Greetings from Asbury Park
(Editor's Note: It has been along time since I felt compelled to add an entry, but this rendering of a night on the Jersey Shore was a tale that had to be told. After some consideration, I decided to use pictures taken from my cell phone that are somewhat blurry and unedited, as their condition matches mine on this evening!)
I spent an extra night on the Jersey Shore after putting in three days’ work at a conference full of educators and sellers of educational fare in Long Branch. The days were long, and I was ready to unwind in what has become a favorite east coast hangout of mine.
|A relic, on so many levels|
Most people—from my generation, at least—equate Asbury Park with Bruce Springsteen. His first album (yes, they were still albums back then) was named for the town from which he hailed. Back in the day, even before my generation, Asbury Park was a thriving coastal town with a boardwalk framed by two casinos and a popular beach. Time had not been kind to this town, however, and it gained a reputation as a poor man’s Atlantic City, complete with high crime rates and an exodus of “preferable” citizens who made their way north and south to newer, cleaner, and glittering seaside addresses.
I first spent some time here during those less attractive days. I was mainly drawn by two famous clubs (one being the Stone Pony) and cheap hotel rates at a stately and recently renovated hotel with great ocean views from each room. The Berkeley reportedly had a haunted floor (the fourth, I believe) but also had neatly appointed rooms done in an art deco style. Both the décor and views were impressive, and both the Stone Pony and Wonderbar were “bucket list” material. I promised myself I would return soon.
It took some seven years to get back to Asbury Park, and I was not booked in the Berkeley. Even so, I did have an even better time upon my long-awaited return. It was a night full of new experiences and meeting great people. And, of course, there were the clubs.
|View from just off the boardwalk|
After parking the mini at the southernmost end of the boardwalk, I began a casual stroll northward, taking in the smells of several restaurants on my left and views of the Atlantic to the right. After inspecting various menus, I settled on the skirt steak dish offered up at Pop’s Garage. The meal was delicious, complemented nicely by a couple of Tecates and friendly locals who reminded one that Asbury Park had become quite a dog-friendly town. One patron dined with her terrier sitting in the adjoining seat. The dog would periodically jump down to visit strangers who were within leash-length, including me. Everyone loved the furry customer, at least until her lead got long enough for her to venture inside.
|The sign says it all!|
After some friendly conversation, a few of us decided to join the dog owner for “Yappy Hour” at Wonderbar. It was an easy choice, as this landmark was the first stop on my evening’s itinerary. The patio served as a free range for dogs of all kinds (although this Friday was dedicated to small breeds). The October evening was cool but comfortable, and the chaos of the playful hounds and Jim Beam on ice made for a unique and entertaining hour before I headed inside to see the bands playing for the lounge lizards.
Those of us who opted for the bands were treated to several local favorites. Two intrigued me. The mysteriously named Amigos, Amigos! played songs from their CD, It’s Okay, They’re Not Listening. Their look and music were both interesting, but lacking in definition and direction. I referred to them as “rudderless” to one of my new friends, who nodded in agreement over the din. As I usually do to support local artists, I bought a copy of the CD. I must say that when I put it on in the car on the way home the next day, I was much more impressed. Hey Anna performed next. They were tight and distinctive, and they had the look of an indie alternative band. I hope they release a CD in the near future, but I understand their next adventure is a tour of Japan. Both bands are worth a listen.
After Anna’s set, a couple of us decided to check out the bonfire on the beach, something I saw signs for earlier in the day. By the time we arrived, they were just about ready to snuff out the last, dying embers. It would have been a wasted walk to the beach if not for happening across a band playing for free in the casino. Polka Floyd played just what you would expect. This night they were performing their version of The Wall, complete with robust accordion playing off the lead guitar. Keep in mind, by the way, the “casino” of which I speak is a large open area for various forms of entertainment.
|An admirer of the Asbury Lanes gallery|
That thought actually transitioned nicely into the next stop—Asbury Lanes. I had seen it before, a couple blocks off the boardwalk from Wonderbar. I assumed it was a bowling alley. After all, there was a large glowing pin on the marque. Thanks to the insistence of a weekend visitor from the northern part of the state, I was treated to something a bit different. I was assured that it was, in fact, a converted bowling alley that now doubled as a great venue for both local and national acts. The Orwells just happened to be onstage when we arrived. The headliner had just gone on, but the bouncer let us in for free. Artwork on the walls, bacon and grilled cheese sandwiches, the music, bowling balls and more drinks made this stop a memorable one that I’m surprised I could remember at all.
The show ended and the place began to shut down. I was convinced that I was done for the evening and headed toward my car. My new companion who enlightened me about the Lanes thought that we should instead make one more stop, as there was a bar with music still emanating just across the street from where my car was parked. Resigned to making one extra stop, I entered the club adjacent to the Empress Hotel.
The bar seemed unassuming enough. Two large TV screens above the bar held images of sporting events. Only a few people were stationed here, belying the noise coming from a room around the corner. When we turned that corner, we did so on a number of levels. What we walked into was a whole other world of assless leather chaps, glitter, and female impersonators lip-synching a variety of pop tunes with total commitment. I was immediately reminded of what I had heard from several locals during my latest visit, that a new population had descended upon this decaying town and helped to bring it out of the ashes. Much of those “new pioneers” seemed to be in this one particular spot. And they were having a grand time (yes, I avoided the obvious pun). It may have been the booze, but I was even coerced into getting a kiss on the cheek from a "Cher" impersonator who was a dead ringer. It was an unexpected end to a long night full of twists and turns that made it one of the liveliest experiences I’ve enjoyed in quite a while.
In short, there is a lot to love about Asbury Park. It may still have a bit more than its share of crime, and you have to be flexible enough to accept that it is not the plushy beach towns that surround it. It is a fun, funky, down-to-earth piece of American pie that the “Boss” should be proud to call “home.”