Sea and sky were cold and gray here Sunday, and the wind battered the boardwalk as if in gleeful laughter at the joke it had played on the weather forecasters.
But cold winds and gray skies did little to deter what police said was the largest crowd ever to come to this resort in a single weekend. All day long the cars clogged Ocean Highway, past the giant condominiums, past the fast food restaurants, past the deserted beach, all streaming toward the board walk.
And there the people walked and walked, in movement as ceaseless as the waves. Teen-agers in tattered blue jeans, whole families wrapped in beach towels, quartets of young men eyeing trios of young women. The weather seemed only a visitor who had come uninvited to the party, acknowledged but otherwise ignored.
It was, after all, Memorial weekend, the traditional beginning of summer.
Much of the time people spent here this weekend they spent in waiting, waiting in traffic at the Bay Bridge, waiting to get into the singles bars, waiting for a single serving of french fries on the boardwalk.
And the reasons why they waited were as varied as the reasons they came.
Standing in line at Phillips, the most popular Ocean City seafood restaurant, were families of mothers and fathers and wide-eyed kids, standing in 50-degree weather for a half hour just to get in the door. Among them were William and Joan Cary of Baltimore, who have been coming to Ocean City for 15 years.
"It's tradition," said Joan Cary, who teaches fifth grade while her husband works as a business manager for a plastics company. "It's part of being a Marylander."
When the Cary's two children were younger - they're now in their 20s - they spent their summers in CapeHatteras, N.C., going there for the isolation and desolation of its sand dunes and beaches, they said.
"But when the kids got older," said William Cary, "they wanted the excitement, the honky-tonk, and now we come here." Now the Carys get up at 5 a.m. to beat the crowds to the beach, at least temporarily. "Some day," said Cary, "It will be time for us to go back to Hatteras."
While the Cary's children, Scott and Donna, wait tables each summer at Ocean City, their parents stay away from the boardwalk, preferring the hotels northward where days are spent on the beach and nights are quiet affairs, with dinner out and the rest of the evening inside.
"I guess you never get over that feeling of what it was like when you were a kid," said William Cary. Summer then meant freedom, and three months were an eternity. Now, for the Carys it's weekends and two weeks in August, "the one chance," Cary said," you get to leave responsibility be.
And yet while the future is suspended for the moment, the familiar is not. "We always see people we know here," said Joan Cary. "We're never out of place."
Back on the boardwalk, teen-agers lead another less familiar existence. All day long they roam the wooden walkway, looking for the chance meeting, new faces, new lines, new lives.
"It's away from real life," said Debbie McCollum, 17, of Landsdowne, Md. "Everyone you meet is different." She and her friend Karan Kramer said they "had about 15 guys offer us a place to stay so far and it's only Sunday."
"It's like you just stay wired all the time," said Karan as she foght a losing battle with the wind to keep her bleached blond hair out of her eyes. "Sometimes, you party and sometimes you're bored, but here, you know, it's like there's a chance . . . Back home, it's nowhere."
Their friend Joe Weedon, 13, agreed. "It's the summer, man, it's started." Just graduated from high school, Weedon will start work next fall at his father's plumbing company. This summer, he'll run a dart game on the boardwalk. "This is it," he said "This is Last Chance City."
For those who have left high school behind but for whom a family of their own is still far in the future, the search remains the same. Only the stage is different.
At Finnegan's Rainbow this weekend, they packed the place in their tight, while jeans and tube tops and flowered shirts. They screamed in flowered shirts. They screamed in each other's ears to be heard over the raucus bands. They come, said Rainbow manager Tom Carson, for a simple reason."To get laid," he said. "This is dreamland, man," he said. "Let's hope they all get lucky."
Some did, and sidled out quickly. Others sat silently as the strobe light flashed, listening to the bands sing, "Happy ever after in the market place . . ."
Jerry Outman, 21, a mechanic from Arlington, sipped his drink as his high school friend Bily, a construction worker, sat next to him. "Well," Outman said. "I came here to meet somebody, but . . ." He shrugged. He has been coming to Ocean City "since I was a teen-ager. It was always the place to go."
But now, Outman said, "It's changed somehow. It used to be that everybody just got together and partied and had a good time. There weren't places like this.It's changed and I can't explain it. The people just seem different. Everything goes so much faster."
Meanwhile, Baltimore architect Leo D'Aleo, co-woner of Finnegan's presided over both the lost and the found with happy contentment. "We've never had a crowd like this before," he said. "These people are paying thre dollars just for the privilege of coming in the door and then they pay $1.75 for a drink that costs us 18 cents to make." That night alone, he said, he would gross close to $8.000.
Clubs like Finnegan's are a fairly recent development in Ocean City, according to John Fager, 34-year-old owner of Fager's Island, another restaurant, and co-owner with D'Aleo of Finnegan's. There are about a half dozen of them now that stay open year-round, Fager said, thanks to the condominium owners who visit their investments on weekends throughout the year.
People like D'Aleo, Fager and other young developers who survived the years when the condominiums weren't selling, say they think of Ocean City as "life in the fast lane."
Actually, according to Fager, things have slowed down a little in the last few years since the time when to many Ocean City represented, not fresh air and family, but drugs like cocaine and frenetic activity like midnight trips on speedboats followed by parties that lasted until dawn, when the money entrepreneurs earned there was new, and so were their Mercedes and other expensive cars.
Now, Fager said, "we're a little older now and we're all learning to live a little more gracefully." But for the customers, he said, it still goes on.
"It's boy-meet-girl here," said D'Aleo. "It's 'Hey, darlin,' you sure look pretty,'" and it's one night stands . . ." It's is, as one woman observed, a 24-hour promenade of "sterling studs, and stars born every night."
In the end, D'Aleo said, "people come here to be the people they can't be back home." Ocean City, he said, is "kind of schizophrenic. The families, the boardwalk, the night scene, they do their thing indifferent ways but they're all here for escape.
"What can you say?" he said, "It's the beach."