Mame’s language ranges from bawdy to downright filthy to an ornate elegance that can entertain or intimidate. She adores words, and language has a cascading musical quality coming from her. A boring lecture doesn’t cause her to lose interest but rather “assassinates my enthusiasm.” And instead of saying “I’m full” following a heavy meal, Mame announces, “I’ve been gourmandizing myself for an hour and I’m fully saturated.”
People remember the summer of 1969 for its cultural milestones– the Moon Landing and Woodstock, the Manson murders and Stonewall – but for me there’s another landmark event. That was the summer I met the extraordinary Mame Jackson.
Let me set the scene: I’m living at home, following my freshman year of college. Miserable from the heat and smog, chafing at the blandness of suburban Los Angeles.
No job skills, no car, so I land a crappy job selling Life magazine subscriptions by telephone. The office is on the second floor of a seedy strip mall in La Puente, and the sales staff a crew of underpaid misfits. The person I immediately notice is the loquacious, larger-than-life Mame Jackson. She is African American, a native of Hilo, Hawaii, about 26 years old (seems older) and wickedly funny, A substitute teacher with the West Covina Unified School District, Mame works this two-bit gig to pay her rent between school terms.
She’s a double amputee — the result of surviving a fire at six months, then spending years in hospitals before losing her legs at age 6. One leg is severed above the knee (she calls it “A.K.”), and the other below the knee (“B.K.”). Her handicap is extreme, but Mame is fierce and proud and not to be messed with. She has prosthetic legs that strap on to her stumps and she walks, without crutches, by shifting her hips and taking wide, deliberate steps. To mount stairs, she ascends backwards, taking each step slowly and expertly.
Since there’s no one else in the office that interests either of us, Mame and I become fast friends. She has a disinhibition, a flair for shock value and linguistic ornamentation that I’ve never encountered. She looks a tad like Aretha Franklin, and wears muu-muus with cardigans and a short brown wig that’s often askew. Her voice is loud and carries across crowded rooms, and there’s an aura of fun, rascality and fearlessness about her. My 18-year-old self is fascinated.
“Mister Edwards,” she says one Monday, using the nom-de-phone I’ve adopted since my surname is so difficult, “I went to a muvvah-lous party the other evening. Such beautiful people in attendance.” She flashes a sly almost-wink, as if to acknowledge the inherent pretentiousness of her tale. “As often happens at such gatherings the various guests began to polarize into separate conversational groups. And the particular coterie to which I gravitated” — pause for full effect — “were the intellectuals. And we began to discuss my favorite topic of conversation: theatricality. You know, dramaturgy.”
This anecdote is delivered over lunch break, as a sad-looking passel of co-workers chew their brown-bag lunches. They don’t get Mame at all, and I wonder if a few of them don’t suspect she’s mocking them by talking over their heads. I know for a fact they resent her outstanding sales record. We are telephone solicitors, each assigned a narrow carrel with a rotary-dial phone, stacks of names to call and a scripted sales pitch. Mame, an assiduous wordsmith, loves to improvise and embellish on the spiel.
“Good Afternoon, Madam,” she begins, an Hawaiian lilt in her voice, crossed with a thespian’s plummy panache, “This is Miss Jackson for the Lincoln Training Center for the Mentally Retarded and Handicapped. We are raising much-needed funds for our school by selling subscriptions to Life magazine — a generous portion of which sustains our center and benefits the needy and disadvantaged.”
Or something like that. In retrospect, I wonder if the Lincoln Training Center ever existed — but that’s another story. One day, a woman on the phone cuts Mame off mid-spiel and interjects, “Lady, what makes you think you are so damn smart with your twelve-dollar words? I know you’re reading from a script.” Aghast, Mame affects her haughtiest dowager-empress voice to disabuse the fool of her ignorance:
“Madam, these are my words. I am an English major!”
Mame sells twice as many subscription as anyone else, and frequently shouts from across the room to gloat over her accomplishment. “Oh Mister Ed-warrrds!” she trills merrily. “I just sold another order!” I don’t mind her braggadocious burlesque; to me, Mame Jackson is hugely entertaining and a respite from the tedium of telephone sales.
I can’t recall the other phone solicitors, except a rawboned Austrian refugee named Roland (Mame pronounces it “Row-LAWNED”) who invites us for drinks one night at his grubby trailer park; and a pudgy, oversexed pepperpot whom Mame detests (“I wish the man with the biggest penis in the world would insert it in her vagina, and then maybe she’d shut the hell up”).
Mame has no love for the office managers, either: a crusty broad named Lillian Hunt (“an old lady like Hunt needs a good rappin’ up the ass once in a while”) or the saccharine Miss Hornby who has the cheek to request cash contributions to a co-worker’s baby-shower gift. “Cecilia Hornby has imposed a lot of unprofessionalism on me,” Mame sniffs indignantly.
Mame’s language ranges from bawdy to downright filthy to an ornate elegance that can entertain or intimidate. She adores words, and language has a cascading musical quality coming from her. A boring lecture doesn’t make her lose interest but rather “assassinates my enthusiasm.” A stylish carpet isn’t merely attractive, but “intrepid.” And instead of saying she’s “full” following a heavy meal, Mame announces, “I’ve been gourmandizing myself for the last hour. I am completely saturated.”
On weekends Mame and I sometimes meet for lunch at a greasy spoon on Hacienda Blvd. One time I bring a short, redheaded friend and his 12-year-old brother. Together with Mame, we form such an odd quartet that we elicit an unwelcoming frown from the waitress. Mame gives the sour slattern a once-over, orders steak and eggs and inquires “Comprendez vous?” with haughty condescension.
One day I swing by Mame’s apartment and she doesn’t answer the door. I hear water running, look through a parted curtain and see a pair of prosthetic legs on the floor — but no Mame. She has a sense of humor about her legs: When I compliment her on her dress she asks, insinuatingly, “Ohh? And do you like my shoes?” “Well, sure,” I respond. “Oh really? And do you like my legs?”
Mame loves to catch you off guard. Her humor, raunchy and reckless, is her art form, her trickster’s calling card, her means of coping with a lonely, marginalized life. Being handicapped and Black makes her an outsider, and being an outsider she can afford to eschew the social contracts that constrain the rest of us. “I’m one hell of a bullshitter,” she likes to say. “I have a B.S. degree in bullshitting.”
Usually the bullshitting is couched as a joke. Other times Mame spins elaborate, creative fibs that seem so important to her – storytelling being a survival mechanism — that I never call her on them. She claims to have a boyfriend named Harry Zammersnack, a former U.S. Congressman in Los Angeles who takes her to the theater and to posh eateries where she feasts on “muvvah-lous steak dinners” with “flamin’ desserts.”
“Harry is driving my cripple ass up to Mammoth for the weekend,” she’ll say. Or, “Mister Edwards, I attended the Academy Awards last weekend with Harry. A very grandiose occasion. I saw Elizabeth Taylor with her periwinkle blue eyes and million-dollar diamonds. She and Richard [Burton] were very despondent because he didn’t win the Oscar for Anne of the Thousand Days. They gave it instead to John Wayne for True Grit. Why, that picture isn’t even of blockbusterous proportions!”
Mame mentions Harry so regularly that one day – this is long before the Internet — I spend hours at the public library searching through phone books and almanacs and the Reader’s Guide To Periodical Literature for mentions of a former Congressman by that name. Nothing turns up. Instead of the flesh-and-blood lover Mame desires and never finds, Harry is a paper moon, a fantasy. He’s like Miss Lonelyhearts’s phantom suitor in Hitchcock’s Rear Window — the absent man who gets his own place setting at a candlelit dinner for two.
There’s a deep longing for connection in Mame that she masks with flip humor and irreverence. It’s the devil she drowns with her excessive drinking. One Christmas Eve I meet her for an early dinner and explain that I’ll be spending the rest of the evening at home with my parents and brothers. She looks crushed and lost. There is no family for her to go back to.
I live 400 miles away in Northern California but I stay in touch with occasional phone calls — “I wore out my last pair of prostheses,” she reveals, “and donated them to the Smithsonian Institution” — and when I visit my parents in West Covina I always schedule time with her. We talk movies and music and politics, gossip about celebrities, or joke about that dreary phone-soliciting gig. Mostly I let her expound – encourage her, actually — on whatever she wants to talk about. All these years later, she still calls me Mister Edwards.
One afternoon I drive by Mame’s apartment and find her entertaining two or three of her high-school students with snacks and alcohol. One of the boys passes out on the stair landing. A year or two later Mame tells me she’s moved to North Las Vegas. No details are offered, but I wonder if she lost her job because of her drinking – or because a teenager’s parent filed a complaint with the school district.
In Vegas, Mame collects welfare and tries working a personal injury claim against Coca-Cola for an alleged chipped tooth. When she asks to borrow money from me, saying she needs it buy a funeral wreath for her mother, the terms and tone of our friendship change. A second request arrives, for several hundred dollars, and despite my father’s warning that “the quickest way to lose a friend is to loan them money,” I send her a check.
Over several months Mame pays off half the loan, and then the checks stop. “Are you bitter with me?” she asks in a letter. I don’t remember how I respond, only that there are never harsh words or recriminations – just the sad, gradual fading of our friendship. One year I receive no Christmas card and my correspondence comes back with a “Not At This Address” stamp. I investigate online, searching death records to see if she’s expired, and come up short. Years pass and finally, at the Mormon Temple’s Family History Center in Oakland, I discover that Mame died on January 30, 2004. She was 60.
I locate her sister Elizabeth in Alabama and on a recent evening I phone her. “You knew Mamie Jackson!” she exclaims. In her honeyed drawl, Elizabeth tells me Mame died in her sleep, after going out with friends the previous evening. “I don’t know” she says softly when I ask how Mame died. Perhaps she knows, and doesn’t want to reveal. There were 12 children in the family, she says, and Mamie was born and raised in Alabama — not in Hawaii, as Mame always claimed.
“She really was one of a kind,” Elizabeth sighs.
I haven’t seen my friend in 20 years but her humor and originality, her intelligence and language and appreciation for the absurd have never left me. Close friends have all heard my Mame stories over the years, and I still get a laugh quoting her and mimicking that voice that could segue so quickly from grand-lady eloquence to jaw-dropping raunch.
I miss you, Mamie.