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Dewey Beach, dead noon: Man weaves sloppy S’s down the sidewalk, wearing half of his shirt. He wears a red bandana around his neck. Later, I see a Marine arguing with someone on his cell phone. (He must be a Marine, I decide, because of the eagle, globe and anchor tattooed on his action-figure abs, big as a dinner plate). He wears a red bandana tied around his skull.
At The Starboard, thousands of screaming people fill the parking lot. They wear red bandanas, shirts, hats, or sashes. They roar at a man on a raised platform, telling him to release a fake bull so they can chase it down the beach.
Welcome to the Running of the Bull. Olé.
“Running of the Bull” is a bit of a misnomer; the bull really plods, as two men underneath a fuzzy blanket attempt to traverse three blocks of beach without collapsing from heatstroke, or being trampled by drunks in red neckerchiefs. In Pamplona, they flee from the bull; in Dewey, they swarm around it like pagans at an altar.
The party started around 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 11, when thousands stanched their hangovers by tying on another, gobbling down breakfast and heading to The Starboard. Because the Running of the Bull raises money for Dewey Beach Police and Rehoboth Volunteer Firefighters, town officials let Starboard owner Steve “Monty” Montgomery bump his bar out to the sidewalk. Bullfighters filled the building and spilled out into the parking lot, eating pulled pork and beef brisket sandwiches while swilling Bud Light from shiny blue aluminum bottles. Some wore foam horns.
By the time I arrived at noon, everyone was already hammered, tottering under the delirium of serious afternoon drinking. State and local cops watched the crowd from the sidewalk, counting down the minutes until 2 p.m., when the bull was scheduled to stagger its way towards Dagsworthy Avenue.
Shortly before the bull’s release, I begged my way onto the announcer’s podium, where I found the emcee, Monty, state Rep. Pete Schwartzkopf, and a man whose costume was clearly aiming for “matador” but instead came off as “Elvis.”
Monty watched the gears turn from behind mirrored sunglasses. Photogs jockeyed for position with camera crews along the bull’s route. A few minutes shy of two, an old yellow cab rounded the corner and pulled alongside The Starboard. A bulky man wearing a shirt with “BULL SECURITY” in big block letters on the back opened the door, and out staggered what at first glance looked to be a hairy sleeping bag with a cartoon bull head, its two halves moving in disharmony. The crowd roared.
The emcee reminded the crowd to stay within the cones, to keep away from the surf and, in general, be safe. While the bull’s two halves held a powwow, police got into position, the radios on their shoulders squaking. Schwartzkopf took the mike, started the countdown and unleashed the crowd – who, per emcee’s orders, walked across the first two lanes of highway before breaking into a giddy trot.
The crowd swarmed down Route 1, hooked right on Salisbury Street and spilled onto the beach. Lifeguard Captain Todd Fritchman watched them from an ATV, radioing the approaching mob to lifeguards stationed down the beach – it was their job to keep the revelers from accidently drowning.
The group congealed on the beach, clapping their sandals together and shouting “WAIT-FOR-THEBULL! WAIT-FOR-THEBULL!,” followed by “WHERE-IS-THEBULL! WHERE-IS-THEBULL!” At last, the bull’s security detachment crested the dune, followed by the bull itself. The mob screamed its approval. Dozens of people, apparently too enthralled to stay put, were already sprinting down the beach, their heels kicking up roostertails of sand.
Beachgoers lined the ensuing stampede, some cheering, some looking frankly worried as runners stumbled and fell, spun into the surf or staggered behind, already exhausted. Coded signals in whistle blasts shot from lifeguard stand to lifeguard stand. For utter drunken chaos, authorities kept it pretty well hemmed in.
I spotted a girl holding a poster board placard that read: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animal Costumes. When I asked Christina Godbout, Ft. Lauderdale resident, about her one-woman picketline, she said it was just horrible, just horrible the way the costume was abused for crass human amusement. I agreed – poor bull, I said. Her brother Rich piped in.
“It’s not the bull, it’s the costume,” he deadpanned. “We’ll start here. Halloween’s next.”
At the de facto finish line, Monty stood atop a small embankment and watched the crowd filter by. The weary bull staggered past, and for the first time, I noticed the Starboard emblem embroidered on its side. I ask who heads the bull.
“Garrett Walsh,” he says in his signature Godfather-rasp. “He’s been doing it since it began.”
The run started 13 years ago as 30 people chasing a fake bull down the beach. The Starboard was then owned by local businessman Chip Hearn. Before this year’s race, Hearn laughed at the cops lining the streets. He told Monty that during the run’s first two years, it almost got him arrested for disturbing the peace. Then the Running of the Bull got charitable, got sponsored by Bud Light and got legit.
“We raised over $6,000 this year,” Monty told me. Remembering the embroidered Starboard logo, I wonder how much he made; at the going rate of Bud Light in Dewey, he undoubtedly cleaned up. Monty is a cunning businessman; instead of fighting the town over zoning codes and floor plans – competitors Highway One Limited and Dewey Beach Enterprises are both suing the town – he keeps a low profile, and by doing so, gains the trust and goodwill of town officials. This lets him push his bar out to the sidewalk one day a year; this lets him send thousands of drunks sprinting and shouting down a public beach, with full cooperation from police and lifeguards.
“Six grand. Not bad,” I said, thinking it was as good a business model as any for Dewey Beach. Profit wildly, but create culture – even if it’s a culture of howling hedonism. Especially if.