Round Table Friends is the most exclusive group in Ocean City.
And ironically, perhaps one of the kindest, warmest and most welcoming groups in the resort—once its members know you are the sort of person who fits in with them.
But finding out takes a commitment of time.
You see, even while there are no dues, rules or initiation rituals—unless you count doing crossword puzzles every day over coffee—you can’t join the Round Table.
You get invited.
And to get invited, you have to show up, hang out, interact and get along over time at the group’s meeting place, , a coffee bar and cafe at the corner of Fourth Street and Atlantic Avenue.
Once you are a familiar face, you may get invited to sit with the Round Table—there really is a battered Formica round table in a side room, not at all like the grand Round Table of mythical Camelot.
Most likely the invitation to come sit will come from Ted Born, one of the group’s founders.
The group of about 20 members frequently refers to Born as the mayor, but that implies too much order and organization. He’s more like the ringleader—in a good way.
His card explains why he’s the glue that initially brought the group together seven years ago—and holds them together still. His “business” card reads:
TEDBORN H.Y.M.I.tN, F. tL.
HAVE PASSPORT. WILL TRAVEL.
Born explains the meaning behind the initials: So many Round Table members have initials behind their names—lots of registered nurses, a medical doctor who is also a Ph.D., etc.—he thought he too should spell out his own life credentials. The first abbreviation stands for “help you make it through the night” and the second stands for “feel the love.”
But an invite to sit at the Round Table by Born, the group’s 82-year-old unofficial King Arthur, isn’t quite enough to assure membership.
For instance, Born, a retired cop from Bucks County who grew up in Atlantic City, recalls a real estate salesman who courted the group for a time. The fellow moved closer and closer, finally sitting at the round table, before eventually drifting away when it became clear he didn’t quite fit. Frank Smith, who seems to play the role of the group’s unofficial philosopher in addition to his duties as the semi-official group photographer, knowingly shakes his head as Born tells the story.
A former human relations director for large corporations, Smith in some ways typifies the hard-to-define qualities that mark many of the members: He’s on the older end of the age spectrum and has re-created himself with a second career as a photographer. A silver bracelet hand-fashioned in New Mexico has replaced the timepiece that once ruled his working life.
But then there are several exceptions to the rule, members who are still at work and much younger than the average, such as Asbury Avenue businesswoman Lisa Klassman, owner of Kidz Creations.
Many members hold what Smith calls dual citizenship: a home in the Philadelphia area as well as a place in Ocean City, though a fair number live full-time in Ocean City.
I asked one day while hanging out at 4th Street if the group functions as extended family and what draws the various members together.
As befits a philosopher, Smith mulled it over for a day before answering.
He thinks the membership in the Round Table is analogous to the themes of Northern Exposure, the 1990s TV series set in the tiny town of Cicely, AK, with lots of unique characters who are round pegs fleeing being forced into square holes. Disparate though they are individually, the characters in Northern Exposure come together to support each other, often at a local hangout known as the Brick, because in a small town getting along and finding and nurturing friends matters, especially in the depths of winter.
And while Smith is quick to point out that Ocean City is neither as tiny nor as desolate as Cicely, it is a small and sometimes lonely place in the grip of winter, especially for people who are retired or self-employed.
Lilli Filichia, a member who created a website for the group, neatly sums up the group on their homepage:
“We are an eclectic group. If you were to ask each of us how we came to be Round Table Friends, each of us would have a different perspective. The one thing we all have in common is that we live in or near Ocean City, New Jersey. Oh, and one other thing. We all love each other. Round Table Friends are always there for each other.
“While we are young at heart, most of us are mature adults. This is not to say we're tottering, or senile, or wearing diapers (yet), but we have raised our kids and some of us have grandkids. Most of us are retired, but some of us continue to work. For a small group, more of us are named Kathy or Cathy or Kathleen than you would expect. Professionally, the nurses in the group outnumber the teachers, and the HR professionals, and the cops, and the photographers, and the surfers, and the beach bums, and the authors, and the artists.”
Edgar-award winning author Jonathan King, who worked as a reporter for the Philadelphia Daily News and spent time as a member of Ocean City’s beach patrol, has a unique perspective on the Round Table’s appeal as an ex officio member: He dates one of the Kathys and sees the group from time-to-time whenever he visits from Florida.
“The crew is a wonderfully eclectic group of painters, sculptors, photographers, surfers, retired cops, former executives, nurses, scalawags and gossips (I steal bits of them for my novel characters all the time),” he told me in an email.
“Their bond is that they all love Ocean City. It's where they want to be and anyone who has spent significant time here, as I did in the 1970s, knows the feeling. Most of them are residents, so they know the city and its best joints and gigs and shortcuts and prices and they are socially connected to other camps, so you never know what the daily conversation might spin to and what stories might get told.”
John Szabo, the owner of 4th Street, happily inherited the Round Table a few years ago when he took over the coffee shop next to the Laurel Bay Bed and Breakfast that he and his wife, Sharon, have operated for years.
“They are like gold miners. They staked their claim. When we took over, we closed to do painting. Ted and the other founder, John Waters, were here. We told them we were closing to paint. John and Ted said, 'OK, we’ll be back.' I thought they meant in a week, when we were done painting, but they came back in under an hour, dressed to paint! And that’s what they did for next few days.”
With their help, the painting got done in a few days and the Round Table went back to meeting every morning over crossword puzzles, coffee and good cheer.
John Szabo knows the joke among the regulars is that he’d make more money if he charged Round Table members rent for the space they occupy than he makes selling them coffee, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Sharon and I have never experienced the sense of community we have experienced here,” he said.