ZOLTAN TELLS FORTUNES on the boardwalk that stands with its shoulder to the sand — the primary reason for the existence of the town of Rehoboth Beach, Delaware — and the implacable Atlantic beyond. Drop your coins into Zoltan’s slot and watch through the dirty glass as he lurches awkwardly to life, the canned music rising to the volume of a radio in the next room, and see his pointy-bearded chin waggle out of time with his words. “I am Zoltan,” he declares in his unplaceable accent, a sort of quasi-French/Italian/Middle Eastern mess with a hint of Oxbridge-educated elite. This turbaned Zoltan, were he a real person, would be a worldly man.
I ask him if the Ravens are as good as their 44-13 win over the Bengals suggests they are, but his answer is evasive. “It is not yet determined,” he says, and it becomes clear to me that Zoltan is not to be counted on when it comes time to pick winners. His odds in your fantasy league would be no better than yours.
Down the block, the front page of the Baltimore Sun screams “BLOWOUT!” from its seat inside the vending box. In the next box over, the Philadelphia Inquirer declares a hometown victory, too, while the Washington Post sings the praises of a rookie QB and a week one upset.
These Delaware beach towns — Rehoboth, Lewes, Dewey Beach, Bethany, and Fenwick Island — exist in a sort of confluence of rooting interests. They are meeting grounds for the commingled fanbases of Eagles supporters from Pennsylvania and south Jersey, Ravens fans from Baltimore and coastal Maryland and, to a somewhat lesser degree, Redskins fans.[i] The truth is that these places rely so heavily on the folks from inland drifting toward the sea when the sun comes out between Memorial Day and Labor Day that they’ll show you whatever it is you want to see. Outside one bar stand a pair of inflatable linemen, crowding the sidewalk, crouched in their three-point stances, cartoonish grimaces on their faces. One wears the green of the Eagles, while the other is clad in Washington’s gold and maroon. Ravens flags drape the windows. It’s typical of this place: nowhere do you see a shop or restaurant coming down in favour of one team to the exclusion of the others. Picking sides might be bad for business.
Most places in America have one team, one emblem of their pride, one focus of its population’s tribal aspirations. As a matter of both geography and economic necessity, Rehoboth Beach is three-faced when it comes to football. And after week one, let the record show, Rehoboth Beach is 3-0.
JOE FLACCO SAYS he’s the best quarterback in football. If that’s true, then Flacco — who’s won as many games since the last presidential election campaign as Drew Brees, which is also to say fewer than nobody — is the dullest superstar there is. I have a friend back home in Peterborough who, though he’s a rabid football fan, refuses to watch Ravens games because, he says, they’re too slow. But the truth is that, flashy or not, Flacco’s brought his team to the playoffs in each of his first four seasons, and won at least one postseason game every time. There’s little arguing with that sort of success. Flacco is no doubt anxious to make his case again in this, a contract year. His coach says pay the man, already, and somewhere Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti is doing some serious math.
But the Ravens, their big offensive start to 2012, and Flacco’s worth form only one of the stories here on the Delmarva Peninsula, where the tale of Robert Griffin III is also on plenty of lips. RG3, as the Redskins’ rookie QB has become known, looked awfully poised during Washington’s 40-32 OT dumping of the Saints. It was the best week one debut by a quarterback — in terms of passer rating — since Fran Tarkenton threw four TDs against the Bears in 1961. You’ll therefore excuse the DC contingent’s giddiness. Also vocal but less joyful are the Philly fans, for the Eagles, though technically 1-0, only barely squeaked by the lowly Browns, and looked shaky doing it. Regardless, all three factions here are pleased for the moment, and a sort of languid satisfaction has descended on Lower Delaware, easy as the Atlantic breeze, as welcome as the $2.50 happy hour pints at the Rehoboth Beach Ale House.
FOOTBALL AND POLITICS are all anybody wants to talk about here. The first, given the events of week one, with a feeling of overflowing optimism, the latter out of a grudging sense of duty. It’s election time, and America faces a choice you get the sense it would rather not have to make.
The stark contrast between those two dominant discussions is revealing. This election campaign has been marked by an almost all-pervasive desire, on the part of the two parties, to banish facts from public debate. Meanwhile, the talking heads covering football have a glut of facts, millions of them, and they’re happy to share. Each and every play, be it an 88-yard Griffin-to-Garçon touchdown pass, or a three yard run called back for holding, is subject to a level of analysis and study that is almost Talmudic in its rigour. Up a few channels the blowhards on Fox News are claiming Obama’s a socialist who’ll collectivise the nation’s assets, while CNN prepares to commemorate 9/11 and works overtime to find ways to tie that schismatic day into the election narrative. On Comedy Central, Jon Stewart is skewering them all. Americans flip by, take a moment to nod their heads to whichever outlet they most agree with, and then move on, looking for an injury report ahead of week two, or maybe one last look at 49ers kicker David Akers’ record-tying 63-yard field goal, perhaps seeing in its wobbling path and carom off the goalpost’s horizontal bar (and then an interminable instance of hanging there, midair, as though trying to decide whether to proceed through the uprights, or to fall harmlessly shy) a gridiron pantomime, like a play within a play, of America’s current state. Or maybe not.
STORMS ARE CHURNING far off in the Atlantic Ocean; the first act of hurricane season is underway. The businesses here that close for the winter are boarding up, preparing for what may come, just in case. September in a beach town is a transitional time, when suddenly there are vacancies, the rental properties sit dark, and the tourists mostly stay home, though the weather’s still lovely. Blue skies this week, warm days and cool nights. Perfect for just about anything. Some still come, albeit in limited numbers, just in for the weekend, or making the quick drive from Wilmington or Dover for dinner, maybe for a bit of the famously queer-positive nightlife Rehoboth Beach is said to offer. But the families aren’t here because the kids are in school, and so the beach is much emptier, the boardwalk less crowded, the lineups for ice cream all but gone. All the cheap t-shirts in the beach shops are even cheaper now. The work crews are out, busily trying to set about making repairs — replacing boards along the boardwalk, applying fresh paint to hotels — in order to take advantage of the lull ahead of the nasty winter weather.
At Gus & Gus, a diner and fried chicken stand nestled right up to the boardwalk, just as it has been for 57 years, all the tables but mine are vacant, and Gus has no one to talk to but the waitress. I open a paper and make the same decision millions of Americans are facing these mornings: to read political coverage or the sports page. I opt for the latter, just as many of them are doing. That’s where you’re sure to find some truth.
Flacco is worth the big money he’s asking for, suggests the Sun. Ed Reed is an ageless wonder. RG3 is a phenom, says the Post, and the sky’s the limit for this re-tooled Redskins offense. Meanwhile, the Inquirer bemoans Michael Vick’s four interceptions while also urging readers to consider all that he did right on the game-winning drive. I read and sip coffee while the bored waitress works the jukebox. “Well, chances are your chances are awfully good,” sings Johnny Mathis.
It’s quiet and easy this week on the beaches of Delaware, in the towns abutting them and the diners and bars lining them, but trouble brews. In week two, the Ravens face the Eagles, while Philly and Washington, both residents of the NFC East, will play each other twice during the regular season, all of which may make for some tense moments at the Ale House, or the Frogg Pond, or even at the Buffalo Wild Wings out on the Coastal Highway. Families divided, friends turning to enemies. And then there are those things that folks in the rest of the country are also facing, things like a round of name-calling disguised as an election, steadily dropping employment figures, and an overall sense of dislocation and dread.
So there’s strife ahead, and there’s bad weather out there on the Atlantic, but from his perch on the boardwalk, tucked up against the Funland Arcade, Zoltan stares stoically into it, passive and blank. He refuses to pick a team even though he, as a sage and a mystic, must know that football is the most important thing in America, and politics merely a necessary evil, a thing there to be considered in the long stretch between Sundays.
Likewise the town of Rehoboth Beach refuses to choose, flying the banners of three NFL squads, mindful of the delicate sensibilities of all those tourists. Though maybe it does show a preference, deep in the winter, when we’ve all gone home and the beach sits flat and quiet before the tumultuous grey ocean. Perhaps then the jerseys and flags and pennants of two of those three teams get mothballed, stashed beneath the counters of all those shut up ice cream stands, while the town residents’ true colours come pouring forth (if I had to guess, I’d say it’d be the purple of Baltimore, with smatterings of Philly green). But nobody’s here to see it, no one’s around to bear witness but the skeleton population of this beach town — and Zoltan, of course. Unplugged and waiting for the next summer to start while an election is tepidly, factlessly contested and another football season steams toward its wintry conclusion, he’ll refuse to predict a winner, in football or politics, and instead he’ll just sit, motionless and unmoved, lonely as a payphone, and mute in the face of all that’s before him.
[i] And like everywhere, there is a mysterious and inexplicable Steelers element, men in Roethlisberger jerseys dazedly roaming the t-shirt shops and ice cream stands. Yesterday I saw a man whose t-shirt suggested he was still heartbroken by his team’s decision to cut Hines Ward last winter: “We’ll always remember your style and we’ll always remember your smile,” it said.