LOUISE DESALVO’S HOBOKEN
We never did get to have lunch in Hoboken. We met for lunch a couple of times in Montclair, once at her house, the second time in a restaurant, just the two of us. We shared more than one interest, but Hoboken was our true common denominator, Italian Hoboken. It is the place of her birth, where she lived until her family moved to Ridgefield, N.J. in 1949 when Louise was seven. I have lived in Hoboken for over thirty years now. It is the place I long ago began referring to as my “adopted hometown.” At the time of the second lunch, I was living equidistant from Losurdo’s and Fiore’s delis, two of the dwindling number of touchstones of Italian Hoboken. Like so many of the apartment buildings in town, mine had been a factory. It was one of the early if not the first conversion in the mid-70s which had recently been re-done with attention to the history of the place. Formerly, it was the site of Keuffel & Esser, maker of precision instruments. An enlarged facsimile of one such instrument hung in the lobby and period photos of the building decorated the walls. The K&E logo still adorns the building. It was at Keuffel & Esser that Louise’s father worked as a machinist after the war. When we realized the coincidence over our bowls of minestrone that day, our eyes locked and our spoons remained suspended in mid-air for an extra count. She told me about the spiders they used to house in the basement of K & E that spun threads which would become filaments in the instruments. As we parted, she said she wanted to come to Hoboken. We agreed: Our next lunch would be there, I would pick the place. This was just before her last illness.
Louise grew up with her parents and her younger sister in a tenement on Fourth and Adams in a railroad apartment with a shared bathroom in the hall. Her maternal grandparents lived in the building; her grandmother was the super. Like any number of Italian immigrant women who were still ever present in my early years here, Louise’s grandmother could be found sitting on the stoop “complaining with her cronies”, walking to and from the market or church. (The House of Early Sorrows, 58-59). During the war years, she describes—perhaps, she notes, with some exaggeration, but perhaps not–a freewheeling world of women and children running in and out of each other’s apartments for impromptu potlucks and play, unencumbered by the expectations of husbands and fathers, their lives taking on “an antic, festive, tribal quality. Anarchy prevailed, and it was good.” The years before and after the war, when the men were present, were marked by a regimentation and a formality, “each family locked together to carry on its claustrophobic life in its tiny three-room cell.” (Vertigo, 51).
Sinatra was born not far away on Fourth and Monroe (the house and the adjacent, quirky Sinatra museum are long gone; surprisingly, those vacant lots are only now being developed into luxury condos). According to Louise, this quarter of Hoboken was then known as “Italian City,” where “Italian immigrants felt comfortable . . .because the buildings were small in scale, close together, crowding the sidewalk, much like their villages in Italy. And there were open spaces and public parks nearby where people could gather, just like in Italy, too.” (Chasing Ghosts, 110). It had other advantages. The proximity of the Italians made it relatively safe when Hoboken was a dangerous place. Her mother never feared opening the door because by the time anyone got that far, they had already been screened “by one of the young men hanging out on the corner of Fourth and Adams in front of Albini’s Drugstore, by the old woman leaning out the window on the first floor of our building, or by the old man sitting in the sun on our front stoop. No one got into our apartment house unless they could prove they had some business there.” (The House of Early Sorrows, 44). But uptown on Fourteenth Street, near the docks, was another story. Her parents, unable to find an apartment in Italian City due to the housing shortage during the war years, moved into a small cold water flat there even though, she writes, “My father always called Fourteenth Street the asshole end of Hoboken.” (The House of Early Sorrows, 79). Louise describes the din of the street—the rumble of trucks carrying war supplies to the shipyards where “the racket from the rivet guns . . .never stopped,” and the smells—chemicals from nearby factories, coffee from the Maxwell House Plant on Hudson Street (one of the last factories to leave town, finally closing its gates in 1990). (The House of Early Sorrows, 79) Hoboken, then as now, is known as a drinking town with a reputation for rowdiness although the scene today is tame by comparison. At that time, with the nearby docks, the dancehalls and saloons were filled with sailors on leave who would spill out at the end of the night to roam Fourteenth Street in groups, looking for women. Louise’s mother, left alone with her child while her husband was serving in the Pacific, was accosted and likely assaulted in her own apartment.
In the 1990s, Louise returned to the Hoboken she left over four decades earlier. She found it largely unchanged. This was the Italian Hoboken of “old women who put pillows on the window sills to rest their beefy arms and lean out the window to watch what’s happening on the block,” “the housewives who pop out of their apartments wearing aprons to pick up a thing or two from Fiore’s for supper while their sauce cooks down on the stove,” of laundry hanging outside on lines that crisscrossed courtyards; of old men sitting backwards on folding chairs; one of those men she imagined was “saving a parking space in front of his apartment for his son-in-law who is coming to visit him all the way from Brooklyn. He will sit there as long as he must, for hours, if necessary, because doing this is important.” (94) Except for the lack of parking, little remains of this scene.
Yet Louise’s Hoboken was not merely a site of nostalgia. For all of its poverty and danger when she was a child, for Louise, Hoboken was always the place where her memory “found a place to live.” (93) Her first home remained “the safe house that is in my heart,” (95). She never thought of Ridgefield as her home; when asked, she always said that she grew up in Hoboken. The move to the suburb was a painful “rupture” in her life (Vertigo, 95), yet she internalized Hoboken, especially in her speech style. She describes her diction as “resolutely and defiantly Hudson County, New Jersey.” Her predilection for swearing came from the street corner boys of Hoboken “whom we listened to as children as others listened to the radio.” (Vertigo, 93) Her way of speaking was more than just a style; it was a greeting to insiders and a warning to outsiders. Its real meaning, she writes, was: “’I’m from the old neighborhood, and if you’re from the old neighborhood too, then we can be friends right here, right now, and if you’re not, there’s a lot of shit we need to get through before that can happen.’” (Vertigo, 94)
Although the people and the way of life Louise remembered are for the most part no longer, a number of the Hoboken places she wrote about remain or are within living memory even if they have been transformed—Church Square Park, now with more cushioned playground space and fewer trees to climb; Our Lady of Grace Church, St. Francis, Demearest High (now a middle school), Albini’s, the ornate Hoboken Public Library, the campus of Stevens Institute for Technology right on the Hudson. Schnackenberg’s (“Schnack’s”), a classic luncheonette where Louise’s parents would meet and which retained its classic look over the years, just closed last month.
The waterfront and the skyline, although both have changed dramatically over the years, are as much features of Hoboken as these familiar locales. Louise recalled her weekly Saturday morning visits with her grandfather who would wheel her in a stroller to a parapet on the Hudson River along the “street paved with bricks the color of gold.” (The House of Early Sorrows, 52). This must be Castle Point, then as now not only paved with gold-colored bricks but lined with mansions, those on the east side of the street overlooking the Hudson and New York. Here he would insist that she get out of her stroller and walk. “’See, my child,’” her grandfather, who worked on the railroads and the docks his whole American life would say, laughing, “’The streets of America are paved with gold.’” (The House of Early Sorrows, 52). Every time they reached the parapet, he would lift her up so that she could see the river and the world beyond Hoboken.
Nancy Carnevale is an associateprofessor in the Department of History at Montclair State University, writes history and creative nonfiction about Italian -American life. Her parents emigrated from the Molise region in the 1950s to central New Jersey where she grew up in an Italian community.