The Other Side of Silence, Pt. 2

Yesterday I drove 530 miles from north Florida back home to North Carolina.  The 7-day trip ended with two inspiring interviews.  On Saturday I visited Gene Smith’s first cousin Ernest “Ernie” Caplinger.  On Sunday I spent the afternoon with Tamas Janda, who lived in the loft 1958-1960 when he was known as Tommy Johns.

At age eighty-eight and a veteran of WWII combat in northern Africa and Italy, Ernie looked younger than Smith looked before he died at age 59 in 1978.  He told a few moving stories about growing up four years younger than Gene and looking up to him, wanting to be around him; mesmerized by Gene’s charisma and dedication to photography even when he was a young boy.  Around age ten Ernie was Gene’s first photographic assistant, carrying equipment around Wichita for the fourteen year old budding master.

We’ve been trying to find Tommy Johns for a decade.  Many years ago he began going by his birth name, Tamas Janda, and he moved from Puerto Rico to St. Croix to the Dominican Republic, opening restaurants wherever he stopped.  He showed me a 2001 article in Travel & Leisure magazine on his No Bones Café in St. Croix.  He moved to Florida two weeks ago and he’s renting a trailer from a friend he met in the Caribbean.  A natural nomad, Tamas told me, “Whenever I leave a place I don’t go back.  When I leave it’s because I’m ready to go.”  I was put in touch with him by Smith’s son, Pat, who reconnected with him on Facebook.

Tommy Johns grew up in Croton-on-Hudson, where Smith lived with his family, and he had a crush on Smith’s daughter Marissa.  Tommy’s parents were alcoholics and he ran away from home at age eighteen in 1958, telling his parents he was going to the corner store to pick up cigarettes and then hitch-hiking into Manhattan, where he bumped into Gene Smith outside 821 Sixth Avenue.  Smith said, “Why, Tommy, what are you doing here?”  Tommy said, “I ran away from home.”  Smith said, “Well, I’ve done sort of the same thing myself.”

Smith was standing on the curb beside a tractor trailer packed full of his things.  He had taken the loft space in 1957 and this final shipment a year later meant he wasn’t going back home to Croton.  Tommy helped Smith unload the truck and he stuck around for a couple of years, doing chores for Smith – building shelves, organizing books and supplies, running errands, and getting experience you can’t buy.  He slept on a recliner in the loft (not unlike drummer Ronnie Free). During my interview with him, Tamas was moved emotionally several times, his reverence and respect and gratitude toward Smith running strong a half century later.  Tamas cooked a delicious meal of spicy chicken, vegetables and rice.  After two portions I hit the road to St. Augustine for the night.

Driving home yesterday I made one last pit stop off I-95 near Dunn, N.C., about an hour and a half from my home.  As I wheeled the car around, I saw a road sign for Newton Grove and I snapped this picture (below) through the front windshield with my iPhone. Monk’s Crossroads and the old plantation of Archibald Monk are in Newton Grove about 8 miles from this sign.  Thelonious Monk’s grandparents Hinton and Sarah Monk were born into slavery there and his father, Thelonious, Sr. was born there, too.  I’ve visited and researched Monk’s family there many times.  Monk’s cousin Dr. Edith Monk Pue has recently moved back there from New Haven, Connecticut.

This snapshot seemed like a good bookend with the images of Flannery O’Connor’s grave that I made at the beginning of this trip.

newton grove sign

-Sam Stephenson

Click here for “The Other Side of Silence, Pt. 1″

1 Comment

  1. Michael Seiwert Said,

    March 30, 2010 @ 1:09 pm

    I love this moving stories. Thanks for that! I’m looking forward to visit the JazzLoft exhibition end of April, coming over from Germany.