at their condo on 87th street. The only thing we had to do was what we wanted to do, and that’s what we did.
As the hotels and Coastal Highway began to fill up, a guy staying next to my folks’ place, Al Vojik, sat on the porch and talked about growing up in the neighborhood near Johns Hopkins Hospital back in the 1940s.
“We used to call Bocek park [Edison Highway and Madison Street] the clay hill,” remembered Vojik, retired from the defunct General Motors plant on Broening Highway. “You’d dig out a little cave in the side of clay and play forts.”
There was a swamp behind the clay hills–a neighborhood now in ruins that travelers see from the Baltimore to New York Amtrak line–which may have given the area the now-forgotten name of Swampoodle.
I spent most of Saturday working on a not-quite-there-yet short story at the new Ocean City library on 100th street.
Opened in 2008, it’s a building designed to look like exactly what it is: a big house of books at the shore. And it replaced one that had been at 14th street and Philadelphia avenue since the early 1960s.
The library has always been an important part of the resort. In 1984, I received a letter from Watterson “Mack” Miller, a West Ocean City octogenarian famed for his swimming prowess and less-known for having debauched away a great newspaper inheritance between the world wars.
Mack was a janitor at the Castle in the Sand hotel. We became friends when I wrote about his old man and the sea ventures (more Johnny Weissmuller than Santiago) two and three miles beyond the waves.
During my visits to his shack on the fishing docks he told, with no noticeable regret, of a grandfather who wanted him to take over the family business, the Louisville Courier-Journal. Mack, known as Wock to his family, was more interested in beer steins and beckoning skirts, drinking his way across Europe before washing up penniless on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
We talked God and booze and books.
“I ordered Ironweed at the [14th street] library,” wrote Mack after I’d offered my copy. “I noticed that the author got his start as a feature writer for the Albany paper ….”
Leaving the stacks on 100th street with Mack on my mind, my eye caught the Library of America edition of the U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos, who died in Baltimore on September 28, 1970.
Tom O’Grady wrote that “… Dos Passos used libraries with a rare passion, and he used them perniciously. He drained them of all their worth. And when the organ was dead, a new life was born of its energy.
“In the years before his death, Dos Passos could be found almost daily at a small wooden table deep amid the stacks of the Peabody Library in Baltimore.”
In a library armchair on 100th street, I read a chronology of the writer’s life–“I’ve always thought you should concentrate on padding your own canoe,” he said of literary envy–before leaving for a nap and dinner with my parents.
(“That’s the whole secret: to do things that excite you,” said Ray Bradbury in the Spring 2010 Paris Review. “Also, I have always taken naps. That way, I have two mornings!”)
Mom fried shrimp in a light tempura, accompanied by salad and fresh green beans left over from a rib dinner the night before a few miles over the Delaware line.
While my father did the dishes, mom and I took an after-dinner walk, and I chatted up a Moldovan waitress at Layton’s on 92ne street as she poured me a cup of coffee. Her name was Marina (the same as Lee Harvey Oswald’s Russian widow), and this is her third summer working the resort.
(When I covered the beach for the Baltimore Sun in 1983 and 1984, most of the foreign workers were Irish. Now the majority, like the barmaids at the Alamo Court, arrive from the former Soviet Union.)
“There was this little drunk boy in here this morning,” said Marina, “and he knew that Moldova was next to the Ukraine.”
I was pleasantly surprised, as Americans don’t seem to be interested in much beyond the surface of things, particularly at the beach.
At the Bookshelf bookstore on 81st street, “literature”–Dos Passos and his kin across the centuries–is beyond a wall of crap between embossed covers and hidden in a chest of drawers.
“People who know books know to ask for the classics,” said Ann Hansen, who has run the store for years with her husband Roy. The couple was still cleaning up from a May 8th ceiling fire over the holiday weekend.
“The only other people are interested are students with a summer reading list and the foreign kids,” said Ann. “Young people from other countries want to read the classics they’ve already read in their own language in English.”
From the old bedroom bureau, I selected Billiards at Half-Past Nine (1962) by Heinrich Boll and closed the drawer like a coroner sliding a stiff back into the freezer.
I probably won’t get around to reading the Boll anytime soon (the greatest reading list in the world is made up of the books you intend to read next), but promise to shelve it out in the open and give it some air.
Near the register was a stack of Anne Tyler and I bought A Slipping Down Life (published 1970, released as a film in 1999) for my mother. I paid $3 for each.
Later, on the Boardwalk, Dad bought Mom a small bucket of Fisher’s popcorn for $5.50, and she will munch the caramel corn and read Tyler’s tale of an odd, shy girl named Evie on the porch while the neighbors work sudoku puzzles and sip iced tea.
Golden-agers on vacation until high school graduates and those who thought they were going to graduate invade the shore.
* * *
On the boardwalk: in the summer of 1973 I had to have a Faces t-shirt. The next summer, only an image of Robin Trower’s Bridge of Sighs LP would do.
The popular t-shirt this year judging by the racks rolled out onto the boards? Sexed-up liquid speed in shiny cans: Monster, Rock Star, Red Bull.
Rock is dead, they say…Not dead–or even scarce–are Boardwalk preachers. Standing in front of Biblical sand sculptures across from the Paul Revere smorgasbord, the believers take turns reading the gospels like Flannery O’Connor, minus the irony, with an oceanfront view.
Sunday morning: May 30, 2010, just a block or two away from the memorial to the world’s firefighters, came the story of the death of Lazarus from the book of John.
“Take away the stone …” he said.
Not far from the spot where the word was delivered is a bench with a small brass plaque. Nearly all of the benches along the Boardwalk are dedicated to someone who loved Ocean City, bench after bench of tributes by someone who loved that someone.
The bench I shared with a kid wiping the sleep out of her eyes before the Sunday morning shift at the Ripley’s Believe It or Not museum (this year with “Mirror Maze and Laser Race!”) is dedicated to the memory of Linda “Lynnie” Galyon.
It reads: “… hearts, roses, hugs and kisses … forever my love … Michael.”
How often will Michael sit on that bench this summer overcome by memories as waves crash behind him, while sunburned families push on with Thrasher’s fries in one hand and another on a stroller as the rides of the carnival go round and round?