In the Plaza

Ruth McGuire, Princeton University Library

Honorable Mention

2014-2015 Staff Essay Contest



I have read and walked on these words many times. They are a gracious invitation to a generous space that I enjoyed for close to a dozen years. I used to work in Firestone Library. Pausing in and passing through the Plaza went with the job, and I miss that bit of it very much indeed. I miss the pace, and the pavement, the people, and of course, the passing show.

There was always something going on in the Plaza, always something there to catch and entertain the eye, but unfortunately, I have no pictures to show you of those things. So it’ll take about a thousand words to explain to you how I came to form a private attachment to this public place.

The following word pictures were taken in Firestone Plaza between the years 2000-2012. Sorry, no exact dates available. We’ll have to make do with circa early 21st Century. It’s a small selection of favorites that I’ve formatted as |Caption Photo + Commentary.

| Big Woman on Campus

She’s pretty much the center of attention around here. Not classically beautiful perhaps, but certainly striking, and that’s fine. Beauty fades, striking lasts. She’s a piece of work, a work of art, by Jacques Lipchitz, and her name is The Song of the Vowels. The artist described the sculpture as an embodiment of an Egyptian legend about a priestess chanting a magical prayer while playing the harp. That’s good to know in a Google sort of way, I suppose, but I find it hard to shake my initial impression of it as a rocking, rollicking mother playing with her child.

It’s buff and shine time. Commencement and Reunions loom, and small forts are springing up all over the place. There’s a vinegary tang in the air, and every plant on campus sits serene and centered in its low volcano of fresh mulch. Some men have cordoned off the low island in the center of the Plaza. They are bathing the sculpture. But they haven’t just turned a hose on her. They have ladders and pails, and soft brushes and cloths, and they are so tender in their ministrations, I cannot but be impressed. After all of the storms, the snow, sleet, sun, rain, wind she’s been through over the years, she’s having a spa day at last.

| Retro Chic

The bicycle is old and old-fashioned. A Schwinn maybe, or a Raleigh, with coaster brakes and chubby tires. For a number of terms I make a point of looking for it whenever I pass the bike racks in front of Firestone Library. Whatever its color at manufacture, it’s decidedly pink now. Every inch of it – frame, fenders, pedals, the lot – painted pink. It has pink rubber grips with extravagantly long streamers that fly from the ends of the handlebars. So cool. I like the look of it, propped and poised in the grey rack, against grey walls, the fun and witty one in the crowd of multi-geared Treks, etc.

I am close to coveting this bicycle, and if I was six or seven again, and it was mine, I’d clip baseball cards into the spokes, front and back, so I could pretend it was a motor-scooter. Then I’d hop on and head for the biggest hill in the neighborhood to learn the definition of the word zoom.

Memories, however vivid, are all approximate, so I don’t recall if the bike was kept padlocked or not. Memory says not, and reason supports this. Who, after all, would steal such a thing? What thief could even hope to sell on something so rare, so distinctive? Might as well try to fence a hot Vermeer.

| Wrack and Ruin

Chaos! Havoc! Holes in the ground! The Plaza is swarming with workmen who are tearing it apart. Poor drainage above imperils the books below so EVERYTHING MUST GO!

Masons chip at broken mortar, pry up flagstones. Backhoes swivel and churn, dig down deep and dirty. The wreckers have cut a wide, rough trench in front of the Library doors. They’ve thrown a bridge across the gap, a sketchy thing of pipes, planks, sheets of plywood. Just awful. And I hate to be sniffy about it, but surely the chiseled ramparts of Firestone Library deserve a nicer moat than this hot mess.

There’ll be no pausing in the Plaza now – not for ages.

| Renaissance

The new flagstones, double sawn, are neatly fitted and perfectly graded, a pleasure to pace. The low wall by the bike racks on the Library side of the Plaza is backed now by a small treed lawn and a path bordered with yew. The Beatrix Bench under the hollies by the Chapel survived the wreck, and there are new places to sit: a long low wall on the Chapel side, and two large stone ottomans are drawn up just outside Firestone’s doors. There are fresh young trees and shrubs and fringes of lily-turf everywhere.

Much better now. Happy to be back. Thanks.

It’s surprising how much you can take in with a glance. Even more surprising is how many words you need to describe that glance to someone else. All this scribbling, and typing, and formatting – it’s exhausting. I should have done the sensible thing and just taken pictures. If I had, I could have pulled out my phone, and scrolled, (and scrrrroooolllled), through the images stored on it, and found something amusing to show you. And it would have saved us all so much time. If I had a real archive of the quarter hours I spent in that wide stony space between the Chapel and the Library, I could say to you –


Here are some pictures I took, in Firestone Plaza, when I worked at the Library there.