A very interesting man I knew

It was the spring of 1996 and I was selling men’s shoes at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chicago. The suit department was next door and I’d sometimes help customers there if no other salespeople were around.

It was sale time – it was very often sale time – and the aisles were jammed with racks of marked-down suits and pants. An elderly African-American man rolled up in one of those scooter-chair things and said he needed some tan trousers. Because the aisles were blocked in that department I walked over to the rack, pulled out a few pairs in his size, and brought them to him. He liked a couple and wanted to try them on, so I directed him to the fitting rooms. What happened then was a first (and only) in my 15 years in retail.

The man said he could walk very short distances – such as into the dressing room – but he couldn’t bend over, and he asked if I could I help him try on the pants. So I did.

I went into the little room with him, helped him off with his own trousers and helped him on with the new ones. He stood up slowly, looked at himself in the mirror and made his decision quickly (bless him), and then we got him dressed again.

As I was ringing up his purchase he explained that he’d had a stroke recently and couldn’t walk much, thus the scooter, and that he had retired from his job as a criminal court judge. His speech was a bit slow but I understood him perfectly. He was from Memphis, he said, and was in Chicago visiting his sister.

“Memphis? I’m going to be there next month.” Calvin’s mom was recently married and planned a driving vacation from her home in Mississippi to Branson, Missouri, via Memphis, and Calvin and I would rendezvous with the newlyweds in Memphis. I had already done some research on dining options.

“I read about a restaurant called the Four Way Grill. Do you know it?”

His head turned a little to the side, like people’s do when they want to hear something better.

“Yeah, I know it. That’s a black restaurant.”

“Well, is there any reason I shouldn’t go there?”

“Noooo.” He didn’t sound bothered, just a little confused.

“Is it good?”

He brightened. “Yeah, it’s good. I’d go with you if you asked me.” And I did.

A month later, after arranging to meet Judge Lockard for breakfast – that was his name, H.T. Lockard – Calvin, his mom and stepdad and I found ourselves driving through some neighborhoods that made us wonder if we were lost. This place was in Gourmet, I thought; could this be right?

But soon enough we saw the Four Way, and there, in a minivan parked in front, was the judge. He slowly turned himself out of the driver’s seat and, with the help of a cane and a convenient elbow, was able to make his way to the restaurant. It was a small diner, really, in a plain brick building of faded pink.

As soon as the door opened we heard a chorus from the kitchen. “G’mornin,’ judge!” “You’re lookin’ good, judge!”

The rest of us looked toward the dining room, wondering whether we should seat ourselves or wait, when the judge said, “Come this way,” and set out in his slow shuffle through the kitchen.

We snaked behind him through the hot, narrow space, squeezing between women in white dresses griddling eggs and ham and pancakes and patting biscuit dough. Large pans of biscuits were spread over the counters and let up a smell that told you you’d soon be eating too many of them.

Through the kitchen, we found ourselves in a dining room separate from the main seating area, without a door or any means of entry except through the kitchen.

The tables were covered with worn vinyl cloths and the walls paneled with thin wood-grain sheets of 1960s vintage. Photographs hung around the room. Over here was Dr. King and over there was Jesse Jackson. That looks like Alex Haley. And there – why, that’s Judge Lockard. And there’s Judge Lockard with Dr. King!

Orders were taken and our breakfasts were delivered. I had country ham with strong red eye gravy – so did the judge – and there was a mountain of biscuits in the middle of the table. Judge Lockard asked gently if I might help him cut his ham into pieces since he had trouble using his right arm. Of course I did, while resisting the impulse to express my hope that his minivan had automatic transmission.

We had the back room to ourselves for that breakfast and enjoyed a good conversation, mostly about food.

A few months later, in the summer of 1996, the Democratic National Convention took place in Chicago. During that week a customer came into Saks wearing a seersucker suit and a bow tie. “Let me guess,“ I ventured. “You’re not from here.”

“Sharp eye. I’m from Memphis.” He was a newspaperman, it turned out, in town covering the convention.

I lit up and told him I’d been there recently and had some good meals. He asked about them.

“Well, there was the Rendezvous – great lamb ribs.” He nodded approvingly. “And the Cozy Corner – those barbecued Cornish hens.”

“Another good one.”

“And we had breakfast at a place called the Four Way Grill. Have you heard of it?”

He stiffened. “You went to the Four Way Grill?”

“Yeah, and it was really good. We ate in the back room with a fellow I know named H.T. Lockard.”

The newspaperman’s eyes grew large. “You were in the back room of the Four Way Grill with H.T. Lockard?”

This scared me a little. “Uh, yes. Why?”

He explained that the back room of the Four Way Grill was where the black elite of Memphis did their politics and made their deals, and that Judge Lockard ranked very high in the pantheon. He had been among the founders of the NAACP in Tennessee. It was a rare honor, the journalist told me, for outsiders – white ones at that – to be invited into the sanctum.

Several months later Calvin and I returned to Memphis and again we met the judge, this time for Sunday brunch at a trendier little spot near the University of Memphis. It was an Eggs Florentine kind of place.

I never saw Judge Lockard after that but I spoke to him a few times on the phone and we traded a couple of letters over the years.

Six or seven years ago I attended an Urban League event in Los Angeles. At one point I was standing in the rear of the ballroom when Jesse Jackson walked by. I said, “Reverend Jackson, I think we have a mutual friend.” His face pinched up a bit, skeptically.

“Oh, really.” It was a statement, not a question.

“Yes. H.T. Lockard.”

“You know Judge Lockard.” Again, a statement. He really hadn’t stopped moving during the exchange.

“Yes. Had a nice breakfast with him once in the back room of the Four Way Grill.”

Rev. Jackson stopped and turned toward me. “You were in the back room of the Four Way Grill with H.T. Lockard?”

I just smiled and shrugged. I considered mentioning that I was at that breakfast with my boyfriend but decided that might be too much for the great civil rights leader.

The judge died about a year ago at age 91 and I read a wonderful story about him in his obituary. In the early 60s he was the attorney representing black students attempting to enroll in Memphis State University, and during the fight a man called to say he was going to kill him. He told an associate about the threat and said, “I’m going to fortify myself with arms and liquor and be on the front porch waiting for him.” Fortunately, nothing came of the incident but the story captured the elegance I saw and the determination I had read about.

I thought about H.T. Lockard the other day on the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination. He was a great man, one of the people I’ve been blessed in my life to know, if only a little.