Ocean City In The Spring

Posted on May 5, 2008


I came to Ocean City, Maryland, on the 4th of May, a gray afternoon. My possessions fit inside a Ford Pinto. It was 1972. The town was quiet and empty.

The three-story house at 5th Street and Baltimore Avenue was deserted, and the front door unlocked. It was a summer house sided with white shingles, big and sparely furnished. Electric lights worked; running water, hot and cold.

I had no plans, no skills, no evident talent, no money and hardly any sense. But I considered myself prepared. The room had been rented and a job lined up, after all. Working seven days a week did not faze me.

The cool Ocean City, Md., afternoon turned into a cold night. Not only the house was empty, but the street as well. My Pinto was the only vehicle parked on 5th Street from Baltimore Avenue to the Boardwalk. No television and no telephone. No heat! I settled down to read.

By and by, the landlord appeared, a rough but friendly old man, and practical. He got right to the essentials. It was cold, he observed, and we should burn some wood in the fireplace. He offered me a beer and we pulled two chairs close to the fire. Right away, I knew Ocean City was going to be all right. . . .

The landlord was a retired FBI agent, Paul Ernest, and he preferred to be called Mr. E, or Paul. He and his wife leased the place and ran it as a rooming house for young men. The first floor rented by the week to families. The Ernests and their daughter lived on the second floor. The third-floor rooms they rented to eight or nine college boys, lifeguards and such. The Ernests ran the house as if their roomers were relatives. The only rule: No girls allowed on the third floor.

On the corner across 5th Street was a larger house, four stories, with dark weathered siding, Berkley Hall. It was a rooming house for young women, many of them waitresses at Phillips Crab House. Their uniform: white shirt, white shorts, tanned legs. Berkley Hall had a long list of rules, most prominently: No boys allowed past the lobby.

Mr. and Mrs. E ran a rooming house, not a boarding house. Meals were not part of the bargain. Mrs. E was your idea of a perfect grandmother. She let us keep beer in her refrigerator. She maintained order with a smile and a kind word. It never occurred to anyone to misbehave in her presence.

Roomers on both sides of 5th Street worked long hours and spent precious free time on the beach. I hardly remember where or how we ate. From early May to late September, the only amenity at the the boys’ rooming house was a spacious porch with rocking chairs. The only air conditioning came through screened windows; it must have been hot on the third floor. Evenings were spent rocking on the porch, talking and sipping cold beer, keeping an eye on our neighbors across the way. . . .

To Be Continued . . .