The eyes have it Ocean City isn't much to look at. But on the boardwalk and on the sand, where the beautiful guys and girls gather, the watchword is voyeurism.

July 20, 1998|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Sun Staff

OCEAN CITY - The eyes are peeled, hungry. Behind waves of wrap-around shades, tiny silver-framed John Lennon sunglasses, Ray-Bans and Jackie Os, the eyes scope the shore for an object of desire. A woman, dripping saltwater and dressed in little else, steps out of the sea, then onto the boardwalk, walking a gantlet of eyes. A man, hairless and buffed to a beefy shimmer, struts by as if expecting applause, receiving but a silent flutter of eyelashes.

To see and to be seen and to switch roles at will, isn't that why so many have come so far and so often? Along the beach or on the boardwalk - especially on the boardwalk - glances flash like fireflies. One seems to have stumbled into a convention of surveillance artists. It's an open-air gallery, a sightseeing tour. But please, no photographs.

In its pathological form, voyeurism is included in the psychiatric bible, the "Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders." In its more benign form, it's high in the Ocean City book of Things To Do. Swim, boogie-board, jog, fly a kite, play miniature golf, eat a funnel cake, eat saltwater taffy, ride the Ferris wheel, read a trash novel and look, look, look.

"A couple days ago we had somebody running down the beach in this electric pink swimsuit," says Devon Doane, a high school senior from Bethany who works a summer job for a company that rents beach umbrellas, chairs and boogie boards. "She looked like Barbie. . . . You could see everyone's head kind of . . ." Her voice trails off as she mimes the motion of many heads rotating as one, seemingly wired to one remote control.

Although Doane's attention is more often drawn to attractive young men, on this occasion her head turned with the rest, tracking the progress of this blond jogger who, with her hot pink bikini, wore high-top running shoes.

"It seemed an odd exercise outfit," says Doane.

In the flick of an eye, Doane may slip from watcher to watched and back again. She is 17, dark-haired and dark-eyed and on this particular day wears precious little: a blue and white bikini, a tan. All day long she strides from her customers to her umbrella-shaded post set back from the water's edge. She can feel the eyes on her, she says.

"I tend to think people are looking at me when I'm out there messing with the umbrellas and things," says Doane. When called upon to help a customer set up or take down an umbrella, she might notice that she is being noticed by a guy or three lounging nearby.

"Sometimes when you'll look down you'll make eye contact. They'll look away," she says. It can be flattering, she says, but "sometimes it's creepy. I'm not intimidated when it's a bunch of guys my age. But when it's older men . . ."

Do not cross

Somewhere in the sand there's a line between attention that flatters and attention that puts the nervous system on alert, between a look that respects personal space and one that violates it. With prompting, the watchers and the watched along the boardwalk will consider this distinction.

Danielle Lins and Alesha Christensen, both 15 and from York, Pa., dark-haired and dressed in bikini tops and shorts, attract a male audience as they walk south along the boardwalk late one afternoon. For Christensen, the attention is unwelcome. Maybe some people figure the boardwalk is a place to watch and be watched, she says, but "for me it isn't."

Lins says, "Sometimes it's OK. But when they're too forward, when they come up to you being real loud about it . . ."

This is a problem, she says. But then, so is the reverse. The long look accompanied by not a word. Just a pair of eyes bearing

down. Even in a public place staring may seem a violation of privacy, "a departure from ordinary and normally expected observation," writes Texas Tech University philosophy professor Daniel O. Nathan. "The question of whether privacy has been violated seems to depend on how abnormally invasive the observing was."

Seaside protocol

Paul Zawatski, 19, visiting the shore with two college buddies, is no philosopher. But he knows something about the protocol of beachfront voyeurism.

"If it's an extended stare, it's pretty bad," says Zawatski, of Pittsburgh, a junior at Penn State University. "If you get caught staring, it's bad. . . . You gotta' feel like an idiot, pretty much."

Zawatski is hanging around outside the M.R. Ducks store on the boardwalk with fellow Penn State students Matt Lapiska and Brian Brandebura on a bright morning. All three young men are bare-chested, slim. They got into town the night before and have noticed that the looking is good. By day, by night, whatever.

"Any time is good," says Zawatski.

This is Ocean City, after all, a place remarkably well-suited for a little harmless voyeurism. Put it this way: What else is there to look at? Another french fry stand? Another chain restaurant? Another putt-putt course? Another high-rise condo designed with all the elegance and style of a Comfort Inn?

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