All I’ve heard about Asbury Park is that it’s a run-down seaside resort about half an hour away from New York City. On the left, yellow tape is stretched across the steps leading from a boardwalk to a wide and deserted sandy beach where a notice reads “No Bathing”. A road sign tells me this is Ocean Avenue, and there indeed is an ocean. Coincidence? I think not.
On the right comes the boarded-up ruin of the Albion Hotel, then on the left a weeded-over miniature golf course. I’ve picked up some of her goofy enthusiasm, I must say: already I do find myself feeling an real affection for this place. She swings us right on Second Avenue. “There’s the Stone Pony on the left, still jumping; there’s been a lot of live music in this town. Back there was the Atlantis with the rainbow sign. I think they’ll be pulling down the Albion later this year.” Looking right on Kingsley Street, I see beside the Albion a building in a two-storey L-shape, enclosing an empty space where pebbles push through asphalt. Up the outside stairways, the dead-looking upper doors are numbered still in sequence, squatted in or empty, with the windows shuttered. “And this is where I worked the street a few years back, when it was busier,” she says, turning left on Kingsley Street. “You’d never guess, to look at me, of course.”
The drizzle comes harder. A sense of exhaustion presses down from the sky through the weed-edged fragments of flagstone and grass, where I’m pleased to see no children play. Looking down Second Avenue as we turn again, I see several large houses with grand porches and balconies, some boarded up, which gives the street a spooky air. A train siren blares on and off, across the town, headed somewhere from somewhere but not stopping here. Lone figures scurry round corners in the middle distance. Yet, there are sporadic signs of life, amid the wreckage: on the right another gay bar, Zippers, then an older-looking girly-bar next door called Seductions, then some run-down shack-like bungalows. The grimy Flamingo Motel proclaims vacancies on First Avenue. On our left across a wide space the Empress Hotel is shut down, but Evelyn points to it: “In there is Paradise, where my friend Shigem works. It’s a club, I’ll take you there.” Turning right on Asbury Avenue, I see on my left a shuttered green building labelled Palace Amusements, bearing two primitive painted renditions of a grinning fun-lover’s face. Next to him is a gay pornographic cinema, then the Talking Bird Café, both functional but closed. “That was Tillie,” says Evelyn, “another little part of my childhood. He’s watched us like that for twice my lifetime, but I hear he’s going to be demolished, so enjoy him while you can… And here we are.” The van glides to a halt. “The town has great parking, don’t you think? OK, end of tour, we can go back to New York now … oh no, sorry, there’s a concert first.”
I look around for a building that might be expected to house a high-end sound-stage, but all I can see, aside from houses, is the wide, shuttered façade of yet another boarded-up hotel on our right clad in peeling white paint. Its decrepit façade bears no name, but on its roof, facing the sea, stands a line of big letters adding up to half a name—“METROPOL”. “It’s in here?” enquires Alaia.
Evelyn nods, chuckling. “Let’s be fast going in, please. We try to be unobtrusive. Plus, in view of the broadcast it would be good if nobody in the houses across the street sees you, Jaymi, so try and keep your face down.”
She spirits us through an inconspicuous, unmarked door. I feel a sense of unreality, as if I am an actor on the silent screen or a chess-piece in a game (black knight, I think). I glance at Alaia. “Isn’t all this strange?” I mutter to her as we hurry after Evelyn.
“Yes,” she murmurs. “I feel like a chess-piece.”
“Really? You as well? Wow… By the way, which piece?”
She glances at me darkly: “D’you need to ask?”
I do need to, in fact, despite her seeming to think I shouldn’t. Before I can decide how to press the question in a tactful way, however, we have entered an empty white hallway of faded grandeur, featuring a curved white marble staircase lined with balusters like fat white pawns.
Did she mean the black queen? I should guess so, intellectually, but I could be wrong. It would seem somewhat excessive to tune in to her, just in order to find this out (and of course I shouldn’t do so now anyway), but I must admit I’m curious.
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