Stopping in at “21” in Midtown NYC for an ice-cold martini with some associates and friends today, I noticed that a bronze, memorial plaque for my dearly-departed friend, the Rev. Lorenzo Robinson, was finally up in the men’s room. It’s a nice memorial for a giant of a man with a spirit to match
I wrote this eulogy for him back about 6 years ago when I learned of his untimely death. It still rings true today and many of us still miss our dear friend, Rev. Lorenzo Robinson of the famed “21 Club”
by Pericles Elytis Nikitaras
I have recently learned a dear old friend has passed on.
I became acquainted with Reverend Lorenzo Robinson when I was about 10 or 12.
He was preaching at Northside Community Chapel, in Paterson, NJ., a church my family often worshiped in. He was such a radiant and positive man that I never forgot his deep voice, big smile and firm hand on my shoulder.
Many years passed and I lost track of “Rev” but I never forgot him.
Then, nearly 7 years ago, I took a job as a Wealth Manager at Smith Barney, now a part of Morgan Stanley, in midtown Manhattan.
One day, some colleagues suggested we meet for cocktails at the famed “21 Club” on 52nd Street, only a quarter of a block from my office.
At some point during our drinks, I got up to use the rest room, and when I entered I heard a familiar baritone voice saying,
“Hello, young and handsome!”
When I turned to see who it was, there was a 6’3″ black man standing there in a white jacket with a boar’s bristle clothing brush, smiling at me.
As I was washing my hands, and he was brushing off my shoulders with that fabulous brush, we both were feeling we might know each other and we began to discuss how that might be.
He first asked me where I was born, and I told him “Paterson, NJ.”
His eyes grew wide. He mentioned that he used to preach at Northside Chapel, with the Reverend Stanley Vander Klay and, of course, that’s how I knew him. It was that voice and smile! I told him my family had worshiped there in that church quite regularly, as it was closely affiliated with my home church in Paterson, and I told him that my mother had done quite a bit of volunteer work at that church, in the day-care center and in community outreach when I was a kid.
He instantly remembered her name.
“And how is the lovely Dorothy?” he asked of my mother.
Amazing. But that was”Rev.” He remembered everything.
The nickname is not figurative; “Rev” first preached in 1957 and was ordained in 1962.
“There were 39 Baptist ministers in my family,” he used to say.
“My great-great granddaddy, Lawrence Dudley, an ex-slave, built four churches in the panhandle of Florida.”
But preaching was not the family’s sole occupational legacy.
In 1949, the Rev’s uncle Otis Coles (known as the Deacon) began plying towels and running water as an attendant in the men’s lavatory at “21”.
Since then, the male lavatory at “21” has always known a member of the Coles or Robinson clan as its attendant.
Coles brought in the Rev’s father. Together, they covered the lunch and dinner shift for two decades. Another Uncle, Tommy Coles, clocked in 13 years of service, and a nephew, Charles Favor, lasted a decade.
“He was known as a man of style,” the Rev said of his uncle Otis. “He evidenced a fortified faith. He’d tell everybody ‘God Bless You.'” And he meant it as a blessing to all who crossed the doorstep of that lavatory.
Still, however inspiring Otis might have been, the Rev had no intention of following in his uncle’s career path when Otis died on April 14, 1989.
But fate, and the good Lord, had a different plan for his ministry.
“I simply called “21” to say my uncle Otis had died. [Then “21” owner] Mr. Jerry Berns answered the phone.”
“He said, ‘Listen, Rev, you’ve got to come and give us a hand.’ I came in, and the place grew on me. I became cognizant of the fact that this place has so much respect for my family’s commitment. I felt it was an honor to work here.”
The “Rev” Lorenzo Robinson worked at the famous restaurant for 23 years, and became famous for his unending cheerful demeanor, his booming voice, his disarming banter, and his scholarly erudition.
Everyone from Tip O’Neill to Donald Trump to Ronald Reagan, to Ed Koch, Michael Bloomberg, Ken Langone, Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, Dick Cheney, and George Pataki became a fan of the Rev.
“President Reagan once went into the men’s room, and when he tried to turn on the water to wash his hands, The Rev. said, ‘No, Mr. President. You can’t do that, let me,’” said Shaker Naini, a receptionist who worked with Robinson for decades.
“Reagan took off his presidential cuff links right then and there and gave them to Rev.
Rev wore those cuff links every day of his life ever since then. They were the presidential cuff links.”
Rev was always proud to show them to you. He loved Ronald Reagan, that’s one thing I know for sure.
A man of wonderful spirit, tremendous humor and impeccable character, The Rev was known for greeting all men entering the restroom with the ebullient salutation, “Hello, young and handsome!” “Good evening, young man!” Or, “Hello, young man!”
He would say that over and over, no matter how old or repugnant or decrepit you looked (or felt). No matter how bad your day was going, you began to believe him. Power of positive thinking. He lifted people.
In an interview with the now-defunct NY Sun in 2004, Robinson explained,
“I don’t find today many people who were born in this country who will do what are perceived to be menial tasks. Somehow, the young people don’t ‘get it,’ to use their jargon. They graduate from school and their daddy gives them a BMW. They want it to fall from the sky, like manna. They’ve been watching too many movies… “
I normally left him a $5 tip as my contribution to the lavatory ministry collection plate.
I once asked him if many patrons left a decent tip. His response made me laugh out loud.
He said, “Some of the men are very generous indeed, but some just leave a few coins. To them, I always say, ‘Mister, if you can’t FOLD it, you better HOLD it!’”
Rev was winding down his career at “21” and was planning to retire and take an adjunct teaching position at Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C., where he has been a trustee since 1975.
To make the commute a bit easier, he was planning to move – not to North Carolina, but to Delaware. “It’s a tax friendly state, you know,” he would say with a knowing smile.
Guess you don’t gab with the high-finance and political clientele of “21” for so many years and not learn a little something.
“When I leave, it’s going to be an end of an era,” he would always say.
He was so right, but we certainly didn’t expect such a sudden exit.
Reverend Lorenzo Marshall Robinson left us to be with The Lord on October 24, at the tender age of 71, after giving the eulogy for his sister at a church service in Connecticut.
According to his obituary in the Stamford Advocate, he pastored four churches and was the Former Chairman of the Stamford Fair Rent Commission. He was also former Chairman of the Board of Directors at the Chester A. Addison Community Center and Past President of the Stamford Branch of the NAACP.
Dr. Robinson led a life driven by community service, mentorship, scholarship and uplift.
For over a decade he sponsored annual bus trips to Shaw University in Raleigh, NC to provide high school students with an opportunity to experience a glimpse of college life.
Because of his dedication to higher education, the Lorenzo Marshall Robinson High School Day at Shaw University was implemented.
He is survived by his wife of 44 years, Jerelene Robinson, and one daughter Lorenda M. Robinson, of whose accomplishments and education he was so proud. He always talked about Lorenda.
He will be sorely missed by all who frequented “21” but most especially by me, for Rev and I had rekindled a special bond of friendship over the past 7 years.
He would always strut around “21” when I was there for drinks or dinner, loudly proclaiming to anyone within earshot, “I knew that young man since he was ten years old and knew his mother Dorothy too!” And then he’d come over and give me a big bear hug.
And so it was, every time I went to “21”.
But, sadly, not anymore.
Today, the men’s lavatory was strangely silent and absent of life. And absent too, were the tools of its first-class attendant. The only reminder, a bronze plaque, placed far up in the corner of the mirror, bearing the name of my old friend.