This story was originally published in the March 2017 Princeton Echo.
The organization People and Stories is living up to its mission for its annual spring benefit. The group, which offers reading and discussion programs in English and Spanish for adults and young adults “who have had limited opportunities to experience the transformative power of great and enduring literature,” will host a locally connected writer at its March 24 fundraiser at the Nassau Club.
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford, who taught at Princeton in the late 1970s, will read from his works, several of which are set in the fictional town of Haddam, New Jersey. The town, said to be an amalgam of Princeton, Pennington, and Lawrenceville, is home to Frank Bascombe, the title character in Ford’s 1986 novel “The Sportswriter.” Bascombe and Haddam return in “Independence Day” (1995), for which Ford won the Pulitzer in 1996, and “Let Me Be Frank With You” (2014), in which Bascombe has returned from a stint living at the Jersey Shore in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.
But it is in “The Sportswriter” that Bascombe, the narrator, introduces readers to his sometimes familiar-sounding hometown. Below, an excerpt:
Something brief should be said, I think, about Haddam, where I’ve lived these fourteen years and could live forever.
It is not a hard town to understand. Picture in your mind a small Connecticut village, say Redding Ridge or Easton, or one of the nicer fieldstone-wall suburbs back of the Merritt Parkway, and Haddam is like these, more so than a typical town in the Garden State.
Settled in 1795 by a wool merchant from Long Island named Wallace Haddam, the town is a largely wooded community of twelve thousand souls set in the low and rolly hills of the New Jersey central section, east of the Delaware. It is on the train line midway between New York and Philadelphia, and for that reason it’s not so easy to say what we’re a suburb of — commuters go both ways. Though as a result, a small-town, out-of-the-mainstream feeling exists here, as engrossed as any in New Hampshire, but retaining the best of what New Jersey offers: assurance that mystery is never longed for, nor meaningful mystery shunned. . .
It is not a churchy town, though there are enough around because of the tiny Theological Institute that’s here (a bequest from Wallace Haddam). They have their own brick and copper Scottish Reform Assembly with a choir and organ that raises the roof three days a week. But it is a village with its business in the world.
There are is small, white-painted, colonial Square in the center of town facing north, but no real main street. Most people who live here work elsewhere, often at one of the corporate think-tanks out in the countryside. Otherwise they are seminarians or rich retirees or faculty of De Tocqueville Academy out Highway 160. There are a few high-priced shops behind mullioned windows — men’s stores and franchised women’s undergarments salons are in ascendancy. Book stores are down. Aggressive, sometimes bad-tempered divorcees (some of them seminarians’ ex-wives) own most of the shops, and they have given the Square a fussy, homespun air that reminds you of life pictured in catalogs (a view I rather like). It is not a town that seems very busy.
The Post Office holds high ground, since we’re a town of mailers and home shoppers. It’s no chore to get a walk-in haircut, or if you’re out alone at night — which I often was after my divorce — it isn’t hard to get a drink bought for you at the August Inn by some old plaid-pantser watching the ball game, happy to hear a kind word about Ike instead of heading home to his wife. Sometimes for the price of a few daiquiris and some ardent chitchat, it’s even possible to coax a languid insurance broker’s secretary to drive with you out to a roadhouse up the Delaware, and to take in the warm evening of springtime. Such nights often don’t turn out badly, and in the first few months, I spend several in that way without regrets.
There is a small, monied New England émigré contingent, mostly commuters down to Philadelphia with summer houses on the Cape and on Lake Winnepesaukee. And also a smaller southern crowd — mostly Carolinians attached to the seminary — with their own winter places on Beaufort Island and Monteagle. I never fitted exactly into either bunch (even when X [the narrator’s ex-wife] and I first got here), but am part of the other, largest group who’re happy to be residents year-round, and who act is if we were onto something fundamental that’s not a matter of money, I don’t think, but of a certain awareness: living in a place is one thing we all went to college to learn how to do properly, and now that we’re adults and the time has arrived, we’re holding on.
Republicans run the local show, which is not as bad as it might seem. Either they’re tall, white-haired, razor-jawed old galoots from Yale with moist blue eyes and aromatic OSS backgrounds; or else retired chamber of commerce boosters, little guys raised in town, with their own circle of friends, and a conservator’s clear view about property values and private enterprise know-how. A handful of narrow-eyed Italians run the police, descendants of the immigrants brought over in the ’20s to build the seminary library . . .
On the down side, taxes are sky high. The sewage system could use a bond issue, particularly in X’s neighborhood. But there are hardly any crimes against persons. There are doctors aplenty and a fair hospital.
Editors, publishers, Time and Newsweek writers, CIA agents, entertainment lawyers, business analysts, plus the presidents of a number of great operations that mold opinion, all live along these curving roads or out in the country in big secluded houses, and take the train to Gotham or Philadelphia. Even the servant classes, who are mostly Negroes, seem fulfilled in their summery, keyboard-awning side streets down Wallace Hill behind the hospital, where they own their own homes.
All in all it is not an interesting town to live in. But that’s the way we like it.
Because of that, the movie theater is never noisy after the previews and the thanks-for-not-smoking notices. The weekly paper has mostly realty ads, and small interest in big news. The seminary and boarding school students are rarely in evidence and seem satisfied to stay put behind their iron gates. Both liquor stores, the Gulf station, and the book stores are happy to extend credit. The Coffee Spot, where I sometimes ride up early on Ralph’s old Schwinn, opens at five A.M. with free coffee. The three banks don’t bounce your checks (an officer calls). Black boys and white boys — Ralph was one — play on the same sports teams, study together nights for the SATs, and attend the small brick school. And if you lose your wallet, as I have, on some elm-shaded street of historical reproductions — my Tudor is kitty-cornered from a big Second Empire owned by a former Justice of the New Jersey Supreme Court — you can count on getting a call by dinner just before someone’s teenage son brings it over with all the credit cards untouched and no mention of a reward.
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People & Stories Spring Benefit, Nassau Club, 6 Mercer Street. Friday, March 24, 7:30 p.m. $100 includes dessert reception. $250 includes dinner with the author before the reading. Contact Pat Andres at (609) 882-4864 or email@example.com for reservations. More information: peopleandstories.org.