Ocean City: Another View

July 18, 2009

The following short essay is adapted from a longer e-mail responding to my post of July 3. The original post was a satire critical of Ocean City, Maryland, delivered by a fictional character called “Mort.” In the late 1970’s and early ‘80s I used Mort to do the heavy lifting in a series of satires on various subjects, most of which were published on the Op-Ed page of the Baltimore Evening Sun. My post of July 3, titled “Down the Ocean: Insulting Remarks from a First Time Visitor,” derived from a 1978 published essay. The blog version can be seen by scrolling down a bit. Meanwhile, I hope you will take a few minutes to enjoy Angela’s very different take on her first “whirlwind” visit to Ocean City.

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By Angela Adams

For a girl originally from a small town near Lansing, Michigan, driving into Ocean City, Maryland, for the first time early last winter, I had the impression that the place was asleep but beautiful — and lacked something. We parked and walked along huge black rocksAngela:4 (the breakwater) out toward the sea. I looked out over the most beautiful, never-ending body of water I had ever seen. The wind was cool but the sun was out and warmed my face. We walked toward the end of the rocks as far as we could without getting soaked. The view simply took my breath away. I had never seen the ocean before.

Later, hand in hand, we strolled down the boardwalk, even though many of the shops were closed for the winter. I noted that the amusement rides did not compare with those of Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, but I could imagine how alive the area would be once people started visiting again in warm weather. We walked the shoreline, picking up special rocks and shells to bring home to my children. The whole time, all I could think about was how badly I wanted to some day bring them to this place.

As we drove the main drag, I saw closed hotels and businesses that gave the impression that the place was recently vacated due, perhaps, to an incoming hurricane. I can’t say that I paid much attention to the presence of storm drains, or noticed an overwhelming amount of power lines, but I will trust Mort’s assessment on those points. I do remember that all the hotels on the ocean side of the road were built almost on top of each other and were very colorful. One was pink, the next blue, followed by a yellow one — I thought: Is it the end of the rainbow? What also crossed my mind was where would all of the cars park when they did return in the summer? On the West side of the drag, there were at least eight miniature golf courses and some go-cart places intermixed between various restaurants, something for just about any taste imaginable.

I couldn’t wait for summer to return to Ocean City. We took my three boys, ages, 7, 9 and 11, there the first weekend inBoys:surf April, during their Spring Break. The sun was bright but the wind was chilly and the water was down right cold. But that didn’t stop the boys, as you can see in this photo. Even though they were shaking from the frigid waves, we still had to make them get out. They can’t wait to go back.

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Angela Adams is 34, a single mom, and claims that she still doesn’t know what she wants to be when she grows up. She recently moved to Baltimore for the employment opportunities and has a job with a new payroll company, Pay Partners, beginning in August. Angela has a Masters in Business Administration, another Masters in Human Resources, and a Bachelors in Healthcare Management, so I think she’ll be just fine.

Copyright © 2009 Angela Adams.


Down The Ocean

July 3, 2009

Insulting Remarks from a First-Time Visitor

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“Ocean City, Maryland, is one of the three ugliest places on the face of the earth. The other two are that strip mall-strewn stretch of Ritchie Highway between Baltimore and Glen Burnie — and Glen Burnie itself.”

Those words were uttered, I’m ashamed to say, by an old buddy of mine one recent Sunday afternoon as we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge on our way back to Baltimore. We were returning home after spending what I had thought were three delightful days over the Fourth of July weekend at my favorite beach resort. The weather during our stay in Ocean City had been ideal: sunshiny days with a haze-free and cloudless deep blue sky; warm ocean water, alive with gentle breakers, perfect for swimming; and cool, sea-breeze nights which induced deep and restful sleep.

It was the end of Mort’s first visit there and I had innocently asked him to sum up the experience. I figured that with his fresh eyes he could offer some special insight into the appeal of the place — besides the obvious attraction of sand and sea, of course. I’m too close to the subject to be objective because, along with thousands of other Marylanders who have spent their summers there for generations, I feel an irrational and uncritical love for that city by the Atlantic. And I assumed that Mort, too, would respond to it in a positive way. I hoped that his comments would explain, or at least justify, the emotions I felt.

“The buildings in Ocean City are a string of discarded matchboxes,” Mort continued, “tied together with telephone wires and power lines. Have you ever in your life seen so many telephone poles? And all those gross cables running off in every direction? The jumble and smell of the place bring to mind old clothes on a wash line, middle of the night television advertising slogans, rancid tuna fish salad, loud next door neighbors arguing endlessly through humid city nights. Ocean City is so ugly that a sort of negative beauty slithers into it — anything that honky-tonk becomes interesting by the very depth of its bland bad taste.”

I should explain that Mort has led a sheltered life. Until that trip to the ocean he had never traveled outside the Baltimore city limits — so, naturally, his points of reference are rather limited. But those very limits lend an innocence and purity to his remarks. He has an uncanny knack for describing familiar things in new and often surprising ways. His slightly bent perspective allows light to strike areas that would otherwise — perhaps should — remain in darkness. “You’re missing the point,” Mort, I said. “The ocean is the thing. The rest is just icing.”

“The town is ultimately more interesting than the sea,” he replied, “because of what it tells you about human nature. The ocean is just a beautiful sideshow. After a while it’s boring to look at something so endlessly perfect. When that happens it’s fun to turn from God’s handiwork and contemplate what the paws of humans have wrought. And when you look at Ocean City — I mean really see it — it quickly becomes clear that 99 percent of what has been created there is truly tacky.”

“It’s a family resort, Mort — not the Taj Mahal. It was designed as a place to vacation in, not to stand back from and admire.”

“The fact is, Ocean City was ‘designed’ and built by businessmen with one motive only: pure profit. That explains the shoddy matchstick construction, the dime store aesthetics, the unplanned sprawl. The whole town is a great example of what greed can create when it’s given total control of local zoning laws.”

“Well, it may not be perfect in your opinion, Mort, but millions of people love Ocean City just the way it is.”

“In the first place, even calling it a ‘city’ is incorrect. Real cities have storm drains.”

“What?”

“Didn’t notice, huh? Whenever it rains the streets fill up with water and stay that way for hours after the storm has passed. Driving the Coastal Highway then is like fording a stream — lengthwise.”

“You’re right, Mort,” I said. It pains me to confess this, but, by the time I pulled up in front of Mort’s row house in East Baltimore I had been swayed — to some degree at least — by his argument. For the first time in my life I was seeing Ocean City with a less than loving eye. It was depressing.

We said our good-byes and Mort, as usual, had to have the last word. As he left my car he looked back over his shoulder. “There was one thing I did love about O. C., though.” Mort paused, but when I refused to bite he continued. “I thought all those beautiful, nearly naked young girls were fantastic! They alone would have been worth the trip — that is, if they’d had had anything on their little sun-fried minds besides the perfect tan.”

As is turned out, my Mort-induced funk was short-lived. Once he removed his gear from my car and mounted the white marble steps to his front door, my indiscriminate love for Ocean City began to revive and surge within me. By the time I had driven to the end of the block and turned onto Eastern Avenue, I was planning my next trip down to the ocean for the next weekend—without Mort.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.

The original version of this small fiction, slightly longer and with a few word changes, was published in the Baltimore Evening Sun on August 2, 1979. It was one of a series of pieces I wrote at the time featuring the acerbic character “Mort,” my imaginary East Baltimore friend. In those days I was in an H. L. Mencken phase, strongly influenced by (stealing from) the Master. I discovered that the character served me well when I wanted to be critical and/or acidly humorous about any subject that popped into to my mind. And the best part was that I could shift resulting recrimination to my fictional alter ego. Mort the character was a handy writing tool indeed.


Progress?

April 1, 2009

Recently, on a local radio talk show, a very high city official complained about slow growth in the municipal tax base. He said that if Baltimore is to prosper, we need a massive influx of dynamic, tax paying professionals. rehabI know the kind of “Young Master of the Universe” types he has in mind. In fact, he was talking about some of my best friends. These are special people with special needs, and if that city big shot is serious about attracting them, he must make an effort to understand and meet those needs. I can be of service in that regard.

My friends cannot survive without fancy hair salons and boutiques that sell designer jeans and t-shirts. They absolutely must have neon-lighted dance clubs and restaurants with cute items on the menu like Choo-Choo Burgers, Caboose Omelets, and Latté Grandés—whatever they are. My friends are unable to resist the attraction of little shops that sell expensive gifts that have no practical of aesthetic value, which they buy with “disposable income” and give to friends and relatives who all ready have everything. And, most importantly, my friends require new housing that appears to be old. This usually involves renovating vintage buildings by replacing everything in them, right down to the mortar between the exposed bricks in the walls.

A perfect example of what it takes to attract these folks can be found in South Baltimore around Cross Street Market, now called the fancier-sounding “Federal Hill.” In that area whole blocks of old homes were bought cheaply years ago and, in the process of renovation, prices were raised to levels the former tenants—working-class people, many of whom had lived there for generations—could not afford. So the renovated homes were sold to newcomers with unlimited resources. The rich class tends to swarm, like ants, and once a few were introduced into the area the picnic was over for everyone else. In South Baltimore the “renewal” continues to this day. Young Masters of the Universe clones are everywhere, and the neighborhood has become a sort of Georgetown-by-the-Harborplace. Where once was heard the sounds of the working-class struggling to survive, one now hears the rustle of Wall Street Journal pages being flipped, laptop keyboards being tapped, and café au lait being slurped.

The thing is, creating a trendy urban oasis such as the one I’ve just described is relatively easy. As long as working-class people cannot afford to wear designer clothes, drink expensive coffee, and rebuild their modest row homes from the ground up, the Cross Street Market model will work just about anywhere in town—it’s simply a matter of applying economic pressure to drive out the poorer population. And once every working-class neighborhood in Baltimore has been converted to an urban utopia for people like my friends, that high city official will have his wider tax base. And we’ll have a very different city. Wonderful.

This anger-tinged essay was originally published on the op-ed page of the Baltimore Evening Sun on July 5, 1979, under the editor’s title “Drink to me only with thine Perrier,” and with a different illustration (a really bad cartoon by someone on the Sun staff). Aside from the illustration, the only changes I’ve made are a few words here and there to update the text somewhat. This bit of satire was written at a time when I was pretty unhappy with the changes I saw happening in a part of town in which I had spent the formative years of my youth. As you may be able to tell by the tone of the piece, at the time I wrote it I was a sad, angry, even depressed young man. These days, thank goodness, not so much.

Copyright © 2009 Jim Sizemore.


Pity the Poor Rich

August 21, 2008

The other evening I attended the opening of an art exhibit at a tiny gallery in an old loft building on the east side of town. You know the one, it’s in that gentrified area near what used to be our run-down but still working harbor. As I wandered among the incredibly high-priced images and sculptures, I felt sorry for the people who would one day own them. At first that seemed a bit strange, but I felt my concern was justified because the people who make art are usually from the poorer classes, and of course the only people who can afford to buy it have to be affluent. Since the poorer group has a corner on the creative process and the rich have only money, there is a built-in opportunity for unfair trade practices. The rich folk among us are being systematically exploited by a greedy segment of the poorer population—men and women otherwise known as “artists.”

Allow me to speculate on how this tragically unfair situation came about. One day, a long time ago, a clever poor person noticed that rich people have more money than they know what to do with. This budding Michelangelo or Picasso or Judy Chicago figured out that the rich were so busy making money that they had no time to learn how to do anything else. So the Artist (having awarded him- or herself a capital “A”) began making cute little objects—sketches and paintings and statues—and selling them to the wealthy folks to use as decorations in their offices, homes, yachts, private jets, and beach condos. Because these objects were attractive, and because the wealthy clients had no clue how they were produced, the various items took on a mystical aspect. For the rich, owning art objects quickly became spiritually chic, and before long they were paying outrageous prices for worthless artifacts and feeling enriched by the process. They were very happy—as were the sniggering Artists.

Today rich people continue on the same foolish path, but the process has been scaled-up. And the higher art prices rise and the sillier the subject matter, the more secure the wealthy folks become in their belief that the things they horde have real value. They rationalize their religious-like belief this way: The importance of an art object, they argue, is inherently aesthetic and therefore unmeasurable in objective terms. (This, by the way, is a theory originally spread by the capital “A” Artists’ themselves, and by their agents.) The rich victims are convinced that they are really buying “beauty,” as if that were possible, and they are willing to pay thousands of dollars for, say, a small painting of a tree. The Artist, of course, would rather look at the real tree for free, and on the side grind out a gross of pictures to foist on the gullible rich. Of course smart poor people know that any object that cannot be eaten or worn is of no real worldly value. This fact is lost on the rich because, never having been hungry, they have no rational point of reference. Dealing with graduates of the art school of “hard-knocks,” they are at a huge disadvantage. That’s why I pity them. When it comes to so-called art, the rich are little children attracted to bright objects, and they need to be protected from their own ignorance.

Since I believe that most “Art” is an illusion created by self-anointed Artists for one purpose only, to separate the rich from their disposable income (here defined as any money over the amount needed to live comfortably, which is most of what the rich possess), a way must be found to protect the wealthy class from art class grifters. For starters, I propose a law banning the sale of art objects to persons with annual incomes over $300,000. I know that poor people will claim that any money taken from the rich, by whatever method, is simply wealth redistribution, but I disagree. The poor may think of it as just normal “capitalistic art commerce,” but I say it’s the blatant exploitation of one economic class by another, and in a just society this situation cannot be allowed to continue. After all, what if the tables were turned?

This post is a slight revision of my essay titled “People Who Buy Art Shouldn’t Read This,” originally published in the May 25, 1979 Baltimore Evening Sun. The angry reaction to it by several of my “Artist” friends, who seemed to have taken it personally, and not in a spirit of fun as intended, totally surprised me. Oh well, I guess that’s what I get for playing with fire . . . uh, I mean playing with satire. (The gag cartoon above wasn’t used to illustrate the first version of the essay—it didn’t exist then—but it strikes me as apt. Click on the image for a larger view.) Copyright © 2008 Jim Sizemore.