Green Eggs and Clarence Thomas

by kelly

According to a recent report, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s biography is in the works and will be available in 2007. The gist of the reported story is that Thomas is delayed in producing the manuscript and that the book was supposed to have come out in 2005.

Still, Thomas’s agent, quoted in the story, displays the obligatory optimism about her charge, stating “‘there’s a lot of interes’t’ in the book and the justice. ‘He’s going to talk about everything, quite openly.'”

I wonder what “everything” means, to an agent.

I suppose it could mean his opinion on his Senate Confirmation hearings or the Anita Hill testimony, a response to that bizarre accusation involving something about a pubic hair and a coke can, or, more likely, a personal account of his life experience of growing up in poverty, only to end up with a life appointment on the highest court in the land. Who knows – maybe, if he’s feeling especially comfortable with himself, he’ll tackle the pop-culture portrayal of him as something of a judicial benchwarmer; an intellectual lightweight at best, and a Scalia-loving coat-tailer, at worst.

That’s all fine and good. I wish the agent, the publisher, and the alledgedly curious public all the best with that.

But I’ve got some real dish on Thomas that I’m sure won’t even make it into the first draft.

It’s not as sensational or headline grabbing as the ‘poor boy makes good’ or ‘judge abuses power’ narratives associated with his nomination.

But to me, it is perhaps more revealing and unsettling. I used to be horrified by the information that I am about to share. But more recently, I’ve found a way to find some amusement in it.

You see. I met Clarence Thomas one day, in 1997. And we had a little chat. But before I get to what we talked about, a little background is in order.

In the summer of 1997, I was a grad student trying to make a few extra bucks while simultaneously living out some ill-conceived bohemian adventure. Being a sucker for beautiful buildings (and workplaces near my then-boyfriend’s, Paul’s, apartment), I tried my hand at food service at “America Restuarant” in Washington DC’s beautiful Union Station on Capitol Hill. Here’s a great picture taken from inside the restaurant. It shows the location of some of the very tables I used to wait on.

There were also three four other levels of tables inside the sprawling place, plus dining areas outside. Located above a main metro line, and in a building that is, itself, a tourist detination, the clientele of the restaurant consisted primarily of tourists. Exhausted or anxious, with Wisconsin lilts or southern drawls, easy going eaters, uptight food refusers, people who walked out without paying, people who wouldn’t leave, people who thought I was a lovely young lady, and people who accused me of bigotry for not serving their food more promptly, spanish-speaking dishwashers and chinese speaking, malaysian busboys, an alcoholic waiter, a possible genius waiter, a crack-using waitress, and a young flirtatious waitress who kept flirting with me – I saw a little bit of it all in my five or so months at that place.

Oh, and the ties. I can’t forget the ties. The dress code for wait staff (I’m having vivid memories of folding cloth napkins as I write this) was: Black Pants, an apron for holding the money (and pens and credit card holders), White, button-down shirts, and a Tie. A necktie, to be more precise. The tie was the America Restaurant equivalent of the 37 pieces of flair in the movie office space. And if I, like the character in the movie, could have given someone the finger about having to wear it, believe me, I would have (if I hadn’t needed the job just then). But, anyway, as long as it was a requirement, I thought I’d have a little fun. So I selected a necktie that depicted a childrens’ story with which I had fond: Green Eggs and Ham. Here is the design that I chose:

Now, 1997 was an interesting summer to be a waiter (to use the non-gender-specific term) in D.C. You see, mayor Marion Barry had been spreading a bad vibe in the food industry just then.

It had been reported in the July issue of Washingtonian magazine that he had dined at an upscale seafood restaurant and left only a $5.00 tip on a bill of $100.00. The magazine had actually published a photo of the receipt documenting this dastardly deed, and reports of the incident were being widely repeated in the local press. In my restaurant and others, conversation about Mr. Barry turned to speculation about how the coverage of bad tipping would affect his, and other notables,’ reataurant behaviour.

It was during this time that, one day, a mananger told to me report to a table in the alcove. The alcove was an isolated part of the restaurant; a narrow, second-level galley of just a few tables – popular with those who preferred to dine in more privacy. The wife of the Maryland governor was a frequent visitor. And Steven Spielberg had dined there that summer, too. Diners in the alcove sat under the lofty spandrals of the side arches of Union Station’s grand hall. It’s architecture is just visible in the middle of the right edge of the photo, above.

By the time I arrived, the busboy and bartender were whispering “Clarence Thomas,” excitedly. I entered the alcove, and there was Justice Thomas at “my” table, all right. He was accompanied by a younger man, who seemed rather deferential. Could have been his law clerk?

I ran through the specials. But I remember that he ordered from the menu – a Shrimp Jambalaya dish. And yes, her ordered a Coke. But luckily, that pubic hair thing was not in my memory banks at the time. (Afterwards, that was all people wanted to ask about).

I hadn’t yet had the idea of applying to law school – in fact I was still waiting to hear about being hired at the National Gallery of Art. I know I would have had a different approach to him had it crossed my mind that I might ever practice law. (I did very quickly debate calling him “your honor” when I took his order, but fortunately, I settled on “Sir”). As it was, though, me being a starving art historian wannabe, and all, I was really just more interested in how in the heck this man was going to tip me, after the meal was finally over.

I can’t remember whether our little chat happened when I took the order, or sometime during the meal, or as I brought or collected the bill (he tipped at about 20%). But sometime while I was at the table, he addressed me about something other than the food, and the conversation went like this:

CT: “What is that on your tie?”

[Figures. Probably my one chance in life to have one on one conversation with a Supreme Court Justice, and the conversation is about a cartoon tie that I’m forced to wear]

Me: It’s a Green Eggs and Ham tie. From Dr. Seuss. [I may have done some filler explaining about the fact that we all had to wear ties, and that I had picked this one. I’m sure I had a “tie-spiel” down]

CT: Blank look.

Me: From the story of that name by Dr. Seuss.

CT: I must have missed that one.

Me: Theodor Geisel. The children’s author.

CT: [Shakes his head with a lack of recognition.]

At this point, I think he said something about the tie being nice or funny, and I have a vague memory of his dining guest jumping in with something at that point – probably trying to make the boss look good.

But I will never forget my shock – no, alarm! – at the realization that this man, this man who holds one of, arguably, the most powerful nine seats in our system of government, could be so out of touch with what I thought was a universal touchstone of our shared culture. I mean Dr. Seuss, for God’s sake! The man hadn’t heard of Dr. Seuss!!!

As I processed this knowledge in the next hours and days, I tried to give him some benefit of the doubt. OK, I knew that he had grown up in extreme poverty in the South. I wouldn’t expect that he had access to Dr. Seuss books then – heck, they probably weren’t even written then. I don’t know. But the man has had a child! A child who attended the Virginia Military Institute. How do you have a child born in anything near my generation and miss out on Dr. Seuss?!

The very idea of it disturbed me deeply. It hadn’t been so many years, at that time, since Bill Clinton endeared himself to the MTV crowd by indulging a question about boxers versus briefs. But here was a man who had the power to make decisions that could directly affect me, and had not the first clue about the Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, or Freaky Friday? I know it seems strange that one of the things I expect from government types is that they have heard of the same childrens’ stories I have, but the realization that he certainly hadn’t struck me as a form of benightedness that could only result in oblivious, insensitive, and – yes, even harmful, -out-of-touch judicial rulings.

My horror about his ignorance lingered with me for several years. Once I got to law school, I recounted the incident to any law professor or student who would listen. And I did the same once I finally started working as a new attorney.

But I’m an older, wiser woman now. My former co-art-historian-wanna-be, turned husband, turned part-time law student was talking in the car this morning about a judicial dissent authored by Thomas. And out of this conversation came today a whole new way of looking at the Justice’s Dr. Seuss obtuseness.

I get it now.

How did Clarence “miss out” on Dr. Seuss, do you think? Here’s how: by never being around when his son’s mother read the stuff to him.

Today, it occured to me that if his wife had been at that table and heard him say that Dr. Seuss didn’t register on the brain waves, she would have slapped her head or his arm while rolling her eyes and blurting out something along the lines of “Jesus, Clarence! There you go making us look stupid again!”

Have I grown that jaded, that cynical about what I expect people to know, in general?

Whatever the reason, I no longer really care if the CT knows about Dr. Seuss or not. I now get a lot more pleasure simply imagining what his wife must think of being married to such an apparently sheltered guy.

What if, every time he writes a legal opinion that leaves the legal community scratching its head, she’s like, “LOOK, DODO, STOP EMBARRASSING ME!”

When commentators recently pointed out that Thomas has never, in a single opinion, addressed the Equal Protection Clause, did she make him sleep on the couch for a week? When his jurisprudence is called “rigid,” does he have to take her turn at doing the litter box?

I guess I’ll never know. I’m sure that won’t be in the memoirs, either, no matter if he does have until 2007 to finish them.

But I guess I do know just a little more than “everything.”

Because I know that the guy was stumped by Green Eggs and Ham.

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