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Chapter Two: The Old Guard

Fred and Al, part of the Old Guard

One thing about the members of the Reading Room, they loved the simplicity of the club. Not a lot of extravagance.  They enjoyed arriving at their tables and seeing the same faces. They seemed to enjoy seeing someone they trusted taking care of their needs. Trust was very important. Once you established their trust, it was like a match made in heaven.
        The staff of the Reading Room consisted of some old timers.  As young whippersnappers, we marveled at the older men and energy they had. There was our boss, Otis Buggs - who actually - was a bit intimidating.  He was a short, older man whose job was to make everything the members wanted, happen.
        The ladies who prepared the food for the members during the early years were named Lucille and Helen. Helen had roots in South Carolina, and Lucille was from NYC. Boy could they cook and bake. I used to love the peach cobbler Lucille used to make.
        The servers during this period of time in the 70s were Mack, Tom, Bill, Fred, and Hickenbacher or Hick. All the waiters had the same traits, older black men with a crazy work ethic.
        Mack probably was in his 60s - he was a server but did the work of a valet for the live-in men.  He would pick up the dry cleaning for members and run errands for them during the downtimes.
        Bill was a server who was one of our favorites. He was not as intimidating to us as Otis and Mack. Bill was from Philadelphia. I used to love his thick handle bar moustache. Bill used to be an excellent basketball player.  He was a younger man than the rest of the wait staff; he was in his 40s. I think that’s why we related to him.  As a matter of fact, we loved listening to him tell his exploits at basketball games in Philly. Our favorite stories were about playing basketball and growing up with Wilt Chamberlain. Plus, he was kind of -  to us -  just a plain ole “cool dude”.
        Tom, from NYC was the brother of Frankie who served as the housekeeper for the members who stayed in the rooms upstairs.  Tom would eventually take Buggs’ place as the person in charge of the staff and the person in charge of handling the special needs of the members. Tom was very skilled. He had worked the railroad as a server and we watched him carefully, as I hoped that one day, we might get our chance to become servers at the Reading Room.
        Another server whom we watched closely, and we thought was probably the hardest worker and most skilled of them all, was a man named Fred.  Fred was a tall, thin, dark skinned man who was from the south. He was probably in his early 60s at the time.  Now, if you’re talking about a man who could work, it was Fred.  Fred had more of a “yes massa” way about him than the others. I later found out that Fred was part of the famous, historical group of professional black porters known as Pullman Porters. They worked on the railroad. It was the porter that gave the sleeping car that feeling of luxury for the wealthy. They were there to serve the very fortunate. That explained why Fred looked so very professional.

James and Sonny, waiters

Stanely Petter, Reading Room member

Frankie #2

        Then there was an elderly server we called Hick. His last name was Hickenbacher. I didn’t know a lot about Hick. One thing I did know was he had the gout and it caused him to have problems with his feet. I remember when my cousin Sonny stepped on his foot by accident. He was in such pain. I knew he wasn’t going to last long as a server with those bad feet.
        Lastly, I want to introduce to you the two sweetest ladies that were part of these special and extraordinarily group of hard workers. These ladies happened to both be named Frankie; c  Frankie Johnson, the younger sister of Tom, was a short, chunky, freckle-faced woman who took care of the housekeeping for the male members who stayed in the rooms. She made the beds, changed linens, and kept them supplied with clean towels and bathroom products. Frankie had been the housekeeper at the Reading Room in the neighborhood of 30+ years. She would also help as a server on days we were really busy and needed that helping hand.  I got a kick out of her because she used to refer to us as her “little boys”. Sonny was 6’2, I was 6 feet, but to her, we were her little boys. I can still hear her high-pitched voice calling us to do something she needed done. For a long time, it seemed like I could hear her calling my name in my sleep. All the members loved Frankie Johnson. We used to love listening to her many stories of her exploits during her younger days growing up in NYC and at the Reading Room.
        Frankie used to supervise us during the setup of the upstairs rooms before the Reading Room opened for the members. She used to go through the rooms with a white glove making sure we had dusted. She was very meticulous and wanted things done right. There was no hiding or getting away from her. Even with all our little hiding spots we had as young boys, that high pitched voice of hers would reach us. As I said, there was no escaping Frankie Johnson!
        Frankie had close relationships with the wives and female guests of the members.  She was another one who we noticed was pocketing lots and lots of money from the lady members. Matter of fact, she used to flash the $20s, $50s- or $100-dollar bills, she had just received. She knew everyone, their families, what they did, and she treated everyone as if they were her best friend.  Frankie got sick in the late 90s and last I heard she was in a better place. God bless you Frankie. You were a great lady.
        Now Frankie #2, as she was known to some members, was in her early 60s, she came on during the late 70s and was one of the last of the black staff that remained into the 1990s before she retired from working.

         Frankie was a local woman who lived in our neighborhood in Saratoga Springs. A little-known fact is that her daughter Toye - who sadly passed away in 2009, at the young age of 53 and periodically helped out at the Reading Room - was my first ever girlfriend. We were in the 7th grade. She was the first girl I ever kissed. A funny thing about that was, I must have been a terrible kisser. She broke up with me shortly after. 
         Mrs. Romaine knew all of us as we grew up through the years.  As Frankie Johnson’s assistant, she had the same traits. She was very meticulous, very detailed, and wanted things done correctly the first time.
         So that is my introduction of the older guard, who during the upcoming years started fading into their twilight years. They would come up from time to time to visit, eat some of Lucille and Helens cooking and go to the track. After 3 years of washing dishes, the door of opportunity was finally opening for a couple of young, upstanding, eager young bucks who were primed and ready to replace the old guard. It was finally our time to shine. The arrival of the young bloods as servers was upon us. We called ourselves the New Breed and in 1975, we couldn’t wait to get started.   

In the next installment, chapter three, we’ll meet “Sports Celebrities"

For previous Chapter:  Chapter One: The Beginning



Helen the cook