Storms and Ghosts

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2013 was a pivotal year for me, which may explain the introspection evident in this resurrected blog post from that Thanksgiving. 


I did some advanced math this morning. By my calculations, I’ve made the roughly 600 mile Thanksgiving pilgrimage from New England to New Jersey and back 31 times now. That’s one turkey trip for every year since I moved away from home in 1981.

The only exception to this tradition came in 1990, when a monster snowstorm forced my ex-wife and me to abort our mission somewhere this side of Natick on the Mass Pike. After plowing ourselves back up Route 128 to our Gloucester loft, we enjoyed a quiet holiday feast at home.

But as things turned out, it would be our last Thanksgiving together. By the following November, an apocalyptic late season hurricane had just devastated Gloucester. Three weeks after what came to be known as The Perfect Storm sank the Andrea Gail and launched the literary career of Sebastian Junger, she had jumped ship and thrown our short, unlikely marriage over the side. What followed was a different kind of monstrous, not-so-perfect storm, and it settled right the fuck in for the long haul inside of my rapidly balding head. This one would take years and years to blow over, and the destruction left in its wake was never fully repaired (or so I’ve been told). 

I know, wah, wah, wah.

Things are better now, immeasurably better, and I give thanks for that every day. But in my wandering mind, I can’t help but retrace all the steps and missteps I’ve made over the years that add up to what we call “life”.

Thanksgiving is when I punch the big timecard each year, much more so than Christmas, New Year’s Day, or even my birthday. As I try to avoid playing high-speed bumper cars on those long, tedious drives, the storms and the ghosts of the past always pipe up from the back seat.  The closer I get to my childhood hometown, the faster the memories fly by with each familiar exit sign or landmark on the highway. Parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles, friends and lovers, successes and failures, they’re all on the other side of the windshield once again, and then, whoosh– they’re gone. As you might imagine, all of this introspection makes me quite a talkative, entertaining travel companion (not). I’ve been told about that, too.  

Jenny and I try to combine those trips home to see my family with a little R&R in the most exotic locales the Delaware Valley has to offer. We’ve set up Thanksgiving camps in places like Cape May, New Hope, Lancaster County, Atlantic City, Reading, Ocean City, Scranton, Ship Bottom, Gettysburg– anywhere remotely interesting that offers a 4-star hotel with a 2-star price tag on Expedia. This year we spent 2 nights at the Omni in Old Town Philadelphia, within spitting distance of the ghosts of what feels like another life– the camera store I managed on Market Street, the bridge high above the Delaware River I used to drive subway trains across 16 times a night, and the site of my family’s nearly century-old printing business at 10th and Race. But it was the quick stop we made on the way home this past Saturday that instigated my little trip down memory lane here.

We both love the Jersey Shore, so we spent Friday night at a stately Victorian hotel in Spring Lake, just a few miles south of Asbury Park. Saturday morning found us once again exploring what Bruce Springsteen has called My City of Ruins with our cameras. Despite rumors of Asbury’s revitalization and rebirth, most of the surviving boardwalk icons and landmarks from four decades worth of Springsteen songs remain in the same disheveled state they have for years– the stripped-out iron skeleton of the Casino and the empty Carousel House are among the saddest.

 A mural inside the Asbury Casino

A mural inside the Asbury Casino

 The Asbury Casino

The Asbury Casino

 The Carousel House

The Carousel House

The ghosts came out again as I stared down Ocean Avenue at the historic Stone Pony, the music club made famous in the 1970‘s by the likes of Springsteen, Stevie Van Zandt, and Southside Johnny Lyons. This time they momentarily whisked me back to a summer night in 1977 or ’78. A girlfriend and I were parked facing the front door of the Pony as none other than Springsteen himself pulled up in a cool old Chevy with a hot young chick. My right forearm tingled a bit as I remembered the twisting death grip Joan applied as it dawned on her who the short scruffy guy in the white T-shirt was. 

Superstorm Sandy clobbered Asbury Park a little over a year ago, and the evidence of the havoc she wreaked is still everywhere. Jenny spotted a particularly hard hit beachfront building and quickly made her way over to it. At first all I saw was the heavily damaged north-facing wall, its vinyl siding mostly stripped away, patched with sheets of 4x8 plywood and surrounded by a rough wooden fence. But as I got closer, I saw what really attracted her. Somebody had scrawled some words across the plywood with black spray paint:

“everything DIES BABY 

THAT’S A FACt”

It was the first line of the refrain from Atlantic City, a stormy, ghostly Springsteen song about another down and out Jersey resort town struggling with its own uncertain resurrection. In my opinion, music doesn’t get a whole lot better than Atlantic City.

Raising her camera, Jenny shot me her familiar “back off- I found it first” look as I repeated the familiar words out loud, then added the absent next line:

“but maybe everything that dies, someday comes back”

“You found it first, but I know what it means” I answered. 

I stood on my tiptoes to frame up my own shot of the wall, pulling a fence board down with my left hand so I could get both lines of the grafitti in the shot. Peering through my new camera fitted with an old lens I bought at a camera store in Philly in the 70's,  I saw that my hand had transformed the image from a picture of the wall to a picture about something much deeper. 

Deeper to me, at least, in my Thanksgiving state of mind.

Randall ArmorComment