Sunday, November 25, 2012

Leaving Myself in Hoboken

Washington Street, June 2007
I came to Hoboken just exactly five years ago and am in the process of packing up my things to leave in a week. This is not an easy move; I'm not going away mad or even without regret. It's a very endearing town, easy to fit into, easy to love, and not a bit easy to leave. My five years here have been very productive. I've written two books, made a number of friends, gained a vantage point on New Jersey and New York City, and grown in ways I never expected.

I didn't know what to expect when I arrived. I had taken one look when surveying the New York City area, found it affordable and not without a small-town charm and a scruffy, tough reputation. I felt comfortable with its outsider vibe, its survival instinct, its lopsided, striving charm. I liked walking on the streets amid old couples, young hotshots, couples speaking languages ranging from French to Russian and what sounded like Polish, in addition to the more predictable Spanish and Italian. I liked writing a blog about my daily experiences, and having comments appear from total strangers who shared their memories of bygone Hoboken. Some of them I met in person, some I never did but remain vividly real to me in their comments here. I invite you to read the early posts and meet a younger Mary Lois, instructed by generations of people born and raised in Hoboken and eager to impart their knowledge to a newcomer.

I'll miss a number of things. I already miss when Carlo's was a local bakery, a place you could drop in for a fresh canolli, a box of cookies, or a cake to take to a dinner party. I miss the people I met early and seldom see now, just because life has somehow come between us. A few great restaurants have come and gone since I first set foot in Hoboken. A few places and things remain--the two hardware stores I know on Washington Street, run by old born-n-raised-in-Hoboken guys; the Garden Street Liquor Store, which is on Park Street. I only went to that liquor store one time, but if you go to the link you'll see why it was memorable. I'll miss the views of the New York skyline, particularly the Empire State Building. I'll miss the campus of Stevens, with its rich Hoboken history--and the public  library and the train terminal, both beautiful examples of 19th century Victorian architecture. I'll miss the trees on streets like Bloomfield and Garden, O'Neill's wonderful burgers, the Hoboken Historical Museum and the opportunity missed to work on a project getting a statue of Frank Sinatra in town. I'll miss Danny Aiello, running lines with a friend as he ate spaghetti at Tutta Pasta (and I'll miss that spinach course!). I'll miss the battery of doctors and dentists who have shored up my body as I totter into old age.

I never saw the Fabian Theater, now a CVS. I never had ice cream at Abel's or saw a flock of pigeons fly out of a piano at the high school assembly. I never met Mr. Stover, the onetime principal of that institution.  I never heard the crystal voice of little Jimmy Roselli, singing in church. I learned about all of them on this blog. If you want nostalgia, go to my blog posts in 2008 and 2009, as the colorful life of old Hoboken is recounted again and again by my blog readers.

I'll probably do that from time to time--revisit this blog and think of the Hoboken period of my life. But I've no time for it today. I've got organizing and packing to do and planning for the rest of my days. Please follow up by finding my new blog about my new life, and comment there and here if you want to keep in touch. I love writing for you, and am pleased you're still reading.

Friday, November 2, 2012

High Water in Hoboken

We didn’t know what to expect, except there would be flooding, maybe as bad as Irene flooded Hoboken last year. In that one, water filled the back yard, like a swamp pond, and the basement was at least four feet deep in it. I had to replace the new water heater I had had installed the year before, and the building’s boiler needed replacement parts to provide heat for the cold coming soon.

But this year we had a major storm to deal with. A historical anomaly—a huge water event in the ocean combining with a snowstorm and cold front heading our way from the West. The little building has three young guys in it, plus one wife, one infant girl, and me. All the men are able-bodied, young and savvy, and super-committed to save the little building and avert the problems we had dealt with the previous big storm.

Hoboken is notoriously flood-prone, the lower part of town in particular. Built on landfill, it is dangerously soggy and vulnerable. I was especially pleased to get a ground-floor apartment when I bought my condo three years ago. I had been renting walk-ups and being trapped on a high floor was getting to me. In Irene I lost a lot of stuff I liked by leaving it in the basement, but this time I knew better. I hadn’t taken all of it out, but was careful to get everything I really wanted to keep.

Hurricane Sandy started slowly enough around four PM. I’ve lived some 40 years, off and on, on the eastern shore of Mobile Bay, where hurricanes are frequent and do not bother us natives much. I watched Sandy bring familiar wind and rain, listened to the howling, whistling gales outside, and considered it pretty much normal. At about 9 P.M. the flood started. A water rush of unprecedented proportions, it was as if the Hudson were in a big hurry to take over Hoboken, and maybe take it away. The back yard was filled higher than it had been with Irene, and water from Madison Street threatened to overflow the stoop and whoosh onto the first floor, engulfing my condo and destroying my last few favorite things.

But it didn’t. It stopped at the top step. We looked on in awe at the perilous river that was now our street. In an instant the electricity went out and cries went up in unison from apartments in all the buildings nearby. It was still raining, the wind was still blowing, but the unfathomable thing was all that water. People had parked their cars in the street, and now they were buried in water up to the tops of their tires. Some alarms went off.

I knew there was to be no sleeping that night. Mark, Adam, and Cliff joined together, talking of the pump and working against the possibility of devastation to come, but there was nothing to be done. It would take more than a sump pump to clean our basement, and that wouldn’t work without electricity anyway.

I took a sleeping pill and hit the sack. It was a dark, noisy and frightening night, even for an old hand like me. I’d skipped Irene last year and had never endured a flood before.

Here’s the obvious part of being in a flood. You can’t get out of your house. You look at water in the back, water in the front, and you are helpless to do anything but wait. Your life changes, like the family of Otto Frank. You are trapped, stranded—but at least in our case there weren’t any Nazis outside looking for us. The charge in your computer runs out; your cell phone is unusable. You are incommunicado and people are trying to reach you. You have messages on your cell, “I just saw Hoboken on CNN and I’m worried about you.” You are in a new subgroup—Sandy survivors. And you can’t tell anybody about it.

Mark had a battery pack. Tuesday I depleted it with charging my cell phone and by using my laptop where I went on Facebook to announce that I was fine. I sent a few emails. Tuesday night we banded together at Mark and Mandy’s, with the baby who didn’t notice a thing. We ate each other’s food, drank a little, and talked a lot, all by candlelight and all with a sense of emergency and relief that we survived.

Wednesday Mark, Mandy and the baby left for a place in Pennsylvania, largely untouched by the storm, to be with Mark’s parents and have some electricity. The flood was subsiding, slowly, and by the end of the day it was possible to walk around a little until you reached the corner of the block, where there were still high waters. People were walking around, talking to neighbors they never knew before, and the inevitable feeling of shared pain and panic bonded us all.

Night came early, with only candles, a little portable radio turned to WNYC, my Kindle, and whatever I could find to eat.

Thursday I began hearing about places where cell phones could be charged. Apparently Hudson Street hadn’t lost power, and residents there were dangling power strips from extension cords in front of their homes to share their electricity. I took my phone, my laptop, and my Kindle, all with charger cords, in that direction and discovered people gathered at Sts. Peter and Paul Church on the corner of 4th and Hudson. Everybody was nice, convivial, offering outlets on the front steps, but I went inside where it was warm and made myself comfortable in a pew while all my electronics were charging. I was surrounded by people with b-n-r accents, telling old Hoboken stories, so I felt cozy and happy.

But I couldn’t tolerate another isolated night, not if I could help it. I had an idea: Newark Airport was open—why not take a taxi there and just get on the next plane wherever it may be going? I could go anywhere there was a motel, with my laptop and cell phone, and charge everything up so I could get back in touch with my virtual world. I could get a nice warm shower and watch a little television. Sounded like a plan, but not a very practical one.

A better idea, if power was not restored by noon today (Friday), I would get on a bus to the Port Authority and take a trip to visit my daughter and family in Kingston. There I could get a shower, have lights and Internet, and also look around a little for my future home. I was able to contact Alison and discover they not only have power, the storm barely hit the area. And they were eager for me to visit!

I probably don’t have to tell you I followed Plan B. I am comfortable tonight away from the stress of low food supplies, no electricity, no contact with the outside world. I survived and feel perfectly okay. I love so much about Hoboken, but this time I was glad to leave. Being wanted is a nice feeling.