When I came home on Saturday from breakfast and lunch with friends, Reggie asked, “Are you okay?”
Initially, I thought that he was talking about James Holmes and the Aurora victims. Admittedly, I had cried some tears about the random, unnecessary violence of the Colorado shooting. Politics and “whether or not young kids should have been in the movie” aside, it was just really sad that people were killed and injured at such a highly anticipated outing. I call movies “brain candy”, because they are a mental break/escape from the realities of life for a few hours. I was both sad and angry that Holmes shattered that for so many.
“I’m fine,” I responded because although I felt sad about the Colorado incident, I didn’t know any of the victims personally. Then, Reggie showed me the local newspaper. Sylvia Woods, the founder of the famous Harlem soul food restaurant “Sylvia’s” had passed away. It turns out that someone whom I actually knew and cared about had died after all.
A wake is being held in Harlem today to celebrate the life of Sylvia Woods. She died last week at age 86, but I will remember how full of life she truly was. As a student at Columbia, I worked at Sylvia’s for a couple of years to help pay for my schooling. I owe Sylvia and her family a huge debt of gratitude. They were my first “family” up North. They embraced me, believed in me and inspired me to continue to believe that I could do anything that I set my mind to do…if I worked hard.
I appreciate the strong Black family working together that the Woods family embodied. Sylvia and her husband Herbert (who passed away in 2001) were so cute together. Their temperaments complemented one another. She was the feisty “make it happen” one. He was the cool, soothing peaceful one. While Sylvia was the face of the restaurant, Herman played an equally important behind the scenes role and their mutual love; respect and admiration were obvious to all. Working at Sylvia’s was definitely a family affair. Not only were Sylvia and Herbert forces, their kids – Bedelia, Kenneth and Crizette – worked hard at Sylvia’s also. (I only met their other son Van occasionally. I’m sure that he is a hard worker also. He just wasn’t as actively involved at the restaurant during the time that I worked there.) Even the grandkids would come in and work!
Another thing that I fondly remember about Sylvia is that she was a “hands on” boss. She would be right back there on the line, making sure that the food was being prepared and served correctly. I distinctly remember her sending back whole pans of food that were not prepared to her satisfaction. She also taught us how to put the right amount of food on the plate so that people had enough to eat but also “had room to eat without the food falling off of their plate”. Her attention to detail impressed me so much…as did the way that she taught – like a grandmother teaching her family how to act in her kitchen. It worked…I loved the food at Sylvia’s. Thankfully, I worked there in my early 20s so I could eat the food constantly and still fit through the door . I remember that in the summers (when I worked full-time) I would eat meatloaf, mashed potatoes and corn every single Wednesday. Good times!
More than anything, I will be forever grateful that Sylvia and her family believed in people (like me!) and helped them out. I needed a job that paid cash and they gave me one. I started out as a counter waitress (see the post image). I was actually quite good at it, because I love to talk to people and I had some of the best intellectual conversations with the counter “regulars” at Sylvia’s. Then, I wanted to become a floor waitress, so that I could get better tips…and they made me one. I’ll admit that I wasn’t a great floor waitress at first. (I actually hit somebody in the head with a tray of food. Thankfully, it was a friendly “regular” that was hit!) I learned though and it was great. Near the end of my time at Sylvia’s, I didn’t want to be a waitress anymore. I remember talking to Sylvia and Clarence the manager. Sylvia asked if there was anything that I would like to do. I mentioned that I would like to be a hostess; but that I knew those positions were already filled. Well “somehow” one of the hostesses happened to get let go shortly after my conversation with Sylvia and I ended up my time working at Sylvia’s as a hostess . Sylvia’s (the restaurant and the people) will always have a special place in my heart.
There were many entertainers and politicians (Janet Jackson, Tupac, Wesley Snipes, Al Sharpton, Calvin Butts, etc.) who passed through the doors of Sylvia’s during my time working there. However, they all pale in comparison to the star that Sylvia Woods was. She started a small portion of what is now known as Sylvia’s back in the 60s and slowly but surely built it up to the famous soul food institution that it is today. Yes, her soul food was delicious, but it is her hard work, love of family, warmth towards all types of people and vision for those around her that I will remember. She taught me by her life and words to stay focused and that I can do anything if I work hard for it. I can still hear her saying “Don’t work too much. Make sure that you do well in school” and encouraging me that I would go far in whatever I pursued because I was a “hard worker”. Thank you, Mrs. Woods. Your inspirational light will be missed…