Hoboken hero

Frank Sinatra ripped out his humble roots when he crossed the Hudson -- but his hometown never forgot him.


Mary Elizabeth Williams
May 15, 1998 7:17PM (UTC)

It was that someone so big could come from a place so small that
amazed us. That our town, our sooty little Hoboken, could have bred such a
voice, such a star. It seemed as unlikely as finding a pearl in a clam
shell. And it seemed just as lucky.

I don't know if I have ever been able to tell anyone that I'm from
Hoboken without immediately being greeted with an enthusiastic, "Frank
Sinatra!" I always relished that connection, as if playing in the same parks and walking the same cobblestone back alleys that he did conveyed a certain holiness upon me. I was born decades after the Chairman of the Board high-tailed it out of town; I was never even that big
a fan of his music. But I've always shared in that soul-swelling pride the
city has in its native son. Sinatra was the antidote to our small-town
feelings of inadequacy, the blistering retort to a million stupid Jersey
jokes.

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For most of my life, Hoboken was flanked by two
landmarks. Uptown, right on the river, was a tipped neon coffee cup with sequentially illuminating splotches dripping beneath. "Good to the last drop," it boasted, while the Maxwell House factory below cranked the smell of roasting beans into the air like a caffeine fog. And downtown, right by the Erie Lackawana station, was a large white hand, its index finger ominously pointing downward to a local seafood shack called the Clam Broth House. On it, in big black letters, were the words "Hoboken: Birthplace of
Frank Sinatra and Baseball" -- in that order. In a city whose tallest
buildings are churches, Sinatra managed to dominate the skyline.

Hoboken sits on the wrong side of the Hudson River. It's a place
full of people who live 10 minutes outside of Manhattan but never go
there, the kind of town where you're buried by the same church you were
baptized into. When Sinatra was a kid, and still when I was a kid, it was full
of tenements. Most of them were burned down by greedy landlords in the
'80s, to make way for condos. And with the condos came the yuppies, and
with the yuppies came sports bars and sushi joints along Washington Street.
But the commuters were interlopers, New Yorkers at heart who just happened
to get a really neat real estate deal. They didn't understand Hoboken and
its weird little working-class heart, and they sure as hell didn't
understand Frank. They never ventured off to the side streets and the seedy
bars, the dives where "Strangers in the Night" still wafted every night
from the jukebox like the coffee smell from the river.

Frank was the essence of Hoboken -- that's why he inspired such
fervent love from the denizens he left behind. Unlike his former costar
Grace Kelly, a Philly native from the Main Line who affected society airs
and a posh accent, Sinatra never lost his thick-tongued Jersey intonation
or his scrappy, streetwise style. Instead, it was part of his glory.
It was there, amazingly, in his singing voice. Even as he was wrapping
himself around an elegant Cole Porter tune, he infused the words with an
unmistakable and endearing "fuhgedaboudit" undertone.

We didn't even care that he never came home again, that after he
conquered New York in the '40s, he made precisely one visit back to
Hoboken. We didn't even care how uncomfortable and anxious he appeared at
that single hometown tribute, over a decade ago, when his eagerness to
return to the swank Manhattan comforts across the river was written all
over his face. The city pushed him out of the nest and adored him, adores
him still, Stella Dallas-style, from afar. Of course he couldn't stay. It
was enough that he took Hoboken with him, that it was there in that golden
voice, in the laconic stance that only fellow urban stoop-sitters
recognize.

We love him because now, even people whose only vision of Hoboken
comes from the seedy exteriors of "On the Waterfront," who giggle at the
sound of a word as unlikely as Podunk or Katmandu, know something of who we
are because of Frank Sinatra. He may have been loud, aggressive and crass,
but he always commanded respect. And so, by extension, he brought us
respect. To a town so deeply steeped in religion, he was a sign from God,
proof that one could be poor and uneducated and downright low class and
still be touched by grace. He was a big Screw You to everyone who ever
dismissed the bridge-and-tunnel crowd, who thought that nothing important
ever happened on the other side of the Hudson.

Like an in absentia ruler, Frank reigned over the city and the lives
of those in it, the ultimate local boy made good. My friends and I used to dine occasionally at Rizzo's -- a homey Italian restaurant with Sinatra's alleged Hoboken High diploma proudly displayed on the back wall. It wasn't until years later that I found out Ol' Blue Eyes
probably never graduated high school. But that piece of paper wasn't some
tourist souvenir, some cheap tchotchke used to bring in patrons. It was there for
the locals, a long ago made-up symbol of pride. It wasn't enough that Frank
was one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century. On some
level, in a place where "vo-tech" is still a common educational route,
we also wanted him to be a high school grad.

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Some time several years ago, they changed the name of the long,
winding street that snakes along the very edge of the city to Frank Sinatra
Drive. It offers the best and most beautiful view of New York
-- the city that, physically, is a stone's throw away, but emotionally is a world away from humble Hoboken, N.J. It's only fitting that the last stretch of road before Manhattan should be named in honor of the man who most successfully crossed over to the other side. When you're young and growing up in the shadow of that city, New York seems a kind of end of the rainbow, a place
where dreams come true. Sinatra -- even to those of us who still think of "My
Way" as a Sid Vicious song -- was the embodiment of that.

When I was a teenager, every Hoboken high school dance ended with
the same song. No matter how long and hard we'd been pogoing to Blondie or
slamming to the Ramones, at the end of the evening, everyone gathered in a
circle and formed one last joyous kick line as the deejay blasted "New
York, New York." It may have been pure camp, but it also encapsulated our
feelings in a way that even Bruce or the Clash couldn't. Who better than
Frank, the man from the mile-square city, could sing of little town blues,
of longing to stray? And who better than we, the spawn of the friends and
neighbors he'd left behind, the ones with the same big city dreams, could
dance by the light of the Empire State Building to the same ecstatic prayer?


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and the author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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