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A Token Of Praise For Hoboken

AS a child growing up in the Midwest, I occasionally came across the name ``Hoboken.'' I chuckled whenever I saw it; the name seemed to border on the fantastic. I pictured a town inhabited only by hobos, which was what we called the homeless at that period. I assumed I would never see Hoboken, and I wasn't even quite convinced it was a real place. Yet in the late 1940s I became quite familiar with Hoboken and found it was indeed a real place with real people instead of ghostly hobos. By that time I was living in New York City and had gotten a job teaching piano and voice in a music store in Hoboken. It was convenient. There were frequent buses to and from New York, they stopped right in front of the music store on Washington Street, and there was an excellent coffee shop nearby that made its own cakes and pies, including an especially luscious cheesecake.

Washington Street is Hoboken's main thoroughfare, but its stores are modest and rather scattered; a good part of the street is residential. Standing on the corner waiting for the bus at day's end, I liked the look of Hoboken in the early evening; the varied pastels and red brick of its four- and five-story buildings took on a wistful, antique charm at twilight. In broad daylight it made me think of an Edward Hopper painting, it was so spare and stark.

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Hoboken was originally a Dutch community. Many of my students had Dutch names, though there was also a sizable Italian population. I had pupils of all ages; one beautiful blond Dutch woman with a charming accent had never before played the piano. She delighted me with her earnestness and rapid progress. Soon she was playing Beethoven's ``F"ur Elise'' - she who had never read a note of music! And playing it with style, too.

A nine-year-old boy came weekly with his mother for singing lessons. He was blond, bright, and full of banter; he also had a charming soprano voice. Often I would bring my preschool daughter along, and if the woman and her boy-wonder were there, they would take her out for a treat.

Jennifer and Danny became good friends, in spite of the age difference. He did magic tricks, and she was delighted when he would pull things out of her ears she had no idea were there. Whenever he sang somewhere, we tried to attend; once we traveled to Jersey City to hear him sing ``Davy Crockett'' in costume. He brought the house down. I often thought of the pop singer idol, Frank Sinatra, who grew up in Hoboken and went on to such dazzling fame. But I never learned what Danny did with his talent - if anything.

JENNIFER put in some of the time playing on the numerous pianos stored in the back of the building for she was my pupil, too. Often she would talk to Mr. Halsey, the bleak, white-haired gentleman who ran the store and the school, which consisted of one studio. He tolerated her conversation and would sometimes even repeat choice items to me privately.

She owned many stuffed animals, and would usually bring one along for company. A great favorite was a yellow bunny she had named ``Teltes.'' She was already reading and writing a bit, but I never could fathom where she had dug up this name. She explained carefully to Mr. Halsey that you didn't pronounce the second ``e'' in Teltes, but that it had to be there, just the same.

When she got a new bunny, whom she named ``Bunny Lincoln'' (after the Lincoln Tunnel our bus had to pass through to reach Hoboken), Mr. Halsey suggested that now that she had brand-new Bunny Lincoln she wouldn't need Teltes anymore and would probably throw him away.

``Oh, no!'' she answered, deeply shocked. ``You don't throw away your child, you know!'' Mr. Halsey repeated this one with what for him was considerable amusement: He almost smiled.

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When I had a cancellation I would take Jennifer out to a nearby playground. Our enjoyment of this break was often marred, however, by the burnt coffee smell for which Hoboken was famous in those days. You didn't get it every day, but when you got it, it was overwhelming. We even got it on the West Side in Manhattan, sometimes on summer evenings when the breeze blew it across the Hudson.

About 15 years later, I found myself singing in a Hoboken church, and I was happy to renew my acquaintance with the unique atmosphere of this small city. The church had that Hoboken aura of another time when things were slower and simpler. I could almost imagine I was stepping back into the 1890s, and half expected to see the ladies coming in long dresses, high-buttoned shoes, and fancy hats.

The bus service was still good and I still enjoyed the virtually unchanged landscape of Washington Street, wide and swept clean, with its neat, varicolored buildings and unhurried sidewalks. So close to bustling Manhattan and yet so untouched by its grandeur! A minus was the demise of the coffee shop with the creamy cheesecake. But somewhere along the way Hoboken had rid itself of its burnt coffee odor - a definite plus.

More recently I returned to Hoboken with friends to an art exhibit - after an absence of seven years. The exhibit was held in one of its trendy new restaurants - on Washington Street, but farther down than the old music store, which had finally disappeared. After seeing the show we had a deliciously wholesome meal, the restaurant being the health-oriented type.

Then we strolled up Washington Street, enjoying the penetrating fragrance of a group of unusual flowering trees that none of us could identify. Washington Street is not prolific in trees, but the few it has are at least superior. It was pleasant to be in Hoboken on a summer evening; I was nostalgic for the old Hoboken and Mr. Halsey and his store-school, while my friends, who had never been there before, were just enchanted with Hoboken.

LIKE most places in recent years, Hoboken has undergone rather rapid change and is now the retreat of ``yuppies'' who are rebelling against Manhattan's ridiculous rents. It has become rather an ``in'' place to live; buildings are being renovated, rents are already going up, and interesting restaurants and galleries are even beginning to appear on prosaic old Washington Street. I hope it doesn't entirely lose its quality of ancientness and remoteness. We need a few places untouched by trends, insulated from new lifestyles.

In any case, I'll always carry in thought the image of Washington Street, timeless and self-contained, a little world unaffected by the tempo of the 20th century's last decades.

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