I often feel peculiar more and more in certain public places. Highway rest stops and summer boardwalks I move about like a ghost. This past memorial weekend, I rode a bike to the boardwalk in Ocean City on a quest to pick up a pair of dollar store sunglasses I admired of my sisters. I chained my bike to a railing and began walking the wooden boards. I stared at the sunburns on the backs of people’s legs. I awkwardly watched teenage girls awkwardly stare down their nose at their own breasts in bikinis. With each passing crack in the boardwalk I tried to squint and see couples cuddling as the famous song had alluded to but all I could decipher was the color beige, a mixture of sunlight and sand.
The boardwalk. It was and is such a rite of passage. I worked so many odd jobs here every summer when I was less of a ghost. Bob’s Lemonade stand with some Eastern European exchange students. The slide at wonderland pier where I was responsible for pushing parents and their children down in musty potato sacks. McDonalds where I had my own visor and ate the double cheeseburger value meal almost every day. The Beachcomber where I would replace little plastic license plates into the circular display with peoples names on them. I always lamented how sad it would be to have a name they hadn’t deemed popular enough for the placards.
Many of the stores changed names. People are always turning shops over to see what works, to see how they can make all their money in three months and then go elsewhere for the off season. Freeze dried ice cream pellets. Monkey bread balls. Pop culture often dictates what goes on the t-shirts hanging from the front of the stores and I realized that I had no idea what the slogans were referencing anymore. I found myself making up odd scenarios where the slogans came from, which all referenced my own experience completely outside the world of its original intent.
The dollar store had sold out of all the sunglasses I was looking for so I wandered around looking at flip-flops and puka shell hemp necklaces. Even in the cheapest of China factory wares the element of human design is still apparent, but in a distant way, like a picture of a picture of a picture, less sharp and more dissolved, no trace of a craftsman.
I weaved in and out, studying the inventory, letting my brain stretch out to colors and smells. Old war veterans handed out red fabric carnations to passersby. All the radios in each store were playing pop stations, which have such a specific sound. I have a close friend who is older than me that says, “You know, everyone thinks pop music is a specific sound but it really is just whatever is popular at the time. There was a time when pop music was eclectic and wonderful.” Hmmm. I definitely wouldn’t call what I was hearing eclectic and wonderful. I was trying to figure out why but didn’t really want to harp on the negative so I continued moving and just concentrated on other sounds. The ocean. Bits of conversation as others moved passed me. The clinking of arcades. A break in stores brought on a little less commotion. Mini-golf with a giant guerilla was coming up. Out of the loudspeaker at the entrance came this startling but familiar sound. “Uno dos one two tres quatro!” It was the beginning to Wooley Bully by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs and it stopped me dead. Of course I have heard it so many times including in the beginning scene of Splash when Tom Hanks and John Candy are kids on a river cruise and the house band is playing it. I leaned up against the wall next to the mini-golf and smiled and starting singing it out loud and caught a few stares my way. What was it that made it feel so electrified and alive? I was fixated. Could it be just the fact that all it was was the sounds that they could generate in their limited scope, which was their instrument and their souls and the collaborative energy between them?
I often feel that it is this union that woos me most and something often feels missing these days because when I do feel that its like an oasis in a desert that I’ve come crawling over the sands to drink, this time, ironically, from a group of guys that dressed up like Egyptian pharaohs to play rock and roll songs about wooly mammoths from over 40 years ago.
I stood and heard the whole song through. I no longer felt like a ghost. I realized that perhaps its not that I’m outside the circle of life but that I am so inside it that I feel like a stranger amidst the common culture and the pop that is reflecting it. Bad art imitates bad life. Bad life imitates bad art. Have faith in finding your own personal pop.