Revisiting “On the Waterfront” in Hoboken, by Al Desetta

(I lived in Hoboken for a decade in the 1980s. Al Desetta lived there twice as long in the 1980s and 1990s. Surely, we passed on the sidewalks, but we didn’t meet until we’d both settled in Woodstock years later. In November 1980, Al’s essay appeared in New Jersey Monthly. He still loves On the Waterfront.)

I moved to Hoboken more than a year ago, after unsuccessful attempts to find an apartment in Manhattan and Brooklyn. But I’ve become attached to the town, which is a far cry from thinking, as I did, that New Jersey was not a state, but a banishment. I relish the feeling of neighborhood and the quaint brick homes and brownstones. And I am at home in the setting of my favorite movie. Walking around Hoboken, I relive the scenes of On the Waterfront, lost in that shifty land which lies between art and life. When I walk past Third and River streets, I don’t see the high-rise there or the municipal parking garage. I see the saloon that stood at No. 314—Vandenberg’s—where Terry Malloy threw the beer glass and shattered the picture of Johnny Friendly on the wall.

“We were one big family in that neighborhood,” my landlady told me one day, as she sat on the front stoop. “On the Waterfront was filmed in my building. You remember that cat Eva Marie Saint had? That was my cat, an old alley cat I kept. They said they needed a cat for a scene; they used it, and never pad me. Hudson and River streets, there was a bar in the ground floor of every house then. The Barbary Coast, they called it. Twenty bars? There were thirty, forty, where all the longshoremen drank. They were nice places, though.

“Remember that kid on the roof with the pigeons? That was Tommy Hanley. I grew up with him. Someone told me he drives a cab now, down at the Tubes.”

What better way, I thought, to know the blood and marrow of my town than through Tommy Hanley, who had won himself a timeless presence in black and white.

When I called, Tom Hanley sounded defensive. He didn’t seem to want to talk about what had happened more than twenty-five years ago. But he agreed to meet me early one Sunday morning down at the Tubes. As I waited for him, I stood in the cobblestone street, carved by trolley tracks. At the end of the street was the old ferry terminal; its facade, which read “Ferries To New York,” was the same shade of green as the Statue of Liberty.

Tom drove up and his friendliness quickly did away with any apprehension I felt. I expected him to look aged, but he still had that handsome, pug-nose, boyish air of the blond kid on the tenement roof. He told me that he now seldom drives his cab. He has moved to North Arlington, in Bergen County, with his wife and children, but he still does dockwork in Hoboken, and he had time this morning before starting work. We got coffee and drove down River Street. Parking in front of one of the deserted docks, Tom told me how, as a 13-year-old in the spring of 1953, he had been approached by a longshoreman scouting locations for the film and was asked if he wanted to try out for a part.

“So I went to the Actors’ Studio,” he said, “And talked to Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg. They wanted to know if I could get angry, show anger. I remember throwing around some chairs, so I guess that convinced them that I could handle the part.

In the movie, Tom was a member of a gang called the Golden Warriors, and his idol was Terry Malloy. When Malloy goes to the Waterfront Crime Commission and testifies, Tom retaliates by going into the pigeon coop on the roof and killing all of Malloy’s cherished birds. When Brando arrives on the rooftop, Tom hurls a dead bird at his feet, yells, “A pigeon for a pigeon,” and runs away in tears.

“Then, for that scene,” Tom was saying, “they wanted to know if they could rough me up a little beforehand, to get me mad. Bur there was this cop I didn’t like, always hanging around the set, so it was easy for me to get mad.”

We got out of the car and Tom showed me where Brando’s climactic battle had been filmed. Through a chain link fence we saw the rock-strewn dock, where the rows of longshoremen had stood; the floating shack with the gangplank leading down to it, where Johnny Friendly had ruled the crooked local; and the sliding door at the end of the dock, which had closed on Malloy’s triumph as Edie Doyle and Father Barry looked on. “We had the Holland-American line then,” Tom said, nodding over his shoulder at the decaying pier. “That was a great thing.”

The background of the movie is a waterfront crammed with shipping. “We got the fattest piers in the fattest harbor in the world,” Johnny Friendly boast to his cronies. “Everything moves in and out—we take our cut.” There is a lot less to fight over now. All that is the same is the distant twin silhouette of the Chrysler Building and the Empire State.

“Thing change,” Tom said. “They just change, that’s all.”

We got back in the car, and we drove around Hoboken, past Church Square Park, where Malloy pushed away the bum who tried to tell Edie Doyle that her dead brother was the best kid on the block. “Brando was a regular guy,” Tom was saying, as we drove by. “I thought I was a real hipster then, but he was talking about things I didn’t know anything about. Malden was a regular guy, no better than you. Eva Marie Saint, she thought she was the world.”

As we drove down Washington Street, Tom told me that Brando sent Tom’s mother to his agent after the film was over, but nothing came of it. “I was on TV once, then that was it,” he said. “It was back to hanging out in the park with the juveniles.”

Tom was enjoying himself as we drove through the town. The car slowed whenever he recalled where a friend or relative had lived, or an old hangout, or a place where he used to play or went to school. Sometimes, we just stopped to look at a really fine brownstone or some renovation work. “I love this town,” Tom said. “It’s great to see the changes that it’s going though, like a snake on its second skin.”

I left Tom Hanley near First and Hudson streets, where he had lived. The earliness of the Sunday morning added to the sense of dislocation. Here was the neighborhood where everyone sat outside, where Tom’s blind grandmother sat by the door, where he had to sneak into his room late at night by the fire escape, because his family would be sitting out front. We looked at the new office building with the manicured lawn that stood where his home had been and where the rooftop cameras once rolled.

“I don’t know what else to tell you,” he said, getting into his car, sorry that there wasn’t more to tell.

On the Waterfront has retrospection at its core—the sad, hard kernel of what might have been. But there is also a script for the present in Terry Malloy’s return to grace, dearly won, with that staggering walk past the gauntlet of his peers.

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The Hudson Valley Poetry Blog is produced by Will Nixon, author of My Late Mother as a Ruffed Grouse and Love in the City of Grudges.

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