Jessica on Jane (me)

The end of the world with Jane

published in Connect Savannah, Dec. 27, 2016

By Jessica Leigh Lebos
MAYBE IT wasn’t the best idea to go looking for comfort on the darkest day of a very dark year from another misanthrope.

“It’s cold and miserable and I want to throw up,” Jane Fishman informs me when I knock on the front door of her Parkside bungalow.

“Yeah, well, perfect weather for this dumpster fire of a year,” I growl back, brushing the dots of mist clinging to my coat.

We both laugh, because being mildly depressed during winter is such a cliché, as is already the term “dumpster fire” to refer to 2016.

Jane doesn’t do clichés. She prefers—nay, champions—unconventionality both in her writing and her other favorite endeavor, digging in the dirt and planting stuff. The two converge once again in her latest book, I Grew It My Way: How Not to Garden, a hilarious, informative collection of local herbal lore and urban horticultural adventure that heralds appreciation for nature’s overlooked gifts.

I figure I’ve brought the perfect offering, a few Meyer lemons purloined from the ungated backyard of a vacant house on my block. Or not.

“Oy, I’m up to my ears in citrus!” she says as she adds the deep yellow orbs to a basket overflowing with oranges and grapefruits. “The orchard over on 38th Street is going nuts.”

We head towards the kitchen, Pavarotti hollering from the record player.

“Maybe your mood would improve if you didn’t listen to opera in the morning,” I suggest, taking in the dining room table full of partially-wrapped holiday presents and indigo seeds ready to be sorted.

She shrugs and squeezes me a glass of orange juice from her grandmother’s ancient steel countertop contraption, a pulpy shot of straight-up sunshine.

“There, that’s better, isn’t it?” she says after we toast, the twinkle that’s been temporarily robbed by the dreary weather returning to her eyes.

I saw that same sparkle the first time I visited Savannah—exactly 20 years ago this week, come to think it—when the dear lady who would become my mother-in-law (God rest her sweet soul) dragged me over to meet Jane at the synagogue social hall. My future MIL thought it remarkable that she knew two newspaper columnists (back then I was a cub scout at Northern California’s Pacific Sun, one of the country’s oldest altweeklies) and seemed a little star struck by Jane, who shook my hand, bemused.

I remember telling her that any town that can deal with a sassy Jewish woman writer is my kinda place. (When I tell Jane this story, she giggles. “What the hell was I doing at Mickve Israel anyway?”)

When I moved here for good a decade ago, it never occurred to me to wonder if Savannah was big enough for the both of us. Instead, I read her books and columns religiously (“oh my god, stop it with the religion already,” she groans, rolling her eyes) and basically followed her around (not easy, since she likes to hide out in three different gardens around the city and sometimes on Ossabaw Island.) I still haven’t figured out how to grow a banana but I did pick up a mysterious, three-pronged jumping lily at one of her bi-yearly plant swaps.

Jane rides her bike everywhere and wears blue nail polish to cover the crud under her nails. She spends her Social Security checks on local art and healed her own broken kneecap with a paste made from a comfrey plant growing in her driveway. She once got arrested for keying a street sweeper and had to do 40 hours of community service pulling weeds at the Bamboo Farm.

She is the eccentric, DGAF auntie my children always needed and probably the closest thing to a mentor I’ll ever have.

“Oh pssssht.” Jane waves off my sentimental drivel and hands me a cup of sorrel tea made from the deep red petals collected from the sprawling bush on the city-owned side of the back fence.

We sip the hibiscus-flavored brew and talk shop instead. We’re both best motivated by deadlines and agree wholeheartedly with Dorothy Parker, that grouchy scribe supreme who put it best: “I hate writing, I love having written.”

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Jane must love the past pluperfect tense a lot, because she’s already working on two more books, Something about 70, which promises to be a most unconventional treatise on aging, and an homage to her late mother, When Did You Get So Jewish?

“My mother always thought it was hilarious when I started putting Yiddish in my columns,” she recalls. “Who knew people would think being Jewish was so funny?”

We get all subdued again as we consider that might not be the case in the coming alt-right assault on the media and beyond.

“Let’s go see the chickens,” she says.

We visit for a few minutes with her menopausal girls, only giving up a single egg every other morning between them these days. Then we head out the back gate to the lane, where Jane has fashioned an amazing garden in the strip of earth between the wooden fence and the garbage truck route.

Frilly skirts of kale, proud crowns of broccoli, sweeping fans of collards are lined up in surprising order (in her book, Jane loves to brag about how disorganized she is) next to turmeric shoots and garlic toes pushing up green stalks. This incredible winter bounty is fed by compost heaps of broken egg shells and carrot ends moldering into magic a few yards down, waiting to be shoveled and spread directly onto the ground.

“I hate raised beds. They remind me of coffins,” she grumbles, pulling a stray weed in an area marked off by a Barbie leg.

That sets off my misery again, flooded with frustration about Savannah’s pernicious problems and the heartbreak of Aleppo and watching Clown Voldemort and his Sinister Council of Ignoramus Deatheaters usher in the end of the world.

“Oh, Jane, what are we going to do?” I cry, feeling the cloak of darkness hovering above in the slate-colored clouds.

She hands me a comfrey leaf. “We wait until spring.”

This is the solace I’ve come for, I realize as she continues to poke her blue nails around the plants, humming with contentment.

This is what I need to hear from the wisest person I know on the darkest day of a very dark year: That nature always comes through no matter what, and the days only get longer and brighter from here.


Oral history of jazz

Savannah Morning News

Sun. Dec. 25, 2016


Don’t ask me to explain it. Don’t expect me to interpret it. Don’t ask me to define altered scales, the diminished seventh or the melodic minor. Don’t ask me what they’re grinning about, those crafty drummers, bee-bopping sax players, sexy bass players and cool guitarists up on the stage when out of the blue one of them takes an unexpected detour that’s so crazy, so unexpected that on a dime they catch one another’s eyes and start to laugh about something that’s so foreign to me, so esoteric, they might as well be standing there and telling a joke in Russian.

That’s how much many of us know about jazz music.

But still we love it. We love the tempo, the swing, the beat, the irregularity, the cadence, the emotion, the inscrutable nature of the sound. It starts, it builds, it crashes. In the process, it attracts a wide fraternity of listeners. As it turns out, this little old port city known as Savannah – suddenly the most popular kid on the block with visitors, northerners, snowbirds, movie-makers, retirees and transplants – has some real history with this music, history, some say, that ranks on the level of the Big Easy. Take that, New Orleans. Musicians show up from traveling Interstate 95 (or Hwy. 17), serving at Hunter Army Airfield, coming into the city’s port.

To preserve this chapter in Savannah’s history – and to encourage and applaud its jazz past (and present) – Savannah’s Coastal Jazz Association is collecting stories from living eyewitnesses of how it was back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, of who was here and of where it all started.

To start it off, a few weeks ago CJA president Tom Glaser, with former television anchor Jim Cardswell behind the camera, corralled eight men into a videotaping session at the Ralph Mark Gilbert Civil Rights Museum on Martin Luther King Jr., Blvd. They were there, decades later, talking about Stubby Mitchell, a piano player for the Ink Spots (“he played organ in my church,” said John “Tiny” Austin); the Dunbar Hotel and Theater (“that was my mom’s hotel,” said Eddie Johnson, Jr. “That’s where Bull Moose Jackson played and Rosetta Tharp and Frankie Lyman”); Cocoanut Grove (now the home of Planet Six on Hwy. 17, “where the Drifters played,” said Austin); the Flamingo (across from the city of Savannah’s gorgeous water works pump house on Gwinnett and Stiles avenues), and other establishments near the erstwhile Union Station on a very vibrant, very active, very different West Broad Street.

“If we wanted a sax we’d ride our bikes to Cattle Park and buy one for $15,” said Austin.

“Remember Fish Ray?” Austin continued. “Couldn’t read a note but he had rhythm. He’d play near Gus’ Tavern. He had a shoe shine where he’d put color into your shoes. Had a green suit? He’d add a touch of green to your shoes.

“He’d do what we called the sandman dance. Remember that? He’d spread sand and salt on the sidewalk and slide back and forth, never taking his feet off the ground, never making a sound.”

Then, from Savannah’s renowned trombone player, Teddy Adams: “Fish Ray was on the Ed Sullivan show. He had good business acumen. I went to school with his son, Raymond Ray. We called him Ray Ray. Everyone had nicknames. Ray Ray played congas in Miami. There was the Goat Man, Piccolo (John Saxon Pierce), Tiger.”

Adams, 75, played in the band at East Broad Street school, Cuyler Junior High, and Beach High School. When he wanted music he’d walk “straight up Gaston to West Broad.” He left Savannah for 17 years in the ‘60’s to serve in the U.S. Air Force and to play in Thailand and Japan. Adams recorded many of these stories in an upcoming memoir. “The Up of the Down Beat, a musical journey.” His daughter, Tatia Adams Fox, formerly a senior vice president of Universal Motown Records and now the president and founder of The New School of Etiquette, wrote the introduction.

When Adams returned to Savannah in 1976 the Interstate 16 flyover had messed with the spirit and integrity of West Broad Street and musical tastes had changed. Jazz was history. That’s when he and the late inimitable Ben Tucker, who started his own club in City Market, put their heads together and with others formed the Telfair Jazz Society, the antecedent to the Coastal Jazz Association.

A few years later, in 1983, Adams, who met Tucker in Tokyo, and Ben started teaching an Elderhostel class at Savannah State University on the history of jazz and the history of jazz in Savannah. Julius “Boo” Hornstein was in this class. Hornstein went on to write, “Sites and Sounds of Savannah Jazz,” including stories about King Oliver, Sam Gill, and Jabbo Smith.

Glaser was in the class too. But Glaser already knew something about music. When he attended the University of Michigan he chose music as a cognate major (something a student has to take outside of his or her major) and though as a kid he favored the Motown sound he learned to appreciate jazz.

Like Adams, Glaser left Savannah for a number of years. But since his return he’s motivated to get the legacy of jazz on tape and on the walls of the Savannah History Museum.

“Jazz music brings together blacks and whites,” Glaser said. “I can’t say that about too many other things in Savannah. There’s so many stories and former musicians here. We’ve got to pull this off.”

Glaser also recorded another group of Savannahians who danced to the big bands on Tybee Island’s Tybrisa Pavilion. But he’s still looking for more: more stories, more memories, more first-person accounts. Got something to share? Go to the Christmas Day concert at The Mansion, look for Glaser and tell what you know. Let’s do this thing.