Well, I will provide for you And I’ll stand by your side You’ll need a good companion now For this part of the ride Leave behind your sorrows Let this day be the last Tomorrow there’ll be sunshine And all this darkness past
Left to my own devices I would probably have come in the spring, but she asked me to be there for the kids’ summer break. She was working full time by then and wanted me to be around for them. She’d taken two weeks off for my visit, (I have to say the US is incredibly stingy with vacation leave – In Australia we get four weeks a year, paid) and I was sitter guy the rest of the time.
It’s a ridiculous system that has almost all the school breaks for the year lumped into one months-long stretch. It probably worked OK when mothers mostly stayed home, but now it causes nothing but headaches and expense; just another example of a system that refuses to recognize the changing times.
Fortunately, I get on well with all of Jersey girl’s kids and there has never been a problem of any sort. I know, right? What are the odds? We bonded pretty quickly and they all treated me as one of the family pretty much from the get-go.
Jersey girl, fortunately, works a rotating roster in her job, so she had a few days free during those working weeks too. All in all, it worked out pretty well.
You may be wondering where the kids’ actual dad is at this point and well you might. I’ll keep things civilized and leave it to your own suppositions; you read blogs, you’re obviously a smart bunch. All I’ll say is that he’s come to be known as Mr minimum legal effort required.
It was so damned good to be back. NJ already felt more embracing to me than the city I’ve lived in for the past twenty-seven years. As usual, I just slotted back into place as if I’d never been away.
The kids were making fun of pretty much everything about me (accent, locution, appearance, general ignorance of the ways of the Jerz) within an hour or two of saying hello (I’m tearing up a little just thinking about it).
This was – I was – home. Every time I returned, that was becoming more and more obvious.
Everything in your shadow turns to vapor You pierce my heart like it was paper Radio’s crackling with the headlines Something on your shoulder, winds in the phone line American beauty will you be mine Out on this highway counting white lines
The untimely passing of my son’s mother changed many things, our immediate plans among them. At that time, he was just 18 and already his life had changed forever. There was simply no way I was going to make things worse by flitting off permanently to another country.
Until he was able to stand on his own two feet, we were going to have to continue to make do with visits rather than starting our new life together. This was a hard pill to swallow, but what sort of parent puts their own happiness before the welfare of their child (actually, Jersey girl knows only too well the answer to that particular question, but I can’t really write about that at present).
All of this really hit home for me upon my return from that third visit. The depth of the depression that I suffered in the weeks following was profound. I don’t mean suicidal depression, more a sort of helpless hopelessness that filled my soul with ennui and despair. And Jersey girl was finding it no less difficult.
And so, in order to stave off a total meltdown, I began planning the next visit immediately. As soon as I could, I booked for the following summer and the long countdown began. Knowing the tickets were taken care of calmed me down quite a bit. It was still hard being so far from her, but not so uncertain.
The months of waiting were interminable, but finally, the day arrived and I was off. I have to say those flights were all amazingly incident free, not one hiccup or delay. And this time, I went through Dallas instead of LA, which was a huge improvement from my perspective.
I left on Friday morning and arrived Friday evening (don’t you love international time zones?) And when I stepped through those exact same doors at Philadelphia international, there was my gorgeous girl.
What a sight for tired old eyes.
A combination of too long contained desire and tinted windows delayed our departure from the airport parking lot somewhat, but we were soon cruising home to Jersey, windows down (except for that one nasty spot just out of Philly) and the balmy night breeze in our grinning, blissful faces.
I started walking, I started walking through the birds and the drugs, Now I’m singing in the park. I found you watching all the lovers walk around like they’re glowing in the dark. Over the city, Was the guys and the guns, The money and the drugs. Only looking for somewhere else to be where the future never comes.
I had a devious plan that I had been working towards since I’d returned from the first visit. I wanted to give Jersey girl a gift; something she would hopefully treasure forever and I felt I’d hit on the perfect thing.
There are now several web companies that offer small run book printing. The Service provided is to a high standard and you can print as little as one copy in hardback for a surprisingly reasonable price (considering the final product).
My intention was to visit during a variety of seasons, take as many photographs as possible and compile it all into a visual record of our days together. When it was done, I would give it to her as a birthday present.
Now I wasn’t actually sure how many visits I would be making before the permanent shift, so I’d been a little unclear about how the book would be themed. All I knew for certain was that the seasons would form the visual backdrop.
By the end of the fall trip, I felt I had enough material to work with and started doing the layouts. It was a shame that I hadn’t managed to include a spring visit, but at that time, we thought the next trip was going to be permanent.
I still had great material from summer, fall, and winter (though, out of sequence). Carefully I picked the final selection and organised my layout. I decided to intersperse the images with song lyrics from tracks that meant a lot to both of us. These were mostly from Something for Kate, a band that had played a pivotal role in our early bonding, though, a few other bands also made the cut.
The book was to be called Eleven Weeks (the amount of time we’d spent together to that point) and was split into three chapters summer, winter & fall; each covering one visit.
When all was done to my satisfaction, I sent the files off to the publishers in the US and waited. I’d arranged for the book to be mailed straight to Jersey girl, so I was not even going to get to see it before she did (I don’t mind admitting, that made me very nervous).
The suspense was torture, but after several weeks the package duly arrived and I got to watch her reaction as she opened it on Skype. When I saw her face, I knew the months of planning and work had all been worth it.
The gesture was small in the scheme of things, but as I watched her gaze wonderingly at her gift, I was struck by the realisation that no one had ever done anything like this for her before.
This made me both happy because it meant that I’d managed to do something special for her, and quite sad because she is the sort of soul that people should want to go out of their way to do nice things for.
As she leafed through our memories, she was crying real tears and didn’t know what to say. That was fine, her eyes and gorgeous smile conveyed everything I needed to know.
Saying goodbye, with no clear certainty as to when you will see each other again, is not a thing you ever get used to. It tears at the heart and numbs the mind. Each time I have walked away from her it has felt a little worse than the last and, by that fall’s farewell, it had become a crushing weight pressing down upon us both.
Only for this woman would I ever endure such emotional distress, but because it was her, I knew I would endure it, for as long as was necessary.
This third departure was made that little bit more miserable by the fact that I had managed to catch a pretty bad head cold. I’d walked around South Street the previous day feeling increasingly shitty (something I opted to leave out of my previous post) and now it felt like my head was being squeezed in a vice; not a good state for flying.
We said our broken goodbyes and that soul-deadening moment descended once again as I turned from her and the kids and we each walked into our separate worlds. Soon I was caught up in all the usual ‘security’ nonsense which, for just a little while, served as an annoying distraction from my sorrows.
The first takeoff really didn’t seem too bad, despite my stuffed up head. Being in the air wasn’t too bad either, except for my having a little trouble hearing properly. Then we started our descent into Atlanta. It felt disturbingly like someone was trying to shove chopsticks into my brain through my ears. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt pain like that; sheer agony.
And I had another three landings ahead of me.
The one in LA was just as bad, Brisbane too, but the worst by far was Melbourne. That descent seemed to take forever. It was a long slow glide with several course corrections and every second felt like my ears were going to bleed.
I swear at one point, when we were only a couple of hundred feet in the air, the plane seemed to have slowed so much that we were just hanging stationary above the ground. I guess it was an optical illusion, but it seemed bizarrely real as I looked down through my window at a farmhouse that seemed disinclined to move out of view in the expected manner.
By the time I was back on the ground, my nerves (and brain) were shot. I collapsed into a taxi and actually to this day, can’t remember anything about the drive home.
Despite all this, the first thing I did was power up my computer and Skype with Jersey girl. She knew I was OK as I’d texted her upon touchdown in Melbourne as usual, but we always need to connect as soon as I’m back.
That first call is always tough. It’s so good to see the face of the one you love, but the knowledge that you cannot just reach out and touch that face is heartbreaking.
Neither of us knew when the next trip was to be and so there were a few tears and sobs punctuating the conversation. I knew that it would be like this until we got a little more space between us and those four weeks.
I also knew that I was due for a good month of deep depression. As usual, I was not to be disappointed on that score.
Colour was the theme of that visit. My previous stay had taken place in a very white world; beautiful, but starkly monochrome. Prior to that, all had been green, green, green. This fall, by contrast, was a symphony of colour that almost overwhelmed the eyes.
I’d never truly known the transformative power of the seasons until then. We had beautiful autumns in Canberra where I grew up but compared to Jersey in the fall, they were frankly a little anemic. Here, the autumn was a wildfire set in the tree tops; the falling leaves like drifting embers.
My attempts to capture the intensity in photographs largely failed. A poor camera hampered my efforts, but even with the best camera available, I doubt my meager skills would have been up to the task. Still, for what it’s worth, here is a selection of images that at least hint at the glory that presented itself to my lens.
If some of these pictures appear a little fixated on the graveyard, it is not my latent goth tendencies coming to the surface, I simply found the local church grounds to be a useful and photogenic backdrop to the shots I was trying to capture.
Time was running out. Our four weeks were drawing to a close and my weekend flight was looming. That’s basically three ways to say exactly the same thing, but none convey the sense of pit of the stomach dread we were both feeling.
Combining the three visits, we’d now shared a home for close to three months and knew beyond a shadow of a doubt this was how we wanted the rest of our lives to be. All of which made the impending separation that much more traumatic.
We decided to have one more day out, doing something a bit special with the kids. We hadn’t been in to Philly with them since that first summer, so we decided it would be fun to take them down to South Street.
We set off, but for Jersey girl and I, the drive was a little bit too close to the bone, we were thinking about how the very next day we’d be doing it again for the last time.
We tried to put those thoughts out of our heads and just enjoy the day, but it wasn’t easy. Still, the kids were being their usual selves and so the constant fart and poop songs soon had us all laughing.
By the time we got to South Street and found a park, we were in pretty good spirits. Jersey girl was the only one among us who’d been there before, so the kids and I were all pretty curious and excited. I’d heard a lot about the place and figured it was the Philly equivalent of Melbourne’s Brunswick Street. That proved to be fairly accurate; artsy, bohemian and full of restaurants would be a fair description.
We’d parked a little further outside the popular part than we’d intended and so walked through some of the poorer bits along the way. It wasn’t really a problem, though. The kids didn’t even seem to notice and I was glad to get this extra perspective.
We soon hit the precinct we’d been shooting for and I have to say, I was really impressed. You hear a lot about what a ‘tough’ town Philadelphia is – and don’t get me wrong, it’s pretty rough in some parts – but you don’t hear quite as much about the artsier side of things.
What strikes you first about South Street is the colour, it’s everywhere. We arrived on a somewhat dull and overcast morning, but South Street has its own way of brightening your day. Almost everywhere you look there are murals. The buildings are absolutely festooned with images. And many of the places that don’t bear these storied or decorative graphics are nevertheless painted in such vibrant and vivid colours that they seem no less flashy than their tattooed neighbours.
I could feel myself falling for the place pretty much at first sight. I’m a bit of a fossicker, give me an interesting enough little corner to rummage around in and I’m gone for hours. South Street was full of such potential. I think I could have spent days there. Sadly, that was not an option and so I contented myself with taking pictures and enjoying the unique atmosphere of the street.
In-between all the restaurants there are a bewildering variety of shops covering music, fashion, books, art, comics, the esoteric, and pretty much anything else one might need or desire. It’s a really distracting place to spend some time. And distraction was certainly what we were looking for; anything to help us forget, if only for a moment, about the next day’s parting.
We rounded off our explorations with a traditional Italian pizza at a very friendly old school restaurant; perfect. The kids really seemed to enjoy it and on the way back to the car we stopped in at the comic store and I bought them some parting gifts (It’s amazing what they sell in those places these days).
I couldn’t help feeling a little blue as we climbed back in the car. The sense that there’s just never enough time was weighing on me. Soon I would be thousands of kilometers away from all this and just jumping in the car to head down to South Street, or Clinton, or New Hope would cease to be an option; at least for the foreseeable future.
Much more importantly, Jersey girl would soon be beyond the circle of my arms. There were now only hours left where I would be able to reach out and cup the curve of her cheek with my hand. That thought alone threatened to tear my heart. I know this was just as true for her.
The kids were tired on the drive home and we’re soon either asleep or lost in their electronic devices.
We two were quiet also, but for completely different reasons.
There’s gotta be a song left to sing ‘Cause everybody can’t have thought of everything One little song that ain’t been sung One little rag that ain’t been wrung out completely yet Just got a little left
On that third trip, I finally got to Asbury Park. I’m not sure why it took so long. I guess there had just been so much catching up to do we never quite managed to get to it before this. In the end, it happened almost as an afterthought.
Jersey girl’s aunt has a house down by the beach at Lavallette and we were heading there for a weekend away. Our friend K was also down at the shore that weekend and so we arranged to meet her on the Friday night for dinner in Asbury.
The restaurant we chose was a Cuban place called Cubacan right on the boardwalk in Ocean Avenue. It was a bad night for business as a squall was blasting in off the Atlantic and the wind and rain were relentless.
This had kept people away and we found we had the whole place pretty much to ourselves. I suppose a crowd would have lent a little electricity to the evening, but I can’t say we minded the peace and extra attention from the wait staff.
From my seat, I could see the legendary Stone Pony across the street. So many greats have played the stage of that (frankly pretty ugly) venue over the decades that it exudes a strange almost mystical energy that belies its squat and underwhelming exterior.
We never did actually go inside (and amazingly, I still haven’t*) so I can’t really speak to the atmosphere on the other side of the doors. I’m sure the knowledge that Springsteen used to work the bar there (just for kicks and no pay) will be enough to seduce my sensibilities when I finally go (this year for sure).
I’ve read a few reviews that dissed the food at Cubacan, but I have to say, at least two of us are dedicated foodies and we were all pretty happy with our meals. I had the chicken, which seemed like a pretty typical Cuban kind of dish and I really enjoyed it.
I can’t remember what the ladies had, but we all agreed it had been worth braving the squall for.
Here’s part of the menu.
The weather made walking around an unappealing prospect so I didn’t really get to see the sites that night, but the next day, we drove through again, and I got more of a feel for the place. The plan was to come back that evening and maybe take in a band, but the second part of the storm blew in later that day and cancelled that.
And that’s all I got of Asbury that visit. This is probably a bit of a boring post for you the reader, but it was my first experience of a place that is pivotal in the story of American East Coast music.
As an aside, Melbourne too has its own version of Asbury Park. St Kilda, by the bay, served the same summer resort town role in Victorian times as did Asbury. It too has been the centre of a thriving musical scene and features wonderful architecture of a bygone age.
As it happens, I was there just last night to see the superlative Gillian Welch with her insanely talented guitarist partner David Rawlings. The show was an absolute revelation (time’s the revelator) and the Palais Theatre where I saw them is of exactly the same cloth from which the Paramount in Asbury is cut.
If you’ve never seen Gillian and David live, I strongly urge you to do so.