New Jersey, our state
All our best is addressed to you!
New Jersey, our state
We’ll keep abreast of the times with you!
Once again we’re here to tell
The many ways that we excel
In New Jersey the state that is great, great, great
In New Jersey, the Garden State.
This is not the state song of New Jersey and I can find no record of it anywhere except my head, where it was downloaded long ago by some elementary school teacher and still comes up on the jukebox rather often.
If New Jersey were actually an armpit, the town where I grew up would appear as a mole just below the axillary hinge, 55 miles south of Manhattan, a mile from the shore. Though we of Parkway Exit 105 breathed fresh salt air rather than the refinery stink the state was infamous for, we looked around our ranch-house mansions of glory and saw what Springsteen saw. It’s a death trap, it’s a suicide rap, we gotta get out while we’re young. Tramps like us, baby we were born to run.
Maybe that should have been the state song.
I haven’t lived in New Jersey since I was 17. While I was holed up in Rhode Island, Texas, and New York City, my sister moved away, our grandparents and parents died, and the house on Dwight Drive where my father carved MARION & NANCY 1960 into the wet cement was sold to people I never met. When I visit, I stay down the street at my best friend Sandye’s mother’s house, which feels both weird and lucky. No matter what the weather I pay my respects to the boardwalk in Asbury Park, which greets me like a sweet old relative who has no idea who I am.
It is too late to fall in love with the place I grew up. So of course I have.
In the late 19th century, when Asbury Park was developed by New York brush manufacturer James Bradley (later the postmaster, mayor, senator and editor of the newspaper), more than 600,000 people rode the train from the city every summer to its perfect mile of navy waves, pearly sand, herringbone planks, iron rails, neatly spaced benches whose wooden backs shifted to face land or sea.
In the 1920s, two elegant structures were added, designed by the architects of Grand Central Station in Manhattan. At the south end of the salt-water-taffy mile, the metal and glass Casino with its spired carousel house; to the north, Convention Hall, garlanded in purple, sea green and gold, with winged seahorses and serpents watching over the Grand Arcade.
My grandparents began as summer people, but moved down for good when my father and his siblings were born. My dad grew up on Brighton Avenue, played football for Asbury High, became famous for daring pranks and stunts I don’t know the details of and am not sure who does anymore. By the time I was born, Asbury was more than three-quarters black, a tough little city simmering around the boardwalk mile. My parents bought with other Jews and Italians in suburban developments inland.
As soon as I was old enough to hitchhike, I headed straight back to the boardwalk. There I joined the workforce, met boys, welded my thumbs to the flipper buttons of Gottlieb’s Aquarius.
The year I turned 14, I worked the breakfast and lunch shifts at Michal’s coffee shop on the boardwalk, and sold tickets at the U-Pedal and swan boat ride in the evening. The U-Pedal boats were owned by a friend of my parents, staffed by his teenage son and his posse. I Like Mike but I’m Partial to Marshall, I wrote in my diary of two of my heart-throb coworkers.
While employee crime at the coffee shop was limited to embezzling orders of pancakes, the U-Pedal boats were a den of iniquity. From time to time, the guys would bring me back the tickets they had just collected from the customers, and I would sell them again. After closing, we’d count up the extra money and someone with a fake ID would go buy beer.
Some nights I’d go with them to their Guru Maharaj Ji meetings, where they sang a song to the tune of “This Land Is Your Land” with lyrics about the 14-year-old perfect master. They burned incense and ate plates of curried cauliflower. Other nights, I would meet my little sister at the pinball parlor — she was a wizard — and when we ran out of money, hang out on a bench on the boardwalk where the dumbest, most beautiful hoodlums played their stolen guitars.
It is hard to believe all the things that have happened to this place in my lifetime — enough for a civilization, or another time-lapse movie like Koyaanisqatsi, which God knows the world is waiting for. Here are the families, the beach umbrellas, the soft-serve ice cream, the fireworks. Here is the Mafia, the corrupt city government, the big new highways leading tourists and shoppers away to Six Flags Great Adventure and the Monmouth Mall. Grossman’s Deli, where we eat dinner with our grandparents every Tuesday, closes; here we are at Lock, Stock and Barrel, Charlie Brown’s, Chelsea Morning, Steak and Ale.
Here is July 4, 1970, the beginning of a week-long race riot. Here is my grandmother outside the beauty shop, stopped in her tracks when she spies the muzzle of a machine gun. Here is Bruce Springsteen, who has recently been evicted from an apartment in Asbury and is living in a surfboard factory in Wanamassa, watching from the roof of the water tower. Here is the life going out of the retail stores on Cookman Avenue, here are the state mental hospitals being closed and here is everybody who used to live in them coming to Asbury. This is red tide. This is a shark. This is medical waste. These are the demolished lots and cement carcasses left behind by shady developers. This is the Casino as seen in Robert De Niro’s City by the Sea, junkies tumbling through the ceiling of the rotting funhouse.
This is me taking my young sons to visit my mom in the 1990s, teaching them to love this battered place as best I can. So much is gone, so much is ruined. We buy hot dogs from the last snack bar standing, we drag boogie boards down to the deserted shore, we bring my mother’s putters to smack balls around the weeds of the abandoned mini-golf course. Here’s where the pedal boats were, I tell the boys, pointing to the still surface of Wesley Lake. This was a famous rock and roll club, I say, gesturing to the boarded-up Stone Pony, and before that it was a beer garden called Mrs. Jay’s. At the other end of the boardwalk, the carousel is gone; the Casino has become an indoor skate park.
“A what?” say the boys, suddenly interested in my broken-down ghost town.
Thankfully, things are better now in Asbury, which has been on a slow climb back to viability since the early 2000s. After Sandye’s father’s memorial service last year, we stopped in at the Miss Gay New Jersey pageant; they were both held in the same old seaside hotel. This spring, we attended an Easter pet parade in Convention Hall. The summers are starting to look just like summer again, packed beach, buzzing bars, lines at the ice cream counter, sucky parking. The Stone Pony has reopened, as have the Empress Motel and the Steinbach’s building; in the Silverball Museum you can play the old pinball machines for $10 an hour and never suffer the pain of no more quarters. When the Palace Amusements closed they moved the grinning face of Tillie to the Wonder Bar, and thanks to Springsteen, there will always be a Madam Marie.
The Boss moved back from L.A. to New Jersey in the 1990s. He is the patron saint of Asbury’s reincarnation, playing benefits, speaking on panels, working for the food bank, showing up unexpectedly at the Stone Pony or Convention Hall. Bruce has always been ready to tell of the many ways that we excel. Maybe all the tramps like us will end up home.
Marion Winik writes “Bohemian Rhapsody,” a column about life, love, and the pursuit of self-awareness. Check out her heartbreakingly honest and funny essays twice a month on Baltimore Fishbowl.