You Can’t Go Home Again
Hoboken was the first place I lived when I moved to the New York City area. It’s a teeny little town–only one square mile–on the other side of the Hudson River. To you non-NYC folk, this means that Hoboken is in New Jersey which means my Queens-born husband has a tendency to stick his nose up in its general direction. I’ve hinted during our house-hunt that I’d be open to buying in Hoboken. Vin has been less enthusiastic about the idea. (I believe the phrase he used was “over my dead body”, which means there’s still a 50% chance of me moving there.)
Anyway, it’s set up like this: Once you get off the train that connects the city to Hoboken, you walk along the waterfront, where you get some really killer views of lower Manhattan. The next street is all gorgeous old brownstones, the kind that give you chest pains and make you reconsider a career in finance. The street after that is almost 100% bars, restaurants and tiny boutiques. The rest of the town is mostly tree-lined and residential. It’s a nice-looking place.
But Hoboken is a chicken wing town. What I mean is, any town with a superfluous amount of beer and chicken wing specials on any given weeknight is a very young town. If you live in Hoboken, chances are you are either very old and Italian, around 29 1/2 with a yuppie spouse and a fat little baby, or fresh out of a dorm room. It’s very well known as a recent-post-grad haven. You can’t throw a rock in Hoboken without hitting someone between the ages of 22 and 25.
I don’t remember how I heard about Hoboken, but I found my first roommates there via craigslist, which in 1999 was still pretty new and considered an excellent way to get yourself murdered. I responded to an ad for an “open house” to find a third roommate for a place on 8th and Willow, and showed up drenched in sweat at the tail end of July with about 25 other girls in their early 20s. We were all trying to win favor with the two lucky lease-bearers, two 24-year-old girls offering an incredibly small, windowless bedroom to the person least likely to stab them in their sleep. The bedroom for rent was right in the middle of the apartment, dark and tiny, with a door that swung into the room instead of out into the hallway, so that every time you tried to leave you’d have to wedge yourself through the narrow slot between your twin-sized bed and the wall. But at $550, it was a steal. I got the final rose that day and moved in three weeks later, a bold move on my roommates’ end since I was broke and unemployed with no prospects on the horizon.
At 22, Hoboken was like heaven. I’d never lived in walking distance of anything before, so having groceries and cocktails and tampons only a block away was very liberating. I’d temp and job-hunt in the cit during the day, then at night I’d put on cute outfits and lip gloss and try to meet new friends., either in Hoboken or back in Manhattan. The local restaurants and bars were packed with people my own age, so it felt like college got extended by a year or two. There was a dance club two blocks away and I liked to wear really tight pants and make out with relatively attractive strangers there. We lived next door to a greasy Chinese takeout restaurant, which I believed was the greatest gift God had ever given me. I lived on egg rolls and ambition. They were good times.
For the past 14 years, I have looked back on those early Hoboken days with great fondness and affection. So on occasion, I like to call up my friend Kim– who lives in New Jersey– to see if she’ll grab dinner or drinks with me in my old stomping grounds. I hadn’t been there on a Friday night in a while, but it’s safe to say that Hoboken Friday Night hasn’t changed a bit.
But holy shit… I sure have.
I chose a restaurant that was Mexican/Japanese fusion, meaning I could have chips and guac as an appetizer and sushi as the main event which is basically my idea of a perfect evening. We sat in a precious little backyard with Christmas lights strung up through trees. I had a strawberry- jalapeño margarita to whet my appetite, and excitement began to build around the “Guacamole Trio” we ordered.
When it arrived I was disturbed to discover that they had topped three tiny bowls of fairly decent guacamole with ill-advised toppings– a heavy dose of cotija cheese (bland at best, but not completely mad at it), a smattering of diced pineapple (eh…okay, but I prefer mango), and a handful of soft, buttery-yellow corn kernels straight out of a can (OFF WITH THEIR HEADS). Not only were we in New Jersey, world-renowned for their delectably sweet farm-fresh corn, but we were also smack dab in the middle of summer produce season, putting fresh corn at a cost of like, I don’t know, two cents an ear? Haven’t they seen all the documentaries? Corn is the cheapest food product in the freaking world. Plus, who puts corn in their guacamole anyway? It was like a crime against delicious appetizers. And New Jersey farmers. And Mexico! (And Japan, by proxy).
After our meal, I suggested we go to a rooftop bar around the corner where I’ve oft romanticized one luxurious night I had as a plump-faced 23-year-old, getting smashed with girlfriends while admiring the New York City skyline. At 38, the first stop in the bar is naturally the restroom, a petite space with a meager line and an impudent little patron using one of two narrow stalls as her personal phone booth while young girls with tanned skin and short skirts waited patiently outside the door for their turn to empty their aching bladders, filled to the brim with cheap beer and sparkling wine. When it was finally my turn at bat, I tried to imbue my flush with disapproval, holding the lever down slightly longer than necessary to discursively coax the birdy from her perch. She remained undeterred, so I soaped and rinsed my hands, then made a second attempt at eviction by giving myself the most thorough electric hand-dry of the 21st century. (*as this post goes live, it’s now three days later, and she is still in the stall screaming: “No…I’m at City Something…I can’t remember what it’s called…whatever, it’s on 14th Street, use google maps”.) Eventually I surrendered and dragged Kim upstairs to the roof top deck, where I hoped to enjoy a cocktail (I was imagining gin or vodka, infused with cucumber and fragrant fresh herbs), a great skyline view, and most importantly, a chair.
The space was 1,000 times smaller and less appealing than I remembered it, with a huge crowd of recent college grads all standing and packed tightly around three large TVs, sloshing beer and blowing smoke up each others’ nostrils. I grimaced at Kim–who at almost 30 is my very youngest friend–and said, “Girl, no. I can’t do this. Can we go find some ice cream or something?”
So we walked back down the main street littered with bars and restaurants and eventually landed on a crepe place. I ordered a simple crepe with lemon and sugar and a vanilla latte. We took a seat out on the sidewalk so we could enjoy the nice summer breeze and the sweet spicy fragrance of buffalo sauce tickling the air. When our desserts arrived, I took one look at my little glass mug and immediately recognized my “latte” as Maxwell House International Cafe Style Beverage Mix, that aluminum box of chalky powder one keeps in his or her desk drawer for emergency purposes only. My eggy crepe had been mopped with a sugary, lemon-flavored goo which stuck like gum to the roof of my mouth and made me long for Paris, or at the very least, the charming bistro in my neighborhood where crisp, delicate, lace-like crepes are spun from organic buckwheat flour before a gauzy sprinkle of powdered sugar and the gentlest squeeze of bright lemon fall upon them like light summer rain.
I looked around at the passerby–clean-cut bros in button-down shirts and packs of nubile young women in summer dresses and high heels, full of life and excitement and enough energy to yank them back into the city they had just returned from after a full day of work. The girls were prepared to walk blocks and blocks to the train in those heels, and they were flaunting the types of hairstyles that looked freshly blown. It all just looked like so much effort. Did I really do all that? Was this really my life at one time? My God, it seems like so long ago.
It was an interesting moment for me, for not only was I confronted with the fact I was now a crotchety old fart, but somewhere along the way I’d also become incredibly snobby. Where was the cooly unconcerned 22-year-old of yore, chatting with strangers and living life with unrestrained joie de vivre? Whatever happened to that young girl in tight pants making out with strangers and scarfing $2 egg rolls after a night at the club? Maybe she is gone forever, and all that’s left is a straight-laced working stiff with a love for quality food and sensible footwear. Perhaps this is just the course life follows, a few buoyant years of chirpy, non-chalantness before pining for watering holes where one can enjoy meaningful conversation, adequate seating and corn-free guacamole.
Or maybe that 22-year-girl is still there; she’s just trapped between her twin bed and a narrow wall in a tiny house on Willow Street, on the other side of the river.