The Panda Lady
By Max Cooper
1 Dec 2007
"I'm looking for the Panda Lady" is a sentence I never thought I'd say outside of the zoo, but here I am, at the counter of a local drugstore. The woman behind the counter smiles and walks away, and soon returns with Jene McGlamery, or, as most of her friends call her, McPanda.
Whether she knows it or not, Jene is something of an icon, and I'm a bit nervous. I've talked to people a county away that know her, or have spotted her house here in West Asheville. It's pretty memorable: there are 40 stuffed pandas in the yard.
Jene is smiling at me now, a little old lady whose appearance gives no clue of her obsession, except for the small panda pin on her sweater beside her drugstore name tag. Trying to overcome the oddness of the situation, I introduce myself, and explain that I'm working on an idea for JPG magazine.
"Well, what's the idea?" she asks.
How do you say it? Can you call someone that word—fanatic—without offending them? I grit my teeth and jump in with both feet.
"JPG's theme in the next issue is called 'Fanatic,' and, well, I thought of you." I'm braced for the rejection that photographers always fear when they shoot interesting people. But Jene is laughing.
"Well, Mr. Cooper, if you're looking for a fanatic, you've come to the right place."
You could say that Jene collects stuffed pandas. Sounds innocuous enough; lots of people collect things. But it's more than that. Jene amasses pandas. She gathers them into assemblies. After spending an hour in her house, I'd even say the pandas play a part in it as well: They congregate around Jene, in every nook and cranny, flooding her house in contrasty waves of black and white, with occasional crests of green bamboo.
When I drive up, Jene is in the yard, putting Santa hats on the pandas that live in her trees. It's an idyllic house, the kind you grew up in, with tasteful decor and stylish but authentic furnishings. Parked in the driveway is her blue Cadillac, complete with pandas looking through the back windshield. Jene greets me in the yard, but wants to start the tour in the house.
"So, how many pandas have you got in there?" I ask before we go in, trying to decide if I'll need my fish-eye lens to capture the ranks of black-eyed bears.
"Oh, about three thousand," she says, as if it were a stamp collection. "But it's hard to say. People bring me more all the time."
The house is intensely well kept, very neat and tidy. It's saved from sparseness by the bears, which peer at me as I follow her through the door. Jene's stuffed pandas retain the magic and mystery of real ones, with their unreadable expressions and open, shadowed eyes. With their fuzzy, purposeful bumbling, and their skull-like facial coloring, pandas have always seemed to me a strange mix of darkness, innocence, and irrefutable cuteness.
These are no exception, and they are everywhere. We move from room to room, Jene leading, me stooping and flashing and zooming, trying to photograph everything at once. I want to know the story behind each one, but it is soon apparent that there are just too many. Pandas on the couch, pandas on the Christmas tree, pandas by the piano, pandas on the fridge, big pandas, little pandas, red pandas, pink pandas, old pandas, new ones the mailman brought just this week. In fact, I did a little Googling later, and found out that there are more stuffed pandas in Jene's house than there are real ones living in the wild.
Jene's obsession started twenty-two years ago when a suitor gave her the first stuffed panda. Since then, her house has become a mecca for these plush replicas of an endangered species. Some she buys at Goodwill, but many are gifts from loved ones and other panda faithful. Now her fame has grown so much that strangers bring her more bears, sometimes leaving them anonymously on the doorstep like votive statues left at a shrine.
Though admittedly fanatic, Jene is quick to point out that she does not take her obsession too far. She is a devout Presbyterian, and confides to me that tithing always comes before pandas. And the only things in the house displayed more prominently than the bears are evidence of Jene's family and faith—pictures of her loved ones, and a portrait of Christ painted by her daughter.
Jene takes me to the basement. The rooms here, like those upstairs, are filled with pandas. She moves among them, selecting a few for the Christmas display in the yard. Any panda with red accessories is drafted, scooped up and readied for presentation. While she's working, we talk about the neighborhood, and her involvement with her church. She's very supportive of the Presbyterian doctrine, and even has a small tableau of a church session meeting—populated by pandas, of course—complete with "two grumblers that don't agree."
If I had any doubts that Jene was indeed a fanatic, they are removed here in the basement. There in the corner is the water heater, decorated with pandas. In my estimation, this is the height of commitment. We are all fans of something, decorating our walls and our car bumpers with rock stars, politicians, sports players, and actors. But who decorates their water heater? Only the Panda Lady.
We go back upstairs, to the climax of pandas-per-square-foot: the staircase. It seems to stretch up for miles, covered in a brimming mass of cheerful bears like a crowded subway platform before the train comes. Dozens upon dozens of pandas loom upwards into darkness.
Outside, what once seemed like a panda-crowded yard now seems almost empty compared to the house. The bears here are a bit weather-weary, but Jene refreshes them often with seasonal decorations. Today she's taking down the fall colors and putting up Christmas adornments, but it's blustery and cold, and we don't linger long.
I thank Jene for the opportunity to photograph her and head home, just a few streets away. West Asheville is a changing neighborhood, going through lots of growing pains. Jene's church was burglarized last week, and three nights ago there was a double murder at a pool hall just two blocks away. "It scares you, happening right under your nose like that," Jene had said in the basement, clutching a large panda. "I used to call it 'Best Asheville,' but not any more."
Still, she says, it's a fine place to live. The pandas seem to agree. And I do too. West Asheville is a good place, the kind of place where people trust each other, even strange photographers that want to document their lives. As this neighborhood changes, Jene is still a necessary icon. It is good to live in a town where a lady can collect three thousand pandas, undaunted by the hard realities around her. It's good to live where people feel free to follow their fanaticism, to let it shine.