Happy hour draws crowds of young professionals to Wayne Hobson's corner bar, a block from the train tunnel and ferry dock that link this gentrified old port on the Hudson River to the island of Manhattan.
On warm summer evenings, Hobson's friends snag seats around the sidewalk tables. They eye the commuters walking past, argue about the Yankees or plan weekends at the Jersey Shore.
And they remember their dead.
Fifty-three people from Hoboken died in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. This mile-square city of 38,000 lost more of its residents in the terrorist attacks than any place except New York City. And all of them were young.
Many of their brief lives intersected by day over trading desks in the twin towers and by night over beers at Hobson's, where the long litany of the dead only begins with its owner, Wayne Hobson.
The victims of 9/11 left spouses and children behind in Hoboken, but even more often, they left fiances with wedding dresses to return. Because Hoboken, with its cheaper housing, booming bar scene and quick commute to Manhattan, is such a magnet for young people, the average age of the city's dead was 32--eight years younger than the average victim of the Sept. 11 attacks.
"It's very sad, because they were just starting their lives," Hoboken Mayor David Roberts said.
They were people like Wayne Hobson, 36, an energy broker by day for Cantor Fitzgerald and bar owner by night, who was thinking of starting a family with his wife of four years.
There was Doug DiStefano, 24, a part-time bartender at Hobson's who took a job at Cantor, high in the trade center's north tower, only three weeks before 9/11.
There was Tommy Knox, 31, another Cantor broker, who met his wife when he tended bar and she waited tables at Hobson's. "Our story was a Hobson's love story," said Nancy Knox, 31.
And there are those they left behind, like Hobson regular Doug Edwards, 33, who not only lost a legion of friends in the trade center but also lost his mother on American Airlines Flight 77 when it plowed into the Pentagon that day.
And Edwards' roommate, Pat Hannaford, 29, lost his brother Kevin, 32, another Cantor broker.
"A year ago, out on a night like this, there would be another six or seven guys who are not here now," Pat Hannaford said as he and the survivors from his circle of friends drank another round of Beck's beer late on an August night.
Such losses had a special resonance in Hoboken, where so many of the young residents led increasingly successful lives filled with promise, optimism and ambition. They had few cares. They thought they had plenty of time.
"Before Sept. 11, you felt there was never a better time and place in the world than the one you were living in," Pete Bavoso, 32, said one recent evening at Hobson's. "Everyone was making good money. It was like, `How much better can this get?'"
WTC `was the town mill'
Many earned that good life at the twin towers. "For Hoboken, the World Trade Center was like the factory to the small town. It was the town mill," Bavoso said.
In recent years, the short train or ferry commute across the Hudson to Manhattan's financial district helped transform Hoboken. The hometown of Frank Sinatra and the scruffy setting for the Marlon Brando classic "On the Waterfront" went from a blue-collar immigrant stronghold of dockworkers and shipbuilders to a white-collar yuppie colony.
What didn't change is what one resident called Hoboken's "seaport karma," a hard-working, hard-drinking spirit still evident in the city's ubiquitous bars. Indeed, on 9/11, Hoboken's bars opened early and stayed packed for weeks after because "no one wanted to be alone in their apartments," said Barney Finnegan, the owner of the Nag's Head bar.
Hoboken's lively bar scene is a major draw for young professionals, who also relish the city's quaint brownstones and its sweeping waterfront view of Manhattan from the George Washington Bridge in the north to the island's southern tip, where the twin towers once stood.
This setting gives Hoboken a unique window on the disaster, with the newly truncated skyline of lower Manhattan serving as an inescapable reminder.
That view of Manhattan is unequaled from the grassy Pier A Park. Jutting out into the Hudson, the park long has been popular with local in-line skaters, fishermen, cyclists, joggers and walkers. It also has become the mourning place for those who have nothing of their loved ones to bury. And it is where Hoboken will memorialize its dead with a grove of 53 ginkgo trees, one for each victim.
On 9/11, after the first hijacked plane struck the World Trade Center, Hobokenites rushed to the park. From there, some recall, the north tower looked like a massive cigarette, smoke trailing from its tip.
"Many of us saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center, knowing that our neighbors were there," the mayor said.
The elementary pupils on the third floor of the Elysian Charter School could see that something was going on across the Hudson, but their teachers hurriedly shooed the children away from the windows and closed the blinds.
Teachers had students draw pictures to distract them from the tragedy they knew was unfolding. One 6th grader drew a picture of flaming towers surrounded by question marks.
Meanwhile, thousands of stunned, ash-covered refugees from lower Manhattan arrived at Hoboken in a motley flotilla of ferries, tugboats, fishing vessels and dinner cruisers hastily pressed into service. Fearing that the dust was laden with toxic asbestos, authorities hosed down more than 10,000 people that day, channeling them through decontamination tents.
But Wayne Hobson was not among them. His mother and close friends stood outside the bar all that day scanning the faces in the arriving crowds. More than once they thought they had spotted him, only to be disappointed.
Hobson would have been hard to miss. He was the most outgoing of a gregarious bunch, many of whom grew up together in the New Jersey suburbs and went on to success on New York's trading desks. Elbow to elbow from 6:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., yelling and cussing, the young brokers formed tight bonds.
After work, nasty statements made in the heat of dealmaking were forgotten in rounds of partying that took the brokers and their clients to Manhattan's finest restaurants and the best seats at Yankee Stadium. No matter how bad the hangover or how skimpy the sleep, they started it all over again early the next morning.
They made good money, some earning well into six figures. With his commissions from Cantor, Hobson began a car collection with a Mercedes, a BMW and a Porsche, and bought his own bar in Hoboken.
Hobson's Choice is the bar's name, but most called it--and still call it--Wayne's. Cindy Hobson, his widow, said it should have been called Wayne's World, because that's what it really was.
Like other Irish pubs, it sports pool tables, happy hour specials, blaring pop music and a bank of TVs habitually set to baseball or football games. The main attraction was the loquacious Hobson, perched every evening on a stool at the end of the bar--a stool that will be left unoccupied this football season.
With his sandy hair and rugged features, Wayne Hobson resembled actor Ryan O'Neal, Cindy Hobson said.
But his outrageously foul-mouthed sense of humor tended more toward Howard Stern's. He loved to torment Belinda McCullagh, his Irish bar manager, calling her early in the morning after she had stayed at the bar until closing the night before.
"How can you possibly, possibly not be up by now? It's 7 a.m. It's a gorgeous morning. Go get a bagel," he yelled at McCullagh in one of the many phone messages that she saved and has had made into a CD for his family and the rest of the Hobson's crowd.
Friends say the coarse, politically incorrect statements Hobson bellowed while holding court at the bar were his way of masking a tender heart. As readily as he ordered $300 bottles of wine at Frankie & Johnnie's, considered Hoboken's best steakhouse, he would also slip $1,000 in cash into McCullagh's bag before she left for vacation.
Rather than avoid a place so full of memories, Paul McVeety said he and other friends of Hobson's find comfort at the bar, drawing strength from each other. McVeety, 32, was a groomsman at Hobson's wedding and is himself an escapee from the 84th floor of the trade center's south tower. "If Wayne's mom can run this place, then I can come here," he said.
Solace from nightmare
Judith Hobson decided to keep her son's bar open. She said he would probably find that amusing. Wayne Hobson chided his mother for hovering around the bar. "He would tell me, `Mom, you'll remind the customers of their mothers, and then they won't drink,'" said Judith Hobson, a youthful-looking 61-year-old with closely cropped blond hair.
She said being at the bar gives her some solace from a recurring nightmare in which she is frantically searching for, but can never find, a stairway leading to her son.
"I'm still in disbelief," said Hobson, a psychiatric nurse, her eyes brimming with tears. "One percent of you wishes Wayne was alive, but he had amnesia and was homeless somewhere. I know it's irrational, but I go there once in a while.
"When you think of the reality, of what really happened, it's too hard."
If her son's remains are ever identified, she said, she doesn't need to know what was found.
"I want to remember him like this," Judith Hobson said, patting the photo on her T-shirt of a carefree young man mugging for the camera. The "Wayne's World" T-shirts were made for a 5K walk/run along the waterfront in August to raise money for Hoboken's 9/11 memorial.
While the walk gave many in Hoboken an occasion to reminisce, another form of shared grief played out a few blocks away. As on every Monday evening, Hoboken's only formal support group for survivors convened around card tables at All Saints Episcopal Church.
The 20-odd members light votive candles that remain burning on the table in front of them as they take turns talking about how they have coped during the previous week. After their meetings, they go out to dinner but try to choose restaurants that have opened since 9/11 and hold no memories. Most are in their 20s or early 30s. About half were engaged to be married or living with someone who died in the attacks. And some, like Brad Noack, were practically newlyweds on 9/11.
1 spouse survives, 1 does not
Noack and Katie McGarry married just five months earlier. Noack escaped from the north tower of the trade center; his wife did not.
A software developer, Noack worked on the 39th floor of the tower. His wife, who normally worked in Connecticut as a sales executive for a financial information company, was attending a financial seminar that day 67 floors above him at the Windows on the World restaurant. Noack's office was well below the point where the hijacked American Airlines jet smashed into the tower. Stranded on the 106th floor, Katie McGarry Noack, 30, didn't have a chance. She could only send messages to Noack's two-way pager saying that she loved him and her family.
"She knew that she was not going to make it," said Noack, 31. "Judging by the time she stopped sending messages, it would appear she was overcome by the smoke long before the towers collapsed."
Noack saved the e-mails he received from his wife that morning, and he rereads them from time to time. "Every time I do that, it's going to be a bad day," said Noack, who is tall, thin and soft-spoken. "Some days I'm fine. Other days I'm falling apart. She was my entire universe."
Noack considered visiting his native Australia at Christmas, but he did not want to be so far away in case authorities found his wife's remains; that hasn't happened yet.
Meanwhile, he plans to stay in the home they shared in Hoboken. "I'm still holding out hope that I'll get some kind of closure here," he said.
Those in the support group who were on the brink of marriage are haunted by what might have been.
One young woman's boyfriend had arranged to shop for her engagement ring on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
Another woman has legally adopted the last name of the fiance she lost. Another has started a summer camp in her late fiance's name for children who lost a loved one at the World Trade Center.
`We were so young'
Carrie Bernstein, 29, should have married Michael Wittenstein, 34, at a synagogue in Springfield, N.J., on Oct. 20, 2001. The invitations had been mailed, the flowers chosen, the ballroom dancing lessons completed, the honeymoon in Tahiti booked and the menu for the reception selected: a choice of chateaubriand, stuffed chicken breast or salmon.
But then came 9/11, and Wittenstein, a broker for Cantor, never made it down from the north tower's 104th floor.
"I was a widow before I was a bride," Bernstein said. "We were just starting our lives together. We were so young, we always thought we had so much time."
Wittenstein, a stocky, dark-haired fan of pro wrestling and quiz shows, and Bernstein, a pale young woman with rosy cheeks, met while in-line skating around Hoboken.
The couple planned to move eventually to a house in the suburbs, leaving the cramped Hoboken apartment they had shared for a year and a half.
On the morning of Sept. 11, Bernstein decided to sleep a little later than usual instead of getting up with Wittenstein. Half asleep, she apologized to him. He answered: "I love you, and you never have to be sorry about anything."
Remembering that sometimes helps Bernstein, a corporate trainer, overcome the memory of being just blocks from the trade center in her office at the Federal Reserve but powerless to help her fiance.
For months after Wittenstein died, Bernstein refused to believe there was a future. "We're at war, we're all going to die, so why do anything?" she remembers thinking.
Such a dark outlook, she now realizes, was not a death wish, but a desperate way of coping. "It seemed easier to be with Mike," she said.
Her biggest struggle was not a matter of taking it a day at a time, she said, but managing one thing at a time. She remembers thinking: "Can I make it out of bed? Can I make it to the shower? Can I make it to the bus?"
On the day she would have been a bride, friends took her horseback riding. She said she finally took off her watch because she found herself constantly thinking of what she should have been doing at that moment. "Well, I'm eating pizza for lunch," she thought to herself, "but I should be getting my hair done for my wedding."
Bernstein said it took her six months to realize that she had to plan the rest of her life without Wittenstein. In the biggest sign that she is trying to move on, Bernstein recently bought a condo in Hoboken, something she never intended to do alone.
Meanwhile, Wittenstein's clothes still hang in his closet, his autographed and framed jersey of New York Jets star Mo Lewis still hangs on the living room wall, and Bernstein still wears her engagement ring and the watch she gave Wittenstein as an engagement present.
Wittenstein's mother told Bernstein that she will someday find another man who will love her as much as Wittenstein did.
Bernstein has no idea when she will feel ready for that, but she is sure of one thing.
"Once you've loved like that, you know how good it is and you want it again," she said. "One day I'll want to be happy again."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun