15 Evelyn's tour of the ghost town

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15   Evelyn's tour of the ghost town

"Wake up, you two," Evelyn calls. I wake and see Alaia stirring too. "We're entering Asbury Park now, my home town. Some call it a bombsite, but I hold it in great affection, so be careful what you say!"

All I've heard about Asbury Park is that it's a run-down seaside resort about half an hour away from New York City. On the left, yellow tape is stretched across the steps leading from a boardwalk to a wide and deserted sandy beach where a notice reads "No Bathing". A road sign tells me this is Ocean Avenue, and there indeed is an ocean. Coincidence? I think not. In stark contrast to when we set out, the afternoon has become grimly overcast and it is starting to drizzle. "And it's perfect beach weather!" hoots Evelyn. "All right, I'm going to give you both a quick tour, since you insist. There on the right is the Berkeley Carteret Hotel," and she points at a high brick building, "the only hotel remaining that isn't ruined or a flea-pit. I forget who keeps it alive, and god knows how they do—it's always mostly empty." Beyond it are two wide empty squares of grass, with a gaggle of grey geese on them. We pass some low concrete structures interspersed by a few elegant but run-down seaside buildings with ornate decorations—most of these buildings locked, shuttered up or wrecked, with old paint peeling off walls and wooden facings. "There's the venerable Madame Marie's psychic cabin on the left," continues Evelyn as we cross Fourth Avenue, "closed due to unforeseen circumstances."

I seem to hear a bird's shriek, rich as a peach, and I picture it poking out its orange bill from shadow: I lean to the right, peer up and see a corner of the sky lying drowned behind the long-abandoned shell of a half-constructed multi-storey building. Years of aborted half-completion have encrusted its protruding metal concrete-reinforcing rods with rust where they poke up from the columns like frayed wires from a broken appliance. I see no great bird, I must have been hearing things. "That lovely eyesore," says Evelyn, "is Joe Carob's carcass-building. Also known as C-8, from its old tax ID number. It makes some people so cheesed-off, they have a hard time even acknowledging its existence—though it's kind of hard to miss, being smack in the middle of town and the biggest thing around. It's the great unmentionable, so I'll mention it: ladies and gentlemen, the aborted Ocean Mile Condo. Unfortunately uncle Joe ran out of cash in '89, after eleven storeys of bare steel and concrete. And to think, it was going to be sixteen floors of bare steel and concrete!... I seem to be the only one who feels it has a certain charm, just because it was part of my childhood, which was a beautiful time for me. So I say, 'Thanks Joe!' I could never tell that to anyone who comes from around here, though—I think I'd get lynched if I did."

On the right comes the boarded-up ruin of the Albion Hotel, then on the left a weeded-over miniature golf course. I've picked up some of her goofy enthusiasm, I must say: already I do find myself feeling an real affection for this place. She swings us right on Second Avenue. "There's the Stone Pony on the left, still jumping; there's been a lot of live music in this town. Back there was the Atlantis with the rainbow sign. I think they'll be pulling down the Albion later this year." Looking right on Kingsley Street, I see beside the Albion a building in a two-storey L-shape, enclosing an empty space where pebbles push through asphalt. Up the outside stairways, the dead-looking upper doors are numbered still in sequence, squatted in or empty, with the windows shuttered. "And this is where I worked the street a few years back, when it was busier," she says, turning left on Kingsley Street. "You'd never guess, to look at me, of course."

The drizzle comes harder. A sense of exhaustion presses down from the sky through the weed-edged fragments of flagstone and grass, where I'm pleased to see no children play. Looking down Second Avenue as we turn again, I see several large houses with grand porches and balconies, some boarded up, which gives the street a spooky air. A train siren blares on and off, across the town, headed somewhere from somewhere but not stopping here. Lone figures scurry round corners in the middle distance. Yet, there are sporadic signs of life, amid the wreckage: on the right another gay bar, Zippers, then an older-looking girly-bar next door called Seductions, then some run-down shack-like bungalows. The grimy Flamingo Motel proclaims vacancies on First Avenue. On our left across a wide space the Empress Hotel is shut down, but Evelyn points to it: "In there is Paradise, where my friend Shigem works. It's a club, I'll take you there." Turning right on Asbury Avenue, I see on my left a shuttered green building labelled Palace Amusements, bearing two primitive painted renditions of a grinning fun-lover's face. Next to him is a gay pornographic cinema, then the Talking Bird Café, both functional but closed. "That was Tillie," says Evelyn, "another little part of my childhood. He's watched us like that for twice my lifetime, but I hear he's going to be demolished, so enjoy him while you can... And here we are." The van glides to a halt. "The town has great parking, don't you think? OK, end of tour, we can go back to New York now ... oh no, sorry, there's a concert first."

I look around for a building that might be expected to house a high-end sound-stage, but all I can see, aside from houses, is the wide, shuttered façade of yet another boarded-up hotel on our right clad in peeling white paint. Its decrepit façade bears no name, but on its roof, facing the sea, stands a line of big letters adding up to half a name—"METROPOL". "It's in here?" enquires Alaia.

Evelyn nods, chuckling. "Let's be fast going in, please. We try to be unobtrusive. Plus, in view of the broadcast it would be good if nobody in the houses across the street sees you, Jaymi, so try and keep your face down."

She spirits us through an inconspicuous, unmarked door. I feel a sense of unreality, as if I am an actor on the silent screen or a chess-piece in a game (black knight, I think). I glance at Alaia. "Isn't all this strange?" I mutter to her as we hurry after Evelyn.

"Yes," she murmurs. "I feel like a chess-piece."

"Really? You as well? Wow... By the way, which piece?"

She glances at me darkly: "D'you need to ask?"

I do need to, in fact, despite her seeming to think I shouldn't. Before I can decide how to press the question in a tactful way, however, we have entered an empty white hallway of faded grandeur, featuring a curved white marble staircase lined with balusters like fat white pawns.

Did she mean the black queen? I should guess so, intellectually, but I could be wrong. It would seem somewhat excessive to tune in to her, just in order to find this out (and of course I shouldn't do so now anyway), but I must admit I'm curious.

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For some nice reviews and interviews about The Imagination Thief, in The Guardian and elsewhere, see http://www.rohanquine.com/press-media/the-imagination-thief-reviews-media/

For a quick synopsis of it, see http://www.rohanquine.com/home-the-imagination-thief-novel/synopsis-and-characters-list-the-imagination-thief/

For the 12 Films in The Imagination Thief, see http://www.rohanquine.com/video-books-films/12-films/

For the Audio-book version and the Video-book version of each of its 120 mini-chapters, see http://www.rohanquine.com/home-the-imagination-thief-novel/audiobook-tumblr-wattpad/

For links to the retailers, see http://www.rohanquine.com/buy/the-imagination-thief-novel-ebook/ and http://www.rohanquine.com/buy/the-imagination-thief-novel-paperback/

And for its Amazon pages, see http://www.amazon.co.uk/The-Imagination-Thief/dp/0992754909 and http://www.amazon.com/The-Imagination-Thief/dp/0992754909

The Imagination Thief is about a web of secrets, triggered by the stealing and copying of people's imaginations and memories. It's about the magic that can be conjured up by images of people, in imagination or on film; the split between beauty and happiness in the world; and the allure of various kinds of power. It celebrates some of the most extreme possibilities of human imagination, personality and language, exploring the darkest and brightest flavours of beauty living in our minds.

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