OCEAN CITY — The 22-year-old slouched on a concrete bench overlooking the ocean and punctuated one sentence after another with the same word.
Only he didn’t say that word. What Tiiler Irving said can’t be printed in a family newspaper, and it is a sentiment that is no longer welcomed in this Maryland beach town, where Washington comes to unwind. Letting loose is encouraged. Loose language is not.
Signs erected just in time for Memorial Day weekend now dot the boardwalk, waving a chastising finger with three words: “No Profanity Please.”
It is a request, not an order. It can’t be legally enforced, but that’s not the point. In a place where slacks are shed for shorts and heels for flip-flops, the measure is one in a long line of attempts to tame the wild that tends to be unleashed this time of year in beach towns, including Ocean City.
This weekend, 250,000 people are expected to swarm to the area, and officials have high hopes that the season will draw a record number of visitors because of the cabin fever that built up over a long and brutal winter.
By the looks of the boardwalk traffic Saturday morning, the masses had already begun to flock. Children on bikes with training wheels trailed their parents. Older couples casually strolled, unpressed for time. And Irving and his friends sat taking in the fresh air, flinging curses back and forth nonstop just feet from one of the new, baby-blue no-swearing signs.
“We came here to unwind,” Irving, of Baltimore, said. Telling him not to curse, he said, is like telling him not to breathe. “You can take us out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of us.”
“Ain’t nobody going to pay no mind,” his friend, Doug White, 22, said.
“Not going to pay no s---, no mind,” Irving agreed.
In recent weeks, Ocean City has taken measures to change the place that visitors will now encounter. Officials have banned the sale of laser pointers, which were being aimed menacingly in people’s eyes, along with a type of knife that fits in a pocket and easily flips open. They are also moving forward with plans to limit smoking on the beach.
The 60 anti-profanity signs, each 12 inches by 18 inches, hang from lampposts every other block.
“They’re a subliminal reminder to people to be courteous to others,” Mayor Richard W. Meehan said. “Times have changed, and we see a lot of things we didn’t see a number of years ago. We just want to make sure everybody is on the same page when they visit Ocean City.”
Meehan said he expects some people will mock the signs, but he believes more will take notice and appreciate the town’s effort to make the boardwalk experience more enjoyable for families.
“I think it will resonate with a large number of people and it will make a difference,” he said.
Lauren Taylor, owner of the Courtyard by Marriott on the boardwalk, said the need for the signs became more obvious to her the more she ventured out with her grandchildren, ages 6 and 10. She, along with Renee Seiden, director of sales and marketing for the Clarion Resort Hotel, who had taken a picture of a similar sign in Virginia Beach, took the idea to City Council member Mary Knight, who proposed it this year.
“It sets a tone that this is not acceptable,” Taylor said. “If somebody is next to you and they’re not behaving properly, you can kind of give them the evil eye and look at the sign. It gives you a line of defense.”
Jim Ricketts, director of the Virginia Beach Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the signs along the main commercial strip there are the remnants of a public decency campaign more than a decade ago that included a “courtesy patrol,” later renamed “friendship patrol,” made up of people who reproached the unruly.
“It was a concerted effort to tone down the behavioral issues we were having, especially on weekends,” Ricketts said. “And it has turned out very well for us.”
Other coastal towns have found other ways to tackle the challenge of making some visitors feel more comfortable by limiting the behaviors of others. In Wildwood, N.J., sagging pants are now banned on the boardwalk, along with walking barefoot and shirtless after 8 p.m. In Dewey Beach, Del., the fines for public urination have increased to $200. And this month, Rehoboth Beach, Del., banned smoking on the boardwalk and much of the beach. Nearby Bethany Beach, Del., expanded a similar ban to include e-cigarettes.
Last year, a council member in Ocean City proposed banning baggy pants and shorts, but the measure did not move forward.
Dianne Brought, who at 61 remembers when women and girls were required to walk along the boardwalk in dresses, said enough is enough.
“I love Ocean City,” said Brought, who wears multiple rings with the Disney logo on them and a bright yellow sweater that matches her disposition. “I just don’t want to see it so regulated.”
She said she wants to see visitors have fun, which is what they do in the store on the boardwalk where she works as a manager, Hootie’s Delicious Clothing.
It sells T-shirts with the names of neighboring restaurants, Brass Balls Saloon and Bad Ass Cafe. It also sells one that shows a writing instrument and says “My pen is big,” but read too quickly delivers a different boast.
“If you yell, ‘Hey, let’s go to the Bad Ass Cafe,’ is that cursing? I’m not sure,” Brought said.
Other scenarios are much less uncertain, she said, and are part of the culture of a place where people come for not just the beach, but also the bars. “When you get a drunk, I don’t care if he’s a 60-year-old drunk — he curses.”
Brought also suspected that the signs might prove more a temptation than a deterrent.
And if Dennis Armstrong’s reaction is any indication, she was right.
As the 22-year-old from St. Mary’s County walked along the boardwalk with friends, he noticed a photographer’s lens pointed at one of the signs and shouted his thoughts.
“No profanity, mother f---er!” he said, laughing.