The sound of Thanksgiving morning is the roar of 20 or 30 Harleys coming full throttle across the Bay Bridge into the city. Riding in formation and roaring into the Tenderloin, the bikes are parked and the helmets replaced by hairnets. Aprons go over leather vests bearing the club colors.
The Kings of Cali are ready to provide Thanksgiving dinner service at Glide, the social service agency linked to a famous church.
“We get a great feeling knowing that we are able to feed somebody else before we feed ourselves,” says Charles Canady, a co-founder of the Black motorcycle club of the East Bay.
The Thanksgiving morning run is a 16-year Kings tradition that had been cast into doubt in 2020, as have most holiday traditions. After offering three meals a day since 1969, Glide closed its indoor dining room in the church basement for the first time ever in March, after the pandemic altered so much of our society. More than 1,000 volunteers have been kept away since. But after sanitizing the entire building, the meal service has returned, served by the paid staff to customers who go through the food line now located outside.
On Thanksgiving Day, a group of 138 volunteers will return to work, on five shifts, starting at 6 a.m. and ending at 2 p.m. because Glide is hosting Thanksgiving dinner outside in three open-air tents that will cover half the 300 block of Ellis Street. The staff expect to serve 2,300 dinners of turkey and stuffing with gravy, ham and sweet potatoes, mac and cheese, rolls, desert and punch.
The job will be different than before, when an average of 500 volunteers were usually on duty. As opposed to standing shoulder to shoulder in the basement food line and slinging hash buffet-style, the Kings of Cali and the other volunteer servers will be carrying individual meals up from the kitchen and delivering them to people seated outside at tables to maintain social distancing.
Volunteers will act as maitre’ds, servers, busboys and TV-tray sanitizing teams, and the Kings are cool with that.
“I personally called and said, ‘We are coming no matter what,’” Canady said. “We will work outside. We will work on the street. Not a problem.”
Although Canady, 57, lives in Antioch and runs the linen service at the trauma center of John Muir Medical Center in Walnut Creek and Concord, he has a thing about Thanksgiving in San Francisco, where he grew up “in the ghetto,” he says. “I know what it feels like to do without.”
He has happier Thanksgiving memories of playing football, first in the streets of the projects and then on the lush grass of Kezar Stadium, site of the annual Turkey Day Game for the city championship between public high schools. As an all-city wide receiver for the Balboa Buccaneers, he caught a touchdown bomb in a 21-14 victory over Lincoln on Thanksgiving Day, 1980, with 8,000 fans in the old concrete bowl.
Canady advanced to the football team at City College of San Francisco but hurt his neck before he could play a single down in a game, ending his career. That was a lesson in how things can turn around. He hadn’t forgotten it 40 years later when the Kings of Cali were forming and the president approached him to be a founding member.
“I said the only way I would be involved is if we give back to the community,” Canady says. He rode into the city and met with the Rev. Cecil Williams of Glide. “I said, ‘We are going to be coming in on our bikes. You’ll be able to hear us.’”
That was the start of both the club and the Thanksgiving Day ride.
“The club is about community and brotherhood,” says Oakland attorney Jason Ross, 45, who goes by J-Ross. “We have plumbers, electricians, people who work for the city, people who drive buses.”
They all ride some form of Harley, usually modern Street Glide and Road Glide models, not the traditional choppers favored by that other club. The Kings have ridden as far as Maine, covering 26 states in six days. But even that can’t compete with the Thanksgiving ride, which musters at the classic Denny’s in Emeryville and is the club highlight of the year.
“Rain, sleet or snow, you can count on us,” Ross says. “Thanksgiving at Glide is one of the most beautiful things about giving that I have been able to share with my son and daughter.”
As the years have gone on, the Kings have added Queens, who arrive by automobile and often bring their princes and princesses.
“The first time I brought my wife she cried,” says Canady. “It hurt her to see how things were. I told her to hold on. Now she can’t wait to go again.”
Their children and grandchildren can’t wait either, but this year Glide has specified that nobody under age may 18 serve. Which means a lot of Kings of Cali kids who look forward to it every year will have to stay home. Their fathers will also have to adapt, dismounting their bikes at Glide and immediately submitting to temperature sensors to the forehead and a health screening questionnaire. Canady does not expect any complaints and neither does Tori Pinto, who runs the volunteer program at Glide.
“The Kings are one of our most devoted and steadfast partners,” says Pinto. “They always show up in style and they are always gracious and happy hosts. They like to be right in the midst of things and that is how we like to have it on Thanksgiving.”
The Kings don’t eat with the people they serve. After the shift ends they ride in formation back over the bridge before splitting off to their own family celebrations.
“This has become part of my life every year and I could not live without it,” Canady says. “In order to receive your blessings, you have to give back.”
Source: San Francisco Chronicle by Sam Whiting