I’ve lived in Maryland for 25 years, about half on the Western Shore and the last half on the Eastern Shore. These two parts of the state, separated by the Chesapeake Bay and its $4 bridge toll, may as well be galaxies apart. When I first moved to the Eastern Shore, I remember being asked if I was “from the Western Shore,” and I didn’t even understand what that meant. I thought people were asking if I was from California.
But now that I’ve been on the shore for more than a decade, I definitely get the difference between the two shores and their residents, customs and attitudes. The Chesapeake Bay Bridge was built a relatively short time ago, in 1952, which means the great divide between “Western” and “Eastern” Maryland cultures has only been bridged (so to speak) for a bit more than 60 years. Here are some of the differences between the two halves of Maryland.
There are completely different accents on each shore. On the Western Shore, you have the Baltimore accent, where people declare “I’m from Bawlmer, hon.” It’s a charming, lovely accent perhaps best mocked cinematically by John Travolta cross-dressing in the 2007 movie Hairspray. On the Eastern Shore, there is not as much of the “hon.” There is “far” and “ole.” When I served on my local town council, I sat in a meeting one time in which one of the other council members spoke for five minutes about “far” and “ole” and I had no idea what he was talking about until it somehow clicked in my brain that he was saying “fire” and “oil.” On the Eastern Shore, people also don’t “get in touch” with you; they “get up and down with you.” (Used in sentence: “I missed you at the game the other day, but I need to get up and down with you at the far hall about that ole bill.”) Also I have a different name on the Eastern Shore. On the Western Shore, I was Mary. Eastern? I'm "Murray."
Consider the above illustration. If you didn’t live in Maryland, and you saw this map, you would probably assume that Bob Ehrlich was our governor today. Actually, Martin O’Malley is the governor, and we are a Democratic state regardless of the sea of red on the map. This is the result of population centers, especially the city of Baltimore, voting Democratic. But in the meantime, it’s political civil war and the Eastern Shore, where I live as a liberal Democrat (non-denominational God help me), is redder than red. I thought suburban Western Shore was red, until I moved to the Eastern Shore and learned what red is really all about. The political color palette is Western pale pink versus Eastern crimson blood. In fact, in Maryland, if you are a minority (as a white female Democrat I’m an endangered species), it’s probably best not to talk about politics, unless you want to be peppered with arguments about guns, God, gays and taxes.
Because the Eastern Shore existed almost as a separate island or colony for so many years, there is an enormous difference in attitude between the people of the Western and Eastern Shores of Maryland. Western: high-paced, important career jobs, impatience. Eastern: slow pace, jobs that pay the bills, patience. In Baltimore you better drive fast when the light turns green if you don’t want 10 people behind you beeping at once. On the Eastern Shore, you could check your email through three rounds of traffic lights and the person behind you probably wouldn’t beep. James Michener, in Chesapeake, described, “turning my boat towards the less troubled waters of the Eastern Shore.” And this is exactly how I feel when I cross the Bay Bridge headed east.
But the people of the Eastern Shore can be assholes toward those who hail from the Western Shore. Unless you have three generations of relatives in an Eastern Shore cemetery, you are from the Western Shore and therefore a “tourist” (pronounced “turrist” almost like they’re secretly trying to say “terrorist” on purpose). They refer to tourists as “chicken neckers” which is a reference to a method of catching Maryland crabs. Among true local Eastern Shoremen (who have bumper stickers on their pick up trucks that say “The Few, the Proud, The Native Eastern Shoremen”), you can often hear, during tobacco spitting, the phrase “The bridge is free the other way” since the bridge toll is paid only heading east.
This means that after you’re done clogging up Route 50 with your goddamn beach traffic, you need to haul your chicken necking ass back to the Western Shore.
But for me, the scenic beauty here on the Eastern Shore wins. The sunsets and sunrises over the bay, the crabs and oysters, the fresher air, the landscape… there’s just something about it all. Although I will always be a chicken necker (even though I have learned the rip the heads off bluefish for crab bait and I don’t actually use chicken necks), I agree with Michener about the less troubled waters of the Eastern Shore. I don’t mind being a tiny speck of blue in a sea of red.