Monday, June 30, 2008

In a Sentimental Mood

June 30, 2008

It feels as if I've been away from Hoboken for months, even though it was Wednesday when I boarded the plane for Pensacola and rented the car to take me to Fairhope.

I decided to spend a week here surrounding the auspicious date (today) of the closing of the sale of my house, a beautiful little Craftsman cottage which will almost certainly be remodeled beyond recognition by the new owners. After the closing I'll share some champagne with friends and work on the saying goodbye to an old life and hello to a new. With the money from the sale I'll have a little more to live on in Hoboken.

The days leading up to this have been complex, or as my cyberfriend Steve put it in a comment on my Fairhope blog (linked above), "bittersweet." I don't think I'll never come here again, but I am putting Fairhope and Alabama behind me without a second thought.

I lived for some 15 years in Manhattan, in the 1960's and 70's, and then again in the mid-80's for about two years. That always felt like home to me, although without a doubt, Alabama and Fairhope in particular, raised me and made me what I am. I am completing my second book about Fairhope and if I ever write another book, I don't think it will be about Fairhope.

It's just that New York was one of the few things in life that was just like it was in the movies. Hoboken wasn't in that many movies, but it's more affordable these days, and near enough for me to get my feet in the city across the river as often as I like. If you read this blog fairly often, you get a feeling for what I like about Hoboken.

I love my new life, and, with this trip, realize that I loved my old life too, until I couldn't stand it any more. More on that in later blog posts, and many many posts about it on the blog linked in the first paragraph. Feel free to browse that one to your heart's content, and to order a copy of the book in the second link, and to wait with bated breath my next blogpost...or my next book.

Friday, June 27, 2008

East Side, West Side, Hoboken Style

June 27, 2008

You move to Hoboken and get to know your way around. Streets are laid out conveniently, in a grid, and those in the south part of town are numbered First, Second, Third and Fourth Street. Running east to west, the streets have names like River, Hudson, Washington and Bloomfield. Clearly the main drag is wide Washington Street, lined with businesses and restaurants with sidewalk seating.

Easy as pie. You try to learn the sequence of those named streets and discover that the farther west you go in town all the names correspond with U.S. Presidents – Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson.

Standing at the foot of Washington Street and looking north, you feel that you are at the “downtown” section, looking “uptown.”


My correspondents, emissaries from Old Hoboken, began enlightening me in terse comments.

From Dennis (“The Rabbi”) Maloney:

“A note to new Hobokenites. Uptown was and is Washington St. to Clinton St. 1st. to 14th.

“Downtown is Grand to Harrison 1st. to 14th. For some reason, newbies have changed uptown to 7th to 14th and downtown from the Path to 6th.”

slezak said...

“He is right on the money. UP TOWN, AND THERE WAS DOWN TOWN, it has nothing to do with numbers...from Clinton Street to Washington Street was uptown. We called it the upper crust.

"HUDSON STREET and Castle Point Terrace was the Beverly Hills of Hoboken. Feel honored that you live there. It meant you had money...and lions on your stoop to protect you."

Later a reader in Jersey City calling himself Primitive Sound System added: “Downtown Hoboken has always been toward the Palisades. The current crop of Newbies really seem clueless to what Hoboken was like nor do they seem to care. Unfortunately they need to research a little more because the ones that are horrified that their condos are flooding along the Palisades should have known that that used to be swamps. Goats roamed free back there – not suits running to catch the Light Rail.

“The Newbies also seem to complain about the Light Rail. I won't call them Yuppies. That generation has moved on. Also, the original Yuppies seemed to actually enjoy and take part in the culture of Hoboken regardless of the fact that we all laughed at the ridiculous rents they were paying.”

I'm beginning to get it. "Up" and "Down" were really east and west. And the rich people lived on Hudson. Now the newbies, all richer than I, live all over town, and I live in a walkup on Hudson. I’m paying an astronomical rent for a 800-sq. foot third floor – not counting the stoop, and Neil Simon says in Barefoot in the Park – walkup, in a building without a washer or dryer, and I’m planning to upgrade to an even more expensive place as soon as possible.

Add to this that I grew up, and just spent 18 more years in a town on the eastern shore of a bay which made me accustomed to watching the sun set into the water. Now the sun sets into Jersey City, and the water is on the east – and the city on the other side is New York itself, with its magnificent skyline looking so close I think I could toss a softball right into it.

It’s hard enough for my frozen old brain to accept that west is west (and it's Jersey City) and east is on the other side of the water, to say nothing of that 14th Street is not uptown, but River Street is. Therefore the sun sets on Jersey City.

But give me time. I’ll get it.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Old Hoboken: The Fabian

June 24, 2008

Slezak sent me these pictures of the old Fabian Theater. Kinda took my breath away...I had heard of it but had no idea it was like this.

The building was demolished in 1968 to make way for a Shop-Rite supermarket, which was ultimately replaced by a CVS pharmacy and a Barnes and Noble, down on the corner of Newark and Washington Streets.

Slezak tells me the Fabian seated 3500 people. In the 1950's, he says, for 25 cents you could see two feature films the Pathé News, and a few cartoons. If you stayed in your seat you got to see the movies twice.

At the Fabian you also might see stage shows starring Elvis Presley and others. Allen Freed brought rock and roll shows here, and at Halloween, according to Slezak, "scary shows." It was indeed the big time.

Slezak says "This picture was taken in 1928, but it looked the same in the 1950's 60's. 60s...Don't you wish they never destroyed it? PARKING no problem just walk there."

Now I can see why people say Hoboken isn't what it used to be.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

An Out of Hoboken Experience

June 20, 2008

I met Kathryn at the Obama headquarters in Hoboken on Super Tuesday. She is dynamic, glamorous, funny and very charismatic. It just took a few minutes conversation with her to feel I'd known her all my life. After that meeting I went to her website and found that her confident style and magnetic good looks qualify her as a marketing and networking expert and a "thought leader." (I don't remember ever having met one of those before.) I also discovered that she was writing a book about Diana Sands, who happens to have been her cousin. Sands, who died prematurely of cancer, was one of the first beautiful black actresses in this country whose ambition it was to change the world by changing the part of it she knew best, the theatre.

When Kathryn invited me to a reading of a play about her cousin's life, I was eager to see it. I remembered Diana Sands from when I was a young actress in the early 1960's, just moving to New York, and she was appearing on Broadway. I had seen her in the film version of A Raisin in the Sun, and had heard her on radio interviews saying how it was her dream to be cast in roles that were color-neutral -- that is, parts that might have been written for white actresses but that could be played by any first-rate actor. This was radical thinking for the time. The obvious response is, "Why not?" Obvious now, but not so in 1964.

The play reading was to be at a community center/library (known as a Center for Black Culture) in Harlem. It would be the first time for me to take a subway to Harlem since moving to Hoboken; indeed, probably the first time I'd ever gone there at night alone. But I knew times had changed -- when I lived in New York in the 1960's and 70's I may have had reason to have some trepidation. Trains were dirty and not always air conditioned, and the trains to Harlem were packed not only with people, but with an air of anger if not menace, at least to a lone white woman.

Knowing that things were different now, I was excited to board the train, and knew enough to let a few trains, sardine-can-packed and undercooled in the rush hour crush of humanity, pass by at the station. Taking the third, I had a wonderful train ride. I found a seat, the car was air conditioned, and the other riders were friendly and looked nothing so much as eager to get home. Seeing Harlem as the sun set was awesome.

The play reading was an exhilarating experience. I rode up the elevator with the first of the audience, and there was Kathryn, herding us in and greeting everybody with a hug and her beautiful smile. The place probably sat about a hundred, most of whom were black and impressively upscale. There were several actors in the audience, and some who had known Diana Sands, Lorraine Hansberry, and others from the theatre of the time.

The play is a work in progress, basically a monologue taking the audience to the life and times of the actress. Nedra McClyde, a sylph-like, soft-voiced young woman, certainly captured the essence of Diana Sands, not only in physical appearance but also in the range of intellectual prowess and the passion that was at the heart of her talent. Director Alfred Preisser had her move just enough, and address certain passages from plays with just the right amount of commitment to transport the audience with her.

When the discussion began, it was clear that Diana Sands herself had been evoked, and that everyone wanted to share memories of her as an artist and a person. I wanted to talk with the playwright about the play, but decided the best way to do that was after the general discussion, so I unloaded a few of my ideas onto him when the evening was winding down.

Kathryn has assured me that she'll talk over some of my thoughts and maybe I can be some help as she pulls her book together. I certainly hope so. My trip to Harlem and my presence in that extraordinary assemblage was altogether satisfying, but I don't expect it will be my last time.

Old Hoboken Let it All Hang Out

June 19, 2008

Slezak remembers an aspect of Old Hoboken he'd probably rather forget:

MONDAY MORNING WASH DAY, and the daredevils who had the job of putting up the clotheslines, when one broke. Every block had one brave soul...and I was the chosen one for my block. My mom got me the job...THANKS MOM.

You carried a hammer and the line around your neck...and began your climb...hitting each spike to insure that it was safe to step on. It always seemed to be the one at the top that was broken. Most of the time and on a cold and windy day, freezing your hands till they were numb, as all the wives braving the cold on their fire escapes watched me as I made my climb...praying for me. I FELT LIKE A CIRCUS ACT WITH NO NET.

WASH DAY was when every one knew if you had a hole in your undies. IT WAS PUT OUT FOR ALL TO SEE. And you only got a dollar a climb. I SUPPOSE THEY DON'T DO THAT ANYMORE IN HOBOKEN, thanks to washers and dryers.

Now that you mention it, Slezak, I haven't seen any clotheslines in Hoboken since I moved here in December. Call it progress. Call it 21st Century technology. Call it the avoidance of child abuse. But you must have been a nimble lad in your day, putting up those clotheslines for the local housewives, and surviving to tell the tale some sixty years later. As usual, you paint a vivid picture of days gone by. At least you could drop by Abel's for an ice cream with your dollar.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Days of Ice Cream and Roses, Hoboken Style

June 17, 2008
In my search for myself and Hoboken, I have picked up a few travellers who are acting as tour guides to the past. Slezak emailed his friend Dennis, and both of them are filling me in on what it was like to grow up in Hoboken in the 1940’s and 50’s, roughly the same time frame in which I managed to grow up in Lower Alabama.

Both of them are enthusiastic in their descriptions of Abel’s ice cream parlor, the teenagers’ hangout that used to be across from Sacred Heart Academy.

This from Dennis (“The Rabbi”) Maloney:

When we first went into Abel's the soda was 25 cents and it was a big glass. There was no dance floor and it was always packed in the back. People just didn't want to sit in the front on a stool, I guess.

Abel's is where you went to meet girls or girls went to meet boys, whatever! Abel's had those wall jukeboxes at first. Twenty five cents let you play three songs, I think. There was always popular songs on the juke box.

Mr. Abel was a very patient man. He used to run the place with his brother, who later opened a place out in Newark, N.J. I think he had the other place on Market Street. The Hoboken store used to make up this real big ice cream dish that the three of us could never finish, and it cost a reasonable price. I think Mr. Abel got a kick out of seeing us trying to eat all that ice cream and getting sick.

Later on he added the dance floor by removing the wall from the store next door and charged for the dancing. Then he put a limit on the time you could spend in the store, or you could reorder another soda or whatever you were having. He actually hired a bouncer named Eddie the Criminal. This guy was a real nutcase. He thought he was a real big shot!! I would like a nickel for all the times he almost got kicked on his butt by someone. He knew who was impressed with his role and who was not.

Eddie really got married and spent his honeymoon in Abel’s!! Yep, the day he got married, he brought his new found wife to Abel’s for all of us to meet. Told you there were some weird people back then.

Abel’s were the years of the three musketeers. Joseph Coutant, Eddie, and me. We were Mousie, Eddie, and Dennis. Poor Mousie had to get all his teeth pulled out due to a gum desease, but this also had a bright spot. While riding on the bus up to Palisades Park, we would spot some girls to go swimming with and maybe go on rides with, if we got a kiss or two. If Mousie thought they were ugly, he would take out his teeth and smile at them!! Oh! It really was a laugh.

One time on the diving board, he dove into the water and lost his teeth! Don't ask me how he did this. We had to go diving for the darn things and we got them.

We three were from different parts of Hoboken, yet were fast friends. We even dated with another three girls. But I will not go into that!

Even when I went into the Army we kept in touch, once in a great while. It was a treat to get a letter from one of them. One by one we got married and went our separate ways. Eddie Casler has gone now, to meet his Maker, sad to say. Mousie still lives in New Jersey and I called him up and it was just like we saw each other yesterday.

Abel's got a little crowded later on for us teenagers and we used to go to Umlands. Stella, bless her, had the patience of a saint. We wanted to date her daughter Janice, but we knew Stella. Rather do without then offend her. I used to have my lunch at Umlands on school days, high school that is. I had a standing order, two egg sandwichs on a hard roll, a vanilla malted milk, and a piece of coconut custard pie, with vanilla ice cream on top. You have to remember that I worked on a milk truck in the mornings and could burn off all the calories, climbing all those stairs. You had to be quiet doing it and sometimes you got a note in the bottle saying, "No milk today!"

The dancing in Abel's was like trying to fit 100 couples into a shoe. The room was so small. We figured out a way to get the juke box to play records without paying! We used a coat hanger and I will not tell you how we did this.

If you wanted a lot of noise you went to Abel’s, if you wanted quiet you went to Umland’s. There was no dancing in Umland’s but they had music, not the popular kind, but it was passable to us. I think Stella kind of pulled one on us. One night Mousie, Eddie and I were singing and she told us that we ought to sing for people. Sooo, we tried it on Saturday Morning for the Mayor's wife, Mrs, John J. Grogan. She had a talant thing going in the hotel across from the Grand Hotel. I got off early from work that morning. We should have been a comedy act instead!! Sounded like three drunks in a shower!! Sounded good before then, just don't know what happened to us. I still laugh about it!

And this came from the always-colorful Bobby Slezak:

ABEL’S ICE CREAM PARLOR -- Yes indeed, there was an Eddie the criminal, cause he just got out of jail and was working for Mr. Able. He was in his late twenties...a scubby looking guy. (Why, he was so ugly when he was born, the doctor slapped his mother – as RODNEY DANGERFIELD would say.) Dennis is right, when Eddie the Criminal got married all of us in Abel’s chipped in 50 cents each for him and his bride to go on their honeymoon to Palisades Park. You do remember Palisades Park?? 50s singer BOBBY RYDEL sang a jingle about it for a radio commercial.

Abel’s was a favorite place for us kids to meet and have fun..rocking and rolling to the music...NO DRUGS OR DRINKING...just a nice place to DANCE AND ROMANCE...that’s whare I met my wife (FOR LIFE).

Dennis has a better memory than I do. Mr. Abel invented soft ice cream, like you see in a DAIRY QUEEN. It seems he left out an ingredient when making his ice cream and decided to sell it was a hit...every one wanted more ...SO HE MADE MORE ...but never got rich with his invention...NO PATENT...that’s another saga of Hoboken’s history.

My two correspondents don't mention the names of those songs on the jukebox, but they probably included, "Rock Around the Clock" and "See Ya Later, Alligator" by Bill Haley and the Comets; "Blueberry Hill" from Fats Domino, "Cryin' in the Chapel" by Joni James, "Rags to Riches" by Tony Bennett, "Earth Angel," "Sherry Baby," "The Great Pretender," and maybe even "Shh-Boom!" There had to have been a couple by Hoboken's Frank Sinatra and Jimmy Roselli in there too.

Monday, June 16, 2008

A Perfect Day for Sinatra

June 16, 2008

At the river's edge, with New York, New York in the background, host Gary SimpSinatra works with technicians and a contestant in Hoboken's Second Annual Sinatra Idol contest Friday evening. The informal party was attended by some 300 people, including a lot of children running loose in front of the contestants as they sang familiar Sinatra songs and arrangements. The weather was perfect, the crowds enthusiastic, and the singers downright exuberant...even when the contest was concluded, a group of them kept singing.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Tim Russert, American

June 14, 2008
The whole country is trying to make sense of it. He was so vital, so authentic, so much a part of us that it is like a really bad dream every time we try to come to grips with the untimely death of this most American of characters, Tim Russert.

Russert has been a fixture of the television talk show scene for years, yet he seemed so young, with his transcendant enthusiasm for his work. You could tell he was having fun, every day, that he had a good life; that he was doing what he should be doing. Even with his fame, he seemed like someone you would know in your own life. He could ask the tough questions without ever seeming churlish; he could warm and disarm the person he was confronting; he made an admirable surrogate for all of us when he took on the pompous, the self-important, the phony. There was a brilliant mind there, no doubt, but there was also the genial good nature that we come to think of as uniquely American -- that ready laugh, that unforced, natural and contagious joy in his pursuit of the truth of politics. He was like one of the family, every family.

I've heard a lot of people talking about him in the last hours. Everyone mentions how great his love for his own family was, and everyone with little children mentions how much their own children loved him. I cannot doubt this. He was the kind of grownup that little kids love, because of his own innocence and that sunny optimism that made him seem like a child too.

He was from a working-class, urban, Catholic family, and he was well aware of this and grateful for it every minute of his life. It's not my tribe, but there are times when I and the rest who stand outside and observe cannot help but envy. He seemed to be one of the happiest of people. He seemed to be the best our country had to offer. His legacy is being discussed, and someone used the word "crater" to describe the void in the television news world will have to fill now that he is gone.

But his legacy exceeds that of the world of television political news in which he toiled. It includes something in the heart of every American -- pride of country, hope for its future, and the responsibility to be the best at what one does in order to make things better for others. It is that happy, hopeful, outgoing, generous, honest spirit that makes us proud to be in the country that produced him.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Where Have All the Roaches Gone?

June 13, 2008

When I lived in Manhattan 30 some odd years ago, if you were in an older building you could be sure you would have some cockroaches for roommates. And you might even have a couple of families of mice.

In the South, the roaches we cohabit with are the big, black variety known euphemistically in Florida as Palmetto Bugs. We have palmettos in Lower Alabama, but our bugs are called roaches and they are the same. The ones in Manhattan were little, pale and anemic in comparison; and, while I had come to have a certain acceptance of the big black babies, I always felt a shiver of revulsion when I encountered the nasty little light brown critters.

When I first moved to Hoboken, my friend the reporter from the Jersey Journal warned me to have the exterminator visit my apartment before I settled in. Indeed, I met a Hoboken artist who told me he used to live in an apartment over a restaurant on Washington Street and it was infested with roaches. Betty, whom I met in a bar on St. Patrick’s Day, lives on Washington Street too, and she said they had to seal up all the corners because of the presence of mice in the building.

Indeed, there must have been a lot of cockroaches and a few mice in Hoboken too in the past. My Internet friend and correspondent from Old Hoboken wrote of the little black creatures in the bakeries, “but we thought that was normal.”

Slezak writes: “JUST WONDERING if the famous Hoboken cockroach is still in Hoboken...or did they move out when the yuppies moved in. The roaches were a clever lot. They invaded your kitchen, after you put out the lights at bed time, eating everything they could find. You never bought raisins or raisin bread...they looked like roaches. You always stored your cups and glasses upside down as not to trap any of them poor little things. You might find one doing the back stroke in your morning coffee. You knew if your electric clock stopped it was the roaches that jammed in the gears of your clock…TIME TO CLEAN OUT THE CLOCK. Remembering the good old days of Hoboken...THE RATS had their fun too...THE STRAY CATS in the yards fighting till all hours of the night…the sights, sounds and smells of Hoboken…the good old days of Hoboken, never to return. THE PIDGEONS was our city bird...pidgeon coops on our roofs...a hobby for them down town..JUST LIKE YOU SEEN IN THE MOVIE, On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando...just another memory of an era long past.”

I’m here -- in Hoboken -- to tell you that all these situations, insects, pidgeons and rodents are in the past, at least in my apartment. Not to say there are no more in the whole of Hoboken, but they are not to be seen, not here, not now. In a way, I miss them, but not very often. There are some things that must be seen as progress.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Noel Coward -- The Ultimate Escape

June 12, 2008

In my last post I mentioned having a date for Noel Coward 101, a tribute to "The Master" held at the Oak Room of the Algonquin a few nights ago.

To my mind, there is nothing cooler than the elegant old songs and epigrams of Sir Noel Coward, so I didn't think twice about going out in that sweltering night to hear renditions of his work from the cool and elegant actor named Morrow Wilson. I called it a date, which I'm sure sent the antennae of my readers from Lower Alabama a-quivering. But it was a date with my nephew Will Friedwald and his wife Pamela Luss, who I hadn't seen in months. He is something of a figure in show business himself, the jazz critic for the New York Sun and the author of several books on popular music including one definitive volume on Hoboken's own Frank Sinatra. Pamela is a singer with her own combo and a new CD that came out yesterday, but that night she was as star-struck as a teenager.

Morrow Wilson is fortunate in his choice of director for his cabaret show -- actress Rue McClanahan, who happens to be his wife. The little show showed a near-perfect selection of Noel Coward songs, and Wilson's panache and charm were a nice match to the material. Had it not been such a miserably hot night, I would have wished to see him in a tux, but all things considered, I don't think that touch was missed. McClanahan was working the room, talking at length to us, and luminaries in the intimate audience, including Jerry Stiller.

We were tickled to have a chance to talk with Stiller and McClanahan and even Morrow Wilson himself, who came out into the audience after the show. Then when the show was over we went to a nearby coffee shop and caught up on family stories. Pamela kept pulling out her cell phone, wanting to tell her parents that she had just seen Rue McClanahan and Jerry Stiller, but I thought 10 P.M. was a little late to wake them up for that. I'm not convinced that she didn't make the call as soon as she got into a cab 45 minutes later.

I was exhilarated that Times Square is clean and safe these days, and wasn't daunted by the sultry walk through the visual cacophony to the bus station where I grabbed the bus home to Hoboken, only about 15 minutes away.

Everybody, including Jerry Stiller, seemed very impressed that I live in Hoboken. I'm sure with a little prodding they could all tell me some Hoboken stories.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Relief from the Heat

June 11, 2008

Having moved to Hoboken from the South in December, I should have been prepared for the heat. Oh, I've lived up here before -- in Manhattan 20 years ago -- and know that it does get hot.

What I wasn't prepared for was the relief.

When it gets hot in L.A. (that stands for Lower Alabama), it stays hot. If you once lived in sultry, humid deep South and relocated to somewhere else -- anywhere else -- you wonder how anyone ever tolerated the hot summers we had there. I remember talking to an old friend in the mountains of Switzerland. He then lived in Rhode Island, and I lived in Geneva. We were talking about our childhood in L.A.

I said, "It was so humid there! I don't think I was ever completely dry until I was 30 years old."

He said, "I remember one night in particular."

"Oh, yes!" said I. "It was even hot at night! People don't believe me when I tell them how hot it was at night."

"One night I couldn't sleep. We had fans, we had ice water, wet towels, showers, everything we could think of. But this night I woke up so hot nothing worked. I went out in the yard, looking for a breeze."

"I did that too! I remember doing that one night!"

To put a pinpoint on it, this night was probably in August of the year 1951. Maybe 1952. The weather service would have records. I've had the above discussion with a number of friends, all roughly of my vintage, and we all describe one particular sweltering night, late, long after our families were asleep. We were suffering from the unbearable heat. We walked out into our yards, wailed at the moon, or prayed to God for relief, fell into the hammocks or the lawn furniture, yearning for a spot somewhere that was not so still and hot. All the county, to hear us describe it, the lawns must have been swarming with little kids falling into hammocks or leaning on the tire swings and moaning.

We just had four days and nights of that kind of heat -- right here in the Northeast. There are three differences. One, now everything, even homes are air conditioned. Two, the humidity here was 40% or lower, making it more like the Sahara than the rain forest, and three, here it's called a "heat wave" and lasts four days. In Alabama, when it gets hot, it stays that way four months rather than four days. Not that it won't get hot again, but there is always that possibility of a cool snap.

I mostly stayed at home. My friend Cristina and her husband took me to Home Depot Saturday night to buy an air conditioner, they installed it, and I have hardly left it. Monday night I had a date to hear a tribute to Noel Coward at the Algonquin and I decided to take a bus rather than walk the long walk to the trains and suffer on sweltering subway stations, taking the chance of a power problem on the train. Standing at that bus stop for 20 minutes in the hot breezes I questioned the wisdom of my decision. But all went well and I enjoyed the show. The next day I stayed in while the little air conditioner did its best to keep the temp as close to 72 as it could get, and I moved very little.

Then when I woke up this morning I found the longed-for relief. About 73 degrees at the moment, low humidity, and a forecast of a balmy 88. I can take it. And it will be at least another week before we get another heat wave. I can handle this.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Other Singer from Hoboken

The following blog post was published June 9, 2008. Jimmy Roselli died June 30, 2011.

Hoboken has music in its bones.

In the 1930’s there was a little Italian boy with a shoeshine box and a voice like an angel, and everybody in the neighborhood knew he was as good as they come. His mother had died when he was two days old; his father had no use for him;he was living in a crowded flat with his grandfather, four aunts and two uncles, dirt-poor but Italian-happy. He was destined to live a life in show business and on the edge of the mob.

Jimmy Roselli was a child with a broken heart. Raised by a stern elderly immigrant grandfather with a strong sense of right and wrong, he had a chip on his shoulder from the first. His aunts, teenaged girls with a domineering Italian father, indulged and nurtured him, but were not charged with real parental duties. Nobody was. Jimmy’s father, a former boxer, worked as a bartender but wanted nothing to do with him. When taken to visit his mother’s family, his grandmother would come at him with “How’s that rotten bastard, your father?” and treat the boy as if he was in some way responsible for the behavior of his old man.

Like a lot of boys in Hoboken, Roselli looked up to the tough guys, talked like one of them, and affected the swaggering, street-fighting style that was considered cool among his peers at the time.

Italian was spoken at home; Neapolitan dialect, to be exact. Jimmy was submerged in the culture and mores of the old country, but he was very much a street kid of Hoboken. He supplemented the meager family income by singing as he shined shoes, and getting pretty good tips. Jimmy learned to sing the old Italian songs and to give them his all – both his emotions and his natural born legato. His rendering of this music was and still is profoundly moving to the Italians who had heard their mothers and grandmothers sing it. And, with his honeyed voice melting into the song, you don’t have to be Italian to get it.

Frank Sinatra also was Italian from Hoboken, but he had not endured the hard knocks from birth that Jimmy had. Sinatra was beginning to make it big when Roselli was in his early teens. In Making the Wiseguys Weep/The Jimmy Roselli Story, by David Evanier, Roselli relates a tale of singing on the corner with his shine box when Sinatra drove by. “Sinatra got out of the car. He had ten years on me. He had one of those collars that stick out, and a sleeveless sweater. He stops, stands there, and he’s listening. He hands me one of his cards and says, ‘I want you to come to my house.’ I went home, cleaned up, shined, put a clean shirt on. When I got there, he sat down and played the piano with one finger and had me sing the scales. He was amazed at my two-octave range. He said, ‘Christ, listen to this kid,’ I never heard from him no more after that.”

There would be more Sinatra stories in Jimmy Roselli’s life, and many brushes with the wise guys, who came to represent family to Roselli. “Family” to Roselli was not simple; it meant deep ambivalance and conflict as well as what he came to regard as love. Unlike Sinatra, he could not leave Hoboken and its criminal element behind, nor could he have it both ways by endearing himself to wise guys and legit music businessmen, as well as a public of his own. His Hoboken ties and touchy personality kept him bound as a small town guy with a following of shady characters along with a huge audience of Italians from New Jersey and New York who just loved his singing.

Dolly Sinatra had him sing at her granddaughter Nancy’s 15th birthday party. Later, when she wanted him to sing for a benefit event, he was miffed she didn’t call him herself to ask. The misunderstanding between them, compounded by a number of similar dust-ups, was enough for Frank to write him off for good. According to Roselli, Sinatra was to block him from radio play at the influential New York radio station WNEW and was a constant thorn in his side in the business. The feud with the powerful star could not have helped him in any way, but, given the nature of the two men, it was inevitable.

The Hoboken library, which has a large CD collection and an impressive number of Sinatra’s, has only one Jimmy Roselli. It has no copy of the Evanier book. I checked out the CD and ordered the book, which I had them transfer from another library. I listened to the songs and read the book. I am intrigued by the man’s vocal instrument and by the behavior that thwarted success every time it came near. He couldn’t tolerate what he considered low pay -- not even when building his career, refusing jobs with such names as Merv Griffin and Ed Sullivan -- making scenes and hurling insults because he was asked to work for scale.

His name is a household word in the Italian American community, but his life has been complicated by something of a love-hate relationship with organized crime,sometimes being buddies with some of its members but always mistrustful and often betrayed by them. He would work with the mob as he had to. He often behaved like one of them. Belligerent, confrontational and easily bruised, Roselli himself marvels that he wasn’t whacked at an early age, but unlike Sinatra, who played the game and won, Roselli was just as likely to ruin things for himself with the bosses by making demands – a 40-piece orchestra, payment up front – and turn their language back on them if he didn’t like the way he was treated.

“I’m gonna kill you someday, kid. I’ll take a bat – “

“Big fucking deal,” Roselli said. “What am I, a tough guy? You’ll put me out of my misery.”

He had talent and attitude, but not necessarily the feel for the big time that Sinatra did. He would invariably choose corny old songs, the kind his grandfather and he used to hear at the Rialto in Hoboken in the early 1930’s, or something from the sentimental Italian canon about lovers dying and mothers sacrificing. He loved songs like “Daddy’s Little Girl,” “Little Pal,”“When Your Old Wedding Ring Was New,” (the latter two I haven’t yet heard). His songs, his delivery, and the passion in his voice, do make people cry. He can sell out a room of 20,000, and have them all in tears. They keep coming back.

The story is that the wise guys didn’t wipe him out because their wives and mothers wouldn’t let them. That was one reason there were guys in the audience crying too. A very big talent, a very complicated man, and a voice for the ages. His CD's are still out there, and he is too. See for yourself.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Happy Days in Hoboken

June 5, 2008

Get ready for a ride, and a long one, to the Happy Days period of Hoboken, when everybody was young and all we can remember is the good times. This post, prompted by a couple of emails, one from Slezak, two from Dennis (“Rabbi”) will fill you and me in on what Hoboken once was.

First, a word from Slezak:

Hoboken is still beautiful...yes, the buildings are still there but the people and places have vanished with time...the happy days of the 1950s should be remembered ...a book maybe with era never to return...the smells of coffee from the Maxwell House plant and fresh baked bread of the Wonder Bread factory, and foghorns on a foggy the Hudson River ..the many large parades down Washington Street ...the Kramer’s clock on Washington Street that always told the right time twice a day: 12 o’clock....THE CRIME, none to speak never locked your doors or car if you had one...Church doors were never locked could pray any time of the day or night ..COPS walked the knew them by the first if you needed one ..the mayor’s office door was always open..he would always get you a job...just with a phone call. SCHOOLS – the teacher you had your mother had had also...lastly, the people...depending on what part of the city you lived. Downtown was the Italians, uptown was the Irish, Germans, Poles...the blacks lived on 1st Street...that's the way it was.

Manhattan was just short a bus ride away.

And then this from “Rabbi.” (No doubt he’ll explain that nickname one of these days):

Cops were respected in Hoboken. You had your Specials and the Civil Service Cops then. When a cop told you to stop, you stopped in your tracks. I found out what the night stick was used for besides twirling on a piece of leather one night, and yes, it was my fault, and I take all the blame.

I will not mention the cop's name but he hollered for me to stop and I figured that this fat cop could not catch me, not that I was doing something bad, and I started to run. He twirled that stick right in back of my knees and down I went head first into the sidewalk. Skinned up my knees pretty bad.

He asked why I ran and I was honest with him and told him that I figured that he would not catch me. He just laughed at me and asked me what I was doing out at 10 PM running through the streets. I was running home because my curfew – yes, we had them – was at 10 PM and I was late. That is what happens when you are watching submarine races in the park!

I actually told him that I was watching submarine races and he roared laughing. He told me that he hoped that I learned a lesson from running from a cop. I sure did, and he let me run the rest of the way home, to get another lesson about being late.
Just could not win that night!!!

Can't ever remember calling a cop a police person.

The cops did a good job of cleaning out the homeless from Fourth Street Park, aka Church Square Park. The paddy wagon would pick them all up and let them out on the boundary of Jersey City on Saturday afternoon. I wonder what the Jersey City cops did with them? We called the homeless hobos then.

When I got in trouble in high school later on in life, these hobos came in handy for me. Some of them became my father!!! Yep, I would give them a buck and they would come to school with me as my father. I know of someone else that tried this and the hobo smacked the kid in the face in front of Mr. Stover because the kid
got caught writing a gyp slip to Mr. Stover to get excused from school.

And in a later email, Dennis came back with this:

78 Bloomfield Street: The block was like one big family. Everyone looking out for everyone else's children. We all played in the street.

When the old lady looked out the window and hollered, one of us had better be there or else. If someone else's mother was looking for them, and if we knew where they were, we went and got them.

We even had block parties! Our baseball field was that strip of weeds in front of the jail, until some cop chased us. They never asked us to leave, it was, "Hey, you kids get your asses outta there, NOW!"

No ice cream trucks came around, we had Johnny’s Candy Store. On 1st Street we had Teddy's Ice Cream Parlor.

The former Judge De Fazio's father had a barber shop and in the summer would sit outside and play the mandolin. He gave a lousy haircut! It cost all of 25 cents!

On weekends, especially Saturdays it was the "Scratch House" and two movies – a chapter of Rocket Man, and ten cartoons. The "Scratch House" was named that because of all the drunks that would sleep there. The real name was the Rivoli and the show cost 12 cents. If you went to the Fabian, you got to see the high class pictures in color, with air conditioning!!!! Two movies, news, one cartoon. The cost was 25 cents. It was a shame that they took that theatre down. They said that it was falling apart. That was a laugh because it was built with steel beams!! Someone made money on that deal.

There were about only ten cars on the whole block. Parking was a breeze! Love those old cars with running boards on them. Seems everyone in those days loved black colored cars. The owners prided themselves on how shiny they could keep them.

On the corner of Newark and Bloomfield Street was Marotta's grocery/liquor store. If you bought something there and got a receipt with the red star on it you got a prize!! It was a great gimmick to get people to shop there instead of walking all the way to the A&P up on 6th and Washington Street.

We had to listen 24/7 to the presses of the Jersey Observer right across the street. In fact we used to play on the rolls of newsprint that were being unloaded on the sidewalk there. If you got hurt, it was your fault. In those days I guess lawyers did not get lots of people suing other people over accidents like they do now.

Names of families were -- gotta really think about this one -- the Geerloffs, the Reileys, the Fosbergs, the Geerings, the Curkos, Mr. and Mrs. O'Reily, Miss Boylson, Petey Nistler, almost forgot the prettiest girls around the block, the Shannons, the Haacks. Only one Italian family on the block, the Presiosis – all six of them.

Back to the present, and your humble blogger, me, the editor of these emails. Dennis

(“Rabbi”) in particular seems to have a memory like me and Jill Price – see my earlier post “Living with Memories” – and both he, Slezak, and others are now bombarding me with emails. Slezak has put me onto the trail of Jimmy Roselli, Hoboken’s other singer, and I’m reading his biography which I’ll post about soon, but in the future there will also be more and more from these and other citizens of the old Hoboken.

I hope you’re enjoying this trip as much as I am! Comments and more emails are welcome.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

When Hoboken Rocked

June 4, 2008

Slezak at the Wheel, 1950's

I seem to have stirred up a hornet's nest among those across the country who remember the Hoboken of their youth. Emails from California, Florida, and all over have followed my back-and-forth with Slezak, who has chimed in with some hilarious Hobokeniana of his own. Just mention Frank Sinatra or On the Waterfront, and you'll get a lot of stories about the good old days in Hoboken.

Today I'll share some excerpts with with you.

From Dennis (“Rabbi”) Maloney:

“These are not fiction stories. This is the way I remember Hoboken.

“The city Seal says most of it.” Here I went searching for a full shot of the city seal. All I could find is one partially hidden behind Mayor Dave Roberts’ head on the official Hoboken website. Seems it shows a view of the river with lots of factories in the foreground. As Dennis says,

“Factories and more factories, the docks and who can ever forget the multitude of bars or what is call taverns today.” (Hmmm…I call them bars.)

“The smell of Maxwell House Coffee, I think all of us older Hobokenites remember that and who can forget the big trucks coming from Maxwell House with the hot residue in them, carrying the smell even stronger into apartments.

“I was born on Clinton Street, right across from the old #5 School, which turned into a factory later on in my life. Around the corner on Second Street was a chicken store. I still have my baby picture of me in front of that apartment house. I think I was about two or three at the time. Later on in life, much later, my wife and I stopped there while on vacation, to take another picture. There were some people sitting on the stoop – don't call that a stoop out here in California – and they scattered when she took out the camera to take the picture. Guess they thought we some kind of government people.

“Hoboken was a city of buses and working people during the forties and fifties. The Public Service ran buses every ten minutes till about 10:PM. The Public Service buses served Hoboken very well. In the winter they would salt down the streets if any snow fell. This was along the routes that the buses took.

“We used to play in the Public Service Garage during the summer because they had these handy water hoses that we could squirt each other with. If it got to hot we used to sneak on the Ferry to go to New York and it was like air conditioning on the ferry to Barkley Street in the city.

“On Saturday mornings you could smell the different cleaning stuff that the janitors used to clean the hallways and stoops in Hoboken. I think C.N. was the biggest cleaner then. I wonder if it is still around? People took pride in the cleaning of the hallways and stoops.

“Saturday was also a day for the peddlers to come around either selling fruit or fish, sharpening knives, or selling something else. I would be remiss if I left out Mr. Sobel who sold everything. Curtains, sheets, you name it, he sold it, and on credit!!!

“Sunday was a day for the Catholics at O.L.G. There would always be a cop outside the Church with white gloves to direct traffic. YOU DID NOT HONK YOUR HORN IN THAT AREA DUE TO IT BEING A HOSPITAL AREA. You don't see those signs around anymore. Some cops would even give you a ticket if you did honk your horn. I could never figure that out because the church bells would be ringing from the church on 6th and Willow and all the Catholic churches nearby. I wonder if they ever got any tickets!! I think we know better then that, don't we.”

From Connie Vecchione, now living in Florida:

“I grew up in Hoboken, on 5th & Monroe St. Went to St. Francis Grammar School on 3rd St. and then to Demarest HS - graduated in June of 1952.

“Frank Sinatra was raised on 4th & Monroe St. and then his family moved to Garden St., then to Fort Lee and finally to California. Our parents were very good friends. I met them many years later at an anniversary party and Dolly was so surprised to hear who my parents were. My grandparents, then my aunt, and finally my brother owned Scarpulla's Bakery on 5th St. between Monroe & Madison. Everyone from 'downtown' knows that name and the Sicilian bread they made.

“When On the Waterfront was being filmed in 4th St. Park, I would stop by on my lunch hour to watch what was going on. My father was one of the extras in the movie (he worked on the docks and then was in the courtroom scene).

“When I was a senior in high school, I joined the CYO at St. Francis Church and made many friends - some of us still keep in touch - even after 50+ years have passed. We used to have the Saturday nite dances, one-act play competitions and annual musical shows. A lot of memories!!!”

There will be more stories like these the longer this blog stays up. I love 'em, and it looks as if there are lots more to come.

Monday, June 2, 2008

First Person Plural

June 2, 2008

With the primary season about to come to an end, I’m winding up a book I got from the Hoboken library, For Love of Politics, by Sally Bedell Smith. It’s an exhaustive rendering of the presidency of William Jefferson Clinton, with flashbacks to days in Arkansas and side trips into the mechanics of one of the most interesting marriages of the 20th Century.

I lived through it all, but in reading the book I marvel at how little the public knows about all the factions and factors facing anyone in that office (the oval one) – all the daily decisions and near-misses that end up as legislation that will affect the nation. In Bill and Hillary Clinton, we have the added drama of a pas de deux that often resembled a folie √† deux. In the former, there is the not atypical pairing of addict and codependent, a familiar footwork of relapse and recompense; the latter possibility being a tendency to cover up, accept a mutual coloration of the truth and come up with a comfortable self-deception for two. That the deception involved bringing the nation to the dance, and persuading us to believe that this couple deserved eight years of presidency apiece, and further, that this would be the best thing for the country and the world, is astonishing, all the moreso because they came close to making it happen. And it ain’t over yet.

Bill Clinton is not an unfamiliar type to Southerners. He has that slick salesman’s charm and the seductive style of a boy who never had and never could have enough love in his life, and the need to win over the opposition – if necessary by literally taking the words out of their mouths, reframing them, thereby convincing them that he is the smartest person they ever met.

I always wince when someone tells me how smart he is. I know smart people are capable of doing stupid things, but in his case the stupid things on the record far outweigh the smart ones. He may be gifted with the kind of memory that impresses people, and if so he uses that to his advantage in every situation, but he doesn’t seem to possess the ability to learn from his mistakes and make basic changes in his own approach in order to become a whole and balanced person. He seems to be driven by need to achieve far beyond his ability to function. It's not quite enough to have the mind that makes straight A's in school; being smart requires the ability to live in reality and make the decisions of daily life as well as the big ones.

I would never suggest that anybody other than the Type A Personality would make a run for the office of the Presidency, or that Bill Clinton didn’t feel that as President he would be the best thing that ever happened to the country. His respect for Hillary and their mutual commitment to power and prestige brought her on the trip for much more than any presidential wife has ever had the gall to assume. Her in the role of First Lady successfully eclipsed that of Al Gore as Vice President, and that was by design.

At first I liked Hillary far better than I did Bill, but her abrasive management style rubbed a lot of us the wrong way pretty soon, with the firings of people and the denying she did it, and the way she had of making herself seem above the fray when she clearly had been in the center of the dirty work. It all became tiring very soon for me, but I was not surprised when she ran for the Senate and that she won a seat against a very inexperienced and young opponent. She transformed herself from obnoxious wife of the boss to wronged wife, and then came out as if she herself were the politician with all the political gifts of her husband.

Through it all she has maintained that she is a candidate with great concern for women, and women seem to be buying that line. Yes, she is brilliant, yes, she is tough, yes, she is the type of Type A that would be found running for President. The two questions the book answered for me were “Why did she stay with him?” and “Why won’t she give up in this race since she is not winning?” Her explanation that Americans don't quit doesn't make sense to me.

She stayed with him because she had no choice. In the Monica Lewinsky debacle, Hillary emerged victorious once more by staying put and waiting until most of the thing blew over (there is some doubt if it all ever will). The pattern of that marriage is that of a long ongoing power struggle between two unbelievably strong personalities. They made plans together and worked together to achieve their goals. In his mind, it’s her turn now; after his ultimate dalliance, so painful and so public, his penance will not be achieved until she’s safely serving as President.

In a way, this is also the answer to the second question. There is a certain amount of delusion in her belief that she must win, but she has enough power and apparently enough I.O.U.’s in the superdelegate marketplace that she has been able to freeze them until she says it’s okay to go. She must be President. I don’t particularly look forward to that time, but my eyes are open to the reality that if it doesn’t matter how you bend the truth, if it doesn’t matter who you use to further your ends, if you take your time and build your constituency, male or female, you can become the most powerful person in the world.

Let's just hope it's not this Wednesday.