Coffee at the Kitchen Table: A Mad Men Inspiration by Patricia Ann McNair

Two weeks in Paris, Philip and I. Him, teaching. Me…well, nothing really. Keeping house. Grocery shopping. Dinner. Playing Betty to Philip’s Don Draper. Our own little episode of Mad Men, only Mad Men in Paris. Up in my robe and slippers making coffee, toast and juice (but no eggs, let’s not get crazy; I don’t cook.) Kiss him at the door and push it closed and then turn back to the empty flat.

I sit at the kitchen table and stare at nothing. If I were Betty, I’d be smoking. Like Betty, I am drinking coffee. When I was a kid in the 60s, the 70s, a lot of moms I knew were Bettys. Sitting, drinking coffee, smoking, staring.

At a friend’s house (Alice Dyer, name changed, obviously) on a summer afternoon and there is Mrs. Dyer at the table. Did she smoke? I can’t recall. I think not. She was a gum chewer. A smacker. Her hair would be in pin curlers and she’d wear a housedress. Shirt waist, shift-like thing, plaid. Short sleeves. Straight up and down.

And at Janice Brighton’s (name also changed), her mother, older than all the rest of ours—Janice adopted when the brother and sister were already in junior high—at the table, too. Quiet. I don’t remember her ever talking. Not like Mrs. Dyer who had a Chicago accent like those you hear on television, the vowels all flat and full of nose. (They sounded like diphthongs, those vowels, made from y’s and a’s. “Would you like uh yapple?”) But quiet, old, Mrs. Brighton was sad, I think, as though she carried a melancholy that held her in that chair at the kitchen table every morning, every afternoon. Staring.

Betty Draper, even after she divorces Don and marries the rich politician, sits at the kitchen table. Funny how her new kitchen in the mansion looks like her old kitchen in the big suburban house, looks like Pete Campbell’s kitchen in his suburban house. Wood cabinets and plaid curtains and harvest gold appliances. And even though Betty is rich now (richer than before), she is still dissatisfied. Smoking. Chewing on her lips. Only Betty Draper—rather January Jones—is a mediocre (at best) actress, and so her dissatisfied face is the same as her angry face, is the same as her sad face, as her scared face, as her worried face. Mostly she just looks a little annoyed, her lips tight (but not too tight, her lips, as a model, a big part of her beauty) and her brow slightly furrowed (careful dear, lines.) betty 1

When I was nine we moved to a different neighborhood. A bit richer, away from the more blue-collar folks like the Dyers, the Brightons. (The dads, Mr. Dyer, Mr. Brighton, wore uniforms to work, name patches sewn on their chests.) In the new neighborhood, the mother of my closest friend (Debbie Schaefer. Name changed.) was more like Betty Draper than Mrs. Brighton was, than Mrs. Dyer was. Mrs. Schaefer was tall and blond, fit. Tanned. She wore her hair straight and long, in a ponytail. They, the Schaefers, had money. A built-in pool, a long, low ranch house with a fireplace that was two-sided, in a flagstone wall between the TV room and the living room. The kids had telephones and televisions in their own bedrooms, at a time when kids didn’t have televisions and telephones in their own bedrooms. Debbie had her own phone line!

            Mrs. Schaefer wore slacks, shorts, sleeveless blouses. Tennis shoes. She played tennis. Golf. She sat at the kitchen table and smoked. She yelled. “Debbie, get in here!” “Johnnie, the dog has to go out!” Like it was too much trouble to get up and walk through the house to talk with her children. She swore.

Mrs. Schaefer gave us rides to school, although we lived close enough to walk, certainly to ride our bikes. I can still picture her sitting in her Cadillac on the side of our blacktopped suburban street, window rolled down, blowing smoke into the daylight, staring straight ahead, waiting for me to run out the door and jump in the back seat with Debbie. Once, I had a friend from the city staying with me while her parents were traveling, and I brought her to school. When we got in the Caddy, Mrs. Schaefer muttered: “I knew it.” What she meant was: Sybil was black. In our lily white suburbs there were no black families, but Mrs. Schaefer knew that we, the McNairs, the rabble-rousing Democrats who held fundraisers for progressive candidates and had an organic garden in our backyard in the middle of the flat green lawns and neat flowerbeds stretched up and down the block; the McNairs who both had jobs (Mr. and Mrs., for chrissakes. And she wasn’t just a secretary or a bank teller or a cashier, but did something with books, worked for a publisher); the McNairs who helped their oldest children, the high school boys, organize protests against the school dress codes, against the Vietnam war—these McNairs, my parents, me…well, of course Mrs. Schaefer knew my friend visiting from the city would be black. Wasn’t everyone in the city black?

In Mad Men, for a long, long time the only black characters were elevator operators, domestic help. Carla is Betty’s long-suffering maid while she’s married to Don, the only adult in that house who might help the kids grow up okay. Poor Sally, Bobby, and Gene, the baby who seems to be taking forever to get any older, who most viewers (or is it just me?) could never pick out in a baby line-up. Fleshy, white, indistinct. Don is a drunk and a philanderer and has gone as far as to tell people that he doesn’t know how to love his kids (didn’t he say something like that? Who did he say that to? Megan, his pretty, young, new wife? That blond psychologist Faye he was sleeping with for a while?) And Betty, who is mostly just stupid and spiteful and mean. Without Carla, these kids would never have had a chance.

Of course, Betty fires her.

betty-590-khz101810 When I was a kid, since my parents both worked and we could afford it (but we weren’t rich like Debbie’s family, no televisions and telephones in our bedrooms) we had help. We always had help. When I was really little, when we lived in our blue-collar neighborhood, we had Sandy (her real name, but that’s all I remember of her. A white girl who was more babysitter than maid.) And then Mrs. Deece (also her real name because I loved her.) She was a plump black woman who (I still remember this; I always and often remember this) had the softest hands in the whole wide world. I can still feel them on the back of my neck from when she brushed my hair, pulled it into a ponytail. And she made us fried bananas. These might be the best things I have ever eaten. Not fried plantains, like a starch, but sweet, brown, ripe bananas battered and fried and served with syrup. Yum.

When we moved to the new house, we got a new cleaning lady. Mrs. Deece, I think, got a better job. When did we start calling them cleaning ladies? “Cleaning lady,” a tidy little euphemism for maid. I don’t think we ever called these women “the help,” or like Betty and her friends do, “the girl.” Our new cleaning lady was Mrs. Bristol (real name). Eileen Bristol. She was from British Honduras, Belize now. And years later when I visited Belize as an adult, I imagined Eileen Bristol there in the dusty streets and sunshine. When she worked for us she lived in the city, Chicago, in a small apartment on the north side by herself. I visited her there at least once. She had a son in British Honduras then. A teenager, even though she wasn’t very old. The first time, when I was in junior high, I did the math of that—mother, thirty-something, son, teens—I understood that she was about the same age as my brothers were right then. High school aged when she gave birth to her son.

We picked up Mrs. Bristol (Eileen, she wanted us to call her Eileen, and now I think she may not have even been a Mrs., may not have been married) at the convenience store near my grade school on Saturday mornings. There were a number of black maids (cleaning ladies) there waiting for rides on Saturday mornings; it was the last stop on the bus from the train. We dropped her off there, too, in the afternoons, at the end of her one workday with us.

Do you remember the shift in Mad Men when they started to hire blacks at the ad agency? It began as a joke during serious times, the civil rights era. Bags of water dropped from office windows on black demonstrators, a bogus help wanted ad in the paper. But then, when Don’s reception area filled up with blacks (African Americans) looking for work, the agency had to make a token hire. By the end of the last season, Dawn, that hire, had moved up the ranks to office manager.

The times, they are a’changing.

My parents were actively engaged in civil rights. I’ve read journals of my mother’s and she’s told me stories about how she broke with the church when she lived in Washington D.C. because one of her black friends was not allowed in my mother’s white church in the fifties. My folks had a hand in finding and hiring the first black staff member to our school district in the mid-sixties. Sybil’s dad became our librarian, and Dr. Mack, her dad, became my parents’ friend—which is how I became friends with Sybil and how she came to be with me in the backseat of Mrs. Schaefer’s Cadillac, just like Mrs. Schaefer knew would happen. The only other black person, probably, to ever sit in Mrs. Schaefer’s Cadillac would have been her cleaning lady. (And why did she need one, anyway? She was home all day. Why did Betty Draper need one? So she could sit at the table and smoke some more?)

As I got older, I began to wonder how my folks squared having black help with their civil rights rabble-rousing. Did they think they were helping this way, by being job providers? Were Eileen and the other black women huddled at the door of the convenience store, waiting for their rides to Saturday morning work, the only domestic help available then? Were we, as perpetrators of the stereotype, white suburban families with black cleaning ladies from the city—part of the solution, or just another part of the problem?

I wonder if this is the sort of thing that Betty Draper sits at her kitchen table thinking about after she makes breakfast for Don, after she kisses him and sends him off to work. Like I just did for Philip. The sort of thing I think about now, during these two weeks in Paris when I am not working. When Philip is. I sit here at the kitchen table with my coffee and think. About wives at kitchen tables, about television ones and real ones. And how even though I am not Mrs. Dyer, Mrs. Brighton, Mrs. Schaefer, how I am not even close to being Betty Draper, here I am, sipping coffee, staring.

And I wonder about so many things. About women in the world. About wives and mothers. About what is help and what isn’t. About black and white. About what’s on television. So at my kitchen table in Paris, a place from where I can see home more clearly, maybe, I pour another cup of coffee and I pick up my pen. And I wonder some more.

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Patty Patricia Ann McNair is the author of the short story collection The Temple of Air, which was named Chicago Writers Association’s Book of the Year, Southern Illinois University’s Devil’s Kitchen Readers Award, and Society of Midland Authors Finalist Award. McNair’s fiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in American Fiction: Best Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging WritersPrime Number, River TeethFourth GenreBrevityCreative Nonfiction, and other publications. Her piece, “My Mother’s Daughter,” recently won the Solstice Literary Magazine’s first prize in the short story. Her work has been nominated for numerous Pushcart Prizes, and has received four Illinois Arts Council Awards in Fiction and Nonfiction. She was awarded Columbia College Chicago’s Excellence in Teaching Award, and was nominated for the Carnegie Foundation’s U.S. Professor of the Year. McNair is Director of Undergraduate Programs in Fiction Writing in the Department of Creative Writing at Columbia College Chicago.