LET'S FACE IT. The beach is a ridiculous place to visit in July or August. First off, there's no place to park your car. Then, there's no place to park your umbrella. Then, there's no place to sleep -- unless you either spend a fortune on an air-conditioned, free-HBO haven, or split some sand-filled castle with nine other sun-lovers, none of whom ever do the dishes.
And then there's the heat: unrelenting. And the lines: unavoidable -- at the Bay Bridge, the bar, the bathroom, sometimes even at your companion's beach chair, should he or she look especially good in a swimsuit.
So who needs this aggravation? Where did all these people come from? Why don't they all just go away?
This week, they took the parking meters down in Rehoboth Beach. Talk about your bellwethers.
Furthermore, rental rates in every beach town from Martha's Vineyard to Myrtle Beach went down two weeks ago; many of them drop again later this month or next and stay that way until we all start worrying about our weight again in May. And although last weekend's hot weather brought a bigger post-Labor Day crowd to the Delmarva Peninsula than usual, one could still easily get from the boardwalk to the breakers last Saturday in Ocean City without kicking sand on anybody's blanket.
It is mid-September, in other words. And all is quiet, relatively speaking, on the eastern front.
And if you have any sense whatsoever -- or if you've just always wondered what U.S. 50 looks like underneath all those cars -- you'll head for the beach sometime in the next 30 days or so.
"It's definitely more easygoing here in September," says Christopher Mann, 24, who'll be in uniform (one pair blue trunks, one chain with lightning-bolt pendant, one professional- quality tan) through the end of this month in Dewey Beach -- where he sells hot dogs and soda for Catt's Beach Service, six days a week, on the beach.
"It's just so much nicer. In the middle of the season, there'll be a line from here to the water and I'll just be cranking out hot dog after hot dog 'til I never want to see another hot dog again," Mann says, going through the cranking-out motions even though he hasn't had a customer for five, maybe ten minutes.
"But this," he says, squinting at the modestly populated beach, unguarded since the Tuesday after Labor Day but otherwise just as inviting as June, "is the best time to be here. It's more casual, it's less crowded. The nightlife is still good in September. The people you meet are more personable . . ."
He pauses. "It's quality," he says. "Quality as opposed to quantity."
OVER THE BAY BRIDGE IN QUALITY TIME
Some of us city folks jes can't get to the beach after Labor Day, y'know? The kids are in school. Or we're in school. Or we have to work. Or we have to rake leaves. Or it's hard to get a taxi. Whatever.
In the end, any excuse we outlanders use to remain inland in the weeks before Halloween is just fine with the locals. Because this is their beach season.
"Unlike in the spring, when you have warm days and cool evenings," says Bill Vernon, proprietor of Rehoboth's Vernon Real Estate and a shore resident since high school days, "in the fall you have warm days and cool evenings and warm water temperatures. People'll be swimming into mid-October (in 70- degree or warmer ocean water) -- and even in late November, early December I'll be out deep-sea fishing without a shirt on."
We're talking here, for you viewers at home, with the sort of Delmarvans (Delmarvites?) who don't pack up all the nickels they made from us in July and August and head to Miami come Labor Day, like the stereotypical beach-businessperson used to. That happens less and less often. More and more people choose to live at the beach year-round.
Thus more people are glad, privately if not demonstrably, when We of the City annually go back whence we came.
"I don't see the beach all summer," says Tom Hall, 23, speaking across the bar last weekend to a lone midday customer at Ocean City's amiable old Talbot Street Cafe. Hall, whose family migrated over the last decade from Baltimore to Ocean City, spends most of his summer (and winter) either tending bar at the Cafe or selling real estate locally. "It's just like in Florida -- you can tell who lives here and who doesn't by their tans. People'll say, 'Why aren't you tan?' and you notice that he's not exactly pale, but he's not exactly tan, either. "You know," he says. "I was working all summer.
"This time of year," he says, nodding toward the few shards of Talbot Street sunlight visible from the Cafe's dark and pleasantly funky interior, "is when I get my tan."
THE BEACH, BEYOND SWEAT
Following this story, you'll no doubt find one of those special Weekend section appendices, this one listing some good excuses -- events organized primarily by the local chambers of commerce and tourism concerns -- to make that 100-mile-plus trek to the Delmarva Peninsula this September and beyond.
Before we get to them, however, there are some all-purpose out-of-season pastimes you might consider.
I should point out that all of them are enhanced by the proper attitude, and that this attitude -- I'm speaking here as someone who grew up at the beach and thus annually avoided it until the parking meters came down -- is rooted in two fundamental beliefs.
The first is that large crowds of people are bad enough when they're fully clothed.
The second is that the ocean is something to be communed with on a regular basis -- throughout the year, that is, whether or not you can swim in it -- and on an eminently personal basis. This doesn't mean you have to be alone, however: You could be holding hands with someone special on a boardwalk bench; you could be standing ankle-deep in surf, surrounded by dogs and joggers and Frisbees; you could be on a headboat full of high school science students looking for whales 20 miles off Assateague. I don't know; what you do is between you and your ocean. The point is that the ocean, like the beach stretched before it, is a formidable, ancient presence worth consulting every once in a while.
Anyway, there are plenty of other off-season possibilities, including:
* Sailboarding. At Dewey Beach Sailing, for instance, on Rehoboth Bay at Dagworthy Street, you can take a $27, one- hour sailboard lesson any weekend through October 1. And now's probably the best time to learn how to master a sailboard here, or at least learn how to avoid falling off every time the wind shifts: As the days grow cooler, see, there are fewer people sipping drinks and smiling at your foibles from up on the bayside deck of the Rusty Rudder, a block north. "Now is definitely the time -- this town's packed in the summer," says six- year Dewey Beach Sailing veteran Frances McCann, also in uniform (one-piece bathing suit, extra-dark sunglasses, ditto on the tan). If you can't save money on this totally enjoyable and exhausting pastime, the least you can do is save some face.
* Reading. Any porch, any blanket, any boardwalk bench, any book or magazine (except "Jaws," for obvious reasons, and any publication that sent a helicopter to Madonna's wedding), anytime this month or next.
* Shopping. Out at the beach, September is traditionally the month for sidewalk sales (this is when you buy next season's beach gear, including all the bathing suits you hope to fit into next July). Also for fall-cleaning flea markets, roadside produce (a return-trip must) and condominium specials. (For the last, head to North Ocean City, South Bethany, Fenwick Island or anywhere along the bay; bring $85,000.)
* Cheap renting. For one-front hotel room that costs $90 to $150 a night in mid-August can be had for about $45 to $70 a night this month, and often for less in October. For week-long rentals, the news is similar: Pat Campbell of Joy Real Estate in Rehoboth, for instance, says a two-bedroom, two-bath condominium unit at Rehoboth's Henlopen, on the ocean at Surf Avenue, a $750 to $850 rental during an in-season week, now goes for $450 to $600, and for slightly less later this month.
* Fishing. Anybody worth his salt with a rod and reel already knows there are millions of reasons to be out there close to the Atlantic, if not on top of it, well beyond a little thing like Labor Day -- in fact especially after Labor Day, and through the fall. Most of these millions of reasons, of course, are fish -- particularly trout, bluefish, mackerel, mullet, tuna, kingfish, flounder, drum, spot, you name it.
* All-around beachcombing. A few suggestions for surfside strolls -- whether to fly a kite, talk, tink, thank Mother Nature for the late-summer lack of insect life or just collect shells and sea-wrought scraps of glass after a storm: Cape Henlopen State Park in Lewes, particularly near the ranger tower at the tip of the cape; anywhere away from the scattered parking areas within Delaware Seashore State Park, which is the long stretch of wilderness between Dewey Beach and Bethany; and almost anywhere on Assateague, the undeveloped natural barrier island that begins south of the Ocean City inlet and stretches south into Virginia.
* Sightseeing. C'mon. On a crisp Monday afternoon in late September, even the Coastal Highway -- which cuts a six-lane swath through the high-rise condomania, fast-food blight and uncontrolled sign pollution of upper Ocean City -- can be beautiful.
Well, maybe not beautiful. Serene, then. You can almost hear the electronic billboards flash.
Says one: "Welcome Back Locals."