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  • Writer's pictureHesh Meister

A car trip

In 1989, I went down to the Jersey Shore.

Exit 11 at night

I was still married to my first wife; she had taken our baby daughter and gone off to visit her mother in Denver. So I was left in Boston by myself. I had planned to go down to the Shore in the morning, but as I lay in bed by myself, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, too agitated and excited about this trip. Sure, I had been back to the Shore since returning to the USA from my time in Israel — it had been that devastating trip in which I saw how low Asbury Park had sunken, with the amusements gone and all the bikers outside Mrs. Jay’s. I needed to go back to the Shore and see all these places for myself; I needed to investigate why Asbury had gone to hell, and I needed to survey the locations with which I had constructed this mythic place in my mind. So, at 1:30 in the morning, I packed my bags, loaded the car, drove down to Store 24 on Cleveland Circle for a can of Jolt Cola, and then hit the road.

I took Route 128 to I-95, through Providence and down the long Connecticut shoreline. Rock versions of the Shabbos zemiros, the Sabbath songs I sang at my synagogue in Boston, played in my mind, and these evolved into riffs based loosely on Bruce’s “State Trooper,” which subsequently became “Another Cruising on the Highway Song” and ultimately “Turnpike Blues.” I plowed forward through the night, one of the very few cars on the highway, thereby spared the agony of the morning rush from New York’s northernmost suburbs into the city. I-95 became the New England Thruway, then the New Rochelle branch of the New York State Thruway; soon I got on the Hutchinson River Parkway southbound toward the Whitestone Bridge just as the new day was dawning.

Once over the bridge, I wove my way through Queens and Nassau on the parkway/expressway system, and by 8:00 am, I found myself at Point Lookout drinking in the intoxicating sunshine. It felt so good to be back. I made my way west on Lido Blvd, driving past what had become of the hotel that had been the scene of my bar mitzvah. Then into Long Beach, my old hometown, driving around, looking at all the places, houses, schools, synagogues, landmarks — but never getting out at any of them. I did park at National Blvd and the boardwalk, stepping out and visiting my father's friend who owned the King David Hotel in town. A short walk on the boardwalk and then westward again, through Rockaway Beach. I stopped to take more pictures on the Rockaway boardwalk and look at Long Beach from a distance; then it was off to Brooklyn across the Marine Parkway Bridge.

I spent the next night with some high school friends, and then I made my way to the Jersey Shore, making good on a long-deferred desire. I took the Garden State Parkway to Exit 117 and explored the bayshore; eventually I wound up at Eastpointe and Twin Lights, where I could look out over the bay and finally look down upon the land of oppression (Long Beach) from the land of dreams (the Shore). Of course I took pictures. And from there, over the Highlands bridge to Sea Bright, through Monmouth Beach, Long Branch, and Deal, when I came to Deal Lake and the Asbury Park skyline. I turned right and skirted the lake, the sun reflecting like diamonds on the silver surface of the water, and then a quick left in Allenhurst and right at the circle into Interlaken. A brief spin around the borough, up Grassmere and Windermere to Bendermere, to the home of some friends of my family where I’d be staying as my home base for staying at the Shore.

The next morning, Friday, I let myself out of the house early. It was gray and drizzly. I went speeding down the GSP with Southside Johnny on the stereo, beginning a long tradition. Soon I got onto I-195 west and crossed the waist of the state. I played automotive leapfrog with a darkly attractive woman in a red compact car; we flirted with each other by passing and giving each other looks. This went on for some miles, in the long stretch from Allaire to Jackson, but unfortunately it had to end when I got on the Turnpike. I drove south till I reached the end of the Turnpike, crossed the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and went to Wilmington. My first stop was the cemetery. It was the first time I visited since my grandmother died several years earlier. I stood silently at my grandparents’ gravestones for about a minute, then I fell down on my knees and began sobbing uncontrollably. I had not gone to either of their funerals; I couldn’t deal with the thought of watching my grandfather get buried in May 1978, and I was in Israel when my grandmother died in 1987. So this was really the first time I actually grieved over their deaths. I loved them and missed them terribly. Here at last was my chance to express that. I picked myself up off the ground, dried my eyes, got back in my car, and resumed my exploration of my childhood haunt … one of my favorite places, my grandparents’ city, far away from the land of oppression that had been Long Beach. I drove past my grandparents’ house, past my mother’s high school, through the grounds of my grandfather’s synagogue; I took pictures at all the sites. Then it was up to the Kutz Home, where my great-grandmother spent her last days (and where I hated visiting); and then back to Lea Blvd and exploring all the places where, so many years ago, I wondered about and my mother told me I could go drive to when I got older. Now here I was, older, in possession of car and license. I explored the riverfront at the power plant and industrial area. And then it was back across the DMB into South Jersey. I remembered from my childhood how right before the entrance to the Turnpike there was an exit to Atlantic City. I took that exit and wound through the seemingly interminable wilds of South Jersey till I got to US 40 and AC. It was still quite gray and damp. I parked at one of the casinos; I walked through the gaming halls (I was of legal age, after all) but I didn’t get up the urge to pull on a few one-armed bandits. I went out to the boardwalk, sauntered through the salt air, bought some salt water taffy, and took more pictures. Seeing that it was midafternoon and Shabbos would be starting in a matter of hours, I got in my car, put on one of my best-of-Bruce-bootlegs, and raced against the tape to see how fast I could get from Atlantic City to Interlaken. I did 75 mph on the parkway, made it back to the house before the tape ended, and there was still an hour before Shabbos started. As I recall, we had a lovely dinner that evening — my hostess was and still is a first-rate cook and baker — with guests, though I don’t remember who.

Saturday I began what became another tradition — walking from Interlaken to Asbury Park, walking on the boardwalk to the Casino, and then all the way back home. I stopped at the home of another friend of the family’s on the way back — little did I know then that I’d become a resident of that house, twice — but no one was home. The sky and air had turned yellow — probably the peculiar way the angling afternoon sun struck the tops of the clouds and illuminated everything below by proxy, but it felt like a visit from somebody beyond.

Saturday night came, and I took advantage of being at the Shore to go see John Eddie at the Stone Pony. He sang about all these white-trash romances, almost to the point of nausea (write about something else for a change, John!) but it gave me an insight into what life at the Shore was like, working blue-collar jobs and falling for girls named Buster. A world that I could never quite make mine, and never quite did. But it was one of those epoch-making rock’n’roll nights that defined me for awhile.

The next day, Sunday morning, was sunny … all I really remember of it was filling the tank, buying the Asbury Park Press, and heading north. I wasn’t heartbroken like I had been in November 1978, when I had visited the area and fallen in love for the first time — with a girl I knew there, and with the place itself — but I had felt a special high during this whole trip, threading my way through New Jersey and beyond; now I could feel that high ebbing and fading away. It was up the GSP all the way across the NY state line, where I could see how the green Garden State just became gray New York, with the hardened mud stalactites hanging off the stone overpasses. And from there, over the Tappan Zee, connecting with the New England Thruway, and then the long, long trek up I-95 … Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts … Rt 128, Rt 9, Brookline … all the way back to Chiswick Road with my copy of the Press still in my backseat, a reminder to the world where I had just been. It was an epic trip, the first of several, until I finally moved to the Shore and became a local.

It all seems so surreal now.

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