A Rainy Weekend in Ocean City, N.J.

It was an ideal beach day when we arrived – 90 degrees and sunny – then the rain moved in and it’s been falling steadily for 36 hours now, with temperatures sinking into the 50s.  Certainly not the most promising start to summer.

We are making the most our wet and soggy weekend. Yesterday, we visited the Ocean City Historical Museum to learn about the history of a place that has marketed itself as America’s Greatest Family Resort since the early 1920s.

Ocean City, originally known as Peck’s Beach, is an eight-mile-long barrier island that was once covered with red cedar and wild cherry and used as a staging area for whaling operations beginning in the 1700s and later as a site to graze cattle.

Development began in 1879 when four Methodist ministers rowed across the bay to establish a Christian retreat and camp meeting. Growth exploded after that and during the summer, the population swells to 150,000 plus.

Notable residents over the years have included film star Grace Kelly, who summered here throughout her life, returning each year after marrying Prince Rainer of Monaco.  Her family’s summer home still stands at 26th and Ocean.

The Pulitzer Prize winning poet Steven Dunn also has a home here, as does the writer Gay Talese, whose 1968 Esquire article Frank Sinatra Has a Cold is considered one of the greatest magazine stories of all time.

We had dinner at Yianni’s, great food and a relaxed vibe, but if you want a drink, be forewarned, Ocean City is one of only 32 dry towns in New Jersey, a fact the owner remined me off when we tried to open our BYOB.

We visited a few other notable sites, including: The Flanders Hotel, designed in the Spanish revival style where our niece Alex and fiancé Vish will be married in October and Lucy the Elephant in nearby Margate. Lucy is the oldest surviving roadside tourist attraction in America, standing six stories high. She was built in 1881 with one million pieces of wood covered with 12,000 sq. ft of tin sheeting to promote real estate sales and attract tourists.

Ambush at Five O’Clock
By Stephen Dunn

Published in the New Yorker on January 26, 2014

We were by the hedge that separates our properties
when I asked our neighbors about their souls.
I said it with a smile, the way one asks such a thing.
They were somewhat like us, I thought, more
than middle-aged, less dull than most.
Yet they seemed to have no interest
in disputation, our favorite game,
or any of the great national pastimes
like gossip and stories of misfortunes
about people they disliked.

In spite of these differences, kindred
was a word we often felt and used.
The man was shy, though came to life
when he spotted an uncommon bird,
and the woman lively, sometimes even funny
about barometer readings and sudden dips
in pressure, the general state of things.
We liked their affection for each other
and for dogs. We went to their house;
they came to ours.

After I asked about their souls
they laughed and stumbled toward an answer,
then gave up, turned the question back
to me. And because I felt mine always was
in jeopardy I said it went to the movies
and hasn’t been seen since. I said gobbledy
and I said gook. I found myself needing
to fool around, avoid, stay away from myself.

But my wife said her soul suffered from neglect,
that she herself was often neglectful
of important things, but so was I.
Then she started to cry. What’s the matter? I asked.
What brought this on? She didn’t answer.
I felt ambushed, publicly insensitive
about something, whatever it was.

It was a dusky five o’clock, that time
in between one thing and another.
Our neighbors retreated to their home,
but the woman returned
and without a word put her arms
around my wife as if a woman weeping
indicated something already understood
among women, that needn’t be voiced.
They held each other, rocked back and forth,

and I thought Jesus Christ, am I guilty again
of one of those small errors
I’ve repeated until it became large?
What about me? I thought. What about
the sadness of being stupid?
Why doesn’t her husband return
with maybe a beer and a knowing nod?

Published in the print edition of the February 3, 2014, issue.
Stephen Dunn is the author of, most recently, “Whereas.” He received the Pulitzer Prize for “Different Hours” in 2001.

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