Monday, January 24, 2011

Defrosting on the shore

No doubt, this January will go down as one of the coldest, wintriest ones on record in New Jersey. This does not bode well for outdoor activity on the Jersey shore, yet we found ourselves bundled in multiple layers of clothing on successive Sundays, attempting to locate notable birds on and near waterfronts in Monmouth County.

One trip, taking in multiple locations, was relatively successful, with the sighting of multiple types of waterfowl and quite a few intrepid, hearty birders. I do wonder if the birds themselves appreciate the lengths to which some humans will go to observe them. In any case, they should indeed feel treasured, and hopefully not a bit neurotic or unloved.

Another trip, primarily to Sandy Hook, was fruitless for the most part, with the exception of the ubiquitous gulls and Canada geese and a few cute little birds I can’t recall the name of. Well, we did stop at a deli in Highlands that sells some outrageously good Maui Onion kettle chips, but that’s beside the point.

When the frustration on birding got to the quit point, we agreed it might be best to head over to Asbury Park for relief (rest rooms) and fun and games. I’ve been following the progress of the boardwalk’s restoration for several years now, and it’s rather heartening to visit the pavilions year-round. Years ago, you’d be lucky to find the one hot dog stand open on a Saturday in July. Now you can enjoy a gourmet-quality sit down meal, a quick burger and even a visit to an outpost of the New Jersey Hall of Fame.

Snow covered the boardwalk on the days we visited, with paths shoveled to each of the pavilion store doorways, as well as a strip running the length from Convention Hall to the hulk of the decaying Casino. The hot spot, so to speak, was the Silver Ball Museum Arcade, Asbury’s salute to the great American pastime of pinball.

No legitimate seaside boardwalk is complete without an arcade, after all, and it’s been quite a while since Asbury Park has had one. Now more than 200 vintage pinball machines are in a single location, representing decades from the 30’s to the 80’s. For a single admission price (variable by amount of time you want to spend there), you can play any of the games for as much as you want. Everything is set to free play, the perfect arrangement for those who want to perfect their craft.

Astoundingly, both of us found machines we’d wasted many a college-era hour on, and we set off on a bit of friendly competition. Myself, it had been a good 20 years since I’d played pinball, so it took a little time to get reoriented, but my traveling companion quickly slipped into competitive mode. I suspect one of us may have spent a bit more time in the student center game room than he might have wanted to admit. Especially when he started commenting on the capriciousness of the pinball god Tilt-os and the similarity between a machine’s upper flippers and a T-rex’s relatively useless arms.

All of the equipment is well maintained, though some machines have springier flippers than others. It’s fun to see the evolution of the technology, from simple mechanical devices with 10 point bumpers and four digit scoring displays to the electronic marvels that score in the six digit range. Somewhere around the late 60’s, the artwork got a lot racier, or perhaps bustier, if you get my drift, and more commercial, as well. I guess that’s the point when the manufacturers started giving endorsement deals to celebrities and movies.

The place itself probably gets mobbed on a rainy afternoon in July, but on both January visits it was doing a respectable level of business, too. We pretty much had our choice of the games, but there were enough people there to feel we had good company. The only possible complaint might have been with the snack bar, which took way longer than necessary to supply us with a couple of hot dogs. But overall, there are a lot worse ways to wile away a winter afternoon than to hang out playing pinball.

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