HOBOKEN, N.J. -- Al D'Amato swears he didn't mean any offense, that the simple bill he introduced earlier this year in Washington was not intended as yet another salvo across the Hudson at neighboring New Jersey.
Sen. D'Amato's bill, passed unanimously by the Senate, merely authorized the production of a Congressional Gold Medal honoring Frank Sinatra. But wittingly or not, the chairman of the Senate Banking Committee added a comment that New Jerseyans saw as a twist of the knife: "Frank Sinatra is a New Yorker in spirit and soul."
The remark about Sinatra, a Hoboken native, might have gone unnoticed, but this is an unusually tense time in the relationship between the neighboring states, who have added the Sinatra debate to ongoing battles over land, water and reputation.
This week, New Jersey won an important victory in its centuries-old fight with New York over historic Ellis Island, when an arbitrator awarded the bulk of its 28 acres to the Garden State.
To an outsider, the victory seemed merely symbolic if not downright petty; the National Park Service controls the island, and most of its key attractions remain New York's. But the legal fight over America's immigration isle is only one in a series of escalating disputes between the two neighbors that are as much about envy as money.
"We've got what they don't have," says Frank LaSala, 52, a lifelong New Yorker who works for a brokerage house in Manhattan. "And that's prestige, glitz, glamour. The only thing I do in New Jersey is shop at the clothing outlets."
Of course, New Yorkers do more than that in Jersey. It's where they must go, for instance, to see the so-called New York Jets and New York Giants play football. So envy drives both the inbound and outbound lanes of the Lincoln Tunnel.
Consider the case of Sinatra, who was born in Hoboken, an eight-minute ferry ride from Manhattan. Yes, the Chairman of the Board did make the tune "New York, New York" so popular that even the fickle owner of the Yankees, George Steinbrenner, insists on playing it over the public address system after every game, win or lose.
But several of Sinatra's cousins still live in Hoboken. His appeal is so important to tourism that "Birthplace of Frank Sinatra" appears on city signs. D'Amato's words, to paraphrase Old Blue Eyes, got so far under the skin of New Jersey that residents rallied as if the British were advancing on Trenton again, telling New Yorkers in unison: Fugheddaboutit.
A history lesson
The Newark Star-Ledger called for nothing short of the crucifixion of D'Amato as bearer of the egotistical sins of all New York. A local congressman, Bob Menendez, lodged a protest, and Sen. Frank Lautenberg said D'Amato brought to mind another Sinatra ditty: "Send in the Clowns." Angry New Jerseyans briefly lit up the Capitol switchboard. And Anthony Russo, a special-education teacher turned mayor of Hoboken, fired off a letter to D'Amato.
Russo began with a history lesson, noting that Hoboken was the place where the steam locomotive was invented, where the first Oreo cookie was sold, and where (despite the specious claims of Cooperstown, N.Y.) a game of sticks, leather and horsehide became baseball.
But none of this, he told D'Amato, compares to Dec. 12, 1915, the day Sinatra was born. "For you to state that Mr. Sinatra 'considers himself a New Yorker in spirit and soul' is tantamount to slapping each and every Hoboken and New Jersey resident in the face."
"There's a pattern now of New York trying to co-opt the best parts of New Jersey," adds Julie Piscintelli, a spokeswoman for Rep. Menendez. "First it's the Chairman of the Board. Next it will the Boss."
And if Bruce Springsteen isn't safe, no one is.
"What nerve they have over there," says Sandra Miller, a 53-year-old executive secretary waiting for a PATH train at Hoboken station. "But I don't understand all this fighting. . . . It must be something in the water."
Well, there's that, too.
Most of the battles between the nation's second and eighth most populous states center on the water that separates them. OK, not the water exactly, but something in it.
Woodbridge Township, N.J., knows all about it. On its waterfront, syringes and all kinds of unspeakables regularly wash ashore. The local government first took New York City to court over this sewage 20 years ago and is still fighting about it. In 1993, the Big Apple finally conceded that its Fresh Kills landfill -- which some bright light decided to build along Staten Island's waterway -- might have something to do with Woodbridge's problem. So New York agreed to build a retaining wall for the landfill.
Except that four years later, there's still no wall, and New York officials are trying to wiggle out of the agreement by blaming New Jersey cities like Elizabeth for the pollution of the water.