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.


My Friend Oscar

February 18, 2009

By Jacquie Roland

It may be too late for me to ever be seated up front in the Academy Awards audience and hear those magical words, ” And the Oscar goes to (insert my name here!).” But you never know. I gave my first Oscar speech when oscar08I was about seven, maybe eight. I figured that one day I’d be called on to thank a long list of people and wanted to be ready. So I rehearsed in front of my mirror again and again. It was important for me to get it right—you see, I knew what I wanted to be when I grew up… not a fireman or a policeman or a mommy. When asked, I always said the same thing… “I want to be a ‘walt disney’.” I wanted to be a walt disney and win Oscars, which I thought were made of real gold, nifty little presents they gave you for being a really good walt disney and drawing entertaining movies. People must have found me amusing. I drew my movies on whatever scrap of paper that was available—shirt cardboard was a favorite—then passed the pictures around for the neighbors to see. I even drew my own Oscar once, coloring it with a stubby yellow crayon from the small flat box, (which didn’t include gold), and taped it to my mirror for encouragement as I rehearsed. What I was dreaming of, in those color-deprived days, was becoming an illustrator—although back then I didn’t know what one was.

Later, in real life, the illustrator part of my imaginary movie came true. I didn’t make it to Hollywood, but did work in the graphics field in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and now—as a painter/sculptor—in upstate New York. As I grew older, the Oscar ceremony just became something I watched with everyone else once a year. (Were there really times when, in my childish excitement, I bumped my nose trying to get closer to those gleaming metal statuettes and left tiny grease spots on the TV screen?) Some things are best forgotten… but other things, like the Hollywood dream itself, stayed with me—locked away—and there it rested quietly until not very long ago.

Dramatic Flashback: Two years ago I sold a painting (not that unusual)… soon after that I had an accident (very unusual). After the accident I was confined to a rehab facility for several months. When you are in one of those places, you become very aware of your own mortality—and your limitations. But I’m a determined little creature. I couldn’t paint, so I started to write. This past summer I wrote my first play, which I entered in a competition in Baltimore. The play “(She Loved Me?) She Loved Me Not,” was produced in November 2008 and, after all this time, an actress walked across a real stage saying words I had written. Meanwhile (as I waited for the play to be produced), I came close to winning an Oscar. Really—well, kind of. One of my paintings (remember the one I sold before the accident?) appeared in the Uma Thurman movie “The Life Before Her Eyes.” The film was released in April 2008 by 2929 Productions. I finally got to see it on DVD, and my small painting appears twice in the film—at 30:05 & 38:41. The director, Vadim Perelman (be still my heart), even mentioned it in his commentary. The painting is of a little girl’s face, its title “Victorian Dreams.” The movie was beautiful, lush even… and artistic… the subject matter was stirring, and with so many Oscar-nominated and Oscar-winning names attached to the project, I thought that it was a shoo-in for at LEAST a nomination. I figured that if I couldn’t get a nomination myself, the next best thing would be to be involved—no matter how minutely—in a film that did. I could barely contain myself. Oh, the bragging rights! But, sadly, it wasn’t to be. *Sigh*

The 81st annual Oscars will be broadcast February 22—again, of course, without me. This year Hugh Jackman will do the MC bit. We will not air kiss. I will not be interviewed on Oprah, or by Barbara Walters. Earlier, on the famous red carpet, Joan Rivers will not have asked me inane questions. After someone else is handed “my” Oscar and—watched by millions, maybe billions—I will not have to smile wanly into the camera and say (a tear in my eye), “it was an honor just to have been nominated.”

Sure, I’ll be watching… and I just may get out the glitter and make my own Oscar, as I did many years ago. That little yellow fellow got me through a lot as a child, and he is still a shiny beacon for my darkest days. (Let’s face it, we may ALL need a little bit of economic glitter to get through the next few years.) But for a few hours this Sunday evening, we can forget our troubles and watch the fancy folks, dressed in their tuxes and fabulous gowns and borrowed jewelry, gliding across the wine colored carpet on television. I have to smile… because like the little girl I was many years ago, some of those folks must have dreamed of winning the Oscar when they were eight years old, too. There really isn’t that much difference between us, you know… they just got closer to the stage than I did. Oh, and just for the record—in his lifetime Walt Disney won 26 Oscars. Me: 0. (At least so far.)

Copyright © 2009 Jacquie Roland.