When I was a kid, Asbury Park, NJ, was still a place of innocence. The perfect beach-boardwalk amusement park, with roller coasters, spinning tea-cups, skee-ball in the funhouse, and the best salt-water taffy on earth. It changed at about the same time I got old enough to see beyond the magic of twinkle lights and coastal breezes, declining first into despair, the funhouse turned into a drug-den, and the ticket booth plastered with posters advertising the next rave, and then becoming a relic, a shadow of its former self.
When I was nine, my mother and I spent a year living in a 2nd-story walk-up flat carved out of someone's old summer house in Ocean Grove, the next town down the boardwalk, or up the highway (35? 36? I never remember which is the coastal one and which is not). While there were no actual train tracks to be on the wrong side of, there were gates, because Ocean Grove was privately owned by the Methodist Church, and every summer a tent city bloomed colorfully in the poorer side of town, as everyone same for the religious equivalent of a girl scout jamboree.
The differences between Ocean Grove and Neptune City/Asbury Park grew more marked with every day that passed, or so it seemed. Within the gates, it was an idyllic place to be a child. The beach was clean and safe, there was an old-fashioned soda fountain in the stationers store, and you could trick-or-treat at all the stores on Halloween, on the way home from school. Outside the gates, suburbia was being paved over, and high-rise apartments were replacing ages-old Victorians – summer homes now occupied year-round by senior citizens who wanted to spend their last days at the Shore.
The last time I saw Asbury Park, it was mid-winter, and I was 21. There was no snow, but it was grey and foggy, and it made the entire landscape seem haunted. I snapped pictures, but I don't think I ever remembered to develop the roll of film. But I remember wandering through the empty husk that used to be the funhouse, half convinced that if I knew how to look, I'd see the twinkle lights, and hear the noises from the arcade again.
It didn't work, of course, so I went to sit on one of the empty benches that faced the sea. Even the Atlantic looked gray that day – starkly beautiful, but somehow sad. Old. I watched a couple of leftover sea gulls playing in the sky, kicked at a candy wrapper with my sneakered foot, and in the roar of the waves and the wind, I heard it. Just as parents tell their small children you can hear the water when you hold a shell to your ear, I heard the echoes of summers past, the sound of young kids screaming in delight when the spinning tea-cups seemed out of control, of the ubiquitous Springsteen music that became part of the soundtrack of my childhood, of young lovers huddled under the weathered wood of the boardwalk itself, of grandmothers shouting to their charges to come out of the water Right Now because Your Lips are Turning Blue.
I smiled to myself, as I left the bench, and headed to the local coffee shop for a bowl of minestrone to take the chill away.