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1946 words
SHJ Issue 4
Fall 2011

You Don’t Remember Me, But I Remember You:
For Janet McDonald (1954-2007)

Thomas E. Kennedy

This is about a girl I met a few times and knew for a few years, and with whom I shared a fondness for soul. She was so kind, before she died, to make a tape cassette for me that she titled, “You Don’t Remember Me, But I Remember You” which she also referred to as “the world’s greatest music.”

Her name was Janet McDonald, and she grew up in the Projects in Brooklyn, one of seven children in a small apartment, and went through some hard times with junk and guns and crime before she graduated, a scholarship student, from Vassar with a B.A. in French literature, from Columbia with a master’s in journalism, and from N.Y.U. with a degree in law. Then she relocated to France as a lawyer for an international law firm where she seemed to have found some measure of happiness before she died, far too young. Her problems with junk and crime, contrary to what one might assume, were not from her years in the Projects; they only started when she was at Vassar and N.Y.U., only then did she find herself getting raped, tasting heroin, packing a pistol in her belt and firing from the roof of her dormitory building up into the sky.

But in Paris, as far as I could see, she was happy.

Then she wrote an autobiography—Project Girl (Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1999)—about her difficulties and triumphs, and the international law firm in Paris that she worked for acknowledged her achievement—getting the book published by a major New York house and winning praise from Frank McCourt, Rosie O’Donnell and many others—by firing her. She went on to write several books of young adult fiction for FSG.

I met her in Copenhagen, where I live. I grew up in lower middle-class Queens and couldn’t get away to Europe fast enough. Life in America was no better for me than for her, for different reasons that one day in the last year of the last century intersected. She phoned me and said she had my number from a mutual acquaintance who had told her that if she was ever in Copenhagen she should make sure to call me. The mutual acquaintance was one whose name did not ring a bell with me, and I asked where Janet knew her from; she told me that she didn’t know her at all, met her in passing at a party in Paris and happened to mention she was about to go to Copenhagen, and the person in question urged her to call me. We shared a laugh on the phone at the prospect of our being introduced in Europe—a girl from Brooklyn, a boy from Queens—by a mutual acquaintance neither of us could recall! I liked the sound of Janet’s voice and her laughter so we agreed to meet by the bank on the corner of the North Gate Station, a place that many people pick as a meeting spot in Copenhagen.

Unfortunately, I forgot to ask what she looked like or to tell her what I looked like or what I would be wearing. Standing in front of the corner Danske Bank, I kept glancing expectantly at various women—young, old, short, tall, slender, plump, blond, brunette, gray—until someone touched my shoulder (maybe she had checked my picture on the web) and I turned to see a woman about ten years younger than I—then in my mid-fifties—slender, dark close-cropped hair, a slim triangular face, big smile and black complexion. I remembered Andre Dubus writing about how he and Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., were to meet Ralph Ellison at the Iowa City train station and had a long discussion about what they would answer if he asked them how they had recognized him instantly. But that was the early ’60s; this was the late ’90s—just nine years before Obama. I searched her eyes for amusement at what no doubt appeared as surprise in my own eyes—I just hadn’t guessed that she was black, and the slight surprise I felt taught me something about myself. Not that I didn’t know any African-Americans—a third of the guys with whom I’d been in the army were black; and that had been my first experience of black people and it was a very positive one.

Janet did not look like your typical international attorney—she was wearing jeans and a dungaree jacket. I don’t remember where we went, only that we had agreed to meet for a beer, which is different than agreeing to meet for a coffee—meeting for a beer involves a certain amount of risk, trust, daring—and that we had a few and that I felt a bit of pride sitting with a fine-looking black woman ten years younger than me in this ancient north European capital (that’s how shallow I am). I also remember that somehow we got to talking about music and that we both loved soul.

After she got back to Paris she put together a tape cassette for me which she titled, “You Don’t Remember Me, But I Remember You.” Two of the numbers on it were songs that I had told her had a special place in my heart, one of which—“Hello, Stranger,” by Barbara Lewis—I remembered being saved by, one desolate night in 1963 in the fly-infested, stinking-hot, August-humid barracks in Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indianapolis, when I was in the Army—it saved me by making me remember a great day I’d had at the beach with a girl I was crazy about and who let me kiss her. I had been unable to find that song on a record since then, and Janet hunted it down for me. The second was a song that my very first girlfriend had played on the radio in a call-in dedication for me, “Tears on My Pillow” by Little Anthony & the Imperials in 1958. I was touched—not simply because Janet had done a kind thing for me, but also because—and this might sound odd—we clearly were not romantically attracted to one another—or I guess it is more accurate to say that she somehow made me understand that she was not romantically interested in me, so I kept my hands to myself—but we liked each other and because of the extreme unlikelihood that we would ever have met were it not for the person whom neither of us knew who had put us together. There was so much against us having run into one another: our color, our oil-and-vinegar New York City boroughs, our class, the country we were living in now, our schools—hers Ivy League, mine whatever the opposite of that is…

I read her memoir with enthusiasm and interviewed her for The Literary Review, and we exchanged a few emails. I remember once writing to her, and her responding that she had thought I had decided I hated her because it had been so long since she heard from me. Which startled me. I really liked her. I suppose she was joking—but as the Danes say, he who understands a joke only as a joke and sincerity only as sincerity has equally misunderstood the two. We exchanged a few more e-mails, met once or twice in Paris for dinner—I recall one restaurant we dined at in the Sixteenth, across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, around the corner from the apartment in which Marlon Brando and Marie Schneider explored one another’s psyches in Last Tango —for lunch, for a gathering of expatriates on the Contrescarpe. I read some of her writing, she read some of mine, but we lost contact. Somehow, after seven or eight years, we fell out of touch.

Then, in 2010, visiting Paris to give a reading at Shakespeare & Co., I met a mutual acquaintance— Ellen Hinsey, the American poet—and Janet’s name came up. “Whatever happened to her?” I asked. “She stopped answering my emails.” Ellen looked at me with concern. “I thought you knew,” she said. “Janet died three years ago.” She had cancer and died in April 2007, just fifty-three years old.

When I got back to Copenhagen from that visit to Paris, I searched through the shoebox in back of my closet in which I had pitched my old tape cassettes (this being the post-cassette, about-to-be post-CD age) and was relieved to find the one she had made for me over a decade before. Rubber-banded around it was the play-list she had emailed me with small comments beside some of the songs:

• “Time Is On My Side,” Irma Thomas
(those thieving Rolling Stones!)
• “Piece of my heart,” Erma Franklin
(Aretha’s Sister!)
• “Piece of My Heart,” Janis Joplin
(put in for contrast; she whips Erma’s butt!)
• “Go Now,” Bessie Banks
(those thieving—I forgot their name!)
• “The Wind,” The Jesters
[I had told Janet about this original version of that song from 1959.]
• “The Wind,” Laura Nyro and LaBelle
(featuring Patti)

[I only knew this version—and the only version Janet had known, recorded thirty or forty years after the Jesters’ version, is one I had never heard before, although I was wild for Laura Nyro—also dead much too young.]

She had concluded her play-list by writing, “So there you have it. I’m off to work. Janet.”

Now I climbed up the narrow back staircase of my building to my attic room to see if my cassette player was still there. It was. Back in the living room, I slipped in the tape, and listened. I loved every number on it—our taste for soul really had jibed; they were definitely among the favorites of my lifetime, the background music of the women I had loved and lost or never had in the first place. And it occurred to me how important this music was and is—and how it united Janet and me across all the gaps that had separated us—class, color, borough, school, country—and now across the gap that separates life from death. Sooner or later—probably sooner given my fairly advanced age—I will be dead, too, and it seems, unless all the after-life fairy tales are true, unlikely that Janet and I will meet again, so we will never have the opportunity to see if our body movements and rhythms could have conjoined in a dance to one of these songs. Maybe “Hello, Stranger.” Oh, how pretty it would be!

But equally remarkable was that several of the numbers on the tape touched memories in me of girls I had danced with—despite the fact that I cannot dance, there had been in fact a few (precious few) times in my life when I had managed to dance with a girl so naturally, so pleasurably. To people accustomed to dancing, this must seem a strange boast—but I have little doubt there are others who share my usual two-left-footedness from which I am only very, very rarely reprieved. Ah! But then…

I listened through to the end of the tape, reversed it, filled an ice bucket, broke out my best vodka—black label Stoli—and played the tape again, savoring each number, remembering those dances, those girls, some of the highlights of my life, complete with background music—remembering Janet.

I can still see her face—smiling—when she surprised me on that corner in Copenhagen during the last year of the 20th century.

“...we have been born here to witness and celebrate. We wonder at our purpose for living. Our purpose
is to perceive the fantastic. Why have a universe if there is no audience?” — Ray Bradbury