Man returns coins he stole from Clifton’s Cafeteria 70 years later

Clifton's Cafeteria, Los Angeles

A poor shoeshine boy who took coins from a wishing well at Clifton’s Cafeteria in downtown Los Angeles returned to the restaurant many decades later to repay it “with interest.”

The LAist got the scoop on this remarkable story about Willie Gordon, who later became a successful attorney and detective novelist and married another author, Isabelle Allende, who wrote “The Infinite Plan.”

The LAist picks up the story from 1944:

After a day of work, the then six-year-old Willie would head over to Broadway and supplement his meager income courtesy of The Old Tree Wishing Well—a fountain feature like others found in the other Clifton’s locations—where patrons could toss coins. The money would be later donated to charitable organizations, but Willie decided to take matters into his own hands.

“I used to shine shoes on Main St. with a shoeshine box that I made myself and would charge a dime. By the end of the day, I would have a dollar. And then I would come up to Clifton’s, which was known for its generosity. And there was a fountain there that said, ‘This is for the poor.’ So, I figured, ‘What the hell, I’m poor,’ so I would take some money and put it in my pocket. And I did that for three or four years, and I would eat there, too, because it was cheap—probably a hot dog and French fries.

Gordon later moved to Whittier, California, but he occasionally would take coins from the well at Clifton’s when he was a teenager.

After a thoroughly eventful life — which included him hitchhiking around the world — something recently reminded Gordon of the coins he swiped from Clifton’s Cafeteria, which reopened last year after a multi-million-dollar renovation.

Then, nearly 70 years later, Willie was suddenly reminded of his days swiping coins from the wishing well of Clifton’s and was inspired to return what he had long ago “borrowed.”

“Last year, I was telling a friend of mine my L.A. stories and he told me that [Andrew Meieran] had purchased Clifton’s and rebuilt it just like it was before,” Gordon tells LAist. “And then he sent me a picture of the wishing well, and it was empty. So, I told him, ‘I’ve got a great idea. I’d like to give him a thousand bucks, which is with interest for all the money I stole.'”

Ultimately, Willie’s donation amounted to over $1,500, which he brought to Clifton’s entirely in coins this past Saturday—with a few helping hands to carry the weight and toss the coins back into the fountain. Willie’s contribution will go towards the Midnight Mission, which offers emergency services, addiction recovery, job training and work programs to the homeless of L.A.

Clifton’s Cafeteria opened near the western terminus of Route 66 in downtown Los Angeles in 1935.

(Image of Clifton’s Cafeteria by Michael Li via Flickr)

2 thoughts on “Man returns coins he stole from Clifton’s Cafeteria 70 years later

  1. Very cool sorry. Having volunteers at the midnight mission one or twice I’m super happy they are the ones sponsored here.

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