Travels: Rehoboth Beach: Lessons in Capitalism
I fear I didn’t capture Rehoboth right here. I fear I didn’t capture our week in Rehoboth right. I missed so much. For example:
- Rehoboth’s summertime workers used to be populated by Mid-Atlantic kids like my sister, from Timonium, Md., but now they’re more often from the former Soviet Union: Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. I brought this up with the owner of the house my sister was renting, who lived next door and popped in on us one evening, big-voiced and garrulous and fun, with the thickest of Delaware accents, as we were all drinking and talking on the screened-in front porch. He assumed I was referencing a prostitution ring that made headlines in the mid-1990s but I said I didn’t know from prostitution rings. It’s the geography of it. Why Russia? Why not, you know, Timonium? I forget his response. Were Russians cheaper? Were American kids no longer interested? He might have repeated the line I’d heard from others: that summer vacation in Eastern Europe tends to go on longer than ours, and so the Russian kids can stay past Labor Day and not leave businesses short-staffed for the final weeks of the season. That made sense to me. Until I spoke with a girl from Russia I met at the Internet Cafe on 1st Avenue, who, while answering a slew of questions from me (“Had she been to other cities?” Yes. “Favorite?” Miami. “How did she hear about the Rehoboth job?” There was a company in Russia, who worked with a company in America, who...), added, unbidden, that the tough part of the deal was getting back to Russia two weeks after school started. Summer vacations aren’t different. The difference between then and now is who bears the burden of the overlap. It used to be Americans businesses, who remained short-staffed while American kids returned to school. Now it’s the Russian kids, who remain in America while their Russian peers get a leg-up. Welcome to capitalism.
- My nephew Ryan couldn’t get enough of Funland. Not the rides but the games. And not the games but the prizes from the games. He loves stuffed animals. As soon as he won one he wanted another, and as soon as he won a small one he wanted a bigger one. Funland allows you to trade up this way: three smalls equal a medium; three mediums equal a bigger medium. The big prize was a giant stuffed alligator. He was all id—want, want, want—and no army of stuffed animals sated his desire. We talked of having an intervention but we acted as enablers. Yes, Ryan, one more game. Sure, Ryan, I’ll play with you since it’s 11 in the morning and no one else is at Wac-a-Mole. At the end of the week, his mother, my sister Karen, showed up at lunch with the giant stuffed alligator under her arm. But she hadn’t won it. She’d run into the owner of Funland, for whom she worked back in the 1980s, and he gave it to her. Another lesson in capitalism: It’s who you know.
- Ryan’s older brother, Jordy, didn’t want stuffed animals; he wanted stuff: electronics, mostly. He’s a gamer, with earlier versions of PlayStation and current versions of Wii at home, and one night, at the Surfside Arcade, he played the arcade version of “Guitar Hero,” which he has on the Wii, and did so well with Foghat’s “Slow Ride” (on “hard”) that he drew an audience, to whom, like a real rock star, he was oblivious. He wound up with the fifth-best score, just ahead of someone calling himself “Slash.”
- Two of my favorite swims at Rehoboth were early-morning, solo swims after jogs along the boardwalk. There’s nothing like diving into the ocean still sweating and steaming from a run. There’s nothing like a swim before breakfast with only beachcombers and sand zambonis around. That’s living. That’s fun.
- Mostly we ate in, lovely meals over at the Muschlers’ rental home, sitting in the backyard, drinking and talking, as the light died and the bugs came out. We went out for dinner twice: once to Obie’s By the Sea, just off Olive on the north end of the boardwalk, and once to Ed’s Chicken & Crab in Dewey, where my mother and sister, who ignore the chicken part of the equation, closed the joint.
- But my favorite meal may have been the one we had before we arrived. My mother had picked up Patricia and I at 9:30 a.m. at Reagan National, and we sped over the Bay Bridge before 11:00, which for Patricia and I was 8:00, so we weren’t interested in the sea food restaurant just on the other side that my sister had recommended. But once it was after noon, where to eat? We drove along 404 toward Rehoboth, seeing a few spots, but momentum kept carrying us on until finally, at a county junction, Patricia yelled, “That place!” and I stopped the car and turned into the gravel parking lot. It was a Kiwanis Club barbecue chicken joint, open-aired but covered, where you ate at picnic tables and used a water pump to wash your hands afterward. A line of women were serving up the following: half a chicken, sweet pickles, a roll and bag of potato chips. That chicken turned out to be the best barbecue I’ve had in years: tangy and juicy. I also had a great encounter at the end of the line, where you paid, and where a tip jar stood for donations to the Bridgeville Center. I looked at the cashier, a man in his 70s, and pointed. “What’s the Bridgeville Center?” I asked. He seemed surprised, first, that a question had been asked, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s just a buncha old farts,” he said. I gave him a dollar for the laugh.
And on and on. I could add more, but I don’t think I’ll be able to capture what I really want to capture about Rehoboth Beach. It may be as simple as the heat on the wood of the boardwalk; it may be as complex as the sense of fulfillment you have in the ocean, or the sense of longing you have out of it. Besides, I know I’m lingering. I know it’s Saturday morning. Time for one last walk to the boardwalk. Time for one last look at the ocean. Bye.