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Clinton Clay

by Sonya Jongsma Knauss / photo by Peter Di Antoni

Clinton Clay was born in Mississippi and raised in the streets. He has bounced around from town to town, but somehow, after all these years, he ended up in Riverwest. It feels like home. The 76-year-old Clay puffs on cigarettes as he talks from his “office” at a table in Onopa. “The most beautiful women in the world are here!” he says of Riverwest, looking out the big windows. It’s a topic he likes to come back to. “And they all are friendly!” he says. There’s often a mischievous look in his eye, so you’re never quite sure whether what he’s telling you is a tall tale or a stretch, or if he’s about to launch into a bawdy innuendo. He’s at home cracking little jokes or waxing philosophical about any of a number of things. “I AM time,” he proclaims with a bit of a flourish when asked whether he has time for an interview. He’s the unofficial watchdog of Fratney and Center Streets, and you’re pretty unlikely to catch a piece of paper or some trash blowing in the wind there. “I watch everything from here,” he says. He does janitorial work at Onopa every morning and early afternoon. Paul Onopa hired him about a year ago. “He hasn’t missed a single day of work,” Onopa says. And Clay says Onopa hasn’t once told him what to do — “I know just what needs to be done.” And he does it, policing both the inside and outside of the brewpub with energy. With a past that includes “a little time in the service, a little time in the institution, and a little time in the streets,” Clay came to Milwaukee after his mother’s funeral in Indiana in 1985. Some people from Milwaukee were there and told him there was work to be had here. His past also includes a stint in the Navy’s Sea Bees (the Construction Battalion) during World War II. “It wasn’t difficult being black,” he says of the service. “I was qualified to do the job — I had worked in the oil fields — and I knew more about what to do than a lot of them who weren’t black.” Later he served for seven years in the Marines before going to Chicago to do iron working. But he’s been in Milwaukee longer than anywhere else. He moved to Riverwest about three years ago. The most important thing in the world to Clay is his name. “It’s my father’s name,” he says. But the things that make him happy are fast cars and pretty women. “I had to give up motorcycles,” he explains. He won’t go into detail but he alludes to an accident involving a woman and a train. Clay plans to live to 125. He says this as he lights another cigarette, a habit he’s had since age 8. “My grandma on my dad’s side lived to 125,” he explains. His plans for the future include “taking my feet up off the ground” and investing his money “into the business.” He won’t say which one. “When you’re traveling down the highway, you don’t know where you’re going, but you can always look in the rearview mirror and see where you’ve been,” he says. “I can tell you anything except where I’m going.” He figures since he lives near the funeral home, when the time comes to go, it’ll be easy. “If I die they don’t even have to pick me up, they can just roll me over there,” he says. He enjoys looking back on his life. “You could write a whole book about me,” he says. His advice to young people: “young girls, don’t be prostitutes. Young boys, don’t sell crack cocaine. And don’t be someone else’s slave.” Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 10 – November 2002