Round ruby-red tomatoes quiver on the vine, velvety green zucchini leaves big as elephant ears, brilliant yellow pumpkin blossoms peeping through a thicket of twigs and buttressing a cornucopia of organically reared vegetables. All babied by supreme gardeners who have left their imprimatur on the sidewalk of famed Nassau Street in the heart of downtown Princeton.
Rows and rows of handsome banks, elegant shops and hoagie-havens mingle with couture dress shops and ice cream parlors along the mile or so of Nassau Street. Pretty long-legged Princeton girls, dressed in their tight shorts and flowered rompers stop and stare, smiling and pointing at the quaint blue and white bird house perched high above the garden on a tall spindly pole. They ooh and aah, amazed at the sight of a little garden squeezed between a giant investment company, Charles Schwab, and a popular restaurant, Panera, where students, tourists, and Princetonians mingle every day.
In the warm season, Panera puts its tables and bright yellow umbrellas outside on the pavement. Every morning between 6 and 9 a.m., a group of men meets there to argue politics, cluck over world affairs, and reminisce over the old days in Princeton. They also come to supervise the health of their garden and its present harvest: a spectacular cornucopia of vegetables that attracts passersby who stop to admire and comment on the handiwork of the gardeners.
The Men’s Club, its year-around moniker, segues into “The Garden Club” in the summer season. Its members are all born and bred Princetonians. Several are sons of Italian stone masons, among the first immigrant Americans to populate Princeton during the early 20th century. Their sons, most now successful businessmen on the cusp of retirement, swear their fathers built the famous institution across the street.
One of the longstanding members of the club, which has been meeting for seven years at Panera, and earlier at other cafes on Nassau, is Jay Craig, an African American whose family came to Princeton around the turn of the century. He still remembers the old bus station on the corner of Nassau and Witherspoon, now occupied by Hamilton Jewelers, and he relishes telling the story of the bowling alley located on the same block where he is now enjoying his morning coffee. Someone among the group calls out: “You could even throw a bowling bowl down the middle of Nassau Street and hit nothing.”
Craig’s work at the men’s garden club is crucial. He arrives earlier than any of the others, usually at 6 a.m., and is the first to check the condition of the vegetables. By 7:30 most of the group have arrived for their morning caffeine and comment proudly on their flourishing vegetable garden. Gordon Griffin, a Princeton architect, has been a regular for years. He simultaneously chats with the others while working on his daily crossword puzzle. He has only a vague interest in farming.
All of the men have known each other for years and frequently discuss mutual health and aging issues. They know who is not looking well and who is ailing, and usually one of the members will stop by the house of a temporarily absent club member to see if he requires assistance.
They pick up and drive home members of the club whose cars or trucks are being repaired. One or more of them will also check their garden several times during the day.
It is, as Shakespeare phrased it in Richard II, their “blessed plot, this earth, this realm” — this green garden on Nassau.