Amanda Bunting’s brother had a total of eight teeth. This would have been fine had he been a toddler, but Jimmy Bunting, God bless him, was 32 years old. Upon our introduction, Jimmy graciously extended an invitation to a “kick-off-the-summer barbecue” he was throwing on the western shore of Assawoman Bay. I was touched: The new kid was making some friends. But there was a catch; there was always a catch with the Buntings. In his grating Hee Haw whinny, Jimmy informed me that at the BBQ I would have the honorary job of helping him “shove a steel pole up the stolen pig’s ass.” And believe it or not, this comment was only the second most horrifying thing Jimmy Bunting would say to me. The first, coming after we had cracked a couple of lukewarm Buds together, was this: “I used to rub coke on my gums. Damn teeth started dropping out of my mouth. But shit, I didn’t care. It was coke, ya know?”
Amanda Bunting lived with her near-toothless sibling in a large, rickety farmhouse plopped down in the middle of the Delaware-outback burg of Selbyville, a mere 20-minute drive from my new home in Ocean City, Md. It was a redneck-rural part of the Eastern Shore, the kind of place where Leatherface could have been mayor. On a balmy September Saturday night, I met Amanda in a dingy crab shack on West O.C.’s crumbling commercial docks. She was high; I was drunk. It all seemed wonderfully sleazy at the time: a lonely staff reporter for the Maryland Coast Dispatch, just out of college but situated in a lifestyle not unlike the one he had savored at Syracuse, hooking up with an uneducated woman several years older, a local who flogged cases of Panama Jack suntan lotion to boardwalk merchants, always making sure to wear her shortest, tightest minidress on collection day. It was an easy, lazy fit, a union drowned in the King of Beers and THC. That is, until Brother Jabberjaws started getting a little cranky, and my interior soundtrack, wherever I went, became the soft, ominous picking of a distant banjo.
Apparently, Diana Urbanas’ romantic travails in the sun ‘n’ surf have been a lot more highbrow. In fact, the single fortysomething’s new book, The Beach Connection, is a fawning tribute to her adventures in group houses in the Delaware resort towns of Dewey and Rehoboth (two of my “culture” destinations when O.C. was driving me absolutely batshit). The book, half specific how-to guide, half (often bland) travelogue, praises the storied Delmarva beaches where Urbanas has spent the last 13 summers. Interesting only if you’re considering a prime summer vacation spot, The Beach Connection meticulously details how you too can enjoy the experience.
Back in the late ’60s, Capitol Hill staffers, eager to escape the District’s muggy, disheartening summers, performed a mass exodus and headed for the Atlantic (this had been made much easier than it had been for previous generations by the 1952 opening of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge). These groundbreaking singles focused primarily on Whiskey Beach (now part of Henlopen State Park), staying away from the family-oriented O.C. in favor of a relatively quiet place they could call their own. Black-tie parties and weekend daiquiri fiestas were normal occurrences, yet club membership was a stuffy affair: Without an invite, you were considered unwelcome; without a tux, you were deemed
But rules are meant to be broken and parties are meant to be crashed. Within just a few years, beachgoers of all shapes, sizes, and bank balances got wind of the goings-on and began flocking to the shore. Real estate moguls drooled into their sea breezes, and beach houses began sprouting up everywhere (although compared with the overdeveloped White Marlin Capital of the World—psst, Ocean City—Rehoboth and Dewey are still pleasant wastelands).
Beefy, hairy men with nicknames like Black Bart took over the dunes and threw shindigs that the brothers of Delta House would have been proud of. (When a reporter once asked his occupation, Black Bart simply said, “I’m a fucker,” adding that “Rehoboth Beach is the best place in the world to pick up women. That’s why we keep coming to the beach year after year and that’s why we get in trouble.” And who’s dumb enough to argue with Black Bart?) The policy wonks of Washington were soon weeded out of their once-private hideout, giving way to a sin-loving breed of fun-in-the-sun drunks.
“Dewey didn’t become a town until 1986,” Urbanas tells me about the good ol’ days. “There were no laws. People came because they knew they could do things like walk naked on the beach. We even had live bands on the beach. It was a hedonistic time, but who was there to stop them?”
While a wild time can still be had, the beach governments, particularly Dewey’s, have tried to tame the group-house beast. No more bands on the beach. No more sprawling parties with open containers of God knows what. “Now you have to have a permit for everything,” the author harrumphs. “They’ve really put a price tag on the whole experience.”
But no worries—the communities are still thriving in style; you just have to be a little more subtle, that’s all. Group houses in Dewey and Rehoboth currently range from $8,000-$14,000 per summer, which, split many ways, is a relatively cheap way to keep your toes in the sand from May to September. Some established houses will take newcomers on an interview basis only; other locations are just happy with someone willing to pay the rent. Plus, there’s always the option of corraling a slew of friends and renting your own house. The best place to start, according to Urbanas, is either The Beach House Directory (primarily straight homes) or The Beach Book (for gays and lesbians), both of which list the necessary names, numbers, and addresses to get things started.
Over the years, Rehoboth and Dewey have broken down along gay and straight lines. There are hundreds of gay group houses in Rehoboth (a town “settled by Methodist campers in the 1800s”), most of them well organized and dedicated to an orderly brand of fun. Dewey, however, is another story.
“The gays and lesbians in Rehoboth have organized so well, but the straight houses in Dewey are always like, ‘What do we do next?’” Urbanas says. “A lot of the straights just end up in the bars now.” In Rehoboth, the gay community has worked with the local government to make the relationship between summer renters and residents an amiable one. Recently, the Rehoboth town council helped organize sensitivity-training sessions between gay renters and the police. In Dewey, a lot of the straights don’t give two shits about the cops; they just wanna get stinko.
“There are such a range of houses to choose…that it doesn’t have to be expensive,” Urbanas says. “It’s a great time to form friendships. I’ve never married someone [I met at the beach], but I’ve had several significant relationships.” (Unfortunately, this is all the kiss-and-tell Urbanas allows about her summers of love. In fact, The Beach Connection’s biggest failing is that, while it mentions plenty of parties and wild goings-on, it never really describes them. Where’s the group sex and groovy drugs? We want details! Without them, the book is nothing but a helpful, information-filled directory, and where’s the fun in that?)
The Beach Connection, which was edited by Gina Puzo, Mario’s niece, also works well for those who aren’t looking to shack up in a home with dozens of others. Urbanas, a health-policy analyst in the offseason, has put together numerous lists of prime parking spaces, bothersome traffic ordinances, recommended restaurants, and of course, worthy bars in both Dewey and Rehoboth.
“I’m gonna fucking kill you, white bread! You’re a fucking dead man!” This was the answering-machine message waiting for me after I informed Amanda that our little beach tryst had become unmanageable. I was shocked by the vicious recording: Jimmy did know how to use the phone! I kept the tape for legal reasons, just in case I woke up the next morning with a marlin’s head in my bed. But the fun wasn’t over. Two days later, someone took a key or a screwdriver (or, more likely, one of his mangy, yellow snaggleteeth) to the driver’s side of my black Oldsmobile, a vehicle I had thought couldn’t get any uglier. The scratch ran the entire length of the car, a scarlet letter for the O.C. locals to enjoy.
The crank calls and the curious headlights continued for weeks, but something miraculously came along to distract me: another lost writer, another fish-into-bad-water who was also having trouble dealing with life at the beach. We started dating. We moved in together. We eventually got the hell out of Dogpatch-by-the-Sea.
End of story? Almost. I still drive the same car (what can I say? I’m a writer), and whenever a new scratch appears, some damage that looks particularly deliberate, I think about my days at the beach. When the phone rings at 2 in the morning but no one’s there when I pick up, I think about Amanda. And every night, just before bed, as I stare into the bathroom mirror assessing the mileage of 27 years, I think about wild-child Jimmy Bunting. And I immediately reach for the floss.CP