It was so cold, the front windows of the club had frozen over. There was quite enough humidity building up inside. It was time for the annual Men-Cooking-for-Men Christmas Party. Just imagine; Chicago – December 14, 2004. Nearly 20 degrees outside, with a below-zero wind-chill factor.
The younger members were gathered near the front door and the elders were seated in their own favorite chairs. Despite the cold, there were quite a few guests that night. Everyone was waiting for the food to come out of the kitchen. There was a great menu and the aroma was making everyone salivate. For the amount of people in the club, it was quiet. There was an unwritten rule for party nights. There was no loud, unnecessary noise, there was no arguing allowed, and generally no one was allowed to make any important decisions, except the key holder…and that was Frex, my Dad!
The front door had blown open as a short, thin and near frozen black man stepped inside and closed the door behind him. He was wearing a Navy P-coat, a withered cap and no gloves or winter boots. Standing in the dark entrance, he was wiping his shoes on the welcome mat as he looked up to find six fairly large young men staring down at him.
I can only imagine that he instantly realized he was not in a public establishment. “What can we do for you” asked Jaime, a huge Streets and Sanitation driver. The man looked up, then gazed around the room. He gulped a few times, folded his hands in front of him and spoke. “Hello sir, my name is Clarence. I have been walking all day and I am very cold and hungry. If there’s a chance that I can work for some food, I’d really appreciate it.”
Knowing the rules about making decisions, Jaime pointed to the end of the front counter, where I was having a drink with my partner Mike Breheny. “You can see that guy over there” Jaime said politely. It was Mike’s first Christmas Party at the club and he knew the rules too. Clarence walked up to Mike and seemed to bring the cold with him. “Hello sir” he addressed Mike, “my name is Clarence. That gentleman over there said I should speak to you. I have been walking all day and I am very cold and hungry. If there’s a chance that I can work for some food, I’d really appreciate it.” Mike, surprised to see a little black man in the midst of all this garlic and olive oil, was silent. He looked up at me, expecting some support.
“Pssst, hey little man”, I said teasingly. “I’ll take care of you. I’m an angel and no one can see me but you! Follow me.” I whispered as I turned and walked toward the kitchen where my Dad was putting the final touches on Christmas dinner.
As we stepped into the doorway of the kitchen, I put my arm around Clarence. “Hey Dad, look who’s here. It’s Clarence.”
Without missing a beat and totally unrehearsed, my father walked up to Clarence and put out his hand. “Hello, Clarence, what the heck took you so long to get here? We’ve been waiting for you. Have you eaten yet?”
Clarence was dumbfounded. My Dad still had his hand. By the look on his face, he must have thought that he was about to be cooked and eaten. They were about the same height, but my Dad was nearly twice as wide. Clarence took a few more dry gulps and spoke. “Why no, Mr. Dad. I was just telling Mr. Angel-man here that I would be happy to work for food if there was an opportunity to do so.” “Opportunity to do so?” my father laughed. “We’ve been waiting for you to arrive. Hold on there, Clarence.”
Dad stepped out of the kitchen and snapped his fingers a few times and a few guys came running. “Set a table right here next to the doorway…table for one…full set up.” he rolled out the orders as they went into action.
“Clarence, how does prime rib sound to you? Do you like prime rib?” Dad returned to the oven. The aroma was filling his senses. “Well, Mr. Dad, I can’t say that I have ever had prime rib, but I would sure like to give it a try.” Clarence looked down into the hot oven and saw a piece of beef larger than his leg.
Within minutes, the doorway table was set. A water glass, with cold water and a lemon-slice; A glass of home-made red wine; A plate of salad with everything but the kitchen sink in it; A thick slice of prime rib, a side of pasta, string beans almondine, and a cloth napkin.
“There you go Clarence, you eat first. Go ahead, sit down. This is for you. Eat first, then we’ll talk about the work.” Dad returned to preparing the meal.
Clarence turned to me with a dazed look on his face. “This is for me, Mr Angel-man?” he nearly whimpered. “Sure, if Dad says enjoy, then enjoy!” I stepped around him and returned to my perch at the corner of the front counter.
Clarence sat there and ate without much notice as the party continued around him. The food was being marched out of the kitchen and the guests swarmed the buffet, as if they hadn’t eaten in weeks. There was more than enough food and everyone settled in for dinner.
I had gotten to the kitchen just as Clarence was clearing his table. “Gosh Mr. Dad, that was the finest meal I have ever had. I sure am grateful to you.” “Well you can be grateful by helping out a bit, is that Ok with you,” Dad asked. Clarence nodded, eyes wide open. He looked like he was praying that he wasn’t going to ‘be’ the next course.
“You must be from New Orleans”, my Dad queried Clarence. “Why yes, Mr. Dad. How did you know?” “You’d be surprised what I know” Dad quipped. “Here, I have something for you” Dad grabbed an old soiled apron off the hook on the wall. Printed on the front was the slogan ‘Cookin in Nawlins’. “This ought to fit you, put it on. Do you know how to wash dishes and bus tables?” dad asked as he was handing platters of food to runners who were bringing them to the hungry crowd. “I sure do”, Clarence answered almost enthusiastic. “Well start busing the tables. Bring all the dirty dishes back here to the wash-sink, then place them out there on the tables because more people will be coming.” Dad gave Clarence his orders. “I sure will Mr. Dad.”
Clarence weaved in and out of the crowd for about an hour, gathering up plates and tableware, and politely asking if people were finished with their plates. After several trips to the wash-sink, he turned to Dad. “Mr. Dad, there ain’t much room to fit any more plates here.” “Well, that’s why we have a sink. Do I need to teach you how to wash dishes?” Dad asked. “No sir, Mr. Dad, I got it handled.”
Clarence started washing the dishes and was nearly forgotten as the party went on. By 9pm, the whole group gathered together for the ‘family’ photograph. The Photographer came in with a tall ladder and set it up next to the kitchen door. He had climbed up and had nearly snapped the first photo just as Clarence poked his head out from behind the ladder.
“Wait!” Dad cried out as the photo was snapped “We almost forgot our guest of honor. Everyone stay as you are, for one more photo. Grab a chair and put it here in the front. Come on Clarence, get in the picture” Dad coaxed Clarence to his seat and the second photo was taken.
“How’s the kitchen look, Clarence?” Dad asked as he began to untie his apron. The kitchen was cleaner than it had ever been. Clarence washed all the dishes and put them away. He cleaned all the pots, pans and utensils and wiped down the stove and cutting board. Dad was impressed.
He walked Clarence out of the kitchen and signaled for someone to get his coat and hat, which were warming near an electric heater. Digging into a box near the TV, he pulled out a new scarf, a hat and a pair of gloves and handed them to the little man. “These ought to fit you, Clarence”, he said as he turned to my partner Mike and whispered, “Pass the hat around for Clarence, would you, Mike?” Mike turned quickly and started collecting. Not a soul missed hitting the hat.
Clarence was trying on his new gloves as Dad counted up the money in front of everyone. There was $200. “10% for the house” he chuckled, as he peeled off $20 and stuck it into his pocket. As he neatly stuffed the money into Clarence’s shirt pocket, a shopping bag filled with leftovers was brought out of the kitchen.
“Merry Christmas, Clarence” Dad said as he shook his hand and placed the shopping bag in his grip. “And have a Happy New Year.”
“Merry Christmas Clarence, Merry Christmas, Bye Bye Clarence”, the crowd chimed in as I walked him to the door.
“Mr. Angel-man?” Clarence looked up with a tear in his eye. “Is this all a dream?” “Well, Clarence” I was pulling his hat down over his ears and buttoning the top button on his coat. “Is your belly full? Did you have a good time?, well, you just think of it as a night you spent with the angels and don’t forget to stop by and help Mr. Dad here in the club once in a while, OK? Merry Christmas, Clarence!” and the door closed behind him.
A few months later, Dad and I were talking about the Christmas party and I had asked Dad if Clarence ever showed up again. He hadn’t. “He thought we were angels”, I chuckled. Dad looked up with a serious gaze, “I have a feeling, he was the angel that night, and we were just being tested. I think we passed that test, don’t you?” Nice thought!
When Dad’s club closed in 2009, I inherited all the photos that graced the walls. They were stained and dulled by years of dust and cigar smoke, as they hung on the walls without much protection.
These two photo’s were found in the bundle.
The first photo was taken just as Clarence stepped out of the kitchen, behind the photographer’s ladder.
Then, only a few moments later, this photo was taken, as Clarence was asked to join the family..
An angel among us?
Dad passed away in mid November, 2012. He leaves an incredible legacy that will live on forever.
This story was told as his eulogy. It verifies the spontaneity that he had for life; his, no exclusions generosity; his incredible ability to open up to anyone who would have him as a friend and his contagious way of telling a story.
Only the people in the photos above can testify to the truth and validity of this story, as they were there to experience it. Yes! Angels are among us! Thanks Clarence!