OCEAN CITY -- From the inlet to the Delaware line, the signs are everywhere: Summer is almost over.
Traffic along the Boardwalk has thinned, and the trams are almost empty. Parking is no problem on downtown side streets, and cars are sparse on Baltimore and Philadelphia avenues. In restaurants, waiters and waitresses sit at empty tables and talk about school, their majors and when they're heading out of town.
"There's always a quiet before the storm," said Endless Summer surf shop owner Salty Selt, as a single shopper browsed through the racks of Stussy and i.e.v.b. clothing a few days before Labor Day. "I think this is the last hurrah."
"Things are just starting to wind down," agreed City Manager Dennis Dare. "At the end . . . it's one big sigh. There's so much tension during the summer; everyone just relaxes during September."
The week before Labor Day is usually slow, said Mr. Dare, who has watched 13 seasons come and go in the resort. Some schools are already in session; others will start next week and people are getting ready for it, he said.
"A lot of families have vacated because of school calendars," he said.
"It's been all right up until this week," agreed Beatrice Harrison, who has owned and managed the Harrison Apartments at Ninth Street and Baltimore Avenue since 1951. "This week, we're a little light -- so many schools have started. "
Like other hotel and apartment owners, Mrs. Harrison is using this week to fill in next season's blanks, reserving rooms for the guests who come back same time next year.
Summer 1995 is slipping away, and the relief around the resort is almost palpable. Ocean City is ready for a break from what has been one of the strangest summers anyone out here can remember.
It began badly, with a shooting, a grisly murder and friction between a visiting Washington-area group and merchants all over town. A student fell to his death after doing a handstand on a 12th-floor balcony railing. A 12-year-old was buried alive when his sand tunnel collapsed.
Then came a heat wave in July so intense that it was almost too hot to sit on the beach. August arrived and so did Felix -- almost. The beach was closed to swimmers when surf and tides got too rough. Four people drowned in Ocean City this summer, and hundreds more required assistance in the water -- three times last summer's total, according to the Beach Patrol.
As the town heads into the last big holiday weekend of the summer, it even feels as if fall might have come a little early this year. The Labor Day concert will have country music, the entertainment preferred by many local people, instead of the midsummer rock 'n' roll that draws tourists. The last week of summer is giving way to Labor Day, and evening breezes on the beach already have a chilly edge. The days are shorter and cooler.
Waits are shorter, too. At Trimper's Rides on the Boardwalk, the stroller gridlock of high summer was gone this week, replaced by little knots of parents watching their children ride the antique carousel. The music played and the carousel went round and round, but few children dotted the brightly painted wooden animals. The giraffe was riderless; so were the sea lion, the Bengal tiger and the ostrich.
At the other end of the park, the screams of roller-coaster riders were barely audible. The cars were almost empty as they swooped through the curves and loops of the Wave.
On the Boardwalk, no line formed at ThrashersFries, and the game barkers were silent, sitting listlessly in front of the stuffed animals.
"It's really decreased a whole lot," said visitor Diane Smithers, vacationing with her family a few days before the holiday. She and her family usually stay in Ocean City twice each summer, and although she liked the preholiday calm, she looked a little wistful as she described a visit in July.
But for many residents and merchants in the resort, fall this year is as much a beginning as an ending -- it brings a much-needed chance to relax.
"I feel golf in the air!" says Mr. Selt, the surf shop owner.