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This column was prepared for the July 2, 2003 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Richard K. Rein: On Henry Rosso

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.


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