May 30, 2011
All these sad truths were racing through my head the other night when my buddy Curtis Brown told me the story of Clifford King. Curtis owned a Mexican restaurant in LA called Territory Barbecue & Records. During smoke breaks out back, he got to know King, who would regularly pick cans and bottles out of the garbage. King is a sixty-something black man from the South who grew up in poverty, but his grandparents owned a BBQ spot so he was never hungry. Curtis decided to pay King $15 an hour to help out around the kitchen and eventually cook.
For the first few weeks, Clifford King went from anonymous help to an integral part of the team. He hosted cookouts like they were family reunions and was known to most customers on a first-name basis. He cleaned up, got sober, and Curtis gave him a room in the back that Clifford kept immaculate as he saved for a bigger place. Soon King was getting back in touch with his relatives and Curtis even received a call from King’s mother, who was crying tears of joy. It was the Man With the Golden Voice story all over again.
After being a model employee for six months, Clifford stole $500 out of the till and got drunk. Curtis didn’t call the cops, but he got the money back, fired King, and kicked him out of the room in the back. “The crazy part was, I’d still see him,” Curtis told me. “He went right back to his old life collecting cans so after I got over it, we started talking again.” King was apologetic about what had happened but eventually admitted he purposely sabotaged his success because he preferred his old life. “I work one hour every morning,” he told Curtis while packing a large blue garbage bag full of cans, “then I’m set for the rest of the day.” King said he would rather buy an $11 bottle of Tvarscki vodka and slowly sip it under a bridge than head out to work every morning to pay his bills. “I get where he’s coming from,” Curtis said. “He has no responsibilities. He’s not beholden to anyone. He’s warm, he’s fed, and he’s drunk.” After he said that, I used my phone to look up the Man with the Golden Voice. Turns out the guy blew all those job offers by showing up to work wasted, so now he’s in rehab.
Curtis started the restaurant with some money he made from his Brooklyn taco truck. Unfortunately, after a few bad decisions and some even worse luck, the place went bankrupt. Curtis moved back to New York with his infant son and now works six days a week running a restaurant in Tribeca. He doesn’t drink anymore; there’s too much on the line. Clifford King still collects cans every morning and is probably drunk right now. I’m writing this with a hangover. At night we all lie in the beds we made. The only difference is that Clifford’s is made of leaves.