Tag Archives: Hoboken

Icarus with a laptop

It’s not exactly a language peeve, but I do get a chuckle every time some freshly minted celebrity is described as enjoying a “meteoric career.” After all, a meteorite is a chunk of rock that falls to earth at an incredibly high speed, burning up as it descends, until it either explodes in midair or leaves a big crater in the ground. I think a meteoric career is the last thing anyone would want.

Disgraced New Yorker science writer Jonah Lehrer — now there’s a meteoric career for you. Elevated at an early age, destined for greatness, or at least lots of lucrative speaking engagements, book deals, and TED talks. First he was accused of recycling his own material. Then he was caught recycling other people’s material. Then he was caught making stuff up. Apparently he even fabricated a quote from Bob Dylan, whose detail-oriented fan base served as a pre-Google Google before the Internet was even a glimmer on the horizon. Cue Addison DeWitt’s line in All About Eve: “That was a stupid lie! Easily exposed!”

I’m not here to grind Jonah Lehrer into the dust, but I will be following this American Science series of posts about Lehrer’s career and what it tells us about Big Ideas journalism of the sort epitomized by Malcolm Gladwell — of whom Lehrer was once considered an intellectual heir.

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Blurbito ergo sum

Two unexpected bits of coolness that come with publishing a nonfiction book: (1) Seeing yourself cited in bibliographies and footnotes, and (2) being approached for cover blurbs by other writers in your line. Which is a roundabout way of saying that not only is the just-published Killing the Poormaster: A Saga of Poverty, Corruption, and Murder in the Great Depression a great book that deserves lots of attention, but it also marks my debut as a blurber. Not just on the dust jacket, either –I’m right before the title page, rubbing inky elbows with Anthony DePalma and Fred Gardaphe. Tell Mr. DeMille I’m ready for my close-up.

Holly Metz has written a historical page-turner centered on the February 1938 death of Harry Barck, a petty city official in Hoboken, N.J., who used his position as “poormaster” to grind impoverished city residents under his heel. To borrow phrase from Jimmy Breslin, Barck died of natural causes — his heart stopped beating when a paper spike was thrust into it. For the scores of Hoboken residents who’d had their assistance arbitrarily cut back because of Barck’s views on self-reliance, and the families forced to get by on resources that would have been inadequate even for one person, the poormaster’s death was a source of grim satisfaction. An unemployed mason, Joe Scutellaro, was charged with murder; Scutellaro claimed the death was accidental, saying he had fought with Barck after the poormaster suggested his wife should turn tricks instead of asking for aid from the city.

The ensuing trial turned the spotlight on the way America treated its impoverished citizens during hard times, and Holly Metz’ book picks out some even more glaring parallels with our current economic and political situation. The depth of research is evident on every page, but Metz’ prose is quick and light on its feet. Hoboken may have gone from roughneck to ritzy over time, but one of the most important things you’ll learn from Killing the Poormaster is this: The past is always closer than you think.

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Meet me at the museum

The Hoboken Historical Museum, that is. That’s where I’ll be giving a talk on Sunday, June 24, as part of the museum’s program Driving Under the Hudson: A History of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels. The event is keyed to the 85th anniversary of the opening of the Holland Tunnel, which in turn leads to the Pulaski Skyway and the Route One Extension — the subject of my book The Last Three Miles: Politics, Murder, and the Construction of America’s First Superhighway. (The book, incidentally, now has its own Facebook page.) The entire project — recognized as America’s first superhighway — was built to carry Holland Tunel traffic out of Jersey City and across the Meadowlands as expeditiously as possible. As the book reveals, things didn’t go quite so smoothly as planned. There was a nasty labor war during the construction of the final stretch through Hudson County, now known as the Pulaski Skyway, that resulted in a murder trial, and the entire design of the Skyway was compromised by political interference and inexperience with the new field of traffic engineering. If you want to know why driving the Skyway offers all the scares of a rollercoaster ride with none of the pleasures, The Last Three Miles will give you the answers. If you want a look into a previously little-known chapter of the career of political boss Frank Hague, The Last Three Miles will open a panoramic view. And if you want a chance to say hellp and talk about the book some more, come to the Hoboken Historical Museum on Sunday, June 24, at 4 p.m.

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Ghost of a doorway

IMG_0266Around the corner from the Hoboken train station.

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Approved authors 3

There are still some shopping days left before Christmas, so I’m offering passages from some of the books I’ve read and enjoyed this year. Most of the books were published this year. Most of the books are by people I’ve had some contact with, whether e-mail or in person, but there are also authors who wouldn’t know me if they tripped over me in a doorway.  In short, they’re here because I enjoyed their books and I think you will, too.

in-hoboken-revisedIN HOBOKEN, by Christian Bauman, Melville House, 2008.

I have relatives who remember Hoboken in the days when its riverfront bristled with docks, the Clam Broth House was a sawdust-on-the-floor joint with a separate eating area for women, and you simply didn’t venture east of Washington Street unless you were a cop, a stevedore, or someone in search of trouble. When I lived in Jersey City in the late 1980s, Hoboken was yupping up rapidly but still had the bruises from its postwar decline: a scary housing project; an abandoned hulk of a building near Observer Highway that had once housed a craphouse supermarket where the baggers panhandled you as the cashier counted out your change; crumbling brownstones in need of a big cash infusion. Now, of course, the brownstones are worth millions of dollars, the docks have been replaced with an esplanade, the Clam Broth House exists only as a hand-shaped sign, and the abandoned supermarket houses a Barnes & Noble and a CVS drug store.

One of the constants in Hoboken’s story has been the great music club Maxwell’s, which has been known for years — barring a brief, unfortunate period when some new owners tried to make it into a brew pub — as a place where you could see tomorrow’s great bands today. Before the city went high-rent, Hoboken was a place where musicians could find affordable digs and access to Manhattan via the PATH.

Christian Bauman uses that music scene as the backdrop for his third novel, In Hoboken, published earlier this year. Bauman’s perspective is not that of an appreciator, but a participant:

For fifteen years, songwriters — folk, pop, rock, whatever — had been coming to Geoff’s apartment on Tuesday nights. From the amateur to the obscure to the famous, all were usually welcome. You played your newest song and the group critiqued. Fiercely critiqued. When Thatcher was seventeen, a senior in high school — and still unknown to Mason as Randolph’s son — he’d been in a trio with James and another kid from their town, a tall, muscular Greek kid a year older named King Papas. The trio took the bus from Gary Ridge into the city one night to play the open mike at Cornelia Street Cafe. Three kids from the same Jersey town into acoustic music, in 1987 — not common. A guy who looked like a vacationing dentist came up after they’d played and took Thatcher aside. He’d introduced himself as Nate Goldman. “I’m a manager.”

“I know who you are,” Thatcher has said, heart rate accelerating. Goldman was a legend, an old-school legend, who’d started his career while still in college, in the 1940s, following Pete Seeger around like a puppy dog and offering a management contract to every Communist folksinger and black blues belter Seeger turned him on to. Goldman’s day had essentially passed, but his management stable — his Talent — was still impressive.

“Yeah, well — I can’t manage you three kids so don’t piss your lederhosen.” Goldman had grabbed a card from his pocket and a pen and scrawled something on the back. “You know who Geoff Mason is, smartypants? Yeah?” He gave Thatcher the card. “Here’s his address. You guys — whichever of you guys writes the words — you go to his place Tuesday night, any Tuesday night, and tell him I sent you. You can’t sing for shit but you got some good words.”

James was at Rutgers within a few months, but Thatcher and King Papas made Geoff’s apartment a religion. Thatcher ended up in the army, and Papas ended up in Boston, but there was a time they never missed a Tuesday night. In the four years Thatcher was in the army he never came back, even when he was on leave. He visited Geoff if he was home, and wrote often, but never came by on Tuesdays.

“So why don’t you come?” Geoff said again. “Bring both those songs.”

“Okay, maybe.”

“It’ not a death sentence. Do what you will.” Mason reached for the bottle on the floor, filled his glass and then filled Thatcher’s. Thatcher took a long drink of the wine.

“You know what it is?” Thatcher said. “I just — I just don’t have a connection with those people anymore.”

“What people? Which?”

“The people who come here. The New Yorkers.”

“You mean your friends?”

Thatcher rolled his eyes. “Some of them. My friends are in Jersey.”

“So why don’t you like New York writers? Because they only write about life as a New York writer?”

Thatcher rolled his eyes again.

“Yes, well.” Mason tapped the stem of his wineglass with his fingernail. “We’re not as elitist as you think, and you’re not as worldly and of-the-people as you imagine. Just come on Tuesday and sing your proletarian drivel.”

Bauman’s first two novels, The Ice Beneath You and Voodoo Lounge, drew heavily on his military background; In Hoboken reflects his continuing career as a road-tested folk musician. The title is a semi-homage to Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, and In Hoboken, with its large cast of musicians and artists trying to make their way in a world that has few places for them will introduce you to a time and a place that’s equally exotic.

And yeah, Bauman blurbed my book. What of it? The man’s got Robert Stone, Hubert Selby Jr. and Neal Pollack singing his praises — you think he needs a leg up from me?

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The day of the rolling suitcases

On the off chance that somebody might hire me to write the screeplay for a remake of Eric Rohmer’s 1986 film Summer (Le Rayon vert) — I know it sounds farfetched, but you never know — let me declare that my version will be set in Hoboken, N.J., and the title will be The Day of the Rolling Suitcases.

Let me explain.

Rohmer’s film — which is, in fact, not only the first Rohmer film I could stand to sit through, but one which actually charmed me into staying with it — is about Delphine, a young woman who finds herself alone and unattached in Paris just as it appears most of the city is getting up and leaving for the late August holiday season. Delphone has been ditched, and she’s been depressed about it for so long that her sadness has become something to cherish — she actually becomes irritated and angry with people who try to cheer her up. Throughout the film there are references to Jules Verne’s novel Le Rayon vert and the “green flash,” sometimes observed at sunset, when folklore has it you can see into the heart of the person you are with. After alienating and aggravating just about everyone she encounters, Delphine meets a young man on his way to Saint-Jean-de-Luz and decides to travel with him. The film ends with the two staring out at the horizon, waiting for the green flash. Trying to capture the real thing, Rohmer and his crew hung around long enough to put together another film, later released as Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle, before giving up. In a way, the ending Rohmer was forced to come up with is even better: the screen goes dark, and we hear Delphine laugh in delight — a very welcome sound.

All this occurred to me as I walked to work this morning, literally surrounded by legions of young Hobokenite women, tanned and toned and buffed to a high gloss, as they trundled their rolling suitcases down to the PATH station — the departure point for the Fourth of July weekend. All of a sudden I imagined a Hudson County version of Delphine vainly trying to hook up with people up and down Washington Street as the condos and apartments emptied out and the population dwindled to a residue of couples, unlucky singles, old people and, way back in the locks away from Washington, project kids and old style Italians zealously guarding their parking spaces from encroachment. Maybe she’ll finally make a connection along the waterfront. Maybe she’ll even get to see the green flash, reflected in the side of the Goldman Sachs building — I haven’t decided. 

Any producers who like this pitch, feel free to contact me at the e-mail address listed elsewhere on this site.

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