A few years ago a former student asked me to write an essay about Hoboken, New Jersey, for Hoboken Gay, an online magazine he was creating. Hoboken Gay has yet to appear, so I'm posting my essay here. --John Horgan
I'm an ardent believer in free will, our capacity to choose our own fate rather than having it foisted on us by forces beyond our control. So it's a little awkward for me to admit that Hoboken, like everything I care about, came into my life by accident.
My first visit, in 2005, ended badly. I was married, living with my wife and two kids in Garrison, New York, a Hudson River hamlet about 50 miles north of Hoboken. Lisa Dolling, a philosopher at the Hoboken-based Stevens Institute of Technology, who happened to have read one of my books, invited me to give a talk (on, as I recall, science and literature). I accepted, because I needed the modest honorarium. I was a full-time freelance writer, and I was having a tough time supporting my family with book royalties and magazine fees.
When I arrived at Stevens, the parking lot to which Dolling had directed me was full, so I blithely parked on a nearby street. (I was so innocent then!) The campus, with its spectacular views of the Hudson and Manhattan, charmed me, as did the folks I met at Stevens. After my talk, I had dinner with a pack of professors at the on-campus mansion of a Stevens dean, Eric Kunhardt. He was a fast-talking, pop-eyed physicist who spouted provocative albeit not entirely coherent ideas about reforming higher education.
When I said goodbye and returned to my car, it had been booted. Damn! I returned to Kunhardt's house and informed him, and he called the home number of a Hoboken official and screamed at him. It was very late when I finally got back to Garrison. After that incident, perhaps because they felt guilty, Kunhardt and Dolling offered me a job teaching and running a lecture series at Stevens. Although I had no academic experience, I accepted their offer--again, I needed the money.
Before my visit, I knew of Stevens only as the place where Jeremy Bernstein, who wrote wonderful profiles of scientists for The New Yorker, had taught physics. I once tried to get Bernstein to give a talk at Stevens, but he refused, adamantly. He loathed Stevens, which he felt had mistreated him.
Stevens treated me just fine. Gradually I learned how to teach (the key, I realized, is making sure that I enjoy myself in the classsroom), and I befriended my fellow professors. One pal was Jim McClellan, an historian of science and former student radical whose kindly face was haloed by Moses-esque hair and beard. Another was Garry Dobbins, a curmudgeonly philosopher with an Australian accent and gift for snark, which he often directed at me.
The worst part of the job was the 2.5 hour commute—each way!--from my home in upstate New York. (Drive to train station, take Metro North to Grand Central, then subway, another subway, PATH to Hoboken terminal, 15-minute walk to Stevens.) At one point, a Stevens official arranged for me to stay overnight in a spare student dorm room when I had late events and class the next morning. But that was weird for me—and no doubt for the students I encountered in the dorm. They were polite, but their expressions said, What is this old guy doing here?
In 2009 my marriage broke up, and I moved out of our Garrison house into a furnished one-bedroom apartment near my kids' high school. I went on an internet dating site and met a woman whom I'll call Emily. She worked in publishing, so she was leery of writers, but we hit it off. She lived in Tribeca, just a seven-minute ferry ride from Hoboken. She let me stay with her on nights when I had to be on campus the next morning, but the commute from upstate New York still ground me down.
In 2014, after my kids graduated from high school, I moved to Hoboken to be closer to Stevens and Emily. She decreed that we should keep separate apartments, so we wouldn't get sick of each other. I rented a one-bedroom in a red brick high-rise just south of the Stevens campus, cutting my commute from 2.5 hours to five minutes. I could stroll home and eat lunch while watching Rick and Morty!
Do I love Hoboken? That's hard to say. The name "Hoboken" pleases me. I find myself saying "Ho-Ho-Hoboken" a lot as Christmas approaches. (Ho-Ho-Hoboken is not to be confused with Ho-Ho-kus, an actual borough in New Jersey.) When Emily mocks Hoboken, it bothers me. Although she helped me find and decorate my apartment, she rarely visits me. When we're together, it's at her place in Tribeca. She's a Manhattan snob, the kind who wrinkles her nose at the mere mention of New Jersey.
Her loss! My 11th-floor apartment has a view of the Hudson and southern Manhattan that gives me pleasure every day, in good weather or bad. I like it when rain or snow fall like a veil over Manhattan, and when jagged lightning bolts descend from the clouds and strike the Freedom Tower. I like jogging around the big grassy pier that juts out into the Hudson, past the grazing geese and the fishermen sitting stoically beside their poles. I like watching the Waterways ferry rumble up to the decrepit Hoboken terminal, with its baroque, blue-green copper trim and ancient Lackawanna train sign. I like chatting with a ferry crewman named Kevin, a rogue with silver hair and tongue who's had more adventures than Don Quixote.
But I'm in Hoboken without being of it. That's how I've felt about most places I've lived, and about life in general, come to think of it. This, I suppose, is the downside of being a writer. I'm more spectator than participant, audience than actor. I haven't gotten to know any neighbors in my apartment building. Many, I'm guessing from the accents, are young immigrant couples, probably Wall Streeters, with kids. My only Hoboken friends are Stevens colleagues.
Just as Garrison, my old hometown, made me sad after my divorce, so Hoboken has become tinged with melancholy. Many of my Stevens pals are gone. Lisa Dolling, whose invitation first brought me to Stevens, left for another school years ago, and wacky Eric Kunhardt succumbed to cancer. Jim McClellan, the historian with the fabulous hair, moved with his wife Jackie to a retirement community in Pennsylvania. Garry Dobbins, the snarky philosopher, retired to Vermont. Pennsylvania? Vermont? Why? Maybe to save money. I get that. Hoboken ain't cheap.
I'm not sure I'll stay here after I retire from Stevens. But inertia is a major force in my life. Once I make a choice, or once a choice is foisted on me, I tend to stick with it, even if I have misgivings about it. Where would I go? Vermont? Pennsylvania? Why not Arkansas? Or Zanzibar? The more I think about my choices, the more arbitrary they seem. So I'll exercise my free will by choosing not to choose. If I'm still with Emily, or even if I'm not, I'll probably just stay here in Ho-Ho-Hoboken.
PS: Pay Attention, a lightly fictionalized account of a day in my life, has lots of Hoboken in it. I just dropped a signed copy off at Hoboken's wonderful Little City Books on 1st and Bloomfield.
Clarification: My girlfriend says I misrepresent Emily's views of New Jersey. "Emily loves New Jersey, especially the shore," my girlfriend says. "She would love a house there with a little nature around it. She just doesn't love sitting in a little white box high rise when she can be home."