Topic: "Social Security" (7)
Eli Cottrell was a musician. He was also a good-will ambassador, a philanthropist, and a remarkable man. The following story is true, in every detail.
Memphis, Tennessee, is not a "place of good abode." This is particularly the case in the summer, when heat bakes off the asphalt and there is no hint of wind anywhere in the poorer sections of town. For those unfortunate enough to hold positions which required them to drive these hot city streets, and air conditioning was not allowed because it was a "luxury item," the days seemed endless. Frodo shared the complexion of the police officers, the insurance salesman, and no one else in those days of violence and hatred.
Eli Cottrell had travelled the world with Lionel Washington and his Orchestra during the days after the Great War. When his time for travel ended, he returned to his hometown of Memphis with a small nest egg, sufficient to cover the costs of the diner known as "Eli's Place."
Frodo became acquainted with the establishment because he had the geographical responsibility to collect overdue small tax liabilities. "Eli's Place," according to his records, was a business that was so burdened. Apparently, the owner had employees and he had neglected to pay the employee's share of the Social Security withheld from the employees on payday. Frodo's instructions from his superiors were clear, any business operating in such a manner was to be closed. It is, after all, bad business to allow liabilities to fall further and further behind, no matter who was responsible.
It was late on a Friday, in the heat of summer, and this would be Frodo's final stop of the working day. He entered the little bar, and as he expected, his was the palest countenance around. He walked to the cash register and asked to speak with Eli Cottrell, while every patron sat in silence and watched. Frodo introduced himself to the smallish, and sweating, man as he wiped his hands on his apron before offering Frodo a seat near the piano and the jukebox, silently sitting in a front corner. He offered Frodo a "Coca-Cola," an offer which greatly tempted the Hobbit despite his awareness of "the rules." Frodo demurred.
Frodo explained his reason for visiting Eli Cottrell that day, and asked that the entire liability be immediately satisfied by cash, check, or money order. Eli explained that he could make a partial payment after the weekend, but satisfying the entire amount would not be possible without some sort of "arrangement." Frodo explained that Social Security Withholding was a "trust fund" for his employees, and that he could not maintain the status quo any longer. Eli Cottrell sighed, then he pointed to the two ladies working behind the countertop. They, he explained, were his employees, and their only income was from the minimum wage he paid them to cook. Frodo noted that both appeared to be well into their seventies. Eli Cottrell told Frodo that he did not withhold any money from their wages, that he paid both the employer and the employee portions of the tax, and it was his plan to continue doing so until both ladies had enough "quarters" to be eligible for Social Security. They would each have no other income or support.
Frodo was stymied. This was not in "the rules," and Frodo quickly sensed that some sort of "arrangement" had to be made, or everybody would lose. Just then, one of the ladies from behind the countertop brought two Coca-Colas to the table, set them down in silence and hobbled back to her duty station. Eli Cottrell asked Frodo if he liked music. When Frodo smiled, Eli Cottrell turned to the piano, and started with "Hold That Tiger," in maybe the most lyrical of environments that Frodo has ever known.
Every Friday, on his way home, Frodo would stop by "Eli's Place," in order to receive a partial payment on the past taxes due, and the amount required to stay current. When he entered, there was always a Coca-Cola on the table, and everyone smiled and said "Good Day" to Mr. Frodo, of the IRS. Then Eli Cottrell would play the piano before Frodo turned out the door and headed for home.
There was a time when "the rules" prohibited the use of the term "Mr." to address a man of color in Memphis, Tennessee. The days were not that long ago. Frodo used the proper name of this gentleman every day. He addressed Frodo as "Mister" from that very first day, too.
Frodo thinks about Eli Cottrell from time-to-time. He was just a little guy, who had a gift, and a heart.
Hold that tiger.