Cause Célèbre Magazine

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: It's been touted that "Cargoes of Conscience" will do rather well come Oscar-time; you've been nominated yourself, Ms. Jerome. The truth; were you surprised?

 

VJ: You could've knocked me down with a feather.

 

{Ha! The truth? I did good work. Our film's a hit. Why fake surprise at FINALLY getting noticed?}

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: Will you win?

 

VJ: Now that's an entirely different issue.

 

{I DESERVE to win, Lord knows. But so does every other actress who's worked her butt off. I mean, sure, the hoopla's flattering; I could learn to live with fame. But I'm too fresh from the unemployment line to strut my stuff just yet.}

 

Win, lose; it doesn't really matter as much as getting WORK.

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: Speaking of work, you spent a lot of time in Africa on location; was that difficult?

 

VJ: If I NEVER have to swat another bug, it'll be too soon. I mean, the FLIES, the HEAT, the SQUALOR.

 

{Whoops!}

 

We shot in Cameroon.

 

{Which I would liken to an outhouse, minus air vents. "WHAT A DUMP"!}

 

Had the slavers passed out postcards of America to my forebears they might not have needed whips and chains to... strike that. Let's just say, a more INSUFFERABLE part of the world I can't imagine. Except maybe Houston. Only kidding; love ya, Texas!

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: What about Kenya?

 

VJ: Splendid place.

 

{Besides The Stanley in Nairobi with its air-conditioned suite, I'd sooner summer in Hell than breathe the red-hot dust of Masai Mara. SIX-TEEN WEEKS we baked our brains out in that unforgiving swelter. That's why MGM cast no-names; stars, you can bet your boots, would have quit. Lucky for us, I suppose.}

 

I say that now; at the time, we were miserable. Except, that is, for Graham, who ADORED the 'wilds' of Africa.

 

{I couldn't fathom why. You'd think a White boy from Peoria—on the level; born and bred—would feel extraneous to a continent so-called "dark." Graham felt "indigenous." Ha! Or so he said one idle afternoon...}

 

"It's like our heartbeats learned their rhythm here, Vel"

"Come again?"

"You know, in Africa? It's the pulse, the pace. It makes me feel indigenous. Like some migratory bird come home to nest."

We had climbed this peak. Well, more an outcrop, really; a king-sized pile of rocks; "kopje," in the local lingo. Graham had shed his sandals and was squatting, arms outspread. And when he said that line he'd stood up. I thought, Christ, he'll soon be airborne—shirttails billowing, blond hair flapping; any second he'd just leap.

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: Had you two ever worked together?

 

VJ: No. Well, yes; in class. In New York.

 

{Where Graham seemed just as flighty and out-of-place—but, oh, so quaint. I mean, he'd open doors, hold chairs for you. A genuine throwback gent. You know, small town boy comes waltzing in, politely bites Big Apple, says " excuse me" when he belches, always blushes when he farts? And yet a sweeter man you'd never hope to meet.}

 

We stopped en route to the shoot, once, at a village—back in Kenya. To the locals, we were a freak show. They all hovered around and stared. It always irked me they could let the goddamn insects crawl all over them; I was shooing flies incessantly. Why don't native people flinch? Anyway, we'd settled near some shade trees with our lunch of ham-and-cheese sandwiches—Lord knows what THEY were gnawing, this clique sporting carved-up ears—when Graham excused himself from us—as he did often—to interact with them.

"Jambo. "

"Jambo. Mzuri Sana."

"Hakuna Matata. Fine. Do you speak English?"

Graham had homed in on this mother/daughter combo, whose expressions made it clear that they barely spoke a word. I mean, of English; their Swahili seemed sufficient to the challenge. Buy and sell were in the air, despite Graham's gallantry.

"Very pretty."

He admired the young girl's jewelry, which the mother misinterpreted—taking Graham's aesthetic interest as her cue to wheel and deal. It seemed like every bauble praised produced a price tag—billed in shillings—mom transferring rings and bracelets from this ten-year-old to Graham. If he'd shown interest in the poor kid's frock, the mother would have stripped her; that's how eager these folks were to make a sale.

Enter urchins. More aggressive, less respectful, they were better versed in trade-talk, worse at taking turns to hawk their humble novelties. I got scared. In the confusion, Graham made gestures, poking fun at their persistence—which aroused a man from the mangled-ear contingent to intercede. He waved his club and spear at the kids, who beat retreats to a safer distance. Graham mugged 'thank you,' then resumed his chat with the ladies.

"Buy, buy, buy. There's more to sharing cultures than cash-and-carry commerce, don't you think?"

He glanced from mom to daughter. Nothing. Not a glimmer of comprehension.

"You buy me Coca Cola?"

This request came from the kid—while mom renewed her hard-sell strategy with Sir Galahad... whose main concern—and this is something we discussed between ourselves—was how to dodge both being exploitive and exploited. Neither easy. On the one hand, we were always viewed as filthy rich Americans—never mind how well-to-do we were or weren't in Stateside terms—who could afford, and were expected to be generous. Even lavish. On the other hand, we could WRECK the local economy. What to do? If we paid too much for an item—by the standards set in context—we felt cheated; pay too little, it was they who felt abused. And yet the difference looked so piddling, from our well-heeled frame of reference, the temptation was to shrug off qualms and splurge.

Except for Graham. Who turned the tables, suddenly, offering them his belt, his shirt, his sandals. He named prices so exorbitant, mom and daughter almost blanched.

And it was then he bought the Coke. A single Coke; they were to share it. Which meant Mommy Dearest chug-a-lugged it solo. End of tale? Uh, uh. The daughter, disappointed, but undaunted, hatched a scheme, and to that end she led her newfound friend beyond mom's clutches.

Across the road, piled high on a blanket, were these dusty heaps of clothes, some new, most used and a little tattered, ALL for sale. The girl picked through them. As she did, Graham stood and gawked like a clueless financier. Was she ferreting souvenirs for him, or a gift to suit herself? Before our hero could decide, a barefoot salesman hustled over. Just a kid, no older than she who pinned her hopes on Sugar-Daddy Graham. What next took place was a mismatched contest GUARANTEED to draw a crowd, as the home-town favorite pit his skills against Hollywood's finest. What a hoot! It was a David and Goliath situation, third world/first world, child/adult, Black/ White, inexperienced waif versus globe-trotting fully-fledged honky, who, in deference to his cohort, her selection hot in hand—a dress that fit her slight dimensions to a T, I might add—asked:

"Too much?"

She nodded, as if loathe to see him swindled. Graham responded with a counteroffer, HAGGLING with this kid who had his pride, his peddler's stature, his NATION'S reputation on the line, the same way Graham became a torchbearer for the entire Western World.

And here's where tact won out and Graham displayed a noble sensitivity. Having figured out that what was paid would have to serve BOTH sides, the trick was settling on a price that reinforced the salesman's prowess AND his customer's relative shrewdness. When to hold out, when to yield?

Graham's price went up; the boy's came down. Graham inched still higher; the boy stood firm. And then this pause set in. FOR-EVER. Folks looked on, as if enthralled, aware that fairness had been honored—if in favor of their champion. Would the youngster hold his own or, to this full-grown man, lose face?

Graham sneaked a peek at his 'accomplice'—no help there; her lips stayed buttoned—so he stretched his hand toward the lad for a shake to seal-the-deal.

"Done."

Tension broke, with smiles all around, as Graham gave the girl her dress—bargained, bought, and paid for by a chivalrous "wazungu."

 

 

VJ: It was in Africa where the friendship really gelled; I'm speaking for myself, now. Lord only knows how Graham perceived our palsy-walsy circumstanceor how he viewed things generally. Still, the STORIES I could tell.

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: If Mister Doubletree had granted us an interview last October, when we asked, he could have told these "stories" himself.

 

VJ: Well, don't feel singled out; Graham spoke to NO ONE from the media. At the time, I mean. He was going through some heavy-duty stuff.

 

{Or so we all assumed from the subsequent fallout; Graham had most folks baffled big-time. Me included. In fact, I'm STILL at a relative loss to interpret key events as I find myself rehashing everything he told me.}

 

CAUSE CÉLÈBRE: Were you two tight?

 

VJ: You mean like lovers? Hardly. What we shared was work. When we were off the set it was more like children swapping secrets.

 

{Graham was White, for sure, but that was superficial. Deep down we were kin. He had this feel-for-the-folks, meaning Black folks. I once asked him, point-blank, why...}

 

"It felt like rising from a dreamless sort of void. "

"What did?"

"Anesthesia. I'd been under for an houror maybe days; I couldn't tell. No sense of time or place. No recollections during; only after. And before, of course; I did remember details of the crash: the slippery streets, the blurry windshield, sounds of brakes and shattering glass, eventually the siren. Not much else. Not even pain. The pain came later, like a friend who puts off telling you bad news. My jaw was broken; I knew that much. They had wired my teeth together. And my lips were twice their normal size from the swelling. And I drooled. There were these bars around the bed that made it secure, if somewhat jail-likea crib with no way out, so I stayed put. And when I looked up past the railing through my lashesgummed with mucousthere was something round and hovering just above me. Like the moon. Except the features were a female's, brown as a chestnut. Up I reached. She let me grope her cheeks, her lips, her chin, then smiled. I loved her presencewhich appeared to cast an aura I had missed but always known. And then she vanished. Or I just slipped back into limbothough the sleep I slept from then on wasn't half as dense or deep.

"When I woke up next she was gonethough I could picture every contour, every curve and crease and hollow of that kindly woman's face... hers more familiar than the puffy shapes that made a mess of mine. Yet when I mentioned her to the nurses, I was told she wasn't real, that there was no one among the staff who might have entered my recovery room who wasn't a Caucasian. I was sure I saw a Black. And I was equally sure I once had known and loved her.

"Ever since, I've had this soft spot in my heart for 'people of color. '"

 

 

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