For a moment, Cliff Kelley wasn't sure how to order his food.
Kelley, the popular talk show host on WVON radio, usually sits at the end of the counter when he visits his favorite breakfast spot, Ms Biscuit, a bustling south-side diner. The ritual goes like this: Kelley catches up with some of the other regulars and opens his paper, and within minutes a plate appears.
But when we met up there last Saturday we were seated at a table, and the friendly young waitress who came to take our order was new. Kelley appeared to be caught off guard. "They know what I want," he said, suggesting the waitress consult with the restaurant manager.
"Well, I don't know what you want, so you have to let me know what you want."
Kelley paused. "I'm not even sure what it is myself," he said. "They just bring it to me every time I'm here."
The waitress disappeared into the kitchen, and a short time later Kelley was served an egg-white omelet, turkey bacon and turkey sausage, dry wheat toast, and a side of oatmeal—a meal as healthy as it was ample. "I really believe you eat to live—you don't live to eat," Kelley explained. If you stick to traditional soul food cooked in pork fat, "that'll be all that's left of you—your soul."
Kelley has been one of the great characters in local politics and media for four decades. He served as alderman of the south-side 20th Ward for 16 years starting in 1971, advocating for racial equality, an elected school board, and—long before it was part of the political mainstream—gay rights. But in 1986 he was accused of taking bribes and eventually pleaded guilty to charges of mail fraud and failure to file tax returns.
After serving nine and a half months in federal prison, Kelley turned his political insight and wit into a career in radio. His afternoon show has become a mandatory stop for local officials who want or need to reach the black community. Last month, for instance, Chicago Public Schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett told Kelley and his listeners that the district would close 54 schools—while other reporters were waiting for the announcement at CPS headquarters.
That didn't win Kelley's endorsement—he's deeply critical of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his administration, including the closings plan. "Emanuel says negotiations are over. What do you mean negotiations are over? You're still holding hearings! So that's nothing but a lie—the hearings are a bunch of crap!"
Kelley says he wants to keep tangling with such issues for a long while, which is why he became more health-conscious after finding out his cholesterol was high several years ago. "Not real high, but I believe in prevention rather than cure," he said. "There are some things I miss. I'm a seafood fanatic—lobster, scallops. That is straight cholesterol, so I don't eat it any more.
"Back when the earth was cooler I used to drink a lot. They used to bring me, after I finished dinner, coffee—because that's my drug of choice—and sambuca, which is straight sugar. So I stopped drinking sambuca. My physician said, 'You can have two glasses of wine after dinner.' But I don't have two glasses of wine—I have one. That way if I want another, I can have one. But if I have the two and then I want another, I'm frustrated."
He's been eating regularly at Ms Biscuit for five years. It's just a few blocks from his home, and he loves the food, the clientele—which includes professionals, families, cops, and construction workers—and especially the management, starting with owner Dylan Reeves. "I was sitting in my regular seat here one time and he intercepts a young man walking in. He tells the gentleman, 'Pardon me, but my customers come here to eat breakfast, not to see the crack of your ass and your dirty drawers.' So the guy tries to pull them up and he says, 'No, I don't want your business. I'll be glad to serve you when you come in and you respect my customers and my establishment.'"
As Kelley finished the story Reeves himself came by to check on us. He's 40 years old, quick to laugh, and dares to wear a Cubs hat on the south side. He told us that he's planning to add a juice bar and to turn an old car-wash space next door into a jazz and blues club.
Kelley said he was all for it, "as long as you keep a seat here for me." And he ordered a fresh cup of coffee.