OCEAN CITY, N.J. – Every trip to the bathroom bolsters Earl Paul’s resolve, with a mantra above his toilet compelling him to grab a boogie board and a wild pair of sunglasses and head east toward happiness:
There is no bad day at the beach.
If it’s snowing out, he grabs a shovel, and he’s got duck boots for whatever act of God is churning up waves off the coast. If thoughts of his late wife and all she missed at their Ocean City getaway bear down on him, he lets them wash over him like a wave, and moves on past the boardwalk, Zen-like toward the sand.
Paul goes to the beach every day – well, almost – defying everything that “80 years old” means to most people, and he thinks his decision has been nothing short of a miracle. In fact, it’s all in his book, “East of the Boardwalk.”
“It’s hard to believe that a guy who was born and raised in Philadelphia became the number-one beach bum in the whole world,” he said inside his dark condominium the other day. “In the whole world, for all four seasons.”
This title of top beach bum is something that Paul takes seriously. He balks at others who claim to swim in the ocean every day. Dipping toes in the surf doesn’t count in his book. Paul puts in shifts, just as he did for 41 years as a Local 420 pipe fitter in Philadelphia.
“When you get the chance to retire, you retire,” he said. “I get a good pension. I make good money just sitting on the beach every day – but I did my time.”
If the beach had a time clock, he’d punch it, because going there is his job now and he puts in long hours with his backside in a beach chair.
He had to change things up a bit lately, moving a few blocks north to Sixth Street while the Army Corps of Engineers worked on a beach-replenishment project. The $9 million project, completed Dec. 21, brought about a million cubic yards of sand to the beach.
For Paul, it meant he had to get in his car and drive for a minute or two.
“Starting May 1, I get on the beach around 8 a.m. and I put in 12 hours and I do that from then until the end of September,” he said.
Paul summed up life in the city’s Frankford section as “not the seashore.” He grew up around Frankford Avenue and Bridge Street, and played basketball at Frankford High against city legends.
“It was all jump shots in my day,” he said. “I was a center for Frankford and I was 6-2. I played against Wilt Chamberlain. I held him to 50 points … in the first half.”
In 10th grade, Paul said, he was in a Frankford pharmacy and Catherine Reale was standing in front of him in line.
“She spun around, looked up at me, and said, ‘Hey, you want to take me out tonight?’ and so I did,” he said. “We got married four years after that and we had four kids – three boys and a girl.”
It was Catherine, the bold one, who said she’d like to go to the Jersey Shore, and she made it happen, Paul said. Twenty years ago they began renting a condo on Plymouth Place, between Seventh and Eighth Streets overlooking a water park near the boardwalk.
Paul quickly realized that his wife couldn’t ride a bike because she was a lifelong smoker of Marlboro Reds, and that going to the beach was full of pauses along the way for her to catch her breath. He was with her in Condo 30 when she died, just two years after they’d arrived.
“We were always together. We never went anywhere without her, so it was a real shock,” he said, with a tear appearing in the wrinkles by his eye. “I couldn’t even stand up. I just fell apart.”
Paul looked for solace in church, but said he felt worse when he left services. Eventually, he just decided he’d go to the beach, and he didn’t take his grief with him. It was that simple.
“I knew when I got there that it was the answer,” he said. “The beach was my savior. This is a whole new life, different than the life I had.”
Paul’s wedding picture sits by his bed, beneath a red lightbulb, a few feet from his extensive collection of Oakley sunglasses. His condo is filled with cards and letters and newspaper clippings and drawings. One of the drawings depicts the moment he was run over by a Jet Ski while boogie-boarding.
“I’ll be out there in the water and I’m 40 years older than anyone there,” he says. “I’d like to talk to people in their 40s and 50s and let them know, ‘You don’t have to die, you don’t have to get old.’ ”
The secret, he said, is “the game,” the competition you create for yourself that wills you out of bed and paints a finish line across the future. Everyone needs to find his or her game, and Paul’s is against the calendar and Mother Nature as he tries to cram in as many hours on the beach as possible.
Out on the sand, Paul’s gear is already set up by a fence near the dunes: his trademark yellow umbrella, a windbreak made of tarps, and two chairs – one for him and another for anyone who’d like to sit and talk. It’s warm for December, but it’s just him, the seagulls and the occasional Army Corps worker.
“I’ve got a lot of friends,” he said. “Even now, if I go anywhere, even SuperFresh, people know me.”
There are rules, of course, commandments that the top beach bum wishes all beachgoers would follow during the height of summer. They include keeping dogs on leashes, maintaining a proper distance from someone else’s beach blanket, and the universal rule of not feeding seagulls.
There’s another rule, one he follows strictly, and it’s about looking back or ruminating over his wife or mistakes he’s made. He keeps his back to the world on the beach, he said.
“I don’t believe in looking back,” he said. “I can’t see her face or hear her voice when I’m here. I can only think about today and tomorrow, that’s it.”
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