Clarence and the Duke by Jim Cullum Jr

 

Clarence Hankins was at his best. He had just cashed his Social Security check, and he was flush. His left fist held what looked like a gambler’s roll: large bills on the outside.

 

“Good Sir, gimme a beer!” he commanded, slapping a fiver on The Landing bar.

 

“Okay Mr. Hankins, comin’ right up!”

 

Clarence blew the foam and sucked in a massive swig. “Ahh—yes,” he sighed.

 

In many ways Clarence seemed a clone of W.C. Fields. He certainly looked the part—round and red-faced, and with, as Fields would have said, “an eminent proboscis.” To complete the picture Clarence was, as he would tell you, a bum.

 

“Been a bum ever since the end of the War,” he said. “I was a bombardier. Dropped all those eggs. When the War was over, I decided to take up being a bum—been mostly a full time bum for 33 years!”

 

With the jazz band members as subjects, Clarence held court. He was friendly with all of us, but our banjo player Bobby Black was his favorite. “Bobby,” he joked out of the side of his mouth, “you’d make a good bum. You’ve got the personality for it!” We doubled over with laughter!

 

Clarence drained his glass and ordered again. The second beer arrived. He held it up to the light, admiring the golden color. “Ahh—the brewers art.”

 

But this reverie was dashed by Clint Steward who suddenly burst from a nearby cubbyhole office. Clint had been The Landing manager for many years. He jerked back at the sight of Clarence.

 

What is he doing in here?” Clint demanded. “Clarence, you know you can’t come in here! Get out! Get out!“

 

Clarence winced, slammed his beer glass down on the bar and moved quickly for the door.

 

Clint turned to me ”He just can’t come in here.”

 

“Aw Clint,” I said, “he’s really harmless.”

 

“Oh yeah? That cold night you let him stay in here he, well you know, you know, he made a horrible mess. I had to clean it up!”

 

“You’re right, you’re right. But today he’s only drinking a beer. But you’re right.”

 

Clint, muttering, retreated back into the office, and Clarence, having bolted out of the building onto the River Walk simply walked around to its opposite end where there was an entrance from the street. He reentered saying “Ahh, it looks like the danger has subsided.” His beer was still sitting on the bar. He slugged it right down and ordered another. Then as Clarence ambled out he began softly singing to himself. Clarence fancied himself a singer.

 

The winter could become difficult for a bum, he said, and often as I was driving home after the gig, and passing Alamo Plaza, I would see him huddled on a bench. Several times when it was below freezing I stopped and called him over.

 

“Hey Clarence—you’re gonna freeze to death out here, man. Why don’t you go to the shelter?”

 

“Too late, you gotta be there by 10 o’clock. I’ll make it out here. Got my antifreeze.” And he flashed his pint.

 

“The hell you’re gonna make it…” Eventually he’d get in the car and we would go around to try a few flophouse hotels. I’d pay the $12 room rent. Sometimes they would say “Oh no, not him!” and we would back out.

 

“What did you do in there Clarence?”

 

But he was charming and came off as a happy man. I reflected to myself: “Seems like I have the blues more than Clarence does.”

 

One Christmas Eve, he arrived at The Landing sporting a new tweed overcoat. There was another eccentric along with him. “Let me introduce my friend, Duke del Rio,” Clarence said. There at Clarence’s elbow stood the Duke in what I came to know was his signature purple planter’s hat. He was of different stripes than Clarence—taller, thinner, distinguished—with a gray pencil moustache and a long aristocratic nose. Clarence put his thumbs under his lapels, showing off his overcoat: “The Duke here has presented me with this fine jacket. It’s a Christmas present!” Later he told me privately that the Duke had led him to some little known and not too distant junked cars, inside which he and a few others were sleeping when the winter nights were just too rough.

 

Another night about this time, Clarence and the Duke arrived in high humor. Clarence came over whispering: “While my friend Duke del Rio is here, do you think I could sing one song with the band? I’d like for him to hear me sing.”

 

“Really Clarence? What song?”

 

“‘I Only Want a Buddy Not a Sweetheart.’ I sang it outside today with John Sheridan. He said it was great! And the crowd went for it too!”

 

“Well…I don’t know Clarence.” But finally I had him up there. Sheridan, enjoying all this, played a flowery piano intro, and Clarence was off:

 

I only want a buddy, not a Sweetheart

Buddies never make you blue

Sweethearts make vows and they’re broken

Broken like their hearts are broken, too

 

Don’t tell me that you love me, say you like me

No lover’s quarrels, no bungalows for two

Don’t turn down lovers’ lane

Just keep right on a-sayin’

I don’t want a Sweetheart, just a pal.

 

The Landing audience exploded in delight. Clarence bowed and bowed like a veteran Vaudevillian, and for a while he made some regular Landing appearances.

 

The next season he was in The Landing with an older Hispanic lady. At about four feet and six inches, she appeared extra short next to Clarence.

 

“James,” he began formally, “Let me introduce my girlfriend, Ernestina Cantu.”

 

Nodding and smiling, Ernestina seemed quite nice. Clarence spoke to me behind his hand and out of the side of his mouth. “Yes…I always did enjoy a diminutive woman.” Ernestina continued to nod and smile.

 

Duke del Rio, while not a Landing regular like Clarence Hankins, was active up and down the River Walk for several years. One afternoon he approached me, purple planters hat in his hand. “You know,” he said, “One of my great ambitions has always been to ride in the Fiesta River Parade.”

 

“I don’t know Duke…”

 

But the next week he was back a couple of times. “I sure do want to ride in that Fiesta River Parade just once. They have a Fiesta ‘King’ but they never have a Duke, like me!”

 

“Well Duke, okay, okay. We’ll put you on our float. You can throw the candy.” Every float had a large box of Judson’s cellophane wrapped hard candy aboard. This parade is a big deal in San Antonio. Forty elaborately decorated barges creep along the downtown part of the San Antonio River. Two hundred thousand citizens pack onto the River Walk, the bridges, and on all close-by rooftops, straining for a good view. The sound of the crowd, amplified by the building walls on each side of the river creates a constant roar. As we floated along playing our loudest, Duke del Rio pelted the galleries with candy. At the end he was exhausted. But he seemed so pleased. He shook my hand. “Thank you. Thank you,” he said.

 

After that, I didn’t see Duke del Rio for a while. One night late he came in and said hello. He was always a little stiff—more formal than Clarence. He stood at the bar listening to the band. As The Landing action was winding down, Clint (the manager) totaled the receipts, made up the bank deposit and disguised it in a thin vinyl carrier. Clint then stowed the carrier under one arm and departed for the night depository. On this night, Duke del Rio walked along with him talking about this and that. As they approached Clint’s car, the Duke made a grab for the vinyl carrier. Clint grabbed too, and they both got a good grip on the vinyl. There was a back and forth tug of war. Clint always carried a small 22-caliber pistol in his back pocket, and while he held onto the vinyl with one hand, he tried to get the gun with the other. Finally it was out of the pocket, but the tugging was frantic and the gun fell, hitting the sidewalk. It discharged and Clint was shot in the leg. The gunshot caused Duke del Rio to immediately release his grip and begin running in the opposite direction.

 

There was a frantic knocking at the locked door. “Your manager has been shot!” a stranger’s voice yelled.

 

“What?” Rushing out, I took the stairs three at a time to street level and could hear Clint’s curses a block away. It flitted through my brain: “At least he’s alive!” He was sitting on the curb. Fortunately, the 22-bullet had caused only a minor flesh wound.

 

Duke del Rio disappeared from the scene—at least from The Landing.

 

Clarence Hankins heard all about it. I was flabbergasted when he said, “I never did trust that Duke del Rio!”

 

“Clarence, I thought he was your pal!”

 

“Yes…yes… But I never did trust that Duke del Rio.”

 

In 1982 The Landing moved to the Hyatt location. I saw Clarence only a couple of times after that.

 

“Guess you’re too uptown for me now” he said.

 

“Oh, come on Clarence—you’re always welcome,” but about that time he faded away.

***

These days we see the homeless everywhere. It has become a huge national scandal. Were the homeless always there? Was I just blind to it in those days? It seems there were far fewer sleeping in the doorways, miserable and freezing on cold winter nights—their few belongings in a plastic bag or in a grocery cart, secured by one almost frozen hand stretched out from the bundle, holding onto the cart. In winter, nothing else would be showing—not a foot or a face. Those are the lucky ones, the ones who have a couple of blankets or a bedroll. Some others, suffering even more, sleep on newspapers and cover themselves with cardboard. In downtown San Antonio, a food wagon comes around once a day. The homeless line up. Two miles distant stands the Good Samaritan Center. If space is available, and they are on time and not drunk or belligerent, they may get in. There, a shower, meal and real bed are available for one night. Some get to stay longer.

 

One day on the phone Mr. Bill Stevens, operator of a small local catering company, asked for a favor: “You know that overpass next to the Good Samaritan Center. I’m calling for volunteers—we’re going to give those folks a real Christmas dinner right there under the bridge. We’ll all be anonymous—call it the Blues Brothers. Pray for good weather.”

 

So there we were with the band playing under the freeway. They lined up there too, but on Christmas Eve there were tables with white linen, real china, real silver—even presents for the kids.

 

The newspaper came over. “Who is throwing this deal?” they asked.

 

We all shrugged. Mr. Stevens spoke up. “The Blues Brothers!” And he said to me, “I don’t want publicity out of helping these people. It’s Christmas! The Blues Brothers,” and he did a little dance. There were a few hundred homeless. We played the jazz Christmas carols. Bill Stevens served up ham and turkey, sweet potatoes, Waldorf salad, green vegetables, hot rolls and dessert. There were a lot of volunteers. We all wore black suits, skinny ties, and dark glasses. It was interesting that with all those desperate people, no one stole the silver. Some of them came up to say thank you. “You Blues Brothers sure know how to throw a good party.” This went on every Christmas Eve for years. Finally it stopped.

 

Meanwhile I became a sucker for panhandlers, and today I often think of Clarence. He made an honest living—sort of. In addition to Social Security he’d put on his American Legion cap, stand around on Commerce Street and sell little American flag lapel pins. His take all went for booze except for his “biscuit fund.” He survived on biscuits and gravy served up for one dollar at a downtown greasy spoon. Clarence was determined, he said, not to use the Good Samaritan Center.

 

“Ernestina won’t have nothing to do with that place,” he said. She would chime in, “Too many rules over there. We have our own rules, ya know.”

 

If Clarence Hankins, Ernestina Cantu or Duke del Rio were alive, they would now be 95. I haven’t seen any of them for 26 years now and know almost certainly that they are gone.

 

Many homeless are mentally ill in some way. Some are not and have only experienced a string of hard luck situations. Some are ruled by booze or drugs. I can only assume that Clarence Hankins, educated, articulate and immensely charming, was ill—maybe driven a bit mad by the war. And he was an alcoholic.

 

One evening just before Christmas he bought me a beer!

 

“Where are you staying this winter?” I asked Clarence.

 

“Why my dear James—kind of you to ask! Ernestina and I have the most deluxe accommodations on the second story cement porch of the Chamber of Commerce building. It is nice and dry and overlooks the River—a great view. I have a secret place to stow our newspaper bedding and our two army blankets—very toasty there. The patrol can’t see us. We arise about 8:30, before any of the Chamber people show up. Yes, it is deluxe I tell you! And on Saturday and Sunday mornings, we sleep in! Ahh yes! And if there’s a warm rain at night, that’s the best. I love sleeping while it rains!

 

“You know,” he went on, “there was a stretch when I did have a job every year at Christmas. Used to work for the Salvation Army. I was a Santa Claus for them—had the shape for it—mostly stood out there on the Commerce Street Bridge and rang that little bell. If someone put a whole dollar in the pot, I would sing ‘Jingle Bells.’”

 

“Clarence,” I said, “You know it will be Christmas Eve in another 30 minutes. Here’s to you.”

 

“Yes! Yes! Merry Christmas, James.” He continued, “Jesus Christ! Another Christmas Eve! Guess we made it for another year. And say there, James, you remember those times I sang on stage? Well, I want to say Thanks for letting me sing—especially when Duke del Rio was around!”

 

© December 2008 by Jim Cullum, Jr.

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