Sylvester "Sly" Bell, an employee at Goody Goody Diner (5900 Natural Bridge Ave., 314-383-3333), pauses an interview with a reporter as he watches a customer who had just finished her meal head for the door. "Hold on one second," he says before addressing her.
"I know you're about to leave, but this I want to say: If you don’t give up you will win. And I’m gonna look forward to you walking back in. Because I hope you understand that you're my friend. You’re a woman of character, a lady with integrity. And when I look at you, you look like a celebrity."
It's an impromptu, on-the-spot little piece of poetry intended to brighten the woman's day. And it's one of many: In fact, Bell greets and sends off every customer this manner. He thinks of it as a small gesture to make each person that walks through the door feel special.
Photographer Theo Welling met Bell two weeks ago while working on his column the Lede, which captures a St. Louisan in words and photos (one of Welling's full-page portraits kicks off each new issue of our print edition).
When Welling sat down to interview Bell, though, it quickly became clear that a single photo with a quote was not going to suffice in covering such a colorful character. He later returned to shoot the video below.
A former teacher, Bell worked in the St. Louis public school district for 30 years before retiring from that line of work and joining the staff at the diner. He cites the late comedian Julius "Nipsey" Russell, who was known for his humorous off-the-cuff poems, as the inspiration for for his own freestyle rhymes.
"He used to be on Hollywood Squares," Bell explains. "When I was eleven years old I was so fascinated with how he just made poetry off the top of his head. And I said, ‘Boy I sure would like to be like Nipsey Russell.’"
Goody Goody Diner has seen some famous folks walk through its doors over the years — Bell mentions that former Vice President Joe Biden even stopped by when he was in town a few months ago. But Bell doesn't treat the stars any differently than he would your average hungry St. Louisan.
"Whoever walks in this door, I treat them like royalty," he explains. "Because you're just as important as the former vice president. You could have chosen any food establishment, but when you come to Goody Goody Diner I’m gonna throw out the red carpet. I’m gonna let you know."
Bell says he has more than 1,000 lines of poetry in his arsenal, and that, obviously, he comes up with new ones every day. He intends to write a book one day, which he'll title "Believe to Achieve."
But first, he's got hungry customers to attend to. He greets another that walks through the door.
"You dining in today? My mind's made up; my heart is fixed. Walk this way and try these grits."