OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Just as Memorial Day starts summer earlier than the calendar indicates, Labor Day ends it too soon, with most Americans walking away from the season leaving 15 beach days on the table.
On Monday in Ocean City, hundreds of people were congregated near the water and on the boardwalk, apparently conceding that the good times were over quicker than they needed to be.
Of course, all of them would acknowledge that regardless of how you count the days of summer, this was a season like no other, with COVID-19 dictating terms like a barbarous overlord. For many folks, then, Labor Day at the beach was a chance to carve a morsel of joy out of a tough chunk of the calendar.
“Glad to see you made it,” Rick Adamson, 65, the parking-lot attendant at Ninth Street and the Boardwalk, greeted motorists who had driven to the edge of the continent to celebrate the holiday.
Adamson is a gifted reader of the people who roll their cars past his shack, adorned with the goofily pun-ny welcome: “Shore Nice to Sea You.”
“People are here now because they need to be,” he said. “They need a break from pandemic fatigue, to get away from something that can be just overwhelming sometimes.”
Adamson, like several people who run boardwalk concessions, said there were fewer tourists and day-trippers around this summer than in 2019.
He added that visitors were being socially distant and careful. But on Monday, it seemed that the majority of those on the boardwalk were mask-free. A few who did bring masks were covering their mouths but not their noses, akin to protecting yourself from the snow and cold by walking outside with an overcoat and bare feet.
But, hey, as long as everyone was having fun.
“We thought we’d end the summer with our four adult sons on this transition weekend,” said Paul Geraghty, 67, of Wynnewood, a retired commercial banker, sitting on a bench with his wife, Michele, also 67, who used to teach preschool. They were visiting the house they own in town. Since March, some Jersey Shore residents have expressed anger at outsiders who’d decided to hunker down in their beach homes to escape big-city pandemic woes.
But, Geraghty reported happily, no one ever balked at their Pennsylvania license plates.
Just in a flash, a four-year-old hawk named Chip darted overhead, all sleek beak and apex-predator attitude. He was, it turns out, actually doing his job, which is to give seagulls heart attacks.
“How many seagulls do you see?” asked Jack Gilbert, who works with Chip and partner Seth Rowe for East Coast Falcons, a Lodi, N.J., outfit hired to chase scavenger gulls from beach towns.
None, is what Gilbert wanted you to say. There are none.
And there weren’t. As Chip perched on a lamppost, Rowe blew a whistle and extended his heavily gloved left hand. In it, he held what looked like a stuffed doll. But when Chip descended and started tearing the thing apart, it became clear that it was something else — a dead quail, as it happens. This being New Jersey, you’d have thought the bird would have been motivated to return for a cannoli, or maybe a slice from Manco & Manco.
However, if one needed an apt symbol of life during a pandemic summer, the vision of something deadly dropping out of the blue sky to attack and destroy a weaker target would just about do.
It was, in fact, COVID-19 that brought together new friends April Holland, 28, of Dupont, Luzerne County, and Rachael Friendy, 37, of Tresckow, Carbon County, who were walking the boardwalk in outrageous sunshine. Each had lost a bartender job when the coronavirus shuttered their respective taverns. Looking for employment, Holland and Friendy wound up applying to the same Wilkes-Barre pizza place. Labor Day in Ocean City was their first time hanging out together outside of work.
“It’s the end of summer,” Friendy said. “And,” Holland added, already finishing her new pal’s sentences, “we don’t know when we’ll have another opportunity to get away. Today, we’ll go wherever the day takes us.”
For Jordyn Scott, 17, Ocean City is no getaway place. She lives in the town much of the year. “It’s a love-hate relationship we have with tourists,” Scott said. “After Labor Day, this becomes a ghost town, and we get back to ourselves.”
A few more visitors this season would have been just fine for Maria Siniscalchi, 65, co-owner of Angelo’s Family Restaurant on the boardwalk.
“I cannot express my feelings,” she said in Italian-accented English. “We are uncertain over everything.”
Siniscalchi, of Upper Township, said that the 39-year-old restaurant had suffered with only walk-up customers to sustain it. Over the weekend, the State of New Jersey began allowing limited indoor dining. “But,” she said, “you can have just 25% capacity, and that’s not the same.
“Maybe it’s time to retire.”
As she pondered her fate, a family of four — the exact cohort for which Ocean City is designed — walked by: Justin Wyatt, 39; his wife, Rossella, 37; and their daughters, Gabriella, 6; and Gianna, 3, of Norristown.
“We needed a break from everything,” said Justin, a construction worker. “The girls are sick of being inside,” said Rossella, who works in a family restaurant.
They disappeared over the dunes and onto the beach, eager to get their feet wet on the (totally unofficial) last day of summer.