ASBURY PARK, N.J. -- It's not easy for a grown man -- a father no less -- to admit he spent a weekend in November searching for his boyhood hero off the Garden State Parkway. There's something slightly obsessive about the image.
Last month, however, for the fifth year in a row, the Stone Pony rock club hosted the "Light of Day" concerts benefiting the Parkinson's Disease Foundation. Two friends and I headed down, hoping against hope that Bruce Springsteen would be there.
My friends John Duris and Joe Coulombe and I, all loyalists to the midnight hour and eager to be freed from the sullen grind of a working life, came to the shore barely containing our expectations, seeking a rare encounter of the strangest kind. Knowing such Jersey legends as Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers, the Stone Caravans, Jobonanno and the Godsons of Soul, and rhythm and blues artist Gary U.S. Bonds would be performing was reason enough to pay the oft-maligned Jersey Shore a visit. But when I mentioned to the guys that there was a slight chance Springsteen would drive down from his estate in Rumson, a few miles from Asbury Park, they granted me the wheel.
Rumors had swirled for months that Springsteen, 55, would make a cameo at the benefit. Fresh off the Vote for Change Tour in support of presidential candidate John F. Kerry, he was said to be in town, percolating. This was only a month before his holiday benefit concert in this city, scheduled tonight at Harry's Roadhouse, but Springsteen had shown up at each of the four previous Light of Day shows at the Stone Pony, usually popping in around midnight, when the action inside was hot. We were hoping for a cool fifth.
We arrived in Asbury Park around 6 that night. It was dark. The ocean was out there somewhere. We could smell it. But we couldn't take our eyes off the rubble. Half-built high-rises surrounded by trash held our attention. Spray-painted faces on chipped concrete walls had us thinking, "What happened here?"
Back in the 1930s, when Asbury Park (population 16,930 in 2000) was flourishing, world-renowned performers, trade and street shows, carnivals and conventions filled the boardwalk. Life was about paddleboats and big white hats, lacy dresses and massive wooden Victorian homes encased in angles and points.
Things deteriorated after World War II. Fires burned out buildings. Air travel became more affordable, enough so that residents could leave the boardwalk behind and vacation away from home. The city soon fell apart.
These days, merchants, townsfolk, politicians, and performers from Asbury Park are all doing their part to breathe new life into the city. Trendy restaurants with ethnic cuisine are springing up. Galleries featuring artists from around the globe sit across from coffee shops and bistros. The buildings are power washed.
"The 10-year projected plans are to design new utility infrastructures, streetscaped sidewalks, landscaped islands, new public plazas, and over 3,000 living units along the waterfront," said Donald Sammet, the city's redevelopment director.
We drove down Ocean Avenue, past a small structure on the corner of Second Street with "Stone Pony" on the awning.
"It'll all happen in there," I said.
Joe's mind shifted. "We'll need a good base," he said, suggesting clams casino, fried calamari, and rib-eye steak as a stomach liner. Minutes later, we were pouring glasses of merlot at La Nonna Paincone's Caf on Main Street in Bradley Beach, south of Asbury.
Over dinner, we discussed how tired we were of stories about people meeting former Boston Celtics player Larry Bird in a discount store or seeing author Norman Mailer at a muffler shop. We wanted our moment.
"He's out there somewhere," John said, sniffing a forkful of beef. "I can smell him."
The next morning, having stayed at a decent but depressing motel in Neptune, we moved our bags to the Empress Hotel on the boardwalk in Asbury Park. We could see the Stone Pony just blocks from our balcony. The sea looked cold, but our sheets were clean and the sun was bright.
For the next six hours we strolled the boardwalk. There was a Civil War reenactment taking place on the beach. Tents filled the grassy knoll near the fish pier. Reenactors in knee-high black boots signed phony treaties as mothers walked the city strip.
We cased the Berkeley Carteret Oceanfront Hotel and Conference Center down near the Casino and Convention Hall, designed by Charles Wetmore and Whitney Warren, the same architects responsible for New York's Grand Central Terminal. The hotel has been there 65 years and was requisitioned as a service station for the Royal British Navy at the onset of the World War II.
Farther along, we passed Madame Marie's fortune parlor, a fixture on the boardwalk since 1932 and immortalized in the Springsteen classic, "4th of July, Asbury Park." The tiny block building was painted blue with Day-Glo lettering. Madame Marie was gone for the day, but there was a number on the door to call. So I called it.
When the ninetysomething Madame Marie answered, she told me to come to her home, only 3 miles away. I could have a reading done for $25, she said.
"Are you catching any vibe about me over the phone?" I asked her, trying to snake my way out of spending the cash.
"Yes," she said. "You're a negative person and hard to make happy." I said goodbye to the Madame, thanking her for the brutal insight while my spirits were still intact and snapped my phone shut.
We then drove the shore looking for other landmarks.
We saw the famous clown painted atop The Wonder Bar, a scary-looking thing with a gummy grin. We wanted to swing open the same casino doors Springsteen had in his video for "Tunnel of Love." We found the doors, we think, but the old Ferris wheel in the video was gone, like so many things from Asbury's past.
Later, at Harry's Roadhouse on Cookman Avenue, we ordered meatloaf sandwiches. There was a lot of night ahead of us. If Springsteen were to show, it would be long after dark. Maybe even morning. So we sipped a few Guinnesses and measured the possibilities.
We would give anything to see Springsteen up close. I'd seen him in arenas, music halls, and athletic centers, but never close enough to make out the folds around his eyes. We were born into his music, flush with his themes.
We imagined Springsteen shuddering the same way if he were to cross paths with Hank Williams on the boardwalk, coming out of Madame Marie's.
By 8 p.m., we were showered and sprayed down, ready for the night. Our adjoining rooms at the Empress were perfect. The bathrooms held good steam and we could see if a line was gathering at the Stone Pony. No line.
When we walked in a half hour later, the Stone Pony was slamming. Jobonanno and the Godsons of Soul were killing the packed house. There were over 200 people in the place, drinking in the deep rhythms.
Under the pavilion outside the bar, conversations grew out of anxiousness. At one point, the once relaxed "We see him all the time" attitude dispensed by locals came to a halt. A very excited Asbury girl hanging out in the smoking section couldn't keep her emotions in check. "He's back there near the soundboard! I just saw!"
Who was "him," I wondered, and did she really mean it? My head rotated three times in my efforts to see Springsteen perched somewhere in that bar.
Then, the roar went stage left and I saw Springsteen rolling past his people. Dressed in matching denim shirt and pants, he looked like an icon should: rakishly wise and humble, rested and lean. He cast a shadow 10 miles wide.
He took to the small stage with his friend and leader of the Houserockers, Joe Grushecky, a teacher from Pittsburgh. They rattled off classic heaters like "Murder Inc.," "Code of Silence," and "Light of Day." Then Springsteen, now soaked through his denim, played "Johnny 99," "This Hard Land," and "Atlantic City" -- the songs saved for the lucky ones, for the E Streeters filling every inch of the bar.
Two hours later, he was gone, but on the sidewalk outside the Stone Pony, people were shoulder to shoulder, asking about the night, making sure the last 90 minutes had, in fact, taken place.
Four nights later, back in Manchester, N.H., my head was still spinning. I couldn't get the night out of my head. I had seen the folds around his eyes, the gray in his sideburns, even the pores in his nose. I had been unearthed, Jersey style.
Rob Azevedo is a freelance writer in New Hampshire.