I sat on a wooden box in the shadow of the sales counter and watched The Undertaker as he paced restlessly in front of Mr. Witt’s Liquor Store and as he paused now and again to peer inside the open storefront before he resumed his march. The Undertaker continued the monotony for several more minutes while a number of customers entered the Liquor Store and Market. Many were buying cigarettes and cigars as was fashionable in the 1960’s. Brooklyn Joe, the snooker player, had walked over from the Pool Hall next door to pick up a racing form and a pack of White Owl Cigars. He, and old man Witt, discussed their favorites running at Hollywood Park and were soon joined by three other men. As always, Brooklyn Joe was by far the loudest participant, with every other word taken from the largest storehouse of swear words known to man.
The Undertaker stopped pacing the sidewalk and watched intently at the five men who, engrossed in their conversation, seemed oblivious to everything else. The Undertaker casually strolled through the 15 foot wide opening at the front of the store. He was a tall thin man. I believe he was about the thinnest man I had ever seen and at over six feet likely weighed little more than myself. As always he was attired in black leather wingtip shoes with holes in the bottom, which I knew, from previous observations, he kept patched with cardboard. He always wore the same threadbare black pants (that were several inches too short) with a matching black-tailed coat, which was only buttoned on the colder days, and a black top hat. Today he wore socks that covered the often-bare spot between his shoes and the bottom of his pants. The socks were gray-white and matched his shirt.
The Undertaker walked slowly through the front market portion of the store and stopped occasionally to pick up an item for careful inspection. Always after he turned it over in his hands he would place it back from exactly where he had taken it. He continued these careful inspections for several minutes and slowly worked his way back to the rear of the store where Mr. Witt kept the fine wine and spirits walled off by display cases from the rest of the market.
At the very entrance to the fine liquor area was an old barrel that Mr. Witt had turned into a display table by placing it upside down and adding a smaller wooden bucket in the center. He had several bottles of Thunderbird wine circling the bucket, which bore a hand-drawn sign advertising a price of “50 Cents.”
I watched The Undertaker as he picked up one of the bottles of Thunderbird and turned it over in his hands. He stroked the bottle gently and with his body positioned between the barrel and the men at the front of the store he pretended to place the bottle back on the barrel as he carefully slipped it under his tailcoat.
I continued to watch as he turned and resumed his routine of inspecting various market items as he made his way to the front of the store where he exited even as he still clutched the bottle of wine under his coat.
After he left I stood and walked over to the cash register and interrupted the men’s talk of thoroughbreds.
“Mr. Witt”, I said, “Did you know that that man just stole a bottle of Thunderbird?”
The four customers all laughed.
Mr. Witt smiled and said; “Sammy, I keep those bottles of Thunderbird in the store for him alone. When he has a need he comes in for one. Sometimes, he will actually have a half-dollar or a bag full of pop bottles to give me, but most of the time he is broke. As long as I keep those bottles in stock he never tries to take anything more expensive.”
I was still barely a Cub Scout then and I thought about that incident for a very long time. We are all told that it is wrong to steal and somebody is supposed to be punished. That day I learned a little more about charity, compassion, and what loving one’s brother is really all about – even if it was one of those that many people in our society would seemingly just throw away.
Mr. Witt taught me a lesson that day, nearly fifty years ago, that I soon began to practice along with my new Boy Scout slogan: “Do a good turn daily.” As Taco Bell was across the street from where I grew up it was not uncustomary for me to stop for a Taco, Bell Burger – or similarly inexpensive item, purchase an extra, and leave it on the rail of the dumpster out back. It brought tears to my eyes when I learned that my friends and neighbors had begun doing the same.
And, during this Christmas season, I pray you all experience the joy of doing a good turn daily and blessing your own, as well as, another’s day.
The Undertaker was a real human being that haunted the streets where I grew up for many years. He was a homeless man, who was always attired in the same threadbare clothes, and whose only variation I can remember in his dress, was that on some days he lacked socks. I never once heard him speak, from the first days he arrived when I was still in elementary school, on through his last days, which saw me through high school and into young adulthood.
It was the children of our town that called him The Undertaker, along with other names like The Spook, and The Scarecrow. I don’t believe anyone ever knew what his given name was, where he hailed from, or what the set of circumstances was that took him from a life where he would have dressed like Fred Astaire, to the one where he pulled his meals from the dumpster behind a Taco Bell that was located some sixteen miles due south of Hollywood.
I have a faint memory of a long ago Sunday morning when The Undertaker stood in the entrance of our Pentecostal Holiness Church and listened to the sermon with his top hat in his hand and then, when it was over, fled when invited all the way inside by an usher.
Nobody really knew where he lived but I discovered it by accident one night. As a boy I would often sneak out of my house in the middle of the night and go to where the railroad tracks cut our town askew. On one of those nights, as I sat and watched the trains and constellations, I saw The Undertaker exit a thick growth of shrubbery along side the fences that separated the homes from the tracks, relieve himself on the rails in the moonlight, and then get down upon his hands and knees, and crawl back inside.
When I was young man working full-time and going to college in the evenings I realized that I had not seen him about for a while. I asked around and was told that he had died while asleep in his shrubbery home. One of the neighbors apparently found his body after he missed seeing him for a few days.
The Undertaker became an integral part of my life on that August morning in 1965 when he became the vehicle for an important lesson that I needed to learn and he, like so many others who have come and gone through the years, never truly left me.