I’ve been spending a lot of time in Asbury Park, N.J., this summer after years of searching for just the right Shore point. Some were just too precious or pricey. Others too far or too Trumpy.
This spot in Monmouth County, though, feels just right.
For good and for bad, all that glitters on the boardwalk does not shine on the other side of the train tracks in one of the state’s poorest areas. But Asbury Park feels like a welcome mix between my current Philly home and my New York City birthplace: a little gritty, a lot weird, and always interesting.
While Asbury Park was made famous by Bruce Springsteen, I’ve never really been a big fan of “The Boss,” and that was before his ticket prices turned his most devout worshippers into nonbelievers.
No shade, there are just a bunch of other reasons I’ve warmed up to Asbury Park — including how spending time there this summer has reminded me of how deliciously complicated we humans are, so much quirkier and messier than the curated selves we’ve been programmed to present to each other.
Even beyond that, there’s a lot to love. There’s the ocean, of course. And the mile-long beach and boardwalk with restaurants and cool murals, and an arcade that I routinely drag family and friends into to play games — but mostly to mark a perfect beach day with goofy pictures from the vintage photo booth.
There’s also the sounds, music from just about every corner of the boardwalk and surrounding streets, but also from visitors from all walks of life. Stroll down the boardwalk or sit on one of the memorial benches dedicated to people who “loved life!!!” and close your eyes and open your ears to a glorious symphony of accents and languages and Philly neighborhood and NYC borough dialects. There seems to be space on the beach blanket for just about everyone, and the American flags flying side by side with rainbow LGBTQ flags are a testament to that.
That probably sounds or feels like a bunch of other Shore points, but finding your spot is a rite of passage around these parts that, until this summer, had eluded me. (Don’t get me wrong, I love Cape May, too, and will gladly spend all my time there the moment I hit the lotto.)
My plan, all summer long, had been to sit on the beach as often as I could and devour as many books as possible. To take deep breaths of salt air and clear my mind of anything other than the pages in front of me.
But as this summer nears its end, I realize that I failed spectacularly at sticking my nose in a book and tuning out the world. And I’m kinda good with that, just as I’m good with how beachgoers’ inhibitions seem to disappear the more sun-kissed they become.
I’m here for all of it and have giddily kept my head on a swivel as I take in the ever-changing show around me.
One day it’s a wholesome family show, an adorable toddler testing his parents’ dedication as he demands they help him dig and dig and dig.
Another day it’s a Hallmark romance as a young man suddenly drops to one knee behind me to propose to his girlfriend. (She said yes.)
Other days it’s a straight-up telenovela as two sisters get into a heated argument under a technicolor umbrella that ends up being nowhere near as colorful as the insults hurled at each other.
And ohh, the behind-the-scenes reality shows are just plain glorious: young women — and men — taking a million pics “for the ‘gram” on the rocks while the frustrated lifeguards yell into a traffic cone turned bullhorn, imploring them to get down.
But more often than not, it’s just one big feel-good affair where women — and men — covered from head to toe sit in the waves next to women — and men — barely covered at all and share the kind of contagious laughs that make you stare in delight.
Whatever I can’t see or hear or overhear, I just make up in my head. Oh, the stories I whipped up the night I happened to be sitting near a Facebook singles group meetup. Still rooting for you, Lou!
While others have some legit complaints about the airplane banner ads that fly overhead, even those spark my curiosity. I wonder: Who’s flying those planes? And are they hiring? I’m kidding, I have a well-documented fear of flying. But what if …?
And that’s just it. The Plan B is a daydream, an escape from the real world. And I think that’s maybe what I reveled in the most on the beach and boardwalk of Asbury Park this summer.
The lunacy of national politics, the tragedy of local violence, the injustices lurking around every corner — all that weight gets lifted, if just for half a day, and replaced with a reminder that we’re wired for playfulness and happiness and community.
Of course, all the wrongs in the world never take a vacation, and we should never lose sight that not everyone gets to escape. But driving back home on I-195, my faith in humanity partly restored, I feel rejuvenated, reminded of the reasons we are all worth fighting for.