Portland Oregon has roses, North Texas has tumbleweeds, and Vermont has maple trees. Different places have indigenous treasures for which they are known, and in which they take pride. Salt Lake, surprisingly, has seagulls, and Philadelphia has tennis shoes hanging from the power lines.
Maples and sage brush come from seeds, roses come from the florist, where do these shoes come from? I have heard many answers from all sorts of people but none knew for sure. I tend to have too much time on my hands and decided to use it to find the answer to this important question.
Luis, far right-
“It’s a marking of time. We always did it with Pro-Keds, that’s what we always wore. You would wear those things till they couldn’t be worn any more. Once you can’t tape them up anymore, you get new ones, and throw the old ones up on the wire. We would do it at the hang out, ya know, so we all can see. I could look up and be like, there’s ’84, there’s ’87. Man, we can look up and be like I can’t believe I used to fit in those.”
“That’s to let you know where you can get that stuff. Ya know, it’s a drug corner. I thought everyone knew that. It’s a hot-spot.”
“They talk about a recession, we been in recession. We always been poor. We was all poor and didn’t never get nothin’ new, so when we did get some new shoes we wanted to show them off. We took our old ones, threw ’em on the wire to let everyone know we had new ones.”
“It’s nostalgia. Ya throw ’em up when ya move, to mark where you used to live. So the folks on the block don’t forget you.”
I always thought the shoes were the work of older brothers playing the ultimate game of keep-a-way on younger siblings.
I got the shoes mark where to buy drugs answer many, many, times. Once I started walking around and asking people on the street, I noticed something…
There may be many reasons, I may never decide on which ones are true or best, but what should I make of the fact that none of the people who told me the shoes mark drug corners have either bought drugs or thrown shoes up on a wire?
Note- I promised my wife I wouldn’t take my computer on vacation. See ya in September.
Earlier this spring my wife and I were asked to meet with one of our regional religious leaders in his office. Once we were all seated he took a deep breath, looked us in our eyes, and asked us to be a “Ma and Pa” on the upcoming youth trek.
In our faith an ominous invite into a leaders office can mean many things and one is generally expected to accept whatever invitation is extended. This particular invitation was not one we anticipated and my wife’s face displayed the disdain she truly felt at the prospect.
He must have seen this as his hands came up in the universal, “now wait just a minute, take it easy”, pose. “Now this is not a calling. You are not under any religious obligation to accept. This is more like a favor.”
At this my wife visibly relaxed, and without a second thought sighed, “well that’s easy then. No.”
Now I am not completely opposed to saying no to my leaders. I have never done it, but in theory I know it can be possible, but in this instance, and any other for that matter, I thought we should at least give it some thought.
I put my hand on her leg, looked at the man across from us and explained that we, meaning my wife and me, should probably take a little time to consider the request and get back to him.
She looked at me as if I had just committed treason, cursed her mother, and passed gas.
Four months later the two of us were driving out to the Gettysburg area dressed in 19th century pioneer clothing, prepared to spend three days out under the stars getting in touch with our religious heritage. By prepared I simply mean we had arranged a sitter for our two small children, a feat that required importing my sister from the Carolinas. Proud of this accomplishment, as well as our conquering of our previous attitude, we had rested upon those laurels, assuming the two greatest hurdles had been crossed and the rest would be down hill.
I should probably back up and explain what this is all about.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was founded in upstate New York in 1830 . The church and its members were then forcibly moved to Ohio, Missouri, Illinois, and finally, with no where left to go, the desert that would become Utah. The first Mormons arrived in the valley of the Great Salt Lake in 1847. Mormons from the east, and converts from Europe, continued to move there, throughout the 1850’s and 60’s.
My mother’s family was part of this exodus.
A woman named Louisa Kent Booth, the daughter of a Bengali woman and an English officer, learned of the church while in India, joined, and left her home, and life of luxury, to live with her new people in the American West. She was my great^5 grandmother.
Many of the pioneer immigrants were to poor to afford a wagon and team of oxen, so they purchased two wheeled hand-carts to carry their belongings, and walked across the plains.
Every summer thousands of Mormons reenact this journey with groups of their youth. This is what we had committed to do.
We began assembling in a large field. We, at this point, are the youth not only from the inner city of Philadelphia where my wife and I live, but the youth from the entire surrounding area. We don’t know them, they don’t know us, but my wife and I have a list and there is a “Trek Captain” who is informing the kids as to what family they will be a part of as they show up. Over a short period of time our family materializes, eight of them, the two of us, and we all stand there looking at each other. Now what? The looks on their faces, the “their” now includes my wife; appear to infer that I should have the answer. I did not.
This scenario will be repeated often throughout the next three days, but I am used to pretending to know things that I don’t, so I settled into this role quite quickly.
It was obvious that some of the youth possessed an attitude not unlike the one my wife initially displayed but with a healthy dose of youthful angst. Turns out a good cure for angst, a cure for a lot of things, is walking; a lot of walking. I knew we would be walking. I was ready for walking. I’m pretty good at walking. Walking is what I intended to do, especially since our original instruction package made clear that our job was to do as little as possible, allowing the children a more full experience. As little as possible; I am pretty good at doing as little as possible.
This was only to be a 20 mile trek over three days. My wife can burn through 20 miles at an outlet mall in 20 minutes and I pack enough calories above my belt to power me through twice that. We, again my wife and I, began in good spirits. Most of the kids just began.
Any time anything, that will be done over a duration, begins easily, one should be wary. I tried to convince our small team of teenagers of this as they began to show off their cart racing skills. They pranced and pulled along a relatively flat and shady trail, while I did my best to purport a “mosey”.
We learned a small lesson on the first hill that would haunt us for the rest of our journey. Hand carts, beautiful things that they are, will not move unless you exert some force upon them. Not only that, but on an incline, this devil contraption will actually go backwards unless you exert constant forward force upon it. Now bad enough as this is, once a summit is reached, a decline follows, and a handcart will attempt to drag you down to fiery depths unless you exert a constant force in reverse.
This may not be particularly revelatory. Anyone with bit of common sense would naturally know these things, but knowing and experiencing are two different things.
I guess that is kind of the point.
Most of the first day was simply tiring. That’s all. No enlightenment, no nirvana, nothing monumental in effort or affect. Note I said most.
As an adult leader I was somewhat informed of how events would unfold, the kids were not. At one point we were all gathered together, a long line of carts, a large group of youth and leaders, all taking a brief break. Someone was giving a short talk, the kind I listen to out of politeness, wishing I were less callous and more apt to be moved, but it was hot and such hopes were lost. I had been told that one part of the trail was too steep to pass with loaded carts. We would have to unload, carry the cargo by hand, pull the cart empty up the hill, and then reload at the summit to continue on our way. I could tell by the talk that this was that time.
We were all gathered at a curve in the road that had a 45 degree wall on one side, and a panoramic view of the valley on the other. I expected the uphill to be around the corner. I was wrong. I expected the youth would be able to do this without my physical help. I was wrong.
The young ladies began walking the gear up one side of this rock face, and the young men got to work on the wheeled contraption. We began with as much speed as we could, hoping a little momentum would carry us over the rock ledge that lined the hill about 15 feet up. After ramming and rolling our way up and over the rocks, I made the mistake of looking up and forward; the hill kept climbing. This ledge was the cruelest of false summits and thanks to gravity’s pull on the cart; we had no choice but to keep climbing.
And we did. Then we did some more. We went up, the boys and our empty cart, in the middle of a stream of haggard girls dragging sleeping bags and duffels through the tall grass and over rocks. Once we reached the top, my lungs and legs both burning, we regrouped. All together again, atop what had seamed like an endless hill, we re-packed and did our best to feel accomplished. I was well on my way to satisfaction, but no where near recovery, when I realized our 10 gallon water jug was still at the bottom, full of the water I desperately needed. My little assigned family was before me, tired, no, exhausted, and thirsty. The largest among them may have the lungs for it, but surely not the girth, so I started back down the hill to fetch one heavy pail of water.
Carrying that water up that hill was not only the hardest thing I did all week, but the hardest thing I have done in years. Somewhere near the top, I was unsure I was going to make it. No, I’m sure I would have made it that last 100 yards but it may have been the last thing I did, not only due to the sapping of all my energy, but I’m sure it would have taken the remaining two day to finish. Another man, one of the other “Paws”, with a look on his face as if he had just experienced death himself, came over to lend me a hand. He looked so tired in fact, that any sort of justice or irony that may have been drawn by this adult being the very same leader who extended the invitation to join this venture in the first place, was completely gone.
In 1846 Joseph Smith had already been murdered and the Mormons had been expelled forcibly from their homes. While they were walking in search of a location that would provide the protection the government had failed to give, that same government sent out a request for a battalion to be raised from the Mormons to help fight the Mexican war. Five hundred men answered the call, leaving their wives and children to push on without them.
In a strange homage to these hardy women, a section of our journey, a hill of course, was set aside as the women’s pull. The males were asked to step aside, not allowed to touch the cart or the girls. We were also asked to labor this leg in silence; no talking.
To a person, every one of the young men said the most memorable and meaningful moment of the trek was this women’s pull. The carts moved, or crept, upward. The boys found large rocks to wedge behind the wheels allowing the girls to take breaks without losing ground. The boys fanned the girls with their hats. The girls just pulled.
Before this whole venture started, back when we were gathering our crew for the first time, my wife and I were pulled aside and introduced to a young lady with a charming and ever present smile. This girl was to be placed in our charge but required special attention as she had some health issues that had her parents quite concerned. We were given extra hydration instructions for her and asked to mind that she not over do it. I expected the heat and environment to be this girl’s biggest challenge; in retrospect I can see that the real issue was this girl’s determination.
I began to get nervous when the progress of the cart became inversely proportionate to the effort the girls gave. It became obvious that this young lady would expire before she gave up. I thought she may well be on her way to doing just that and silently tugged on my wife’s dress. I motioned for her to trade places with this young lady, positioning her in the back to push as opposed to the key pulling position she presently possessed. This having been done, I watched my wife give a physical effort like none I have ever seen her give outside of childbirth. I watched this woman, a city girl, a city girl of the sort who refused to do anything that would inspire perspiration in gym class when young.
This city girl, sorry; woman, who would rather be anywhere else in the world than on this trail, was digging in and pulling with all the power her small frame could generate. Watching this, I believe I actually felt an emotion. I am usually in complete control of myself, and I did not lose control here, but watching these girls try to move this cart, especially as it became obvious that the cart would go no further, I was stirred within. It felt like watching the movie Rudy.
Our little crew struggled without result for quite some time before one of the organizing leaders gave me a silent nod. I grabbed the hand rail and heaved with all I had and the other boys quickly did the same. The cart virtually leapt up the rest of the hill.
That first night we ate vegetable broth and potatoes for dinner. Sitting around a Dutch oven eating, we talked about the days events, talked about each other, and about the purpose of all this. They had blisters on their hands and feet, one even had a nice gash from sandwiching himself between the cart and a rock, but what was more notable than the decoration on the extremities, was what was on their faces; they all wore smiles.
We slept under the stars, which I’m sure were beautiful, but I can’t say as I was unconscious from the moment I lay down on the hard ground.
Breakfast was cornmeal mash. We all looked at the horrible concoction in horror, then quickly ate every last bit of it.
On this second day we had to tie our carts to a rope and lower them down a steep hill. Once down, we were directed along a path lined with white stakes. Each stake represented a person who died doing what we were doing back in the late 1800’s. We were tired and the stakes looked to go on forever as they continued up over a ridge and around a corner. We did not die. We just pulled.
That evening we set up camp, enjoyed the best turkey I have ever prepared, and we danced. A live band complete with square dance caller set up shop and the entertainment began.
By entertainment I mean the observation of a large group of 14-18 year olds trying to navigate the gulf between the sexes. Country music may not be my scene, nor the Mrs., but she cannot pass up the chance to dance, and we did. In our group I watched a young lady, 15 I believe, swing arm in arm with a boy the same age.
She looked as if she had just stepped in something unpleasant and then told to go to detention. She was deflated and sluggish. I attributed it to a combination of the day’s efforts and general angst. Imagine my surprise when later that evening I looked over to see this same girl bounding, leaping, and… wait for it… SMILING! Had she not been wearing the same clothes I would not have recognized her. The music was the same, the setting was the same, the only difference was the boy. He looked just like the other one to me, but obviously not to her. Amazing.
My wife watched as two boys came upon a young lady who is by anyone’s standards, beautiful. The encounter came as she approached the outhouses. While waiting awkwardly outside for her turn to go in, one of the boys said something like, “you look like some kind of superhero.” She of course had no idea how to respond to this and just said “O.K.” and looked around nervously. This was not what he had hoped for. “He tried to make up for it with a clarification, “I mean you are sooooo, good looking.” He said it with a melodious “soooo”, at which his friend started laughing. Now she was being laughed at and understandably she began to ignore them. He saw that he had made a poor move and went into panic mode trying to fix it. “No I’m sorry. I was serious. I mean, you really are good looking.”
It was too late. He thought he would improve his chances by paying the girl a compliment and only succeeded in erasing any chance he may have ever had at having a chance. The beauty of the whole thing was that he made his move at the outhouse. Well done ole’ chap.
After the sun had set and our faux family was getting ready to pack it in, we found one of our “sons” loitering around a girl he had briefly attempted to date, but who now had a boyfriend. One who wasn’t him. I made a passing remark about it, which was of course defended with a, “We are just friends.” I could not help myself and launched into a long diatribe about the natures of male and female friendships and the general inability of males to make the proper investment in female company without the hopes, even if buried, of some sort of romantic payoff. I continued that if actually had romantic interest in this girl that he would serve his purpose better if he were to move on and just stay cordial with said girl, therefore avoiding the inescapable trap of the friend zone. This lecture is admittedly conjecture, or projection, not doctrine, but I have never had an audience more mesmerized. They hung on every word, asked follow up questions, and did pretty much the opposite of how 14-18 year olds respond to discussions of scripture. I had just endured 2 days of more physical strain than I had endured in years and these kids refused to sleep preferring to talk about dating. As we wrapped things up some small, freckled red-head who had materialized out of no where said, “Man, I wish you were my paw.” I patted him on the head and said, “You will think that till you are actually old enough to date.” and sent him back to his own camp.
The last day we had Sunday school. Pay no mind that it was actually Saturday. We dressed in what could be considered Sunday best for one who sleeps on the ground, and listened to leaders talk about history, appreciation, faith, and personal conviction. At the end a “Pony Express” rider came into camp with a satchel full of letters for the kids. These letters had been written by the parents of all the youth in advance. I took the stack marked for my group and began to hand them out. The kids took what looked like hand written novels where I’m sure Mom and Dad poured out their hearts to sons and daughters in hopes that some bit of encouragement, advice, or maybe wisdom, would reach the kid in a vulnerable moment and have some lasting affect. The kids were all sent out to find a place by themselves to read, think, and maybe write something of their own. I spent my alone time thinking about the boys from my home congregation who had to make due with letters from me as we were unable to obtain anything resembling a letter from the adults in their homes. I meant what I wrote to them, but who am I? I could be that cool Dad from the night before, I could be the perfect guy or even mentor. It doesn’t really matter because no one can really replace a Mom or Dad. Last night I was cool, that morning I felt lame.
We were told that we were basically done. We just had the technicality of a short, gentle, downhill to the finish line and we would be on our way home. That was one last cruel understatement, as we spent the next few hours giving everything we had to prevent a cart full of camping gear and clothing from running over a crowd of kids.
We were all excited to be done. We cheered, I’m sure someone cried, and we began to take apart our carts and say goodbye. It felt reminiscent of yearbook day in high school. We had a real fondness for each other, were unsure how to express it, and promised to keep in touch. I miss those kids. I enjoyed watching them as they took turns pushing and pulling without any direction from me. I enjoyed watching them struggle both physically and especially socially, all the while never drifting from what you would expect of a “good kid”. Mostly, my wife and I both enjoyed listening to them in the evenings as they gave answers to my questions about what this is all about.
I come from a culture where one has “Sunday clothes”.
The closet of my youth held multiple t-shirts, jeans, shorts, maybe a couple of polo shirts. Then, off to the side, was one button down, one pair of slacks, and one lonely tie. Those were the Sunday clothes. The shirt and pants would change as one was grown out of, and was then replaced, but the tie stayed the same. I had that one maroon tie with little white dots, from age 12-19.
It wasn’t just me. I was a bit dressier than most of my peers solely because I wore boat shoes on the weekdays as well. I remember being asked “why are you wearing your Sunday shoes?”
I still on occasion hear echoes from my memory when I leave the house in a tie on a weekday, “where are you going all dressed up?” or even better, “who are you dressed up as?”
Maybe this is why I find fascinating the world of style. I like to look nice, most everyone does, but what that looks like to different groups in different times is subjective and riddled with unwritten rules.
I like art. Rather, I like to look at art. I painted my first painting while in college not as part of a project, or to express myself, but because my walls were bare and so was my wallet. I wanted something cool to look at.
All of this came together while I was sitting at a desk in the Princeton archives looking at stacks of old football programs. Here was page after page of illustrations advertising the fashions of the day. Some of these ads were more than 100 years old, most were more like 85, but they all looked great.
The clothes and the art, both, met the definition of what I seek; they were cool to look at.
The images, like all advertisements, depict not only what you want, but who you want to be.
Isn’t that what style is? Showing who you want to be? maybe it is who we already are, but these illustrations are obviously aspirational.
I do not always dress the way I would like. There are obstacles, just like in all aspects of life; my wallet, my waist line, my schedule and the sort of tasks that fill it.
I do not always paint the way I would like. There are obstacles; time, laziness, skill level, did I say lazy already?
Sometimes, not too often the further time takes me from those days, but every now and again, the obstacles come from where and when I came from. But forget all that.
Just wear and paint things you think are cool to look at… as long as it is within the guidlines set up by whatever function you are about to attend as is indicated by the byline on the invitation reading, “dressy casual evening attire.”
For a large portion of my life I knew of Princeton thanks to Sondra Huxtable. She was smart and rich and by extension so was Princeton. But then I realized that apparently this school also admitted Elvin, so how good could it be? I have waited all these years to find out.
I thought I would be a team player on this stop, so I signed up for the campus tour. About half way through the tour which included answers to questions such as do dorm rooms have air conditioning, and can freshmen choose which dining hall they would like to eat in, I realized I may not be the target audience this tour was aimed at. I was OK with that till I also realized we were not actually going inside any of the buildings. Unacceptable.
As the tour left Nassau Hall, I did not.
I went inside the iconic, ivy covered building in hopes I could see something cool. Thanks to a stanchion and its retractable tape I did not see something, but I did see someone.
Randy did not ask me who I was he simply asked me what I would like to know or see. I tried to look wise and replied “I would like to see HISTORY”. He smiled through his grey beard and told me to go see Dan over in the archives. “Tell him I sent you and he will have them get anything you want to see.”
As I strolled over to meet destiny/Dan I mulled over in my mind what I would like to see. Princeton was founded in 1746 and boasts one of the finest and largest collections of Americana in the country. These archives held the results and artifacts of scholars, leaders, and those who wielded power and influence. I sat at a table surrounded by shelves filled with yearbooks. The numbers embossed on the backs got smaller and smaller as I looked around, waiting for Dan, and getting excited over what I would ask to see.
Dan asked what project I was working on or for whom I was researching. When I told him I was simply wasting time and thought this would be the best way to do it, he looked excited and genuinely happy. I think he was a little confused and surprised when he heard my request.
“I would like to see the programs from football games; the oldest ones you have.”
I think Dan was likely unaware that the first intercollegiate game called “football” ever played in America was in 1869, between Rutgers and Princeton. Thanks to this early start Princeton can boast more national football championships than anyone else, 24, though only four of those happened after 1900.
Dan looked some things up on the computer, scribbled some notes, showed me into another room, another desk, shook my hand, and scurried off. A bit later a young man wheeled in a treasure chest. The first one was 1893. I ignored anything after 1930.
To say I was happy is to say Jim Brown was O.K.
It was not just football. It was sport, it was style, it was deeply American.
I am going to get a little image heavy here. I cannot help it.
They had cameras back then. The oldest program I handled was full of photos. Despite the availablity of lenses, they chose illustrations. Why? Because the illustrations were gorgeous!
Not far from Monticello is Montpelier, the home of James and Dolly Madison.
Mr. Madison wrote almost all of our Constitution and the Bill of Rights. He was the fourth President, following Thomas Jefferson, and was the second President of the University of Virginia, again, following Thomas Jefferson. He was an incredibly talented and accomplished man yet most of us remember him in the same way we remember that fourth Beetle; “Wait, I know this one… Not Paul, not Ringo, not John Lennon, its uhhhh… no really, I know this one.”
Perhaps it was because he was always following Mr. Jefferson that the father of he Constitution has largely been forgotten. Yes, perhaps, but more likely he is overlooked because by all accounts his wife was much cooler than he was. I can relate.
Mrs. Madison was said to have been the reason Mr. Madison won the presidential election. She and her “Servant” (slave) saved the Washington portrait from the White house before the British burnt the house down. She was from Philadelphia, a major bonus, and best of all, my grandmother worked at the Dolly Madison Cookie plant in LA when my Mom was young. That’s how cool Dolly was; she has her own cookie company.
It was sadly symbolic that once you cross the threshold of this mansion you are presented with, an empty house. When James Madison passed away, he was deep in debt. Dolly was taken care of till she passed away, but after that, everything was sold off and forgotten. Just like the Madisons.
He was unappreciated. Sad.
I wonder when and who tore down the slave houses and what they thought as they did so.By now I have been to quite a number of plantations, colonial era estates, and other locations of historical interest. At each I have been given the tour, told stories of notable individuals, or more often notable furniture or architecture, and then afterward, like an appendix, and only if one has special interest or time, is the mention of slavery. I write about the places here on this blog and seem to slip in little quips about slavery or slaves here and there. Every time I feel like I’m pushing something, or, like the many tour guides I encounter would believe, I seem the zealot who is obviously only worried about race and miss the important stuff as I am too worried about “that”.
How odd that every time I visit a place, the slave quarters are missing; unless being rebuilt (post 1970’s). How odd that I would be made, by society or even self, to feel the part of one interjecting when reality is that in the periods in question SLAVERY WAS RIGHT THERE. It was not hidden, it was not that other thing, it was right there, you could not miss it. But we do.
Madison never freed a single slave. He condemned it, but he still did it.
I had one guide help me realize that slave homes were usually wood cabins, as were the homes of most free white people as well, and such materials naturally decay. Their erasing from the landscape was as natural as the evolution of humanity. This same guide had no explanation as to why a small gazebo and an ice house, both made of wood, still stood.
Slave homes were surely a visual blight in their day, and a blight in our history books as well. I’m sure by the time the duPont family bought Montpelier and made it beautiful, that blight was already buried deep in the lawn beside the home. I’m sure the landscapers had no thoughts of the nameless ones whose labor made the estate possible, other than to clean up behind them and make the place beautiful now that they were gone.
Why dig it back up? Why insert these diatribes into the write ups of such great places? Because it is truth. Let us not make anything great at the expense of truth.
If these issues of race and slaves seems to be too much a part of my prose, just know that race and slaves were even a bigger part of Madison’s life. We ignore it when we wish, but he couldn’t. He couldn’t because it was right there. It was as much in his life as a car and computer are to most of ours.
No founding father elicits more praise and controversy than Thomas Jefferson. I dare say no other American historical figure is the subject of more adulation and derision, not even Lincoln.
I should state up front that I both own, and have read; Jefferson’s autobiography, his Notes on the State of Virginia, his letters to and from John Adams, at least five books dealing with the founding fathers of the United States, including Bancroft’s History of the United States and 1776, my favorite;Lies My Teacher Told Me, and most recently I finished the Pulitzer winning Hemmings of Monticello.
I headed for Charlottesville, VA a little more charged up than normal. I promised myself I would behave. I am admittedly fascinated by Mr. Jefferson. A brilliant man for sure, even an inspired man, but he must have lived with a level of cognitive dissonance most would find unbearable.
As with other places I have visited, I wanted to see first hand, get a small taste, gain a little perspective. At least I hoped too.
The first thing I wanted to see was if this place was really on a mountain. Thats what all the writers call it, and I did my best to temper my Rocky bias as to where the transition from mole hill to mountain lies. I can settle this one easily; big hill. It is a big enough hill that unless I were Lance Armstrong I would surely rather pedal down it than up, but on foot it barely merits a water bottle. All this said, I must admit, the view from the top is unmatched by any other locale in the vicinity.
We, my time assigned tour group and I, were met at the front door by a cordial and energetic guide. He began, like all other house tours, talking about architecture, but this was different, simply because this house was different. Monticello is unique because it was intended to be so. It is a three-story home designed to look as if it was only one. It has all sorts of oddities meant to inspire conversation and not only keep up with, but be unmatched by, any “Joneses” of the time. And of course, like any other home meant to keep up appearances, the owner could not afford it.
As I entered the home I found it interesting what Mr. Jefferson chose to put on display. He had busts of Enlightenment philosophers, fossils of ancient beasts, and to represent his country and time; tomahawks, spears, and buffalo skins. Interesting.
As we walked through the house our guide told us what type of man Jefferson was, what sort of world he lived in, all while we were surrounded by the things that surrounded him, no, rather we were surrounded by the things he surrounded himself with. His house, his whole existence was curated by himself.
In the drawing room he made passing reference to Sally Hemmings. He said she was a controversial character during her lifetime, and has continued to be so to this day. He mentioned that some DNA testing has proven a modern-day link between the Jeffersons and the Hemmings, but that this can not be pinpointed to Thomas himself for surety, yet most modern-day historians agree that Ms. Hemmings did have at least one, probably six, children by Mr. Jefferson; her owner.
He did not word things quite so directly. He did not call him her owner. After his two line explanation he asked if there were questions. No one raised any, including myself.
As we walked further we were told how Jefferson’s daughter and her family were asked to come live at the house to keep her father company. Interesting in that it was also mentioned how privacy shutters had to be installed due to the amount of guests that poured through the home both invited and uninvited. There was no mention of his daughters marital troubles at the time of the invitation.
There was talk of Lafayette, the Madisons, and many others who frequented the place. We were told of how the butler was a trusted friend to the president and how the man ran the house. We were not told of how this butler was actually Sally Hemmings brother, nor did they mention the fact that both this butler and Sally, were the half siblings of Jefferson’s late wife.
Perhaps it was not mentioned because it is detailed and confusing. Perhaps it was not mentioned because the guide did not know or possibly did not believe it was fact. I asked small, mostly unrelated questions, honest questions, but mostly I held my tongue.
I held my tongue till the guide made a comment while talking about the meals at Monticello. He said something to the affect of “Jefferson had trouble keeping a cook,” noting that after two male chefs did not work out he finally had a woman slave trained to do the work.
“Yes, you have a question?”
“I do. Wasn’t his first chef Sally Hemmings brother, whom Jefferson freed but only after he trained his brother to be his replacement. But then that brother later escaped. Of course escaped is used loosely since Jefferson never tried to catch him and most believe he went to live with his brother?”
“Well, I’m not sure about all that. OK, lets move out onto the terrace.”
The house was truly beautiful. So was the Declaration of Independence. So were a lot of things, including by all contemporary reports, Sally Hemmings.
I finished the tour impressed by Jefferson’s curiosity, taste, and accomplishments. I would l love to live in a home like his; surrounded by interesting and unique things, as well as people meriting the same description. I had a little side conversation with the guide after the tour which included him asking my profession, him complimenting my bag, and a lecture on how some freed slaves, like the chef, could just not hack freedom, as was evidenced by him later committing suicide. I countered that his suicide came only after the death of his wife and subsequent slide into alcoholism, and that the assumption that the cause of death was freedom, is suspect under such circumstances.
He bid me good day.
Next I took the tour of Mulberry Row, or the tour “focusing on the lives of African-Americans.”
On this tour the nice white lady mentioned many of the facts I had brought up in the previous tour. She was informative but very careful to not say anything that could be seen as derogatory to Thomas Jefferson. The lives of the slaves were painted as both noble and tragic, sad, but maybe not as violent at Monticello as you might think. All very true. Yet sadly she failed in the same way the previous guide had in that neither really connected the dots for those of us listening. Two portraits were painted, one of Jefferson, one of the slaves, when reality was most surely that the two pictures were not separated by the frames that the tours seemed to create.
I politely asked her about this afterwards. She explained that the guides, both inside and out, are very limited in what they are allowed to say. They are limited mostly by time, there is a lot that could be said about Jefferson, but also by the views of the guides. Without telling her the story I just told you, she commented, “I’m sure you found the interior tour very disappointing.” I chuckled and assured her that I actually enjoyed the tour very much. The guide covered plenty of things I did not know or had not considered, none of them having to do with slavery.
She told me of how her daughter married a black man, causing her to check whether she believed what she had been been preaching. I believe she did or does. We talked about raising mixed race children, books we have read, and how no person is just one thing. We shook hands, I smiled, and began my walk down the hill.
As I looked back at the palacial home, passing the row of slave cabins, I got a little sad. I admire this man. I admire a man who inspired a nation, penned a paper that has stood the test of time, a man who made my life of relative freedom possible, yet a man who at the same time left crushing debt to his posterity, stole the lives of others to create his own life of luxury, and a man who’s other writings also helped shift slavery from an economic system to a racist one.
Columbia University was founded in 1754 in New York City. Since that time the school has produced 4 U.S. presidents, 15 Heads of foreign countries, 94 Nobel Prize winners, 101 Pulitzer Prize winners, and 1 undersized capitalist named Alexander Hamilton. In the spirit of undersized overachievers, I brought my children along.
Unlike other Ivies, Columbia is deep in the heart of urban hustle and bustle. Its gilded towers of ivory are well overshadowed by towers of glass and steel. Because of this, it is easy to forget the schools pre Revolution past, or better yet, it is easy to forget the school all together. To help remedy this, the school was sure to have a stop on the red line named after it, along with the number they felt best describes the schools appropriate ranking.
Nobels and Pulitzers are what any child should aspire to and fortunately the Columbia Bookstore is on board with early recruiting efforts.
Now lest one get the idea that this school is a mere blip on Gotham’s radar, it does possess all the architectural grandeur and flourishes of ironwork that all its peers posses.
Despite all this, the school is still not the tourist attraction that that other school up north in Beentown is. Maybe it’s because right next door is this:
Now perhaps I jest too much. It’s in my nature, a native cheery temperment, but this school is in fact not a joke. I know it’s not a joke by the price of both the schools parking and its parking tickets. In the name of sustainability the institution is stamping out both cars and tourists.
What it isn’t stamping out is what a true education should be. I know this not because I attended, but by this illustrative gem I found.
Not only is the Columbia man a natty dresser, but anyone associated with a true gentleman’s game would easily recognize the passing form of the athlete depicted directly to the right of the young man.