These buildings had survived two World Wars and the Great Depression. Many times they had been passed from fathers to sons. Slumlords had partitioned each floor into several stifling cubicles, with one common bathroom for all three or four floors. When the newly-established Board of Health condemned these hovels, the landlords simply kicked the families out. The properties were sold for pocket change, or burned. Others were simply abandoned when the shipyards shut down.In the early 1980s, the speculators arrived. Dilapidated row houses were bought and sold like playing cards. Scores of buildings were gutted and fitted with new walls and fresh paint, and electricity. Local tradesmen, who had barely eked out a living for years, were suddenly in great demand. Small businesses thrived again. The Sanitation Division began to clean the streets for the first time in years.The more stately buildings, such as the brownstones on Bloomfield or Garden Street, were pampered and restored, and given a new lease on life.
The final sign that gentrification had arrived was the invasion of the yuppies, or the fucking yuppies, as they soon became known. The natives, and the existing tenants, resented the fucking yuppies’ affluence. Their eagerness to pay the jacked-up rents sent the prices soaring.
My crew and I had had restored a large brownstone on Garden Street. We had discovered marble hearths underneath thick coats of paint, and solid mahogany wainscoting covered by embossed cardboard. The original wide-plank flooring was hidden beneath several sheets of linoleum. This would be no cookie-cutter overhaul, but a renaissance.
The owners, Sandy and David were thrilled by the work we had done. But we still had a basement apartment to build. While the couple was busy admiring their new home, I proposed that if they paid for the materials, I would build the basement apartment without charge, in exchange for free rent. They agreed immediately. I could have sold them Staten Island the way they accepted my deal so quickly...
A few weeks later they bought another house, and put the Garden Street property on the market. They were selling them as condos, a floor at a time.
I should have amended the contract.
After some cajoling, they agreed to give me a commission in the unlikely event thatI found a buyer. I stuck some bedroom furniture into a corner, and built an apartment around it.
Margaux was a bartender at Maxwell’s Tavern, which had been a workingman’s bar until Maxwell House coffee had slipped away in the dead of night, screwing hundreds of workers out of their pensions.
I stopped by one afternoon for a drink, although I’d have never had a drink in my life.
The place was basically a dump, with sawdust and cigarette butts on the floor, and a men’s room plastered with"for a good time call…" graffiti. It's fancier now, but I like the earlier version, with an old guy from Harlem who came out here on Saturday nights to play the piano for tips. I used to walk him to the PATH train--or The Tubes, as they were known in those days. We'd amble down a deserted Washington Street in the cold, surrounded by whirling newpapers. His name was John. It took him two hours each way to play piano at Maxwells on Saturday nights.
Margaux pulled a pint of Guinness for me, and I put a ten dollar bill on the bar. She let it sit there as she read a book, and I worked Will Weng crossword.
A crooked, bent-over man in a ratty sport jacket and a brown fedora quietly opened the door. She poured the old man a pilsner of Bud, and returned with another pint for me. This time I nodded toward the back bar and she poured a shot of Jameson’s too. The ten spot had not moved. The bartenders at Maxwell’s served me “on the house” all night, and they would ‘inherit’ the cash I’d left on the bar. In the evenings I put down a twenty, and at closing time it was palmed into their tip jar. An early afternoon like this, I usually dropped a ten. I sometimes passed them a small, brown glass vial as well. Just to help all of us get through the night.
I told Margaux about the ongoing saga at Garden Street. We talked about the rising rents.
“Fucking yuppies,” She said.
I left the ten bucks, and tried to walk a straight line back to my half-finished apartment.
Marta sometimes worked as a secretary for John Sayles, the actor and director. He lived up on Thirteenth Street in a renovated, brick row house. (I once repaired Sayles’ window sill, after a carpenter whom I’d recommended had botched up the job.) Marta told me that a friend of John Sayles was looking to buy an apartment. She promised that she would get more information for me.
The very next day she gave me the phone number, and said it belonged toTom Waits, who was less well-known than John Sayles at the time. He was a cult favorite, with a deep, raspy voice, and a melancholy repertoire. His album, Closing Time, became an underground hit. I was a huge fan of Tom Waits and his music.
I cured my anxiety with a shot glass and a bottle, and dialed the number. A woman’s voice answered. I asked if I could speak to Tom, and she told me that he was out, and would not be home until late. She asked if she could take a message, and I gave her my name, explaining why I’d called. I described the apartment in detail. I could already imagine the sound of his piano coming through my ceiling.
Would Saturday be convenient for you? she asked.
That would be fine, I said.
I gave her the address and directions from the PATH train, wished her a good night and hung up the phone.
Sharon was a friend who sold antiques. She had a good eye for what people liked, and how much they would pay for it. She had no storefront at that time, so I let her hold gate sales* in the small courtyard in front of the house. The court yard is enclosed by a cast iron fence, and a gate. Hence we have gate sales. She and her friend James had set up their space by the time I had crawled out of bed. I was at the kitchen counter, smoking a cigarette while I watched the coffee brew.
(*For those who have never been east of the Hackensack River, a gate sale is the Hoboken equivalent of a garage sale, or a lawn sale. We have yards, but shoppers would have to trample through your entire apartment to get back there.
But garages? No way. You have to find a parking place in the street, parading through the like zombies on wheels.)
It was a glorious summer afternoon. I pulled a small table and chair from under the stairs, and set it beneath my sun umbrella. I didn’t want to block the gate or get in Sharon’s way, so I set everything in the far corner of the courtyard, near the three steps down to my apartment. I went to the kitchen to get my crossword puzzle book. I made a marguerita and put on my straw hat. I tucked the magazine into the band of my shorts, snatched the marguerita from the counter and went outside.
Hours later, Sharon was exhausted. She and James were ready to box up the unsold goods, as soon as the last few stragglers left. I was still relaxing at my table when I saw the image of a man appear further up Garden Street. He drew closer, pausing in front of a building after every few steps. His hair looked all tangled up, as if he had not cleaned it in ages. He wore a white, button-down shirt and had a wooly brown cardigan tied around his waist. Oh god, I thought. What if he stops here?
I hid my face behind my crossword book, pretending to read. While he was passing the building next door, I peeked over the top of the magazine. He had stopped at the gate.
He leaned toward James.
Are you Bob Skye? he said in a gravelly voice.
I put my magazine down. You must be Tom, I said.
I went through my apartment and opened the door from the inside, then invited him in. He said that the apartment was very nice. He was really much cleaner than I thought he had been earlier. He was tired and overheated by his walk from the PATH station. I have certainly looked worse, and it had nothing to do with the PATH train.
He could not have been a humbler, nor a shier man. He spoke softly, as if trying to hide his growly, trademark voice. Maybe he thought if he spoke like he sang, he would scare everyone.
He, James and I sat on the stoop and had a beer. We spoke awhile of Ireland. James had come here recently from Ireland, near where Tom met his wife. We spoke of West Clare, a place where I could live for the rest of my life. I might not even miss Hoboken; and there would be plenty of car parking there.
He did not take the apartment, because he and his wife were planning a child, and the apartment was too small. But he said it was nice, and I am delighted that he likes my work.
I wish Tom Waits and his family all the best.
And I’m sorry that I thought he was a hobo.