Saturday, July 5, 2014

Return to Asbury Park

Saturday, July 05, 2014

This was never my neck of the seashore, this bit of sand stuck at the more northern of what we northerners called the shore.
The place hadn’t even stacked up much in the pantheon of seaside destinations until Bruce Springsteen made it big – after which everybody I knew flocked here to catch a bit of the fading magic.
Even my best friend made the pilgrimage to the Stone Pony and dragged me along once or twice to bear witness to his conversion – by which time the place had become a kind of graveyard for hangers on, and the b-rated bands like Salty Dog that had played here when Springsteen had, but couldn’t make their novelty act pay off except to locals.
I didn’t come here on my own until long after the glory years, and during that in-between time when the all the shore towns that Henry Hudson discovered on his historic trip north had settled into slow decay, and the new rich hadn’t yet come south to lay claim to beach vistas as they eventually did, an invading army more effective as transforming the landscape than General Sherman’s had done in burning the deep south.
Many of the old hotels and other boardwalk arcades still held on, clinging to a past glory that shore towns would never see again, a miniature Atlantic City but without the hope of legalize gambling to save it.
The vast buildings that marked the two sides of its boardwalk echoed with the drip of leaking roofs and the squeaky wheels of homeless shopping carriages, as young people on roller blades and elderly on bicycles passed through each door coming from some place else and going some place else, but never staying. One large space in one of these buildings served as a kind of giant flea market.
I made the trek so infrequently here that I didn’t know which exit on the Garden State Parkway to take and had to ask a toll collector even though I had Easy Pass and had no reason to pull into her slot at the toll plaza.
Unlike Seaside Heights, Point Pleasant and Atlantic City, the roads here are much the same as they have been for generations, one lane highways giving away to crowded one lane streets, with stores and shops that stood in the same spots with the same look my uncles would have recognized, perhaps even my grandfather, part of a time warp that other towns have long ago escaped.
And driving into town, looking at these places, I felt the way I felt when I drove Route 35 back in the late 1970s, and when I was a kid in the back of my grandfather’s Hudson in the late 1950s. Time stood still here, and it felt good, and it felt right.
Even the boardwalk had avoided the worst scourges of other shore towns, but had lost many of the arches that made those places profitable. One old arcade building was boarded up, leaving only one small arcade near the water park, and a ton of eateries filling in spaces where old rundown buildings had stood my last visit here.
Most of the hotels and other historic buildings I vaguely recalled from my last visit here in the early 1990s were gone. But the two large buildings remained for the most part, one filled with life and music, and the convention center, while at the other end, the other had fallen into even deeper decay, with two historic buildings attached to it waiting for a wrecking ball because the city could no longer afford to continue restoration.
Southside Johnny had played here two days before our coming, and I had a vague sense of loss, as if I could hear Hank’s voice in the back of my head talking about what a great band that was, which he had once caught at The Stone Pony, and I had not.
We paid homage at the foot of The Stone Pony, and then moved on, vowing to return after dark when the place would seem like the place I remember, and to tip a few glasses while listening to one of the newer bands, perhaps with the vague hope that the lightning would strike again, knowing that in all such places, it only strikes once, then moves on to some new venue somewhere else none of us could predict and could only have the fortune of being there at the right time and place to catch or not catch at all.

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