Beach towns are weird at night, especially in October. I get into Ocean City right after sunset — around 7:00 — and after the perfunctory rigmarole with check-in, I head out on Coastal Highway to try to find myself dinner. This is when the sense of weirdness sets in.
It’s not that everything’s shut up for the off-season, like you’d find in smaller beach towns. That, in a way, would be comforting: things are in balance. There may not be that much to see, but then, there’s not that many people to see it. Most of Ocean City’s creature comforts are still available in the off-season — stuff like Waverunner rentals and miniature golf courses are closed up, though — but the parking lots are dead empty and barely anyone is wandering the streets in any sort of stupor. There’s an overwhelming sense of end-of-the-worldness.
My boss hasn’t hit town yet and nobody I know who might be around is taking calls, so I’m dining alone. I cannot abide the idea of eating a sit-down dinner by myself. What are you supposed to do while you wait for your food to come? I could see maybe bringing a spiral notebook with me, doodling something or scribbling down some half-baked fiction — but tonight I’m not in a very creative mood, and besides which, I don’t feel that hungry anyway. If I were at home, I’d eat a bowl of Kix and call it a night, but the situation is more complicated.
I cruise south, trying to spot some sort of local place that looks interesting. I am philosophically opposed to fast food at this point in my life. Not completely: it makes sense if you want a throwaway meal or if you’re just screwing around one night. But my thinking is that it’s worth trying local places owned by real people. It’s not like it’s that much more expensive (if it’s more expensive at all), and the worst that can happen is you get some crappy food.
The problem is that everything I see is the wrong kind of place: all-you-can eat seafood buffets named for sailing terminology, fancy ethnic places, spare-rib joints that misspell the word “teacher” on their signs. I pass Burger King, McDonald’s, Subway, and keep driving until I hit the middle of the boardwalk. But I just don’t have the mental wherewithal to go there tonight.
I turn around, cruise past hotel after hotel, and get something at Subway. The guy working there is about to go on break, but he obligingly discusses what it’s like to work the off-season. I don’t learn anything new or interesting — he likes it when it’s busy because it helps to pass the time — but he seems like a genuinely nice guy.
Driving back, I wish I had come up with a couple remotely insightful questions. You know — what’s it like here at Christmas, whether he wants to stay here for the rest of his life. Something like that.
Back in my hotel room, I briefly consider turning on the TV and reconnecting the umbilical cord to modern civilization, but instead I take the sandwich onto the balcony, turn out the lights in the hotel room, and watch the waves.
It’s only 8:00, but it feels like I’m dead.
My knees ache.
I never got a job until college — I was never a grocery store bagger, a salesdweeb, or a waiter — so I don’t know what the trick is to standing up for eight hours at a time. I read some advice on the Internet that if you’re in a marching band, you should never lock your knees. (For some reason, there’s tons of marching band advice on the Internet.) If you do this for long periods of time, supposedly your blood pressure goes all screwy and you faint. Allegedly, you should slightly bend your knees instead.
So I did a lot of knee-bending today and while it was at least nominally effective, I’m still hurting right now, which makes me feel like kind of a wimp and not at all prepared for Real Hardship when it comes into my life.
I take a brief, dreamless nap, then decide to go to the boardwalk. It’s right before dark, around quarter to seven, and things are desolate once more. I don’t know what I’m doing and end up parking on 12th Street, a long way from the boardwalk proper.
I walk briskly — the day’s rainstorms have left behind a nasty, damp breeze — toward lights that promise food, warmth, things to see. I probably cut a pretty morose figure myself. Everyone’s got on sweatshirts, jeans, light jackets. I’ve got on black jeans, black socks, black shoes — and if I unbutton my black wool overcoat, you’d see I’ve got on a midnight-blue shirt with a black-and-gray T-shirt on underneath.
I used to hate wearing black. It seemed like such a glum color, a boring color, even. And then I learned that it could be a stylish color, a professional color. And now I can’t decide what it means to me anymore.
I stop for a slice of pizza along the way. I’m not hungry, not exactly, but I have a feeling I will be in a little bit, and the place looks promising. A man tosses dough into the air with the kind of casualness that makes me think that this will be the moment that turns the day, the week, maybe even the entire month around. It only takes a small thing to change your life. I believe this more than almost everything else.
I ask for a slice of pepperoni and the girl working the register reaches beneath the counter and pulls out a tepid, obviously-microwaved slice.
I gobble it up anyway, feeling like a weirdo, and walk until I hit the end of the boardwalk. There’s an odd display there, about some massive shark caught here in the 80s. The particularly weird thing is that the plaque reads, “This shark was caught …” when the thing inside is clearly plastic.
(I think. At least the eyes were jeweled.)
I stop at the edge of the water and watch the seagulls move in unfathomable patterns: maybe feeding, maybe fighting, maybe socializing. I’ve never seen them swerve across the sky in fast, small flocks like this. Breakers roll in far away. I put my head against the rail, close my eyes — just for a little bit — and listen.
Then I walk back.
I pull off my tie and toss it on the passenger seat. I still look like a Mormon missionary now — plain white button-down shirt, black pants — but it feels wrong to proceed any further with neckwear. I am returning to the boardwalk before I leave town, ostensibly to buy my parents some salt water taffy.
I’m not sure of the real, deep-down reason.
The sky is bright and the wind steady, and there are people browsing and strolling. I stroll a little myself, looking for the nearest Candy Kitchen. From last night, I remember that they were all over the place, so I feel confident enough to just start walking towards the Ferris wheel, because I am feeling slightly romantic today.
On a total whim, I stop at a random-looking café with an interesting-looking menu and ask for a cheese steak sandwich. This takes time to prepare — a good sign — and so I sit for a little, just watching the ocean and marvelling at the fact that I can’t hear the waves crashing, though they aren’t far away at all and the cafe isn’t playing any music.
The sandwich is delicious. Never mind that there’s Swiss cheese in there, which I think is a sin against God in certain municipalities — this is a real sandwich, made for real people. It even comes with potato chips and a pickle, which up to this point I had regarded the same way I do coleslaw: a compulsory detail, done more out of habit than for actual gustatory delight.
But today, potato chips and pickles are salvation.
As I bring the remains of the meal to the trash beside the counter, I consider gushing out some kind of praise to the semi-bored girl working the counter — the same way I babbled the praises of apples to the man who was giving them away for free at the convention yesterday.
He looked at me as if I were crazy then, so today, I just mutter a thank-you and head out for a final look at the water and the wind.
It feels strange to walk across the sand in warm clothes and shoes, to trade the low noise of people for the steady rhythm of waves collapsing, to look at nature but not be part of it.
I only stay at the shore for a few minutes — but then, dreams don’t last very long, either.