Wednesday, November 26, 1997
Restaurateur serves up hope

The Cincinnati Enquirer

An angel lives in the West End, and everyone calls him ''Heavy.'' He feeds his neighbors and helps raise their kids. He lends them money and asks for nothing in return.

The spirit also moves him to offer something even better than his home cooking and hard-earned money. He gives them hope.

That's a tall order.

But Arthur ''Heavy'' Harris Jr. has the quiet strength to fill it. His hands are as big as hams and as soft as pillows. He stands 6-1 and weighs 300 pounds, most of it heart.

For 42 years, he has run Heavy's Place, a West End restaurant whose open door draws a steady stream of customers to a business district overpopulated with boarded-up storefronts.

For those same 42 years, Heavy has helped neighbors like the man nervously wringing his cap as he approaches the booth where the big man is resting his mighty frame.

''His name's Franklin,'' Heavy whispers in a deep voice that starts somewhere near his shoelaces. ''But we call him 'Chicago.' '' Franklin is a single parent struggling to raise twin 4-year-old boys.

One twin is sick. ''Bad sick,'' Franklin says. The boy has a fever. ''Got too much air the other night.'' Franklin took him to Children's Hospital Medical Center.

Heavy struggles to his feet. While Franklin talks, Heavy walks. He reaches the cash register and opens a drawer.

''Here's $40,'' Heavy says. ''That'll get you a place to stay and get those kids off the street at night.''

Franklin promises he'll pay him back. Heavy gives him a smile. ''Where is my book?'' Heavy asks himself after the man leaves. He rifles through a stack of papers, receipts, bags, old magazines and sheets of plastic by the cash register.

From the debris, he retrieves a battered spiral-bound notebook. Turning the grease-stained pages, he comes to one marked ''Chicago - Franklin.''

He records the $40, and adds it to the previous balance: $1,537.00 There's no last name next to Franklin. No address. No phone number. No signed IOU. And no interest charged.

''He'll pay it back when he gets settled,'' Heavy says confidently. ''I'm not worried. He's got to take care of his children first.''

More names, numbers

Heavy thumbs through the book. Franklin is not alone. The notebook holds 140 pages. Each has a name and a loan.

There is another book of names and numbers. It, too, is filled. Debts run from $3.50 for a rib dinner to amounts in the hundreds and thousands. Heavy lends the money for food, for funerals, for medicine and for kids' school clothes.

''There's not a kid in the West End that Heavy hasn't helped,'' Mickey Mathis says as she dashes in for an early lunch. ''He's raised this neighborhood.''

''He raised me,'' says Donald Zander. ''When my parents split up, I stayed with my aunts. They charged me room and board. Heavy gave me a job. He was like a father to me. He showed me around life.''

That was 40 years ago. After a 21-year career in the Army, Donald came back to Cincinnati. And to work at Heavy's Place.

Ask why he helps so many people and Heavy answers like he's singing the blues:

''Ain't nobody but me.''

He's not married. ''Never have been. With my hours, I couldn't keep a wife.''

He's nobody's daddy. ''I'm sure of that.''

His mother and father are gone. ''They passed years ago.''

He has one sister. ''But her daughters take care of her.''

So, Heavy repeats his refrain:

''Ain't nobody but me.''

He slides back into the booth and gazes at his feet dangling over the edge of the seat.

''I got some swollen old ankles,'' he says, changing the subject as he does whenever the spotlight shines on his good deeds.

''Poor circulation runs in my family on my mother's side. I have phlebitis in both legs. So, I have to keep moving to keep my circulation going.

''But if I'm on my feet too long, the swelling starts.''

Too long for this 66-year-old man is working a 21-hour shift, six days a week. Heavy opens for breakfast at 6 a.m. But he starts cooking for it at 1:30 a.m.

He stops serving at 2 p.m. or when the food runs out. Then he starts getting ready for the next day. He cooks until 10:30 p.m.

Most nights, he's too tired to go home - even though it's nearby. So he just sleeps in the basement.

Heavy can't rest for long. Although his bulging ankles are spilling over the tops of his shoes, there's cooking to do.

Smoked pig knuckles simmer in a pot on the stove. Fifty pounds of greens wait to be cleaned in the sink.

Diced onions, celery and green peppers sit on a cutting board and fill the steamy air in the one-room restaurant with their perfume.

Before going back to work, Heavy tries to explain ''why I do the things I do. My family was poor. When I was little, we stayed in two rooms on Fifth Street. We didn't have food sometimes. I am blessed to have the things I have now.''

Giving thanks

Instead of treating the neighborhood, he could treat himself. Heavy drives an old beat-up station wagon. He could buy a new car. ''It'd just get banged up.''

He could put a down payment on a new house.

''I already have a house. I'm never there.''

He could go on a long vacation.

''There's no one I want to visit. All my family's in town.''

So, visit a sunny beach in the Caribbean.

''I don't have the shape for walking the beach.''

He'd rather walk the chewed-up floor tiles of his restaurant. To him, a fun vacation is spending the summer - as well as the fall, winter and spring - in the West End.

It's all part of a deal he made years ago.

One night, just before bedtime, he started thinking about what was important in life. He realized that with his weight he was ''still lucky'' to be alive.

''That's when I asked God to give me health. Not wealth.''
Ignoring swollen ankles and phlebitis, Heavy keeps up his side of the bargain by sharing his wealth. And not just by handing out money from his cash drawer.

He also gives away meals. He may be running a restaurant. Food may be his livelihood. But he makes sure no one ever leaves Heavy's Place hungry. He doesn't need a special day for giving.

In this season of sharing, it's an inspiration to meet an angel named Heavy.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.