GREETINGS FROM ASBURY PARK....

My journey to the heart of Weird New Jersey !!!

On October 30, 2004--- Because there haven't been any local DS Halloween parties for a couple of years (and don't seem likely to resume in the foreseeable future), I've been on the lookout for an appropriate autumn outing to "get away from it all."  As a faithful reader of the fine magazine,
Weird New Jersey I learned that they were hostng their first Halloween party in 2 years.  (Last year, around this time, they were very busy promoting their first book, Weird NJ, and one of the creators' wives was having a baby.)  The price was right--- $10 if one ordered a ticket in advance.  Fortunately, the one major hotel in the neighborhood was charging off-season prices, though it was still close to $100.  But what the heck--- I had saved on the DS vacation last summer since I didn't have to fly or use public transportation, and I don't spend a lot on anything else; this wouldn't set me back too much.

The one daunting thing was driving alone almost 200 miles to someplace I'd never been before, on a rainy, foggy Saturday.   I thought the worst part would be shelling out for all those tolls on the Garden State Parkway.

Hahah! I LAUGH at danger--- well, after 3 hours of getting lost at dusk in the REAL "Weird New Jersey", I wasn't laughing at all... I was torn between terrified and disgusted.  My directions didn't mention the mixed-up exits around the Amboys.... I got off one exit that turned out to be a miles-long stretch into nowhere, straight out of the magazine.  Damn it, I thought, this is nowhere near the Pine Barrens, yet where the HELL is the town?  I could EASILY picture albino Nazi midget Satan-worshipping escaped asylum serial killers rampaging out of those desolate woodlands and out of the huge, weekend-empty factories and warehouses I saw, to blockade my car and drag me away to a hideous fate. Well, it's clear that I survived. The most dangerous thing I did was make a U-turn to get outta there. 

I traveled for miles down the wrong highway where all the stores, restaurants, and gas stations were, tantalizingly, on the OTHER side of an esplanade, but was not permitted to take a LEFT at ANY of the lights to get to them.... Whilst resigning myself to navigating through THREE rush-hour lanes of traffic to somehow take a RIGHT to get the Hell OFF this road, and back on my way.

And the complex rotaries.... When I finally found my way back to the left-hand exit to "Shore Points" (very important to remember next time !!)  and made it down the long causeway towards Asbury Park, I actually had to go around a rotary three times before I figured out where Asbury Avenue began.  And of course, once one gets closer to the ocean, it gets foggier and foggier, and it was getting darker and darker. I thought for sure I was heading straight through slums populated by eccentric desperadoes. 

However, I soon safely reached the area, now so empty, where the Palace Arcade, with its mascot mural "Tillie", and what seemed like a dozen other buildings once stood, then was overjoyed to realize the Stone Pony Cafe (where the party was to be) and the venerable Berkeley Carteret Hotel (where I was staying) were just about a half-mile apart on Ocean Avenue, right around the next corner.  I wasn't completely elated, though--- all my wrong turns cost me over an hour extra--- it was already after 7, and the party was to begin at 9 !!!  I would have NO time to grab a bite to eat, and I was hungry after over 4 hours of driving.  Worse, there were NO fast-food joints in the immediate area.   I hoped there would be SOMETHING worthwhile to eat at the Stone Pony.

In the rather small lobby of the old hotel (built in 1927), I noticed that it was largely occupied by Asians, both the help AND the guests.  The guests, judging by literature scattered about the hotel, and my experience at work, were Koreans, and most seemed to belong to a Christian group that, the next morning, I discovered, held services and a Sunday school for kids right in the hotel.  The hotel was decorated with serene, shimmering Oriental motifs.  I was astonished to receive an actual KEY to my 4th-floor room at the end of a long, dim hallway--- apparently they had electronic key cards at one time, but had discontinued their use.

It was okay, I hadn't felt so safe in a hotel since I don't remember when.  Even the parking--- right on the foggy, empty street (all dead parking meters-- YAY!-- and constant police patrols) ceased to bother me.  I had never been in ANY hotel with "house rules" (No partying in rooms after 1 AM, though, being on my own and knowing nobody, unlike the DS conventions, was not likely to host an orgy there that night.)  I had ended up with two double beds, so I had plenty of pillows to use.  The bathroom was very large--- obviously the original generous dimensions of the 1927 facilities, with real tiles in the floor, though newer plumbing, of course.  There was an abundance of pleasant-smelling little servings of shampoo and soaps.  But it was a bit too warm, and i couldn't manipulate the AC unit.

I scrambled to get ready.  I had never felt like such an ODDBALL going back down through the small lobby/ foyer with the small number of serious religious people milling around, though my costume was neither scary, bizarre, or immodest.   Good thing those folks didn't get to see SOME of the costumes I saw later....

I promptly arrived at the Stone Pony Cafe which is at one end of a long building that encompasses the width of a block.  At the other end was a bar that appeared to be primarily patronized by younger African-Americans.  Most of the few bars scattered along Ocean Avenue were holding Halloween events.

The crowd contained a surprising amount of people in or around my peer group, like the DS festivals, roughly mid-30s through their 40s, but enough young ones, and mostly Caucasian.  I heard later that around 500- 700 filtered in and out that night.  It was very large inside, but I couldn't see where they could get more than a couple hundred in at any one time.  There WAS a tent and extra bar set up in their courtyard or back parking lot, adjacent to the main hall, but fortunately it had gotten warm enough (humid but not raining, and with all those bodies) so that one didn't notice one was actually outdoors.

Most of the folks, obviously, chose costumes inspired by articles in WNJ magazine, including (of course !!) the intrepid creators/editors, Mark Sceurman and Mark Moran .  Mark S. could barely walk with that milk-bottle megalith on his head and shoulders, and gave it up after about 15 minutes.  He donned the Jungle Habitat diorama at longer intervals on stage.  The MC, Glen was done up as, well, the kitchen sink from outer space, or something.  I ran into Glen's charming lady friend, who, as it turned out, was the only other NJ Pink Lady at the party.  We were royally entertained by The Enigma and a young lady called "Bang-Bang" , though I could not bear to watch the Enigma swallow a sword or bang a nail into his sinus.  And I stayed in a beeline near an exit when Bang-Bang started sharpening tools and lighting her cigarette with all those sparks.  (The Enigma, BTW, did a guest role on The X-Files a few years back, the episode where Mulder and Scully investigated murders in a colony of side-show performers.) And as for the bands? Um.... LOUD. I'm a little old to get into loud anymore, though the 2nd band-- Reno's Men-- had an interesting lead singer who did some kind of monologue like a fire-and-brimstone preacher in one of their songs.

I was nominated for the costume contest, and there was plenty to choose from.  There were folks with pinatas on their heads, a Bee Girl and one of several "Joisey" devils, and the guy who won, Jimmy Hoffa Buried in Giants Stadium (right under the goal post.)  A laid-back pirate with a parrot pinata on HIS head, a "Newark hooker"(who enjoyed his costume so much, I blurred his face to protect his identity), and an upper-crust saber victim strutted their stuff.   Medusa showed up, but didn't faze Al Capone, and Elsie the Cow distributed Borden stickers to Marilyn Monroe and another Joisey Devil, whilst the Dutch Boy Paint Kid  kindly nominated me to the contest. When I was introduced and announced from whence I hailed, the two Marks expressed some amazement that someone had come all the way from Connecticut to a party dedicated to Weird New Jersey.

The Jersey City Morgue medics sat at the patio bar and had a few stiff ones to relax them after a long day of being around stiffs. As you will notice, they brought some of their work with them.
I didn't get a shot of the woman dressed as the Evil Food Circus Clown, but I DID get two out of the THREE Tillies --- they were all women (one girl carried a huge sign that looked exactly like the  blistered, worn original mural, now languishing in storage.)  The pinata-headed Tillies, like Afghani women in burquas, had to be led about by their menfolk.

I left after 1 AM, that's all I know.  (Yes, I DID have something to eat--- a very decent cheeseburger.  And not too much to drink either--- I bought 2 copies of the Marks' heavy new book, Weird US,  hard enough to carry without getting toddly.)  The next morning, it was a beautiful sunny, warm day, almost pure and clean at that hour, and I decided to walk around.  To my delight, though I hadn't requested it, my room DID face the ocean.   The hotel was across from a large park with statues.  The Greek Orthodox priest's one was close to the boardwalk. (The round, "crowned" building is a Howard Johnson's, which is still open though I don't believe the upper floor is, anymore.)

One of the few buildings left which is still open on the boardwalk is the convention hall.  This building is still very ornate and huge.  Like a few other buildings in the area, efforts have been made to preserve it.  (You can make out the words "Welcome to Asbury Park" in lights on the wall.)  Souvenirs of Asbury park's grand past as a port are memorialized in the decorations on the vast, complex building.  Because the con hall is built right over the boardwalk, during the day, both doors to the hall are left open so people can pass through.  There are traces of fine decorations which are being restored in the cool, dim, cavernous passage.  Outside, next door, is a long, boarded-up building that used to house many oceanside concessions and services.  Nearby was what looked like a junkyard, but what really seemed to be a storage area for decorations similar to those festooning the convention hall.

Across the green, it's obvious many buildings have disappeared throughout the years.  One survivor is the Wonderbar, which is painted aquamarine like the old Palace Amusements, and decorated with tributes to some of its murals, including, of course, "Tillie."  Beyond that, is the metal framework of a ten-storey building begun in the early 1990's when it seemed like there was going to be urban renewal in Asbury Park.  The project was abandoned, and now, in a strong ocean breeze, pieces of the now-rusty and salt-corroded beams often crumple noisily to the ground, which can be heard across the park.

At that point, I could not go any farther, exploring the boardwalk or much else--- after the damp chill of the night before, it had gone up to over 70 degrees, and I had only brought rather warm clothes.  Plus, the sun was very strong and I had not thought of bringing any sunscreen.  (I had one skin cancer hacked off my face in the past; I didn't want to push my luck.) It was getting near noon-time, check-out time, anyway.  Before I checked out, I took a few more pictures of the hotel.  As you can see, effort were made to restore the grandeur of the place, though the mocking skeleton of that abandoned construction project can clearly be viewed through the window.  I wouldn't mind staying there again next year, if there's another party. 

Before leaving the town of Asbury Park (now completely benign and solidly middle-class in the daylight), I noticed a marvelously decrepit former grand hotel once called the Metropolitan.  It looked as though it was abandoned at least 20 years ago, though it's smack in the middle of a decent working-class area, near a nice church.  The crossed boards across the front doors really make it look haunted.  It sprawls over an entire block; don't know when the old part was built, but the newer wing seems to be of 1960's vintage.  Since I had to drive around to find a decent parking place, it was an excuse to go back toward the shore and snap a few more photos of an eerie yet magnificent desolation.  A church grandly stands in the midst of boarded-up snack stands and other derelict buildings.

And thus, I bid farewell to Asbury Park, which I hope to visit again someday, because obviously, I haven't photographically recorded all its interesting facets.   It's sad that it's no longer a bustling seaside resort, but on a fine Sunday morning and into the afternoon, one can be almost glad there aren't thousands of sweating, jostling tourists around on a seemingly-pristine beach.    There IS a huge, luxury building project going on, and while that should boost the local economy, I hope it doesn't completely destroy the peace and easy access of ordinary folks to a soul-enriching stroll by the eternal ocean.

Lorraine Balint, November 2004

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