Midnight in the Garden (State)
The whole night and into the weekend became one long instance where there was no place else I’d rather be in all of time and space. I can still hear her sultry voice through my car speakers as I cruised north on the Garden State Parkway on a chilly February evening. A bleak overcast and a quiet apathetic peace settled over my heart and New Jersey.
Only a few short weeks had passed since I returned from a wild, adventurous escapade in the brutal heat of West Africa. As is true with all of my travels, especially international, a tired, stagnant depression of sorts clouded my vision and numbed my soul upon coming home. I was back in Western Civilization, where I knew I was supposed to be for now, but I ached over Africa; the adventure, the thrill, the perpetual state of excitement and learning and discovery and seeing life through the eyes of a childlike awe that required very little materialism in exchange for abundant spiritual riches.
But that was behind me for now. Technically it was southeast of the very Parkway I was driving on, across that vast, infinite expanse of Atlantic that I could see over the misty haze of marshland just beyond Brigantine Island where the distant Atlantic City skyline stood bathed in blue. Her voice comforted me, especially that evening. Maybe it was because I had first heard her in Africa on my friends computer or for the sheer fact that she was a clearly talented underdog artist who magnificently crafted her lyrics and melodies. Whatever it was, I was glad for it because she was exactly what my alienated soul needed.
The night, and the weekend stands out more vividly than most others and I’m not exactly sure why except that I happened to be more receptive and totally aware, soaking in every last molecule of my surroundings. Life didn’t seem real after Africa, as it always felt whenever I returned from the continent, but this time was different. I navigated through a dreamlike state, but was somehow on a higher plane of feeling, incredibly sensitive to even the most subtle experience.
Some nights I can almost re-create it when I listen to her album alone in my car, cruising the Parkway; a low-tide bay aroma pitted against the windows. Instead of some vague memory or foggy flashback, I can put myself back in to that time and place with perfect precision and clarity.
I took the Asbury Park exit and headed for the coast. I couldn’t wait to have my soul soothed by hearing her live and seeing her up close.
Inside the bar, a match hissed, igniting a single flare. A row of candles flickered against the silky smoke of incense as light danced across the thousands of band stickers, weathered posters and miniature statues of Buddha, Christ, and Tillie: the iconic laughing clown face that was the creepy trademark of the fallen working class beach town.
The corner bar stood at the end of a line of boarded up storefronts a few blocks from the dilapidated boardwalk. Flurries speckled the frigid February air like ashes from the heavy gray sky as sand drifted inland from a shore that sprayed sea salt across the faces of the few wanderers.
Gaunt and ghostly, the abandoned street that was once the town’s commerce and infrastructure boasted only the light from the corner bar, now the town’s only guardian, ironically called The Saint. How lovely is it when the falling apart is just as strangely beautiful as the building up?
The bartender spoke in whispers, her long parted blonde hair draped over her eyes. She conversed with the few leather jacket locals about the mob scene, shady backroom deals, the state governor’s bridge scandal and her longing to be back across that giant ocean down the street, in gothic Prague with her ex-boyfriend. The scene was fascinating; I soaked up every bit as the close-knit room of darkness waited quietly for the evening’s performer to take the stage.
The room quieted and the lights dimmed, leaving a blue hue in the center of the stage where she stepped out in her leather jacket and microphone. Immediately struck by her humble elegance, I sang along from my seat at the far end of the bar to every word of her opening song, the first track on her album. I watched her close her eyes, look upward and smile big when she sang, “I’m on my way to wonderful, my future is bright don’t get blinded by the light.” And in that moment I knew she was right and I felt special to be there, watching her in these early stages of an epic journey she had just embarked on. I returned the smile, basking in the light of lyric’s reality.
When the song was finished she immediately looked at me and pointed. “You knew every word of that song,” she said, surprised. I reveled in the fact that she called me out among the small crowd.
“I know every word of all of your songs,” I replied. She had one of those exceptional albums that you’d listen to on repeat because it made you feel a certain way. From then on we continued to converse with each other in-between songs. She acted like I was an old friend and it solidified my already determined belief that she was genuine.
Nothing short of talented, laid-back and inspiring, I was catching visions and glimpses of her “big-time” future, hoping that one day she’d remember this one particular night in the beginning of her journey, in the cold quiet of Asbury Park. She was ambitious and unsettled, and when she sang about playing Tokyo I knew someday she would.
Halfway through her performance she asked me what my favorite song was on her album. I told her it was “Ashes Like Snow.” Hauntingly beautiful, I loved the piano and it took me back to the weeks after September 11th, 2001 when as a child, paying homage to Ground Zero, where dust and smoke still fluttered in the air above a broken and quieted Lower Manhattan. Like the few flurries outside falling slowly against the frozen shoreline of a cold, lackluster town, there was something reverent and vivid about a song in which you could feel the searing confusion over sudden human loss.
With that she dedicated it to me and soon brought her show to a close. Afterwards I introduced her to my friends and told her the story of how I first heard her voice a few weeks ago in West Africa. I thought about how if I hadn’t, I would’ve never been there that night in Asbury Park, feeling the way I felt, encouraged, inspired and uplifted.
I wished her well as she went on her way that night en route to her next show in Virginia. It was midnight in the Garden State and my friends and I gathered together at The Blue Swan Diner in Oakhurst. We laughed and caught up with each other, discussing how awesome the night had been, my travels in West Africa, nerding out about how we were just miles from the 1937 Hindenburg crash site, and the grand future of the talented young artist we’d just seen.
The next day, as we took the Williamsburg bridge from Brooklyn into Manhattan in the same dreary gloom that had hung over the northeast of the U.S., I heard my favorite song of hers play through my mind and out over the East River as we passed the Freedom Tower. Despite the somber weather, New York loved beautiful and infinite: A never-ending playlist.
I can almost re-create that weekend when I listen to her album alone in my car, cruising the Parkway; especially at night and north of the Atlantic City exit. Our brief interaction and the night in itself – the time, place and state of my heart was an authentic reminiscence that left me inspired because somehow, someway, her words and melodies met me exactly where I was at in life; falling together like the soft snow that blanketed the beach. I feel like as artists we crossed paths on purpose, and I’ll forever be glad for it.