Volume 78 / Number 3 - June 18 - 24, 2008
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933
Back to my roots: Queer Asbury Park, then and now
By Kate Walter
As I stepped off the bridge into Asbury Park, the place had a ghost town feel for this Jersey girl who’s lived in the Village for three decades. I got chills when I saw the boarded-up M&K building, a legendary gay and lesbian disco of the 1970s. The Shore’s answer to Studio 54 was in a bulky, tan building on Cookman Avenue. A run-down, old hotel with three dance floors and a cruisy pool scene, the M&K was where I went to meet my gay male friends — Joe and Denis — when they had rented a suite for the weekend. When I was coming out, it felt safer going to the club with them. I had my initial lesbian experience with someone I met at the M&K.
The first floor was mixed, the second was men, the third was women. I left my male friends and ventured to the dyke area. I got picked up fast by a cute bleached blonde named Tania. She was in the Navy, lived at the nearby base. She wasn’t from this area and had come to the disco with her service pals. She had been out a while. I wanted to lose my queer virginity, so I figured it made sense to do it with someone experienced. So what if Tania had a girl in every port? We danced, got drunk, and rented a room in the M&K. The guys had big grins on their faces when we said goodbye. Joe wanted details the next day.
Now here I was in 2008, older and experienced, once again going to a gay disco in Asbury Park. Was this deja vu? Would I get lucky again tonight? As I hurried past new construction toward the music blasting from Club Paradise, I hoped that my dear friends, Joe and Denis, long dead, were in another paradise. I heard them in my head making wardrobe suggestions and encouraging me: “Go for it, girl. You’re hot for your age. Forget that bitch who dumped you after all those years. You’re the one with the sparkle.”
Since I’m a city snob, I almost didn’t go inside the club, but this felt like paying homage to my past. I produced my driver’s license and paid the admission fee, my eyes adjusting to the darkness as I walked through a lounge to get to outside where dykes and fags were dancing wildly around the pool and tiki bar. The place was packed.
Ten years ago, on Memorial Day weekend, Shep Pettibone, Paradise’s visionary owner, opened the complex — a sleek dance emporium and chichi hotel. It was a flagship queer business that heralded the new Asbury and nodded to its gay history. If the revival of this Shore resort — once described by Springsteen as “my city in ruins” — was finally happening, after many false starts, the queer community, and artists, have played a big part.
I spotted my friend Cindy on the balcony overlooking the pool. An old pal from New Jersey, she was staying in the same guesthouse as I was in nearby Ocean Grove. All day on the beach, she’d urged me to come to the club’s annual party to meet a range of women. I squeezed my way through the revelers to greet her. We stood on the balcony watching a fat drag queen descend the stairs lip-syncing to “On the Radio.” I decided it was time for a beer.
I saw a few attractive women on the dance floor. I also saw a lot of outdated haircuts. I even spied a few mullets. It was a safe bet I was the only woman with a haircut from the April Barton Salon in the Chelsea Hotel. I knew this would be a bunch of Jersey girls, so I tried to adjust my obnoxious attitude and not be a judgmental city dyke. So what if the bartender had never heard of Stella. At least they stocked it. “It’s a beer,” I said.
After all, I too was a Jersey girl, proud of my gritty roots. I’d rather go “down the Shore” than visit the snooty Hamptons. The big difference was that I had moved across the river.
Not long after that fateful night at the M&K, I fell in love with another woman and came out. I couldn’t imagine being openly gay and living in my home state. So I sold my VW beetle and found an apartment in the East Village. My Garden State gay friends, Joe and Denis, soon followed me to Manhattan, where they became regulars at the St. Mark’s Baths.
After three decades Downtown, I’m a New Yorker spoiled by a diverse cultural life. The festive bash at Paradise was a far cry from my previous weekend, where I was hobnobbing with the women from Out Professionals at a mixer at the Asia Society museum on the Upper East Side. Later, I hopped the subway to a colleague’s book party with fantastic food and wine.
Now I stood on the hotel balcony overlooking the emptiness on Ocean Avenue, the main drag that runs parallel to the boardwalk; almost everything was razed except the Stone Pony, the rock club where Springsteen got his start. I wondered if the M&K building would be torn down or gutted and turned into condos or revived as a gay club. I wondered how many other Jersey queers lost their virginity in Asbury Park.
In late middle age, I’d come full circle. I was single and returning to my roots. Looking back, I made some big mistakes in my life — like spending too many years with a narcissistic control freak. But the best decision I ever made — moving to the Village — evolved from those nights spent in Asbury Park when I was a baby dyke.
Of course, I have not missed the irony that I fled my home state to find liberation in the city, but today New Jersey is more gay friendly than New York State. While New Jersey has civil unions for gay and lesbian couples, the Empire State offers nothing similar. However, Governor Paterson just ordered state agencies to recognize same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions — a step in the right direction.