by Charles McGuigan
James Mason Dickerson—the man who was Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo, the man who fed us at countless daily thanksgivings—died the day before Thanksgiving. It was a rough death and a hard one. There was nothing gentle about the illness. It racked the life out of Jamie until he finally gave up the ghost in his home at four that morning.
I watched the disease devour Jamie, like some slow fire consuming his innards. Day to day he was changed. The Monday before his death, I held his hand, talked with him, and made him promises. He was skin and bones with a basketball of a distended belly. But there was no flesh on him. And his skin was the color of parchment.
In one of the final scenes of the Wizard of Oz, after the wizard is exposed as a charlatan, he says this to the Tin Man: “Remember, my sentimental friend, that a heart is judged not by how much you love, but by how much you are loved by others.”
Judging by the amount of people who turned out for the memorial service at Bliley’s a couple days after his death, Jamie’s heart was as big as the Ritz. There were hundreds of people there and his long-time partner Molly Buford greeted each and every one of them.
“I was standing in one spot and the next thing I knew I was there an hour and half later in the same spot,” Molly told me on a recent, bitterly cold afternoon. “People just kept coming up and coming up and coming up. It was really wonderful. Jamie would have been bowled over by it.”
This past summer, during that long sweltering heat, while Jamie worked in the narrow confines of Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo, where the temperature must have been twenty degrees hotter than it was outside, I’d noticed that he was thinner and when I asked him if everything was okay, he just said: “Everything’s fine, brother.” And he’d serve up a pair of catfish po’boys for my beloved and me. He even set us up a little spot one late afternoon in the front of Once Upon A Vine—a chair and a bench and a small table. Jamie served us and played music from a little sound box, laid out a candle and lit it, and we opened a bottle of wine and it was as if we were suddenly someplace else, like his New Orleans. We lingered there for a long while, even after we’d finished our meal, until night came and the lights of the food wagon came on.
About thirty years back, Jamie visited New Orleans for the first time and fell in love with the Crescent City for good and all. He adored the people and the architecture, the music and the Creole complexion of the city itself. And, of course, the food. He became obsessed with it and studied it and perfected his own jambalaya and gumbo, and, of course, his roux, the Mother of Sauces.
I watched Jamie make a true roux one day and it took him hours. He was meticulous in this creation, adjusting the heat, stirring. It had to be just right, and he watched the stock pot as a mother might watch her infant.
Molly told me a bit about making a roux. “If you accidentally overcook it for a split second you’ve got to toss the whole batch and that’s usually after having worked on it for hours,” she said. “It’s at that last critical moment that if you turn your back on it for a second all of a sudden you start seeing little black specks and you’re doomed.” She remembered the times Jamie ruined his roux. “You ain’t never heard such fussing,” she said.
Jamie rarely fussed at people, instead, he invariably gave them the benefit of the doubt. “He could find good in anybody,” Cookie Giannini would tell me later. Of course, it was Cookie who first opened Dot’s Back Inn twenty-one years ago. It was Jamie who ran the kitchen from day one and it was Jamie who created the menu there. Cookie told me that she had recently run in to a man who has been barred from virtually every restaurant in the city of Richmond. “He gets crazy when he starts drinking and he was so sad to hear Jamie was really sick,” Cookie recalled. “He said to me, ‘Jamie was nicer kicking me out of a bar than anybody I’ve ever known.’”
Jamie had a certain glow to him, a kind of shine, I think particularly in the eyes, and that drew people to him. “It’s what I’ve said about him since day one,” Molly said. “He’s just a good guy. I mean anywhere we went good people would gravitate to him. And they’d stick with him. The friends that he’s had he’s had for a long time.”
Jamie didn’t believe in best friends. If you were his friend, you were his friend, plain and simple—no favoritism. Jamie saw within everyone he knew that singularity which separates people one from the other, like the patterns of snowflakes, that uniqueness, those traits that make us who we are as individuals. No two alike: And all worthy of love.
The love of Jamie’s life was Molly Buford. Shortly after he was diagnosed with stage IV liver cancer, just as this sentence began sinking in, Jamie immediately called his friend, Cookie. “And he said this to me,” Cookie told me. “You’ve got to promise me you’ll take care of Molly. That’s what he was thinking about.”
Jamie had other passions in his life aside from Molly and Cajun-cooking, the Saints and New Orleans. Like all good men, he was drawn to the water. And like all truly good men, he fished, for in fishing there is mystery and a love of the small life that tugs at the other end of the line. You release it or you devour it. The outcome is the same. To fish is to know the Other and thus yourself.
Way back in 1990 Jamie went in for an interview at a dive called Tom-Tom’s over on MacArthur Avenue. It had just changed hands and the woman who took it over had a Rosie the Riveter kind of theme in mind and she didn’t much care for working in kitchens. She preferred the front of the house.
“Jamie came in and we set at that front table and he said he was working at Not Betty’s,” Cookie told me. “I hired him on the spot. I told him, ‘The kitchen’s yours and I’ll take the floor’, and we just clicked; we absolutely clicked.”
Jamie stayed with Cookie until she sold Dot’s Back Inn to Jimmy Tsamouras about five years ago. There was only one time that Jamie left Dot’s and that was when he tried to move down to Key West. But he was a Northsider, bred and buttered, and he returned home six weeks later. The food he created at Dot’s lives on and has achieved significant notoriety. The Chicken MacArthur—a Jamie Dickerson masterpiece of chicken and artichokes—was featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives a couple years ago.
Before Dot’s Back Inn even opened, Jamie was honing his skills at restaurants throughout
Richmond. He worked at Strawberry Street Cafe, LeMaire, Texas/Wisconsin Border Café, Not Betty’s and Cary Street Café. And before that, when he was still a boy, Jamie worked at Arby’s on Brook Road just north of Azalea. It was here he earned his nickname, which stuck for life—Jazzbo.
Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo was Jamie incarnate. It was a gumbo wagon, self-contained—a 20-foot trailer with two refrigerators, water tanks, five sinks, a flat grill, two steam tables, exhaust fan and hood, and electric burners—a thing of beauty, and mobile, to boot. Jamie and Molly bought it from Powah Dogs four years ago and began serving up everything “made with love” by Jamie. Over the years I spent many good moments on that gumbo wagon when things were winding down for the day, jawing and japing with Jamie, and kicking back a PBR or two. My son Charles loved the place and was in seventh heaven whenever Jamie invited him aboard, which was every time we visited the gumbo wagon.
Last April, Charles had a project at Holton Elementary as part of career day. He had to interview an expert in the field he was interested in pursuing and since Charles had decided he wants to be a chef he asked to interview Jamie. One evening, after dinner, when it wasn’t quite hot and wasn’t quite cold, before spring really gained a foothold, we walked over to Jamie and Molly’s house and sat out on their inviting screened in porch, where candles glowed and green things of every description grew from clay pots scattered through the space. “It’s like ‘Where the Wild Things Are’,” Charles said as he looked at the screen walls and the plants. “How the walls become the world all around,” he said in explanation and he told Molly how much he loved the place and she fairly beamed. That night Jamie told Charles in order to be a good chef you have to love what you are doing and you have to try every kind of food. Until that point, Charles’ palate tended toward chicken nuggets and hot dogs. Today, he tries everything and likes most of it. This past summer he wolfed down three Maine lobster, claw to tail, when we stayed over on the Island of Vinalhaven. He has the makings of a great chef, thanks to Jamie.
Cookie recalled just how good a chef Jamie was at Dot’s Back Inn. “He would never take a shortcut,” she said. Even on his days off, Jamie was in that kitchen, at least in spirit. “Jamie just did it so great,” said Cookie. “He would have everything ready so the other cooks would have his gumbo or jambalaya on his day off. And when he took a week vacation he would make sure we were well set with everything. It was his kitchen and he couldn’t do less than perfect.”
Fifteen years ago Jamie and Molly began seeing one another and they have been hitched at the hips ever since. “It wasn’t love at first sight because I’d been seeing him at Dot’s for years,” said Molly. In those days Molly would sit at a booth and order lunch and pretty much stay to herself, talking to Cookie on occasion. Then one day Jamie came out from the kitchen and approached Molly’s table. She would never forget the moment which is lodged in her memory with a certain fragrance. “He just plopped himself down at my table and he reeked of garlic because he had been chopping fresh garlic,” she said. “And I thought, ‘I like the way this guy smells.”
The exact date of the event is uncertain. “We didn’t celebrate anniversaries,” said Molly. “And only under duress would he celebrate birthdays because I insisted. I mean he didn’t care about that stuff.”
But he did care deeply for the people he knew and his soul mate, Molly Buford. “He taught me a lot about how to be a good person,” Molly said. “He was forever lending people money and they always paid him back. When he shook your hand that was the deal. He’d shake their hand and look them in the eye. He would always do that. I would get so mad at him. I mean it’s a f—ing gumbo wagon; it’s a trailer in a parking lot. Jamie didn’t have the money, but he always leant it out.”
I’ve heard many people say, particularly those who knew him best, “Jamie never said anything mean about anyone.” God knows that’s true. Yet there was also this: I have never heard anybody say anything mean about Jamie. Not a solitary soul. Not one time. And people will talk, particularly when backs are turned. But not about Jamie and that’s what I loved most of all about him.
I don’t know that Jamie put much truck in religion—the organized or the disorganized varieties from Presbyterian to Unitarian—but he did live closer to the way of Christ or the Buddha than any priest or holy man I’ve ever known, and he did not feel the need to lecture and instruct: Real lessons are best imparted by example. And for it to work best, the teacher shouldn’t even be aware of the lesson.
All summer long, Jamie was losing weight, and there wasn’t much for him to lose. Molly was losing weight too, so they suspected it was just the heat, the sauna of the James River basin sweating it out of them.
From late September on, Jamie had been feeling poorly. He’d seen a gastroenterologist and there looked to be problems in his colon and esophagus. Nothing dire, just something that needed tending to with surgery. Then on a weekend, smack in the middle of October, Jamie’s condition worsened. You could see it in his face—there was a gauntness there almost to point of emaciation. Molly, who ordinarily would have been running errands on Saturday and Sunday, decided to stay by Jamie’s side in the gumbo wagon. Sunday evening, with a couple orders coming up on the flat grill, Jamie started throwing up blood. Molly called their next door neighbor Hank who came and collected Jamie. Once home, Jamie laid down and by degrees started feeling a little better. In the interim Molly shut the gumbo wagon down. The last meal had been served.
When Mollie got back home, she called the gastroenterologist and began explaining in detail exactly what had happened. Almost immediately the doctor interrupted her and told her to get Jamie into an emergency room. “Pronto,” he said.
“He almost died that night because he threw up so much blood,” said Molly. They banded off his esophageal varices—extremely dilated veins—that had been bleeding into his stomach. Jamie began to stabilize. “He spent three nights in intensive care at Henrico,” Molly said.
While he was there they ran a battery of tests and performed various imaging. The diagnosis was about as grim as it gets: Jamie had stage IV liver cancer. The tumor was inoperable and Jamie was not a candidate for a liver transplant. When friends came by to see Jamie, after having heard the diagnosis, they were often in tears before they left and Molly couldn’t figure it. “They knew he wasn’t going to live and I didn’t,” she said. “We didn’t think he was dying. Nobody told me it was the silent killer.”
Jamie’s condition rapidly deteriorated, as they say. Every time I visited him there was a noticeable decline. His weight was way down—I’d put him at eighty pounds there toward the end. His belly was swollen and he had trouble even getting up off the couch where he slept on the screened in porch when the weather was still nice.
In early November as the Bellevue merchants planned Christmas on MacArthur, there was already talk of a fundraiser to help Molly and Jamie who’d been without any kind of income for a solid month. And though Jamie carried insurance, there were those hateful co-pays that make rich men richer and poor men poorer. The outpouring of support was overwhelming. A group of us talked about flying Jamie and Molly down to New Orleans. Chris and Celia at Rich’s Stitches donated a hundred Jazzbo T-shirts that would be sold at Christmas on MacArthur in a few weeks. Bob Kocher, a friend of Jamie’s and owner of Once Upon A Vine, put a donation box on his counter that eventually filled with about seven hundred dollars. Neighbors and friends hosted a fund-raising run. All the while, too, people would slip money through the front door mail slot at Molly and Jamie’s home on Fauquier Avenue.
Not long before Jamie’s death, Mollie lay by his side in their upstairs bedroom. She kept two buckets by Jamie’s side of the bed, because he was bleeding from both ends now. The morphine that swaddled his brain made him restless. He hallucinated and flailed his arms and legs. Right after the good nurses of hospice brought a port-a-potty into the bedroom, Jamie kicked both buckets onto the floor and began laughing. “I kicked the bucket,” he said. “I kicked both buckets.” Less than twelve hours later Jamie Dickerson died.
At around midnight, the day before Thanksgiving, Molly and Jamie lay side by side and the hospice nurse sat by Jamie’s side. At ten minutes till four, the nurse woke Molly. “It’s his time,” she said. His breath was different now, Molly could see that. It was shallow as it rolled over his lips. And then there was no breath at all. Then suddenly Jamie took a couple of small breaths, little hisses, really, and Molly’s hope soared.
“And then he left me,” Molly told me. She looked around the room and told me how many things remind her of Jamie. “I do so miss him,” she said. Then, Poodle, Molly and Jamie’s dog for ten years, came to visit. She’s really more terrier than anything else. Not a drop of poodle blood in her. Molly’s fingers stroked the dog’s small head. “She’s run over to the gumbo wagon twice when people leave the back gate unlatched,” Molly said. “She goes running over there looking for her daddy. She sleeps right on Jamie’s pillow.”
Jamie had lived for years in a trailer on the Chickahominy. I always liked that about him. Years ago he and Molly bought their own trailer on that sinuous Southern river of our coastal plain. They used it as a retreat on that part of the river where the cypress trees grow and the great blue heron live and ospreys and bald eagles, and bucket-mouth bass that can swallow a bullfrog whole.
They also owned a trailer down at Rodanthe over on Hatteras Island. I’d stayed there for the better part of a week a couple summers back when I was recording red wolves in the wild. At nights I’d dream of Rebecca and sleep to the quiet clamor of a thousand green tree frogs that lived just outside that trailer. It was gracious of Molly and Jamie to extend the use of their home on the Outer Banks.
Now the trailers are gone. Last winter they sold the one on the Chickahominy to Mike, who now cooks at Dot’s Back Inn. Mike and Jamie were close as kin and Jamie wanted him to have that trailer. Mike works the same kitchen Jamie worked, he walks down the same aisle Jamie walked along for sixteen years, and he cooks much the same way, with the same eye for detail and the same patience, and Jamie told me that. Mike learned much of his art from Jamie.
About a month before Jamie got really sick, Hurricane Irene took the trailer at Rodanthe. “The hurricane came up the Sound,” Molly had told me. “It blew all the water west and then it came back in and went straight over the island. It flooded our trailer. We went down a month later and cleared everything out of it and stuck it in the storage unit. I went down last week and got it all out.”
The only trailer that remains is Jazzbo’s Rollin’ Gumbo which sits in the parking lot at Once Upon A Vine as it has for years. Late, late last night, almost into the next morning, I walked around the gumbo wagon. The American flag on the pole near the rear of Jazzbo’s snapped on a rising wind that ushered white clouds across a waning gibbous moon that was silver on a velvety blue sky.
I closed my eyes against all this beauty and imagined I could smell andouille sausage grilling in a bed of onions and peppers. With eyes shut I could taste the catfish po’boy, grilled, not fried, and could spoon down a generous helping of jambalaya and gumbo, pure Cajun delight. I could hear Jamie’s voice and feel the heat of a July sun on my forearms that were swathed in layers of winter clothing.
The most sacred of all sacraments to me has always been the Eucharist, a gathering at a table to re-enact another gathering at another table so many years ago, linked across time by our senses and our appetites. Jamie was a founder of communions immeasurable, a breaker of breads, a pourer of libations.
When I opened my eyes the world was cold and icy and the clouds had moved off to reveal starlight and I thought of something Molly had told me just the week before. “When he was sick, Jamie insisted on finishing up a batch of roux he had started,” she said. “He bagged it up and froze it and I can’t throw it out.”
But, God knows, it would make the perfect seed of a feast that would feed many.