PRINCETON: Loose Ends: About being born, bred and buttered in Princeton …

By Pam Hersh Special Writer
    The recent brouhaha over President Obama’s birth certificate gives me the creeps, not only because of the hate directed at the President, but also because I see how the ugly “birther” sentiments have crawled into Princeton. We have been lulled by our community’s reputation for being a haven for progressive and tolerant thought and action — a place inhabited by many of the currently feted 40th anniversary Woodstockers. But, in fact, the town has given birth to some scary birther tendencies.
    There is historical and current evidence of birther mania in Princeton.
    In April 1988, a longtime Princeton Township resident sued then-Princeton Township Deputy Mayor Phyllis Marchand in State Superior Court on the grounds that she was “an illegal alien from Beirut, Lebanon,” and thus not qualified to be an elected official in the United States. Deputy Mayor Marchand was forced to produce her birth certificate and prove to the court that she was born in New York City, and thus was serving Princeton Township and the nation legally. Even though the complaint was dismissed six months later, the whole affair unnerved me so much that as Packet editor at the time, I had difficulty editing the story for publication.
    This same feeling of repugnance welled up in me last week when my opinion was challenged on the basis of my being a less than authentic Princetonian — with authenticity defined as being born in Princeton. When I expressed blunt disagreement with a Princeton Borough resident with whom I was having a debate, my point of view was dismissed as being invalid, because I was not born in Princeton — as he had been.
    I was even more distressed, however, when I realized that the poison from this Princeton birther had poisoned me. I had sunk to his level when my first thought was to ask to see proof of his being born in town. In addition, my defense of my position stemmed not from my being a thoughtful and concerned citizen, but from my having lived in Princeton for nearly four decades.
    We all have been to various community meetings where the first words of a person’s testimony state how long he or she has lived in Princeton. No one brags about being a physician or professor or scientist. Rather, he or she takes the microphone and announces: “ My name is Elmer or Elmira Fudd, and I have lived in Princeton since dinosaurs roamed Nassau Street.”
    The uncomfortable birthing/length of residency confrontation occurred on Nassau Street as the result of a most benign conversation.
    I had stopped at the kiosk at Vandeventer and Nassau to express my profound gratitude to a Princeton Borough Public Works employee who was engaged in one of the two worst jobs in Princeton — taking the staples out of the kiosk bulletin boards. This task followed six weeks of his being engaged in the second most miserable job in town: gum- busting the sidewalks in the Central Business District.
    The jobs are not only unbearably tedious, but also totally futile.
    Once a year, a worker spends six weeks gum-busting the remnants of gum from the sidewalks, only to watch new gum wads smooshed on the sidewalk the following day. I suggested to the worker that Princeton should adopt the Singaporean approach by banning gum altogether; gum busts at the Singapore Airport are far more frequent than drug busts.
    The annual kiosk bulletin board cleansings are equally painful to experience. After the worker over the course of two to three days pulls all the staples out and then repaints the boards, the kiosk panels remain clean for about 60 seconds before someone puts up a straggly piece of paper advertising a room for rent or a karaoke performance.
    My rant about the futility of these jobs attracted another resident who expanded my diatribe to include comments about the challenges of keeping Nassau Street clean and attractive. The conversation was very civil until he brought up that third-rail topic — consolidation. He issued a dire warning that if the two Princetons were to consolidate, the downtown and its sidewalks would no longer be a priority. Nassau Street would deteriorate into a staple-filled, gum-infested, dead flower- potted, cigarette-butted hell.
    Being a proponent of consolidation (in whatever form achievable, i.e., consolidation of police and public works even if the towns fail to consolidate the municipal governments), I disagreed with my fellow Borough resident. Perhaps I was too blunt, but I blurted out that his anti-consolidation statement was “nuts.” My indelicate choice of words inspired the birthing comments, which, even though delivered in a slightly facetious tone, still implied that my opinions, in his opinion, lacked gravitas, because he had been born in Princeton while I had been born in Asbury Park.
    The Princeton Regional Health Department, which, by the way,. has been consolidated since 1976, now issues about 2,000 birth certificates per year. Might we need a special non-birth certificate that qualifies citizens for opinion expression, i.e., a right-to-rant certificate for non-native Princetonians?
    In the spirit of Woodstock, I propose freedom from birthing — freedom of speech and respect for that speech, no matter where you were born, or how long you have lived in town.
    This is the right thing to do. After all, I should know. I have lived in Princeton for 40 years.
A longtime resident of Princeton, Pam Hersh is vice president for government and community affairs with Princeton HealthCare System. She is a former managing editor of The Princeton Packet