The Marquis of Debris

Jeffrey David Hamilton.

Jeffrey David Hamilton.

Not long after coming to the little river town in which I live I met an extraordinary man.

His name was Jeffrey Hamilton. He resembled a kind of Indiana Jones and was seldom seen without his trademark battered and greasy hat. His hands could open parking meters and with his craggy, tanned good-looks, he must have broken hearts like hickory nuts when he was younger.

His family was studded with over-achievers. His father, Jim, was a Broadway set designer. His French mother, an accomplished ballerina and cook.

One of his sisters, Gabrielle, wrote a best-selling food memoir “Blood, Bones and Butter” and runs a wildly successful restaurant in New York called Prune.

The other sister, Melissa, together with her colleague Christopher Hirscheimer publishes four cook books a year. Oprah rated the Canal House cook books as her favourites in the Christmas shopping list.

Jeffrey, although Stanford educated, marched to a different drum.

‘I spent $80,000 on his education,’ said Jim. ‘What does he do? Collects junk!’

As the self-styled Marquis of Debris, Jeffrey drove around in a huge van clearing out people’s basements and attics.

He had a talent for picking our gems amongst the garbage. French colonial chairs. Sevres porcelain. An early American jelly cupboard.

For years he would store his finds in a huge barn in Aquetong Road. Once a year he would have a barn sale.

Actually it was an excuse for him to chef it up and provide his friends with food and drink while haggling pointlessly.

There was nothing like traipsing through the dusty barn on a hot Sunday morning. You never knew what you would find: a Victorian plaster birdbath for $10. An entire collection of Encyclopaedia Britannicas for $5…

I used to tease him and say that he was a hoarder, that he was an ideal subject for the television series on people who hoard because they have emotional problems.

“Really?” he would say. He was genuinely bemused.

Whenever something was exceedingly desirable he would say “Oh no. I’m not selling that. That’s for my kitchen. It’s French.”

“It’s French” became our code for something that’s unattainable.

**

When he was nineteen he went to the Congo to live with the Mbuti pygmies for two years. I thought it was a bold move for a Solebury kid.

He went to Africa hoping to find the Noble Savage living in Utopia. I have a copy of his book. It is called ‘Going Native’ by J J Bone.
“A young man’s quest for his identity leads him to an African forest and its people…”

In the Prologue to the book he writes of how he became enchanted with the arrowheads which he found while scouting on the banks of the Delaware River.

“I was elated that I’d discovered something that so wholly captivated me, yet sad that these people were no longer where I stood now…I felt happy and melancholic at the same time…I dreamed then of the day I would live with the people who are still living in remote areas of the world by hunting and gathering.”

The book records his transition from adolescence to manhood and provides the broadest and deepest account to date of what it really feels like to live with a tribe. This is the book on culture shock.

George D Spindler, Professor Emeritus, Anthropology and Education at Stanford University wrote:

 “There is a directness…that really beguiles one. Mr. Bone says things that many anthropologists would say, but could not, and keep their respectable academic identity.”

Jeffrey and I would laugh like hyenas about his experience in Africa: how the pygmy chief kicked him out because he said they were stealing. We laughed about so many things.

He had an ear for the phoney baloney in politics, arts and literature.

We understood each other’s version of the world.

He would call me ‘my fiancée’. We thought it hilarious because both of us were emotionally battle-scarred and completely uninterested in a relationship.

Instead, we bumped into each other, giant pieces of kelp, floating rudderless, in the river town, from time to time. I was a resident alien, and so was he on some level.

Each conversation interested me. We would talk about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, aesthetics – and if he was dining in his father’s Grill Room as he did occasionally – oysters.

He spoke French and had a gourmand’s knowledge of food. His parents took him on his first trip to France when he was fourteen.

On his birthday in mid-September he would hire the boat belonging to Gerenser, the ice-cream shop. A bunch of his friends would bring food and drink and party hearty while the boat chugged up and down the Delaware.

In the last couple of years, as the economy tanked, he was no longer able to pay the rent for his barns in which he hoarded his finds.
Perhaps when he lost his barns and his truck, he lost his Marquis of Debris identity.

Perhaps, because there are few job opportunities for an over-educated white man approaching sixty: perhaps because the world in which he lived became intolerably cruel and uncaring: perhaps because he was terminally depressed and could not see the way forward through his fog of depression…

Jeffrey Hamilton, the Marquis of Debris hanged himself on the 25th of June 2014.

The flags of the river towns are flying at half-mast.