One thing that lots of people like about Princeton are the characters you can find here. You might have seen some of them on Nassau Street at one time or another: the guy with the radio, the balloon man, the guy who dressed in black and wore sunglasses most every day of the year, and various women who seem to be able to pack half of their life’s belongings into frail wire carts.
Many years ago one of the street people was a man with a certain professorial air, who would rub his cigar gently against a tree or phone pole to rid it of ashes. Years later we realized that was John Nash, the future Nobel Prize winner and the man with a beautiful mind.
Characters like this are one more thing that makes Princeton a precious little city, rather than a big and boring small town. Bob Hillier, the architect, talks about Princeton as a city at the next meeting of the Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce (see page 6 of this issue), and the presence of these characters might be one more example of what he is talking about.
Today you find these characters by walking up and down Nassau Street. But once upon a time you could find them all in one place: Rosso’s Cafe on Spring Street.
Rosso’s had started out as a speakeasy and after 1933 it became a shot and a beer and a hamburger place thereafter. When I was an undergraduate "across the street," as Princeton University was known to regulars at Rosso’s, it was the bar to go to late at night when you needed to bring some beer back to the dorm room. Draft beer in styrofoam containers was the way it was sold. You were happy to be served.
In the early 1970s, when I returned to Princeton as a struggling freelance writer, I ended up squatting in an office at 48 University Place on the university campus and Rosso’s was my living room. A television set was usually tuned to the most important news or sports program. And the bar offered glasses of beer for 10 cents, hard boiled eggs for roughly 20 cents, and hamburgers for around 50 cents. A dollar went a long ways.
It was a workingman’s bar and characters were drawn to the place. Bill Blackburn, an opinionated man from Southern California who was never able to find a home — literally — in Princeton; Jeff White, a retired military officer who had an idea for a more efficient typewriter keyboard — that would have had a huge upside if it had been adopted just prior to the advent of the PC; Charlie Huth, a waiter at the Nassau Inn who had been recruited to play football at Columbia — the smartest and strongest guy at the bar; and many others.
As far as I knew, Rosso’s was the only public place in Princeton where blacks and whites got together socially. One night at the bar Henry Rosso, the owner, remarked on that fact and compared it to his youth, when he and other white kids swam in a segregated section of Carnegie Lake. One summer day, he recalled, he was swimming alone and began floundering in water over his head. Another kid came by — a black kid — and jumped into the restricted water to pull young Rosso to safety.
The boy who saved him was by then a regular at Rosso’s and was there the night the story was told. "Do you remember that, Taylor?" Henry asked. "You could have left me to die, and nobody would have blamed you." Rosso broke into tears as he told the story.
Taylor, a man who probably spent a lifetime helping people in all sorts of ways, paused for a moment. "Henry, I just don’t remember it. I just don’t remember."
Rosso’s father had started the speakeasy, and Henry joined him when he returned in 1945 after serving in the Army during World War II. Unlike many small business owners, Rosso succeeded in creating a life for himself away from the bar. Rosso was free to take extended vacations to Europe and throughout the United States. But oddly enough, he never learned to drive a car himself. In Princeton his world extended from his home on Madison Street to the bar just two blocks away.
Rosso never wanted to die on the job, as his father had many years before. So when he was diagnosed with colon cancer in 1980 or so, he quickly sold the bar. It became Chuck’s Spring Street Cafe, later owned for a brief period of time by the Menendez brothers, Lyle and Eric.
Despite his initial pessimism, Henry Rosso lived on for many years as a cancer survivor. He finally died June 19 at the age of 82. As a neighbor of his, I would run into Rosso often during his retirement. I would kid him that if I knew then what I knew now I would have urged him not to sell the bar, joined him and longtime bartender Joe Toto as partners, and then kept the place open pretty much as it had always been. We would have gotten rid of the greasy food, and probably banned smoking. But we certainly would have kept the characters.