Asbury Park: The Playa Provides

Last summer it was Sunday morning at the Beach Bar. This year it was Saturday night at Watermark that made me wish I owned a weekend place in Asbury Park. It was 9:00pm, July 4, and we were on the outer deck of this vast, sleek, upscale and upstairs cocktail lounge, opting not for the copious and comfortable armchairs, sofas and beds, but rather leaning up against the wrap-around wooden fence, chatting good-naturedly with other members of a well-dressed crowd, some of whom would have looked at home in Fort Greene, some of whom would certainly have looked at home in Greenwich Village, and others, like us, who may be straight and white but would like to believe we’re welcome anywhere.

A block to our west, the Empress Motel was warming up for its regular Saturday night (predominantly) gay party, held both indoors and outside by the pool; in the interim, Motel guests were hanging on their balconies soaking up the atmosphere. One block to our north, the Stone Pony’s outdoor Summerstage was resounding to the noodly jams of m.o.e., on the second of a two-night sold out stint. And a few yards to our east, the boardwalk itself was packed with people who’d made the trip in to town to witness the July 4 fireworks – for this was, admittedly, not just any Saturday night in Asbury Park, but one of the biggest of the year, and all the more appreciated for the fact that, following the wettest June on record, this evening was both warm and dry.

The view from the Beach Bar

All the boardwalk’s other various outdoor bars and restaurants – Langosta’s, where we had enjoyed dinner and cocktails, with the kids, on Thursday night; Pop’s Garage, a rudimentary Mexican joint; Stella Marina, from where the aromas of fresh Italian sauces were positively inviting; the Salt Water Beach Café, inside the former Howard Johnson’s; and the Beach Bar itself – were similarly packed. Yes, there’s a recession going on, and it’s deep, and that’s one reason why we were vacationing at my mother-in-law’s empty house on the Jersey Shore rather than jetting off to the south of France. But still, money was flowing on the Boardwalk. Indeed, it might well be because Staycations are the new Package Holidays that the money appeared to be flowing. Certainly, the wife and I, having successfully engineered to leave the kids at grandma’s for the evening, had decided to live it up and spend a little bit of those non-existent air fares on a pair of $11 cocktails. And we were certainly not the only ones caught up in this feel-good atmosphere; all in all, there was an unmistakable feeling in the air, a feeling that those who watched this city (of dreams) all but keel over and die might would have had every reason to have gotten misty-eyed about: Asbury Park is jumping.

The greatest thing about this newly regenerated locale is that it has something for everyone. That includes, of course. Tickets here (yep, you pay for your beach access in New Jersey), at $5 an adult and free for the kids, are cheaper than both Point Pleasant and Sea Girt, the other two sandy play-areas we called home over the week, and you do get something for that money: lifeguards, of which there were five protecting just our one little area of beachfront on both Thursday and Saturday. That’s not a case of over-employment: on a couple of occasions that July 4, the lifeguards jumped in and swam out to physically pull young kids back towards the beach, whether or not they were yet in danger; the sight of a rescue helicopter, with its ladder lowered, flying slowly up and down the coastline (a test run? a genuine emergency? we couldn’t tell) enforced the sense that the Ocean here has a riptide you don’t mess around with.

Yours Truly plays the Wizard, outside the Silver Ball Museum on Cookman Avenue

In the early afternoon, Campbell and I vacated the beach, walked past the mini-golf course ($7 a round for adults, $5 for kids), past the brand new water park, opened that day ($12 for 4 hours, a little steep if you ask me, unless adults are admitted free), away from the glass-blowing and pottery-making stores on the boardwalk, away from the various home furnishing, surf and other clothing stores that also dot the beachfront (and why do both Ben Sherman’s and Merc have to get their oh-so-Brit clothes made in China?) and headed onto Cookman Avenue, Asbury’s main thoroughfare. There we visited the newly opened Silver Ball Museum, where some 100 pinball machines dating back as far as the 1930s – back when the name pinball actually made sense – are available not just for drooling over but for hands-on play. As if they knew I was coming, they’d put the Wizard – the Tommy movie souvenir game – out on the street for free plays, and for a while I was the proverbial kid at the candy store. At $10 for an hour’s unlimited play, $7.50 for kids, and only $20 for a full come-and-go-all-day pass, the Silver Ball Museum is not just history, but value. Curiously, Campbell and I found ourselves particularly attracted to the celebrity tie-in games of the 1970s that sent pinball over the edge, including Bally’s Kiss and Evil Knievel tables; sadly, the Elton John Captain Fantastic machine was malfunctioning. But though they weren’t necessarily as exciting, it was the older games of the 1950s and 60s, with their single flippers and wide-open tables, that I found fascinating; playing chronologically, you could literally feel the game’s development over the years.

img_2327.jpgThe original Pinball, the Bally Ballyhoo, was a table top adaptation of Baguatelle.

Cookman Avenue also houses everything from Brooklyn-style thrift stores – this would have been a great place to stock up on Burning Man accessories – to medium-priced boutiques, home–furnishing stores, antique shops, record stores, a small independent movie theater, and a number of bars and restaurants, several of which I’d have been more than happy to have patronized given the time. (That includes Plan B, Old Man Rafferty’s, the Brick Wall Tavern, the Harrison, and Synaxsis.) As it happened, the only place we managed a sit-down meal of any kind on our two visits to Asbury was at Langosta’s, which actually delivers (to your home, if you like) on its promise of “Vacation Inspired Cuisine.” On Thursday early evening, after a lazy day on the beach, I enjoyed a $4 pint of Hawaii’s Koan lager to go with the fiery Moroccan plate of falafel and vegetable curry. Posie had a Hawaiian style Hall’iimaile rigatoni with a glass of Kerner, a Riesling/Trollinger mutation from the Alto Adige in northern Italy – hardly your typical wine sold by the glass. Campbell seemed happy enough with his pasta – though we did have some issues with the maitre d’, who ought to wear a watch and check the time before he runs over claiming he needs his stage-side table back for the evening’s live show which is as yet 90 minutes away. (That show, incidentally, featured the same ageing blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin who recently appeared as special guest when we attended one of Levon’s Rambles. Admission at Langosta’s for the Sumlin show was $10 – a good enough deal by any standards.)

img_2319.jpg Campbell plays the 1967 Bally Dixieland, complete with retractable “Zipper Flippers.”

Anyway, back to Saturday night: our view of the fireworks from Watermark was spectacular. We were almost next to the southern of two beach launch locations; we could literally see them taking off and they appeared to explode right above us. I’m not hooked on fireworks the way I am on, say, pinball, but I enjoy the festive atmosphere they create, and as the 20-minute exhibition wound down, you could feel the whole boardwalk area further loosen up. The crowd at Watermark thinned out for all of about ten minutes and then filled right on up again with people who must have been waiting out front all that time. A DJ got busy with some appropriately sophisticated soul. Examining the menu closer, I saw that apart from $11 cocktails, the bar has a wide variety of wine, including highly respectable offerings like Australian D’Arenberg’s Stump Jump Marsanne/Riesling and the Jaboulet Côtes du Rhône rose for $7 a glass or just $21 a bottle, and at $6, the bottled beers were certainly no more pricey than most urban bars. We wondered/wandered in amazement at such a chic and yet oddly unpretentious and certainly non-judgmental bar in an area that has long been synonymous with urban deprivation…. And then we left it behind to better explore our options.

That included walking up to the Asbury Lanes bowling alley/live venue, where I believe I once saw Pop Will Eat Itself perform, to check out their own DJ party, but it hadn’t really got going and, though I appreciated that it was almost the exact opposite of Watermark – as I said, Asbury has something for everyone – it looked just a little too cheap and cheerful for our big night out. We figured on eating some quick Mexican food at Pop’s Garage, but it had closed at 10pm, so we stopped to buy some “Beach Fries” at one of the container trucks that serve as cute boardwalk stores (saves a lot of arguments about buildings and permits), and they were good, and we figured they’d hold us over a while until we got something more substantial. We considered eating again at Langosta’s, where the restaurant had made a big noise about its Saturday night DJ, but unfortunately the DJ was not making much noise at all; though well laid out for live music, the place does not seem so well-designed for dancing. So we decided to head to the Ketchup Grille at the Empress, where on our earlier reconnaissance trip we’d been invited to take a look around and hang out, have dinner, grab a drink and maybe even stay around to dance until 3am – for, though the Empress is famously gay, it’s not remotely exclusive about it.

The Empress by night

It was then that our night went south. For reasons unexplained, one of us had chosen a Saturday July 4 in a city crawling with police (who forcibly enacted their 11pm boardwalk curfew on the local teenagers, an unpleasant but arguably necessary move) to leave their ID at home. Now, the thought of being carded in your 40s is a perfectly ridiculous one, and I hate it, but it’s become a matter of rite/rote on the eastern seaboard; it’s widely known that nightspots, in particular, are often stung by older plain-clothes cops who bust joints for letting them in without proof of age. (Carrying your driving license is also necessary if you plan on driving – and advisable even if you don’t.) And so, though we’d had no problems all week, we’d hit the witching hour, 11pm in this case, and the laissez-faire attitude of the daytime and evening had turned into a more typically urban scenario, full of velvet ropes, heftily-built security and cruising cop cars. Under the circumstances, it was no great surprise that the formerly welcoming Empress now told us, effectively, to get lost (to be fair, the Motel’s Paradise nightclub, through which all traffic was being directed, had a notice that read, in very large clear letters “No ID, no admittance, no exceptions”); it wasn’t even a surprise that Watermark would not even let us back in.

To say that one of us was annoyed at themselves would, I believe, be an understatement, so after 20 minutes of finger-pointing, we decided to drive home, 15 miles south – and pick up the ID, for we knew too well that to call it a night at that point would only leave a lingering bad taste in the air. Unfortunately, by the time we returned to Asbury, it was midnight and places that had been free and inviting earlier in the evening were now charging hefty cover prices (Empress/Paradise) or so busy that they were no longer letting people in whatsoever (Watermark). Had we still been in the party mood of earlier, we might have gone for the Empress’s nightclub, but the atmosphere was simply too hi-nrg by this point for our now sorely tempered mood. We ended up walking all the way back up the boardwalk, giving Langosta’s a second chance with the DJ and a second miss, and up to the Piers’ Beach Bar – where, by sod’s law, there was no one checking ID anyway. I ordered a vodka martini to drown my disappointment (I wasn’t driving) and realized swiftly that I can no longer drink pure alcohol like that; it tasted vile, to be honest. The computer-scanning DJ, heavy on the 80s kitsch, was not very good either and the more we looked around the more we realized that the Beach Bar is not so much a piece of Ibiza as a bunch of cheap beach furniture bought at discount, a couple of hastily-assembled nightclub bars, with limited drinks and food on offer and no great skills amidst the bartenders. But then you’re not really paying for any of that: you’re paying, and only via the cost of your drinks, for the ability to sit out at the end of a pier in New Jersey, gazing over the Atlantic Ocean under a full moon, in your shorts, your hotpants, your mini-skirt or whatever else takes your fancy, at one in the morning on a Saturday night, saying to yourself: “I can’t quite believe this is Asbury Park.”

The Wonder Bar by daylight

I’ve learned at Burning Man to go with the flow and allow developments and disappointments to resolve themselves, and so they did. On our slightly despondent walk back to the car, we stopped to pause outside Wonder Bar, the Stone Pony’s live music neighbor. What sounded like a rockabilly band was playing, and given that it was close to closing time, the door staff invited us in for free. The group were called the Gas House Gorillas and they weren’t necessarily any younger than us. But they were absolutely the real deal: all fixed quiffs, copious tattoos, with a saxophone, a silver-bodied double bass, and a singer who acted like he’d sooner see you outside than on the dancefloor. There weren’t many people in the place, but those that were there seemed to be having a great time, so we decided to stay and watch. I grabbed a drink to make up for the awful martini that I’d left behind; this one was half the price and twice as good. And despite the earlier bad mood, I laughed at the way our lives follow a certain path, for no matter no matter how much I try and move my life upscale, I always end up back at the dive joints, listening to some old-fashioned live music in the flesh.

Appropriately, the Gas House Gorillas (who boast on their web site of embracing “Jump Blues, Gypsy Swing, early Rock & Roll, Cajun Music and even the occasional funk groove”) embarked on a version of Fats Waller’s “The Joint Is Jumping,” and the guy in front of us – sleek, silver-haired, meticulously suited, 60 years old if a day – got up with his date, who I put maybe 5-10 years younger than him, to embark on a textbook display of jive dancing. The floor cleared to watch them, at which the couple embarked on their tour de force with him swinging her around the floor by her heels… wrapped around his neck. It’s fair to assume the applause they earned was the largest of the night.

The Gas House Gorillas in action: love that double bass.

And that’s the thing about the beach, I realized. Whether you’re a genuine 4-year old, a bunch of young adults out cruising, a middle-aged couple like ourselves going with the flow, a bunch of Gas House Gorillas, or an old swing couple in your sixties, it brings out the kid in all of us. Or, at least, the preponderance of opportunities at the revitalized Asbury Park does.

Oh, and on the way back to the car, I found a pair of expensive Oakley running shades, too, such as I’d been expecting to purchase all week if I ever got around to it. As they say at Burning Man, the Playa Provides.

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