Jim Davidson / Hampton Jitney
It was early May, 1984 and I reached for the handle to the door that would change my life. “The door” oddly enough, just happened to be the garage door at a Southampton bus company called Hampton Jitney and it was my first day on the job as a bus mechanic. I had worked at a few other bus companies in the past, but this one was different. This one was located in the Hamptons, land of serenity and surrealism where the local folk are the curators to the playground of the world’s rich and famous. In this playground the hedges stand at pokerfaced attention guarding the perfectly articulated white pea stone driveways that are secured by automatic gates of grandeur, using the scientifically formulated pass-code of 1234#. And at the end of the driveway, the vehicular waiting room houses the spare two year old “beater” that anxiously awaits its turn to indulge in the family’s scenic sabbaticals.
Hampton Jitney isn’t just your average bus company, it has become an ingenious thread within the tapestry that depicts the Hamptons, and the man behind this iconic enterprise was Jim Davidson. Jim wasn’t your typical transportation company owner, he was an advertising guy from Manhattan who discovered a need and a niche and filled it in his own unique way. The need was for people to be transported from Manhattan to the Hamptons in a more civil fashion, than trekking over the tracks of the dirty smelly over-packed sardine can on wheels known as the Long Island Rail Road. Riding the Jitney, customers could relax, take their bike, store their luggage underneath, and best of all have a guaranteed comfortable seat. The practicality of the idea was fantastic, but Jim took it a step further and fine-tuned the riding experience by using modern coach buses complete with attendants that handed out cold spring water along with other goodies. The buses were painted an environmentally affectionate deep green and they sported plush carpeting and shiny chrome wheels. At the time, most bus companies were using logo’s that had the elegance of an ill-bred circus, but Jim tapped into his eclectic bag of tricks by having NYC artist Roy Lichtenstein design those atypical wavy white lines that seem to reverberate like a chorus of effervescent whitecaps at Cooper’s Beach.
The Jitney was growing by leaps and bounds and the ride was a reflection of one man’s determination combined with his eccentric ingenuity. I’ll never forget the time he called me into his office and said, “There is a little Mercedes convertible in the back corner of the garage. Give it the once over, and pull it right out front. The car belongs to Lauren Bacall and she’ll be coming in on the next bus.” The bus pulled up and sure enough there was Ms. Bacall sheathed in her usual radiant aura of summer splendor. She swaggered into that little topless roadster, gave me a wink that only Bogie would be able to authenticate, and drove off into the breeze of a majestic Hamptonesque afternoon.
There was an abundance of famous people who used the Jitney back in the day and one of the drivers returned with a very precious story. The bus was coming from Manhattan to the Hamptons and in those days they played the regular FM radio for the passengers because there were no cell phones to encourage people to be rude or to clutter up their lives. As they were approaching Westhampton, the radio signal started to fade right in the middle of the song “Self Control” by Laura Branigan. All of a sudden a lady stood up and finished singing the song acapella and it turned out to be none other than Laura Branign herself! Sadly, she passed away in 2004 but her legacy and her spirit lives on in the hearts of people through moments like this.
There was also the time that a hurricane was forecasted and Jim told me to make sure that all the buses were parked inside the garage. Just then, this big mysterious looking RV type vehicle came lurking from around the corner and it turned out to be the off-site transmitting unit of radio station WLNG from Sag Harbor. The driver came over and said his name was Paul Sidney and that Jim told him he could park in our garage. Paul happened to be the owner of the station and Jim came out to personally make sure that the RV was put in a nice safe place. This was the typical good-hearted nature that Jim had shown on a daily basis just like when he would invite the entire staff over to his house for holiday get-togethers or over to his Sister Susan’s restaurant at the Inn at Quogue for a delectable seasonal dinner.
One of the most memorable things that happened was the day Jim called a meeting for all employees. He started telling us about this brand new savings concept he wanted to implement called the 401K. People were like, “The 401 what??” Jim explained how we could have a portion of our pay put aside in a special retirement account and he would match it. Jim was very excited to be able to bring this new and cutting-edge program to his people but there was skepticism because of the unknown. I remember a few people asked some questions that inferred Jim could somehow be benefiting because it seemed too good to be true. An eerie feeling filled the air and Jim’s attitude of excitement sadly turned toward dejection and the meeting ended with a trace of uncertainty and I felt bad for him. But once the 401K did kick in and people saw how it worked, they were very thankful.
Jim also opened up a fitness center on the premises of the famed “Omni” and he let me use it during the off hours for free. I often came in early to take advantage of his generosity. He also incorporated racquet ball courts into the facility but a persistently leaky roof wreaked havoc to the sensitive wooden floors and became a thorn in Jim’s side when he clearly had bigger and better things to deal with. He was also involved in the opening of a restaurant on the premises which offered some culturally diverse dishes that were surely not on the menu at your average bus depot. I can distinctly remember the Friday night of Memorial Day weekend which is probably the busiest night of the summer. The shop was hectic and I was working hard to keep the buses rolling and didn’t have time to eat dinner. Jim came back to the shop and brought me two slices of pizza from the restaurant that were topped with goat cheese and some other stuff. I wasn’t so sure about it, but I was hungry so I gobbled it down and it was delish!! Back then, the company wasn’t as big as it is now, but we all pulled together to make things work and Jim was always in the thick of the battle.
Jim also decided to take a crack at running limousines so he purchased two brand new Lincoln Town Car Stretch limos. It just so happened that my wedding was coming up and Jim was unable to attend, but in the card he offered me one of his limos free of charge complete with a chauffeur and a fully stocked bar. When we pulled up to the ceremony, we were the class of the field compliments of Mr. Davidson!
One day the word got out that Jim was sick with something serious. Then shortly after that an article appeared on the company bulletin board with information on this new disease called AIDS. It was during this timeframe that I was looking to take a chance at starting my own repair shop and I dreaded telling Jim that I was leaving. He was a little upset, but he understood that it was my turn to take a crack at being an entrepreneur and we parted as friends. A few years later Jim did sadly pass away. He may be gone, but his wavy logo still forges on in glory along the HOV lanes of 495 and the tire tracks of his legacy will be forever etched into the crossroads of a prodigious province known as the Hamptons.