Chaka. Unless you live in a cave, if you're a Peekskillian you probably know Chaka Ngwenya. If you haven't yet put the name with the face, he's the tall, handsome African man - usually dressed in a Salvation Army uniform - with an outsized personality, a big smile and a slightly wicked twinkle in his eye which accompanies his frequent, good-natured zingers.
I can't think of anyone I know personally who does more good in the world than Chaka. He tirelessly runs the Peekskill Salvation Army (I'm not sure of his exact title... ) which does so much for our community. (If you ask, "How are you, Chaka?" he replies, "I am blessed.") I'm sure I don't know the half of it, but I do know that the Peekskill Salvation Army serves meals to the needy every day at their Nelson Avenue headquarters, and regularly at other locations in the area. They also work with local kids, and I've twice had the privilege of performing my magic show at the SA - getting to see their operation close up.
I know Chaka both from the Peekskill Rotary and through my friend Brian Delma Taylor, who arranged and produced Chaka's original songs (yes, he's also a singer/songwriter) for Chaka's upcoming CD, the proceeds of which will go to benefit orphans in Chaka's native Zimbabwe. (The CD is fabulous by the way - I've gotten a preview...)
This is all by way of an introduction to my own personal Chaka story from a few weeks ago. (Everyone has at least one Chaka story....)
Every year members of the Peekskill Rotary Club volunteer for bell-ringing/kettle-monitoring for the Peekskill Salvation Army outside Walmart. Last year my shift was on a bright, sunny Saturday morning. With my Walmart hot chocolate in one hand and my bell in the other, it was a fast, fun hour.
This year was different. At the Rotary lunch where the bell-ringing sign-up sheet was circulated, my table got it last and all the choice slots were taken. I ended up with 8-9pm, the last shift on a Friday night. OK, not that bad. But when the day arrived, I started feeling sick - sneezing, sniffles, scratchy throat. And to top it off, a few hours before I had to leave, the weather turned nasty - cold and rainy. So I bundled up in multiple layers, put on my flea market Nor'easter coat (see earlier post...), stuffed the pockets with tissues and throat lozenges, and headed to Walmart.
I relieved a very cheerful Marie Greene and her daughter, who'd manned the 7-8pm shift at the west side of the Walmart entrance. I put on the Rotary apron and immediately felt ridiculous because in my enormously layered-out red, hooded waterproof coat (which I didn't need because I was standing in a sheltered area) I looked like some sort of giant flaming abominable snowman. And I was miserably sick. I just kept blowing my nose, popping throat drops, shifting from foot to foot, feebly thanking the frequent contributors to the Salvation Army kettle and constantly checking the time while trying to keep the bell ringing. Normally I would've sung Christmas carols in time with the ringing bell, but that night I was just in survival mode.
At 8:55pm, Chaka arrived to collect the donations and stow the kettles for the night. He was wearing sweatpants, sneakers and two t-shirts (no coat). Without a word, he snatched the bell from my hand and launched into a high-energy, bell-ringing, song-and-dance version of Feliz Navidad--all smiles, all charm. Some Walmart shoppers stopped to watch, others kept walking. (The big, red abominable snowperson weakly moved in rhythm, adding feeble harmony...) For the duration of his performance, donations definitely increased. But I know that nobody's spirit was lifted more than mine - cold and sick, but suddenly highly entertained.
As soon as Chaka finished his song, he said, "I'd better go. My wife will kill me if she knows I'm running around without a coat." And suddenly, after what had felt like a very long hour, I was in my car, heat blasting, headed home, smiling through my sniffles.