Wednesday, July 02, 2008

The Temple of Knowledge

The death of Madam Marie disturbed me. I've been wondering why.

Always this disclaimer: Bruce Springsteen has almost nothing to do with my feelings for Asbury Park, boardwalks, fortunetellers, or the Jersey shore. I am my own person. My family has a history with the south Jersey shore dating back nearly 100 years. Drawn by Atlantic City, our spawn began scattering out from Philadelphia to live in Atlantic & Cape May Counties a long time ago. I've never met most of them. My brother, step-brother, & their families near the shore aren't bennies or shoobies. I am.

My grandmother brought me to Asbury Park when I was five or six. Had she lived a few years more I would've gotten around to asking her why. A chance to get away from all of us for a few days & she takes her moody, anxious grandson with the short attention span. We stayed with her ladyfriend a block or two from the boardwalk. I recall very little of that weekend. I rode the tiny putt-putt boat on Wesley Lake & liked it. I remember flowers everywhere, in front yards, the parks, by the lake, lining the streets. Asbury was fantastic with flowers. That was the old Asbury Park. I don't remember Madam Marie but she was there somewhere.

More than a decade passed until I returned as a teenager with a drivers license. Asbury was a lively little boardwalk. I looked down at it at first, not yet appreciating the special qualities of different boardwalks. . I went in the evening to stare at girls, play pinball, roll up my pants & wade, occasionally see a name band at Convention Hall, soak up the boardwalk atmosphere. The local music scene didn't interest me. Sometimes I drove down the coast via Sandy Hook. Madam Marie was there. For all the hugeness of Atlantic City's boardwalk, & my familiarity with it, I can't recall seeing a fortuneteller booth on it. That seems impossible. It had everything else. Asbury had everything, too. Just not as much. Or a diving horse.

Asbury boardwalk remained a fun place for another decade, even as downtown Asbury Park collapsed. Then it became impossible to ignore the increasing grimness & griminess. But it clung to life for yet another ten years. Madam Marie stayed. No city in New Jersey threw away so many advantages. It took an exceptionally corrupt, exceptionally stupid city government many years to kill the old Asbury Park boardwalk. & the worst of it coincided exactly with the rejuvention of other boardwalk towns. At the bottom of the slide, when the buttercup lamp fixtures that had once lit the kiddie rides were finally removed, the connection to Ocean Grove torn up, the Casino doors locked against the crime & despair, the decaying boardwalk an empty shell thrown up on the beach echoing only the seagulls & breaking waves, you could go to Keansburg, a town nearly everyone had once assumed was staggering toward the grave, & have a delightful time. It broke my heart. The Temple of Knowledge survived the catastrophe.

Madam Marie was the final connection to the old Asbury Park. Everything else now is different. The continuity is broken. I feel toward Asbury much like I feel toward Atlantic City. I can't pick up the thread of my youth there as I can in Seaside Heights, Wildwood, Point Pleasant, Ocean City NJ. Losing Atlantic City put a hole in my life, because I lost a large part of my grandmother when I couldn't find memories of her there anymore.

Madam Marie was also a matriarch. Her great-granddaughter said Marie was "very, very strong until the day she died" as a point of family pride as well as of fact. A queen rules until she is dead. One of her chosen successors made the announcement, & I suspect Sally Castello, herself a fortuneteller, knows exactly in whose unique footsteps she is walking. Sally didn't learn the trade in fortuneteller college. If she's good, she understands the expectations of those who enter the "Temple of Knowledge." She knows that a single line in an old Bruce Springsteen song is what brings many of them there, or that they could be gay guys from the Empress Motel resort asking when they'll meet the men they'll marry, literally. She knows what to say when they don't find Madam Marie herself sitting inside. She'll have her walk-in boardwalk trade for the short cash readings, & her regular local clients. With fortunetellers you get the time & attention you pay for. No matter how talkative she may be, she'll obey the fortuneteller's code of silence, symbolized by a flimsy curtain of beads or gauzy fabric, but inpenetrable & mysterious. Which is why they act cranky toward nosy, noisy little kids.

Madam Marie was about ten years older than I thought she was, old enough to be either my mother or my grandmother. She was on the boardwalk before World War Two, an established, familiar attraction by the time my grandmother took me to Asbury Park as a child.

That's why I mourn Madam Marie.

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"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be." Thomas Jefferson

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