HOBOKEN IS WHERE this is going on—I’m meeting Pat Quinlan at the rock club Maxwell’s because I bought two tickets to see the Feelies play there. I walk out of the PATH station onto the street on the waterfront, where people are sitting at tables outside this or that bar. It’s the Thursday before Fourth of July weekend, a sunny evening with warm breezes coming off the river, an even clearer view than usual of where the World Trade Center used to be. When I pass by another bar, two men stop me and give me a postcard. One of the men is carrying a guitar. They say they’re The Turnaround and are performing later—would I like to stop by? I tell them I’m going to a show at Maxwell’s and they say okay, come back when that’s over. I tell the handsomer one that I probably won’t, but to have a good time. (He is the one without the guitar.)
I’m walking up Washington Steeet, the main drag in this city which is small, a perfect one-mile square unless you count the part that is under the Hudson River. I pass the cupcake shop, the tanning salon, an adult video store named Romantic Depot. There is a digital clock attached to a bank, which assures me, as I walk under it, that I haven’t arrived late. Frank Sinatra’s voice floats out of the Eighth Street Tavern, here in the town of his birth; as he describes the summer wind I wonder if any song has ever been more appropriate.
Close to the club is a Baptist church and a disused parochial school, near which a white stone Jesus stands in a hedge that has grown too tall. The leaves reach upward almost to Jesus’ waist as he looks down at them, one hand outstretched and the other on his chest, looking offended. The last landmark before I reach Maxwell’s is the life-sized gold elk outside the Elks Lodge. I always feel like I should pet him, but he’s positioned on a pedestal out of my reach.
Because of recent weirdness between us it was a gamble to ask Pat if he wanted my extra ticket, and as I arrive here I worry about how the night is going to go. Coming to a club by yourself is strange; it’s like bringing a book to a bar and trying to read by the light of a beer sign. (Nevermind that I do both these things all the time.) The front of Maxwell’s is a restaurant that serves drinks and pub food, with a glassed-in lounge that faces the street. I feel more comfortable in the area where the bands play—a sparse, dark room with nothing in it but a stage, a booth, a bar, and steps against the wall for people to stand on. I try to make small talk with the few others who are here as early as I am. We talk chiefly about the band we’re about to see.
The Feelies are local heroes, a New Jersey institution that was all over the New York music scene in the eighties, though they only ever played concerts on holidays. The majority of the people who start to fill the room are in their forties and fifties, noticeably older than me. Many of them haven’t seen each other in years and have only ever seen each other at other Feelies shows. A few of them have brought their kids.
Pat Quinlan is literally the coolest person on Washington Street, he says in a text message as he gets off the train from his home in Morris County. He claims this is because he’s wearing his new WFMU T-shirt and just finished a forty of St. Ides. He spells it “littarally.” Ten minutes later I get another text that reads “Where yat,” and look up to see he is standing by the door scowling at me. WFMU is a radio station in neighboring Jersey City that we both love; apparently he won the T-shirt by calling them during a giveaway. He is perennially broke and won’t justify buying clothes.
I hug Pat. He doesn’t seem to like it. Since I last saw him he’s had a haircut, and now looks like he could be sixteen—for a second I wonder if he got cold feet and sent his younger brother to meet me instead of him as a prank. “What is this?” I ask, tousling the hair. He clearly hates that also, and I rebuke myself, because Pat doesn’t need to be reminded that I’m nine years older than him or that he has pretty hair. He explains that he has to endure this preppie look for a few weeks, because his boss at the delivery company was starting to tell him he looked unprofessional. We go to the bar.
In the past year I have started to drop Pat’s name to people, as if my acquaintance with him mattered to them. I was once speaking to a drummer I’d just seen perform, in the back of this very room, when I said that I knew his band because my friend, the red-haired boy from Rockaway with a loud voice, had told me about them. The drummer said he didn’t recognize Pat’s name at all. A few minutes later he said, “Hey, so does your little red-haired friend dress in green all the time? Because that would be adorable.” The truth is that Pat, for all his ADD and drinking, is the best person in the world and it’s only a matter of time before everyone else realizes it. I’m envious of this, afraid to lose him.
Right now, as we order drinks and make our way to a spot with a clear view of the stage, Pat fills me in on the events of the past two months: he hasn’t been going to too many shows, but next month his mom and dad are taking the whole family to see the Moody Blues. He is also planning to see the Allman Brothers at Jones Beach if I want to come to that.
“I don’t know,” I say, pretending there is something uncool or pedestrian about liking the Allman Brothers, and he calls me on it.
“I defy you not to have a good time there,” he says.
“Okay, I’ll go,” I say, knowing he won’t follow up on it and I won’t end up going—more events will pile up between then and now; he will forget. I tell him about the last show I attended, at the bandshell at Stuyvesant Town on the east side of Manhattan the week before. Jay Reatard played. At the time this is happening Jay Reatard is still alive—early next year he will die at age twenty-nine of toxicity from cocaine.
“No way, you went to that?” says Pat. “Did you see a little blonde girl there?”
I make a face at him. “Yes, probably?” I say, laughing.
He shrugs off the comment by shaking his head and then tossing it backward. “I told a friend of mine to go to that, that’s all,” he tells me. “She lives at Stuyvesant Town.” Maybe it should make me jealous to hear him mention a girl, but it doesn’t. I’m too happy to see him.
“That show made me feel bad, actually,” I say, remembering it. “The crowd seemed to be a lot of people who were a little past their prime.”
“Like, old punks?” says Pat.
“No,” I say. “Worse: like, old hipsters.” I describe the thirtysomething men and women I saw there, wearers of big headphones and ankle boots, skimpy dresses and cowboy shirts with pearl buttons, all looking exhausted and sad, standing together drinking concealed beers in the mud. They spent less time cheering Jay Reatard’s fast, punky guitar rock than looking at their phones, emailing and tweeting about the event for the benefit of absent friends. And these are my people, I confess to Pat; my contemporaries. I am ashamed for them and wish there were something I could do to return meaning to their lives. It might be as simple as enticing them all to come here to New Jersey—though few of them would, and this is at the heart of the issue.
The crowd here is the opposite of them. They are older and more fun, chatty, excited. The room is teeming with people now, the show sold out. In moving closer to the front we cut in front of a couple of men, one of whom shouts, “Hey, we’re not letting you by! Forget it!” I look at him abashedly and he says he was joking. “I had to do it,” he shouts to his friend as we pass. “I mean look at them! They’re both so beautiful.”
By mistake, I step on the foot of someone who I soon realize is WFMU radio personality Gaylord Fields. It seems easier to pretend I don’t know who he is as I apologize to him. Pat, the biggest WFMU fan I know, whispers fiercely, “Do you have any idea whose foot you just stepped on?”
There is no opening band and the Feelies play one long set. It’s hypnotic: rapid drumming and choruses that the audience sing along. They are not overwrought, not flashy—just good. When they launch into my favorite song of theirs, called “The Boy With Perpetual Nervousness,” I feel a satisfying twinge in my tear ducts. I tell Pat this is my favorite song and he says, “That’s good. That’s a very acceptable favorite song to have.” I do a head-nod that turns into a dance, Pat is behind me and puts his hand on my shoulder. Feelies frontman Glenn Mercer sings, The boy next door isn’t too big a thing / The boy next door is me.
After the show is over, we talk to the pair of men we cut in front of, learning about the band they used to be in together and the nice houses and kids they have now. The guy who called us “beautiful” tells me his daughter has just gone away to summer camp for the first time and he misses her. People are hugging and enjoying last beers before heading home.
It is time to see what’s happening at DC’s Tavern. I come out of the bathroom, walk to the door; through the window at the club’s entrance I spot Pat talking to a woman to get her to give him a cigarette. She is laughing, watching him tug distractedly at a cable that’s attached to a telephone pole. When he notices me in the window he stops and stands still, fixes me with the same suspicious look I am giving to him. The woman hands him a cigarette anyway, then walks away, then I walk out and join him.
“I have this postcard,” I tell Pat, and show him the performance schedule of The Turnaround. There’s a photo, which we can sort of see under the streetlight, of its two members dressed in casual attire next to the pumps at a gas station.
“Do you want to go? We can go,” he says.
“I don’t know,” I say. “I talked to the one guy, the tall guy, but look at that belt he’s wearing. And those sandals.” We decide not to go see The Turnaround, because they are not for us. It isn’t the first time I’ve wondered whether I’m a snob.
“You never listen to any rap music at all, do you,” Pat asks me as we start walking. I hesitate before answering; he goes on: “Don’t say anything to pretend like you do, because I can tell you don’t. Even though you should.” It’s still warm outside in the dark because the pavement has retained the heat of the sun. Among the low brownstones and iron lamps I get a sense of recognition and belonging, of being cradled in a vague goodness.
The first time I ever came to Maxwell’s was more than a decade ago. I was seventeen and carrying a stack of zines I had just made, hoping to hand them out at the Riverdales (joyous 1990s pop-punk) show that was going on. But the doorman never let me in—the show was 18 and over—and I sat in the small patch of grass outside. It was still very pleasant. Eventually a young man stepped out of the club and we walked together down Washington Street to the trains, telling each other about each other. He bought me a cheese sandwich at Blimpie. His name was Eddie and he was a punk rocker from Union City, a tall handsome kid with one messed-up eye that had been shot out when he was caught in a crossfire. I felt very boring compared to him, and went home amazed that such a cool thing had happened to me even though I didn’t get to see the Riverdales. Right now, following the red-haired boy down Eighth Street to find DC’s, I suddenly suspect I’ve been chasing that first night my whole adult life.
We pass the façade of Hoboken High School, all maroon and orange and white, seventies-chic, with a neon sign out front that announces a class reunion. To most of the United States this is not a remarkable sight. To me it is, since in New York City where I grew up there is almost nothing like it. A clean public school with a neon sign in the front—I find it iconic and perfect, the way a mini-golf course is perfect, the way a mall is perfect. This evening, with America’s birthday looming, I try to forget that there is any meanness or dishonesty of the kind that will, later this summer, land Hoboken’s mayor in jail. When I see things like this high school, the love for society and humanity swells in me and I want to rhapsodize about it, like an updated, much less talented Walt Whitman.
The last time Pat and I were at DC’s Tavern together they almost called the cops on us. I will never forget the incredulous, scrub-bearded face of the bartender, as he came outside to investigate because we had not paid for our last round. “Are you guys smoking pot out here?” he asked. There I sat on the steps of the fancy condos next door, with a lighter in one hand and a crumpled beer can in the other, its mouth close to mine and the pile of greenish material smoldering on its top.
I said, “No?”
It was embarrassing, not for Pat and his two friends, but for me, who was old enough to know better. Tonight I want things to be different; civilized. Pat buys himself a can of PBR, which is what he drinks whenever it’s available, because he can afford it. I buy a pint of something and go to load the jukebox, near the door in this brick building painted white on the outside, full inside of red and yellow Christmas lights and autographed photos with glitter glued to the frames. When I come back Pat is talking to a wiry, tattooed man next to him about Charlton Heston. This is apropos of the movie that’s playing, silently, on the TV that hangs in a corner above us. Pat really can talk to anyone about anything—he waves his arms and tosses his head, like he’s trapped in a cave and his only way out is by talking.
This guy here is about fifty, wearing glasses and a black Jack Daniel’s shirt, his arm around a girlfriend with dyed-auburn hair. Before long he and Pat have moved their conversation to music, neighborhoods, and drugs. Pat describes driving around the area where his parents live and listening to the radio: “It’s amazing, it’s like the perfect encapsulation of suburban ennui.” He pronounces it “ennyu-eye.”
“You know what’s great,” says the Jack Daniel’s guy, “about hallucinogens, is that we are now different from most other people.” Pat nods. Jack continues: “Since we have been on psychedelic trips, we now know something that those other people don’t know. I’ve always thought that was… empowering, in a way.”
“Hey!” says Pat. “She has a really cool tripping story.” He thumps me on the back. “Remember the one you told me?” he asks. “About the windows?”
It was in college—some friends and I dropped acid in a snowstorm and then climbed onto a rooftop. Through each window in the apartment buildings around us, I saw sharp, minute details that revealed a stranger’s whole life. Then I looked up and could make out their faces in the clouds.
“There, that’s the best tripping story I ever heard,” Pat says, laughing appreciatively. It’s nice that he remembers I told it to him; we never even spoke about it, it was only a Gmail chat. Since college I haven’t been on any hallucinogens at all. Pat makes it easy to forget how long ago that was.
We are walking back to the trains. Pat is going to visit his little brother tomorrow, so he has to make the last train out. The last time we did this walk together, uphill on the narrow dark street and take a right onto the wide bright one, we had our arms around each other and were arguing about serial monogamy. Things change. He is getting older, growing away from me, and I think I might never see him again. (Almost a year later, one of the mornings he shows up at WFMU to volunteer when I’m also there, I will spring up to greet him and he’ll say, “God, every time you see me it’s like I died!”)
“I read this thing,” he says, “that said Sinatra’s mom bought too many pairs of slacks for him when he was a kid. His friends started calling him ‘Slacksy O’Brien.’”
“NYU girls, I hate them,” he says. “Oh, I need to buy you another drink? So are you gonna hook up with me? No, because I’m not wearing Armani.”
He says, “This slice-of-life episode—you need to elevate it now. Take it to the level of Ernest Hemingway. Take it to the level of… Fitzgerald.” He snaps his fingers in my face, getting me to fill in the blank, because he’s too tired and drunk to remember Fitzgerald’s first name.
Just past Romantic Depot is the Hoboken McDonald’s, which bears an old-West-looking sign and has a “McDonaldland” inside it, where you can sit on tiny mushroom-shaped stools under statues of Grimace and Birdie. A drunk teenage boy bursts out the door and tackles Pat as if they know each other. “This town’s fucking dead!” the teen shouts in Pat’s ear. “There isn’t shit to do in this town!”
“I know,” Pat says, soothing him. “I know, man. You’re right.” They shake hands.
Back at the waterfront, at the entrance to one of the bars, a guy in a button-down shirt and jeans is talking to a petite woman wearing a tiny, shiny blue dress. She lifts a pack of cigarettes from her purse, takes one and holds another out for the guy. Pat descends on her and asks, “Hey, can I have that cigarette?”
The woman looks incredulous and says, “What? What are you talking about? Are you even eighteen?”
“Yeah!” Pat assures her. “Come on, I’m twenty-three!”
She sighs. “Okay.”
“He’s twenty-two,” I tell her as she hands it over and lights it for him.
“I have a birthday soon,” says Pat. We walk on.
“See, that’s how you bum a cigarette,” he says. “You’re a girl, having your yuppie Hoboken night out. Who’s gonna argue with me and make a scene over that one cigarette? That guy? No, because he’s trying to have sex with you.”
The first time I ever went to Maxwell’s, after Eddie took his leave, I finished the night by gazing out onto the river, admiring the World Trade Center. I had grown up a few subway stops away from it, but never seen it from that vantage, breathtaking in its glittering bigness, reflections of its lights shimmering in the water. Now we stand in a parking lot looking at an expanse of asphalt, a cluster of bikes locked to a rack beside a newsstand. Pat offers me a drag on the Parliament Light he took from the yuppie woman, but I don’t want it.
“I had so much fun,” I say.
“I know,” he says, “me too. I was worried that it was going to be weird.”
“I wasn’t sure how to even ask you.”
“But it’s nice to know that we can hang out, right?” He rakes his red hair with the non-cigarette hand. “I think we can do this again, and not hook up.” A pause; I smile. “Or maybe we will, I don’t know,” he corrects himself. “But we need to be friends first.”
“You’re right,” I tell him. “I feel the same way.”
I’ll be moving to Jersey City within the year, but Hoboken could never be home. It’s perfect because it’s not home; it’s a town to rest in, to alight on before flying back to real life. After the long ride back—I’ll sleep on a wooden bench under the PATH station’s white arched ceiling, between its blue posts, then disembark in Manhattan to wait even longer for a subway—I will turn on my computer and see that Pat has updated his Facebook status. It will say, “Coming back from Hoboken at 1:30 AM. Nothing better.”
“Okay,” he says. “Goodnight.” He kisses me and immediately runs away. It occurs to me that right here would be a good place to look at fireworks, if it were time yet for that.