It is just a little after 7AM, my hot cup of chicory coffee sits on the arm of the couch beside me, and the sun is not yet high in the sky. It is a still day. The American flag I keep outside our window hangs motionless. I can hear the dogs from the kennel next door barking, and feel the chill in the air. I go to the window and see the flat roofs of densely packed buildings, and the skyline of Manhattan soaring in the background. I can hear voices on the street too, as the employees of the warehouse below show up for duty, and then the air is punctuated with an angry “F*** you.” Yes, it is official, another day has begun in Hoboken, NJ, as your Accidental Cajun sits thoughtfully pecking at keys in the exile of the Northeast.
The task of writing from exile has a long and glorious history. James Joyce wrote his great works not in Ireland, but in Paris, in self-imposed exile. Ernest Hemingway wrote from Paris and the Caribbean, far from his midwestern roots of Oak Park, Illinois. While my exile is not nearly so dramatic, a mere 30 miles or so from the place of my birth, the sense of isolation is no less real. I am truly a man without a country, stuck within the four walls of the 07030.
Hoboken is a small town, geographically a mile squared, that has the peculiar and particular advantage of being located across from that great economic engine that is Manhattan. It sits directly between the two main tunnels, the Holland and the Lincoln, that connect NYC to the rest of the United States, and also has direct train access to Lower and Midtown Manhattan. Ferry boats whisk commuters across the Hudson as well, as the once great port city now deals primarily in human commerce. It is no exaggeration to suggest that upwards of 50 to 60% of Hoboken’s 50,000 plus residents are employed in Manhattan; yes, that is right, 50,000 in a mile by mile square.
Hoboken also boasts a thriving bar business, a holdover from the days when it was dominated by longshoreman and factory workers. It boasts well over 100 bars all in close quarters to one another. At one time Hoboken had more industry and alcohol per square foot than anywhere else in the United States. While the proud industrial past is now a distant memory in Hoboken, the proximity to NYC, the influx of money, and the existence of a still thriving bar scene has turned Hoboken into a tourist attraction of sorts. On weekends, it’s streets and bars are overwhelmed with both locals and non-locals whose sole purpose is consuming massive amounts of alcohol while acting like extras from the cast of the Jersey Shore (think Bourbon Street without the culture or architecture). Besides drinking, Hoboken’s main draw is a small bakeshop, Carlo’s City Hall Bakery, that somehow became famous due to a B-rate reality series called “Cake Boss.” Now hoards of overweight tri-staters (the local term for NJ, NY, and CT) are joined by Pennsylvanians in lines stretching around the block for no other reason than to see the inside of a bakery they have already seen the inside of on TV. Some even venture into the alley behind the bakery hoping to stalk their favorite cast members as they make deliveries. It is a sad state of affairs.
To say I have a rather dim view of my current hometown would be somewhat of an understatement, but I have my reasons. There was time, in the not too distant past, when Hoboken was on the verge of gentrification, but still had an edge. Artists, musicians, chefs, and bohemians embraced the industrial architecture and sense of community that was initially offered. It was actually cool. Unfortunately, any time you make some place that was previously very uncool cool again, it attracts the uncool people with money who will eventually be it’s demise. That is exactly what happened to Hoboken. It’s proximity to Manhattan, relative saftey and initially low rents attracted, along with the artists, a certain type of unsavory person: the Wall Streeter. To be more precise, the young Wall Street-Master-of-the-Universe type and his retarded frat school buddies. To them, Hoboken was a town to party in and trash like a Motley Crüe hotel room. While most of them moved on in time (only to be replaced by more of the same), some actually stuck here, and now they are the 40’s to 50’s entitled, bigoted, masters of the universe with snot-nosed bratty kids.
Now, one could simply say that the Accidental Cajun has become bitter and jaded in his old age, and there is some truth to that. After experiencing the warmth of the climate and the people of Louisiana, I am often left cold by my current surroundings. Still, there is more to it than that. It is the sense of entitlement that people feel around here, as if the world were created merely for their amusement and that of their spawn. Nowhere is this more exacerbated than on the playground. The playground!?! Yes, the playground (Now it is no secret that I am a very proud Papa; it is the reason I stay in Hoboken, because my son lives here in town with his mother. Although I have implored them to move on many occasions, she actually likes it here. Now I would be off to Louisiana in a heartbeat with Mrs. Cajun if I had the choice, but I don’t go anywhere without my boy. So I live in exile and write to you, dear readers, while drinking chicory coffee out of an alligator mug and working out my gumbo recipe. It is a trade-off I hope to navigate more successfully someday, but for now, it is what it is). At any rate, back to the playground.
The playground in Hoboken, NJ is the place where all the underlying class issues and hostilities seem to foment. Mommies with $800 strollers and $500 a week nannies gather to discuss the issues of the day, usually with the nannies in tow to watch the kids so the mommies can gossip in peace. Dads sometimes attend as well, as many work from home or are semi-retired, choosing to work up until 50 before having their first kids, their millions made on “the Street.” These dads usually fall into two types, the whiny, oversensitive nose-wipers, and the buzz cut workout freak alpha males. While the former are annoying, the later can be downright nasty. It is also usually true that the offspring of the later tend to be some of the crappiest kids on the playground (Yes, kids with crappy parents become crappy. It is mean and unfortunate to say, but true). I had even heard stories of playground altercations, but I had never witnessed it personally. Who does that kind of thing? And then one day this past week I found out.
My son and I go to the playground almost every afternoon if the weather allows. It is good for him and relaxing for me. He plays with classmates and I kick back and enjoy the sun. Unfortunately, a couple weeks back he broke his arm, and his playground time has been limited since then. A few days ago, on a particularly sunny day, I decided to lift the playground embargo, and that is where the trouble started.
Things were going swimmingly at first, as the little man was able to climb and slide in his cast without too much trouble. He ran around with his friends and did what kids generally do, although somewhat more cautiously. Everything was fine, until the tranquil blue sky day was broken by the sound of my son crying. At first I thought he had re-injured his arm, and I was kicking myself for letting him come to the playground; what I came to find out is that another kid had punched him in the arm. Now I don’t advocate violence, but I do advocate self-defense, so I told him, “Don’t let anybody hit you, and if it happens again you punch him back.” And this is where the trouble started, but this time I saw it. A much larger kid hit my boy again, who, to his credit, punched the kid right back. The kid was set to do it again when I intervened with, “Hey kid, cool it.” Evidently this upset Buzz-cut daddy, because he turns to me and says menacingly through his Oakley’s,
“Watch it, he’s only five.”
“Well he’s not even four yet, and he’s in a cast, so why don’t you teach your kid to keep his hands to himself,” was my reply. I was a little shocked that the guy hadn’t made any attempt to discipline his kid, but I was prepared to let it go when he came back with something like,
“Yeah, whatever. He’s only five. Just watch it.”
Now I was seeing red. Your Accidental Cajun is not a violent man by nature, but when it comes to my son, I am a little like the honey badger. I also don’t like being threatened.
“Tough guy,” I took a step closer, “Because you are obviously a tough guy. The difference between hitting the weights and hitting me is that the weights don’t hit back. You understand? I am not going to stand here and let your kid who is a half a head taller hit my kid in a cast. If you won’t discipline him I will. Don’t raise a classless jerk like yourself, okay.”
Now, I had kind of expected it to escalate at that point, but evidently the guy was a little taken aback. He said something under his breath which I let go and I walked away. We were also fortunate that the kids didn’t really comprehend the whole scene. My little guy was still in shock from punching someone and just wanted to go home.
“Daddy, he said to me, “I don’t like punching other people, but that boy hit me first.”
I told him it was okay, and that we never hit anyone except in self-defense, and he seemed okay with that. Much like his daddy, my boy is a lover, not a fighter. Anyway, that is part of growing up, learning to handle yourself on the playground. I was proud that he stood his ground in the face of a much larger kid, even while in a cast. What I couldn’t reconcile, at least not in my mind, was the reaction of the other dad. If my kid was hitting another kid, I would be apologetic, not confrontational. Unfortunately, this isn’t abnormal behavior in Hoboken, NJ. In fact, it is par for the course, and that makes me sad. While I know bad behavior exists everywhere, there is something about the mix of too much money and too much entitlement that makes people up here particularly sour. Status and status symbols color so much of life up here, as having the right job, right car, right education, right phone, right spouse and even right child take precedence over being the right person. As long as I’ve got mine, whether or not you get yours is wholly unimportant. I for one, reject this, as it is no way to live.
Thus, I write in exile, as I hope to someday return. Until then, my Cajun Grocer bill will be upwards of $1000 a year, and the fire department will continue to show up wondering what fool is smoking brisket and boiling crawfish out on the roof.