"Where are you from?" is one of those questions you run into a lot. When it comes out that I grew up on the Jersey Shore near Asbury Park, people under 60 get excited.
I can be halfway around the world and they ask: "Do you know Bruce Springsteen?" Their eyes shine, because Springsteen and Asbury Park are inextricably linked.
Yes, I answer, I "met" Springsteen in 1970 when he played the Jewish Community Center Tween Dance. The girl who became his wife was my grade-school lunch-recess monitor, and saxophonist Clarence Clemons and other band members gave me a ride to school one morning on their way home from an all-night practice.
But what I really care about is Asbury Park - a sad place that no longer jives with its rock 'n' roll image. The city's mile-long stretch of ocean is as deserted as Berlin's Potsdamer Platz during the cold war, disappointing pilgrims from Berlin or LA who come in search of landmarks of Springsteen lyrics - the boardwalk, Madame Marie the fortune-teller, the Tilt-a-Whirl where Springsteen got his shirt caught.
Every time I walk down the boardwalk I know that we ought to save this place, that it is worth fighting soulless urban blight, and taking a stand, right here. Transforming a fallen city, even a small seaside city studded with rock 'n' roll icons, is an epic challenge - but it's not beyond the wealth and consciousness of the generation that reunited and is rebuilding Berlin.
When I was a child, and that wasn't that long ago, the boardwalk and beaches were packed. There were concerts, fireworks, Easter Parades, rides, amusements, and my grandparents and thousands of other middle-class senior citizens calmly rocking in green Adirondack gliders.
My first memories are of running around in the sand at the First Avenue Beach. Later, my mother and I, in white gloves, ate dainty datenut and cream cheese sandwiches at the department store on Cookman Avenue, once the anchor of the county's finest shopping strip. I had innocent afternoons in a blissfully integrated kindergarten class.
My own troubled teen years coincided with the city's rapid decline, and the birth of the rock 'n' roll culture that breathed a faster, wilder kind of life into the beachfront area for about 15 years.
In the 1970s, life was about hot rodders and freaks and beach parties and seaside restaurants and bars and concerts in Convention Hall, where I climbed into dressing-room windows via the roof to see shows for free.
In the late 1980s, a great razing occurred after the city, in a misguided attempt to save itself, sold off most of its valuable beachfront property to a condo developer who went bankrupt.
So while most of the buildings that front directly on the boardwalk survive boarded up, there are blocks of "no-man's" land. Most of the clubs where I lied about my age are gone, as are the rides. Waist-high grass growing up through the ruins of the two miniature golf courses I once adored breaks my heart.
Still, the Atlantic pounds the beach, and I find joy walking along the faded gray boards. That smell of wood drenched with sea salt is everywhere, enriched by generations of human feet slathered in oil, and candy apple, taffy, and melted custard drippings.
And there's a lot I don't feel joy about. Like the complexities that cause a town to fall hard and not get up. The corruption. The ignorance and fear that stemmed from a riot (I watched from my raft in the ocean as the black part of town burned in 1970). The helpless feeling of a downtown sucked dry by shopping malls. The rundown hotels occupied by the mentally ill, placed there by deinstitutionalization.
But there are signs of hope: a new city council, fresh sand replenishment on the beaches, a group trying to save the smiling clown face on the Palace Amusements building, a local developer trying to save the Ferris wheel, and one restored hotel. And there is potential: gorgeous beaches just 50 miles from New York, and surrounding towns filled with high-priced real estate.
Those are just the tangibles. What about the famous name and the rock nostalgia that touches so many? Reviving Asbury Park is an enormous job. People have been trying for years without much result. I think that's because not enough of us have gotten involved. For baby boomers this city transcends normal geography, and it needs our help. I've often wondered why we don't create a Save Asbury Park Foundation and fund it through a Save Asbury Park Tour starring Springsteen, and maybe some of the other musicians who cut their teeth there?
If Springsteen fans are spending $75 a ticket for his current tour, why not tack on a bit more for the city that inspired the lyrics so many who've never been there know by heart? After all, it was Springsteen's poetry that transformed Asbury Park into more than a regional resort and has kept Madame Marie (deceased, I hear) and the Palace (condemned) alive in our collective consciousness. Not that Springsteen has forgotten Asbury Park. He comes back to do charity benefits for good causes, and he comes back to play.
I have a wild idea inspired by the sweet old houses with wrap-around porches found in Asbury Park. Maybe some aging boomers might buy some of these houses and summer there as my grandparents did, and transform the city into an international senior citizen's rock-music mecca - a living museum.
Then natives can regale rock 'n' roll pilgrims with stories of famous people we hardly knew, the kind of stories that make people's eyes shine. Like, how the head of the Jewish Community Center recorded that 1970 Tween Springsteen concert, then taped over it at a rabbinical conference. In between reminiscences, we can hum "Jersey Girl" as we rock in our Adirondack gliders, that fresh salty sea wind blowing through our strands of gray.
*Nadine Epstein is a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer. She is working on a book about the Mayan culture.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society