May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
January 12, 2004
“Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering.
There is a crack, a crack, in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”
The wind picks up above Sunset Lake, caressing and soothing its dirtied shores, knocking Pepsi cans up onto the street away from the water, chanting choruses for a New Jerusalem. Asbury Park, for the past thirty years, has been quietly referred to as the dumping ground of Monmouth County. Beggars and psychotics, unwed mothers and fatherless children walk together down oily streets, always just blocks away from the ocean’s salt. Most in Asbury cannot cover up their true identity. Most cannot afford the Gucci bags, the trips to salons, the Ivy League education. And so, what one sees upon crossing into Asbury, usually over water, is an essence of the human spirit that remains uncovered, remains pure and unadulterated by a white man’s propaganda machine. The children I teach in a local elementary school do not have the ‘right’ shoes, but the smile on their face and a certain gleam in their tired eyes awakens in me that true self silenced by years in Pleasantville.
Adding to this motley crew of humanity is a strange mixture of artists and new bohemians, struggling to grapple for identity in a new era of surveillance and terrorism, under the second Bush administration. These faithful immigrants are drawn by a sense of welcome from these streets, a welcome authored by a young 24 year old poet, choosing to live with every strum of his guitar, promising lonesome days filled with an eschatological sense of hope.
As history progressed, Asbury evolved from the violence of race riots in the seventies to become a haven for the down and out, the rejected of society placed in Asbury not necessarily by choice, but by economic necessity. There was, and is, nowhere else to go.
Growing up ten miles away in an affluent town of northern Monmouth county, I had only heard of Asbury Park, only seen the fear and shame in people’s eyes when they spoke of it ‘never turning around’ while drinking a six dollar cocktail in a ‘hip’ bar in Red Bank. Beyond their alcohol breath, somewhere in between their true heart and the layers of shame they themselves struggle with, lied the racist belief that Asbury Park could only turn around when white people, with picket fences and mutual funds in hand, returned. Luckily, this white bravado is usually not met with much activity, so the state of Asbury, for thirty years, remained the same, until recently.
As these words are written, Asbury is changing, making crawls and at times leaps toward a new identity. While it is still uncertain what this new identity will be, glimpses of hope and maintaining a place of welcome remain. Manhattanites seem to be entering with a surprising respect for the local feel, coming perhaps for recognition that they too belong in this land of hope and dreams, where a fatherless child looks at a bum in a halfway house and the kingdom of mercy prevails over darkness. Maybe these men with steam-pressed suits and shields of fashion come to be recognized not as successful, but as needy, as lovers of salt air and criers for childhood dreams lost to the violence of white business’ fear. Perhaps they come hoping to have to have that lonely and abandoned place somewhere covered deep inside them finally recognized, welcomed with a shout. We all seem to come to feel somehow, in a world of bioshields and consumerism, how to be human.
If there were ever a message that needed to be heard today, Asbury Park, in its present tense, carries this message. It is a loud town, where shouts of welcome might be mistaken for shouts of horror. Asbury Park’s challenge lies in maintaining this sense of authenticity, of refusing to cover up. Like a Good Morning shout from the corner of Cookman and Main to the Corner of Cookman and Mattison, Asbury Park continues to deliver a loud message of mercy to ears that have lived in the lie of wealth. Asbury Park offers us a chance to once again become human.
Andrew Forrest teaches literature in Red Bank, New Jersey, and is a DLitt candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He is a former student at the Oregon Extension program in Ashland, Oregon.