In the late 1960s, I worked for my dad as his switchboard operator at his paint factory at 15th and Adams Streets in Hoboken, filling in for Berdie, who was vacationing in the Catskills for two weeks.
With no training, I was expected to treat every caller politely and make sure that I took down the orders accurately no matter how quickly the information was fired at me.
The company started as Hoboken White Lead Color Works. It manufactured “Elysian Paints,” named for Elysian Park on the city’s northern waterfront – which in 1846, was the site of the first officially recorded organized baseball game in America.
The factory was across town on the western industrial side. It was a four-story, brick building in a declining, industrial neighborhood that had been built up by Italian and Jewish immigrants like my grandfather, David Meyer, and his two brothers, Louie and Barney.
I am not sure why they decided that paint was the key to prosperity, but the three Russian-born brothers ran the business. Then, David Meyer’s son, my father Seymour Meyer, graduated from chemical engineering school and took over the business in the late 1930s.
Hoboken White Lead Color Works was small potatoes compared with some of the national companies that took advantage of the abundant local labor and access to the cargo port on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River. Several big companies were in the area: The Maxwell House Coffee Company with its slogan (borrowed from President Theodore Roosevelt) “Good to the very last drop”; Lipton Tea, promising tea “directly from the tea gardens to the teapot”; and Hostess Cupcakes. The streets around my dad’s factory were often jammed with trucks heading toward the docks or through the Lincoln Tunnel.
Home of ‘Hoboken Harry’
I remember Grandfather David and Uncles Louie and Barney, well-dressed in made-to-order linen suits and Panama hats, strolling through the factory on their weekly jaunts from Brooklyn (where they lived in a two-story brownstone on Ocean Parkway). Occasionally, they looked over the books to make sure their salaries were not in jeopardy.
My father saw to it that they were well paid, and he worked hard, spending long hours in the laboratory testing the paint, checking the colors (not an easy job since he was color blind), and driving all over New York State to stay connected to his customers and his salesmen.
He also instituted a new logo for the company to bring it into the modern day. With the help of my uncle, Jimmy, who ran an advertising agency in Manhattan, Dad created “Hoboken Harry,” a skinny man dressed in overalls, holding a paintbrush, and wearing a welcoming smile. The new, friendly and identifiable logo was part of my father’s strategy to penetrate the consumer market, and become less dependent upon government contracts – making paint for federally subsidized low-income housing in Harlem, and exterior paint for military ships (a leftover business generated by World War II).
When one of the two factory telephone lines rang, I’d answer, “Good morning; this is the home of Hoboken Harry. How may I help you?” Most of the calls came from customers placing orders. I’d fill out two copies – the white one for the shipping department; the pink one for the accounting department, making sure that I had the right color and number of gallons along with the correct name and address. I didn’t have any backup and at times I had as many as four calls waiting.
There was no air conditioning and I’d be perspiring right through my cotton dress and my stockings would be sticking to my legs like Elmer’s glue. I couldn’t use a fan or open a window, because the orders would have blown right out of the wire baskets.
I also handled internal calls – “loading dock,” “laboratory,” “office,” and “accounting.” The switchboard had cords with plugs, an old-fashioned rotary dial, keys and lights that signaled calls coming in, calls completed, and calls waiting. It was an old piece of equipment – tricky to master – and I am sure that I must have lost many a “ringy dingy dingy.” Some days I imagined turning into Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine addressing a caller with “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?”
When I couldn’t leave the switchboard, Dad would bring me a 15-cent Slyder, French fries and a Coca Cola from the Adams Street White Castle. He’d usually stop at the newsstand on the corner to pick up a copy of U.S. News and World Report and get his shoes shined.
My favorite part of the day was driving home with my father in his maroon Chrysler station wagon across the George Washington Bridge to Harrison, N.Y. Our commute took about an hour, and the view of the Hudson River and the Palisades with the sun shining on the water at the end of the day was beautiful.
Do you like what you do?
It was the only time we had a chance to talk. I’d ask him, “Dad, do you like what you do?”
“It’s a living.”
“Have you ever thought of doing anything else?”
“Yes, I always wanted to be a banker. But my parents expected me to take care of them, and we have a good life, don’t we?”
Then, he’d light another Marlboro cigarette and roll the car window down, feeling the breeze as we whizzed along the Hutchinson River Parkway. The trip helped strip away the day’s tension. To fill the silence, I’d turn on the radio, and we’d listen to a Frank Sinatra tune.
On my father’s 50th birthday, he came up with a plan to buy himself some freedom – he merged his company with a chain of retail home stores in and around Long Island owned by Murray Pergament and his father, Louis. My father’s company was renamed Hoboken Paints; he did away with the Elysian brand and introduced latex paints which were manufactured in a new, one-story, modern plant in Lodi.
Do-it-yourselfers became the main market for my father’s paints. At a trade show, my sister and I demonstrated how easy it was to apply the paint with a roller – just dip the sponge roller into a tray and the paint would stick to the surface without dripping. We did our demonstration in chic, Jackie Kennedy-style sheaths, just to emphasize that the customer didn’t have to worry about getting dirty, and that even a woman could do the job.
My dad never got the chance to enjoy the freedom the partnership was intended to create. Years of exposure to toxic chemicals in a poorly ventilated laboratory, and smoking two packs of cigarettes a day, damaged his health. Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, he died at 52.
Will I take over?
I was just 22 and had little interest in my father’s business – had I been older and smarter I might have stepped into my father’s shoes, riding the wave of good fortune that Pergament and Hoboken Paints enjoyed. Pergament morphed into Pergament Home Centers, a chain of home improvement stores on the East Coast. In the 1970s and ’80s, it had 40 stores until the company declared bankruptcy in the 1990s, put out of business by the big box stores like Home Depot.
The old factory in Hoboken, with its rickety elevator and outmoded switchboard, was sold after my father passed away. Some of the money went to my grandfather and his brothers who outlived my dad. I never knew who bought the factory, since there was no communication between the Pergaments and my mother. She was convinced that we had gotten a raw deal, and she had no desire to speak to my grandmother and grandfather, whom she saw as holding my father back from the opportunities offered to him by competing national brand paint companies.
He turned down a chance to work for Sonneborn Paint Company in Chicago after my grandmother wailed, “What will happen to us if you leave?” My grandmother Meyer had a Ph.D. in Jewish guilt.
Today, 15th and Adams is one of the last remaining light industrial areas in Hoboken. A few city blocks away are high-priced condominiums and rental apartments built to satisfy the demand of investment bankers and service industry professionals unwilling to pay the exorbitant cost of housing across the Hudson River in Manhattan.
The ghosts of those entrepreneurs who laid the bricks and mortar that housed the industries which struggled and flourished in the early and mid-20th century have long departed along with their sons and daughters. Today, Hoboken is gentrified with fancy addresses like Maxwell Place on the Hudson (the site of the Maxwell House factory that closed in 1992), and the Garden Street Lofts (between 14th and 15th streets), which originally housed a coconut processing and storage plant.
A real estate broker in the area recently described Hoboken as “sort of a European oasis in New Jersey, a small, densely populated and walkable city.” She added that she is looking forward to the opening of the W, a high-end hip hotel on the waterfront. I wonder if she has ever set foot in a White Castle, or eaten a Slyder.
I still recall the rough and tumble of factory life: the clanking of the conveyor belts, the swishing of the paddles mixing paint in the big vats, and the yelling of the workers loading trucks carrying Hoboken Harry’s paints to Utica, Lackawanna. and Albany. My father and his generation were all contenders for the American dream, and Hoboken was a city where the creation of wealth through the manufacturing of a product was the norm. They were a generation of “makers of things” as President Barack Obama said in his inaugural address.
I Googled 15th and Adams to find out if my father’s plant was still standing. The name “Poggi Press” popped up, but instead of the old, brick building, I could see a large, white, one-story factory, and across Adams Street, a trade school in the photograph posted on the Internet.
I called the telephone number for Poggi, expecting an answering machine since it was late evening on the East Coast. I was startled when someone picked up the phone – a friendly, male voice, not a recording telling me to push 1 for this and 2 for that, or worse yet, a call center in Mumbai. I was tempted to say, “Is this the party to whom I am speaking?” but I was afraid he’d hang up on me.
Instead, I explained that I was the daughter of Seymour Meyer, who owned the factory for the Hoboken White Lead Color Works.
Charles Poggi said, “Gee, my dad probably bought the property from your dad.”
“No; my dad died before the building was sold, but he made the business a great success,” I said. “He worked himself to the bone – seven in the morning until seven in the evening. By the way, what are you doing there at this hour?
“You know, seven in the morning until seven in the evening.”
I told him, “In the 1960s I worked the switchboard in the old factory during the summer. It was my first real job.”
He asked me, “Would you believe we still have some bricks on the property from the original building? If you ever get to New Jersey, come and visit us, and I’ll give you one of the bricks as a souvenir.”
“I’d like that. And I’ll do my impersonation of Ernestine for you.”
I think he was old enough to get the joke, because he laughed.
After we hung up, I stared at the photograph of 15th and Adams looking for a familiar landmark; there was none.
Loren Stephens has written personal essays which have appeared in numerous literary journals and newspapers throughout the country including the MacGuffin, The Distillery, the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, the St. Louis Jewish Light, the Distillery, and the Sun Magazine. She is the founder of Write Wisdom and Provenance Press based in Los Angeles, which provide memoir writing and publishing services for her clients. Loren can be reached through her website www.writewisdom.com.