As an experiment in gratuitous wasting of time that I do not have, I went out recently with my global positioning system (“GPS”) and took a stab at the sport of Geocaching.
Geocaching is a sport wherein someone creates an objective, usually a cache of trinkets or the answering of a question posted on the Geocaching website, and then a “seeker” goes out with a GPS unit and attempts to discover the objective. It involves hiking and nerd toys. It seemed like the perfect sport for me.
My first attempt at Geocaching took me to N 40° 13.401, W 073° 59.848, better known as Asbury Park, New Jersey. Best known as the city where Bruce Springsteen got his start at the Stone Pony. Springsteen repaid the favor with the album Greetings From Asbury Park, and the songs My City Of Ruins and 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy). I drove past the Stone Pony on the way to a parking lot next to the Berkeley Carteret Hotel, not far from where Alexander Graham Bell made his failed attempt to save the life of President Garfield, and parked opposite the abandoned Howard Johnson’s Restaurant and the Paramount Theatre and Convention Hall.
I trudged across a grass barrier and made my way beneath the brick, Victorian front of the Paramount Hotel to the entrance to the boardwalk. The GPS read that I was 22 yards away from the objective. I paused and considered the Howard Johnson’s Restaurant. The modernist building was boarded up and various notices placed in its windows warned that its alarm system contacted the Asbury Park Police Department when activated. I shook my head, saddened by the loss of the building.
Beginning on July 4, 1970, Asbury Park was torn apart by a race riot that lasted nearly a week. The old Victorian resort city, a more cosmopolitan neighbor to the sleepy religious community of Ocean Grove, had reached a critical mass of resentment, much like Newark and Watts. Old residents found their shops and homes destroyed, and were forced to move on. The new residents found that the riots killed the city, but oh so slowly. When I was a young boy, in the early eighties, my father still took me to Asbury Park to fish or play skee ball, and we ate at the Howard Johnson’s. When the drug epidemic hit Asbury Park in the late eighties and early nineties, crack snuffed the life out of the restaurant with one-too-many hold-ups.
That afternoon, two bums sat on folding chairs outside the Howard Johnson’s, next to a misleading “Bar Open” sign. One jabbered incessantly to himself while the other watched me photograph the building. Finished, I slipped my camera back into my olive drab shoulder bag and walked onto the beach.
I followed the lead of the GPS unit, and walked past the Paramount Theatre’s pilings. Sand slid beneath my feet and the cork soles of my sandals. It had been the first time I had felt sand since last July.
I walked to a stone jetty, designed to prevent erosion, that had been placed between the Paramount Theatre and the Atlantic Ocean. The GPS indicated that I was nine feet from the objective. I looked approximately nine feet ahead of me, on the other side of the jetty. It was the ocean. “What the hell?” I wondered.
I climbed onto the jetty and headed north, peering down between the boulders. Eventually, I noticed a brown cylinder wedged between two small stones, beneath the lip of a large boulder. I slipped the GPS into my Polarfleece’s breast pocket and swung down off of the boulder. I grasped at the first rock, pushing it with my left index and middle fingers until it rolled off of the cylinder. I then lunged down and grabbed the cylinder. It was a plastic, air-tight container, the sort that would not leak at high tide. I unscrewed it and entered my find on the small log located within. I swung my legs as I read other log entries, amused at the oddity of this game. I finished reading, resealed the cylinder, and looked out along the shore.
I walked up to the boardwalk and took off my Birkenstocks. I shook out the sand and looked over at the Convention Hall.
As a child, I used to come here for the boat show with my father. We would check out the Boston Whalers and my father would tell me how, someday, we would have a monstrosity of a fishing boat from which we would catch flounder and bluefish. We never did leave with a boat, instead picking up tackle for our surfcasting rods -- garish, neon rubber squids that hid large hooks.
I peered into the Hall from one of its locked doors and took a picture.
Things had changed.
I put my sandals back on and headed back to the car, careful not to step on any goose shit as I crossed the grass divider. I decided to drive around town for a while. I had time to kill.
I drove down to the Palace, the old amusement hall where my father and I used to play skee ball. It’s been closed for nearly a decade now. It’s a symbol, to me, of old Asbury Park. The Asbury Park that I knew as a child, before it died. Now, developers have come into town, hoping to revitalize it. Plans have been made to tear up the old boardwalk and put in condos and restaurants. The Palace is expected to fall.
I parked across the street from this adult theatre. It was featured in a recent Robert DeNiro film (City by the Sea). There was an odd mix of seediness in Asbury Park that clashed with the Victorian structures that dotted the city.
I ran out of film after shooting the abandoned casino, a location that figured heavily into City by the Sea. I snuck into the cordoned-off site, condemned for new development, and avoided the hypodermic needles and concrete fragments to take a few shots of the oxidized structure before heading home. I felt ill at ease.
Sandy, the angels have lost our desire for us
I spoke to 'em just last night and they said they won't set themselves on fire for us anymore
Every summer when the weather gets hot
they ride that road down from heaven on their Harleys
they come and they go
And you can see 'em dressed like stars in all the cheap little seashore bars
parked, making love with their babies out on the Kokomo
Well the cops finally busted Madame Marie for tellin' fortunes better than they do
This boardwalk life for me is through
You know you ought to quit this scene too
Bruce Springsteen, 4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy), on The Wild, The Innocent, and The E Street Shuffle (1973).