The beach house: Meet markets, maillots and the singles ritual of Rehoboth

July 3, 2012

This story originally ran in the Style section on July 11, 1980.

The blond is tan as warm hazelnuts, surrounded by sweet beer, cocoa butter and — over there in the sand — a laughing bikini spread-eagled on some guy who’s laughing much more. It’s a luscious Saturday at Rehoboth, just fine for talking of anything you please. Her weekend group house then.

“We can tell how much fun we’re having,” she says in a giggle made devilish with Michelob, “by how many empty beds there are.” More giggles, more beer, more talk as teasing as an R-rated beach movie.

Leave your brains on the Bay Bridge, the well-worn expression goes and come 110 miles east for the Washington singles ritual of Rehoboth. It starts Friday night in a sea of La Coste shirts at the Rusty Rudder, then slides in catatonic Saturdays of well-oiled flesh and skinny maillots. Pflumps echo from the volleyballs, squeaks from Styrofoam coolers and soon about 4, the beach scene migrates to a hot, swarming bar called the Bottle and Cork. The limes for the gin are in buckets.

Then evening. Fat hydrangeas and yellow daylilies line the roads and walking down Carolina Street, bare feet on the gravel, sun massaging your calves, you can hear blow-dryers whining from the group houses as they prime for Night Two.

There are a good 100 of these houses in Dewey Beach, the sleepy Rehoboth subdivision that turns singles boomtown during the summer months. Each year, more than 1,000 from Washington’s upwardly mobile, unattached and under-40 stratum are lured here by summer and its fancies. Attachments may be lasting or fleeting, but, at the least, there’s always a tan — and the beach, less a shoreline than a state of mind.

“It was a period in my life, right out of college, when I felt like the beach was a romaniticized place,” says Jerry Pritichett, a 40-year-old Washington executive who eventually traded those old Rehoboth summers of the 1960s for married life and kids.

“It’s a tradition,” says Kathy Manning, a pretty 26-year-old Washington woman who’s single and thinks this first summer of hers at Rehoboth is just terrific.

She spends her weekend at 201 Carolina, a street made rustic by potholes as big as bathtubs. Her rented house, a contemporary one of dark pine wood, is shared with eight other men and women. Although one couple is married, the rest are single and barely know each other.

They’re typical of most beach house groups at Rehoboth — young and professional, lumped together for the summer by loose ties made in the winter. They do typical things at the beach, too: drink, dance, read, gossip, dream some.

To watch their weekend is to glimpse a few of the dreams, a bit of the hurt and much of the enigma in Washington’s high-achiever singles life. Their introspection is often as brief as the weekend, yet it offers snapsshots beyond the bar scene and Pepsi ads.

The First Pizza

What brought this group together was a pizza at Machiavelli’s on Capitol Hill, where three of the men decided in April they wanted a group house for the summer. They found a fourth male by accident, then advertised on the Senate staff bulletin board for the women. “Our goal is a relaxed atmosphere,” the ad said. “We plan to share meal costs and someone in the house will cook dinner each Saturday.” The cost was $511 each for 15 weekends.

After interviewing six of almost 20 women who responded, they wound up with three. The wife made four, and a friend of a friend, five. So there it stands — five women, four men, plus an assortment of guests who come and go. Among the cast:

Frank Bowman. He’s blond, 24 and wears a T-shirt that says “The Harvard Man: Not Just Another Pretty Face.” He graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979, grew up in Durango, Colo., works as a lawyer for the Justice Department and is considered the best in the house at working the Rehoboth bar scene. A great dancer everyone agrees. There’s no doubt, he says that by the end of the summer, 201 Carolina “will be a little Peyton Place.”

Keith Glaser. He’s 25, from Cincinnati, a staffer on Sen. Gary Hart’s nuclear regulation subcommittee and one polite, boyish-looking guy your mother would love. He brings his bar exam study books down for the weekends as well as Alice, a dark-eyed junior from Wellesley. She’s working as a summer program assistant at the National Women’s Educational Fund.

Jackie Beshar. She’s 23, bushy-haired, a 1979 graduate of Johns Hopkins and a staffer in Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias’ office. She has a golden retriever named Bear, a dark green Mercedes, lots of riding ribbons and New York parents who have a country home. She thinks Keith looks like he’ll be fun to go drinking with.

Bill Donovan. He’s 33, a committee staff director who knows Keith from the Hill, a father of three who goes crabbing or writes his novel in the mornings. He’s from New Jersey tall and thin, married to Pamela Nash.

Pamela Nash. She’s 25, with long brown hair that reaches the backs of her thighs. She graduated from Queens College in New York and now works as a legislative assistant to Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (D-Conn.). “I get out to the beach house and Capitol hill doesn’t exist,” she says. “I bring down trashy novel after trashy novel.”

And the others: Bruce Cleveland a 36-year-old investment banker with a single-engine plane and nice smile. Laura Van Etten, 25, an FTC legal researcher with a little-girl voice and fondness for dancing with Frank. Nina, a researcher who’s separated from her husband and first noticed the beach house ad on her way to the Senate taco stand. Plus Kathy Manning, the pretty young woman who works in the offices of the New York State Assembly. She thinks Bruce is “charming.”

So Far, Kathy, Nina, Laura, Frank, Keith, etc., like each other. So far, there are no jealousies and scenes over dirty towels or stolen loves. And so far, there are grand visions of the summer.

From Bill: “There aren’t hierachal structures here. I think it has potential to be something more enjoyable than a family in many ways.”

From Laura: “All the men are so great. I think they’re so good looking.”

And from Kathy: “I look at it as an adventure.”

The Flight From Washington

The advantage begins Friday night about 7:30, in Keith’s ’67 white Dodge Coronet that he bought for $300 and named the Beached Whale. Alice is in the front seat, Frank in the back, and the traffic on 50 East piling toward the Bay Bridge is just awful. “Sentimental Lady” floats out of the AM radio as the dropping sun shines orange on Alice’s face. No one wants to talk about work.

“What’s the one thing in the world you think you know the best of all?” Alice asks nobody in particular. No answer.

“Well, for me,” she decides, “I think it would have to be all of the odes of John Keats.”

“For me,” Keith, “it’s cleaning out the bathtub dirt.”

The Dodge bounces past fruit stands, young corn fields, frame houses with screened-in porches. By 10:30, Charlie Daniels thumps from an Ocean City radio station as background for the neon and FRESH CRABCAKES signs of Rehoboth. The three drop their stuff off at Carolina Street. Inside is sparse furniture and a brown indoor-outdoor rug. The night is cool, and it smells like the woods.

Bill’s already there with two of his kids. His wife is back in Washington to see a bill through the Senate, so she’ll miss the weekend.

Back when Bill was making arrangements for the house, things with his wife weren’t so hot. “Touchy,” he calls them. She agrees. It’s fine now, they both say, but Bill still talks about it late on Friday. His kids are in bed and his feet are up on the coffee table.

“I had two compartments of thought about having a house on the beach,” he says. “One was, if my marriage wasn’t working out, I wouldn’t be so lonely. The other was, if my marriage was working out, I really like relaxation, I really like doing things like going crabbing fishing and clamming or anything on the beach. There’s something healthy and sandy and salt air about it. Washington has none of the above. “And the way it’s working out,” he continues, “Pamela and I are getting along really well. I’m kind of sorry she isn’t down here this weekend.”

A couple of hours earlier, Keith, Alice and Frank headed for Nicola’s Pizza and the Friday rite of Nico-Bolis. They’re cheese and mushroom sandwiches sort of wrapped in pizza dough. Gooey and cheap.

Then: Keith, Alice and Frank go to The Rudder because you gotta go to The Rudder. It looks like a preppie convention. Maybe 500 of them, many probably non-authentic, but still in pink and kelly green and khaki. The guys have lean, tan ankles and scuffed Topsiders. All the women seem to have honey hair, creamy suntans, gold earrings. Fair Isle sweaters. They all look like varsity cheerleaders, and probably were. The moderately pretty don’t stand a chance here.

So they drink. Heartily, at one of the indoor or outdoor bars in this sprawling place of blond wood and the ubiquitous hanging ferns. It’s on Rehoboth Bay and was built a year ago by a local restaurateur who knew a hot summer youth market when he saw one.

The bars, either indoor and outdoor, present new problems. “I mean if you have a few drinks and sit and talk and dance with a guy at the Rusty Rudder,” Jackie says later, “you really have to work at not going to bed with him.”

Frank dances with Suzanne, a woman with curly dark hair and a drawer full of bathing suits who surfaces on the outside deck. She was the first person he danced with his first weekend at Rehoboth, and now they flip and spin and snap and everybody’s pretty much right, he’s one good dancer. About 1:30 Keith, Alice and Frank, sans Suzanne, head home. On Carolina Street, they pass a young women sprawled on her back in the road. A guy is crouched over her, gently slapping her face. But she just lies there.

Keith stops the car. “Is she okay?” Alice asks.

“Yeah,” says the guy, “she just drank too much.”

“Funny,” says Frank, “how women who get themselves unconscionably drunk just love that intersection.”

“Yeah,” says Alice, recalling a recent apres-party scene, “last week there was that woman who curled up fetus-like in the bushes.”

Eggs and Camus

Saturday morning. The phone rings and Frank answers. Laura. “Hi there, good looking,” he says. “What’s happening?”

Not much. She’s at her FTC office in Washington, studying for the bar exam. She can’t make it for the weekend.

“Well, I think you’re being a nerd,” Frank decrees. Alice is in the kitchen, about to make Rocky Mountain Toast (an egg broken into a hole in some Wonder Bread, then fried). “But I think,” Frank continues into the phone, “it’s probably good.” Alice presents Frank with the toast.

Everybody else has doughnuts and wonders where Bruce is. He was supposed to show up. Keith reads his bar exam book, then throws Alice a paperback.

She looks at it as if it’s diseased. “I don’t know if I can read Camus on the beach,” she says. “Thank God it’s not French. You’d probably lay that on me, too.”

The Beach

Here’s Suzanne again. “Another suit!” says Frank to her white bikini. They go for walk.

Alice writes a letter. Jackie, who arrived late Friday, runs with her dog.

Bill reads “Beautiful Swimmer,” and Keith frowns at his bar exam book.

The talk turns to Washington, the self-styled albatross of the Hill staffer:

“Hey Bill,” Keith says, “you know anybody in administrative procedures?”

“Jim Davidson or John Podesta,” Bill says. “Davidson’s the staff director. Or Gary Knell.”

“Yeah, Knell’s a good guy,” says Keith. “I’ll give him a call when I get back to Washington.”

The day is outrageously beautiful: a clear sky, light breeze and puffy white clouds for artistic interest. Bill put down his book and tries to interest the others in coming up with a name for the house. “The Perdues,” as in “It takes a tough man to make a tender chicken,” was vetoed by the women, and nobody much likes “The Intellectual House,” a name suggested by some neighbors who party like champions.

Somebody flips over on a towel, like a greased seal.It blocks Bill’s view of a nearby bikini. “Hey, don’t,” he says to the seal. “That lady’s taking her top off.”

The lady unties the back and carefully holding her top on, wiggles into place on her stomach. The top spreads out under her and you can see, just barely, some soft white skin. She settles in, performance over.

It’s quiet. All you can hear is a plane flying by, advertising Jesus, and conversation snippets from neighboring towels.

“So you wanna eat in, then go out drinking?” says one towel.

“Or we could go out drinking, then eat,” says the other.

“I’m sending you back to Newark,” says somebody else. “All you’ve done is bitch since you’ve been here.”

“It’s a very healthy relationship,” says a guy in a folding chair.

A Walk Through the One-Pieces

Keith begins to feel barbecued and a little bored, so he decides on a walk. He heads south on the beach, through a terrain of one-piece after trim little one-piece. They’re very in this year.

The landscape changes. Back near his towel and bar exam book, everybody looked 27. Now it’s more like 20 and soon, further south near some hotels, 17. Here the one-pieces are extremely trim. Keith turns back.

“You know,” he says, “99 percent of these people I wouldn’t want to talk to for more than five or 10 minutes. And getting to know somebody well here takes so much time and energy. Right now, most of my energy goes toward work.”

He goes on some, wondering about when and if marriage will ever fit in, talking about his ambition, about a life style with rules only he imposes. Soon he begins to window-shop his way through what he sees as a confusing freedom of endless choices. Should he move there, work for him, apply for that?

“We’re the generation that pushed for all this social change, for this kind of a life style,” he says. “But now I sometimes think we’ve been caught between two worlds. Probably 80 percent of the population, like all those people out in Iowa or somewhere, just go on having families and doing the same things they’ve done for years and years. Maybe they’re a lot happier.”

He arrives back near this towel and Alice. “Over there!” she says and points, “a party!” At the end of her finger are beach umbrellas shading bronze bodies, general gaiety and free punch with something or other in it. Keith and Alice head over and hey, look, there’s that hazelnuts blonde who keeps track of the empty beds. She’s giggling away, her ponytail swinging.

Near her is a certain Washington banker, a friendly sort of fellow who last year was given the Cheap Suit of the Year Award by his group housemates. The reason, one of them offers amiably, was that he was all over the women like one real cheap suit.

“There were 15 weekends in the summer,” explains the Suit, “so if you figure there were about two a day. . . . He begins a silent count of his women that summer of ’79 as the summer of ’80, just now ripe, lures him out of last year’s inventory. Both he and the giggling blonde have front-row seats on that laughing bikini, still sprawled on the guy in the sand. Everybody watches.

Soon the bikini begins showering the guy with kisses, nibbling on a sandy ear, rubbing the hair on his chest. Yells the crowd: “Go for it!” But alas, no more. The bikini is suddenly shy.

The Cork

Frank, the Harvard man who dances not quite as well as John Travolta, is back from his walk with Suzanne. He decides to head for the afternoon drinking scene. It’s the Bottle and Cork, the madhouse of a bar in Dewey Beach were chances are good you’ll run into that amazing redhead you saw on the beach. Frank makes the walk along the road. Cars drive by, stuffed with bodies screaming out of windows.

“Some of this is just pathetic,” Frank says. “Some of these people just refuse to grow up.” He kicks a stone.

“But I really do think when you get a lot of people stripped down to the essentials,” he continues, “it’s much harder to be snooty. I don’t know exactly why, but some level of intimacy comes a lot easier here. I don’t know if it’s the real thing — but what the hell is the real thing, anyway?”

Back in Washington the following week, he’ll admit to pondering some about the real thing, about commitment, about marriage. “I think that all of us, in our down-and out moments, wonder about that,” he says during an office phone conversation. “It’s one of those things you think about — whether you’ll ever hit the right combination. But the beach, that’s not a place where people worry much about getting married. There, it’s sort of like, what the hell, if this one doesn’t pan out, maybe the one three towels down is better, anyway.”

On Saturday afternoon, the selection is certainly fine at the Bottle and Cork. Inside, in coordinated preppie clothes, are hundreds of sweating bodies dancing to oldies and swilling beer. Frank squeezes into the mob.

“This is the pits,” says a tan woman in a clingy yellow top. “I’ve never heard such lines as here.”

“This is a meat market,” hisses the woman’s friend.

Not everyone minds. “The men here are alright,” says Joanne, 24, a researcher from Wilmington. “Although I don’t know if they’d satisfy the other things you’d be interested in. Like intelligence.” She is dressed in a white turtleneck, kelly green bermuda shorts, expensive sandals and gold earrings. She is looking over a guy in a striped oxford shirt, white cords and penny loafers.

“He looks pretty good,” she offers.

Meanwhile, Frank is talking to the woman in the clingy yellow top. Another woman asks a guy with a sunburn and a panama hat if he doesn’t think this is the most disgusting pickup scene around.

“You wanna dance?” the man in the hat responds.

Stroganoff

Jackie does most of the cooking for Saturday’s dinner at home. Other weekends the house has had two crab feasts and coq au vin, but this time it’s beef stroganoff, tossed salad and brownies. The table, white Formica with plastic chairs, is set by Keith. No napkins, so he uses Kleenex.

The centerpiece is two green candles, one in an old wine bottle, one in a Pepsi bottle, “We always had candles at home,” says Jackie. “My mother used to say they quieted everyone down.” In a small glass are yellow daylilies from the road. Bill’s two kids are here, and so is Suzanne.

The dinner conversation starts out with Hill talk about pending bills but then winds its way into the important stuff, like sex. Pretty soon, kids gone from the table, everybody’s talking about porn flicks they’ve seen, Richard Gere’s body in “American Gigolo,” and how soon you should go to bed with somebody you’re dating. The consensus is vague, emerging only as: not as rapidly as you often do.

Jackie gets up for a cigarette. Dessert is the brownies with ice cream in coffee cups, and coffee, in mugs. The candlelight and sunburns are warm. “I can’t imagine myself married,” Jackie says. “I see marriage as something you have to work at so much, and so, it had better be worth it. Right now, it just seems like too much work. Sometime, though, it’ll be all right.” She smiles. “It could be tomorrow,” she continues, “assuming the right person comes along.”

She feels the key is not to compromise, not to turn 30 and panic, not to marry someone who’s “90 percent right but 10 percent wrong.” But it’s “probably easier to say yes to that guy than no,” she admits. Still, her mother has given her a guide:

“Marry someone,” she’s told her, “only when you can’t ever imagine yourself not married to that person.”

Bill breaks in. “Marriages,” he says, “don’t hold together any more because they don’t have to.”

This year was Jackie’s first in Washington, the first time she’s lived outside the womb of college and parents. “Sometimes it’s horrible,” she says. “Sometimes it’s the loneliest thing imaginable. But other times, it’s wonderful.

“You work so hard,” she continues, “you answer the phone until 5:30, and then you sit at your desk answering the mail, and it’s not like you’re sitting at your desk calmly. And it’s just as lonely as can be . . .

“But then, I’ll walk on the Mall, or walk in the East Wing of the National Gallery and I’ll think ‘Wow.’ I’m old and I’m making it and it’s such a challenge and I’ve survived. That’s a rush.”

Th e Summer House

Dinner and talk have lasted until 11:30, and now the temptation is to fall into bed. But there’s another ritual. The Summer House.

It’s a bar and restaurant on Rehoboth Avenue, a smaller, non-nautical version of the Rusty Rudder. Hanging plants as usual. Jackie and Bill decide they’ll finish the evening off there with a drink.

Inside are more dancing preppies. Sun-kissed by a cloudless day, they’re all even tanner than the night before. Lots of big, white teeth. Papagallo handbags, too. “Looks are so important in this world,” signs Jackie.

In the middle of the room are four young men, three of them in identical green alligator shirts. They swear this was an accident.

“I can’t stand this place,” says the one without the alligator, who wears a pink striped button-down and so remains socially acceptable. His name is Matt Powell, from Chevy Chase, and he’ll be going to Wharton as a business graduate student in the fall.

Question. If he can’t stand this place, what’s he doing here? “It’s the only place in town,” he shrugs. “I like to go out.” He looks a little sheepish.

Alligator Shirt No. 1 pipes up. “I find these people vacuous,” he says. He’s from New York, a law clerk to a federal judge. Dark and attractive. “I think it’s all offensive.”

Again. If he thinks it’s so offensive, just what is he doing here?

“I don’t know,” he sighs. “I mean, we’re here.”

Jackie has had enough and leaves for a walk on the beach. Bill finds one dancing partner, then another and winds up dancing with both. At 2 a.m. the lights come on. “We’re closing,” yells the management. “Everybody out!”

Bill sits outside on a bench, sweating like he’s been dancing with two women. Finally, Jackie comes back from the beach. “You can’t walk anywhere in this town,” she says. “Guys were hassling me everywhere I went.”

Back Over the Bridge

Sunday breakfast is omelettes, doughnuts, the morning papers. Bill goes crabbing on a hot dock, tying chicken pieces to his lines for hours.He winds up with two that are edible, but doesn’t seem to mind. Because, see, it was crabbing.

“When I was growing up,” he says in the car back to the group house, “we had a garden because we had to have a garden. Most of the stuff we grew, my Mom put up for the winter.”

On the beach it’s muggy, Jackie embroiders a pillowcase, Alice wants to play Frisbee, Franks actually works his way through “The Oxford History of the American People, 1989-Reconstruction,” and Suzanne sunbathes Keith reads his bar exam book.

By mid-afternoon, people start heading back to Washington. Jackie leaves first, in her Mercedes, with Bear in the back. She stops at a fruit stand, buying peaches and flowers for her windowbox.

“It’s sort of funny,” she says in the car, “I’m single and living in Washington and my life is supposed to be so glamorous. It’s not glamorous at all. It’s unglamorous — hokey, really. But I like it hokey.”

A big chunk of the unglamorous part, she continues, is going out with men she invariably wonders why she said yes to in the first place.

“There was a ‘Cathy’ cartoon in the paper the other day,” she says, “and Cathy was sitting there on a dinner date, thinking, ‘Why am I wasting my time with a guy like this? He’s boring and narrow-minded, and any time I stand up for what I think, he accuses me of being a hostile woman. I don’t like his shirt, his jokes or his attitude. I can’t wait to get out of here and go home.’”

“Well,” says Jackie, “then the guy leaned over, put his arm around Cathy and said, ‘Penny for your thoughts.’”

Jackie laughs. “Sometimes that’s how I feel,” she says. “I’m out on a date and I’m thinking, ‘Let’s see, it’ll take him 10 minutes to finish dessert, 20 to be nice to him for 5, and then I can close the door and be by myself!”

She says she’s thankful that with the beach house, there aren’t dates or formal social settings. So far it just seems warm and casual. Real friendly.

But as she pulls onto the Beltway, she begins to wonder about that. After all, there are nine people, nine different people under one small roof for 15 weekends. Frank, she knows, is betting it’ll be a Peyton Place by summer’s end.

“It’ll be interesting to see what happens,” she says.

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