Because ‘sometimes the coffee ain’t gonna do it’: One man’s quest to make St. Louis smile | St. Louis Public Radio

Because ‘sometimes the coffee ain’t gonna do it’: One man’s quest to make St. Louis smile

Oct 2, 2017

It would be just another stop sign in St. Louis if there wasn’t this man on the corner of Tower Grove and Vista avenues, his hands in the air, waving and hollering greetings at every passing car, cyclist and pedestrian.

For brief moments, commuters slow down and the daily grind eases. Everyone waves back.

Lewis Claybon, 52, is out there before the sun comes up every weekday, dispensing his smile and wave and marshaling children off to school.

“I want to be a positive energy,” he said, “because sometimes the coffee ain’t gonna do it, the donuts ain’t gonna be sweet enough. But a smile and a wave? You can’t beat it.”

Cars honk hello. Cyclists swerve to land a high-five. Trucks slow so grown men can lean out the window and dance with him.

“They’ll stop and let me know that they appreciate what I’m doing. And it’s good,” he said. “Even if they don’t, I’ll just take a smile and wave because I know you’re off to work or going home to take care of the kids. I just want you to have a good day no matter what’s going on.”

"I watch people light up," Lewis Claybon said. "They do my dance." Claybon begins waving from the corner of Tower Grove and Vista avenues in St. Louis' Grove neighborhood before dawn every weekday.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Claybon is known to most as “Brother Lewis.” He cooks at Lamb’s Bride Child Care Center and ministers at its church. For more than 15 years, he’s also been a greeter, crossing guard and volunteer at Adams Elementary School across the street.

“Ever since I can think of, he’s been out front,” said Kapree Graves, Adams’ guidance counselor for 17 years. “You could say he works here. He’s here every day.”

“We love him,” Graves added. “Because he helps everybody.”

"They like the smile and wave," Claybon said about the people passing by. "They like it, they enjoy it. They just let me know that people need it, they need some encouragement. Sometimes the coffee ain’t gonna do it."
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Claybon is a constant presence. The only thing that changes is the hat he wears — from a cowboy hat to a baseball cap with a Superman logo. Those put him in character, he said, setting the tone for his day.

Claybon was born in East St. Louis, where he said growing up was tough and school was hard, but he would do anything to make someone laugh. He moved to St. Louis in the mid 1980s.

One day, maybe 15 years ago, he estimated, Claybon woke and glanced out his window to see a girl waiting for the school bus by herself in the dark. He’s been watching over this block ever since.

"We’re family. He’s family. That’s what we got to understand, that we all family," Claybon said. "And the more I put that in their ear, the more they receive it."
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

He’s not married, has no children of his own. But he has a family, he said: every passer-by.

“No matter where we from, we still all family. And the more I put that in their ear, the more they receive it,” he said.

Paula Phillips, a former Adams employees, sends her kids to the day care center where Claybon makes lunch.

“He’s perfect,” she said. “He’s just a great role model.”

Claybon often greets small children with a playful 'rawr' before helping them cross the street or board a school bus.
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

Phillips was starting a new job that morning. “Don’t be late,” Claybon called out.

Linda Menard’s career — and 10 years of driving past Claybon — came to an end last week. But she couldn’t go without giving him a thank-you card.

“He makes my day,” she said. “When you’re not in a good mood, there’s a smile and a wave and it just helps you, it makes you feel better.”

“I hope even when I’m dead and gone, that the spirit will be still be here on this corner right here,” Claybon said. “And I’m sure it will. That’s what I want, to leave a positive legacy.”
Credit Ryan Delaney | St. Louis Public Radio

And that’s the whole point for Claybon, who said he’ll be on this corner until he can’t wave his arms anymore.

“I hope even when I’m dead and gone, that the spirit will be still be here on this corner right here,” he said. “And I’m sure it will. That’s what I want, to leave a positive legacy.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney