When you drive into Hoboken you see a sign ‘Birthplace of Baseball and Frank Sinatra.’ The first organized game of baseball, between two clubs from New York City, was played on the Elysian Fields, three blocks from my current apartment, and Sinatra was born on Monroe Street, one hundred years ago today. I didn’t immediately see the sign, because I first arrived in Hoboken in the middle of the night, but the next day I walked into a bar called ‘The Chatterbox,’ and then I realized how important Sinatra still was to Hoboken. Tending bar was Trudy, the niece of the owner, Thea, who spoke English with a beautiful Rotterdam accent. At the bar were Hoboken old timers: George, Thea’s husband, Mario, Ray, Frankie, Willy, Izzie and Buddy, each with their own Sinatra memories. In the jukebox were all the songs Sinatra had ever recorded. I soon found my two absolute favorites, ‘I’ll be seeing you’ and ‘That’s what God looks like to me,’ which I liked even more after my son was born and played while I listened to their stories. “Sinatra is the best,” they would say, an honor that was otherwise only reserved for DiMaggio.
Frank’s mother had been a midwife who also performed abortions, which was obviously illegal at the time. She was sometimes referred to as ‘a little angel maker,’ but pretty much every old timer I knew claimed to have been delivered by her. Frank’s father, a fireman, wanted him to attend Stevens Institute of Technology, where I’ve been teaching since 1987, but Frank wanted to be a singer, not an engineer, so he left Hoboken for New York City. In 1985, over the protests of the students, Stevens honored Sinatra with a Doctorate in Engineering, for which President Reagan came over from DC in a helicopter. I once joked that Frank basically had earned the honorary degree because he didn’t want to study at Stevens, but that didn’t go over well in the Faculty Club. Sinatra anecdotes are famous, for instance the one about the time when he bought all the champagne glasses in a restaurant so that a waiter, who had been scolded by the manager, could break them, but my favorite is the one about the Stevens President who flew to LA to ask Sinatra for a donation, was briefly greeted on the first tee of a golf course, and never saw Sinatra again.
When you’re relatively young you don’t always see things in the right perspective, and therefore my generation, unlike the generation before us, largely missed the importance of Frank Sinatra. We grew up with Elvis, Dylan, the Beatles and the Stones, and for us Sinatra was someone from the past, like Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole. But Dylan, from that previous generation, knew better. “Sinatra never went away,” he said in a recent, fascinating interview in the AARP magazine.
Still today, listening to Sinatra is a revelation. As Bob Dylan says: “He had the ability to get inside of the song in sort of a conversational way. Frank sang to you, not at you.” The New York Times writes today that Sinatra brilliantly infused popular song with personal emotion, and to experience that again I’ll watch all four hours of ‘All or nothing at all’ on HBO tonight.
Before I moved to my current apartment I lived in a building on 406 Jefferson Street, one block from the lot at 415 Monroe Street where Sinatra’s birthplace had been. So for a couple of years we were practically neighbors, and I still see him in Hoboken, a skinny Italian kid that wanted to be a singer.