“I’d never expect to meet a writer in Hoboken.”
She’s thin—thin enough to say so—with black hair, 45 years on the face and a toddler. Dames Coffee sells iced mocha chai whatever, enough of an excuse to sip awhile on a 95-degree afternoon. While circumnavigating Hoboken I sweated through my t-shirt twice, but she still bothered to notice: “Will Write For Food”: silkscreened and chipped around the corners. I love that shirt for no decent reason. It provokes awkward compliments wherever I go. On the 2 train to Flatbush, a homeless man with wriggling veiny arms shook my hand and said, “I’m a writer too, great shirt.” The shirt’s simple, banal wit resonates with an original American platitude. We all dream to be something that can’t support our dreaming habit. That’s why so many I-bankers quit Wall Street and start chocolate shops in Bay Ridge.
Frizzled from the heat: “Have you ever heard of The Moth? You should check it out,” my new friend says, explaining NPR’s live storytelling project. I wonder if she ever dreamt of writing; whether she ever realized that being a writer is nothing more than a declaration and a loose commitment. Or, in my case, an old t-shirt.
I never expected to find Ben & Jerry’s, Cold Stone Creamery, Crumbs Bake Shop, and Starbucks in Hoboken. I think, I think, I think that I expected a cartoonish Italian-American festival. Exploring Hoboken is disorienting because every expectation, even those set in situ, are thwarted. Off of Washington Street, the chains and mediocre boutiques give way to confidential, closeted rows of brick row houses. The occasional deli. Dry-cleaners. Liquor stores. Not altogether different from my baseline for Italian-American-ness, “The Hill,” a St. Louis neighborhood. Except that The Hill is uncanny, a creepy pantomime of gangster movie tropes. Cathedrals, garden gnomes, long skinny white houses buttoned up with red and green garlands, grandmothers who won’t speak English in the grocery store, consiglieri, chewy loaves of bread, wedding cookies, and too clean streets. Hoboken has slipped free from those stereotypes, or been subjected to a violent gentrification that shuttled black and Hispanic families to the outskirts, confined Italians to their balconies, and concentrated wanna-be Manhattanites around the water. “I don’t think Hoboken is very interesting,” my brother said, yawning, oxygenating his blood, as is his custom. “I disagree,” I replied, as we finished the mile walk from the Hoboken PATH station to Vito’s Deli. The very most interesting places in the world are those that appear the dullest, that drink like quiet homogenized cream, that sound like static instead of dissonance or concertos. I admit a sympathy with the “dark suburbs” tradition: the tendency to fetishize and aestheticize the obviously mundane. Also known as “American Beauty” syndrome. Ostensibly, these strategies claim to unravel the costume of repressed, blasé, ordinary living, to disclose the naked violence and abnormality of the everyday. Unfortunately, that directive only ratifies the innermost desire of the suburban: to be interesting, exciting, the object of attention, beloved and hated—the site of affective response. So allow me to rewind: the very most interesting places in the world are those that are the dullest, because they test the limits of our illusions and the power of our ideologies.
Vito’s looks like an Italian-American fantasy with its dried sausages arranged in knobbly piles, an abundance of appropriate accents, and a conviviality that extends to complete strangers. Tolerance is high for newbies who don’t know s.o.p., but it’s all easy enough to figure out, if you keep one eye on the chalkboard menus and one ear to the counter. “Mr. Blue, Mr. Black!” The countermen call, seeking the next in line, slicing hot soppressata and fondling knots of mozzarella. In Hoboken, mozzarella is spelled mozz or mutz and pronounced like the latter. To move effortlessly through these delis, be a quick study or beware. At 12:30 the line spills out the door. I leave with a Vito’s Super Hero, a quarter pound of roasted red peppers, and a liter of Diet Coke. The hero comes with ham, salami, and mutz, lettuce, tomatoes, oil and vinegar, oregano, and sweet peppers. It is an intimidating sandwich, longer than my forearm, enough for two at $7.95. I like my half, gobble a half-pepper, take a swig of soda and ready to go, the last bite already forgotten in anticipation of the next.
Deli number two: Fiore’s “House of Quality,” “A Hoboken Tradition since 1913,” on Adams Street, one of the aforementioned residential byways. Fiore’s doesn’t bother with decorations. There are glass cases stocked with meats, a case of rolls and sfilatini, and an open kitchen where old men in aprons lounge, fat, and venture forth to take an order when their legs feel restless. On Saturdays, the special is roast beef with brown gravy and fresh mozzarella. Customers pick their bread, hand it to the cook, and spit a sandwich order. For me, it has to be the special, which turns out a thick wad of rare beef on top of mutz. The cook, a jellied pig’s foot of man, gristled, cuts a braid of mutz, his touch so tender I want to hold my breath. He brings the bread to the gravy, dredges it, and I can see, from ten yards away, the almost black viscous liquid dripping off, the bread so soaked it can’t absorb any more. We sneak into the courtyard of an apartment complex, settle on a bench, and unwrap the sandwich. Gravy drips down my leg like lemonade or blood. I don’t care, though, because I can smell the sandwich, something indescribable and wonderful. The first bite blacks-out all background thought. Language cannot form around the object, cannot mold its crevices and model its folds, cannot reproduce its form in bronze, immortal except for the salty wash of the rusty sea. At the time, I realized how extraordinary the sandwich was, but only now, back in my apartment, do I understand that I will never taste a roast beef sandwich so fucking delicious.
Around and around Hoboken. Harrison Jackson Monroe Madison Jefferson Adams Grand Clinton Willow Park Garden Hudson and Sinatra Drive. I saw the sign for Antique Bakery a block away and bought a round of tomato-topped focaccia. “It’ll fatten you two up,” a Hoboken man—and that means something, descriptively, means that he’s thick in the waist and shoulders, has a gruff sun blunted smile and a spiny stubble—says, and “The best bread, ever!” and “take that focaccia, slice it in half, put some mortadella in there, now that’s a sandwich.” The little pie, two dollars worth, is heavy and golden with grease. Eating in Hoboken is sufficient to anchor you to the place. After a meal, you become denser than fluid of architectural and social space. Another step seems impossible.
Yet, we managed to follow Sinatra Drive along the Hudson. Two men and two boys worked the dock, fishing with fishy scraps for bait. We sat among them and wondered at the Manhattan skyline. We climbed up to Stevens Institute of Technology and found two chairs next to a dormitory fire escape. The skyline cannot be avoided, sings to me from beyond the river, begs to be watched like Lily in The House of Mirth. She refreshes my sight. As a spectator, I have always enjoyed her.
The nature of these notes is incomplete. I could write for hours and fail to adequately capture a single glisten of light on the axle of a skateboard I spotted on the boardwalk. My relative failure acknowledged, however, it is worth remembering the scent of Cuban coffee after dinner in La Isla. The restaurant reminds me of the Cuban cafés I have never visited with their dark vinyl stools and espresso machines humming like giant waterbugs in the darkness. The Chinese drink soup on hot nights to sweat and feel cool. But it was not the surety of heat outside the restaurant that suggested cafe con leche. In my incoherent and torpid stomach, the moro and tostones and camarones al ajillo asked for companionship, a scalding sip of coffee to weather the return. I could not resist and was happy I suffered and felt too full.
It is unfortunate that the PATH train back to Manhattan does not arch above the water like the spine of the B crossing the bridge. I would like to look and thank the boredom I have left behind.