Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Back to my Princeton days

For her birthday, my sister wanted us all to get together for dinner in Princeton, which is close to her new apartment in Lambertville. It was a pretty equal distance for my parents to drive from Little Silver and for Casey and me to arrive from Clifton. We left a little early to allow ourselves some time to walk around town before meeting at the restaurant at 6:30.

The walking was brief, however, when we decided a drink at the Triumph Brewery sounded like a good idea. But after that, we continued along Nassau St. to Palmer Square, which was bedecked in holiday splendor. I took a loop around the big tree while my parents -- whom we had come across on Nassau -- and Casey chatted. And as we made our way to Teresa Caffe, we passed Winberie's, one of the places I recall from the high school and home-from-college days when my friends and I would make an afternoon or evening of it and drive across the state (the thin "waist" of New Jersey) to enjoy the campus, the town and dinner.

Princeton provided plenty of firsts for me in terms of an exposure to a college town and college life. This was ironic because of its location an hour to the west of where I grew up, yet Monmouth University (then Monmouth College) was just 15 minutes away and could have provided the same exposure, only without the Ivy League reputation. However it was Princeton that for so long I associated with "college" and what went with it.

I saw my first college football game at Princeton Stadium, a clash between the Tigers and Dartmouth in 1992. One of my best friends, Will, invited me to the schools' annual season-finale clash because his father was a grad. I remember the ride out -- through Freehold and onto Route 33, across Route 1 and over Carnegie Lake (where scull boats often provide the quintessential Ivy League image), then a left to the stadium -- because Will, with his leaner's permit, was behind the wheel of the family minivan. Princeton lost the game, 34-20 (I didn't remember that; I looked it up), but we did get to see Keith Elias, a running back from our high school conference who went on to play a few years with the Giants and Colts.

The lasting image from that day was the postgame performance by Dartmouth's band, playing the alma mater, and Will's father standing there singing. I had never seen such a thing, but I understood the first time I watched the Irish play as a freshman in 1994. Another thing that stuck with me -- though it may not have been that same day, but another football Saturday when I happened to be in Princeton and at a restaurant that evening -- was the postgame crowds at the local establishments. I knew little of college football, and certainly nothing of the gameday experience, but just being in a restaurant (with a bar) as the crowds came in after a crisp autumn afternoon at the stadium struck something in me. That sense of camaraderie and community was appealing to me and when it came time to make my college decision, I feel I chose Notre Dame in part because I could see such a scene playing out each week in the fall. I didn't get the same feeling at Syracuse (my No. 2 school) and though I would've had it at Virginia (No. 3), I knew I wanted to study journalism in college, and UVA cut the program the year before I enrolled, essentially taking the school out of contention.

I don't remember the last time I was in Princeton before tonight, but my guess is that it was more than 10 years ago. I traveled back several times from 1998-2001, when I covered high school track and New Jersey would hold its big winter track meets at the university's Jadwin Gymnasium, but on those trips, I never got to Nassau St. and downtown. Once I crossed Carnegie Lake, it was a right turn to the gym instead of straight into town. Yet in all these years, I didn't notice much that had changed -- though tonight was admittedly a brief visit limited to the few blocks of Nassau St. and Palmer Square that we saw. It was nice to get back and even more pleasing to find that it still gave me the same sense of happiness and enjoyment, a welcoming aura that reminded me of how much I enjoyed it as a teenager. We'll probably have to make a point to get back there sooner.

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