Dave Rizer moves around the bar with the confidence of experience. He practically grew up around Fager’s Island and, as he looks down the barrel of his third decade of employment there, clearly he knows what he is doing. What he is doing today is making Orange Crushes and chatting with the entire bar, mostly at the same time. It’s early and there only are a few couples at the bar, but the number grows as 5 o’clock approaches.
Fager’s Island has made its bones as a local’s bar. There are people who come to happy hour daily, season in and season out, as well as those who are less-frequent regulars. Sitting at the bar in Fager’s, looking out over the bay, you get a sense that keeping the place solvent is as easy as making certain that the bay doesn’t run out of water. Or sunsets. But Ocean City is kind of a monument to people who thought having waterfront property was sufficient for running a successful bar and were taught otherwise by practical reality.
The fact is, these people work like maniacs and smile like angels, season in and season out. Every day is a challenge to make sure that things are right and comfortable for the guests. The place runs with German precision disguised as island laissez faire. Just ask Dave.
Sunset is a metaphor for what makes Fager’s work. It is a combination of timing and a kind of Zen intentionality. I don’t know if you know this or not, I certainly didn’t, but the bartenders at Fager’s time the sunset. Every day.
Sunsets at Fager’s Island (and a physics lesson)
For those of you who don’t know, Fager’s Island plays the sun down every day to the 1812 Overture. Tchaikovsky’s work starts precisely 15:08 before the sun fades behind West Ocean City. It starts off so subtly that you’re more than a minute in before you know it has begun. Of course, by the crescendo everyone is all in.
Here is a fun sunset fact: You might know that sunset is a different time every day, but did it also occur to you that it is a different duration? Winter sunsets are shorter and also take less time to occur. Dave told me that John Fager wants the sunset manually started every day. The equivalent (for those of you old enough to remember) of pressing play on a tape deck while looking at your wrist watch. It only is barely more modern today. The point here is, it could be set to run automatically. Fager’s could have a program set to play the 1812 Overture 15 minutes and eight seconds before the sun dips below the horizon. Hell, my teenager probably can get her iPhone to do that.
But the bartenders here don’t. It’s part challenge and part focus. It’s a way of staying present, being in the here and now and embracing the end of the day, or at least the waning of the light. For the guests, it is a way of drawing attention to a daily miracle. Watch the sun go down. Take a breath. Witness the transformation. Be in the moment. Hear the La Marseillaise theme and embrace the fight. The War of 1812 was about taking one’s independence and making it stick, doing something with your freedom. The only thing more glorious than realizing one’s freedom is exercising it.
Skip to the famous part
By the time the part of the Overture that everyone can whistle is playing, most nights and for most practical purposes, the dark has arrived. At Fager’s, it doesn’t announce the end of the day so much as the beginning of the evening. Your attention had been brought to the fact that the sun is going down but it has been focused on the fact that the evening has begun.
The Orange Crushes were on special when I was having my Happy Hour Adventure and that’s kind of appropriate. The bar filled up with person after person asking for an Orange Crush. If there’s anything more Ocean City than having an Orange Crush at Fager’s while Tchaikovsky plays, I don’t think I can stand to know what it is. And that is the draw at Fager’s, kind of. I think it is more appropriate to call it a symptom of the draw.
Imagine working at a place where staying in tune with history, with the sun and with tradition is in your job description. Fager’s is cultivating a way of life; and the people who work there, who care for the guests, squeezing oranges, finding seats, giving directions and suggesting complementary beers and foods become part of the culture of commitment. They are present enough to figure when the sun crosses the horizon. They celebrate the fact daily. Nothing but good can come of that.