PUBLISHED: WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 18, 2009
Sitting in a green armchair beneath an Eagles pennant in his room, Slim held on his lap a plastic yellow safe box filled with his prized belongings. Nearby, a white Bichon/poodle named Molly that Slim affectionately watches for a Holy Family Home employee rested in a doggie bed next to the TV. Slim bent his modest 6-foot-3 frame over his box as he pulled out pictures, his birth certificate, and an award he won for volunteering in his neighborhood.
An 88-year-old animal lover, volunteer, and cook, Slim, whose given name is Clarence Edward Grimes, has impacted his circle of influence. But, humble by nature, he does not brag about it. Right now, he is simply thankful to be in the "quiet" of Holy Family Home run by the Little Sisters of the Poor in West Philadelphia and share his stories with those who ask to hear them.
"Here's my birth certificate," Slim said pulling up a creased and torn document that said he was born Aug. 12, 1919 in Philadelphia county. "North Philadelphia was pretty good back then, not like now; all the neighborhoods are rough now. Back then, there were no fights in school and I was glad to go to school.”
"I was always picked [for basketball] whether they knew I could shoot or not because I was tall,” he said laughing. "But I played pretty well.”
His nickname from childhood matches his stature: "I’m just like a Pepsi-Cola bottle, straight up and down,” Slim said.
Baseball and boxing were also sports Slim played and checkers and dominos were evening porch activities in which he and his neighbors engaged when they came home from work.
As a child, Slim remembers watching his mother cook on the weekends, an observation that inspired his future career. During the week Slim’s mother worked as a maid for a "rich” family while his grandmother took care of him, his brother and two sisters. Slim’s father abandoned the family when Slim was little.
When Slim was 13, he remembers police knocking on his door to relay some tragic news.
"We were listening to the radio because there was no television back then and they told us that my mom died of stomach problems in Philadelphia General Hospital. We went to see her and we all cried,” he said tearing up. "I still miss her now because I was close to her. I wish she could see the jobs I had - good jobs: Bookbinders the Fiddler... jobs I paid for through Arrow Employment Agency.”
Using the skills his mother taught him when he was a boy, Slim worked at restaurants in the city and at a boarding school for special needs children in New Jersey.
"When their parents came to visit they would say, "You’re name’s Clarence? We heard a lot about you,” Slim said of his experience at Bancroft School. "If the kids didn’t like something, I would say, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll cook you up something;’ and then I’d sneak them the food they liked.”
Slim smiled as he pulled out an old letter of recommendation for another job he held for 12 years.
"[Clarence Grimes’] work habits are as follows: punctuality, efficiency, willingness and flexibility outstanding,” Thomas Theodore Jr. of Theodos Restaurant on Woodland Avenue wrote on Dec. 14, 1979. "Work performances such as: neatness, concern and quality and quantity of food pull-out also outstanding. It was a pleasure having Clarence as an employee... due to his devotion and willingness to carry out each and every assignment.”
Slim noted that he donated blood to Mr. Theodore, who had bleeding ulcers.
"We were like this,” Slim said putting his fingers together to illustrate his friendship with his former boss.
Never married and with no kids of his own, Slim looked to help people around him - especially in his neighborhood.
"Special people make good things happen,” said the front of one card in Slim’s box said. Next to a picture inside was written, "Mr. Slim, thank you for the gifts you have given my grandson. You are a good person and I thank God that you are in my grandson’s life. You are truly a guardian angel,” Andrew and Grandmom.
Another note written on the back of a graduation picture said, "Thank you for all your help. Always keep in touch, Arleen.”
"I helped put her through college,” Slim recalled.
Sister Regina Kovalik, IHM, a math teacher at West Philadelphia Catholic High School, continues to visit Slim at Holy Family Home, as she feels indebted to all the service he did at her convent.
"He raked our leaves, shoveled the snow, would get up at 4 a.m. to chop the ice — he had a beautiful way of taking care of us,” she said. "He also loves dogs and cats and when the kittens would be born, he would put them in his pockets and bring them around the neighborhood to show everybody. He had a tendency on Mother’s Day to bring us scads of flowers and quaint little things that they sold on the corner.”
On Dec. 19, 1998, Slim received the 7th Senatorial District’s Community Service Award and was honored at a dinner by Sen. Vincent Hughes.
"As he approaches 80 years old, this retiree assists his neighbors by performing gardening chores, paying bills, grocery shopping and running errands,” reads a description of Slim in the event program.
While Slim is known for his positive attitude, his living situation did not always foster optimism. Before Sr. Kovalik helped him find Holy Family Home, Slim lived in an affordable, but unsafe apartment. He had lost his former apartment when he entered the hospital for prostate cancer treatment.
"They don’t even care about the cops now and kids are getting hurt, that’s why I’m glad I’m here,” Slim said comparing his old environment to his new home. "I got a lot of protection here. It’s nice here. They couldn’t move me with a bulldozer.”
Sr. Kovalik also noted the violence in Philadelphia and said more people like Slim would change the city’s emotional charge.
"If we had more Slims in the world we wouldn’t be worried about the violence we have today,” Sr. Kovalik said. "He’s such a gentle person and if we had more gentle people in the world we’d have less violence.”
In contrast to his former living conditions, Slim is at peace in Holy Family Home. Sr. Kovalik said during her visits with Slim he shares about Molly playing with the rabbit downstairs where "everybody laughs and cheers.” Slim also gives "updates on the residents.”
"He brings joy into your life,” Sr. Kovalik said. "He makes you want to do for others because you watch him doing for others.”
Walking slowly around the baby gate in front of his open door, Slim carried leftover fish from lunch into his room.
"Hey there, Molly,” Slim said. "Come on baby. Let me chop this up for you.”
And Molly followed appreciatively.