Thursday, February 3, 2011
Finding Old Hoboken
My novel That Was Tomorrow takes a young woman on a journey exactly the reverse of my own. She was born in Hoboken in 1895, becomes a schoolteacher (here the likeness ends), and travels to Fairhope, Alabama, to work in the experimental School of Organic Education under the direction of the magnificent visionary Marietta Johnson, whose school was founded the same year as the one in Rome founded by Maria Montessori.
I try to capture the flavor of the early 20th century as well as the mood of Hoboken in those days. If you find this excerpt interesting, I have about 300 more pages to go, and I'll let you know when I actually have a book.
Amelia’s upbringing in the crowded immigrant settlement of Hoboken, separated from New York City only by the wide and serviceable river named after explorer Henry Hudson, had been privileged and protected. Her parents were part of what was known locally as the “upper crust,” the Germans who had settled in Hoboken in the 1870s, before waves of Irish and Italians came to fill the town at the turn of the century. The wealthy families now resided in the prestige houses on Castle Point Terrace and Hudson Street, some with views of the growing Manhattan skyline. Dr. Weiss and his wife Gertrude were well respected, and as an only child Amelia, although well cared for in every way, was left on her own with a nanny much of her time.
Amelia dared not to feel lonely or neglected, but it was her plight to be so, as her parents were occupied with their lives outside their home and their daughter. She had few toys to play with—one porcelain-headed doll named Patricia, which she always thought the most beautiful of names, and a stuffed bear she had named Nicodemus. These companions helped her create a separate world to inhabit, which transported her out of the ordinary. She did enjoy the bear more than the delicate Patricia, as he withstood rougher treatment and inspired more challenging games. The doll was always herself, stolid and mature, and not receptive to bumptious play, if any real play at all. Patricia had to be handled carefully, and with that frozen face, made Amelia think of her mother, Gertrude, who had married a doctor and moved upward in local society.
Hoboken was a rugged little town in the early 1900’s. It was approximately one mile wide from the cliffs of the Palisades to the Hudson, and a mile in length north to south, bordered at the southern end and the western cliff by Jersey City and by Weehawken hard by the north. The poor were everywhere, from soot-stained children—locally referred to as ragamuffins—on the pavement, to the shabby shops along the side streets and the bars in the waterfront district nicknamed The Barbary Coast by locals. On the lower streets near the river there were vaudeville theaters, dingy cafés, bars, and brothels—all kept quite busy by a lively, noisy contingent of stevedores and sailors. The section known as “downtown” was actually on the Western border at the cliffs upon which stood Jersey City. In the old days this border area of Hoboken had been a swamp, but it had been filled in to provide land for tenement houses for the blue collar workers who were steadily populating the town. The streets were named for U.S. presidents, as a way to acquaint newcomers and their children with American history. There were old houses in Hoboken—built in the early 1800s—and there were some quite elegant ones in the Weiss’ neighborhood. The two elements of town were separated by the invisible wall of class, education, and money.
The main street of Hoboken was called Washington Street. It was a boulevard, really, bisecting the town’s population of immigrants and settlers with money and some amount of pedigree. Hoboken’s citizens called it “the avenue,” and on it were located the best shops in town, a few restaurants, pharmacies, and little stores where sundry items and necessaries could be bought. Amelia’s grandfather, Conrad Weiss, owned one of the oldest retail establishments on the avenue. The store bore his name across the top of the entrance door.
Amelia had not been exposed to the normal rough-and-tumble activities of other children, but began her education at home at the hands of her nanny, Miss Pritchart, for the kind of life Gertrude thought proper. Miss Pritchart was an old fashioned despot, certain that children should be seen and not heard, and seen only in their cleanest finery. A spinster in her fifties, really rather old in early 20th century terms, Miss Pritchart tied her white hair severely into a little bun on the back of her head and except for the occasional lace collar wore no ornament or color. Since her early twenties she had been charged, as a teacher and governess, with seeing to it that children were exposed to a strict academic regimen and that they were obedient and well-mannered. Her brisk, no-nonsense style appealed to Gertrude. Where Gertrude was fearful and insecure, Miss Pritchart struck the right chord of assurance and sense of purpose. She was consistent and unyielding, and to her mind and to Gertrude’s this was good for children, who in their way of thinking were always on the verge of breaking something, whether it be an heirloom or an academic principle.
She needn’t worry about Amelia, who was so eager to please that she had early on adopted a quiet manner and a malleable spirit.
Miss Pritchart was compelled, nonetheless, to impose her doctrine of original sin to the child. It was her contention, and that of many early childhood educators of her day, that children would do anything to outwit the adults in charge of them, and that the devil lurked near them at all times to lead them into sins of misbehavior and ultimately seduce them into lives of debauchery. Only by constant relating to a child what was wrong and impressing upon him how deficient he was could an adult gain the proper respect of the child and get him to focus on work, the most important facet of his young life.
She had been brought into Amelia’s life at the age of three and was by her side for two formative years. Amelia’s parents were not to be involved in her daily affairs, but they saw her every evening after she had had her bath and dinner alone. She was trained by Miss Pritchart to give them a recital of what she had learned during the day before being taken upstairs to bed. Once a month her grandfather, Conrad Weiss, would take the child for a walk in the morning and show her a little of the activity in Hoboken, or take her to Manhattan on the clattering subway train to see a museum or to play in Central Park.
She was most at ease on these outings with her grandfather, who treasured the child’s occasional ability to find merriment in small things. He saw in her the promise of sunshine and childhood itself. The old man had done his work in the world, even though he still kept his hand in his work at the store. He had raised his family and set away a great deal of money; the little girl would want for nothing when she grew up. Conrad Weiss was pleased with his granddaughter’s quick, alert mind and her resemblance to his own wife, who had died before the child was born.
Coming from the old country, he had been extremely strict with his own children, and had little patience with his son Frederick, Amelia’s father. Frederick had been a willful boy, and moody too, but had a good mind and had applied himself enough to get through medical school and to become a doctor. As he grew up and married, he had settled somewhat, Conrad could see that, but he still would not listen to his father in certain matters, and escaped from the old man however he could. His wife was upright and virtuous, but seemed distant and perhaps a bit too fragile to please Conrad. He could not ascertain the nature of their relationship, as they shared a big, important house but seemed like formal acquaintances rather than man and wife. The child was not given affection from either parent, and certainly not from the woman in whose care they had placed her.
Conrad would take little Amelia to the park at Elysian Fields and tell her about the baseball games and the ferris wheel that used to be there. Hoboken had once been a playground for the wealthy of New York City, who would take the old steamers for weekend getaways, and when he sat with the little girl, he relived those days and told her of the past glories of the park, now scaled down in size and far from glorious. When Conrad moved to Hoboken as a boy with his family from Germany in the 1840’s it was already changing. Col. Stevens, who had started the town as a resort for New Yorkers, had died and left the real estate he had established as parks and recreation to be managed by his family, and bit by bit they were selling the land for factories and industrial use.
It was the place where the first baseball in America was played, Grandpa Weiss told her, and a garden spot for children to explore among the caves and rocks. Now there were factories—one large one for Maxwell House Coffee, another for Lipton Tea—nearby—and the waterfront area was dingy, dangerous, and not a place for children. Nevertheless, the old man knew where the special places were, and would take the girl up the hill to look at Stevens’ castle, the palatial home built by the Col. Stevens, and now a part of Stevens Institute, an engineering school for young men.
Note: Editing and shaping the book That Was Tomorrow, I found I had to eliminate much of this. There are still some scenes set in Hoboken, and the book is now available in electronic format on amazon, Barnes & Noble, and my own website.