A man’s entire life spent in one town. A man’s entire life spent walking six blocks within that one town. Not more than one half mile away is a university that brings in students and educators from around the globe, but one man, Hutchins Osgood, has never left Princeton since Ella Osgood introduced her only son to life in 1931.
Hutchins ran up and down Clay Street like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics. He ran from Clay Street to Witherspoon and over to John Street to see his friend Watson. Sometimes the two pretended they were in the Army fighting Japanese or Germans like some of the older Negro boys who went off to fight. But they would never make it over to Nassau Street and never crossed over to the university. Something made them stop. Watson constantly grabbed Hutchins’ elbow and tried to pull him across the street so they could run around all the buildings on the campus. Hutchins would never go. He was loyal to his mother’s broom and father’s belt.
“Boy, don’t you ever catch me see you playing at that school. That ain’t for you.” His father was a soldier in the Great War and came back to Princeton loved and admired by the Negros on Clay Street. But he was not admired a mile away, or two, or three. There were limits and Hutchins was raised to understand those limits or else. Hutchins father knew that university well. He worked for the Bain Shirt Company on Witherspoon Street near the Nassau Inn. Mr. Bain arrived from Ireland in 1915 and went to war for his new country in 1917. He felt a kindred spirit with Nigel Osgood. Both men were wounded fighting Germans and both men were treated like old fish on occasion in Princeton because one was black and the other an outsider. While both men felt hated in a town they lived and worked, they to found a common enemy to take out their frustrations; the rich snoots of Princeton University. But as perception can overtake reality, sometimes strong egos can cloud good men’s judgment.
John Bain went as far as to turn down a contract to make the Princeton football jerseys. Bain’s pride was thick and his anger reached boiling before it ever considered warm. His pride turned away a lot of business from a growing school that had no issue spending money. Minnie Bain scolded her husband with, “Johnny, why do you refuse to let the university make us rich?” Nigel and John would not allow their sons to walk the campus no matter the circumstance. Even in the summers, when the students fled and instructors decamped to write their books, both sons were told to expect the worst if they found themselves east of Nassau Street.
Nigel never forgot 1935 when Bruce Wright was turned away from Princeton because he was found to be a Negro. It could have swayed an already angry man to put a lid on his racial frustrations if Wright had been allowed to be the first black student. But he was told to leave. That and an incident in 1942 when Watson was beat up by white Princeton upper classmen because he tried to sneak into an all-white eating club on Prospect Street brought Nigel’s hatred to a tipping point.
With his anger set in stone and knowing full well he would never have enough money to move Ella and Hutchins out of their Clay Street home, Nigel thought it time Hutchins go to work for good. In 1947 at age 16 Hutchins went to work at Bain. Now run by Bain’s son Robert, Hutchins was promised a job for life. That was the promise Johnny made to Nigel before he died unexpectedly in 1945.
For the next two years Hutchins and his father walked the mile to work. They never changed their route. At day’s end, the walk was simply reversed. The end of the war brought a change to Princeton. Hutchins saw it through the clothes he cleaned and made. Gone were the tuxedos and high society clothing men and women wore to alumni parties. They were replaced by average shirts and trousers for men and simple wear for women. Hutchins saw a great deal of military uniforms being cleaned for the last time to be put away for grandchildren to look at when grandpa told stories of D-Day or Iwo Jima.
June 1949 was a particularly hot month not only for Princeton, but New Jersey. Hutchins worked in the steam room of a laundry. December could be hot but June made it that much worse. As time wore on, Nigel became a little more lenient with Hutchins. He knew in his heart his son was a good young man. But he worried for him. But Hutchins finally convinced his father to loosen his grip if just a little. Lunchtime at Bain was his own. Like Hutchins’ walks to and from work, lunch was a splendor of fascinating routine. He would run to the east side of Palmer Square to find his favorite bench that faced Nassau Street. Ella still packed his lunch so he took every one of the thirty minutes he was given to savor both his mother’s chicken and the sights in front of him.
The fall brought a nice clean crispness to Princeton and his mom’s cider. Winter was difficult but he could take the cold; even snow if just to watch the people walk quickly by. Spring was his absolute favorite. He stayed a few minutes longer to watch individual students walk with stern expressions; exam time, smiles; a new boy or girlfriend maybe, and sometimes sadness; a death far away a student could not get home to mourn. Summer let Hutchins eat his favorite strawberry ice cream from Kaans. He never told his father but he always took money out for ice cream from July-August. Every day but Sunday, this was his life and he felt absolute freedom sitting on his bench.
Like a writer hoping his next work will be the one, so to love is never a guarantee in life. For some writers, their books will never captivate readers and their livelihoods will probably be made by other means. For those who never found in another person that feeling that by simply looking at a photo of another, you knew your heart would be fulfilled until death took you from each other. In May 1951, at 20, and still sitting on his bench at lunch, Hutchins Osgood looked up at simply the absolute right moment from reading The Princeton Observer, to see across the street, just outside the Princeton gates, a woman with long blonde hair in a bun.
Hutchins dropped his chicken and Coca Cola. He saw students all the time, but they never looked at him. This one, with a smile, put up her right hand to acknowledge his stare, and slowly waved. She then got into a cab and left.
Two weeks later the woman was back. This time she walked across Nassau to Palmer Square. Every nerve, every muscle, every feeling that Hutchins had never experienced before was happening. No one ever explained to him that at 20 years old when a man sees a woman, his age, walking toward him, you lose your appetite for mom’s chicken and sweat even though there is a chill in the air.
“I saw you a couple of weeks ago. You were staring at me. I’m Renee.”
Hutchins was seated, but could not get up if he wanted to. She had an accent. It might be European. His dad spoke some a little French he learned from the Great War to some customers in the store who sounded like her. But he understood her perfectly.
“I’m sorry if I was rude ma’am.”
“No, no, not at all. What is your name?
“Hutchins. Hutchins Osgood. I live on Clay Street in Princeton.”
He wanted to ask her to sit next to him, but many factors, including that he was scared to death, stopped him. But that did not stop her from sitting next to him.
“Do you eat here every day?”
“Uh, yes, I work down Witherspoon Street at Bain Cleaning with my dad.”
“That is nice. It’s good to be with your family. My father is a professor at Princeton. We moved from Paris last year so he could teach in America. He teaches art history.”
The conversation went on for the absolute maximum Hutchins could allow, 17 minutes of back and forth questions about their lives. When it was time to leave he got up as did she. She put her hand out to shake. The three second handshake was a formality for Renee. For Hutchins, it was a gesture he would think about all day and night.
Renee and Hutchins kissed for the first time New Year’s Day 1951 when he snuck out of his bedroom, ran up Witherspoon Street and met Renee in Palmer Square. They found a quiet hiding spot behind a tree adjacent to the Princeton Post Office. They never said, “I love you,” to each other but for both it felt so comforting being together. Hutchins wanted to introduce her to his parents. His mother Ella would love her. His father, who loved his time in France, would love to talk to her about her native country. His father would also like that she worked at a restaurant on Witherspoon Street and enjoyed following baseball.
But that was a fantasy and both knew it. They met in the wrong time at the wrong age. Both knew their relationship would have to end. Sooner or later all hell would break loose. In one of their many talks Hutchins thought Princeton might tell Renee’s dad to leave the university. Renee knew that was a little extreme but her illusions about dating a negro boy were wearing away as she slyly talked to others about the “what if’s” in a mixed race relationship. She did not like the answers.
In July 1951, Renee told Hutchins that her father would be leaving the university at the end of the summer term. She would be going back to France. For a brief moment both had the same thought; go to France together. As they sat behind an old academic building off of University Place Hutchins started to cry. He tried to stop his tears with a handkerchief but it took Renee’s voice to calm him as she held him in her arms. They talked until dusk on a gorgeous summer Sunday.
Hutchins realized this was the first time in his life he was across Nassau Street and on campus. The brave feat was whisked away by the fact he was losing someone he believed he loved. They made love that night. When they stood up, they hugged, and both walked home never to see each other again.
Hutchins Osgood owned the last house on Clay Street. By 2014 condominiums and townhomes took over. He refused to sell his parent’s home. He refused to call it his home even though he lived there since his birth in 1931. He locked the door for the last time and started to exit Clay Street and walk up Witherspoon Street.
Hutchins walked slow and gentle. Just like the life he led, he was a gentle, friendly man who left behind no debt nor any hard feelings. He was a friend to many but father or husband to none. He reached the Princeton Public Library. He always marveled at the building. It’s where he fell in love with books, especially the history of Europe. Continuing up he found Palmer Square and his bench. He stood and shed a tear of joy.
He crossed the street to the university he became good friends with, found his spot where he and Renee said goodbye and slowly, gently, passed away.
Jason Blum is a former Monmouth County Sheriff’s Officer and full time resident of South Brunswick with his wife, Donna. He loves reading and donating time and money to help homeless animals in rescue shelters.