On August 20, the Wall Street Journal ran a full-page story in the “Open House Saturday” real-estate section. The headline was “Hoboken is a Happening Place: Mile Square City appeals to young professionals with easy commute, restaurants, bars and amazing views.” The story ran with a picture of Washington Street, the waterfront at Maxwell Place Park, and three properties for sale: a $575,000 condo on Jefferson, a $699,000 condo on Washington, and a $998,800 apartment on Park. When you read splashy, mainstream-media reports on our town, it’s a little like reading a Martian’s description of a convenience store: nice to get the perspective but nothing new. It’s also not news that Hoboken draws talented, innovative, and entrepreneurial types to live and do business here. At one end of the spectrum you have a one-woman wedding-dress designer operating out of a tiny space on Monroe Street. On the other, you have brawny Elvi Guzman, the force behind the City Challenge Obstacle race. Wildly different, they share wild success. In between are lots of other folks who are doing their thing in the Mile Square: We’ve got high-profile defense attorney Brian Neary. If you’re in the dog house or in the big house, you want him on your side. Don’t miss Mario Martinez’s story on Joseph Cantatore, who is educating the public through documentaries about Friedreich’s Ataxia, a condition he’s had since he was 13 years old. Or Al Sullivan’s story on our own Caren Lissner, Hudson Reporter Editor in Chief. Her novel, “Carrie Pilby,” was made into a movie that was screened at the Toronto Film Festival. As fall turns to winter, indoor sports are the thing. Catch Jim Hague’s story on the Edge wrestlers. A personal favorite of mine is our feature on World War II vets. At the dawn of the twenty-first century, we are so lucky to have them in our midst, telling funny stories, and in most cases, playing down their heroism. But they are heroes, and Craig Wallace Dale did a lovely job of capturing their wit and wisdom, and their legacy of courage and sacrifice. We’ve got a couple of fun stories about the name “Hoboken.” Where did it come from, and what about all those books with “Hoboken” in the title? “The Hoboken Chicken Emergency,” anyone?—07030
A Hoboken writer walks the Red Carpet at the Toronto Film Festiva
Many people know Caren Lissner as the editor in chief of The Hudson Reporter. Fewer people know that this longtime Hoboken resident is the author of a highly successful novel, Carrie Pilby, recently adapted into an independent film.
Originally published in 2003 as part of Harlequin’s Red Dress Ink series, the book was republished in 2010 under the Harlequin Teen label. It was considered one of the house’s smartest and most original novels and sold well. It has been released in other countries, including France and Italy.
For the generation that moved back to the cities a decade ago, Lissner’s novel captures the intense isolation felt by young women dealing with the challenge of adapting to a new social environment.
Some have compared the book to J. D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. Carrie Pilby came out at a time when TV shows such as Seinfeld and Sex and the City were looking at the impacts of America’s new urbanization. Lissner’s book found its niche, helping to expose the inner turmoil many young women feel in dealing with this new, challenging landscape.
Premiering at this year’s Toronto Film Festival, the movie was touted as a social statement, not just a chick flick.
Book to Film
Lissner says her literary agent sent the manuscript to Shari Smiley, a Hollywood film agent, when the book first hit the market.
“She looked at it and sent it out to some producers,” Lissner says. Although an independent film, Carrie Pilby caught the attention of major film companies. “Some liked it,” Lissner says. “ABC and Disney optioned it.”
But they were slow on the uptake.
“Four years ago, I got an email from Suzanne Farwell asking if the rights were available,” Lissner says. “As it turned out, they were.”
Farwell and Susan Johnson, both successful Hollywood producers, had loved the book and were looking for a feature film for Johnson to direct. Farwell is best known for producing films like It’s Complicated and The Intern.
The Carrie Pilby movie is Johnson’s feature film debut. She had already produced independent films for which she had won the Independent Spirit Award and had directed music videos.
Lissner was impressed with her.
“Susan Johnson put a lot of heart into it,” Lissner says. “She loved the story and showed me the script. I got to make suggestions; some were taken.”
Lissner says that Johnson took input from everyone and listened to actors’ ideas about line readings.
“The other thing is she cared from the beginning, thinking about the film 24/7,” Lissner says. “I would see her posting things in the middle of the night.”
In Front of the Camera
Bel Powley stars in the title role, along with Nathan Lane, who plays the therapist. One of the biggest challenges was to translate witty, sarcastic interior commentary to film. The solution was to have her therapist expose what was interior monologue in the book.
The leads have impressive resumes. Lane has played starring roles in a number of major movies, including Trumbo, The Producers, The Lion King, and perhaps most hilariously, The Birdcage. Powley can be seen in Equals, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and A Royal Night Out.
Lissner says the actors were well-rehearsed and serious, but not formal.
“They knew what they were doing, and all of them seemed to be excited to be there,” she says.
They believed in the film. Lane, in particular, could have done any film he wanted, but chose to do this one. Michael Penn, who did the score, was inspired to get involved after seeing a rough cut.
It’s a Wrap
In 2012, the producers started raising money—the film was funded partly through a Kickstarter campaign, raising about $73,000 to hire a screenwriter to adapt it.
Since events largely take place around Christmas in Manhattan, a good portion of the filming was done there in December and January.
“They finished editing in July,” says Lissner, who appeared briefly in a nonspeaking role in a Central Park scene.
The script, she says, reflects much of the feeling of the book, although it extended the storyline in some places for dramatic effect.
“It has some new twists and new lines,” she says, and minor characters were added.
“The character is always learning,” Lissner says. “At the end she’s the smartest person in the room but admits she doesn’t know everything. The film shows that very brilliantly. There are some resolutions in the movie that are not in the book. I was trying to be subtle; movies need to be more dramatic.”
An Inward Journey
The novel Carrie Pilby has a lot in common with Voltaire’s Candide. Both examine human foibles and self-delusion, with the main characters alert to the ironies and hypocrisies of everyday life.
Carrie is a genius who graduated from Harvard at 19. A wealthy father in England allows her to embark on a Huck Finn-like journey of self-discovery. But her Mississippi River is a job
proofreading legal briefs at night and hanging out with a much more sexually experienced woman (Vanessa Bayer) and an oddball friend (Desmin Borges). Carrie meets a boy (Jason Ritter) who is engaged to be married. An attractive next-door neighbor, in an homage to Breakfast at Tiffany’s, plays the guitar on the fire escape.
Carrie is a highly intelligent young woman with nothing to fear. Her reclusive nature is not borne of self-doubt or anger, but of confusion at a world she neither comprehends nor values. She lives alone in a Manhattan apartment, reads voluminously, and views the sex obsession of the world around her as a national epidemic. She struggles to decode an immoral, sex-driven, hypocritical society, staying in her room, alone with her thoughts, rather than doing and saying things to fit in.
The novel reflects a truth-seeker lost in a complex world, where people fail to live up to their ideals. Like Odysseus, Carrie follows a roadmap for a changing landscape and comes to terms with the world as it is.
Lissner says the book is about figuring out which values to compromise on, and which to keep. In the defining scene, Carrie finally finds a dude but can’t lose her doubts.
The Envelope Please
Reaction at the Toronto Film Festival was positive.
One reviewer called it an “ambitious and surprising comedy” and said, “This is, ultimately, a very happy and upbeat film, and one with a very clear moral center.”
“Some of the people in the audience were distributors,” Lissner says. “There was a lot of laughter and clapping.”
The film is slated to come to U.S. theaters in spring of 2017. The book is available at BarnesandNoble.com and in stores. —07030
No battle fatigue for these WWII vets
The town of Hoboken—and indeed our nation—should be honored to have World War II vets still among us. Craig Wallace Dale shot beautiful portraits of these American heroes, who took time out to share some of their memories from the war years.
Jack O’Brien, now 88, signed up when he was only 16 ½ years old. And, by the way, “signed up” is the right phrase. These young men were willing and able: Our ships were attacked at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and a genocidal maniac was murdering innocent civilians in Europe.
They heeded the call.
O’Brien was a steward on troop ships that crossed the North Atlantic some 17 times. He was in the Mediterranean, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf, the father of General H. Norman Schwarzkopf, commanded the camp in Basra. O’Brien was in England, Ireland, and East Africa.
As a steward, he says, “I fed the troops and was storekeeper.” On the ship John Erickson, which carried some 3,000 troops, a fellow sailor was actor Carroll O’Connor of Archie Bunker fame. “I never got to meet him,” O’Brien says. “If the Germans knew about him, they would have sunk that ship immediately.”
He says he was “surrounded by cruisers and destroyers firing off mines in the water.”
O’Brien was born and raised in Hoboken and still lives here. He says troops would leave from the docks in Hoboken, Baltimore, or Boston.
“I was very proud and very patriotic,” he says. Compared to today, “It was a different war, and a different life. It was our duty to go into service.”
He’s clear-eyed about our bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. “It was them or us,” he says. “We didn’t start it. They bombed us. The Japanese caught us on a Sunday morning when half the sailors were in church.”
World War II soldiers had a perfect enemy in Hitler, who “was starving and burning people,” O’Brien says.
When the war was over, his ship transported precious cargo: war brides. “We carried hundreds of girls who married American troops in England and France,” O’Brien says.
But he waited until he got stateside to marry—a Jersey City girl.
O’Brien still participates in a fife-and-drum corps. He played at the World’s Fair in 1939 and continues to play throughout New Jersey.
O’Brien’s father, James J. O’Brien, was a World War I veteran, which is important, as we celebrate the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into World War I. The Hoboken Historical Museum is offering a lecture series that runs through May 7, 2017. Visit hobokenmuseum.org for details.
A lot has changed in Hoboken in the past century. “Rents went up, you know,” O’Brien jokes. No kidding. He says, “My mother paid $20 a month for our place on Monroe and Second.”
Two for the Price of One
Staff Sergeant Vincent Wassman was also deployed to a troop transport ship in the North Atlantic during World War II, ferrying soldiers to Europe and bringing the dead and wounded home. He trained at Fort Eustis in Virginia, serving from 1943 to 1945.
“We went back and forth quite a few times and ran into some hurricanes,” Wassman recalls. “It was a pretty big ship, with a thousand or so onboard.” Back then, ocean liners were used as wartime vessels. “When war came,” he says, “everything was turned over to the War Department.”
“It was the same as today,” he maintains. “Soldiers going off to war.”
After the war, Wassman came back to Hoboken and had a few peaceful years before he was drafted into the Korean War, in 1950.
He had an interesting experience at the Draft Board in Newark. “Who should walk in, straight from the Paramount Theater on 42nd Street and Broadway, but Sinatra,” he relates. “He was there the same day I was. He went to the front of the line, and everybody booed him—we were standing there in our BVDs [underwear]. He claimed he had a punctured eardrum, and they sent him back to the Paramount.”
Wassman, meanwhile, was shipped over to Japan and then to Korea.
Born and raised in Hoboken, Wassman still lives in the house on Bloomfield Street, where he and his wife, a nurse at the medical center, raised five kids.
He bought the house for $14,000. “It’s worth $2 million today,” he says.
“At that time, nobody wanted to live here,” he says, “and now you can’t afford it.
“There are so many old things to talk about,” he says. “They were innocent years, let’s put it that way. Everybody knew each other. You’d walk to the theater, and nobody would bother you. You’d stay out late and come home at one or two in the morning.
“Give me back the old days,” he says. “I’m an old-fashioned guy.”
Wassman made his living laying tiles in private homes and was very active in Hoboken in the 1960s. “I was Mayor Grogan’s confidential aide,” he says.
As soon as he returned from Korea, he joined the American Legion in Hoboken, where he served as commander and has been active for 65 years. “It gives me time to get acquainted with veterans who are still around and active,” he says. “We talk and reminisce. The Legion does a lot of nice things for America, and I’m for that.”
He’s got a lot of medals displayed in his home. “I just got a medal from the Korean government a month ago,” he says, “a beautiful one.”
Wassman, who will turn 92 in April, has 11 grandchildren. “It’s impossible to keep up with the younger generation,” he says. “Things move too fast. I wish they would slow down, so I could catch up.”
He marvels at the tiny phone he’s talking on. “It’s a little black phone, about an inch or an inch and a half.
“My memory’s not that good anymore,” he claims.
Judging from our conversation on his little black phone, his memory’s just fine.
Roy Huelbig sounds a lot younger than his 93 years. He’s got great hearing, a great memory, and a disarming (pun intended) self-effacement when he talks about the war and the old days. He signed on at 18, as soon as he was eligible, and served until 1946, when he was 22.
Embarking from Hoboken, his ship landed in Scotland. From there, he went on to Trowbridge, England, for basic training.
He was an Army Corporal. “Like Hitler,” he jokes.
“I was in the Calvary Group,” Huelbig says. “We went out on ships and armored cars to find the enemy and report back to the infantry. They came up and wiped them out.”
He says they went from the French city of Cherbourg to Brest in Brittany, where there was a big Nazi submarine base.
“We found the enemy,” he says, “and someone else had to shoot them. We did not have too much fighting.”
He was almost involved in one of the most famous battles of the war: the Battle of the Bulge.
“We were young guys, and we were scared, but we didn’t know any different,” he says. “As a matter of fact we were with Patton for one month in southern France.” That would be General George S., made even more famous by George C. Scott in the eponymous 1970 movie.
Patton “was a pain in the ass,” Huelbig says. “The first thing, he got up and said, ‘a lot of you guys are going to die.’ We were 18 years old. He scared the hell out of us.
“We rushed up to the Bulge,” he relates, “and when we got there, they didn’t need us.”
Instead, he was wounded in a town in Germany.
“I was hit in the leg twice,” he says. “Artillery shells split up and spin around the room.” They were sleeping in a building. “The shells came right through the building, split and spinning, shrapnel all around,” he recalls. “There were three of us, myself and another kid, 17 years old. The kid got hurt pretty bad, but he had no wounds on his body. He died from a concussion from the artillery.
“In March of 1945, I was shipped back to a hospital in England, when the war ended.”
Huelbig says he wasn’t too bothered by his wounds when he got back to Hoboken. “But I didn’t do much of anything,” he says. “I was like a bum.”
That is until 1948 when the Hoboken Fire Department took him on, where he stayed for 25 years. “It was a great job,” he says. “When we were growing up, the houses were wooden, shacks really. As time went by, groups would come and try to buy people out. If the people wouldn’t sell, the bastards burned them out.”
Huelbig says that in the early 1960s, hundreds of people died in arson fires.
“When we were kids in Hoboken,” he says, “we couldn’t afford rent and moved every couple of months.”
Times have changed. “It’s OK,” he says, “but it’s not Hoboken.”
It’s not just the big, expensive highrises on the waterfront that get his goat. “One of the biggest problems is women with baby carriages,” he says. “It’s a serious thing. They go right out in front of drivers and get mad when a driver doesn’t stop. The mother’s on the phone, afraid she’s going to miss something. Someone has to take responsibility.”
Taking responsibility was a hallmark of his generation, whether it was on the battlefield, in a burning building, or on a Hoboken street with a baby stroller.
“The world is crazy today,” Huelbig says. “It’s actually scary. I think we should take our allied troops and wipe out ISIS. It’s a whole different thing. They have no respect for anybody. They go into places and kill women and children and think nothing of it.”
Oh, and did I mention that Roy Huelbig was awarded the Purple Heart?
“It was about being stupid,” he says, “and getting wounded.”—Kate Rounds