I worked with Thomas Jefferson. Not the gentleman whose portrait is shown above, not the 3rd President of the United States, the plantation owner, the slave owner, the founder of the University of Virginia. No, I worked with a black gentleman named Thomas Jefferson. We both drove cabs for Betty’s Taxi, owned by Betty Klemuk in Southampton.
You may ask why I was driving a cab in Southampton. The answer is that I had flunked out the University of Virginia, the same university founded by the gentleman shown above. The story is pretty simple. I had flunked out of college in two short years because I liked to drink beer, go to parties and have fun and I did not see much value in attending classes – this proved not to be a formula for academic success.
Because I had a pretty good education before I came to the University of Virginia, I was able to coast through my courses and actually maintain a C average in the first year. But by the second year, my lack of attendance at the five courses I was taking was noticed, as well as my poor performance on various tests and I was summarily flunked out.
This left me with a problem: what to do? At first I thought that I would be drafted and sent to Vietnam where I would have to worry about staying alive, but by a strange bit of luck, the military did not find me fit for service because I had a hernia. And so instead of going off to the paddy fields of Vietnam, I stayed in New York and tried to figure out what I was going to do. After flunking out of the University of Virginia and hitchhiking to California, I came back to the East Coast and determined to get back into the University of Virginia.
This led me to devise a plan on how to get back in and I decided to take a correspondence course in American History and work for Betty’s Taxi. Since driving a cab in Southampton entailed waiting for long periods of time until someone called for a ride, I determined I could study American History while waiting for jobs. I have to say that I was very upfront with Betty about what I wanted to do and to her credit, she was fine with me taking my correspondence course as long as I was always ready to drop my studies and pick up someone and take them wherever they wanted to go.
This brings me back to Thomas Jefferson, the black gentleman. Thomas was a tall and handsome man in his early 60s. He dressed very well, always wore a sport coat and pressed slacks and thought of himself as a ladies man, even if he not exactly at an eligible bachelor age. And his married status was another complicating factor of the bachelor profile.
There was another black man who worked with us at Betty’s Taxi and his name, if I remember, was Claude Haines. Claude was a much younger man, perhaps in late 20s or early 30s. Claude had been a quite the football player and track star back in the day and he also thought of himself as quite the ladies man. The only difference between Claude and Thomas was Claude looked like a ladies. Young, handsome, well-built, Claude thought highly of himself with pretty good reason. Claude was planning a comeback in the football business. He thought of his time at Betty’s Taxi as an interlude from what he called “his business”.
Claude and Thomas would from time to time discuss their many ladies and this, I admit, did distract me from my studies of American History. Frankly, you just couldn’t help but listen to their talk.
Claude would usually start out.
“I am going down to the hotel tonight and meet my sweet lady, Lorraine.” The hotel was not really a hotel. It was called the Hotel St. James and it was out on Route 27 between Watermill and Bridgehampton. This was a black music club that was often visited by white summer residents. The place was really quite cool. A lot of quite famous Motown acts played there. Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Sam and Dave, Smokey Robinson and many other quite well-known groups played there and the joint was jumping. I can attest to that because I was one of the summer residents who went there.
“Loraine,” Thomas would chime in, “what happened to Loretta?”
“Oh, me and Loretta aint a thing no more. Now I am seeing Loraine. She’s my number one lady.”
“Hell, you ain’t even gotten out of the Ls. What’s wrong with you, you lazy or something.”
“Don’t talk to me like that. I had more ladies by the time I was 25 than you ever have.”
“Oh, Claude, you know I am just messing with you,” said Thomas with a broad, gentile smile, as he leaned back on a wooden back chair, he was very fond of leaning back on one the straight back chairs in the Betty’s Taxi office, “but you dead wrong about the number of ladies I had. I sleep with more in a week than you do in a year.”
“What you talking about. I had three ladies just this week.”
“You see, that’s what I am talking about. 3 ladies in week. Hell, you lucky to have three ladies in a year. You’re all bluster, Claude. That’s your problem. Why just this week, I was with Letishah, Sue Ellen and Francine and they was real, not to mention my main number woman, my sweet wife. You got to keep them home fires going.”
Thomas Jefferson usually got in the last word on whatever the subject was, but he did so in a quiet, dignified way.
Well, you can get the jist of their jive and one thing was sure – if I listened to them talk for long, my American History course would be toast. So, I would drop in and out of their conversation, trying to keep count the girls they had and, in the case of Claude, the touchdowns and track records he had and still accumulate some American History. It was not an easy task.
Occasionally, Claude and Thomas would change their subject to cars. On that subject, Claude and Thomas were unanimous. There were only two good cars – Cadillacs and Buicks. They were unanimous about the reason. Those two cars were the only two cars that had enough room for their “womens”.
Claude and Thomas were particular damning on the subject of Volkswagen bugs. At the time, Volkswagens were becoming quite popular in New York and in the Hamptons, but VWs were not making friends with Thomas and Claude. As usual, Thomas got the last word in on the subject.
“Them Volkswagen bugs, they ain’t working for me. Why if I had to bad to fit Claudette in the back seat and we was to get excited, what would I do? Why, there ain’t no room in that thing but for two flies and they’d have to be careful how they goes about their business”
Anyway, somewhere in between the conversations on girls, cars and my American History studies, Thomas told me that he was directly related to the other Thomas Jefferson. The gentleman whose portrait is at the top of this blog story and the gentleman who was the 3rd President of our country. At first, I found this hard to believe, but Thomas explained to me how this could have happened.
“You see, in them days, they had something called ‘nighttime integration’ and that’s how Thomas Jefferson came to be my great, great, great, great-grandfather.”
And although it sounded pretty implausible, the more I looked at Thomas Jefferson’s face, the guy I was driving cars with, the more I realized he looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. In fact, my Thomas Jefferson was the ebony version of the Thomas Jefferson.
Well, I did not think of this much until about 10 years ago when it was reported that the Thomas Jefferson had a slave lady, Sally Hemmings, who was his mistress. There seemed to be some disputes about the truth of this, but that was presumably settled a few years ago when a direct descendent of Sally Hemmings wrote a book on her relative’s relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd President of the United States. And presumably the matter was finally put to bed, so to speak, when the DNA of this lady was tested and it was found that she was directly related to the Thomas Jefferson.
And when this came to light, several articles were written that because of the fact that the Thomas Jefferson had slaves and because he slept with one or more of his slaves and because he had children from that activity, Thomas Jefferson should not be revered as the third President of United States and it would be a good idea if his name was removed from various buildings, including some buildings at the University of Virginia.
Well, as mentioned, I went to the University of Virginia and, as not yet mentioned, after I finished my American History course and drove cabs with the other Thomas Jefferson, I went back to the University of Virginia and I actually ended up graduating from the University of Virginia. This gave me a special appreciation of the University of Virginia.
So when I saw it suggested that we should try to remove Thomas Jefferson’s name from some buildings at The University, I have to say that it seemed like an extreme measure to me. Thomas Jefferson not only founded the University, he designed many of the buildings and, if you have ever been there, I think you will have admit that it is a mighty pretty place. In fact, it is perhaps, the most beautiful university in America. So taking Thomas Jefferson’s name off of some of the building does seem like a pretty extreme solution, even if he did sleep with Sally Hemmengs.
Recently, it has been reported that Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and a bigot and there were suggestions that his name be removed from Princeton University, where Woodrow Wilson was the President of Princeton University. I am sure that it was truly the case that the Woodrow Wilson was a segregationist and a bigot and I also think being a segregationist is a very bad thing. But, again, one has to realize that Woodrow Wilson was a President of the United States and a President of Princeton University. I am not saying that we should forgive him for being a segregationist and a bigot. I am not even saying that we should think highly of him because he was a president of Princeton and a president of the United States.
In addition to being President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson was also the man who said we should go into World War I because it would be “the war to end all wars”. Of course, that didn’t work out too well and I might agree he was not the brightest star in the firmament. I would also say that he did not improve himself too much with his conduct and follow though with the Treaty of Versailles.
All of that of course is just history. So, if you ask me, both of those Presidents were not too perfect, but they did do things and they are a part of history. Thomas Jefferson, for example, made something called “The Louisiana Purchase”. That is, he bought from Napoleon, another candidate for having his name taken off of buildings, two-thirds of what is presently the United States. So, if like you anything west of the Mississippi in the present United States, you really have to thank Thomas Jefferson.
This brings me back to the other Thomas Jefferson, the guy I drove cabs with. A few years ago I was at a party and who should I see but Betty Klemuk. There she was, no longer a taxi business owner, but now catering company owner appropriately dressed in a handsome and neat serving frock. Betty was a short but well-built lady and I can attest to the well-built part because when Thomas and Claude and I used to pick up the U.S. Steel executives at the now defunct Grumman airport in Riverhead and take them to play golf in Southampton, one of the U.S. Steel executives, on they way back to the airport, after they had played golf, had lunch and obviously quite few a drinks, would try to look down Betty’s blouse when she rode with the executives in the back. Betty was always very firm, keep your cotton-picking hands off, but she did not mind if the little feller had a look-see. I could tell all this because I was driving and I could see Betty and the U.S. Steel guys in the back seat through my rear view mirror.
Anyway, I was surprised to find Betty was now in the catering business. Apparently, Betty thought there was not too much difference between delivering people to specific places from delivering food to people at specific places. So Betty had found herself a prime position in the Hamptons’ catering trade and it seemed from my conversation with her that times was good. She was catering some of hottest parties in the land and business was booming.
For a while, Betty and I talked about old times, even though I was one of the guests she was catering on – a situation that might have surprised her more than me. What happened with the old taxi business, I asked her. She sold it apparently for a pretty penny. What happened with Claude? He’s selling derivatives in Hampton Bays, making a fortune. What happened with Thomas Jefferson. Didn’t you hear about that? No, I said. He got into an argument at a bar and killed a guy with a knife. He’s in the pen.
I looked at Betty in amazement. Not Thomas Jefferson, he was too nice a guy. Well, you didn’t know it, Betty said, but Thomas, he had a mean side. It did not come out often, but when it did, watch out.
Why did he knife the guy, I asked. It was an argument about woman. It seems Thomas was sleeping with another man’s wife. I could not help but be amazed. Thomas really did have lady friends and that apparently was his undoing. Go figure.
Well, this got me thinking about the two Thomas Jeffersons, Woodrow Wilson and some of my relatives. Now, as I have written in this blog a story on Sidney Cecile Cunningham Hoge, my grandmother. She was the matriarch of our family, a wonderful strong woman and a terrible bigot. And I am really sorry she was a bigot, but I figure she grew up on a plantation in Louisiana and she was kind of influenced by the people she grew up with. That is not to excuse her from being a bigot, but rather to explain her a bit.
And this got me thinking about everyone I have ever known, and the fact that all the people I have known and especially myself, seemed to have had some kind of flaws or made some kind of mistakes. And trust me I am sorry about that too.
In the end it seems to me that all people make some mistakes. Sometimes they say things they should not say, sometimes they do things they should not do, sometimes they do not say things that they should say and sometimes they do not do things they should do. So, it seems to me we are all damned if we do and all damned if we don’t.
“To err is human.” – I believe William Shakespeare said that and I can only say it seems true to me.
Anyway, I would like to get back the title of this blog and say again, I am sorry about both Mr. Jeffersons, the black guy who would ended up stabbing someone to death and the other Mr. Jefferson, the slave owner, the founder of the University of Virginia that I went to and the 3rd President of the United States.
But, as they say, that’s history.
One last point, in case you have not guessed what my college major was, here is the answer: philosophy.