It’s Hard to be a Saint in the City — My Summer Back in Jersey

Greetings from Asbury Park, NJ, Bruce Springsteen’s debut album, begins with a gorgeous thirteen-second cacophony. The rhythm guitar jangles its way through a simple four-chord progression while the lead plays an almost ill-fitting rockabilly riff. Somewhere off in the background, the drummer plays a metallic fill while Clarence Clemmons’ burly sax bounces off of it, an exhilarating introduction to the E Street Band’s underappreciated musicality. Eventually the rhythms guitar finds a groove as Bruce engages in some lyricism and wordplay so imaginative and complicated it borders on acrobatic. “With this very unpleasing sneezing and wheezing/the calliope crashed to the ground” he sings. He still tries to tame his signature heart-on-his-sleeve rasp.

There’s nothing glamorous about listening to Bruce Springsteen. Likewise, there’s nothing glamorous about saying—rather, admitting—that you were raised in New Jersey. To non-residents, you either live in not-New York, not-Philadelphia, or suburban nowhere. Actual New Jerseyans would even admit that observation is at least partially true. Sure, we have the beach and boardwalk during the summers, but very little else in the remaining nine months. Springsteen and company, however, proudly wore their Jersey heritage on their sleeves. Rather than calling E Street Band a “New York band” or disowning his hometown the way Sinatra disowned Hoboken, Bruce made his career by musically and lyrically articulating the ennui exclusive to New Jersey natives. By the time I matriculated to Vassar College, I was well-versed in that ennui and desperately wanted to leave it behind.

In retrospect, I wasn’t ready for Vassar’s energy. I grew up in Manahawkin, New Jersey, a deep-red suburb of Atlantic City. Manahawkin serves as the mainland of Long Beach Island, an eighteen-mile stretch of sand and beautiful, gaudy beach homes lining the shore. My friends were, for the most part, low-key stoners, the kids who skipped junior prom to watch Brazil and drove aimlessly along the shore instead of attending house parties. Vassar, on the other hand, had a certain brand of intensity, both academically and socially, that was absent from my life in Manahawkin. And though it took some time to adapt to that variety of intensity, I grew to love the late weekend nights and the intoxicating social scene. It felt like everything in my life built to this point, and I was going to take full advantage of every new experience at my disposal.

There was a profound disappointment when the semester ended, leaving me with a post-Vassar hangover which lasted the full three months. Gone was the hedonism of campus nightlife, the congestion of passionate but bored students battling tedium through any means necessary. The brand-new college friends, the house parties, the still-lustrous idea of a liberal arts institution instantaneously vanished. I was back on earth, wondering where the past nine months had gone—or did they even happen? Yes, I was definitely back in New Jersey.

I was overcome by this uneasy feeling when I returned home in late May. Everything seemed to have changed since I’d last set foot in Manahawkin, but in such minor ways (as far as I knew, the K-Mart on Rt. 9 had been closing for the last five years). I spent the summer, like my two previous summers, working at Living on the Veg, a vegan restaurant with food that more than made up for its unfortunate name. Even though I worked the same position I had for the past two years, certain key employees I grew to know had moved on to new, out-of-town jobs. The landmarks were the same, definitely, but everything felt just slightly off.

My parents, both members of Southern New Jersey’s sizable community of Staten Island expats, had no connection with Bruce’s music; as a result, Bruce existed in my periphery for the majority of my life. I knew “Born to Run,” “Born in the USA,” and “Badlands,” staples of the local classic rock stations, but nothing from his extended catalog. While Springsteen was never part of my musical diet, the iconic tackiness of the album cover, located unmistakably in Asbury Park—an hour drive away from my house—spoke to me. It was more than just a postcard repurposed as an album cover; it was a declaration, a boast, and most of all, an invitation to the Asbury Park of the early 1970s. I listened to it for the first time on an early-morning commute to work and didn’t—couldn’t—stop for the remainder of the summer.

In thirty-seven minutes, Bruce guides you through the Asbury Park he knew, documenting his beach town during the other nine, tourist-unfriendly months of the year. “Growin’ Up,” the album’s aptly-titled second track, finds Bruce’s narrator swaggering his way through the angst of late adolescence. He begins at ground level, as the commander of his pack of misfits he calls “the night brigade.” By the end of the song he’s a space cadet with a “nice little place in the stars.” The narrator is overwhelmed by the alienation in his hometown and the potentialities of the future. “Spirits in the Night” is about local lore, about the locations and myths that give towns what some would call “character.” Greasy Lake, the setting of the song’s narrative, may not actually exist (though self-proclaimed Springsteen experts debate its location) but its description rings true. These are the hangouts my friends and I frequented on those uneventful fall evenings, the trails on the outskirts of town that we temporarily claimed as our own. By painstakingly cataloging Bruce’s New Jersey, I felt less isolated navigating this familiar-yet-dissimilar town I once called my home.

I fell madly in love with the album by the third listen. Greetings should’ve been required listening in my high school, a guarantee to the student body: Don’t worry, you’re not the only one alienated by the Jersey shore. And while it’s undeniably a time capsule to a very different Asbury Park, its grandiosity and untouched hope makes it as timely as ever. The album carried me through that long summer. During my half-hour-minimum commute from the Island to Manahawkin, I would listen to Greetings and remind myself that yes, there is a world beyond here. It was real then, and it’s still waiting.

Unearned nostalgia is a difficult beast to tame. In the midst of a difficult semester, I found myself pining for my home in Jersey, the stoner kids I knew, the comfort in suburbia that can be found if you squint hard enough. By my junior year, the allure of Vassar’s social life all but vanished, leaving me with a disturbing, foreign desire for my high school years. I wanted the simplicity and mildness of my high school, a lifestyle I despised four short years ago.

My sister and I frequently talk about the idea of “peaking,” reaching the pinnacle of your life, when things literally cannot get any better. Now, a year and a half removed from that summer I spent at home, I realize that I was afraid I peaked in my first year of college. I hated the thought that I might never again feel the euphoria I felt on my favorite night at Vassar. But as I came to this realization, I couldn’t help but think of this Springsteen lyric: “Your heart starts beating faster as you struggle to your feet/Then you’re outta that hole and back up on the street.”  BP

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