Finding a bar with a sweet spot isn’t always the easiest thing to do. Some places can feel too loud, or too clique-y or too corporate, whitewashed of the natural charm that you expect in a dark tavern. It’s a weird way to put it, but I like a place where you can imagine it being thick with smoke and chatter, dark but not dim. A proper bar when you’re in the mood for one. The Greene Turtle, especially in the winter but one imagines it is the same all year long. It is that kind of bar.
As I wandered in on a cold winter Tuesday, I was worried for a moment it was going to be clique-y. The regulars all were talking to one another, it seemed, in a conversation that may have been a decade old, continued from Happy Hour to Happy Hour since time immemorial. While the story did continue, it wasn’t exclusive. In fact, the people talking were a mix of regulars, people who stop off occasionally and people down for the week, taking advantage of the quiet side of Ocean City.
Chuck Dofflemyer lifted his mug, it said “96” on the bottom, which I found both intimidating and impressive. For those of you who aren’t familiar, the Greene Turtle Mug Club is a frequent customer program. People buy a sequentially numbered mug that is always hanging above the bar waiting for them. It entitles them to drink specials all the time and is a practice as old as the Greene Turtle itself. The storied Ocean City tavern is celebrating its 40th year in business. There were mugs I saw numbered well over 500, so to have a double digit one was impressive. Chuck purchased his mug in the 1980s when he would come down to visit his parents, who had a place nearby.
He didn’t remember what the mug had cost him and he had no idea what his discount was. “If I’m going to question the price of a beer, I’m not going out drinking,” he said. God bless him, ain’t it the truth.
Back in the day, you just got extra beer. Most mugs were 12 ounces, but the Greene Turtle mugs were 16, and that was good enough for him. At the time, you could put someone’s name on your mug, so since he wasn’t down all year, he put his dad on his account. When he arrived, he would find his dad at the Turtle using his mug, so he bought another one. Then when he came down, he found his mom using his mug, sitting out with his dad. Eventually, everyone got their own mug.
The Greene Turtle in days gone by
Chuck introduced me to Eddie Murray, a Selbyville resident who was in possession of mug #82. Murray got it in a divorce. Not his, someone else’s. He mentioned the name of the guy from whom he had purchased it and the people who remembered him started reminiscing. “Reminiscing” isn’t quite right. They began having one of those fact oneupmanship kinds of conversations, struggling to remember names and getting help from one another as they pieced the events of the time together.
Conversations never derail at Happy Hour because they’re wendy to begin with. The Greene Turtle was a lot smaller then, taking up only what is now the corner of the building. There was a spiral staircase that, if you were there in the 1980s, either was an obstacle or a source of entertainment. There would always be a table of guys at the bottom placing bets on the color of women’s underwear as they went up the stairs, a practice that by today’s lights seems as quaint as it does creepy.
Jamestown Road, which runs along the neck that begins with the Greene Turtle and ends at the Assawoman Bay was kind of a party place at the time. Some summer folks changed out every couple of weeks or so, but there were a lot of summer homes where people would move in for the duration once school was out. Many of the people, like Chuck’s parents, retired there. In some cases the kids have moved down permanently, giving the whole scene something of a throwback feel.
Betsy, Joan and Jess, the women two stools down from Chuck and Eddie, were talking about why they didn’t know one another. The three were regulars, Betsy had been coming to the Greene Turtle for more than a decade, but none of them could recall crossing another’s path. The conversation had started with Betsy mistaking Jess for Joan’s daughter and Joan embracing the mistake for the sake of friendship and self-deprecation (after I took the photo she asked if her eyes looked OK). She would tack the occasional, “That’s no way to talk to your mother,” onto even the tamest things Jess said.
But the scene at the Greene Turtle is increasingly like that, especially in the off season. In many places, strangers might use the fact that they don’t know one another as a wedge. At the Turtle, they seem to use it as an opening. It’s an excuse to talk about why they like coming to the bar (which is so rare) and has the effect of encouraging others to find their own reasons. Everyone I spoke with liked to tell their own Greene Turtle story, or share a bit of Ocean City history the surrounded the Turtle. Happy Hour at the Greene Turtle is one of the remaining old Ocean City experiences exclusively for grownups.
In the end that’s what Iove about this gig, getting out to see how different places do Happy Hour. I wasn’t there for 10 minutes before I was involved. By the time I left, I was getting my chops busted just as if I were a regular. Feeling like a regular is critical, especially when you’re not. It’s weird. There isn’t anything wrong with being treated like a new customer, lots of places do it and do it well. The difference here was the assumption that I would fit in, get with the program, no matter what. I guess when you’ve been around this long, there is a groove for anyone to slide into, even if they don’t have a mug.