OCEAN CITY, N.J. — Every trip to the bathroom bolsters Earl Paul’s resolve with a mantra posted there 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. Paul goes to the beach almost every day, defying everything that “80 years old” means to most people, and he thinks his adopted lifestyle 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. This self-bestowed title 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 grew up around Frankford Avenue and Bridge Street, and played basketball at Frankford High. “It was all jump shots in my day,” he said. In 10th grade, Paul said, he was in a 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 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 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 the condo when she died, just two years after they’d arrived. “We were always together . . . so it was a real shock,” he said, with a tear edging 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 decided he’d go to the beach, and left his grief behind. 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 from the life I had . . . 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.
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.
There are rules, of course, commandments the top beach bum wishes all beachgoers would follow during the height of summer: keeping dogs on leashes; maintaining a proper distance from someone else’s beach blanket; absolutely no feeding seagulls. There’s another rule he follows strictly: “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.”