Are you lucky enough to have a special place, a sanctuary, where you can go to recharge your batteries, or to hide from the world? A place that’s populated with family or friends that feel like family? A happy place that just getting to, no matter what your mood, makes you feel happy? Well, Susie and I do, and it’s Ocean City, New Jersey! Ocean City is located on a barrier island, accessible from the New Jersey mainland by 4 bridges. It is the largest and northern most city in Cape May County, deep in the heart of the southern Jersey Shore. But never confuse our Jersey Shore, for the Jersey Shore you see on television. What we love about the place is that in the summer it’s a thriving summer resort, when the population swells to 150,000, but in the winter time is a lovely little town with a resident population of just under 12,000. What we really love is the friends and the life we have there, and the feeling of happiness that washes over us every time we drive across the 9th Street Bridge! Ocean City is now our forever home, and here’s how we got here!
Our family’s association with Ocean City started the summer of 1955, when I was 5 years old. My Mom and Dad sang in the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera, and although the job of a singer in the Metropolitan Opera Chorus may seem glamorous, in the early 50s the Met’s season was less than 30 weeks long. That meant that my Mom and Dad only got paid for 30 weeks of work a year, and we survived the rest of the year courtesy of New York State Unemployment Insurance. Not exactly the kind of financial background that led to summers in the Hamptons, but when I was 5 years old, a financial background that allowed us to spend most of that summer and the next 5 at the shore!
Another married couple who sang at the Met were from Philadelphia, and as such knew the Jersey Shore very well. So well that their family had a home in Ocean City. Founded in the late 1800s by 4 Methodist ministers as a Christian seaside resort, Ocean City in the mid 50s was still a dry town and a place where businesses closed because of Sunday Blue Laws. They called it, America’s Greatest Family Resort and did all they could to prove that it was true. A great family friendly boardwalk, two and a half miles of white sandy beaches, and a small town attitude were what they were selling, and we were buying! Of course, based on my folk’s finances, we weren’t buying too much, but I sure enjoyed those summers!
Their friends Walter and Kathy’s family had an old summer cottage in the 3200 block of Asbury Avenue, and Dorothy, their next door neighbor, rented rooms. Well, we spent those wonderful summers in Ocean City in a rented room and as so many folks say when they look to save money on a resort room, all we did was sleep in it! Two different days of each week my Mom and Dad would need to head back to Queens to sign up for that week’s unemployment benefit. On Tuesday my Dad would take an early bus from the Public Service Bus Terminal on 9th Street, be at the Unemployment office for his 1 PM appointment, and then head back to Ocean City late in the day. Every Wednesday afternoon we’d drop my Mom off at the bus terminal and she’d do the same thing, but since her appointment time was first thing Thursday morning, she’d spend the night at our apartment in Jackson Heights, and then sign for her check the next morning and be back in Ocean City just after lunch. They did that every week we were in Ocean City and netted a combined amount that was under $80.
Looking back on it now, I’m sure that as a family we were on the lowest rung financially of folks who were summering at the beach, but we were summering at the beach, and frankly, we may have been doing it on the cheap, but I never knew it! Our days were spent at the beach in the sun and the waves. An inflatable raft that was bought at Hoys was my prize possession, and it entertained me every day better than the most expensive video game! A sandwich wrapped in wax paper and as a real treat, a 2 cent pretzel from the beach stand at the 32nd Street Beach schmeered with mustard, and I was happy. My only concern was how long after eating did I have to stay out of my beloved Atlantic Ocean!
By the time night came, I was exhausted from a day in the waves, and I’m sure more interested in sleeping than eating, so simple fare for our evening meal was fine with me. It could be pizza or a hot dog during an occasional outing on the boardwalk, or a quick meal cooked in our communal kitchen. What I do remember was nights sitting on the big front porch of the house watching the world go by on Asbury Avenue. Dorothy’s house was just across Asbury from Campbell’s Seafood take-out, an Ocean City landmark for many years, and I’d amuse myself watching the customers head in and out of the parking lot. This really became a sport on Fridays, as this was back in the days of meatless Fridays for Catholics and Campbell’s business would double! Even the adults watched those nights!
Occasionally there were special nights when dinner was a night out at Watson’s on 9th Street, or Chris’ Seafood Restaurant and Fish Market on the bay at the foot of the 9th Street Bridge, or perhaps Sim’s on the boardwalk. Honestly, I do not remember much about the food at Watson’s, but I do remember that anytime you went there for dinner, you had a long wait, and I’ll always be able to picture in my mind people sitting in white Adirondack chairs waiting to be called for dinner. I remember Sim’s as the typical seafood restaurant of the 50s, where I only ate fried flounder! The one I do remember is Chris’, not so much for the seafood which was caught on their own boats and sent all over the country, but for what happened after dinner. Everyone who ate there got a ticket for a free sightseeing ride on on of their boats, and the one you always wanted to be on was the Flying Saucer! A 75 foot wooden converted PT boat from World War II, the Flying Saucer would take up to 125 passengers on a ride out of the inlet and then for a wild wave jumping trip into the ocean. Now that was the way to end a meal!!
After six glorious summers spent in Ocean City, my folks started working at the Cincinnati Summer Opera, and our summers went in another direction. After that, there were occasional trips to Ocean City, but just for a day or two. We never again spent the summer at the beach.
To be continued….don’t you hate when they do that!