Kevin Riordan: A day at the Jersey Shore - and then some

Earl Paul talks with visitors to Ocean City, N.J., on a day this month when most of his regular beach buddies did not show up. (Tom Gralish / Staff Photographer)

One doesn't become Ocean City, N.J.'s No. 1 beach bum by accident.

And retaining this self-proclaimed title requires Earl Paul to be diligent to the point of devotion.

Sunblock and shades - Paul has a groovy violet pair - help.

"It's a great life," the retired Philadelphia pipefitter declares as I join him in his carefully arranged encampment on the beach.

Under the bright, hazy sky, all that lies between us and the silvery churn of the Atlantic is a frolic of families savoring summer's peak and a scrumptious sea breeze.

Paul is right: On a day like this, life is great. And he's had thousands of them in the 14 years of beach bumdom he describes in his delightfully quirky book, East of the Boardwalk.

The breezy combination of commentary and memoir, with vignettes about birds, boogie-boarding, and bikinis, was inspired by a friend, Frank Maloney.

"I told him, 'Earl, with everything you've seen for all these years on the beach, you should write a book,' " says Maloney, a retired entrepreneur who lives in Cherry Hill. Paul took his advice and self-published East of the Boardwalk last year.

The 75-year-old author claims to have spent 5,000 days - roughly 30,000 hours - at the beach since 1998. Since January, he's missed only five because of bad weather.

"The ocean is very addictive, and it's also very healing," says Paul, a tall, strikingly youthful father of four and grandfather of four who spent the first 50 years of his life in Philly's Frankford section. "It's physically and mentally healing."

Paul needed to heal after the death of his beloved wife, Catherine, whom he calls "the architect of my life." They met at a candy shop near Frankford High when they were 16, and had been married 41 years when Cass died in 1997.

Two years earlier, they had retired and begun to live almost full time in their condo in a complex on the beach block of Plymouth Place.

"I wasn't going to make it," Paul says, recalling an afternoon when he sat grieving in Ocean City.

"So when I went to the ocean that day to begin my career at the beach, God told me to go.

"Now I feel like I go to church every day."

Year-round, "I get up at 20 after 8, I'm on the beach by 8:30," says Paul, who uses a cart to transport his chairs, umbrellas, and other provisions the 200 yards between his indoor and outdoor "living rooms."

Particularly in the summer, his trips back and forth are part of a disciplined regimen that combines good food and plenty of exercise, including sessions on his boogie board.

"From April to December, I'm in the water every day, catching waves," Paul says. "Two hours in the water is a great day."

Although he is happy with his own company, Paul welcomes family and friends to his sandy perch at the foot of Plymouth Place.

Hence the eight chairs and five umbrellas that surround us this morning. They're for latecomers who might otherwise find themselves without a good patch of sand.

Here comes Wyndmoor resident Jay Johnson, enjoying his first season as a member of Paul's beach bunch.

"It's a community. It's not just hanging out," says the 59-year-old businessman, who's taken up the boogie board under Paul's tutelage.

"I call it 'the Village,' " Paul Nowell, a 68-year-old retiree from Warrington, tells me later.

"Earl is cool, and people just naturally want to be close to someone who's cool," Nowell says. "He's a great conversationalist."

Even when the talk beneath the umbrellas turns to politics, "we never have hard words," Paul says.

Not that he doesn't express some opinions in East of the Boardwalk, which he wrote in pencil on legal pads while sitting in his living room, overlooking Gillian's Water Park.

Along with poignant remembrances of Cass, the book includes chapters about such things as beach etiquette, some of it tongue-in-cheek.

Reading rather than looking at the waves "is a violation," Paul says.

The minuscule bikinis favored by the young? "Disgusting." And don't get him started about tattoos, or even worse, dogs on the beach.

Writing the book - he's sold nearly 300 copies, which he sells from his beach chair - has changed his life.

"I always knew I had a good story to tell, but I didn't have anyone to tell it to," he says.

In recent years Paul has made a "lady friend" or two. But as long as he can spend 350 days a year enjoying the view of the eternal yet ever-changing Atlantic, he's content.

"I don't need companionship," Paul says. "I've got the beach."


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