Afternoon Delight Cafe has closed for the day, but seventy-one-year-old busser Walter Roberson–who walks with a stoop and smiles frequently–is still hard at work in the back of the restaurant, folding cardboard catering boxes. Roberson started his day at 8 a.m., and he won’t head home until nearly 9 p.m., after he finishes his second job as custodian of the building. For thirty-three years, Afternoon Delight has been a second home for Roberson. “We have a good routine here,” he says. But it’s the customers that “keep me going.”
“They are beautiful people,” Roberson says, explaining he has a “love for people and kids.” He prefers clearing tables to being a waiter “because you can move from table to table and can interact with everyone.” And those who interact with Roberson don’t forget him.
“He’s our goodwill ambassador,” says fellow employee Paul Hoppin. “He knows every single regular customer here.” Roberson sings “Happy Birthday” over the PA to customers, eagerly greets U-M students when they return in the fall, and knows generations of families.
Anita Sherman Moran has been bringing her three kids to Afternoon Delight since she moved to Ann Arbor in the early Nineties. “You know you’re part of someone’s family, that you’ve become part of that inner circle, when you’re greeted with a hug” from Roberson, she says.
“Walter’s just got this really good energy about him,” says her son, Alex Reynolds, now twenty-nine. “He exudes humility and grace.” And Reynolds, who worked in restaurants himself when he was younger, marvels at Roberson’s ability to do the job at his age. “It is hard work!”
Roberson has known hard work since he was a boy. He grew up in Ypsilanti, the oldest of four children. When their minister father abandoned the family to start a new life and family in Detroit, Roberson says, he became the “father figure” for his younger siblings.
Inspired by his mom’s work ethic as a housekeeper for U-M hospitals, Roberson started bussing tables at the Michigan Union when he was just eleven, working weekends during the school year and daily during summers. He also did janitorial work at a nearby apartment in exchange for a place to live, so he could donate his paychecks to his family.
“I never got into any trouble,” he says of his time living on his own as a boy. At the Union he got to know the U-M’s elite, spending time with the children of regents and professors and accepting invitations to their Christmas parties and special events. “I think we were a good education for each other,” he says of those friendships. “I was a poor kid from Willow Run trying to make a living,” he says, and he never sensed any bigotry.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better escape,” he says. “Ann Arbor was a blessing.” After the Union, he worked as maitre d’ at the Michigan League for twenty years. He served visiting stars, including Duke Ellington, Vincent Price, and the Gabor sisters. He recalls chatting shyly with Helen Hayes and Henry Fonda on an elevator and getting an autograph from one of his musical idols, Joan Baez.
Roberson learned of the Afternoon Delight job from a friend. He has been working for co-owner Tom Hackett ever since. They know each other so well that they “fight like an old married couple,” says Hackett. Roberson calls Hackett “the last of the grumpy old men.” But their bond is strong–Roberson says that Hackett is the only person besides his mother who can convince him to visit a doctor.
Roberson says his two brothers still joke that he was “too bossy” with them as kids (his sister died in her late thirties of complications from lupus). As an adult, he says, he’s the “runt” of the family–his brothers tower over him at six-and-a-half feet each. Roberson was deeply affected by his father’s leaving–“he didn’t even attend my high school graduation”–but says he’s refused to let it “eat away at him.” Though his father has since passed away, Roberson remains close to his family, including his paternal uncles, who are also ministers. “I’m a believer,” he says, although he couldn’t see becoming a minister himself because of his father’s actions.
Roberson, who has never learned to drive, walks everywhere he needs to go in Ann Arbor. On Sunday, his day off, his brother drives him to visit their mother, who’s eighty-nine. Together they go to services at Mt. Olive Baptist Church, where an uncle is pastor. Then Roberson makes his mother dinner. “I show her how much I love her,” he says. Often the menu includes Cornish hen, dressing made from scratch, yams, and apple pie using his grandmother’s recipe. A lifelong bachelor, he says he’s “too independent” to marry, though he admits with a chuckle that he had “some close calls.”
His work schedule doesn’t leave him much down time, but Roberson is fine with that. “I’ve always been hyper,” he explains, sleeping only three or four hours a night, and unwinding by listening to his extensive record collection–everything from Van Morrison to Hank Williams Jr. to the Supremes. He also enjoys watching a Western or an Everybody Loves Raymond rerun (“It reminds me of The Honeymooners,” he says.). For several years he performed in plays put on by U-M theater groups and still enjoys dancing when he gets a chance–Hackett says he dances like Little Richard.
Roberson’s got his own little “botanical garden” in his apartment. He visits Chelsea Flower Shop a few doors down from Afternoon Delight almost daily, where owner Nobuko Sakoda gives him her wilting plants, which he nurses back to health and keeps or brings into the restaurant. “He is a happy and positive” presence, Sakoda says, and he “is a legend on this street,” walking up and down Liberty, wearing his apron, and waving and visiting with shop owners.
Roberson says he plans to keep working “as long as my health holds out.” In September, hip pain forced him into the hospital, and he was out of work while he recuperated at his mother’s house. “It’s the first time I can remember him missing work,” says Hackett.
He was expected to return sometime in November. Until then, the customers keep asking for Walter.