The shore: Who needs it?

My Philadelphia friends say I don't understand. But I do. I grew up there.

As I write, the annual Memorial Day stampede has begun.

I can hear it where I sit on the third floor of the Forum building on cramped Ludlow Street--the thrum of traffic idling at bridges, the blaring radios, the shrill of rending metal, the occasional human scream. The only thing missing is calliope music.

I don't want to snuff anyone's candle. But as a longtime shore resident who got fed up and moved to Center City--which I promise not to mention again this month--I raise one modest question about this great scramble shoreward:


Every year, Philadelphians head down the shore in a pack to beach themselves like a run of spawning grunion. Memorial Day triggers some genetic reaction in their brains. Their eyes go goggly with thoughts of crashing breakers. They taste cotton candy in every food they eat. Their palms clutch invisible skee balls.

For weeks before, they discuss the coming day with the same quiet anticipation with which the Balinese prepare for a ritual public cremation. Thursday evening finally arrives and they board their automobiles, eyes glazed. For not one mile of the Expressway do they fully awaken except perhaps for the ceremonial tinkling in the roadside bushes. They arrive in Ocean City, Longport, Margate, Avalon amid rising exhaust fumes, shimmering heat waves, glacial traffic and nary a parking spot for miles. Next morning they lay themselves in neat baking sheets on the sand, gaum themselves with sacramental ointments, arrange themselves in worshipful postures before the sun. That night all their skin comes off.

Summer at the shore!

"You don't understand," my Philadelphia friends say. "You don't feel it. A big shore house, an ocean view--doesn't this appeal to you?"

Let's try some free association.

Shore house....Viruses in the air conditioning.

Summer rental....Potato chips.

The Boardwalk....funnel cake.

Cape May....Overweight Protestants.

Ocean City....Um, overweight Protestants who are also very stiff.

Atlantic City....(Choking sound).

Atlantic City!...(Choking sound followed by thud.)

Sunbathe ....A gluey syrup of matter that used to be human skin.

The shore!...The humanity!

I can't condone the shore stampede because, in the first place, I know how it looks from the other side. Every spring at the shore, just as the ice melts and the street lights go back on; just as the locals venture out of their shacks built of seaborn flotsam and planking from old freighters; just as the world looks brave and clear and blue again--just at this moment the Pennsylvanians arrive, and begin running over your relatives.

Roads that ought to be free are crabbed with cars. The convenience stores have rumba lines moving in and out of them, carrying coffee, hot dogs, pretzels, Slurpees, marshmallows, hamburger buns, cases of soda pop. The liquor stores teem with Pennsylvanians intoxicated by the mere thought of buying wine on Sunday. At waterside, the ferris wheels whirl their freights of happy vacationers.

And in every shore town a different perception of the Philadelphian colors the local lore. In Ocean City it's the mild suburbanite family down for the week. The suburban teens go to Sea Isle City and Avalon, where their parents can't find them. South Philly goes to Wildwood.

And the locals hate them all. I am sorry to convey this harsh truth. But the locals think like this:

We tough it out here all winter. We scavenge food from the beaches just to keep ourselves alive. And then summer comes and they take over. In summer we trudge off to work all week while they barbecue on their reprehensible sundecks. We are mortal. We suffer. But they move in realms of infinite wealth and leisure, and can afford multiple Jet Skis.

The migrant Pennsylvanians know only the beaches and nothing of the beautiful South Jersey. Yes, there are spots in South Jersey--which by sacred oath I am forbidden to disclose--that are really worth seeing. But the Pennsylvanian scampers from one end of the Expressway to the other and cares nothing for them.

The crowds rage and strut along the beaches. The horns blare. The Jet Skiiers send each other to the hospital at an impressive rate.

Meanwhile, near the goat statue in Rittenhouse Square. .

A mother holds a bubble loop to her young daughter's mouth, and all by herself the girl makes a bubble come out.

A woman sits enraptured with a book on a bench. Two other women chopstick their lunch from a foam box.

On the next bench, a man holds a piece of chicken just so high that his white poodle must bound from the ground to reach it, but always just misses. And bounds once again from the ground, paws repeatedly shoving the bench seat for greater altitude.

There's a clear sky up there, with white Kleenex clouds drifting through, a breeze breathing hints of summer. The temperature is 68 pretty-good degrees. And that's why I moved from Atlantic City to Center City--for civilized summer days far from those madding crowds of Philadelphians.

© Rob Laymon 1997

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