Searching for a Jersey Shore ghost town with Alan Cabal
Jersey Shore Diary
Oh the rain keeps a-fallin', as the great Freddy Fender sang...
The point was Jersey coastal exploration. Alan Cabal had heard somewhere about a ghost town called Seabreeze, full of stray dogs, down there on the far side of the state of New Jersey, along the Delaware Bay. That part of the Garden State has, in places, a Lost World loneliness about it. There are saltwater bogs, and amidst them squat shacks sun-bleached into a sullen grayness that huddle amidst cattails at the ends of roads. (You can theorize about what goes on in these cockeyed shelters. Madwomen stare out from the windowpanes and commune with the flashing buoys offshore. Fishermen stomp in with shotguns on windy mornings, and blast their fathers-in-law, and no one ever knows.)
So we tumbled downstate like a marble in Cabal's vile old Chrysler. Cleared, first, the Lincoln Tunnel, then ground in serious rainy traffic along the turnpike, both of us muzzy after a Friday night. Gathered steam south of Metuchen when the traffic started to flow through the spittle, and finally there we were?Cumberland County, on the other side of the Great Egg Harbor River and Atlantic City and the Pine Barrens and the world. New Jersey in my experience is like a pool table with a bad tilt. If you're a smart ball, you tend to roll down to the southeast corner and south-central flank, where the land grows damp with the thought of all that surrounding water. There's the bay, first of all, which funnels up toward the north and the west to narrow into the Delaware River. But also there's the Atlantic Ocean beyond Cape May, and on the other end of the scale of magnitude, there are the Stow and Back and Cedar and Nantuxent Creeks and the Cohansey and Maurice and Manumuskin Rivers, which you'll see on your map as scrawls of blue penetrating up into the mass of Jersey. Sometimes when you're down there you're also breathing air that not long ago hovered over the Chesapeake, which isn't far to the west. It's on the Maryland side of Delaware's narrow throat, the part of the state that contains Saint Georges and Delaware City.
Rattled off the turnpike, Cabal bunched over the wheel and sucking cigarettes into his unshaven face and grinning and bobbing his head and chortling yah hah hah hah hah hah hah! in anticipation.
"So if there's fucked-up dogs in Seabreeze, don't make any sudden motions," Cabal instructed as he drove. "Just get sloowwwly back into the fucking car. And if, as soon as we drive in, the beasts surround us, the hell with it. Do not leave the fucking vehicle."
Seabreeze sits at the end of a tiny spur that spins off Rte. 601 east of Fairton and wends through swamps after you ride through the flats around places like Vineland and Millville?through the radish and turnip and corn fields, glorying in the rain.
And after you ride, also, through the new autoparks and shopping trashscapes that replace the fields. Orchards staked out with surveyor's tape, transforming themselves into subdivisions: a stupid, and quintessentially American, variety of extinction.
Cabal and I are both fans of H.P. Lovecraft, the great New England horror writer of the early 20th century, and we had on our minds that weekend his great story "The Shadow over Innsmouth." It's about a tourist?the narrator?who's compelled to visit the Innsmouth of the title, an isolated coastal Massachusetts town he's been warned to avoid. But he can't help himself. He's got to see the place for some reason; he's got that crazy Innsmouth feeling in his bones. He hops a bus and wanders the mostly abandoned, decaying and fantastically creepy municipality, occasionally running into baleful and vile-looking natives.
Lovecraft fans will be familiar with the tale's great premise. Apparently, Innsmouth's good country people took, generations ago, to mating with the immortal "Deep Ones" who live underwater, beyond the reef off the town's coast. Our narrator, in the course of the day in Innsmouth, learns more about the place's secret than he should, and makes a narrow escape. He subsequently discovers, after leaving, something very disconcerting about?
But enough said. Read the story yourself. There's a lot going on in "The Shadow over Innsmouth": fear of miscegenation and tainted bloodlines and a lot of sexual anxiety. I don't want to give too much away?you should read this tale?but Lovecraft's working a serious Freudian theme, too. The idea of the death impulse comes into play?that desire to return, in death, to the sheltering womb, to the watery timeless eternal oblivion that's approximated by the Deep Ones' underwater lair. And you've got the fear of the Other (as the sophomores love to put it), and the concomitant fear that one's infected by the Other.
One of the things I like most about the story, though, is Lovecraft's preoccupation with the town's geography. Consider this passage, which occurs when the narrator encounters, to his relief, another out-of-towner, in this case a boy who's employed by an Innsmouth grocery: "Warning me that many of the street signs were down, the youth drew for my benefit a rough but ample and painstaking sketch map of the town's salient features. After a moment's study I felt sure that it would be of great help, and pocketed it with profuse thanks... My programme, I decided, would be to thread the principal streets, talk with any non-natives I might encounter, and catch the eight o' clock coach for Arkham. The town, I could see, formed a significant and exaggerated example of communal decay; but being no sociologist I would limit my serious observations to the field of architecture."
Everything about Innsmouth screams GET OUT?but this guy doesn't care. No, what he wants is to traipse around as if with a Baedeker, an aficionado appreciating a handsome facade here, a well-wrought cornice there. The fact is, he's fascinated with the town's mystique, by Innsmouth as a unique?if uniquely unsettling?physical place. "Recrossing the gorge on the Main Street bridge," he relates, "I struck a region of utter desertion which somehow made me shudder. Collapsing huddles of gambrel roofs formed a jagged and fantastic skyline, above which rose the ghoulish, decapitated steeple of an ancient church. Some houses along Main Street were tenanted, but most were tightly boarded up. Down unpaved side streets I saw the black, gaping windows of deserted hovels, many of which leaned at perilous and incredible angles through the sinking of part of the foundations...
"Fish Street was as deserted as Main, though it differed in having many brick and stone warehouses still in excellent shape..."
And so on. The physical descriptions of the town go on and on. Joyce once, in discussing Ulysses, remarked that if Dublin burned to the ground you could rebuild it on the basis of Joyce's descriptions. Maybe, but you'd have an easier time building Lovecraft's Innsmouth from scratch. A place can hum with power, Lovecraft's suggesting. Each singular place has its own holy energy, offers its own unique resistance to the human consciousness, which is incapable of mastering it, of comprehending the mysterious extent of its meanings. You wonder at the extent to which Lovecraft had absorbed?in order to invert into something pessimistic and dark?the lessons of his New England forebears, the Transcendentalists. The world vibrates with energy, even if a ghastly one?sinister warehouses and deserted hovels as well as blades of grass. No less than Walden, "The Shadow over Innsmouth" takes its place in the canon of reverent literary treatments of place.
I guess Cabal and I sought an experience of place similar to the one Innsmouth offered Lovecraft's narrator. Naively, we hoped to find a place that thrummed with singularity and power and meaning.
The trouble was, Seabreeze wasn't really there. We drove through bogs. Every couple minutes rain lashed the windshield, slowing us to where our progress assumed a ritualistic significance. We were acolytes approaching an altar. We saw no other cars or people, which was remarkable after the festering turnpike and the suburban slums through which we'd passed. Finally, Cabal brought the car to a halt, because our progress was blocked by a tree that sprawled over the two-lane roadway. We stepped out into the day, which was acrid with the smell of vegetation, and inspected. It was hard to see why the tree was there. The trunk disappeared into the woods, so we couldn't see whether it had been cut, or split by lightning or uprooted in a windstorm.
Cabal bopped, squinted, pointed, smoked. "That's weird, man. That's fucking weird. That tree should not be there. I'm getting the distinct sense that someone does not want us coming to this town. That is weird." Alan's other theory?besides Seabreeze being overrun by Deep Ones?was that South Jersey hillbillies maintained a meth lab there. Such people can be prone to enforce a certain level of seclusion. "There's no way you're gonna tell me someone didn't put that tree there on purpose. No way."
Cabal mashed out his cigarette and we climbed back into the car and drove on the shoulder of the road around the obstruction. Crawled along for another couple hundred yards, with woods to the left of us and a crop field to the right, separated from the road by a margin of lime-green grass. We had the sense that we were intruding here on many varieties of solitude. (There is, in fact, a horrifying solitude about an empty tilled field.) Soon the pavement ended and we inched up to a fork in the road. A gate blocked the right fork?so we took the left, and wallowed at 4 mph over dirt, the Chrysler pigging in mud puddles and bottoming out, brush whipping the windows.
We hit Seabreeze eventually. Big anticlimax. Couple beach shacks and a strand on the far side of marshes, and that's about it. The cabins perch on stilts, and several of them seem to have been abandoned to rot. Where were the semi-amphibious natives, where was the evil stink of fish? No one's around but some woman on a raised porch, stolid and wide-hipped and eternal, sucking dirt off a floormat with a Handi-Vac. Also some houses overgrown with weeds?FOR SALE. Also a cur straining at a chain. Delaware's visible through the mist on the other side of the estuary. Delaware's no picnic, but where were the "endless avenues of fishy-eyed vacancy and death"? We'd have settled for a meth-twitching hillbilly.
We parked the car so we could look over the beach. Cabal slouched around to the trunk and began to download warm and vaguely melancholy beers from the vicinity of the wheelwell. Seabreeze was another meaningful place that, in a culture that needs them and that's destroying them, didn't exist.
Rolling along southern Jersey in the rain, through Cabal's old haunts?he's from southern Jersey, a 47-year-old orphan child of Camden, that horror city (one might reasonably choose to live in Innsmouth rather than in Camden) that at some point in the last generation slouched out to the shed, wrapped its lips around the barrel of a shotgun and blew itself away.
We stopped in biker bars in the few still-unspoiled margins of this suburbanizing coast. The point was to have a drink and give Cabal a chance to crawl in his rheumatic splay-footed gait past the bruisers on their stools and go yah hah hah hah hah hah hah! as he scratched his way over to the juke. Piled back into his car to drive through sheets of rain, and we couldn't read the road signs, and we lost ourselves in the villages, and Cabal pulled U-turns as the beer signs glowed from the groceries, as comforting from our perspective under the rain as a nightlight is to a child. (Lear should have had a beer sign out on the heath?he wouldn't have carried on so.)
We passed through the village of Bridgeton, where Cabal was born to the mother who abandoned him. He suspects he's the product of a date-rape, or worse.
"I'm a fucking Deep One! You can tell! I'm half fucking fish! You can tell from my unblinking fucking eyes! My mother fucked a Deep One! Yah hah hah," and etc.?degenerating into a smoker's cough, Cabal's chest vibrating with phlegm, his bloodshot eyes squinting behind those tinted eyeglasses that he wears that are worn exclusively by Lebanese pimps, old stoners like himself and schoolteachers who like to spend a lot of time in the boys' room. You choose at random one of Bridgeton's houses, and imagine that there took place within it, almost half a century ago, Cabal's lonesome nativity.
Driving in southern coastal Jersey, you have to deal with the juxtapositions: the margins of the good old towns up against the strips, the malls killing off the old commercial centers. In the name of what? So much of being an American these days is mourning an irrecoverable loss, for the way they're wiping from the continent the last resistant nodes against the obliterating sprawl, the last places where your body can fit itself comfortably into a humane geography. It's conceivable there might have been a time when you could have imagined, despite everything, something redemptive about the idea of American "progress," and allied your will with it. You think of Whitman, captivated by the energy of American commerce and industry, equating capitalist vitality with the liberty and the deeply meaningful vernacular culture of the cities he loved?Brooklyn, Manhattan and even his adopted hometown of Camden. There might have been a time when to think of America was to think of the possibility of an urban civilization?to think of the sort of fecund city culture in which Boston and Philadelphia artisans could grow the seeds of a revolution. Now you think of a lumbering suburban empire, spreading its carceral blight across a continent and a world.
I was stunned by Asbury Park?that fantastic desolation. In my innocence, I had expected a tawdry but viable working-class seaside carnival town, not unlike Coney Island.
"Naw," Cabal shrugged when we pulled in to the bombed-out shore city the next day. We'd spent the night near, and breakfasted in, the wonderful beach community of Ocean City. "You'll see. It's bad news. Camden by the sea."
He was right. Shells of buildings jut from the rubble. You might as well be standing in some precinct of postwar Stalingrad. Asbury Park, that once-magical crystallization of lights, that city that must have been one of the great repositories for American dreams?you wonder what must it have been like to sail, generations ago, off Asbury's shores, and see the merry explosion of glittering neon, the pulsing carnival lights, glowing and hissing and throbbing in the distance, there on the land, on the far side of the lavender swells. How many places like Asbury Park does a civilization have to kill before it's no longer possible to consider it legitimate?
I'm fascinated by the ghostly disembodied bits of information you can find shooting around in the void of the Web. You can trace the arc of a city's history by culling orphaned data. You'd start with historical certainties:
"It all started in 1871 when James A. Bradley, a New York manufacturer, bought an uninhabited 500 acre tract of woodland for $90,000. In poor health, Bradley sought refuge and peace in this restful place. After a short stay in Asbury Park and with his health restored, Bradley threw all his energies into building a seashore resort that would be 'second to none.' The city was named in honor of Bishop Francis Asbury and Asbury Park was incorporated as a City on March 25, 1897."
And: "Once a staple in Asbury Park's downtown, the famous multi-level Steinbach's Department Store on Cookman Avenue. The store was located in the heart of Downtown Asbury Park and served as the pillar of the retail community. The store opened in 1912."
And: "Palace Amusements at Lake Ave. & the Boardwalk. Built 1887, an addition added in 1958."
And: "Albion Hotel & Motel... It's Modern... It's Luxurious... A New Luxury Motel... Each Room Has Its Own Private Terrace... A Fabulous New Catering Hall Just Completed... Open All Year..."
Next you'd collect those passages that address the juxtaposition of a remembered Asbury Park with the disaster the city represents right now:
"My grandmother lived in Asbury Park from 1950 to 1978. I visited her each summer. My visits were filled with rides on the Swan Boats, Skip-bo games, salt water taffy, sandy feet and wonderful walks on the boards. When I [t]ook my husband back to see the shore in 1990 I was shocked. I cried. He never got to see even a glimpse of the childhood joys."
And: "I was born (1948) and raised in Asbury Park. I have such fond memories that I cry every time I go home and see the depressed state of my beloved city. It was a wonderful, safe place to grow up. Its (not it's, which means it is) 1.2 miles created a buffer from the rest of the world.
"We went to Asbury Park on Friday. We knew that Asbury Park and the boardwalk were pretty much deserted, but nothing could have prepared us when we walked up to the boardwalk...the desolation. We both cried. It was very sad. We took photo's [sic] of all the p[l]aces we remembered."
You'd end with stunned evocations of a present degradation:
"The boardwalk is deserted and in decay. Many beaches are closed and unsafe for bathers. The buildings still standing are boarded up or falling down. With few exceptions, the city is truly a ghost-town. Though closed through most of the 1980s, the Berkeley-Carteret Hotel still stands and continues to operate as a first-class hotel in what appears to be a war-torn third-class country."
And: "How can a community just disappear right off the map? Asbury Park reminded me of Havana, or even war-torn Sarajevo."
And: "Asbury Park is the Beirut of NJ and normally should be avoided at all costs."
Asbury Park was filled with gays for the Jersey Pride festivities, which are presumably held in that grand ruin because?because why? Was Newark unavailable? They strolled hand-in-hand amidst heaps of crumbled rebar, like streamlets of dye dispersing through sewage. Did they know where they were? Grease smoke poured from the kitchens of the bars. You can walk right out the back doors of saloons in Asbury Park and into gardens strewn with wire, bottles, chunks of motors, twisted furniture, snarls of rope. Hard local whites, the last men standing, sit there on wrecked chairs, standing sometimes to walk over and peer at the degraded world through the fencing.
A hardcore punk matinee thundered through the air from the Stone Pony. Since few buildings are still standing in Asbury Park, there's no spatial context to the place, no demarcations. You don't need to turn corners in Asbury Park, and that's somehow monstrous. Your body wanders on unnatural diagonals through the weed fields, but the mind requires right angles for its sanity. A seaside bowl filled with wreckage.
Later that day, up on the beach at Sandy Hook, we gazed up toward the city: the World Trade Center towers to the distant north, taller than life, the poles around which the wet world revolves. We stood there near the high-tide line, Cabal and I, and watched hippies wade into the surf, clutching their bodies as they staggered from the undertow, and we felt the world whip along under the cold diamond stylus of the sun.
Back in the parking lot, an undercover officer glares from his parked chromed SUV: a bullheaded black guy, windows open, doing surveillance. I don't approve of this entrapment thing. Some underage kid innocently opens a beer in the parking lot, and next thing he knows the SUV will be on his back, he'll be hauled in for exercising his birthright under the American sky.
"I just know that's a cop," Cabal's saying, opening the trunk. "I'll bet anything that guy's a cop." Cabal has a ravenous appetite for marijuana, and so was disappointed by the policeman's presence. He had wanted to smoke some before driving home. "There's no way that guy's not a cop."
An empty lot in the middle of the Jersey Nowhere, with the smell of salt and the seabirds whipping through the huge day?and you're under surveillance. Incredible. The huge SUV orders the world around it, it draws the parking lot's lines up around itself to make a net to ensnare you with. We leaned against the car, Cabal drinking his warm beer.
"Gimme the keys and let me drive out of here."
"Hold on. Just hold on. If he comes over I'll put it in my mouth and eat it. I never carry more than I can eat."
Finally?we couldn't wait the guy out?I drove Cabal's car back to the turnpike and joined the parade home.
"I just know that's a cop."
In parts of America, near the beach, here's your precise mathematical ratio, here's what the ratio is on some days: one policeman for every two citizens. A two-for-one deal in some of the corners of this surveilled America. You won, sir. You waited us out. Congratulations.
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