Wednesday, December 20, 2000

Restaurant owner nourished with more than food

        Cold water stands in an idle steam table. A cast-iron skillet sits empty on the stove. No fried chicken today. Heavy's Place is out of business.

        A West End landmark for 45 years, Heavy's served its last meal Monday.

        The restaurant's closing means more than the loss of a place for ribs and greens, meatloaf and some of the city's finest golden-brown fried chicken.

        When they turned out the lights at Heavy's, they extinguished a beacon of hope in a neighborhood that has long suffered in the shadows of despair.

[photo] Arthur “Heavy” Harris Jr. is closing Heavy's Place.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        “It's time,” Arthur “Heavy” Harris Jr. told me Tuesday morning. “I turn 70 on March 7, 2001.”

        He eased his weary bones and 300 pounds into the first booth by the door of his deserted restaurant. Down the street, a bulldozer turned the Laurel Homes housing project into rubble.

        “They're demolishing the whole block,” Heavy said. “The stores here are going, along with Laurel Homes.”

        Then, he added:

        “They're fixing to up grade the neighborhood.”

        Any neighborhood — no matter how upscale — would be upgraded by the presence of this man.

Caring touch

        For 45 years — the first 20 on Court Street, the last 25 on Linn Street - Heavy helped hold the West End together.

        He fed hungry bodies as well as hearts and souls. He loaned money, thousands of his own dollars, to nourish others' dreams.

        When customers needed clothes for their kids, a roof over their heads, money for a car or college, they went to Heavy.

        He'd open his cash register and hand over some money. Then he'd write the amount in a ledger. Closing the book, he'd promptly forget about the transaction.

        I first wrote about Heavy on Thanksgiving Eve in 1997. Then his story was about being thankful.

        In the holiday season of 2000, his story embodies the spirit of giving.

        “I believe what you get from the community, you give back,” Heavy told me. Leaning his back to the wall, he slowly raised his legs to rest them on the booth's padded bench.

        “The Lord has been good to me. The people loved me. So, I got back more than I ever gave out.”

        He doesn't hold IOUs or grudges against his debtors. “No one twisted my arm and made me give that money.

        “To the people who still owe me, I say: "Just bless that money.' ”

Helping hand

        Heavy gives and never remembers. Some recipients of his gifts never forget.

        Claudette Ward called the restaurant on Tuesday morning. She was at work and wanted to know what was on the lunch menu. She learned there was no menu and Heavy's Place was no more.

        “That's horrible,” she said. “I'm 39. But I'll always remember how, when I was going to Taft High School, I'd be short on cash. Heavy would always wave me through the line and give me something to eat.”

        She sighed and added: “Can't he relocate?”

        Heavy had an option to relocate or retire. He chose retirement.

        “I don't have the energy to open another place,” he said. “I'm tired.”

        He has every reason to be. In 1997, he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure. On doctor's orders he cut back his hours. He went from working six 21-hour days a week to four 15-hour sessions.

        Heavy said he spent those long hours “just to pay the bills.” I say he worked to take care of the neighborhood.

        “The neighborhood will be all right without me,” he said. “You go. Life goes on.”

        True. But, without Heavy, life will be different in the West End. He won't be there to give nourishment to the neighborhood's dreams.

        Sharing a booth for, as Heavy said, “one last go-round,” I suggested he should be honored for his work in the West End. Receiving the key to the city from the mayor would be nice.

        Heavy disagreed. “Been rewarded enough.”

        He's right. He already has the greatest gift. The ability to give to others.

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


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