Dispatches From Limbo

While the world struggles to find its path, Courthouse News’ eastern bureau chief finds his own while biking the streets of his hometown after losing his mother. 

Social distancing on the sand bars of Assawoman Bay, Maryland. (Courthouse News photo / Ryan Abbott)

Ocean City, Maryland, is a ghost town. 

And full of tourists. 

In the midst of a global pandemic, while cities across the country burn and protests rage, my six-year-old son Miles unsnaps his bicycle helmet, wipes the sweat off his brow and looks out over the shallow, salty water of the Assawoman Bay.

Past the fishing boats and sandbar islands sits our new home, the forested peninsula from where we peddled our bikes, carefully crossing the bridge into Ocean City, a long stretch of barrier island packed to the gills with hotels, condos and T-shirt shops.

Three weeks ago the streets were empty, stretching along the Atlantic Ocean like bloodless veins. Traffic lights danced in the breeze over intersections, changing colors only occasionally. 

The old beach cottages, like fossils from a simpler, less corporate time, sat quietly, their pastel siding weathered and tinged with dirt and sand from owners who had been told to stay away during the early days of the pandemic. 

They are just a few of the ghosts that haunt what has been the choice getaway location for tens of millions of folks working around the beltways and highways of cities far and near. 

The summer population — a number calculated each week by counting the number of toilets flushed in the resort town — has boomed since I was Miles’ age, fishing the bridge pylons for flounder with my mom, or surfing the 8th Street jetty with my dad. 

Back then the town would put black bags over half the traffic lights on Coastal Highway, the main thoroughfare, and nearly all the shops boarded up their fronts every winter as merchants counted on the money made during the summer months to get them by until the tourists came back. 

My mom, who worked for Ocean City for 23 years and serving as its tourism director for the last seven, died of cancer on April 1, two weeks into a chaotic and haphazard lockdown organized by the state to mitigate the damage caused by the novel coronavirus. She played a major role in turning a Memorial Day-to-Labor Day resort into a booming year-round tourist destination. 

A relic, the old Harbor Inn in Ocean City, Maryland, is shuttered now, but just biking past it makes the author’s head ache. (Courthouse News photo / Ryan Abbott)

The empty streets, shuttered cottages and quiet bars — usually rowdy with drunks ricocheting in and out this time of year — sat silent after her death, which I took to be a tribute to her life’s work. 

The boardwalk was empty, its usual array of buskers who had recently won a federal First Amendment case against the town and its practice of requiring permits to perform, were nowhere to be found. 

The beach, also a subject of civil rights litigation brought by a class of women who want to sunbathe topless, was naked itself of lounging chairs and lifeguard stands. 

But now the town is waking. 

Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican frequently at odds with a vengeful Republican president, announced outdoor seating for restaurants in Maryland would now be allowed. 

Ocean City is not short on outside tables. Seacrets, a massive collection of tiki bars, live music stages and a nightclub, is almost entirely open air, and takes up an entire city block on the bay. No tables available? Then go ahead and hop on an innertube in the knee-high water as you enjoy a sugary sweet frozen beverage loaded with alcohol that you can’t ever seem to taste until it’s too late. 

Fishermen, both novice and serious, line the piers and dock. 

The author’s fishing hole, a hidden spot just blocks away from a bustling boardwalk. (Courthouse News photo / Ryan Abbott)

We ride our bikes past a Hispanic couple just as the woman yanks up a sizable flounder. 

Quickly, the man drops his rod and tries to catch her line, but the powerful fish breaks free and splashes back into the bay. She scolds him, and although I can’t understand the words, I read what she’s saying loud and clear. 

We push on, passing more waterfront restaurants awakening from forced hibernation, young people in windowless jeeps listening to loud music, older folks schlepping chairs and umbrellas out to the beach, heavy bags with towels and magazines slung over their shoulders. 

Finally, on our way back to the bridge we pass the Harbor Inn, a true dive bar that opened in 1935 affectionately nicknamed “The Bloody Bucket” by the locals. I spent many a night there in my younger years, though my memory of those times is quite foggy, like the many misty mornings I spent walking the streets of my hometown in the weeks after my mom died. 

Her ghost joins the many that keep watch here, ensuring the new condos and chain hotels don’t mute the quaint charm of the place where I grew up, the place where my family now waits in limbo for something good to happen in the world. 

Biking into town, Ocean City, Maryland, floats on the Atlantic. (Courthouse News photo / Ryan Abbott)
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