Walking the planks

Today we begin a weekly series by reporter John Woestendiek that portrays the people, places and rituals that define summer at the beach.

Maybe you met your true love on it, or perhaps a false one. Maybe you rode your first Ferris wheel, drank your first beer or whacked your first mole. Likely, you've paused on its benches to gnaw on taffy, gobble fries by the bucketful or simply rest your feet. And quite possibly, you left with memories that - boosterish as it sounds - really have lasted a lifetime.

Even so, no one has taken more away from Ocean City's boardwalk than Yolanda Griffin.

She's been cleaning it for 17 years, sweeping up and disposing of the cigarette butts, plastic spoons, straws, french fries, caramel corn, half-eaten hot dogs and abandoned flip flops that end up fluttering across it, or wedged in the pencil-thin gaps between its boards.

Ocean City's boardwalk is not America's longest, nor its most famous, but it is quite possibly the cleanest, and the woman responsible for keeping it that way is as fondly protective of the 36-block-long expanse of wood as anyone.

"You like a clean house, right?" said the mother of five daughters as she rode her sweeping machine onto the boardwalk at 6 a.m., as she does every weekday in summer. "Just imagine this boardwalk being your house."

For the next three hours, Griffin criss-crossed the boardwalk's entire length, a block or two at a time, as the machine's bristle brushes whisked debris into a large bin that, in the thick of summer, has to be emptied twice or more before she completes her rounds.

On top of that, about once a week, the boardwalk gets a steamy scrub to remove more stubborn stains - used chewing gum, syrupy spills and dried gull and pigeon droppings among them.

It's a lot of bother for something that, physically, is nothing more than wood and nails - 823,000 board feet of the former, 26 tons of the latter.

But Ocean City's boardwalk - originally a few planks laid out to help tourists navigate the sand - has become much more than that, as the crowds that swarmed over it this weekend attest.

Part pathway, part symbol, it gets you where you want to go and reminds you that you're where you want to be; that school is out, that the party is on, that the rat race, at least for a few days, is over.

If you're young, it reminds you that life, much like the boardwalk - from its games of chance, to its all-you-can-eat smorgasbords, to the trail of planks unwinding into the distance - is spread out before you.

If you're young no more, there is no better place than the boardwalk to remind you that you once were - to jog a memory or spark a vicarious thrill.

If you're a shop owner, it's a lifeline, funneling thousands of shoppers with time on their hands and money in their pockets past stores whose merchandise spills out onto it - T-shirts, pizza slices, arcade games, kites, beach towels, jewelry, taffy, towels, tattoos or tanning lotion.

And if you're Ocean City, the boardwalk is your showpiece - the thing that, maybe even more than the ocean, defines you.

The boardwalk is Memory Lane, Easy Street, Road to Ruin and Highway to Heaven - all rolled into one, then laid out, plank by pressure-treated plank, along 2.5 miles of Maryland's oceanfront.

It is made of pine; enough, were it still in tree form, to cover about 30 acres of forest. The town spends about $100,000 a year replacing 16-foot lengths of pressure-treated 2-by-6s.

Given the foot, tram, bicycle and roller-skate traffic, the sea salt, high winds and blowing sand, each plank has a life span of about 15 years.

"It takes a rough beating," said Bruce Gibbs, head of maintenance for the town's public works department, which once experimented with staining the wood to prolong its life, but quickly decided it wouldn't be cost-effective.

The boardwalk is 30 feet wide, 40 feet in some places, and runs from the inlet to 27th Street. It sports 562 benches and 252 trash cans. Nine public works employees are assigned this summer solely to keep it clean. Some keep sweeping up trash until midnight.

Ocean City's first boardwalk posed few such maintenance demands. At the end of the night, hotel owners simply pulled the boards up onto their porches.

"Everybody's got their stories," said Sandra Hurley, assistant curator of the Ocean City Life-Saving Station Museum, which hopes to put together an exhibit on the boardwalk's history. The most commonly accepted account, she said, is that temporary boardwalks were put down in the 1890s after guests at Ocean City's hotels - at the time, a wealthy and genteel bunch - complained that it was too tiring to walk in the sand.

"Every night the hotel owners would bring the boards up on the porch, because the beach was smaller then, and high tide would have washed them away," Hurley said.

The first permanent structure - or as "permanent" as an oceanfront boardwalk can be - is believed to have been built around 1897, possibly as late as 1902 - about 30 years after construction of the country's first and best-known boardwalk, in Atlantic City.

Dating to 1870, the Atlantic City boardwalk was originally a walkway to the ocean, as opposed to running alongside it. It, too, was prompted by concerns about sand - hotel owners were upset about it being tracked into their establishments.

The O.C. boardwalk, by 1910, rose 14 feet above the sand, and it stretched to about five blocks. In addition to walking on it, vacationers would gather under it to hold picnics, pitch woo or simply seek refuge from the sun.

That boardwalk is long gone, as are a few of its successors. Storms have repeatedly damaged the boardwalk, including one in 1933 that carved the inlet that separated Ocean City from the rest of Assateague Island, and another in 1962 that leveled the elevated structure.

After that, it was rebuilt again, at ground level, to its present length. For a while, part of it was concrete, but that section was replaced with wood as part of a continuing face-lift to the boardwalk, the planning of which began nearly 10 years ago.

"It was getting seedy," said Bill Ochse, owner of the Kite Loft, a store on the boardwalk. He served as chairman of the Boardwalk Development Association, a public-private partnership that pushed to refurbish the boardwalk and upgrade its image.

"There was an attitude of 'I don't know if I want to go down there. ... I'm not sure it's safe,'" he said.

The association chose to return the boardwalk to a turn-of-the-century look. Lights that resemble old gas street lamps replaced the highway lights; white benches took the place of the clunky, wooden ones; and more streamlined trash cans were set out where steel barrels once were.

Just as there are those who complain Ocean City is getting too upscale, there were some merchants who thought that, with the changes, the boardwalk was becoming "too pretty," Ochse said. "But it's not just a honky-tonk, pizza, beer joint boardwalk anymore," he added.

To offset the cost of the face-lift, Ocean City began a bench-dedication program last year. Sixty-six people so far have paid $1,370 each for benches with small, engraved plaques.

"In Loving Memory of Barbara A. Smith (Me-Maw) Who Loved the Beach and Boardwalk," says one.

"Fly Someplace Warm, Grandad," another reads. "I'll Meet You on Heaven's Boardwalk. Your Girl, Amie."

"A lot of people bought them in memory of when they met down here," said Gibbs, of the public works department. "Listening to those people who met their husband or their first boyfriend here, you realize how important the boardwalk can be to them."

The boardwalk upgrades - finished except for the area between 9th and 17th streets, where work will begin this fall - haven't gone unnoticed.

Ocean City's boardwalk was recently included in a Reader's Digest top-boardwalks list, and was ranked third in the nation by the Travel Channel - behind Santa Cruz, Calif., and Atlantic City, ahead of Coney Island and Virginia Beach. (Rehoboth Beach's boardwalk came in seventh.)

Of course, as some see it, what truly makes the boardwalk isn't the shops and restaurants, and it's not the wood and nails. It's the people strolling up and down it. Despite all their other purposes, boardwalks are best for people-watching. In few other settings can one immerse oneself in such a cross-section of humanity - the rich and the poor, the loud and the quiet, the fit and the unfit, the tidy and the messy ...

"Cigarette butts," says Yolanda Griffin, recounting her usual day's yield. "There are a lot of plastic forks and spoons and straws that get stuck between the boards, too. Not too many french fries because if the gulls don't get them, the pigeons do. Mainly, it's cigarette butts."

The strangest thing she ever swept up was a live pigeon - though she didn't realize it until she was emptying her load. "I just opened it up and she flew on out."

Near the Tilt-a-Whirl ride and the Whac-A-Mole game at Trimper's, the century-old amusement park that dominates the boardwalk's southern end, Griffin, 46, fired up her machine - she and other employees call it simply "The Broom" - and climbed aboard.

What she said next, before setting her brushes to spinning and heading down the near-empty boardwalk, didn't sound boastful - more like the comment of a proud parent on prom night: "This boardwalk never looked this good."