Sunrise was more than an hour away, but Mark Kelly had already begun his day. Sweeping trash along Ocean City's Boardwalk, he provided a running, cheerful, commentary on the nature of the discarded items: pizza boxes, curly-fries containers and broken beach chairs.
"You know what's up here?" Kelly asked, seeming unnaturally energetic for this still-dark hour. He rushed to answer his own question: "Fun trash!"
Kelly, the supervisor of beach maintenance and sanitation for the city, was surrounded by Ocean City public works employees on a mission to clean up the beach and Boardwalk before the first visitors arrived for the day.
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This is a daily summer ritual in shore towns. Before the first visitor's foot hits the cool morning sand, hours before many tourists are even awake, beach crews from Long Beach Island to Cape May Point are raking sand, emptying trash cans and cleaning boardwalks, leaving the beaches as neat as a crisply made bed.
Kelly, a self-described ‘happy and positive 40-year-old,' seems to genuinely like his job of 16 years. To him, a broken spoon on the ground represents someone who enjoyed ice cream the previous afternoon.
"These are the finest hours of the day," he said.
Kelly said he rarely gets frustrated by the amount of trash he sees on the Boardwalk. He understands that people are not necessarily thinking about cleanliness while tanning or browsing the shops. And parents cannot always monitor children throwing trash away.
"It's not intentional," he said.
The ever-present Boardwalk seagulls also contribute to the messy morning scene.
In the borough of Beach Haven in Ocean County, crews not only deal with litter, full trash bins and an overwhelming amount of recycling, they also remove plenty of broken beach equipment. Public Works Superintendent George Gilbert said it is not uncommon to find broken beach chairs, umbrellas and boogie boards that beachgoers cast aside for crews to clean up.
"Somebody's gotta do it," Gilbert said. "People aren't gonna take it off the beach with them."
Without the morning crews, southern New Jersey beaches would be "a mess," he said.
Whether shore towns have large, long beaches and miles of boardwalk or just a beachfront and roads to take care of, the work that crews do in the morning is the same.
Beach and boardwalk traffic is relatively slow in the first part of the season, officials said.
Director of Ventnor City Public Works Dave Smith said a four-person crew cleans the oceanfront before July 1st. After that, a team of between six and nine people will work the 6 a.m.-to-noon shift.
In Ocean City, Sundays and Mondays are the busiest and dirtiest days of the week until the season is in full swing, Kelly said. On Wednesday, there were 16 people cleaning the beach and Boardwalk in the Cape May County city. The crew will grow to about 30 people when there are more tourists in the city.
Both crews clean and organize the same way. Workers are assigned specific duties in the morning, and by the end of their shift - and often before cotton candy pinks and blues streak the morning sky - they have surf-raked their respective beaches till they are as "fluffy" as a pillow, picked up rogue trash and swept every nook and cranny of their boardwalks.
Both crews visually evaluate the boardwalks, ensuring there are no broken boards or loose nails that could lead to injury during the day.
The Beach Haven crew starts cleaning the one-mile stretch of beach at 6 a.m. As in Ocean City and Ventnor, the Ocean County crew works quickly to remove trash and large debris from the beach before beachgoers arrive.
Kelly said while waking up so early might be daunting for some, seasonal and permanent employees in Ocean City enjoy being an invisible force behind the perfect summer. That anonymity is one of the perks of the job, Kelly said.
"One by one and little by little, people will come on to the Boardwalk and they'll never know we were here," he said.
But in Ventnor, the early-morning shift comes under attack from Boardwalk residents upset by the clanging of trash removal equipment.
"We get complaints that we're out there too early," Smith said. "Because we wake them up."
Smith said some residents have asked crews to start the work about 10 a.m., but that is nearly impossible.
"At about 10 a.m. during the season, the beach gets too crowded," he said.
Gilbert said most people in Beach Haven are aware the crew preps their beaches daily, but the crew typically works undetected in the morning.
"We try to be off at 9:30 a.m.," he said. "Once people start actually coming on the beach, we're running equipment around them."
Gilbert, Smith and Kelly all said the pros of the early-morning shift far outweigh the cons.
Besides catching the morning breeze - instead of summer midday heat - crew members have a beautiful work environment. On his days off, Kelly still goes to the beach, he says.
"There's not a prettier site than watching the sunrise," Gilbert said of his favorite perk.
Kelly agreed: "Any morning out here on the Boardwalk is absolutely wonderful."
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