Greetings From Asbury Park, New Jersey–the REAL Jersey Shore

A couple of times a year, I hop in the car and take the three-and-a-half hour drive to my own personal Mecca.

No, I don’t mean the DSW headquarters or the Stila cosmetics factory (both of which I would LOVE to go to though… road trip anyone?). I mean Asbury Park, New Jersey.

Now I know that when I say any destination on the Jersey Shore is my version of Mecca, you’re immediately picturing steroid-filled, spiky-haired, Ed Hardy-wearing, drunken guidos and their silicone-filled, hair extentioned, whore-y female counterparts. But none of those stereotypes are actually FROM the Jersey Shore. They just migrate there in the summer like really obnoxious birds that you can’t dislodge from your trees no matter how hard you try.

So Saturday night, I took “that drive, cross the river to the Jersey side” to see Jesse Malin perform at the Stone Pony. I’d seen him Wednesday night in the DC area and when I talked to him after, he told me that I should try to make it to the Asbury show. He did tell me that Bruce wasn’t a definite, but that didn’t matter, nor did it matter that in the end, Bruce didn’t show up. Because that’s not why I wanted to go. The truth is that you don’t have to work very hard to convince me to go to a concert (especially when it’s Bruce, the Gaslight Anthem, or Jesse Malin, who are my three favorite live performers), and it takes even less convincing to get me to Asbury Park.

Before you misunderstand me, I feel the need to point out that Asbury Park is still pretty shady. It’s kind of the polar opposite of my other Jersey Shore destination (my uncle’s shore house in Avalon), which is like the Disney version of the Jersey Shore (very clean, very safe, a pain in the ass to get to, and WAY overpriced in every possible way). In fact, if Avalon is Disney World, Asbury Park is Chuck E. Cheese. (Which would make Seaside Heights, where Jersey Shore is filmed the equivalent of the old Wild World Water Park in Prince Georges County, before it became the Six Flags, when it was dirty and disgusting and always had an alarming vomit-to-water ratio in all of the water rides.) It’s gritty, and you’re far more likely to encounter a giant rat than Mickey Mouse (because I don’t care what anyone says, Chuck E. Cheese is a rat).

But to a diehard Springsteen fan, it’s home.

Asbury Park, in fact, despite being a little scary at night (and sometimes during the day), is the ONLY place (other than my uncle’s house), where I can feel like I’m NOT a freak for how much I love Bruce. In Asbury, even on a non-concert day, I’m a lightweight. So part of why I love it is probably because it makes me feel more normal than any place in the DC area ever could.

But that’s not why I go there so often.

And no, it’s not because there’s always the off-chance that Bruce could pop up wherever you are there (which has only happened to me once in the six years that I’ve been going there. I have terrible Bruce-spotting luck. Although he DID stop his car and say hi to me the one time he WAS there at the same time as me—because he CLEARLY loves me too). It’s because everywhere you look, everything you see is straight out of one of his songs.

Granted, it was a little more fun from that perspective back before they started revitalizing the town, but even with many of the major landmarks gone, Asbury Park still holds a special place in the heart of all of the “tramps like us” who were “born to run.”

The funny thing for me is that Asbury Park’s “Glory Days” were long over by the time I was born (nevermind when that was. It was decades after Asbury Park’s heyday, let’s leave it at that). I never got to see the Palace when it was open (although I was there the week before they tore it down, which is when I got the photos that would later become the front and back covers of my first novel, Beyond the Palace).

The Palace, after the back was already demolished, May 2004

By the time I got to the Circuit, the northern end of it had already been closed off by the water plant. Madam Marie was no longer telling fortunes in her shack on the boardwalk (although a year ago, her granddaughter DID do a tarot card reading for me there, which was ridiculously cool, even though I don’t believe in that stuff).

Kids busking outside Madam Marie’s, May 2004

There was no joint underneath the boardwalk where girls could promise to unsnap their jeans (although before the town turned around in the last couple of years, there WAS an abundance of prostitutes who would probably have been willing to act out any Bruce-related fantasy for the right price). And that “giant Exxon sign that brings this fair city light” was a poorly paved asphalt lot by the time I got there.

The Casino, May 2004

I described the scene that first greeted me in Asbury Park in a chapter of Beyond the Palace, through the eyes of my two main characters:

Asbury Avenue brought us into the city itself. I had taken over driving after we stopped at a rest stop on the New Jersey Turnpike, but Laura told me to pull over as soon as we saw the Palace Amusement complex looming on the horizon, its cracked and peeling green façade rising abruptly out of the flat seaside landscape. Commanded is a little closer to what she actually did. I thought she wanted to get out and walk around, so I looked for a parking lot, but she told me that the side of the road was fine. We had only seen a couple of cars on the road since coming into town, so I obliged. Laura hopped out of the car practically before I brought it to a complete stop. She ran around to the driver’s side and opened my door before I could open it. “I want to drive the circuit,” she said, excitement showing in every curve of her body. The circuit was no longer really a circuit by the time we got there in 2003, as the water purification plant at 8th Avenue effectively closed that end of it, but we had heard Bruce’s stories from concert bootlegs. In the 1970s, four one-way streets formed a sort of hangout/racetrack through town, where girls would “comb their hair in rearview mirrors” and the boys tried “to look so hard.” The Palace was a crumbling landmark from Bruce’s songs, a testament to his city of ruins. But the circuit was where you could still find the Bruce from Born to Run and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Driving it was something that we knew he had done. And I knew that Laura would want to give me a chance to drive it too, so I had no problem letting her take her turn first.

She pulled the car into drive and took us slowly down Asbury to Ocean Avenue, where we passed the Casino. She had timed her mix almost perfectly. The next song was “Sandy,” which was about the attractions on the circuit and the beach. We made our way past the rotting hulk of the Casino, which had been an arcade with an arm that jutted out onto a pier in better days, but that part had long since washed away. We could see the boardwalk to our right, and the legendary Stone Pony to our left. Past a bizarre, rusted, half-finished high-rise, past Lance and Debbie’s Wonder Bar, which Clarence once owned, past the Howard Johnson’s, orange and space-age looking in its un-maintained 1960s splendor. Convention Hall rose up on our right, by far the nicest building in town, which wasn’t saying much. Facing the end of the circuit, we turned down 7th Avenue to Kingsley Avenue, and again Laura’s mix proved perfect, as the opening line of the next song was about driving down Kingsley and deciding to stop for a drink. Laura looked around in wide-eyed wonder. She drove us down to where we had started and then we switched seats and went back around the same course, this time with me driving. After a full lap, I looped back to park near the Stone Pony so that we could walk around and explore the town.

Laura usually left the top of her car down with the windows up on nice days, and this certainly qualified. Her car had a strong alarm system, and no one could really reach anything with the windows up. But Laura started putting the top up before I could even suggest it. This didn’t look like the kind of town where it was smart to leave anything remotely accessible if you ever wanted to see it again. Not that there was anyone around to steal anything. We got out of the car and I walked immediately around to Laura’s side. It was creepy. We hadn’t seen a living soul yet. It looked like no one had lived there for about twenty years. The only signs of life were a few old, dilapidated cars parked near the Pony.

Laura dug into her purse for quarters to feed the meter and I fished two out of my pockets. Laura inserted one with a dull clink, then peered at it.

“Shit,” she said idly. “Broken.” She looked at me and shrugged. “I’ll move the car.” I looked around. There was a sea of empty spaces and the meters looked older than us. No flashing red lights to show which had expired here. Laura started to climb back into the car, but I stopped her.

“Let’s find a working meter first,” I said. I went to the one next to the one Laura had tried. It was expired. I put a quarter in, but nothing happened. I tried the one next to that, and again, nothing. Laura started to look amused. She tried the one on the other side of the car. Looked at it curiously. Then tried one more.

“They’re all broken!” she exclaimed. “Does that mean we can just park here?” I looked around. Even the asphalt of the parking lot looked older than dirt. Stringy grass sprouted up in large clumps all around and a rainbow of brown and green broken bottles glittered in the sunlight.

“Yeah,” I said finally. “If we get a ticket, I feel like this place needs the money more than we do.” Laura smiled weakly and nodded. I don’t think she had expected it to be quite this bad. We knew it would be fairly rundown, or else Bruce couldn’t have written a song about it that would later be used to describe New York after September 11. But we hadn’t imagined the level of devastation that we actually found there. We didn’t know how dead a place could feel.

I felt disappointed too, but I wanted Laura happy again. “Let’s go exploring.” She nodded again and hooked her camera strap across her body as we set off toward the Palace of “Born to Run” fame. An exceptionally seedy-looking motel stood on the corner of Kingsley and 2nd Avenue. Laura stopped and stared at it. I turned and looked at her while she worked out whatever she was thinking. Finally, a huge smile spread across her face. I turned and looked where she was looking. A battered sign read “The Flamingo Motel.”

“Do you see it?” Laura asked. I looked more carefully. It looked like the sign had fluorescent lights along the looping words once, but if they had been there, they were long gone now. Pink, fluorescent lights, I would assume, to go with the Flamingo part. She watched me expectantly, but I shrugged. I didn’t know what she wanted me to see.

“What if I said ‘Flamingo Lane’?” she asked, hinting. Flamingo Lane? A line from “Jungleland.” Off Born to Run. The two lovers “take a stab at romance” and vanish “down Flamingo Lane.”

“Oh!” I said as I realized what she was getting at. Flamingo Lane wasn’t a street. Disappearing there meant getting a room at this motel. It was one of the many things that both of us loved about Bruce. His songs were poetry. If you didn’t look deeper, Flamingo Lane could be a street somewhere. If you did, the story became a love affair, with the sax solo acting as the un-vocalized verse that represents the culmination of that passion in this little dive motel. But it doesn’t matter that it’s a dump, because to them, it’s beautiful; it’s not a motel anymore, it’s a whole world that they can disappear into.

Laura beamed at me. “That is just the coolest thing ever.” She took my hand and pulled me across the street. “We have to check this out!” But the Flamingo, like just about everything else in town, was closed. Laura’s smile faded quickly.

I did have an ace up my sleeve, even though I hadn’t expected to have to play it that soon. I leaned down to whisper into her ear. “We’re less than a couple hundred feet from where Bruce will probably be tonight.” She smiled again and turned back to face me. She looked at me for just a second too long, her face a little too close to mine. I hesitated. She pulled back, kissed me noisily on the cheek, then turned away to walk down Kingsley toward the Palace. If she had stayed a second longer, would I have had the nerve to kiss her? Would she have let me? Doubtful, but I couldn’t help but wonder. She was halfway down the block before I realized I had better catch up. Maybe she would have let me kiss her. But there were still no guarantees that she would wait for me when anything involving Bruce was at stake.

The Palace, once one of the largest arcades in the country, was hardly more inviting than the Flamingo had been, as it was closed down in 1988. It was hard to believe, but it had gone way downhill since Bruce shot his video for “Tunnel of Love” there. A chain link fence surrounded the building, keeping vandals and teenagers out. There was barely even any graffiti on the peeling, faded paint; almost as if Asbury Park was so deserted that there weren’t even enough people there to vandalize an abandoned building. Instead, only the weather desecrated this once unmistakable landmark of the Jersey shore. Even the words on the street sign at the corner were faded and missing a letter. We walked around the side of the long-since empty building, reading the attractions advertised on the side in reverent silence. Laura stood in the middle of the road to take pictures without even needing to worry about traffic. The only moving car that we saw since arriving in town passed us as we walked down Kingsley toward the lake that separated Asbury Park from Ocean Grove, which was an entirely different universe. Ocean Grove was populated. Booming. Rich. Alive. Yet one block away, Asbury Park was as decimated as if a bomb had been dropped on it. We both turned to look at the car as it passed. It was the first sign of life that we had seen.

I personally thought that would have to be the worst of it. But the Casino had trees growing inside of it. Literally. Trees. The roof was torn off in some storm in the 1980s and never replaced. The carousel, which had once been world-famous, was sold off piece by piece and the space around it turned into a skate park before the entire building was shut down. By the time we got there, it was completely boarded up, and the only windows that weren’t broken were too high to reach with rocks or even BB guns. The remains of the pier hung perilously over the edge of the beach, guarded by a lone “No Trespassing” sign, which I doubted would have been enforced if people who wanted to trespass ever showed up. Nearer to the edge of the pier, only the frame of the roof remained, with big patches of blue sky visible through the broken windows. Plant life was clearly thriving in that end of the building, but the windows were higher there and there wasn’t a chance of getting a peek inside without a tall ladder.

An empty paint bucket stood near some of the lower windows and I turned it over. “What are you doing?” Laura asked. I climbed onto the bucket.

“Seeing if there’s anything inside.” I grabbed the ledge and pulled myself up enough to see inside. She watched me expectantly as I looked in. But there wasn’t anything exciting to report back. I climbed down and shrugged at her. “Do you want to see?”

She nodded and climbed up onto the bucket, but wasn’t quite tall enough to see, so I picked her up. I held her while she snapped a few shots of the inside through the broken window, and when I put her down, we wandered around to the boardwalk side, where an entire panel of windows was missing and the foliage inside was clearly visible.

Turning away from the Casino on the boardwalk, a ramp to our left led up to nowhere. It just ended about ten feet off the ground. I looked from there to the beach and touched Laura’s arm to get her attention. “There are some people, at least,” I said, pointing toward the beach. Laura looked relieved. The beach was pretty deserted, but a handful of people had also played hooky from work (or maybe in a town like this, they didn’t have jobs to skip out of) and were scattered along the shore, enjoying the beautiful day.

Laura had started down the boardwalk and when I looked at her, her jaw dropped open. “Look! It’s really there!” she almost shouted, pointing toward the Convention Center. She was pointing at a tiny white shack, which was barely noticeable, but a serious attraction for a Bruce fan. It was Madame Marie’s Temple of Knowledge. Madame Marie was a fortune teller who supposedly told Bruce that he was going to become famous. Although, according to Bruce, all musicians in Asbury Park received the same fortune, just not always with the same level of accuracy. She was mentioned in “Sandy” as being arrested for telling fortunes better than the police. Her shack, of course, was not open, nor was there any trace of Madame Marie herself, other than the faded lettering on the white walls of the building, which couldn’t have been more than about eight feet by eight feet. But we had once seen a picture of Bruce standing right in front of that spot. Laura traced a finger over the lettering on the side. She looked disappointed. I think she had expected Madame Marie to be sitting inside, waiting to tell our fortunes.

Today, it’s infinitely better. For starters, there’s a working parking system (wait, that’s not actually a better thing for me on a teacher’s salary!). It’s safer, it’s cleaner, there are cute little stores, and it no longer looks like a third-world country by the sea.

And even though the Palace and most of the Casino are now long gone, and Madam Marie has finally gone to a better place, where the cops can’t bust her for telling fortunes better than they do, Asbury Park remains one of the few places that I’ve ever been to where there still IS “magic in the night.” Whether it’s catching a show at the legendary Stone Pony (which I’ve done often enough at this point that some of the bouncers know me—I feel like that’s NOT a good thing when I live three-and-a-half hours away!), spending a summer day down the shore, or even just “driving down Kingsley, figuring [you’ll] get a drink,” it’s a special town. And even if Bruce never DOES show up while you’re there, he doesn’t need to. Because to anyone who’s ever felt a strong connection to his lyrics, just being there provides you with that “moment when the world seems right.”

Which is why I’m going back in a month for the annual Light of Day show. If I find a ticket. (Hint hint, if you’ve got extras!)

Me after Madam Marie’s granddaughter Sabrina read my tarot carts, just before the 2010 Light of Day show.