Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Praise of University Towns

University towns consistently rate high whenever a magazine or other entity releases a list of 'best places to live' in the United States. It is not hard to see why. Cultural and sporting events, intellectual exploration, bucolic surrounds and annual renewal are just some of the soul-affirming attributes of the university town gestalt.

I traveled this week from State College to the even-more-venerable university town of Princeton, for the purpose of attending the 101st gridiron meeting between the Harvard Crimson and the Princeton Tigers (Harvard won, 24-20). Among other things, the trip afforded me the opportunity to reflect on the standard virtues of university towns (see above), and on some of the more charming characteristics of State College and Princeton.

During the academic year in Princeton, you are daily likely to encounter central-casting-egg headed professors making their way through campus and town on bicycles, sporting tweed jackets and embarrassing extra-large helmets (risk the head injury, doctor). Some professors walk to campus, as the retired John Forbes Nash (of A Beautiful Mind and game theory fame) still does from his nearby home. I have on two occasions sat next to Professor Nash: once in the erstwhile Bucks County Coffee Shop in Palmer Square and again in the Princeton Public Library. Both times he was writing out complicated equations on napkins, oblivious to his surroundings. It was a strange thing to be so close to an intelligence that differs from mine not in degree, but in kind.

In Princeton you may have to order your hot chocolate from a Che Guevara-festooned pin cushion of a barrista The favorite downtown coffee shop in Princeton seems to manufacture these types, and whatever their charm, they seem to be constitutionally incapable of holding the whipped cream. Try it sometime. They will even repeat the words, "no whipped cream". Minutes later they present you with the non-compliant thing and not even the look of consternation on your face will bring the barrista back in time to its cause. I have considered that their fondness for Guevara goes beyond his physical likeness: perhaps the barristas remain aware of the instruction but, knowing whipped cream to be an unqualified good, and, not having the option to summarily execute the patron suffering from false consciousness, they simply ignore the apostasy.

Princeton has more of the enduring hippie than does State College. They can be seen most weekends along Nassau Street, manning the barricades against the Iraq War, for example. Long after their contemporaries figured out that they could enter the offending institutions and change them from within, this rear-guard nurses its ideological purity and continues to cast stones from without. These too are in the coffee shops, stopping in for an espresso after the protest and leaning their home-made signs against the wall. On their grizzled and wistful faces you can see the recognition that their halcyon days have gone; and too the Revolution's. But their young companions in the struggle are yet undaunted, talking about the protest scheduled for next weekend and the TV lineup for the coming week.

One thing that Princeton does not have that State College does is a Bible Man. When he appears it is on the sidewalk on the campus side of the intersection of Allen St. and College Ave. He is not New Age, going on interminably about damnation. If I were interested to render his mission more successful, I would suggest he change his messaging. As it stands, he is preaching to a bunch of kids who think they are immortal that bad things are going to happen to them when they die. Even if a few of these kids give weight to his pronouncements, they are as likely to double-down on debauchery in the short term as they are to change from Saul to Paul on the spot; figuring either that they might as well make hell and damnation worth it or else that they will have plenty of time to repent later (in this regard they would be no different than St. Augustine in his youth, who reminisced in the Confessions, "Lord give me chastity and continency- but not yet.").

State College also has the Creamery, a local institution; and which in this financial environment and given its sales would fail to surprise if it were to announce its pending purchase of Bank of America. Folks in central Pennsylvania cling not just to religion and guns, but also to supremely outsized ice-cream cones.

And of course State College has Joe Paterno, to whom the kids might actually listen were he to sub for Bible Man.

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