Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe (Part 1)

I’ve never been much for the beach-house scene. In New York, that implies going in on a summer rental of a 3-4 bedroom house in Long Island or New Jersey, for some extortionate five-figure sum, with literally dozens of other people, most of them strangers, who arrange a strict “every other weekend” schedule in which the renters can or cannot use the house with guests, and the number of guests fluctuates wildly so that a dozen or so people are invariably camped out on the living-room floor in sleeping bags. A majority of those people will be drunk and ornery.

The last and only time I went on a beach house weekend was back in the early 90s, with old pal John S., who lived in Wilmington, Delaware and had a summer share with a dozen other people in Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe. I’d trademark that delineation if I could, because as far as I’m concerned, forget about the Bronx, or Beirut, or the slums of Rio, or Fallujah. Dewey Beach, Delaware is the asshole of the universe.

What was I then – 27, 28? Thereabouts. Late 20s, which may be the most volatile time in most adults’ lives, when they get it into their heads that everything must happen by 30, that success or failure is determined at that age, and if not reached by that point, then something must really be wrong in their lives. This, of course, is thanks to our deranged youth-oriented culture which has zero understanding of reality or passing time. Never trust anyone over 30? The folks who came up with that bon mot will die of old age soon, god willing, if all the coke they did over the years doesn’t clog their arteries first. (Side note: I much more think about life as an ongoing series of small successes and failures, no matter what age you are. I’ve met way too many people in New York whose professional lives are radically successful, which is all they’re judged by, while their personal lives are rubble, and a lot more indicative of the real person.)

Thirty is also the mating age. Why guys fall for that shit, I don’t know, whereas I can see women wanting to cash in their chips before the dew is off the lily. Thus, any time you get people together hovering around that 30-year mark, you get a group who are still teenagers in their minds, very old teenagers, but have been socked with elements of the adult world so that they’re filled with a sufficient amount of fear to view 30 as an artificial dividing line between youth and adulthood, when there really are no dividing lines, just a whole bunch of experiences and choices (many of them bad) one has to glean some sort of knowledge from.

Throw in alcohol abuse, the beach and people who want good times greater than their dollar value, and you have Dewey Beach: Asshole of the Universe. I’d imagine a summer share set-up in any resort town tends to be a dice roll, even if you know the parties involved. My experience that weekend showed me that the type of folks who go for the “summer beach share” scene are party people, drink too much, stay out all night, insert hard-living cliché here. If they lived alone, no big deal, but put them in a house with a dozen other strangers, most of them with the same mindset, and you get a very bad scene.

This was what I walked into with John that summer. The strange thing was, he knew I’d hate it, but I think he wanted to show me the burning hell he had foolishly signed on for earlier that spring so that I could understand why he was so depressed. He was working one of those shitty computer support jobs that pays very well, but demands a beeper (at that time – surely a cellphone now) that invariably goes off Saturday night and requires one to make it into work to help some schlub on midnight shift who could fix the computer problem by turning the machine off and on again. So he had that draggy, overtime kind of existence during the week, followed by weekends where he’s always tense in a house full of drunken strangers for the most part, living like a bunch of punk kids who just ran away from home.

Just getting there was a hassle. John lived in Wilmington, which I got to via Amtrak train from New York, and normally that alone would be a good hike for me – and we had plenty of good visits just doing that, as Wilmington isn’t a bad town at all. But from there, we had to drive south through Delaware to the very southern tip, which took a few hours. Don’t know if you’ve ever driven through Delaware, but it’s like Kansas without the cornfields: mile after mile of farms and small wooded areas once you get outside the major cities. On top of which, for this trip there was a light drizzle the entire way and bad traffic once we got halfway through the state.

So we got there later on a Friday night – about 10:00 as opposed to 8:00. Admittedly, when we first got there, it wasn’t so bad walking into the small beach house. A few people were hanging out, playing cards and drinking at a table in the kitchen, and they were friendly enough. I thought, “Well, the rain must have scared a bunch of people away, this should be a fun weekend.”

We put our stuff in a corner of the living room and headed out for some drinks. There was very much a college-town vibe to Dewey Beach – college town in the midst of a Division I-A football game. Drunken people everywhere – and not kids, adults anywhere from their mid-20s to their 40s. Wandering around in packs. I remember that this wasn’t unusual at Penn State, especially on a football weekend. The thing was, I was almost a decade away from that sort of vibe, and it now struck me as being lame, like I was at a very bad party that should have ended a long, long time ago. You get that many drunken people stumbling around, and stupid shit happens, be it meaningless fights, various displays of beer muscles, girls getting way too slutty for their own good, guys just acting like total goons because they’re hammered and have an audience, etc.

What really depressed me was half a block away, we came across a hotel with an outdoor area for bands to play. According the marquee, Marshall Crenshaw was playing there that night, and I could hear the echoes of some bopping, rockabilly type song playing. All I could think was, “Marshall, you poor fuck, it comes to this, playing a hotel in Dewey Beach, Delaware in 1998.” Then again, most of his audience was so falling-down drunk, he probably could have played “Freebird” on a kazoo all-night long and received standing ovations.

John and I ended up in some nondescript shore-town bar that, of course, was jam-packed. One of his housemates was there, and we got into a vacuous, “adult” conversation about real estate – always a mistake, because the person starting a conversation like that is looking to rub your nose in shit. Some of the folks in John’s house seemed to be like this – yuppies in training, the LaCoste knit shirt/country club crew. Not my kind of folk! Luckily, one of the most obnoxious people John knew in Delaware, this strange, extremely wealthy guy named P.J. who made all his money shaking down working-class folks on high-interest loans and credit-card payments, wasn’t in his house – but we’d see him off-and-on all weekend. To me, the guy was obviously gay – it wasn’t just the pictures of bare-chested male models he kept on his refrigerator (claiming they gave him inspiration to lose weight). He was gay – but in his mind, he was a young gun on a prowl for a wife. His denied sexuality was a non-issue, especially compared to the spoiled rich kid vibe this guy oozed like chronic flatulence. James Spader would have a field day playing him in a movie.

So, we spent the requisite few hours crammed into this bar, then decided to call it a night. When we went back to the house at about 2:00, we found it jammed with people, most of them total strangers to John. Some passed out, others drunkenly wailing, some fighting. This was bed time. And this is how bed time is when you’re dealing with a bunch of spoiled brats ripped to the tits on $7.00 beers. I just couldn’t believe the scene. We’d have to sleep on the living-room floor in the area where we flopped out our personal stuff upon arriving. Every bed was taken, the floors of the bedrooms were taken, the little screened-in porch was taken, leaving only the living room and kitchen for people to sack out on. John said he shared the house with about five other people – there were about 20 people in the house that night.

I’m a light sleeper to begin with – put me in this kind of set-up, and forget it, I got about two hours sleep, if that. People farting in their sleep. Getting up to piss or puke every 15 minutes. Some people having strange drunken conversations with each other in the dark. Like I said earlier, if I had been a kid in a punk-rock band, this would all be very cool. For a 28-year-old guy who thought he was coming to a beach house with a few people casually hanging out – and all sleeping in beds – it was a bit of a shock.

I think I started nodding off in earnest about 6:00 in the morning. The house was finally quiet as the sun was rising. At which time, I heard someone stomping around upstairs. He takes what has to be the loudest piss I’ve ever heard – it was like he had a garden hose with a nozzle pointing into the toilet. He farted and burped all the while. He stomped down the stairs. I could see this guy was stone white trash – probably late 30s, scraggly-looking, forearm tattoos, smoking. He stomped across open patches of the living-room floor and kitchen so he could slam-dunk an empty Bud can into the trash. He slammed out the kitchen door. About the only thing he didn’t do was crash two trashcan lids together like cymbals.

John later told me this was Butch – one of the more normal house members. Something I haven’t mentioned about Delaware, and something Delawarians will either deny or hate me for. But Delaware has to be one of the unfriendliest states I’ve ever been in – and I can say this after dealing with the worst New York City pricks you can imagine for the past 20 years. I can’t vouch for southern or middle Delaware – they could be fine for all I know. But northern Delaware, which is where all these beach-house people were from, has a really odd vibe to it. “Unfriendly” might be too strong a word – “prickly” might be better. And I suspect it’s because there are so many corporate headquarters and such centered around Wilmington (because Delaware has such lax tax laws for corporations) that this corporate vibe seeps into the every-day fabric of life for people living there. Probably no different from any Westchester County suburb in New York. But every time I would visit John, I’d find myself thinking, “What is it with people around here? Why are they so rude?”

And that was Butch, even though he was a factory worker. How he got tied in with John’s crew, I have no idea. I’d see Butch all weekend, stalking around, grunting at people, smoking and staring at the sky like a caveman waiting for a pterodactyl to swoop down and snatch him away. This was fun for him? He looked like he’d be better off drilling holes in his skull. The guy didn’t once go to the beach. All he did was drink and smoke. John and I were the only two people in the house who actually went to the beach which, as far as I was concerned, was the only reason to be there. You could be a drunken, miserable prick for free at home just as easily as you could paying money for a beach house.

Since Butch had me wide awake – amazingly, everyone else seemed to sleep through his barrage – I decided to slip out of the house and go running on the beach. This was the best decision I made all weekend. It was a hazy/sunny day, and I gave myself a good 5-mile run along the shoreline, taking time afterwards to just sit there and take it all in.

When I came back, a few more people were up, sitting around the kitchen table. One of them was a bleached-blonde floozy, a really hammered looking woman, clearly still drunk from the night before, smoking. She takes one look at me and sarcastically blurts out, “Who the fuck is that?” loud enough for me to hear.

Understand that this house was filled with people she didn’t know. John would later tell me he didn’t know who she was, and he’d been there every weekend for the past month. She turned out to be a house guest, just like me, and a total fucking pig to boot.

I walked over to the table and introduced myself.

“My name is Bill. I’m a friend of John’s.”

I pointed to him sleeping on the floor.

“John’s one of the few people here who has a share in the house. Are you one of those people, too?”

I was talking at her like she was a bank teller, but I figured what the hell, if you’re going to lay this ugly Delaware charm on me, I’m giving it back in spades. She explained that no, she wasn’t, but she was tired of all these people showing up she didn’t know. Luckily, John got up right then, and he knew a few of the people at the table. I took him aside and told him we needed to get the hell out of there, get some breakfast and hit the beach.

Which we did. And that part of the trip was also good – just body surfing and such most of the day, lazing on the beach, I managed to get about another hour of sleep. The beaches in Delaware are no great shakes. That area of water is basically a very large bay with New Jersey on the other side. As a result, the water is pretty tepid and lifeless – you probably get better waves on one of the Great Lakes. Still, the beach is the beach no matter where you are, and this was far better than hanging around a bunch of strange drunken bastards.

Coming back to the house was possibly the epiphany of the weekend. We got back around 3:00 pm, and the house was empty. Bathed in sunlight. I guess that was about the time all the drunks had finally woken up and decided to go out and get something to eat, or maybe start drinking again. In any event, we had the place to ourselves, and just sitting around the living room on a nice shore-town Saturday afternoon, I could easily see the attraction of having a beach house. The catch being you had to be rich to do this for yourself, and we had no chance of having an entire weekend this peaceful and normal.

All this time, John is gauging my emotions, and I’m making no bones about them. I tell him his beach house is filled with a bunch of miserable alcoholics, and I’d be suicidal if I had to spend all my spare time on weekends around such a bunch of pricks. I think he was looking for that sort of confirmation from a friend, and I gave it to him, both barrels. The guy wasn’t happy to begin with, and placing himself in this sort of environment every weekend, and paying good money to do so, wasn’t helping matters any. He seemed relieved to hear this. And he knew that I was pissed off that I’d be living like an animal all weekend. I think we both sensed that the beach and these few minutes sitting around an empty house were about as good as it was going to get.

Sure enough, people started filtering back in, so John took me to a lawn party he had been invited to. Where we ran into his pal Rich, who was drunk off his ass in the mid-afternoon, probably blasted on coke, too. But having no fun … because his ex-wife was there, dancing up a storm. Rich was a good guy – he had a really likable personality and was one of the few people John hung around that I could actually stomach. But to see how hang-dog he was in the presence of his ex-wife. Who was every over-rated suburban harpy you’ve ever met rolled into one. Not a total zero of a woman, but deeply average looking, not very intelligent, and totally bereft of personality in that sparkling Delaware way. She told us she was a dancing queen and was going to dance all night long. The thing was, I’ve seen people on crutches with better moves – picture that episode of Seinfeld where Elaine tries to dance. She was awful, and totally in the dark about how awful she was. And to see Rich pining for a woman this clueless was painful. No wonder he was blasted out of his mind every waking hour. He just couldn’t see life clearly. Not that any of us can, but I’d cut off one of my hands before I lost one minute of sleep over a woman like his ex-wife.


Drooch said...

"And I suspect it’s because there are so many corporate headquarters and such centered around Wilmington (because Delaware has such lax tax laws for corporations) that this corporate vibe seeps into the every-day fabric of life for people living there."

Actually, the tax laws in Delaware are so lax that most of those corporations have no physical offices there at all, or just the bare minimum necessary to take advantage of the laws. The reality is that Delaware is a one-company town: DuPont. So why the rudeness? My guess is because it's so deadly boring there. And I know because one of my sisters lives there.

William S. Repsher said...

Actually, at least a two-company town. MBNA, the credit-card giant, has its headquarters there and a huge bulk of its operating staff. My pal John would fluctuate between jobs at DuPont, MBNA and various medical centers, which also seem to be a big employer in Wilmington.

Drooch said...

All the parent companies I ever worked for were all incorporated in Delaware: Spelling Entertainment, Blockbuster, Great American Broadcasting and Viacom. The only reference to this fact I ever saw was in their annual reports. I never mailed anything to anyone in Delaware or made a phone call to anyone in Delaware, ever. I doubt that Aaron Spelling, Sumner Redstone, Carl Lindner or Wayne Huizenga have ever even been there. Unless they have a beach house in the asshole of the universe.

William S. Repsher said...

Actually, Dan Rather was one of apparently a few famous people who had a beach house on a very exclusive stretch of highway between Dewey Beach and Rehoboth. I gather the gentried folk of Delaware, if they were inclined towards the beach, had mansions along that stretch of highway. And no doubt avoided Dewey Beach like the plague, especially at night.