The Hungover Gourmet

 

Then We Were Six
By WP Tandy

Take me back to those Black Hills
That I have never seen
The Kinks, Muswell Hillbillies

Since his days at the helm of Coast Guard Station Great Egg in Ocean City, New Jersey, my old man has refused to talk about the town – at least in terms consisting of more than four letters.

It might have been the neighbors. Sandwiched in a residential cul-de-sac at the town's north end, Station Great Egg drew the ire of its neighbors for the noise of its lifeboats and crew. (Indeed, one of the first things my old man saw to upon taking command was the purchase of the largest US flag that he could get his hands on... one that would snap crisply in the breeze without crisply snapping the flagpole, just so they never forgot he was there.)

It could have been having had to deal with one-drunken-reveler-too-many at the annual "Night in Venice," the notoriously dry town's parade of decorated boats that draws the high-minded Methodist gentry (and tourists, of course) from the woodwork each July.

Or perhaps it's the millions of taxpayer dollars the town receives annually to replace the sand that Mother Nature so righteously reclaims each winter by way of the snarling Atlantic.

Whatever the reason, nothing of Ocean City brings a twinkle to the old man's eye, regardless of the season.

But to the eyes of a world-thirsty six-year-old, well... to this day, a whiff of diesel from a passing bus still takes me from the filthiest city street corner to the decks of that 44-foot motor lifeboat, twin 671 diesels rumbling beneath...the air flecked with salt. And the smell of tar hints of the creosote fumes rising from the cracks between the sun-warmed planks of the boardwalk...

At six, I'd been through half the States, but I was still a few years from the boards farther up the coast: places like Point Pleasant, Seaside and Asbury Park. Hence, my early boardwalk experiences centered on the Jersey shore's southern stretches... an area that at that time still retained the strong Philadelphian influences that were its legacy - long before throngs of New Yorkers and North Jerseyans infiltrated the region in their ever-southward expansion.

Like any commercial city block, each town's boardwalk obviously catered to a particular clientele. The paved rock-pile that was Cape May's promenade bored me as there wasn't (and still isn't) much there, serving as little more than a glorified seawall, with what action there was being almost completely on the other side of Beach Drive. And although the boardwalk in Wildwood had Thrasher's French fries and a double-decker merry-go-round on Morey's Pier, it was also the first place I'd ever seen someone vomit in public.

The boardwalk in Atlantic City wasn't much better: people there freely pissed through the railing in the midday sun. And the gaming floors inside the casinos (which didn't allow children, anyway) were always packed with pissers in their own right: the sunless elderly clientele who spent most of their time relieving themselves of their Social Security checks in 25-cent increments...

But the Ocean City boardwalk was always something special to me. The rides on Wonderland Pier [600 Boardwalk; (609) 399-7082], where I once heard the merry-go-round pump forth a Wurlitzeriffic rendition of the Marines' Hymn. Johnson's Popcorn [660, 828 and 1360 Boardwalk; (800) 842-2676]: home of the best caramel popcorn anywhere. When you bought one of the big plastic buckets, they'd pile the hot caramel-drenched corn to the point where you'd have to eat what now seems like a sickening amount just to be able to snap the lid on top. The fresh salt-water taffy from places like Shriver's [Boardwalk and 9th Street; (877) 668-2339] – where, thanks to big plate-glass picture windows, you could actually watch the taffy being pulled on the machinery in the back.

And then, of course, there was boardwalk pizza (though not particular to OC) – still a favorite. Years of living outside the New York-Philadelphia blight have required greater wariness (and luck) in my selection of pizza joints. But more often than not, you could easily find a decent slice (some, naturally, better than others) in any number of places along the boardwalk... which is perhaps why to this day any particular names escape me.

Ah, but what life at the shore would be complete without seafood? One name that's stuck is Smith's Clam Bar [910 Bay Avenue, Somers Point; (609) 927-8783], just across the bay. I still remember the smell of the marsh and the crunch of the sun-bleached clam and oyster shells beneath the tires as the car pulled into the parking lot. Other kids lived for Happy Meals; I had Smitty's fried clam strips (fresh as could be, served in the little red and white paper boats). These were the waning years of nearby Tony Mart (immortalized not long thereafter in the film EDDIE AND THE CRUISERS). Tony Mart is long gone now, but each spin of "Wild Summer Nights" on the turntable still brings back those smells, those flavors... the restless magic of a balmy June evening by the sea, when, having washed the day's salt from your skin and it's sand from your nails, you hand the man your tickets and climb onto the Himalaya or Tilt-a-Whirl, and vanish for a few short minutes into the colored lights and noise, with all the promise of summer ahead of you...

It's been a while since I last visited the boardwalk in Ocean City; my summers – and springs, winters and falls – are now spent in Baltimore, where residents talk of their own Ocean City in love-it-or-hate-it terms that most people reserve for places like DC or Vegas.

But I still wonder, sometimes, on those near-summer days of late spring, when the air faintly hints at that swampy smell of the salt marsh and the odd laughing gull mocks your sense of judgment, if those places are still as good as I remember.

Or if they ever really were.

WP Tandy is a regular contributor to The Hungover Gourmet (look for his piece on the wonderful world of rum in THG #9) and is also the publisher of the award-winning zine Smile Hon, You're in Baltimore.



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