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“A Connecticut Yankee in Ocean City’s Court”: An outsider’s experience of pre-season area activities
Written By: Mike Lauterborn
*Click images below to view larger versions.
“A Connecticut Yankee in Ocean City’s Court”: An outsider’s experience of pre-season area activities
Joe Kro-Art, the "P.T. Barnum of Fine Art", mugs for the camera in front of the Ocean Gallery art emporium he founded on Ocean City's Boardwalk in the 1960s. There are between 30,000 and 40,000 individual pieces of art for sale here in this building, which is made almost completely of recycled materials.
(Installment #3 of Fairfield, CT writer Mike Lauterborn’s 4-day April adventure in Ocean City – an outsider’s perspective on the sites and sounds of Maryland’s oceanside getaway destination)

DAY 3: SATURDAY, APRIL 17
Rain during the night dotted the beach with pockmarks and stirred up the ocean, but the forecast for the day called for “ample” sunshine. For now, though, the skies would be streaked grayish-blue like the coloring I had seen on many a clamshell.
    There was a collective hankering for pancakes that would not be quelled, so after performing our morning ablutions, my boys Phillip (10) and Evan (14) and I ventured out from our lair at the Holiday Inn Suites to Happy Jack at 26th Street and Coastal Highway. The facility’s sign features the restaurant’s namesake – a kooky jester – lying on his back with legs straight up in the air and a plate with a tall stack of pancakes balanced on his feet. Jokers that we often are, the come-on had appeal.
    “We’re here to get happy. Can you help us do that?” I announced to the hostess, who oddly resembled last night’s Hooter’s receptionist in size and personality – but sans Hula Hoop!
    “Yes, we certainly can,” she assured me.
    “Money-back guarantee?” I chided, like Happy Jack may have joked.
    She led us to a table in this family-style joint, which had a warm feeling to it like waffles just out of a waffle maker. Slender, café-au-lait skinned Brie became our Purveyor of Happy, quickly shuttled juices and took our orders. While these were accommodated, we took a gander at the wall décor. In one corner, a BEER 5-cents sign, horse yoke and bugle; near the menu/condiment station, “Head to the Beach”, “Home Is Where the Beach Is” and “Our Beach House” signs; on another wall old signs for Butter (39 cents) and Eggs (27 cents) and Ward’s TIP-TOP bread.
    The crowd here was mixed – seniors, young sweats-clad couples, parents with their offspring, and some quite heavyset folks that looked like they enjoyed the free buffet circuit.
    Evan ordered Belgian waffles – Frisbee disks topped with strawberries. Brie, who spoke with a smooth creamy accent like the related cheese, toted a can of whipped cream and offered it up to Evan.
    “Are you sure you want to do that?” I asked her, knowing Evan’s penchant to use the topping excessively.
    “Should I stay?” Brie asked, smiling.
    “I think it would be best,” I replied.
    To our surprise, or perhaps because we were supervising, Evan created a conservative pod.
    As we dug into our meals, a reunion sparked near us between two friends that hadn’t seen each other in 20 years. They exchanged hugs, life highlights and cell phone numbers, “happy” to see each other.
    Brie noticed Phil’s empty plate – “Can I take this outcha way?” Evan and I had not made as much progress. “I think we’re getting full,” I explained. She knew what I meant, saying, “the food has a way of getting inside and swelling up.”
    When we finally could not put away any more, Brie brought us – or rather 10-year-old Phil – the bill.
    “Here’s your check,” she said to him. “You can pay it up front. If you don’t have the money, you can go in the kitchen and work it off.” Phil got the joke and smiled in response.
    As I paid up front, the cashier let me know that both Brie’s (or Brianna more formally) sister and father work here and that, in fact, much of the staff is related. “One server’s been here 22 years,” she noted. “This must be a happy place to work,” I concluded.
    Next stop: Beer. Although only 10am, Anthony’s Beer, Wine & Deli at 33rd and Coastal had its door thrown wide open ready to satisfy thirsts.
    “I need some Natty’s,” I said to the guy manning the front register, referring to the Baltimore-bred National Bohemian brand. My Northeast friends and I were fans and it would be inappropo of me to visit Maryland and not carry back Natty Boh’s. The clerk pulled three cases, priced at $14.99 per. As I was paying, I mentioned our brand worship and the owner pulled some “merch” from the archives – a Natty Boh “Cyclops” pin and two mini bottle keychain/openers. We toted this booty to the trunk of my large sedan. “Whoa, that’s a huge trunk,” the guy remarked. “You could put bodies in there.” I mentioned my aim to fit it with a liner, fill it with water and affect a hot tub in which to sit. “Really? That’s cool!” he said, envisioning it.
    We moved up the way sort of aimlessly until Phil spotted a sign: INDOOR GOLF. As there was still a gray, chilly tinge to the day, it seemed like a worthwhile activity to pursue. Old Pro Golf was the facility and it had both an indoor sea-themed course and an outdoor Jurassic Park-like set-up. We began indoors, putting through a submarine, dodging a giant green eel, eluding a deep-sea diver and ultimately chipping a ball into the gob of a man-eating oyster to score a free game. We used the credit to play the outdoor course, fending off cavemen, avoiding Brontos and veering past Velociraptors. There was even a large volcano that reminded us of the Icelandic cone that had recently been pumping out ash and fouling flight plans over Europe. When the smoke had cleared, Evan had defeated Phil and me both rounds.
    It was beach time finally and we trekked down. To combat some blustery winds kicking up sand, the three of us each built and lined our own foxholes. Like groundhogs, we peered around, notably spying an adult sand project in action at the hands of three women and their male construction supervisor: Erin, Emily, Katey and Emily’s brother Matthew, all late 20-somethings. The girls are former co-workers from a Wal-Mart in Brookings, South Dakota, and live near each other in that state. They had flown down to Baltimore, where Matt had met them, and initially toured D.C. Then Matt, a Bethesda, MD, resident, surprised them and brought them down here for a two-night stay at the Quality Inn, next door to our hotel.
    Their sand project: a pirate ship. To fully complete the effect, Erin and Emily walked over to a nearby gift shop and hornswaggled a Jolly Roger and a pirate dog stuffed animal. We lashed the flag to a couple wooden stakes, securing it with tightly twisted plastic bags and some old wire. A series of photos ensued before they abandoned ship and returned to port, to scheme a later Happy Hour excursion.
    Down the beach, we noticed four grizzled surfers tackling the waves. They would straddle their boards, wait patiently for a swell, paddle into it, stand and ride it as far along as they could, then collapse back into the surf per chance to ride again.
    The dinner hour approached and we set out on foot on the boardwalk headed downtown. As we went, we saw a mix of beachgoers wrapping up, late day sunners just reporting for duty, cyclists, dog walkers and baby strollers. We even saw a couple of surfers carrying their boards and asked, “Caught some curls?” The reply: “Rode some waves anyhow.”
    At 6th Street, we came upon a henna tattooist and I decided to go for this temporary body art. From a catalog, I chose an image of a wolf howling at a crescent moon and star then released myself into the capable hands of Kimbel Fay, a dreamy brunette who cautioned, “If you wiggle, I will squiggle.”
    Several people stopped to observe the process as she recreated the design on the back of my left hand. The ink would be bubbled at first, dry over the course of the hour then flake off, leaving an ink imprint that could last as long as two weeks if left fairly undisturbed. When she’d completed her work, the Wisconsin-bred mom (and grandmom) said, “If you like it, remember I’m working for tips. If you don’t like it, don’t tell anyone where you got it.” Fair enough I said tossing a few dollars into a bucket and continuing on down the way.
    The boardwalk began to take on a San Diego-like air with a balloon animal maker, a pair of guitarists working for tips and some old hippies. Then we came to the most curious building, the Ocean Gallery. Every bit of exterior space on the place was covered with an odd sign, bit of artwork, strange object, etc. The building itself was a work of art. Parked by it on the side street was also a Batmobile, to which was attached a whole other set of bric-a-brac and “Please Touch” signage.
    Inquiring within, I met one of the more unique and enthusiastic people I’ve ever encountered, owner Joe Kro-Art. Calling himself the “P.T. Barnum of Fine Art” after discovering many similarities as a showman and man between himself and the legend, Joe founded Ocean City’s only recycled building and his business in the 1960s after a period of time selling paintings on the boardwalk. Now this original location (and eight other spin-offs) enjoys global attention attracting press, celebrities and tourists. Joe’s lifelong philosophy is simple: “Fine art is fun and should be enjoyed. No barriers… what art should be.”
    Recognized as a visionary, Joe maintains between 30,000 and 40,000 individual pieces of art, which range from the most simple of posters to the most elaborate fine paintings. There is literally something for every taste, and this location, with its three levels of inventory, was a great demonstration of this. It seemed only appropriate to buy a print depicting the gallery and have Joe autograph it to memorialize our meeting. The print was particularly appropriate as he and the rest of the “Ocean Gallery Family” were integrated into the piece. The boys, meanwhile, bought their own keepsakes – a Yellow Submarine Beatles poster and a Bob Marley poster.
    Tony’s Pizza, billed as “The Best on the Boardwalk since 1962”, at the corner of North Division, offered up some fine-looking pies and pulled us close. Limber waitresses in red polo tops and tight short-shorts, one of who, Carmen, became our waitress, were also a lure. While serving us a large pizza and mozzarella sticks, she told us she was from Romania, professed to know Spanish and taught us a couple of words in her native tongue. Further chat revealed that she was a journalism student in college and came to the U.S. with a work and travel program. About the large number of foreign-born residents in the area, she reasoned, “Why I’m tinking dey’re here: economical, school… marry, fall in love.”
    On a whim, I had her and her waitress pals – Johanny, Carissa, Katie and Zoe -- line up like a chorus group for a photo, dubbing the team “The Rockettes of Pizza.”
    Temps had dropped and a blustery wind had blown up when we stepped back out on the boardwalk, passing Joe at Ocean Gallery who was closing up. He spotted the Tony’s Pizza box I was carrying and remarked, “Tony’s Pizza! You’re doing it all,” then added, “Tony and I started out together.” I would have liked to have pursued that info but I had to catch up to my hurrying boys and find warmth.
    Entering the lobby at the Holiday Inn, I noticed some commotion at the pool, signaling Kids At Play, and went and grabbed Phil to take a plunge. He blended in merrily with the dozen or so kids swimming and splashing about. Meanwhile, I took up residence at the adjacent Coral Reef Café bar, with Adults At Play. A young woman beside me, an area resident, was socializing with her dad and friends, who had spent the day golfing at a course called Bayside just over the border in Delaware. In contrast, she’d spent the day schlepping to Annapolis, to return a pair of shoes.
    Cassie called her dad (Bill) and company’s excursion their “Man Trip”. Bill was just one of 14 to 16 men that were participating in the weekend, of which quality dinners were also a part. The group included regular guys with names like Frankie, Brian, Chris and Mac, who were sucking back brews, watching sports and telling Man Stories. “I come for the fun of it,” said one. “The wind burn, sun burn…”
    We left them at this 19th hole and retired for the evening.
TO BE CONTINUED IN MAY 28 ISSUE OF COCONUT TIMES
    Mike Lauterborn is a Fairfield, CT-based freelance writer and author of “Chasing Charley”, a soon-to-be-published recreation of John Steinbeck’s 1960 “Travels with Charley” road trip adventure. For more info: http://www.facebook.com/MikeLauterbornChasingCharley
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