When my fractured family moved to Montgomery, Alabama from Fort Benning , Georgia, my world was shattered. The short time I got to experience the life of a military brat was idyllic. I got to be a kid. I wasn’t defined my color or my gender. I was just a smart, funny, and very shy little girl.
The economic realities of my parents’ divorce dictated a new script for our lives. No longer did we live in the safe walls of a military base, with beautiful yards and children of every flesh tone; we were now project dwellers. My Mama would hold my face in her hands and say, “You live here, you are not of here.” It would take decades for her words to fully sink into my soul. It would take until I was 40 years old to wash away all the emotional scars that growing up in poverty had left smudged on my psyche. I never felt good enough. I never felt I was enough. I felt doomed to failure, because kids like me never make it.
Growing up in the hood the only places I ever felt safe were at school and at the library. I read everything I could get my hands on: history books, romance novels, plays, poetry. I was obsessed with Judy Blume, and every chance I could I would retreat to a world of high rise apartments in Manhattan. I became obsessed with moving to New York City. I’d look around at our apartment, and later our run-down Section 8 rental house, and just pretend that I was in a fancy building looking out at Central Park.
Bookworm. Nerd. White girl. These were the nicknames hurled at me by the kids at school. The harder they hit me with the verbal attacks, the more I retreated into books. I remember like it was yesterday, the day in seventh grade when I checked out Gone with the Wind and To Kill A Mockingbird at the same time. Our librarian at Bellingrath Jr. High, a notoriously violent school at the time, allowed me to check out more than one book, and she always gave me books from the 9th grade reading list. IT was as if it had been announced on the intercom: Tangela Alyce Parker is not only a nerd, but she is a no-good- white-folk-loving discredit to her race.
The girls, who probably never read either book, started calling me Prissy and MAMMY, they would punch me in the back when I opened my locker. My arch nemesis, Pat, once tore the pages out of a brand new copy of Pride and Prejudice my Mama bought for me at a yard sale. (I still hate that girl. I’m not surprised that she is in Tutwiler Women’s Prison, bless her heart.) I was skinny and awkward looking. I wore big shirts to hide the mysterious growths on chest that made boys who used to make me cry now try to make me laugh. I finished Gone with the Wind in four days. It only took me an entire day to finish Mockingbird. Honey, my world was rocked. I found a new obsession: Harper Lee. I went rushing into the library, and I said, “I need all the books by Harper Lee. “
“There aren’t any more books by Harper Lee. She never wrote another one.”
“Well it says she lives in New York AND Alabama. Do you know how to find her? I need to talk to her.”
“ No, I don’t. But I guess you could write a letter to her at the place that published the book.”
I walked away dejected, but I decided one day I would become a writer, and move to New York City and become FRIENDS with Harper Lee. Unbeknownst to her, Harper Lee had a 13 year old stalker. I would sit in a roach infested project apartment in Montgomery, Alabama and plan the ultimate luncheon in Ms. Lee’s honor at THE PLAZA. I was so well connected in my head, I would even get LIZA! to perform.
Twenty years later, Wayne Greenhaw, my friend, my mentor, my drinking buddy, and my one time employer, introduced me to my idol Harper Lee. He said, Nelle, I want you to meet my dear friend, Tangela.”
Ms. Lee said, “It’s so nice to meet you. Wayne talks about you all the time. His stories about you tickle me.”
I started crying. The collective history of both my grandmothers, and every elderly black woman in my family that had taken care of a white family by force or by choice rushed on me and overwhelmed me. I can remember the stories of how they would “raise up” white children, clean houses, and get paid three dollars a day. I heard the tale of how my Granny loved a child and how that child loved her back, but the mother, in a jealous rage, accused my Granny of stealing her jewelry, and made the husband fire my grandmother.
All the indignities of the “Domestic Service” that built the American South had been chronicled by the women in my family, and to this day those stories are etched on my heart. Calpurnia, the housekeeper and surrogate mother, in To Kill a Mockingbird , was the first black female character written by a white person that I read as a child who wasn’t embarrassing to me. Both Prissy and Mammy made me feel a sense of unrelenting shame as a child. I felt shame for my grandmothers because they were Mammies for wealthy white families in Montgomery. I felt ashamed because I believed the whole world saw me as growing up to be either a Prissy or Mammy, but along comes Calpurnia, and suddenly there was a third option: a woman can be trapped in the reality of a place like Maycomb, Alabama, but she has a right to be her own person. Calpurina was grace and class and dignity.
Finally my chance had come to talk to Harper Lee, and here I was crying like a damn fool. I hugged her through my tears I said, “Ms. Lee, thank you for writing Calpurnia. Thank you for not making her a Mammy. MY Grandma was a Calpurnia.”
Nelle Harper Lee said, “Wayne said you were special.”
She looked at Greehaw and said, “I have never had anyone say that to me, Wayne. I like her. Smart as a whip.”
Wayne rubbed my back, winked at me, and handed me his handkerchief, and said “ I told you you were special.” As Ms. Lee was whisked through the crowd, and Wayne looked back at me and gave me a thumbs up!
In one moment, my friend Wayne Greenhaw had facilitated the absolute moment that changed my life. That was the moment I started to believe I was smart. That was the moment I started to believe I was from the ghetto but not of the ghetto. That was the moment I started to believe my words had power. That was the moment the smudges of poverty and racism and fatherlessness began to disappear from my spirit. I started to believe I was worthy of being and doing whatever I wanted, because my IDOL, Harper Lee said it was ok.
In the years since I worked as Wayne’s personal assistant, and as his publicist at River City Publishing, I have endured some extreme hardships: poverty (again), homelessness, emotional ruin, and a few personal catastrophes that I’ll save for a tell-most autobiography. I found myself cleaning houses to keep our family alive. With each stroke of the broom, each scrub of the toilet brush, each squirt of Windex, I found myself thinking of all the women in my family who cleaned. I’d think of Calpurnia’s quiet strength, and remember I was a maid by choice, not by force. I would often vacillate between being thrilled to have work that paid my bills and being humiliated that I had to do maid work to pay my bills. The famous quote of Hattie McDaniel, the Academy Award winning actress who played Mammy in the film adaptation of Gone with the Wind, “I’d rather play a maid, than be a maid,” would pop into my head while dusting or washing windows. Those words would sustain me while I cobbled together my one woman comedy show.
I remember sitting on the porch of El Rey having a drink with Wayne when I was in the middle of trying to figure out how to make a comedy show out of my experiences as a maid. I asked him if he had any advice for me. Wayne just laughed and said, “I don’t do comedy for a reason, but you are funny, and you ain’t scared of shit. Don’t start getting scared now. Hell, you been making folks laugh for free for years. You need to find a way to get paid. Remember what Hattie McDaniel said?”
I laughed as we said the quote out loud together. “Hell, girl, getting paid to make people laugh at you being a maid, beats the hell outta actually being one. I’ll guaren-damn-tee it!” I decided to lean into my inner Calpurnia, and make the most out of the chickenshit life had been doling out!
As I try to recover from the double barreled shotgun blast of grief of losing Wayne and Knox, I take great comfort in the fact that it is solely because of Wayne’s friendship that I have the courage to pursue my dream of being a comic and a humor writer. Wayne’s friendship was responsible for my very first trip to New York. I didn’t get to see Miss Lee, but I got to have drinks with Wayne at the Algonquin. Wayne’s generosity afforded me the opportunity to meet authors I would NEVER have been able to otherwise: Stephen King, Amy Tan, Walter Mosely…and those are just the kinda famous ones. Most importantly, Wayne’s friendship allowed me to meet my childhood shero, and receive the validation that I had longed for as a child. I am grateful beyond measure.
I may never be a famous comic. I may never be a famous writer. My sincere hope is that when the trumpets sound, and I’m called up to the Big Happy Hour in The Sky, that I have been as good a friend to someone as Wayne Greenhaw has been to me. I love you, Squirrel. I am missing you something fierce.