Gulls perch on a rock pile at 17th and Boardwalk, gaping vacantly at the high-rise hotel as dawn colors the grey building apricot. The folks who saved quarters in a gallon jug of cranberry juice all year enjoy the privilege of staring back at the gulls from the balcony of their luxury fourth- story efficiency in Ocean City, Maryland. Sizzlean pops and splatters in the kitchenette, tended by a teen-aged son, while parents perform calisthenics in the sitting room in matching warm-up suits.

An early-rising sculptor builds drip-method fantasy castles, alone for the moment on this thin strip of lower-end beach. He looks up to see a cyclist pass by, heading up the boardwalk. As the sun rises, surf-casters appear, setting up tackle boxes, coolers and green canvas chairs.

Smells of the ocean mix with the thick odor of coconut oil by mid-morning. Glistening, fragrant figures mist their shoulders, stomachs and thighs with houseplant sprayers; then lie back with wet cotton balls planted on their eyelids. Serious tanners keep distance between skin and ocean water. Salt strips their oils and burns.

Late-rising girlfriends from a Potomac private school search for a bare spot at 25th Street. Bravely spreading their bright, plush towels within inches of a wave's lick, they remove their California long-sleeved T-shirts and lie on their bellies to sleep or talk languidly. Last season, these four were the only ones at school to wear the now-familiar shirts: "Spyder" printed down the arms and on the front pocket, with eagles, cacti or symbols of the American Dream splashed on the back. They decide to shop around at the 45th Street Village after lunch, in search of a new fad.

A blonde woman in a Talbot's skirt and shirt stands at the top of a stairway. She is the only person in street clothes on the beach -- a realtor, ready at noon to show newly converted cottage-green condos to passing investors. Vacationing parents used to visit museums, galleries or nature trails; today, they hoard free moments to tour real- estate offerings, the passion of the baby-boom generation. These apartments tempt couple after couple; one- and two- bedroom units, all beachfront with real wood paneling, sell out by 2. The three-bedroom boasts ocean and bay views but its corridor style feels claustrophobic and the bay is a mere wish in the distance, overshadowed by a blue dumpster and black parking lot immediately below the back balcony. Nonetheless, a couple from New York collects rental and tax-shelter information for their parents, who need a good investment.

Two college women in low beach chairs do their nails under cool umbrellas, watching a mother in a red maillot retrieve her naked two-year-old from Neptune's grasp. "For the last time, you've got to hold my hand if you jump in the waves." The child chokes and spits, then mutters, "Jump in the waves." Squealing, she runs back into the white curling froth of a big breaker.

Phillips Crab House is just opening at noon for takeout orders. A group of boys enters, ready for lunch. Ten minutes later, clutching paper bags smelling of fish and crab, they emerge from the cool, dark restaurant with its stained-glass windows and quilt-lined walls. One boy runs back for a forgotten bag of Cokes while the others locate a bench on the boardwalk where they can eat and watch the crowd. The sandwiches are of a size and quality to satisfy even the hungry boys: two huge fried fillets, tomato and lettuce on rye. "The cook must want to go out with me," one of them mumbles with his mouth full.

Hoses placed conveniently along the boardwalk are used to wash sand from tourists' toes. A young man in olive shirt and heavy-gauge khaki pants, eyes aglaze, monopolizes the hose at 20th Street for half an hour, while a family timidly waits its turn. "I'm ohnery today, ohnery," he barks in the afternoon heat, spraying with vigor any woman who crosses his path. The diplomatic father finally coaxes the nozzle away momentarily, leaving the ornery onlooker to glower possessively as others use his toy. Too much sun.

As evening approaches, local planes make their final passes over the beach, dragging banners: "Rock Tonight at the . . ." People turn their heads away too soon, having seen the same advertisement all day. Far out at sea, the horizon continually changes its profile, made jagged in the distant mist by freighters and commercial fishing boats. Back on the boardwalk, crowds saunter southward with the beat- beat-beat of sandals and Dr. Scholls. Following behind in the dusk, a lone, stern-faced gentleman in 15th-century garb and plumed hat walks along the water's edge enroute to a Knights of Columbus convention.

A younger leaner man in faded blue swim shorts runs from the boardwalk, past the last of the fishermen, toward the mammoth condo buildings shimmering in the heat haze. A BoneFone suspended from his clavicle gleams dully. Forgetting himself, he sings "It's all right, it's all right, it's all right, cocaine," in a key somewhat below that of Clapton. Two college women in lavender nail polish giggle as he speeds by, leaving them to pack up their beach gear.

A couple who saved pennies in a green Gallo wine jug all year camps across the street from the beach, well above the boardwalk's north end; they are the only tent campers in a paved recreational vehicle park. The word "park" has been used somewhat loosely in this case, they decide. An electric-blue converted school bus -- with windowbox, air conditioner, family of four, two dogs and one cat -- lives here year 'round. The young couple stakes a lone tent between the bus and the park's greenhouse/general store building. Soon, the bus dweller's larger mongrel strays too close to the newcomers and scratches at the green and tan canvas. A woman, smiling, shortens her dog's running leash by a foot to be a good neighbor.

No campfires allowed. Weary campers boil Gwaltney wieners over an orange propane stove and eat raw marshmallows. You can't beat this location for beach activities, they say to console themselves. They study maps of the wooded areas to the south, hoping for a more park-like site tomorrow. Zoom, zoom. A dozen cars speed down the highway 10 yards from their site; the striped tent flutters in the wake of the vehicles.

As night comes, a bearded psychology major sits on the beach, leaning on a duffle bag stuffed with saltwater taffy. The moon shines full and clear. Watching the ocean, he plays "Wild Thing" and the theme from "Batman" on his guitar. Hushed silver waves hiss and boom in accompaniment.