Heard on the Street

“Heard on the street.” For years as a reporter I relied on that phrase as a catch-all to describe some news source that – for a variety of reasons – would best not be identified by name. “Heard on the street” could have been something whispered off the record at a coffee shop or bar or overheard at the next table at a restaurant or while waiting in line at the public library. Today, at least, it’s literally from the street, either heard or seen on one of my daily perambulations around town. Some snippets:

Who’s out and about? A lot of people, and almost all of them are practicing pretty good “social distancing,” a phrase that I now am replacing with “physical distancing.” There’s plenty of socializing possible at a six-foot (or even 20-foot) distance.

The sign says closed for now, but the small plaza in front of this theater is an outdoor stage, with plenty of room for socializing — or tipping — at a safe distance.

One day last week a friend and I chatted over coffee at opposite sides of a large outdoor table at Hinds Plaza in front of the public library. While there and chatting with other visitors at other tables, 20 feet away, we speculated on the possibility of Princeton University cancelling its annual Reunions weekend, the largest event of the year for both the school and the town, which relies on it as a major economic driver.

We thought about the curse that seems to have visited the college Class of 1970. Many schools’ graduations were curtailed or canceled that year because of the killing of four Kent State students by the National Guard and the subsequent campus protests. At Princeton graduation went on as scheduled, with Coretta Scott King and Bob Dylan among others receiving honorary degrees. But most of the class did not participate in the alumni “P-Rade.” Instead the class president marched alone with a protest banner. On the occasion of its 50th reunion the class could have marched in force, carrying all sorts of banners commemorating and poking fun at its senior year self. Could have, but will not – no Princeton P-Rade this year.

While hanging out in the open space next to the public library, I saw a staff member enter the building through a rear door. As I reported in this space last week, the library closed – rather abruptly and without any warm wishes for its patrons. So what’s happening there? I checked the website and discovered the staff is still hard at work, now on hand to field e-mail or phone inquires from people seeking help accessing the library’s digital resources. It’s also hosting some virtual events. Kudos to the library.

Walking around town I have been heartened by the number of strangers breaking their stride to linger and chat a bit. My partner and I walked past a professorial-looking gentleman walking alone near the university library. A greeting turned into conversation. The man was a visiting professor in classics, visiting from Oxford. Hmmm. Did he happen to know a young lady studying for a Ph.D. who happens to be the friend of our son? The professor knows her well, it turns out, and had just been videoconferencing with her. Small world.

I was disheartened, however, by seeing several small gatherings of people hunkering together in close proximity. In each case it was college-age kids. At one point in this crisis I wondered if Princeton and other universities were overreacting in shutting down for the entire spring term. Now I wonder if they should have pulled the plug earlier.

One of the challenges for those who conscientiously want to follow the “physical distancing” guidelines is the narrowness of the typical sidewalk. I am hoping that our mayor will follow the lead of some other cities and order a few streets adjoining public open spaces to be closed to motorists. I’m thinking specifically of the block of Witherspoon Street adjoining Hinds Plaza and of Palmer Square, the U-shaped one-way loop that surrounds the Nassau Inn green and Tiger Park. In New York City the governor has directed the mayor to close some streets and make more space for people trying to get out for a walk or a jog.

What’s open, what’s not. I was encouraged by the number of small restaurants and coffee shops open – for takeout only – and also by the number of people outside the entrances, waiting for orders to arrive.

On any day (and it doesn’t have to be a day in a plague), a walk around town turns out to reveal far more than any drive. I strolled past the Woodrow Wilson fountain and saw that construction equipment has returned to the site of the new Woodrow Wilson sculpture, “Double Sights,” which I criticized previously for being illegible. (That’s not a good thing for a sculpture that purports to teach us about the past by quoting the racist and insensitive words of our former Princeton and United States president.) I have made a note to walk by again once the renovation is done and take a second look. (I do have glasses but I don’t have rose-colored glasses.)

On a walk, life sometimes imitates art. Last week in this space I fantasized about some buskers adding a little musical life to the otherwise desolate streetscape. On Friday afternoon there they were – a saxophonist and upright bass player from Somerville and Bernardsville, playing in the exact spot in front of the Garden Theater that I had mentioned in last week’s column. At a few points they had an audience of just one – me – but they earned applause from a high percentage of passersby, as well as some folding money in their tip bag.

On another day, walking up Mercer Street past Einstein’s old house, we came across some chalk marks on the sidewalk. Stopping for a moment I made out a poem, by Brian Patten:

Inessential Things

What do cats remember of days?

They remember the ways in from the cold,

The warmest spot, the place of food.

They remember the places of pain, their enemies,

the irritation of birds, the warm fumes of the soil,

the usefulness of dust.

They remember the creak of a bed, the sound

of their owner, footsteps,

the taste of fish, the loveliness of cream.

Cats remember what is essential of days.

Letting all other memories go as of no worth

they sleep sounder than we,

whose hearts break remembering so many

inessential things.

Sidewalk art, I thought, and a nice complement to the buskers’ music. It’s also a nice thought to consider until the next time we cross paths — at six feet or more, please.