ELYSIAN FIELDS LOST
by Jeffrey Murrell

Chapter 1 (part 1 of 3)
Mammer Jammer, Big Red & Hard Hat


Of all the sights and sounds in New Orleans, none will really grab you faster than those of the schizophrenics who wander the open streets aimlessly, yet apparently unscathed. Three in particular stand out in my mind. They seemed to have been known by all in New Orleans with whom I've discussed the problem of the psychiatrically challenged and other displaced people who, due to a lack of federal interest back in the 1980s, suddenly found themselves out and about on American streets without the care or attention they need and that they are entitled to as humans and as members of our society.

I call the first one "Mammer Jammer." Actually, the name was inspired by a friend of mine who came to visit me one summer from up North. Mammer Jammer may have been known by other nicknames, I suppose. She was a young black woman who stood about 5'10" and who was rather heavy-set. She had a gift for all who passed her way, and that was the beautifully non-sensical, schizophrenic rhetoric which is commonly observed coming from mentally unstable people out on the streets. She talked and talked to absolutely no one. And the expressions on her face ranged from infantile innocence to George-S.-Patton meanness. It was her strange custom to venture up to the corner of Felicity Street and St. Charles Avenue where she would loiter for hours at the newspaper stands by the bank talking and talking and talking. She would say something like, "I know dey'll git da job done! I know!" Then, next thing you would hear would be a verbal chastisement to some illusionary audience along the lines of, "Don'choo be talkin' 'bout Jesus like dat!" She, like the others, was apparently living strictly in her own world. But she may very well have been more aware of things than even the sanest of those who lead "normal" lives in New Orleans have ever been.

I always saw Mammer Jammer so freshly dressed in such neat, clean clothes, and wearing a fresh kerchief over her headfull of brightly colored hair curlers. I always wondered who dressed her and rolled her hair up for her, as I assumed that she was just too far gone to perform such reality-based tasks herself. I also used to wonder where she lived. Once, I saw her heading back down St. Andrew Street from another one of her usual roosts on the corner of St. Charles Avenue. She stopped and started to yell very intelligibly up in the direction of a second-story apartment window. I thought she might have known somebody up there and, as a result of hearing her trying to make such sensible contact with another person in this dimension, I began to wonder if it all wasn't just some sort of smoke-screen that she was throwing out, maybe to protect herself from all the strangers who will shoot a person dead out on the streets for less than twenty dollars. But then she continued on down the street, in the direction of the St. Thomas housing projects where, in all probability, she resided in a less-than-proud fashion like all the others who are forced into that type of life-style. But she wouldn't have realized that, I suppose.

Talk, talk, talk - we hear so much talk about so many things. I sometimes wonder whether or not Mammer Jammer's talk wasn't just as valid as, say, the president's or the pope's. Words are just sounds if we don't give them meaning. Likewise, words are just sounds if we don't care about their meaning. Mammer Jammer's message had meaning, a lot of meaning - at least to her, anyway. After all, she was really the only one listening to what she was saying. Now, somebody like the pope or the president has to talk whether or not anybody's listening, and people like them have developed a very nice method of turning everyone's ears off. They just keep saying the same old things, only they just put them in new words. Whether you realize it or not, it all sounds the same. You eventually just start hearing noise because you already basically know what they're saying, and there's nothing new to actually listen to when any of these important figures speak. (We've already had their messages programmed into our brains and we already know what they're saying, so our brains just automatically kick off whenever they start up with all the tired rhetoric which, in most cases, becomes just static to our ears after long periods of listening to it.)

And noise is just noise - it has no meaning. Right? You can say "right" and you can say "wrong." I suppose even the blandest, most mundane noise has a message, depending on who's making it. If somebody important is asked to come and speak before your organization, and all you hear is "Blah blah blah-blah . . . ," then you know that he or she doesn't give a damn about your organization or what it's about - all he or she wants is to do what he or she has to do, and to get the hell out of there (with or without a speaking fee, if any is offered). So, keeping that in mind, what are we to think of our political and spiritual leaders who start sounding as if they don't care or as if it's all just a chore for them? Are they there then just for the glory of it? By then, they're certainly not there for your needs. Mammer Jammer, on the other hand, was always there for herself. She said what she wanted to hear - and she sincerely meant every crazy word of it. She wasn't there for fame or money. And I doubt if she was there for the glory of being schizophrenic (the only glory of it being that those of us who are in her condition can't see the world in the pathetic shape it really is)! She had every hit in the American book against her - she was black, female, overweight, in the ghetto, probably on welfare, and crazy. This was what she talked about in her schizophrenic lingo, and that sort of talk isn't said enough in this world. She therefore said a lot more than some popes and presidents ever have.

There was a glorious thing about Mammer Jammer. It goes back to her crisp dresses and neatly rolled up hair curlers. In all the misery that she must have lived, there was some soul there for her. Who was that person who surely must have cared so tenderly for this sick individual? Was he or she, were they sick themselves? I can imagine that they were kept awake some nights wondering how they would get through their demise okay. They might have had others to care for, too. But who was caregiver to them? Did they even need one themselves? Her custodians contributed as much to her rhetoric as did she with their care for her. Without these loyal guardians, Mammer Jammer would probably have had no gift to give, no senseless words for us to interpret as meaning the good news that somebody does, in fact, care. You may not see them, or even know of their existence, but they're there. Hearing those like Mammer Jammer talk, dressed nicely with hair up in rollers, is one sure way to actually realize that someone is there.

Yes, somebody must have really loved Mammer Jammer a lot to have cared for her so nicely. Perhaps they were getting paid in some way or another. It might not have necessarily been money, though - a personal exchange of any sort might have been taking place between her and her caregiver(s).