Al Lassiter , a cashier at Weavers Way’s Chestnut Hill store, is a man of many talents. (Photo by Len Lear)

by Len Lear

When you walk up to his checkout counter at Weavers Way in Chestnut Hill, you have to pay for your food, but Alphonso (“Al”) Lassiter’s smiles are free. The perpetually jovial cashier, 69, is also a talented artist and illustrator who was a senior staff artist for the Cable TV Guide, supervising a staff of 15 freelance artists (the publication was later purchased by TV Guide), an instructor for the United Cerebral Palsy Association of Philadelphia, a child care worker for disabled youth and a customer service rep for a Bucks County company that made printing plates — and all despite growing up in public housing in Norfolk, Virginia.

Like so many senior citizens these days with impressive backgrounds, even one with more than 40 years of the highest quality work, Lassiter was a victim of the economy. He was laid off from the printing plate firm in 2005 after nine years because the work was no longer there, and the odds of a senior citizen, no matter how skilled, getting a full-time job in his/her field of expertise in the past decade or more have been about the same as being hit by lightning.

So after being unemployed for quite a while, Lassiter took a job with a Target store in customer service and later as a cashier.

“I did like working there,” Lassiter said, “but the pay was just $8 an hour. I asked for a raise, so they raised me up to $8.35 an hour, but that was definitely not enough to live on.” Then, six months after Weavers Way opened its Chestnut Hill store in 2010, then-executive chef Bonnie Shuman hired Al, who started out as a dishwasher (at $10 an hour) in what he described as a “taxing job.”

“That was actually the toughest job I have ever had. The volume was tremendous, and it was hard keeping up the pace. I was afraid to take a break because I would come back to a mountain of dishes. Keeping up the pace was very tough. My hands would hurt at night.”

But while Weavers Way is his day job (as a cashier now), Lassiter has always been about art. He and his wife, Rose Caporaletti, a graphic artist At Temple University for many years, were a part of the now-defunct Artists League of Mt. Airy (ALMA) since the early 1990s; it was an artist and volunteer association and membership organization. The two maintained a gallery space at the now-defunct Sedgwick Cultural Center and held an exhibit every six to eight weeks. The two were elected as co-presidents and leaders of ALMA for several years, and they also developed a gift shop for members and non-members to sell their own artwork.

Lassiter has not produced much art presently because of time constraints, but he has sold reproductions and original versions of the artwork online. He has also had his art exhibited at Woodmere Art Museum and the Philadelphia Sketch Club, and while still a senior in high school, he won top prize in the entire state of Virginia in an art contest sponsored by Hallmark Card Company. He has done sculpture, painted in oils, pen and ink and pencil, as well as crafts such as copper, enamel and ceramics. One of his most significant jobs was doing all of the illustrations for the book, “The Old Hermit and the Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Laughing, an African Fable,” by Kimani Christopher Toussaint.

Al’s sensitive, poignant painting of a “Woman in Floral Housecoat.”

Lassiter attended Carnegie Mellon University after showing his portfolio and being awarded scholarships and grants. He majored in fine arts but left school during his junior year while dealing with severe depression. “I lost faith in my ability to cope. My mom had severe emotional problems, and I was very insecure also. Fortunately, I then worked at a residential day care center in Pittsburgh that had a very good therapist named Peggy Herr. As a result of that therapy, I came out much more well-adjusted and with a belief in myself.”

At the center, Lassiter worked with emotionally disturbed children who might have temper tantrums and seizures. “I loved the job, and it was very rewarding when a child made progress, but the job may be why I did not have children of my own.”

Another hurdle Lassiter had to jump over was the rigid segregation he grew up with in Virginia. “Segregation was the law. Wherever we traveled, we would see signs designating areas for ‘colored’ and for ‘white.’ We weren’t allowed to go in to the areas that were marked ‘white’ … Even the cemetery was segregated, which seems kind of ridiculous. I remember going to the beach, and a fence separated whites from blacks. And the white side had the amusement park.”

Lassiter moved to Philadelphia in 1978 when Frank Rizzo was mayor, and in some ways the racial atmosphere was just as toxic as in the South. “I was stopped by a cop while driving at least once a week. The cops would always have a different excuse — ‘Your tail light is cracked;’ ‘Your license plate is bent;’ ‘Your car looks like a car that was involved in a robbery,’ ‘What are you doing in this neighborhood?’ etc. — but it was all unjustified. I never once was given a ticket.”

When Lassiter got to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, he noticed that while there was no segregation in terms of law, there were still all black and all white neighborhoods, and he still dealt with instances of bigotry when he looked for off-campus housing after his freshman year. “I remember making calls, and the person would say, ‘Oh yeah, it’s a great place; you’ll love it; come and see it,’ and then when I would arrive, they’d open the door and see me; you could see the color drain out of their face. ‘Sorry, I just rented it to someone else.’ I had that experience a number of times.”

Lassiter moved to Philadelphia in 1978 with his former wife, who was attending Women’s Medical School here, and reignited his art career while going through a divorce. He attended night classes at the Philadelphia College Of Art (known today as University of the Arts), where he met his current wife, Rose. The two have been married since 1993.