Hoboken Sonnet

by David Levithan

© David Levithan 2012

It all starts, I suppose, with Mr. Gordon. We might have been studying Shakespeare, although I can’t say for sure. What I remember is this: Mr. Gordon was talking about sonnets. He was reveling in the ABAB of it all, talking in his courtly voice about the wonderful form a sonnet takes. Fourteen lines to build a cathedral, seven rhymes to ease forth perfection. A sonnet could be about love, or about hate. It could burn with desire or simply desire to burn. The architecture was prescribed, but the materials were not.

“You can write a sonnet about anything,” Mr. Gordon told us, his eyes a-twinkle. “Absolutely anything. With one exception.”

We all leaned forward. (Well, the three of us in my English class who cared.)

“Hoboken,” Mr. Gordon stated flatly. “Nobody could ever write a sonnet about Hoboken.”

His expression answered why: Hoboken was entirely devoid of charm. It was not a place with any glory. It was a dank, rancid way-station. It could barely inspire a single rhyme. Broken. Unspoken. Hoboken.

What did I know of the town at that point? Like most kids in suburban New Jersey, I used it solely for its train station, the gateway to The City. We never stayed in Hoboken, not unless we were waiting for a train to arrive or depart. If we had enough time, we’d wander outside, look across the Hudson River at Manhattan, which was right there. It bordered on magic -- not the town, but what you could see. The skyline at any hour. The run of the river. The moon when it rose. Those weightless minutes in between shifts of transit, meant to be shared with friends, or spent in quiet reflection. Staring at the enormity of the city, you couldn’t help but think larger thoughts.

There are many words for that feeling – of staring up at the bigger places, feeling grounded in home but yearning for a bigger life. One of the words is most certainly wonderstruck. From its beginning as a ferry station in the eighteenth century, Hoboken has been filled by wonderstruck dreamers: Col. John Stevens, an inventor and a pioneer in steam-generated power and navigation; Alfred Stieglitz, one of the most famous photographic observers of the twentieth century; Frank Sinatra, who spread the wonder of the town all around the world with his larger-than-life voice. Living in Hoboken is like having the richest, most creative, most dazzling next-door neighbor imaginable. Just as Rose does, you look out the window and your dreams are right there.

Once I left for college, I didn’t give Hoboken much thought. I visited once to talk to a family friend about getting a job in publishing. It was a beautiful day, but I was so nervous I didn’t really take a look around. Then I graduated, got a job in New York, and had to find a place to live. My friend Jen from high school and I decided to live together. She wanted to live in Hoboken. I wanted to live in Manhattan. (I’d never been to Brooklyn; it didn’t occur to me that anyone like us would live there. If you’d told me Park Slope was a ski resort in Colorado, I would’ve believed you.) We decided that whoever found the best apartment first would win. I, of course, was inordinately intimidated by Manhattan real estate and its brokers. Jen found a great apartment. We moved to Hoboken.

Jen left a year later for Manhattan. I stayed, and have lived in Hoboken ever since.

Why? everyone asks. New Yorkers are largely incredulous, even those that live in the outer rings of Queens. Why would you choose to live in Hoboken?

It is a ten-minute bus ride from my apartment to Times Square. Ten minutes. (When I lived in suburbia, it took me longer to drive to the supermarket.) I’m in a different state, but I’m not that far. Hoboken has always been the shadow of Manhattan, and you don’t need a ruler to know that a shadow is never that far away from the body.

I love having a river between me and my work, between me and The Big Show. My home is my retreat. So I can head there, get some rest, then plunge back into the city once more.

Yes yes, David. (This is Mr. Gordon talking now.) But can you find any poetry in Hoboken? Wouldn’t that be a bit of a stretch?

There is a Sunday every March when I am woken up by the sound of bagpipes -- the St. Patrick’s Day parade (two weeks early) commencing under my window as children line the street with flags and a green stripe runs down the center of town. When I moved here, a local photo shop would put up hundreds of photos of kids in their Halloween costumes, free of charge. Vito’s Deli makes the most remarkable mozzarella hero I’ve ever tasted; I will time my departure from work in order to get there before it closes, and often in the past left enough spare minutes to grab a Napoleon at Cosmo’s Bakery, a few blocks down. (And, yes, Vito works behind the counter of Vito’s, and Cosmo would ask me about my weekends from behind the counter of Cosmo’s.) As I walk through town, I pass Sinatra Boulevard and other signs in His name; like parents who tell stories of their son long after he stopped coming to visit, our town still takes pride in him. In the wee small hours I will forsake the cabs (they call where I live “uptown” – the whole town is a mile square, but we still have an uptown, a midtown, and a downtown) and I will walk in the tree-lined night breeze. I will sing like Sinatra’s ghost, footsteps under streetlights, orchestral quiet all around.

When are you going to give in? (Friends ask. All the time.) When are you going to move into the city?

I love the city’s history. I love how Stevens Institute of Technology presides over all of us, at the highest point on the highest hill. (This is where Rose lives, in the house that now belongs to the President of Stevens. Today it overlooks a very different skyline than the one in Rose’s day, but you can imagine the hustle and bustle was still the same.) I love that this used to be a place where dockworkers hung out, and then it became a place where artists hung out. I love that the first organized game of baseball was played in the park where I read my Sunday paper on sunny days. And, by God, I love it when I’m walking to work and I can look over the river and see the run rising over Manhattan. For just a few minutes each day, the buildings are streaked with pink light. The world seems to be telling you: Anything is possible. And you have to be in Hoboken in order to see it.

So for now I will live in this small town that looks onto a big city. I will head to work in my happy, sunlit anonymity, on uneven sidewalks, ducking under wayward branches and saying hello to the crossing guards as they stand at their stations. I will revel in the town’s attitude, that potent mix of mafioso bravado, young professional ambition, underground music, and river-width dreams.

Here’s the thing, Mr. Gordon: As long as a place is a home, there’s a sonnet (many sonnets) lying underneath. Now more than ever, I feel we’re aware of where we live. There’s a beauty to the local -- whether it’s the guy at the coffee stand who wishes you well each morning, or the comic foibles of the mayor, or the sound of people laughing as they wait for the night bus to the city. And there’s beauty (as Rose finds) from what you can see when you look out of your house – all the bigger things that await you, all the stories out there in the world. It’s not perfection by any means . . . but a sonnet doesn’t require perfection. Just the ordinary things that make us happy, or at least remind us that we live in a certain place, so we can take some certainty from that.

I can’t write a perfect sonnet for my town -- not because it isn’t deserving, but because I’m not the poet for the job. So, yes, I am writing an essay instead. Two points for the high school English teacher. But now, over twenty years later, I am raising my hand in class. Yes, twenty years later I know exactly what to say: There is poetry everywhere. Even in Hoboken.

David Levithan has lived in Hoboken for almost twenty years, and perhaps his most famous character, Nick from Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist (co-written with Rachel Cohn) also comes from Hoboken. When not in Hoboken, David works in the city as a publisher at Scholastic or travels around in support of his books, which also include the novels Boy Meets Boy, Love is the Higher Law, and Marly's Ghost (illustrated by none other than Brian Selznick).