In the mid-1980s, while living in Hoboken, I worked for several years at Viking Penguin on West 23rd Street as an editorial assistant, a glorified secretarial position for those of us with literary aspirations who were willing to accept the low pay, the menial chores of typing and filing, and the handling of peevish authors’ complaints on the phone, all in the hopes of rising out of these entry level positions into real careers. And I must say, people have. Stacy Schiff has become a bestselling, Pulitzer Prize winning biographer. Kathryn Harrison wrote The Kiss, one of the early sensations in the memoir boom. David Leavitt, who came in several days a week to tackle the slush pile, was finishing his first short story collection as a wunderkind who’d published in The New Yorker while still a student at Yale. And my good friend at the time, Paul Slovak over in the publicity department, has remained at the company going on thirty years. When I last saw him at his weekend retreat in Columbia County with a forest green view of the Taconics, he mentioned that he’d been the editor responsible for several of the bestselling books of our time: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love, and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea. Little did I know I was among such illustrious company.
We must have worked hard in those years, or at least some of us did. What I remember best were the distractions, the ways we found to perk up our days. At one point someone was able to retrieve from a New Jersey warehouse a cardboard file box with rejection letters for books that later became classics: Joseph Heller’s Catch-18, as it was first called, James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Mountain, and, most exciting of all, Vladamir Nabokov’s Lolita. Brilliant editors had anguished over that one, for Nabokov was already a well respected Viking author. But near the end of a long editorial review preserved on yellow carbon paper, an editor had concluded that this manuscript should be “buried under a stone for a thousand years,” wonderful proof to us as agitating assistants that the editors above us could be incredibly stupid in their cocksure assessments. I can’t help but believe that this box of gems inspired my fellow assistant, André Bernard, to assemble years later a little gem of a book called Rotten Rejections: A Literary Companion.
But André’s gift to me was a book he’d found the company library. He, too, lived in Hoboken, but at the opposite corner of town. I was upstairs from the Clam Broth House near the PATH Station. He was upstairs from a bar called Vinko’s a block from 14th Street and the Lincoln Tunnel bus into the Port Authority. Surely, I’d heard of Edward Abbey, the cult author of The Monkey Wrench Gang and Desert Solitaire, for I’d been a mountain enthusiast during my college years in California. But I hadn’t read him until André showed me an essay in his Viking collection from 1977, The Journey Home, entitled “Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night.” A curmudgeonly classic, it made me into an Edward Abbey fan for the next decade, an enthusiasm which helped push me out of those office cubicles into becoming a freelance writer and eventually leaving the city for a Catskills log cabin.
Here are the opening paragraphs. If they hook you, as they once hooked me, you’ve got at least half-a-dozen good books ahead of you.
Manhattan Twilight, Hoboken Night
Hoboken, New Jersey is not one of the five boroughs of New York City. But it should be, for it’s closer and quicker to the center of Manhattan from Hoboken than from any point in Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, or Staten Island. Fifteen minutes by bus, via the Lincoln Tunnel, takes you from Washington Street in Hoboken to the Port Authority Bus Terminal on Forty-First Street; ten minutes by train via the Hudson Tubes takes you from the Erie-Lackawanna Terminal to Ninth Street and Sixth Avenue—the Village. A dash under the river, a roar of iron, and you’re there: in Glitter Gulch, U.S.A.–Times Square, the Big Midway, the hanging gardens of electricity. Or down yonder in Green Witch Village. What more could you want? And if New York is not Manhattan, it is nothing. A little worse than nothing. Meanwhile, the insane, medieval burgs of New Jersey—Union City, West New York, Jersey City—lie divorced from Hoboken by a wall older than the Great Wall of China. I mean the Palisades, that sill of diabase left over from the Triassic period….
For two years I lived in Hoboken, far from my natural habitat. The bitter bread of exile. Two years in the gray light and the sulfur dioxide and the smell of burning coffee beans from the Maxwell House plant at the end of Hudson Street. In a dark, dank, decaying apartment house where the cockroaches—shell-backed, glossy, insolent Blatta germanica—festered and spawned under the linoleum on the sagging floors, behind the rippled wallpaper on the sweating walls, among the teacups in the cupboard. Everywhere. While the rats raced in ferocious packs, like wolves, inside the walls and up and down the cobblestone alleyways that always glistened, night and day, in any kind of weather, with a thin chill greasy patina of poisonous dew. The fly ash everywhere, falling softly and perpetually from the pregnant sky. We watched the seasons come and go in a small rectangle of walled-in space we called our yard: in spring and summer the black grass; in fall and winter the black snow. Overhead and in our hearts a black sun….
(Obviously, Abbey didn’t like the place, but he did finish his classic, Desert Solitaire, while living there. In his “Author’s Introduction” he signed off from “Nelson’s Marine Bar, Hoboken,” in “April, 1967.” By my time, that institution from the town’s tawdry glory days as the “Barbary Coast” serving longshoremen who worked at the docks, had given way to a multistory parking garage with exterior metal walls like giant cheese-graters. Suburban commuters who parked there to take the PATH into Manhattan were the more recent business in town.)
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