He looked like Prince, only buff, with glistening dark skin the texture of velvet. A slender blade of a man at 5’4”, his usual dress was a Guinea Tee which exposed the tightest, most defined six-pack one had ever seen for his size. He didn’t work out, probably had never even been to a gym. His honed body was a testament to his work ethic. No job was too big, too hard, or too demanding of his strength. Five watches, all with different times, some not functioning, graced his wrists. Necklaces, bracelets, and rings decorated his body like Maori tattoos. His name was Cleo.
Gaylord “Cleo” Sellers was born in Texas, no one knows when, though another story placed his origins in the Mississippi Delta. The second to last child of a family of nine, he never spoke much about them, but it was obvious that his mother had an important influence in his life, teaching him kindness, ingenuity, and how to subsist on very little.
“Mama taught me how to cook — beans, rice, squirrel pie, ‘coon, anything that moved. Wasn’t no good if you couldn’t shoot. I got to skin it, she stewed it. ”
With little or no schooling, Cleo left home, wending his way from the Deep South away from the menial jobs available for poor blacks — like picking cotton, working on the railroad, migrant and seasonal labor. He picked peaches in Georgia, then headed North for opportunity and the big city. New York City. How he got to the North Fork is a mystery. Some say he was making a delivery for the Gotti family and didn’t know what the bag he held contained. Whether this is fact or fiction, Southold became his home for over 45 years.
Life in the Northeast was an eye-opener, full of things he could never tell his mama. Pete Grattans of Grattans Grinding on Horton’s Lane where Cleo had been given a somewhat dilapidated, shingled house in perpetuity, which would revert to the Peconic Land Trust at his death, knew his eccentricities.
“I used to see him in high-heeled shoes walking down the street at 6:30 in a bright red dress, all gussied up to catch the evening Sunrise bus to the city. What he did there was his own business.” Cleo confided in me that he used to dance at a strip-tease bar, though he never gave details.
He was a good dancer. At one of Greenport’s Monday night summer band concerts in Mitchell Park, he asked a friend of mine Debra to dance. She was short, thin, and pretty — with wild and curly red hair. They made a striking pair.
“He was a gentleman,” she told us later. “He danced with me a couple of times, then said thank you and left.”
The ways of the rural South had stayed with him even after years living in the North. He was no doubt well aware of Jim Crow laws, more than he would let on. His upbringing had taught him to follow and respect racial and class lines, though he never spoke of the prejudice or discrimination he’d encountered.
He loved BB King, even claimed to have met him in New York, and it was BB’s music that blared from Cleo’s silver jeep when he drove around town in Greenport. It was rumored that he had no license. Whether the local police knew this or not, they left him alone. He was a town character.
Cleo worked for everyone on the North Fork, from Nassau Point to Orient Point. People used to give him hand-me-downs and things they’d be throwing out or taking to the Cutchogue dump. Whether or not their kindness was pity, he refused nothing. Cleo was a hoarder.
Aldo Maiorama, owner of the eponymous café on Front Street in Greenport, was one of his primary employers. Cleo cleaned the bright red coffee grinder and could be found there chatting with the caffeine-addicted clientele as they waited patiently for their espresso, cappuccino, or hot chocolate while Aldo talked with each person. A photo of Cleo in a white tuxedo and red cummerbund holding one of Aldo’s famous scones hung prominently on a wall in the front of the shop.
Cleo was a talented seamstress, not a tailor, and made many of his clothes, including the tuxedo. One day he stopped at my house appearing unusually upset. “I’m going out tonight,” he said, “but I got no button for the top of my jacket. It don’t look good without one.”
“Wait a minute, Cleo,” I said. “I have my aunt’s sewing machine upstairs with drawers filled with buttons. Let me get them and you can choose the one you like.”
He combed over the collection of buttons of all sizes, shapes, and colors, and picked the largest and most ornate one that would go with the gold buttons of the jacket. He drove off for a night of disciplined revelry for he drank no alcohol.
One could never believe the stories he told. The time he and his then wife were celebrating Thanksgiving and the stove didn’t work. He decided to lower the turkey down the chimney on a cord so he could roast it on the fire. Or the time someone in town went after his girl so Cleo got out his shotgun and sent pellets into the fellow’s buttocks as he fled. He never had any money but was generous to a fault, often supporting his n’er-do-well cronies. With no bank account, he kept what little money he made hidden in his house. This became a temptation for “friends” and his ex’s. Truth be told, he had a gambling problem. Every night at the Seven-Eleven in Southold where he hung out and helped the Hispanic clerks, he would play Power Ball and the lottery. The most he ever won was $200.
“I want a million dollars,” he said. “The lady on Nassau Point is going to give me her house when she dies. Her son’s no good. She put me in her will.”
One day when my house was being painted, Cleo stopped by “to say hi.” He’d check in on me from time to time. Whenever he left, he’d say, “I’ll see you when I see you.” His telephone had a similar, cryptic phrase. “Leave me a message and I’ll get back to you, if it’s neces-sery.”
As Cleo and I were leaning over the fence, Southold Town Judge Bill Price walked down the street. “All the guys in your yard have been in my court for one thing or another,” he said playfully. Indeed it was so. One of the painters, Robert, was Cleo’s rival and had slept with his girlfriend. Sparks had flown. “I told her to git out,” Cleo said. “Weren’t no use to fight for a woman who behaved like her.”
One fall Cleo complained of pain. This was unusual for him. “It don’t feel good here,” he said, pointing to his stomach. “It’s growling and all tied up. Must be the macaroni and cheese I ate from the can at Seven-Eleven.”
“You should go to a doctor and get this checked out,” I said.
“I ain’t goin’ to no doctor. I use baking soda. It cures ev’rythin.” Cleo believed in folk remedies. But the baking soda didn’t work.
Soon neighbors and friends came to his aid to get him a Social Security card and Medicaid. He didn’t trust the government and had never signed up for these entitlements. In no time he was hospitalized with an acute sepsis. Aldo visited everyday, bringing fresh fruits since Cleo didn’t like Eastern Long Island Hospital’s food. Angel, a former “working girl” in the village before her body and looks betrayed her, was ordered to visit only in the evenings so she wouldn’t run into Lorie, another one of Cleo’s employers. Together they were like cats in heat.
When Cleo was discharged, more for lack of money than being cured, he walked into Aldo’s looking like a different man — in a checkered flannel shirt, Eastern Mountain Sports jacket, and slick black pants — for Aldo had bought him a new set of clothes at Tanger Mall in Riverhead.
“You look pretty sharp,” I said as we hugged. “I thought we’d lost you.”
“No,” Cleo said. “I ain’t ready yet.” A year later, he passed away.
“The night they called 911 when Cleo was very sick and not answering his phone, we couldn’t even get through the door,” said Pete who volunteered at the Southold Fire Station. “The kitchen was filled with all sorts of stuff, junk you couldn’t imagine — old tools, furniture in various conditions, a doll collection upstairs. We had to fold the gurney to get in. By then he was rail thin.”
Someone initiated a Kickstart account on Facebook to pay for Cleo’s funeral, and in one day over $8,500 was raised.
January 9, 2016