If you’re truly looking to get away from it all, there might not be a better place than the beach and boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey on a December weekday. In the off-season, Ocean City is as abandoned and bereft as it is busy and bustling in the summer. If you’re truly looking to get away from it all, what better place to go do nothing than a place where there is, truth be told, nothing to do?
It was J’s idea to go boardwalking in December. As a boy growing up in Pittsburgh, J went to Ocean City with his family every summer, and he hadn’t been back since several summers ago, when his family had an impromptu reunion there. J had gone with his then-wife, so returning to the scene of so many family memories with me in December was a kind of purification: a chance to exorcise whatever ghosts still linger in a place that was once both familiar and familial.
I’d never been to Ocean City in any season, on- or off-, but I know the allure of boardwalking. It’s been three years since I explored Coney Island in October, and what I said about Coney Island then applies to Ocean City now:
Off-season Coney Island on a gray afternoon is a perfect place for contemplation, your imagination sparked by the picture of how the place must look in summertime with people thronging its sand and boardwalk, or how it might have looked decades ago when folks now dead brought their friends, sweethearts, and children to enjoy an escape from the city.
During the first day of our three-day getaway, J kept remarking about (and we both kept photographing) the empty expanse of boardwalk–all those trees!–that lay so patiently while the overcast sky spit incessant rain upon us. It was drizzling when a friend and I had walked at Coney Island, and it drizzled for most of the time J and I were in Ocean City, as if the off-season is when land, sea, and sky make an uneasy truce by outright erasing the oft-blurry lines of demarcation between them. J has a childhood’s worth of memories of the Ocean City boardwalk thronged with people; I’ve seen it only in the depopulating drizzle of December. And yet, as I said of Coney Island in October, I might like Ocean City better in its winter quiet than in its summer heyday.
Even as a child, I wondered what amusement parks were like after dark, after the gates had closed and after the lights and rides were turned off. What does a fun and festive place look like after everyone’s gone home? If you visit Ocean City the week before Christmas, you get a sense of how a tourist town survives after the tourists have left: the souvenir shops are closed, the rides are stopped, and the arcades are quiet. A skeleton crew of workers staffs the handful of stores and restaurants that are open all year, but they cater to locals, not tourists, so they aren’t concerned with keeping up the sham of summer appearances.
The afternoon we checked into our hotel, for instance, the desk clerk warned us that if we planned to eat out, we’d best do so before 8:00pm, when most of the restaurants closed. Sure enough, later that night when we walked downtown after dinner, away from the beach and in the presumed heart of the residential business district, the place was almost entirely depopulated, only a couple of kids riding their bikes down the center of the abandoned streets while loudspeaker Christmas carols echoed off incongruously empty sidewalks. “Jesus is the reason for the season,” more than a handful of church-issued placards reminded us from closed shop-windows and well-tended residential lawns…but what reason is there in a season when even Jesus has, apparently, left the building?
Jesus might indeed be the reason for the Christmas season, but in the off-season, tourist towns offer their own rewards. If you can do without souvenirs, carnival rides, and arcade games–and if you’re not easily bored with boardwalking–a town like Ocean City is perfectly charming in the off-season, albeit in its own drizzly-December way. An empty beach off-season–like one’s own heart during the quiet days after Christmas chaos has calmed–is a perfect place to center, to silence, and to savor: a get-away that truly involves getting away, even from excitement, entertainment, and allure.
The images illustrating today’s post all come from Day One of our Ocean City adventure. If you’re so inclined, you can also view photo sets of Day Two and Day Three. Enjoy, and have a safe and happy New Year.