The second in a summer series written from the lovely New Jersey coastline.
by Liz Spikol
The minute I crossed over from the leafy, tree-lined roads of Route 55 into Ocean City, I was smitten. Unlike Margate, with its shut-eyed homes and self-important cars in the driveways, Ocean City welcomed me immediately with busy bike-rental outfits and retail stores.
The houses, with their inviting porches and open balconies, stand practically on top of one another block after block, making for a pleasantly crowded and vibrant feeling. Families move en masse to the beach lugging strollers and coolers, and kids on bikes zigzag in the street. It's just enough city to reassure us city folk, but not so much that you don't feel transported.
The best thing about Ocean City is the boardwalk. The Ventnor boardwalk is narrow and storeless, and Margate doesn't have one. But Ocean City's board is wide and crammed with silly stores, mini-golf palaces, video arcades and two amusement parks. There's all the classic shore stuff--a saltwater taffy factory where you can watch the taffy being made; a roasted peanut store with a live Mr. Peanut outside; a place where you get sepia-toned photos taken while you brandish a second-hand musket in a sweaty 19th-century costume.
I was surprised to see that Mr. Peanut, who was holding his ubiquitous cane, was wearing black-and-white bobos with the laces undone. I was expecting wingtips, or at least Doc Martens. So I went to find out who was hiding beneath the vast fiberglass shell.
Turns out he was just a kid earning some summer money. He said it got hot under the peanut. My companion, ever the joker, said, "I bet he makes peanuts in that job." But the kid said he was very well paid.
I was kind of stunned by the diversity of Ocean City, which seems to be occupied by people from every corner of the earth. Many service workers wear nametags proclaiming their home countries. I spotted a Poland and a Bulgaria working together, which seemed nice.
On the beach, there was a family next to me speaking Spanish, and Asian children speaking something I couldn't identify as they jumped through the surf. It's sort of like Atlantic City, only the immigrants are at the beach instead of working the blackjack tables.
The beach was ridiculously crowded. Unlike Margate, which was populated by tan, attractive people in fancy beach chairs, here there were plenty of pasty normals (myself included) lying on towels.
I spotted only one cell phone (as opposed to Margate's Cingular universe), and chick-lit was conspicuously absent in favor of newspapers. But some things are standard at every beach: Two lifeguards flirted with a cute blond, who looked like she wanted to eat them for lunch.
Speaking of food, my companion and I had a slight disagreement about lunch. He favored Harumi's Ichiban Japanese, but that didn't seem very shore-like to me. So we ate at the Hula Grill.
I was disappointed to notice that we could've eaten at the Bashful Banana. The sign displayed a half-peeled banana who, rather than looking shy, seemed every inch a Chiquita Casanova with a coy smirk. He probably gets all the ladies--even the plantains.
There's simply no maintaining a healthy diet down the shore, which is why a chocolate mint lollipop twice the size of my eyeball seemed irresistible. It exacerbated my numerous cavities, but I convinced myself that each delicious slurp was important to my shore experience. I also felt that way about a burger, saltwater taffy (as though I've never tasted that before), caramel corn, three slices of pizza, vanilla custard with rainbow jimmies and--the coup de grace--a Big Bird yellow-jimmied cupcake with a piece of Nilla Wafer for a nose. He was fabulously delicious--better, I suspect, than his Oreo-faced Oscar the Grouch peer.
The boardwalk gets whiter in the evening, though kids are still omnipresent. (If you don't like children, do not go to Ocean City.) Because it's a dry town, I saw very little rowdy behavior on the boardwalk--unlike in A.C., where people turn into leering, hostile zombies after dark.
There was a small-time fracas with the cops when one group of kids accused another of blowing a whistle. Seriously! The cops were saying, "Okay, now, who has the whistle? Hand it over." It was like 1956. Next thing you know they'll be busting kids for hula-hooping.
I don't drink, so for me a dry town is heaven. And I like kids and enjoy watching their funny faces twist into terrified grimaces as they ride things like the Twister, which is by far the most sadistic ride in O.C.
An acquaintance's child wobbled off and said, "I feel like my lungs are in my throat." But she was happy about it, as only kids can be.
I decided to go on the Swings, which I remember as a sort of breezy soar through the air. A friend and I cajoled another friend to go along with us. "It's a nothing," we said. "It's sweet." But this wasn't your grandma's Swings. It had a strange pivoting base and nausea-inducing whirl. It was cruel, and frankly, I felt violated.
After that my Swings friend and I--who'd lost our credibility entirely--decided to go on a roller coaster despite the fact that it made suspicious creaking sounds. Sure enough, it was awful. It went upside down and down steep hills without holding you down in your chair.
All the while I could hear my back cracking. "That's what those creaking sounds are," I thought. "People's bones are being fractured."
My friends went on the bumper cars, but couldn't convince me to come along. I hated bumper cars as a kid. I could never figure out how to work the steering, and would end up stuck in a corner, crying, as mean children crashed into me and cackled with delight.
Just as I was recalling those days, a nasty little blond girl with freckles said, "You in line?" and crosschecked me against the fence. She might as well have been the millions of little girls who made me cry 30 years ago. I wanted to pummel her.
Without the drama that comes from drinking and puking, Ocean City is a family-vacationer's paradise. There's something innocent and wonderful about it--wholesome entertainment for a wicked era. Three teenage girls stood in front of us in line for the Ferris wheel--one of them with a Hello Kitty backpack. By all rights they should've been at a party doing E and giving crappy hand jobs.
Instead they were waiting patiently--and soberly--for a ride on the Ferris wheel, punching each other playfully and teasing about girlie things. It was a sort of pure interaction that teenagers don't seem to have these days, and it made me think there was, indeed, hope. Corny, I know, but Ocean City's the only place I know where cliches really mean something.
Ocean City: The Lowdown
Clean place to
stay if you want
to be near the beach/dislike sand and want to swim in a pool: Impala Island Inn, 1001 Ocean Ave. 609.399.7500. www.impalaislandinn.com" target="new">www.impalaislandinn.com
Place to go if you want to be part of a drooling audience watching taffy or fudge being poured: Shriver's Salt Water Taffy and Fudge, Boardwalk and Ninth St. 877.66.TAFFY. www.shrivers.com" target="new">www.shrivers.com
Place to go for a rib-cracking roller-coaster ride and a glorious sunset Ferris wheel
experience: Playland Park, Boardwalk and 10th St. 609.399.4751
Place to rent a
surrey--with a fringe on top--if you're tired of walking the Boardwalk: Surf Buggy Center, Boardwalk and Eighth St. 800.976.5679