As sun goes down, the Metal Man takes the beach


Ocean City -- The first thing I notice is, he doesn't look like a geek.

Yeah, he's wearing glasses, but not those black-rimmed jobs with tape around the nose piece. He's got a nice haircut. His T-shirt does not celebrate anything to do with, let's say, "Star Trek."

Which makes his deviant behavior even harder to explain.

All I can say is, hide the kids. You don't want them to see this.

How do you make them understand that certain adults feels the need to haunt the beach at night, wielding, yes, metal detectors which they follow blindly in search of, well, treasure and/or loose change. Sometimes, for Rich -- as he calls himself -- it can come to 7 bucks in a single night.

And get this. There's absolutely no law against it.

You don't have to look hard to find weird behavior in this town as the beach begins to close down. It's 6 p.m. The crowds have thinned. It's been at least 30 minutes since I've been stepped on.

By this time, the lifeguard has left to go do whatever it is that lifeguards do in their post-beach life. I don't want to know. If I knew exactly what they did, what would I have to day-dream about while I'm sweating at the beach?

In the daytime, O.C. is obviously a beach town, but at night, you've got to do something while your suit's drying.

So, you might start out at happy hour. You can get Red Wolf on draft for a buck at a beach bar. Down the street, a little later you can get outsized drafts for a buck fifty at one of the nightclubs.

At this club, it was boxer night. I don't think boxer night had anything to with fighting, though.

If you're of a certain age and predilection, you can keep on drinking through the night until you end up beneath the boardwalk, lying in your own juices.

It's just like college except that many of your finer universities unaccountably lack boardwalks.

Of course, Ocean City, as the anti- gambling officials remind us, is a family resort, although don't try to sell that down at the drunk tank. But for the family minded, the night can be one long go-kart, miniature-golf, amusement-park, cotton-candy-on-the-boardwalk, all-you-can-eat-buffet Bacchanalia. This is where family-values have taken us.

And then there's Rich, a different kind of night-stalker. He's the man on the beach with the odd-looking machine. He doesn't do it for the money. Rich has a good job as a machinist back in Easton, Pa. "If I find enough to pay for the batteries, that's a good week," he says.

He does it for, gulp, amusement.

Rich won't give up his last name. "Look," he says, "I get enough grief about this. I don't need anymore."

Maybe he's just trying to protect his family. He's got a family. That may surprise you. I tend to think of the metalists as lonely folk. Just the night before, I saw this lonely-looking woman who might have been a character out of Miss Marple. She would have been at home carrying a butterfly net. Instead, she had a metal detector, a trowel, a sifter and earphones. Nobody crowded her.

Rich, you could talk to. He comes here every year in a party of about 25 or 30 friends and relatives. While they're back at the room getting changed, he's back at the beach, looking for change.

"It all started back in '88," he explains. "I had elbow surgery, and I got this thing for exercise. You walk down the beach moving your arm from side to side and it strengthens the elbow.

"Everybody gives me grief -- everybody -- but it's fun. I do it a couple of hours in the morning and maybe an hour at night. I found a Zippo lighter last year. I found a ring this year. But mostly it's bottle caps or quarters. I put the quarters in my pocket and the bottle caps in the trash. I'm performing kind of a public service, keeping the beach clean."

He laughs.

"Actually, I don't put all the caps in the trash. That's not my job. I'm on vacation."

The weirdest thing he finds, he says, would be condom wrappers, suggesting another late-night beach activity. "At least," he points out, "they're using them."

Meanwhile, he heads toward the lifeguard stand. Says one of his nieces told him that people were throwing quarters off the stand. The machine starts beeping. He gets this look of deep concentration. That's my signal to quietly walk away. It's nearly 7. Happy hour beckons. And I've got a story to tell.

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