VENTNOR, N.J. — What can you say about Chuck Leiber, unofficial mayor of Dorset Avenue beach, the Duke of Dorset, unchallenged maestro of apres beach happy hours, unrelenting schmoozer of the sands stretching from Oxford Avenue to the pier?
“That’s my reign,” he says. “My realm. My realm of influence.”
Beyond Oxford Avenue, nobody knows you?
“I don’t go past Oxford,” he says.
Really, what can you say about Chuck that he isn’t already saying about himself before you or anybody else has a chance to chime in? That he hasn’t said a million times as he stopped by your beach chair, or held court in his daily happy hours? Stop by already! Why don’t you ever stop by?
“I would think that 99 percent of the world is not as friendly as me,” Chuck says. It’s true.
But things change.
One summer he and his wife, Debbie, were settling in to his 19th year in his house on the boardwalk just off busy Dorset Avenue, a contractor’s special wedged into a maybe not quite full lot, dwarfed by huge houses on either side, a man attached to his beach — HIS beach, just check the deed, where property lines stretch out into the water — in a way that might be hard to explain to those unfamiliar in the idiosyncratic ways of the Jersey Shore beachgoer.
Then, over the winter, Chuck moved. Long time coming, never mind the details, Lieber had to downsize. The details, the backstory, it doesn’t matter, it washes away with another tide. He rolls with it.
At 78, retired from a life in Philadelphia and its suburbs, working in health supplies, Chuck suddenly became a ruler in exile, trading an unobstructed beach view, a huge bar, and a porch that was basically part of the boardwalk to a humble first-floor apartment at 5000 Boardwalk, a full nine blocks away, with a street view, a totally different beach.
His people were upset.
Where would they go after a day at the beach, if not Chuck’s porch, conveniently located just off the boardwalk and just outside his ground-floor bar of epic proportions (700 bottles of Scotch, seven seats).
It remains an issue, though his most loyal followers continue to make the trip on Friday nights to Chuck and Debbie’s new place. But the old free happy hour is no more, the porch empty, the new owner preparing to tear the house down, bar and all. Chuck ran into him on the boardwalk recently and made some inquiries, thinking perhaps the Dorset happy hour might be revived under new management. The new owner told Chuck he doesn’t drink.
But if Chuck’s ability is to schmooze indiscriminately, why not just start in front of 5000? If the ability to meet people is so vast, why bother to head back nine blocks to Dorset Avenue? What difference does it make?
Chuck and Debbie tried the beach in front of their new building, known locally as 5000, but it didn’t feel right. Even the lifeguards at Dorset wanted him back, offering to pick him up in their beach vehicle every day and drop him back off. Maybe they were joking. But there was no question: Chuck would return to Dorset Avenue beach, set up his chairs to the left of the lifeguard stand, never to the right, make his rounds, entertain those who stop by, welcome regulars who set up chairs alongside his. “I’m happy here on this beach,” says Debbie. “I guess I miss the house a little. I miss our porch.”
The lifeguards now let Chuck and Debbie store their chairs in their hut.
“The kind of person I am is I talk to everybody,” he said. “Most of whom I have no idea what their names are. It takes me like seven years to learn somebody’s name. And if I don’t see them for a week I forget their names anyway. I’ve spent my whole life coming to the Shore in the summers and all. This is a fabulous beach. The people are way nicer than the people in Margate or even Atlantic City.”
And so Chuck remains a fixture on Dorset Avenue beach, the master of the bare-chested hover-over, people in bathing suits staring up at him from their chairs, he staring back through those yellow-tinted glasses, a virtuoso of the art of the chit chat, outpost by outpost. Let’s face it, excessive schmoozing is always a risk on the beach, both its charm and annoyance. There’s nowhere to hide. Try to take a walk on a holiday weekend and you’ll get stopped six times to chat before you’ve gone three beaches over. Or maybe that’s the whole point. Even if you’re not Chuck, even if you’re a more reluctant schmoozer. Time on the same Jersey Shore beach will turn anyone into a social butterfly.
July Fourth weekend, in fact, looked like one big bikini gab fest. The beach is a place where interrupting is expected, haven’t seen you since last year, what are you reading, how are the kids, which restaurant did you eat at, can you believe Christie? And hey did you hear Rod Rosenstein and Kellyanne Conway both ate at Johnny’s in Margate — do you think she recommended it to him?
“It wouldn’t be Dorset Avenue beach if Chuck weren’t sitting there,” says one of his admirers, Norm Klinger, himself a skilled raconteur who can be found on the Oxford Avenue beach or boardwalk. “I can spot him from two blocks away. Friday nights became a tradition so much so that when he moved, people thought it was over. He thought it was going to be over. But people still show up.”
Klinger said Chuck brought together an impressively diverse group to his porch, meeting them first on the beach, or just waving them over from the porch. “The most unlikely people come together — it’s so interesting,” Klinger said. “There’s a professor of Hebrew, other people with deep religious experience. Another guy who’s a mechanic. I’m a recovered lawyer. There’s no formality. He’s the Perle Mesta of the boardwalk.”
Chuck says his happy-hour tradition started with another gesture of singular Shore generosity: use of his driveway. “A woman I know is dropping off people and looking for a place to park,” he recalls. “I said, well park in my driveway.”
From there, it was just a short walk into Chuck’s barroom, stocked with 300 bottles of whiskey, 80 types of vodka. “There were seven seats at the bar,” he said. “I had a big bar and a lot of alcohol. ”
Even the lifeguards would stop by after work (they also used his shower after their morning workouts, another Shore tradition now at risk as less generous newbies buy up beach block houses).
He and Debbie adapted, he said. Moving was exhausting, but life evolves. Chuck rides his bike to and from Dorset; Debbie walks. And all the schmoozing must happen on the beach, without the reliable spillover to the perennial porch cocktail hour. A little more pressure to get it all in, maybe. The reign continues, somewhat diminished.
“We used to get 30, 40 people,” Leiber says. “One guy was hysterical crying because he loved my porch. A guy I met on the beach.”
About this Series:
Shore is about everyday people and their meaningful times spent down the Shore. Find each installment — and be sure to leave a comment — at Philly.com/ShoreSeries.