When it turned cold a day or two ago, and I was in the car with my daughter and her 12-year-old boy, I asked him if he could imagine a Hoboken where one didn’t take his heated house for granted. He couldn’t. Or if he could imagine having to relieve himself in an outhouse in the backyard. He couldn’t. (Well, neither could I; I’m not that old!). I thought to ask these questions at that time because we were driving by 39 2nd Street, between River and Hudson, where my wife and I lived….oh, it must have been around 1962. That’s when we first came up out of the PATH station and discovered Hoboken.
39 2nd St., just off River (as the street was named then), was a 5 story, 10 family “railroad”. On the ground floor was a seedy bar called the Paradise Club. On each corner of 2nd and River were hotels, rundown and derelict and basically empty, but testament to Hoboken’s lively and prosperous past, where, across the street, passenger ships docked. No more passengers, but freighters came to be unloaded by the longshoremen who walked to work past our building every morning. We lived in five rooms on the top floor overlooking the docks and Manhattan. We didn’t have to go down five flights to use an outhouse; or, worse, relieve ourselves in a bedpan if too lazy. No, we did have a toilet, in a kind of closet. No sink, no bathtub, just a toilet with a tank above our heads where the water was released by pulling a chain. To bathe, we somehow scrunched into a double sink in the kitchen; and also in the kitchen, heating it and another room or two, was a “gas on gas” stove.
But the front room, facing north, with old rattly windows, got awfully cold, so we taped plastic on the inside and watched as it puffed in and out as the wind blew. To heat it, we bought a pot-bellied stove from a store on First St. called Alrocks, that sold all sorts of cheap used stuff. We also bought a used mattress from somewhere and put it on the floor for our bed. Most of our “furniture”, tables, chairs, etc., we picked up on the street. Beatniks that we were, we avoided the consumer rat race and bought our clothes and most other things in Goodwill or Salvation Army, happy to live off the crumbs from the capitalist table.
For our stove we needed coal. No problem. It’s hard to believe, now, but we got a ton of coal delivered, into the basement of 39, for about $30. Every day I’d go from the top floor down into the basement and carry up a bucket of coal. To start the coal some wood was needed, but that was no problem either, there was always some on the streets to be picked up. That coal put out a lot of heat, the potbelly glowed red when it was going good. To vent it I knocked a hole in the wall for the stove pipe.
I did have a job, at a bookstore in Manhattan, for the minimum wage of $1.15 an hour. As my daughter turned the car from 2nd St. onto Washington, I asked her if she could imagine working for such a wage. Of course she couldn’t, but the dollar in those days bought a lot. We paid our $35 rent out of it (reduced to $25 if my wife swept the hallway once a month). A six-pack of cheap beer cost 99 cents. And in El Jim, the corner bar on 2nd and Hudson, a glass of beer cost 15 cents and every third one was free. And just across the street from 39 was a bar where, for a couple of beers, one could hear live country and western music on Saturday nights. Such was life on the waterfront in 1962.
“Knocked a hole in the wall!”, exclaimed my daughter. “If a tenant did that now he’d be in big trouble.” I explained that the whole Barbary Coast, we’d heard, 39 2nd included, was soon to undergo something called Urban Renewal. And sure enough, when we left Hoboken in those restless, on-the-road, coast-to-coast years, and came back, all of the old historic River and Hudson streets had been torn down. Urban Renewal? Urban Vandalism, I’d say.