August hangs heavy in this town now, its beach and boardwalk swollen with the last of the tourist searching for a breif burnt glory that will carry them throught the rest of the year.
Two weeks of vacation and it's over, their measured doses of escape passing as quickly as glimmers of sunlight on a cresting wave. But serving the tourist as they come and go is a small community here that has stretched a two-week respite into a way of life.
In the dim light of Ocean City's bars and restayrants, they have found the endless summer.
They are, for the most part, waitresses and bartenders and nightclub managers - not the fresh frazzled faces of those in between college semesters, but faces a little older and wry with experience - for whom a change of seasons has created a world within the restless, chaotic world of Ocean City.
Bound together by their insider status, they live on the thin edges of a more established life. Most of them will leave here soon, to spend the winter in Fort Lauderdale or Aspen or one of the other places where they can spin the present into a golden thread and escape the future.
But for now, there is a community here, formed of the quick camaraderie that comes of a season passed together. Different reasons have brought them to this town and to the life of which it has become a part.
Some of them spent their teenage summers here and never really left in spirit, the seasonal circuit becoming a way to avoid the traditional concepts of adulthood and maturity, with their attendant trapping of commitment and responsibility. Others find pride in a hardy survivorship and romance in the life of the vagabond who thinks he has hedged his bets against tomorrow.
Late at night, at a north Ocean City nightclub called, Finnegan's Rainbow, the band blasts the salty night air with the rentless crashing chords of the disco beat. The shadows are crowded with young men, in Levis and older men in polyster leisure suits talking to women whose sunburned shoulders are reflected in the strobe night.
Moving swiftly through the dim light and the small tables and the liquor-easy laughter is Shelley Moran. In her short white shorts, with her gold hair gleaming, she smiles at those who order the high-priced scotch and curses silently the "disco queens" - the girls who "sit in the front and drink a ginger ale all night and tip you a quarter" - and sway in tension with the lead guitar.
"Oh, I think like seasons," Shelley says. "They're short and sweet. One big rush and then it's over."
Shelley is 29 now, a self-described "cosmo queen" who has been a waitress for over 10 years. In between, there have been a couple of marriages and a trayful of jobs, and now there are the wise if somewhat rueful eyes of the survivor and a smile that knows things not even lip gloss can hide.
In high school, in New York, she was "going to do it all", she says. "The whole thing, the two-and-a-half children, the station wagon and the Irish setter." But then she needed a job quick, and a bar in Albany provided the answer.
A temporary answer at first, but the years drifted by now it's Fort Lauderdale in the winter and Ocean City in summer. Now, she says, this way of life is "something it's hard to get out of. You look at all the people out there doing their pushups everday, with all the responsibility and all the hangups, and you wonder what it's all for. Now, I just couldn't do a straight job anymore."
Instead, Shelley like the others in this group, hoards her options like a banker does his gold. The concept of ties and tradition seem to them like a foreclosure on adventure.
"I went back to Chicago," said Eric Culberg, a manager at Finnengan's "and had dinner with an old classmate. He's working for General Motors now and I know the guy is knocking down 20, 30 grand a year The check came, and he freaked out over a $50 tab. Well, I paid the check and I thought about a life where you worry about a $4.95 steak. You see people like that and 30 years later they're stuck in the same marriage they couldn't stand, and I'm amazed at their existence. I just can't deal with the 'must' factor."
Scorning committment, they find their tradition not in familiarity of Main Street, but in those who have always lived in existential boarder towns.
"There have always been people like us," says Terry Adriance, a bartender at the Garden resturant in OceanCity in the summer, a ski instructor in Aspen in the winter.
"They were the outlaws, the desperadoes, the people who couldn't handle punching a time card in at 7:59 and punching out at 4:30. We're nothing new," said Adriance. "Thirty years ago, a man and a woman were sitting in a bar like this and they were having the same converstion we're having and the straight world looked pretty much the same as it does not."
And then there are those in this strange tide pool who find not a way station, but a refuse from dreams shorn and faded by changing times or missing chances.
Tommy Carson is 34 now, booking bands for a nightclub and moving restlessly among the denizes of the other bars, marking time and keeping pace with small tremors and seizures of the night society in which he lives.
Once he was a singer in a rock-and-roll band and his story was a familiar one 10 years ago, in a decade so lately passed and so quickly usurped. He sang in bars in Washington and Baltimore, in bands with names like The Fugitive Six, Ulysses and Legend. In his van, he made the rock festival circuit, and the day he remembers most clearly was the one day he shared a bottle with Janis Joplin.
"It was cool, you know," he says. "She was a lead singer, and we both liked Southern Comfort."
They drained that bottle and the decades as well, and the flower children faded and "that pretty voice I had got a little ragged," and Tommy saw the future, and it was disco. "Oh, we gave it a hearty try," he says, "but there were those bands all dressed up in their fancy suits and they were all so young and I thought, 'How the hell are you gonna stop tomorrow?"
And so the band broke up on New Year's day in a singles bar in Washington, and Tommy headed for Ocean City. He'd been a lifeguard there when he was 16, when he was "spoiled, big and blonde, and it all came to easy. So I thought about it a while and it seemed like the only place to go. I mean, I'd been coming here to get warm for a vey long time."
Now, he says, he's "on the other side of the microphone," and as the position changed, so have the expectations.
"I figure it you're lucky and anybody kills you, you've got 70, 75 years," Tommy says. "For a while, I wanted what some people want; I wanted that big-star success pasted high in the sky. Now I want a warm autumn, old friends and no pain." Sometimes, he says, "I feel like I'm in exile here, but it's safe and warm and comfortable and that sounds good when September's coming."
And September, it seems, is as far into future as it is really necessary for anyone to see. "In this life," says Terry Adriance, "it's hard to look ahead. The money's always fresh here and it's always changing hands."
Hard as well because a good waitress here can earn over $300 a week, and although saving is something no one does until the last half of August, there is a security in knowing that there is always a job to be had in some town somwhere, in places where, as one waitress put it, "there's always pretty people around."
The idea, they say, is "just to stay in the sun. But even at high noon, it seems, there are shadows to be found.
"Sometimes it sneaks up on you," one waitress says."You're lying on the beach or you're getting back from a party, and you think about what it will be like when you're not young anymore and they don't look and smile when you walk in the door. Instead, they just look away."
Susan Roche is tall and blonde and tan and 24. with the kind of beauty and to glimmer as she walks.
"I think about it sometimes," Susan says, "how all your life you're taught to think about the future. Most of the girls I went to high school with are married now, and sometimes I think I really should be doing something with my life. But now I wonder if I'm not too old.
"I don't know," she says, as the sun sets outside of Frager's Island, the restaurant where she works, "maybe, somehow, we just got lost along the way."
Maybe they did, but there is a disarming confidence about them, born perhaps of good looks and unlined faces and recklessness of riding a wave without worrying about how and when it will crash to shore. They are as cool as the ice in the drinks they serve, and perhaps it is coming to terms with the risks involved that gets them over a coldness they say they sometines feel, a chill that was nothing to do with the weather.
Sometimes, says Shelley Moran, after weeks of serving hundreds of drinks a night, she can't remember what her regular customers look like. She refers to them instead as "the Canadian Club and soda" or "the Tanqueray and tonic," and all the empty smiles that might buy one more drink and a bigger tip leaves little room for feeling.
Sometimes says Terry Adriance, "you watch so much pass by, so many different kinds of people, you see a little bit of everything. And you feel like a stranger, standing back, uninvolved. So you don't stand back too much, that all. It can really bum you out."