Riding the Hoboken Ferry

Pete Hausler


At the pier, I eat a chicken shawarma and finish it just as the two o’clock Hoboken ferry docks. The boat doesn’t tarry more than five minutes and it takes off for the New Jersey side. The ferry is small and light, it bobs on the water, unlike the larger, plodding Staten Island ferry that I sometimes ride for fun during lunch. The financial district recedes, and more importantly, my office building recedes, if you could call it receding. The herd of imposing monoliths of America’s financial might is stacked up on the tip of Manhattan like a cubist Picasso, each one dwarfed by The World Trade Center with the two towers being perfectly symmetrical except for a TV antenna projecting off the one.

The day is bright, hot, breezy, near-perfect and the dazzling blue sky and white benches of the top deck reflect too brightly  and I squint even behind my shades.  The American flag and “W” flag of the New York Waterway Company fly stiff in the breeze not ruffling but out straight from the pole. In ten minutes, we point our nose into the berth of what was formerly the Erie Lackawanna terminal and is now the more mundane NJ Transit hub in Hoboken—a squat little city, the so-called Mile Square City. Hundreds of pilings from an old pier rot in the oiled water, still arranged in a grid, worn down to different heights. Some have disappeared under the water and none stick out more than four feet. All are black from rot and mold, weather-treated with creosote to no avail. Soggy wood remnants from a time before the commuter subway—the PATH trains—went under the Hudson, back when dozens more ferry lines made the trip back and forth thirty or forty times a day to all points west side Manhattan.

I disembark and walk through the near-empty train terminal adjacent to the dock, a place that will be teeming in a few hours with commuters hurrying back to their bedroom communities; but now there are only a few stragglers, and the place has a lazy, dog-days air about it. I walk past train conductors chatting with Pakistani newsstand proprietors, while black women in blue shirts sweep up around the tracks and concrete platforms with longhandled brooms and flat bottom dustpans, and girls in brown smocks stand at coffee counter windows and stare vacantly toward the trains or read those bestsellers where the author’s name is larger than the title. I walk past all these people out into bright sunshine into Hoboken, a city of my past.

I note that my favorite old diner across Hudson Place from the train terminal exit is gone, replaced by some god-awful bar. I spent one memorable late night there years ago, after training into the city to see a show. At the time I loved Jack Kerouac and like a lot of young men I tried to live my life in a way I imagined was Kerouacian. Like that night. I had braved a New York club alone at the tender age of 18, and now sat in that diner burning, nerve-endings alive from drinking and dancing and flirting, with a phone number in my pocket from a Pia Zadora–dead-ringer, a hair dresser named Laura whose big red lips I can recall to this day with a stirring in my loins. I sat at the diner-counter not worried when the next train back to my hometown was, knowing I could get the next one, or the one after that, even though they only came once an hour that time of night, feeling like I could sit there all night smoking hand-rolled Drum cigarettes and eating apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream which was Sal Paradise’s traveling dish of choice from On the Road.

The main attraction amid the bustle of that late-night diner in hip little Hoboken, was the spectacle of the short-order cook who was working a few feet in front of me. I watched in awe and tried to absorb his crazy energy, a man whose incessant activity I couldn’t help but liken to that manic Dean Moriarty. This guy must have had a dozen and a half orders going at once—mostly burgers and eggs that time of night—but still no mean feat because the well-worn, black flattop cooked those eggs in less than 20 seconds and kssh kssh, working only with a metal spatula, kssh kssh, the sound of metal on metal, he’d scoop a pile of scrambled eggs onto an oval plate, flick a spatula full of fried potatoes from another pile, while buttering two slices of toast just jumped out of the toaster; or he laid three parallel strips of grease-sizzling bacon over easy onto an egg and scooped it, kssh kssh, onto a kaiser roll that sat on the griddle for only ten seconds and it was toasted. That night I discovered one of the great pleasures of the world: watching a man who knows his work, does it as quickly as is demanded, and executes it with something approaching a Zen glee, expertly, proudly, without complaint.

I walk on. Past this memory, walk a few blocks by a new strip of bars, and decide to sit at a sidewalk table. The barmaid brings me out a menu, it’s a Mexican place. Since I ate at the pier back in New York, I ask if they have dessert, she says, "no, but my friend just made brownies, do you want one?" Well, who says no to fresh, homemade brownies?—so she brings me a brownie and a clear bottle of Sol beer with lime, and I push the lime into the beer and watch it fizz for a second and  the first sip tastes like lime. I pick at the brownie, which isn’t quite warm, but is indeed very fresh and moist and melts in my mouth, not the best combo with the beer, but neither one ruins the other and both still taste good.

From my bag, I pull out a volume of the complete poetic works of Blaise Cendrars. Poems, the earliest thing Cendrars wrote, and I scan for a mention of Hoboken. I yearn for the word Hoboken to jump off the page for a bit of that harmonious literary synchronicity, it’s possible, because Cendrars lived in New York briefly and Hoboken seems like his kind of town: gritty and squat, filled with riverside bars and—as I imagine it was back then, at the grimy turn of the 20th century—fraught with vague menace and foggy gloom.

I finish the brownie and roll a cigarette, like Cendrars did with his one good arm (he lost an arm in the trenches of Belgium, fighting in the French Foreign Legion), I roll a cigarette like I did that night long ago at the now-non-existent diner down the street. I smoke, settle in, and read a few poems—most notably, “Panama, or The Adventures of My Seven Uncles,” about the young Cendrars receiving letters from his seven traveling uncles, correspondence that made his head spin like a globe on its axis. I finish my beer, consider ordering another but think better of it, as I am technically still on the clock and I wouldn’t want to go back to work smelling like a brewery. This is the maddening practical side of me, the conservative side, and this dilemma sums up the struggle that always goes on inside me. Am I a dedicated nine-to-fiver or something different? With a smile, I think of Jeff Daniels’s straight-laced Charlie in the film Something Wild, who insists to Melanie Griffith’s off-the-grid Lulu: I channel my rebellion into the mainstream. I pay up and compliment the barmaid on her friend’s brownies, and she promises to pass my compliment on to her friend.

I glide through the train terminal toward the dock, lighter now. I feel a million miles distant from the financial district that I left only an hour ago. I just miss a ferry, no matter: another one will come in ten minutes. I pull out the big book and continue reading about Blaise Cendrars’s worldly uncles. A man dressed in a blue business suit sits on the bench next to me, then a beautiful woman of forty arrives.

The next ferry docks, thirty people disembark, we board, I follow the beautiful forty-year old up to the top deck of the boat and position myself opposite her and stare at her the whole ride back. She has done this trip before and  knows which side of the deck to sit on to get the sun and she tilts her face to catch it. She could be Greek, a Helen of Troy with short hair, or maybe even one-quarter Asian, there is something Eastern in the almond shaped eyes. She is well-tanned and has on a sleeveless white shirt and off-white pants, both linen, and she crosses her legs and lets one of her black sandals drop, and the top of her foot is tan also. She doesn’t wear sunglasses, though the sun is bright, and a few times she looks at me but I have on my sunglasses, so she can’t tell if I’m looking at her or not. And because I’m feeling giddy (a single cold beer in the afternoon always does this to me), and because it’s afternoon, and because I’m a guy, I think about what it would be like to sleep with her.

Too soon, those imposing monoliths of Downtown New York loom again. I walk off the boat in front of Helen of Troy and imagine that she follows, silent, behind me as I walk along the river promenade back toward work. And then she comes up beside me, touches my arm and whispers, Come with me, and I ask no questions and go with her.