The Man Who Would Be King... by J. Massey 1999

I hated daydreaming but I often did at my partner Max's diner. I sat at my table near the picture window overlooking the street and stared into my empty cup remembering those times and the people who lived them.

His name was Lear Tuning. But everyone called the burger king. Most folks and his beleaguered family simply called him 'King.' Now, with another Thanksgiving approaching, King wanted to do something special. He was excited by the idea that this was the last turkey day of the 20th century. Being in a particularly festive mood, King had chosen this holiday to re-unite with his family. Of course, this reunion he had in mind was far from being either uncomplicated or mutually desired by his family. But King, being the obtuse dreamer that he was, stubbornly proceeded with his plans and ignored all the bad omens and naysayers.

Some say King was a foolish old man; alone, sickly and caught up with re-living exaggerated past glories. I might've agreed with them but, after a King's invitation to accompany him to his daughter's funeral, my opinion began to change. Having known King mostly by my patronage of his popular "Soul Food Diner," which was located in the Chatham district of Chicago's South Side, I'd only been privy to the public side of the man. But what took place over the 72 hours surrounding this turkey day changed forever how I understood King, the nature of family bonds and, eventually, my own descent into old age. I would never again look at individual power and powerlessness with naĆ­ve innocence again. From that time onward, every time I saw a lonely old man struggling to maintain dignity, the fearful words "but by the grace of God go I" would ricochet through my mind like a wayward bullet.

Being a middle-aged, divorced reporter, I had toyed with story ideas concerning the issue of how society cares for the elderly. So, when King gave me the invite, I jumped at the chance. He told me to pick him up at his southeast side apartment, located on south Jeffery Boulevard near 75th St. at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday. That morning, as I cruised down 75th St., I was struck by the sight of wayward souls wandering up an down the 'stroll.' Drunks, sitting on the ground outside the multitude of booze stores and young boys encircling pay phones as if guarding the occasional female druggie, who was busy frantically trying to con some fool on the phone for a loan to pay off her ransom for overnight drug debts to local gang-bangers.

Homeless, young and old, folks were pushing shopping carts filled with discarded beer cans to market. The scenes made me wince and wonder about the madness of their lives. Pulling up to King's dilapidated apartment building, I was struck by the number of burglar bars, tossed garbage bags and the dirt filled yard it presented.

The broken windows abounded on the face of the heap. As I entered the hall, after King had buzzed me in, an exploding aroma of stale urine, marijuana and booze made me choke. I nearly tripped over a rat carcass and an empty 40-ounce as I climbed the creaking stairway leading to King's home on the second floor. It wasn't easy trying to knock on a door encased in an eight foot, padlocked burglar gate. I wasn't sure he'd heard my knocks, what with the floor rocking form the bass-driven boom sounds of gangsta-rap filling the hallway from some unknown apartment.

King eventually unlocked the multitude of security contraptions and allowed me to enter in to hwat could best be described as a one-room wonder. The metallic clang of his walker seemed to keep up with the beat of what sounded like Nancy Wilson's "Guess Who I Saw Today," coming out of the cheap radio on his kitchen table, seated conveniently next to last night's Kentucky Fried Chicken box.

"Hey sport, let me bleed the ol' lizard and I'll be ready to fly," sang out King as he headed for his closet-sized toilet.

I was struck by how orderly all of the items in his home were placed. Every inch of the room served some vital purpose, as if empty space was taboo. Even the four walls were covered with pictures. It made me think of a Catholic shrine. Civic citations, war memorials and yellowed news clippings all seemed to attest to King's past laurels. But, they also told of a man living in the past. They spoke of one who was fading away into the twilight zone of obsolete existence. I glanced up into my own reflection, cast off of a slightly cracked mirror with an unpolished surface. A cold chill ran over me as I thought about "The Lady from Shallot." Apparently, I'd broken up King's game of Solitaire. I mused on whether he would have won.

I wondered how anybody really wins at a game you, ironically, only play with yourself. King also seemed to me a bit of a paradox. Here was a man who reputedly had been sitting on a small fortune. A man who profited handsomely off of the profits made from his diner. Yet, he lived like an old pauper; alone, forgotten and discarded.

The phone rang. King hollered out "pick that up, will you kid?"

A raspy, female voice answered as I said "Hi. This is the Tuning home; may I help you?"

"Yeah, is my old man there? If he is, tell him to hurry his tired butt up and don't forget about the fifty bucks he promised me."

Before I could respond, the lady hung up the phone. I gave King thew message as he came back into the room. He simply grunted and grumbled, "She ain't getting a crying dime from me. Let's head out Sport."

We headed for the Bleak's Funeral Home, over on 76th and Cottage Grove Avenue. For some reason, my mind lingered on pondering why it seemed to me that so many of our folkes liked to be buried by Bleakes. Before being dropped into the ground for all eternity, I wondered where my two kids from my failed marriage would plant me, if at all. They could always just have my dead butt incinerated.