For some reason, before we went to New York, I got it into my head that I was going to win the Springsteen on Broadway ticket lottery. The whole week before we left, I checked the site (now flagged by the new filtering system at work as a “gambling site”, so sorry about that, IT department) so I could get my bid in for the two dates that coincided with our visit right away, because of course that was going to make a difference. As I cried myself to sleep, my knees throbbing, after my fall by the Rockefeller Christmas tree, I consoled myself with the knowledge that the karmic imbalance meant I was all but guaranteed one of the coveted $75 tickets.
I mean, obviously it didn’t happen. But who cares when your bestie has the car, and has put together the best unofficial Springsteen tour itinerary that NJ Transit will allow us, time-wise?
Rachelle Renée and I met on LiveJournal some 15 years ago (she tends to be better with dates and such than I do), in some Ryan Adams fan community or other. Blog comments became lengthy emails and the occasional transatlantic phonecall, which in turn became stopping-over-on-study-abroad-trips and let’s-see-how-many-US-states-I-can-cram-into-a-single-passport-stamp trips. She even came to my wedding, meeting up with my other American best friend Whitney on the way and sharing a hotel room, even though they hadn’t met themselves at that point. Thanks to technology (WhatsApp!) we speak just about every day, so now that we’re adults who can’t get away with putting flights on credit cards and worrying about the consequences later anymore, we had somehow gone six years without hanging out in person.
Apparently this guy at Princeton Junction station stopped to watch, smiling, as we flew up the platform into each other’s arms for a very teary hug. Me, I was just so thrilled to see one of the absolute best people I have ever known in the flesh again that I didn’t even notice.
Our first stop, as always, was Princeton; the New Jersey college town (yeah, you’ve heard of it) that I loved at first sight. While it seems as though every time I take the bus through my hometown centre something else has closed down or moved, Princeton has barely changed in a decade: Princeton Record Exchange (PREX) still looks like record shops do in your head, right down to the addition of cassette tape-themed Christmas lights for December; Paper Source still makes its UK competitors look like Woolworths; The Bent Spoon even had a Christmas tree flavoured ice cream. Even better? The bench we took that selfie that is the quintessential photo of my best pal and I on still sits outside of J Crew, so of course we had to take another for posterity.
Although Rachelle had put together quite a substantial Springsteen-inspired tour itinerary, I had to be back in New York for a 7 o’clock show so we cut it down to the biggie. Asbury Park plugged into the sat-nav, we set out – chatting nineteen to the dozen of course, and missing half the turns thanks to NJ’s habit of not passing their one-way intersection labels onto Google Maps. As a certified non-driver, it was easy for me to not get frustrated – but there are some friends, and I’m lucky to have a few, that I’d happily sit in a three-hour traffic jam with.
But we made it – we made it to Asbury Park boardwalk, parked the car by the Wonder Bar and walked along with the wind from the North Atlantic blowing back our hair. It was a crisp, clear winter’s day, warmer than it was in New York all the rest of our stay, and although the boardwalk was practically deserted it would have been pretty easy to imagine the pier lights and the carnival life on the water even if we hadn’t spotted Madam Marie’s.
Rachelle, like the loyal pal that she is, had fallen out with Marah (of mine and Stringer’s first dance, eventually, fame) for announcing a date at the Wonder Bar for the very night of my departure from the States this time, which made for a comedy photo opportunity. But the close proximity of the Wonder Bar, the legendary Stone Pony and the historic Convention Hall was enough to give this visiting music fan a thrill: can you imagine how bustling and busy those boardwalk summer nights must be? As my American pals know, I’m yet to visit anywhere that I haven’t felt grumpy and sweaty in the summer – but it would be worth it, for the music, wouldn’t it? Let’s make it happen some day!
By this time we were (quite understandably) starving, so got back into the car to head for this Korean fusion taco place Rachelle was familiar with from its regular pop-ups at various local flea markets. MOGO tacos and fried rice were so tasty, and so cheap to somebody who’d spent the past few days trying to make her Sterling stretch on New York prices that neither of us could resist going back for seconds – I tried both the beef and the pork, with the former just swinging it in terms of a preference. It was only later, as I realised I was humming a Gaslight Anthem song on my train back into the city, that I realised the significance of its Cookman Avenue location – next to an alternative fashion/homeware store where I got a Girls to the Front sticker for my record player, and the best-named bakery I’m still heartbroken was closed.
I guess there’s a reason “Jersey Girl” made our wedding dance playlist, too. Because it seems that, however many times I try to convince you that the bright lights of the big city are my favourite thing in the world, there’s this over-earnest and a little bit old-fashioned state next door that keeps calling me back.