The Sneezing Man of Hoboken

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While cleaning out some old files, I came across something I’d written a lifetime ago, around 1990. Thought I’d share it here. Looking at the way it begins, I suspect I had some grand notion of selling it to The New Yorker‘s Talk of the Town. [I am the friend. It’s me.] Not sure what “object” I can claim to link this to? A tissue? Earplugs?

A friend of ours who lives in Hoboken writes: The Sneezing Man of Third Street is ruining my life.

In seven years I’ve adapted to the riotous cacophony that’s a hallmark of life in this square-mile burg, home to 43,000  zesty souls. Hoboken launches a parade for every bank and ethnic holiday and every Catholic feast day. in campaign years, politicians clog the streets with brass bands, megaphones and cheerleaders. I am accustomed to Saturday morning coffee sipped to the tune of “When the Saints go Marching In”.

This is Jersey, where a horn’s your car’s most valuable asset, an audio system powerful enough to rock the Meadowlands is standard, and the station of choice for most broadcasts in Spanish.

I enjoy the Italian mamas chattering away at my stoop — I can pretend I’m back in their homeland. I eavesdrop on lovers venting their psychodramas in the first hours after midnight. And when men spill out of the bar downstairs to exchange confidences beneath my window, it’s better than being a fly on locker room tiles. Little do they know a woman’s giggling madly into her pillow upstairs. Clicking billiard balls, winter and summer, are a comfort too, like the sound of worry beads.

The fire department practises on Third Street, but I’ve made friends with firemen and get perverse pleasure from the bi-weekly fender benders at my corner. I don’t even mind that their trucks made my ancient house shake on its foundations.

But the Sneezing Man has given stress a name, shape, and sound.

He debuted in late Autumn as a sporadic presence who seemed to cry out, “Oh Shit! Oh Shit!” Day in and out, ceaselessly pacing Third Street from the Hudson River to the Heights, this thin, frail man sneezes with the gusto of an opera singer. Through closed windows I track his peregrinations. At first a ghostly echo, an annoyance, like the smell of rain approaching. My hackles rise, anticipating a full scale stress attack as he nears, until suddenly he’s upon me — “Oh Shit! Oh Shit!” — and then past, barely fading as he wanders on, sinuses keening.

I thought I’d imagined him. He’d appear without fanfare, rousing me from 3 a m dreams, waking me like a cockerel at 6:30, or sneezing his way through all the hours of the night. After a while I couldn’t sleep, either, waiting for his return to my street. Deprived and edgy, I’d jump when anyone sitting near me succumbed to a nasal tickle.

Until I asked a neighbour. “Have you been hearing any, um, noise?” “The Sneezing Man?” she countered without hesitation. I asked my brother if he’d seen him. “That guy? I thought he was doing Tai Chi.”

“While walking?!”

My brother shrugged. “People are weird.”

Then mid-winter balminess descended and others leaned from open windows shouting, “Shut the fuck up.” Or they’d imitate the noise, mocking him with, “AH-choo, AH-choo.” Accent on the Ah.

I called the police, who didn’t need an explanation when I said, “The Sneezing Man is here.” They said, “Lady, all we could do is send him home — except he hasn’t got one. This guy’s really sick. He can’t stop sneezing. We can’t arrest him for disturbing the peace, he’s just sneezing. Maybe he’ll go the shelter tonight. Anyway, we have picked him up. Believe me, it’s no picnic trying to process this guy and hearing him sneeze nonstop for two hours.”

My sympathy for them is infinitesimal.

Come springtime, the Sneezing Man stabilised his hours. He marks 6:30am and 7:30 pm. With Pollyanna-ish optimism I hope he’ll migrate uptown for the summer. Sadly that won’t alter my life, for now his vigorous lament echoes in my head with a life independent from his presence.

What this town needs is an antihistamine.

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