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The Men Who Made Me
Big Ron’s Baltimore, Chapter 1: Family Legends

I walked into the Shamrock Inn at 5:59 p.m. for my 6:00 p.m. Tuesday meeting with Ron, and as always he had preceded me. At the corner of the bar, by the door, sat his father, who, after a handshake, indicated that he’d be fine and we picked out a table back by the pool tables. This entire chapter was typed into my laptop as we were served four beers by the comely, snowy-skinned, black-haired barmaid, who had been thoughtful enough to wear her tightest pants for the occasion—and we had not even thought to call ahead. Aside from taking time out to observe her return to the tap, we focused on his memories of family that forged the boy who would be tempered in the hate furnace of Baltimore City Public Schools.

As the evening wore on we were joined by for white men and four black, from ages 30-70, playing pool—race-against-race—amicably expressing their differences in a joint past time as the dindu spawn roved in packs mostly five strong outside in the falling night. We agreed, that there was going to be no way to get future versions of these working black men—with their humor and grit—from those entitled predatory lives, and also, that these four white men that contested them, could not possibly be replicated by the college-age hipsters who had surrounded us at the Raven Inn on the previous Sunday night’s interview. So we have conducted all three of our meetings in the constant presence of the broken masculine line.

On my mother’s side I have some Greek, German and Indian—a real mutt. On my father’s side I’m mainly German, Irish and English. I came up with working class pride more than ethnic pride. Like my father would say, “They hate the working guys until they need their house or car fixed.”

Ron’s Paternal Line

My Father’s Father was a produce manager for A&P. He served rounding up the Nazis during the occupation after World War Two, was in the army. He was a heavy drinker, hit my grandmother, which resulted in divorce. He drove cab and died of cancer in the seventies. He also tended bar. My Dad’s Father was from Pennsylvania. My grandmother’s family just lived in Hampden, since they were brought over in chains probably, run down the Jones Falls to hide, I guess.

My Father’s Stepfather married my grandmother in the early sixties. I was pretty close with him. He died in 89. He was an interesting guy, rode Cadillacs, carried a gun, had a big knot of money at all times. He was born in Howard County. I’ve seen pictures from the 20s and 30s, looked like the Old West, wood buildings. When The Depression hit he took off and hoboed around, worked when he could, stole when he had to, travelled a god part of the country. He had a couple of stints in prison: one for impersonating an officer in a scam during World War Two. We would go out to eat. He would take me places and we would play cards and go to the race tracks. He’d give me a hundred ones and we’d play for money. If I won, he let me keep it, which was seldom. A lot of stuff he told me, “This is between us. Don’t tell your grandmother.”

He was a boxing fan, a Joe Louis fan, common for people in his age bracket. He never did any boxing but I was under the impression that he was pretty dangerous. We were always running into people that knew him, giving him hugs and telling me how good he was. He had a lot of friends that looked up to him and respected him. He was always helping people with money.

He was picking me up in his Cadillac in Southwest Baltimore. A Dindu come to the window and was asking for money. He lifted up this small bat to smack his fingers—the Dindu had his hands on the door—and then ran off. I was probably six-seven years old. I called him Grandpop. He was heavy into gambling, meeting, shaking hands at ball games, races and fights and exchanging money. He bought all new stuff for the family. I heard stories that when he went into a bar everybody drank for free—he was a bookie.

We’d go down his sister Annie’s, to their dairy farm in Howard County. They had a grandson named Charles, a big guy, we used to wrestle and throw the boxing gloves on. They had an old car that grandpop hot-wired—dumb, masculine shit that you look back on that kind of makes you smile. They had a bull that they would let us hop in the pen with and chase us until we hopped out. Had good times with him. He would run card games in the house with questionable people and grandma didn’t like that.

He was a sport.

My Father went into the Marine Corp during Vietnam, volunteered, did motor-pool work and some combat. He didn’t like talking about it. He would go fishing but not hunting—said he held a rifle enough in the service. He gave a lot of practical advice on using guns, making sure you were ready to kill if you draw. I was taught to use firearms. He told me to stand off with my left hand out, with a knife or a gun, create some distance and pump them full of iron—or lead.

He worked in construction and as an auto-mechanic and drove truck—eighteen wheelers. His family was from over in Hampden—Hampdenites. They moved over toward this area—Parkville, Hamilton. His mother was from a very large family, 12 of them in a row home, railroad people, the Maryland-Pennsylvania line, ma and pa independent lines, before CSX came later and snapped all the lines up.

Ron’s Maternal Line

My Mother’s Father, he had a big influence on my interest in boxing. I also called him Grandpop. We threw the gloves on quite a few times and he told me the stories about Bobby Woods. He boxed in the Navy. He was injured badly in the South Pacific. His leg was all burnt up—looked kind of like Freddy Kruger’s face. They put a rubber boot of maggots on his leg to eat the dead flesh—saw a lot of naval action. He was a fireman after the war—putting fires out on ships was a big deal in the Navy. If you have a fire on a ship you have a big problem. He boxed before the Navy, I don’t know to what level of experience. He coached for the city athletic rec program—at the time you were not loaded with Dindus yet. The fireman would volunteer their time to coach the kids at the rec center. They were really connected to the neighborhood where they had their fire stations and would put in time for the community. People knew their firemen back then. This was in the late 40s and fifties.

I had a great time with him. We would talk a lot about the old fighters, Lamatta, Louis, Robinson, Willie Pepe. My grandfather was highly impressed with Sugar Ray Robinson. He’d seen him fight and said it was unbelievable watching him do what he did. Billy Woods was his brother-in-law. He was fairly impressed with Bobby’s boxing. I heard some stories about bare-knuckle incidents they had in boxing gyms back then. My mother actually remembered some bareknuckle boxing in the gyms and people would come in and cheer. They’d have a small venue, you could go in a group. My mother remembered going as a little girl. You had kids there with the soda pop and two men punching their faces in.

Uncle Rick’s wife, my mother and my grandmother where coming out of a bar one time and there was a drunk there pissing. My grandfather kicked him in the ass and told him to put his dick away. So there are some words and a scuffle—I heard this from my mother in detail—and my grandfather put him against the wall and bit is ear, took the bottom of the earlobe right the fuck off. Mom and Rick’s wife were young and she said there was blood everywhere. He wasn’t happy about him pissing in front of his family.

They had a bad breakup him and my grandmother and her sister—my aunt, Tattoo Rick’s wife—never really reconciled with him, said he was mean and he probably was. But I know that the time I spent with him was great. I was married, in the early 2000s, he was living down Ocean City with a new wife and all and he passed away. There’s not to much to say about, I was married myself by then. The last thing I remember doing with him was just siting and talking with him, talking about boxing, just a normal, passing conversation.

My Mother’s Step-Father, he was a hardcore Irishman, from the Emerald Isle—drank like it and acted like it. Is parents were straight from the Ireland his name was Melvin McConville . He was in the Navy in World War Two, went in and lied when he was fifteen, served in the South Pacific. He either killed a lot of Japs or a lot of whiskey, it depends on which side of his story you believe. He worked at Coppers, a big company, as a welder, just a typical Irishman, drank a lot, ran his mouth a lot.

My Mother was a great woman, a great mother, tough, took no shit. She worked a lot of typical woman jobs, secretary, waitress. Before she passed away she worked for Murrays steaks, assistant manager there. [A nightmare niche in urban retail food in the mid-Atlantic region.] They offered her a management position in a worse neighborhood. Those were all bottom dollar joints in bad neighborhoods, all owned by Jews. She didn’t need that.

Her mother was from Greece. They may have come in through Elis Island and made their way down here to Baltimore. I believe it was after World War One, twenties or thirties, probably twenties. They had a network of Greek relatives moving around and working in different food industries. When her mother married my grandfather, they ended up in Southwest Baltimore and that’s where my mother and my aunt Elaine grew up.

In the riots of sixty-eight, she was driving with a female friend, they had gone to a concert downtown and the riots were breaking out. It was downtown towards Martin Luther King Boulevard, east or west of it. She was moving along in traffic and all this shit breaks loose and all these black dudes were in front of the car and she stomped on the gas—some going under, some going over, others hoping off to the sides—the wrong time to hold a line. It was a smart move and I agree with it.

I don’t have any brothers or sisters. My mother couldn’t have any more children, an ovarian cyst—which eventually killed her. I had a fight with a kid when I was six or seven years old and some kid’s older brother came out and I was getting kicked around and my mother came out and pulled him off and their mother came out and my mother was getting ready to fight that woman-that’s a very vivid meory in my mind

When I was older and we lived in Hamilton, it was me and a white kid and a clack kid with me and we were smashing pumpkins on moving night the three of us observing a venerable Harm City tradition. The one guy that lived by the middle school came after us and we split. I could always run far but not fast and this cop grabbed me. The cop that came was buddies with the cop that lived there, an alright guy, big redneck guy he was tired of kids from school messing up the neighborhood. They made me clean up the pumpkin and then took me home to my mother—another fine Harm City tradition. She brought me in the house and told me I should of ran a little faster.

She passed away in the early 2000s, was still working for Murray’s steaks, seventeen years ago.

Uncles and Cousins

My Uncle Bobby Woods was my mother’s uncle by marriage. My grandfather said he died in 54 or 55 working on the Bay Bridge. He fell off the first time and survived, then fell again and didn’t make it. He was a pro boxer. My grandfather told me he went ten rounds with Ray Robinson—of course didn’t win. I don’t know what his fight name was. That was great hearing about Uncle Bobby, to fight the world champion for ten rounds and to have that in your family—it makes an impression. Never got to see a picture, no known pictures. Everything about him is going off my grandfather. My grandmother knew about him too, but the information all came from my grandfather. I’m looking for any information I can find about Bobby Woods, scouring what I can find online.

Uncle Rick was married to my mother’s sister, the Dark Lady, the first licensed, female, tattoo artist in Maryland. He ran the Café Tattoo—he was always around. I have a lot of love for him and my aunt. We were always around each other at family get togethers. I used to work over at his bar for him. My mother used to take karate with him. Would talk about karate and martial arts with him all the time. They had two daughters, I was right close with them growing up, Jen and Terra. Jen’s a bubble head, I’m surprised she kept that job with you at Bi-Rite for so long. She’s up Papas’ cooking now.

Tera is a little bit of a spitfire, she was younger, they’re real close. I was pestering her—a couple years younger than her, getting in her business and she’s worried about boys and I’m snooping around and got sent on my way. She hit like a man. At Lake Clifton high school there was a big incident when this dindu grabbed her ass and she beat the shit out of him—I mean totally destroyed this negro. It turned into a parents-teacher-conference. Her dad or her mother’s boyfriend was there and it turns into a fight between Tattoo Ricks and the dindus—right in his wheel house, he enjoyed that.

[Tattoo Rick refused to tell the author the following story in 1998 when being interviewed for the violence project.]

Rick and Elaine were driving through town, headed home and needed to stop in to a store and get a loaf of bread. Elain told me this story in graphic detail. She’s sitting there in the passenger seat and some nigger comes p to the window and is giving her shit. Well Rick comes out and gets up in the guy’s face and the next thing you know he has thrown up a rising thumb jab and the guy’s eye pops out and is dangling on his cheek. Rick then hits this guy with a strike with the other hand which Elaine did not see—focused as she is on the dangling eyeball—and drops the guy. They then drive home.

Rick was good for the advice he was just great to be around. He would give all kinds of advice on how to handle yourself and I soaked that up. Guys like Rick in your life enable you to pick up masculine principals.

Elain wouldn’t do any tattoo work on anybody in the family other than Rick and my dad and they were already tatted up.

Uncle peg-leg. He started doing tattoos in prison. He was born in 64 and has spent most of that in prison—was trouble from the cradle. The artwork he gave me he signed “Peg-leg.” A lot of people I know in Southwest Baltimore and up here in Hamilton actually served time with him. He did serious shit, robberies, burglaries, serious alcohol and heroin addiction. When he was young they had him on that liver medicine that made you throw-up when you drank alcohol and he stood there and forced down a fifth of Jack Daniels. Beat his own father half to death with a telephone just before his father died. He just got done doing twenty years, was down The Cut, then when they closed The Cut down they moved all them fools up to Western Maryland to Cumberland, Western Correctional Institute. Even though I wasn’t talking to him I was keeping track of him through the MD Inmate Locater so you can keep track of them.

He’s been out, running around Southwest Baltimore. He’s my mother and Elain’s half-brother. They are full sisters. Rick and my dad used to have to go tune him up. He was highly involved with the criminal organizations on the inside. That comes from guys I know who were incarcerated with him. I avoid getting together with him and don’t give him my address—he’s trouble. The last time I spoke with him was in the 90s, 21 years ago right before he went to prison. My wife and kids started teaching me how to get on the internet so I could watch boxing and someone told me about the inmate locater. All you need to know is their full name, it’s a public domain thing.

As a group, I would say the men in my family did right buy me—good hardworking men. Without a thought they did it their own way and did what needed to be done. They taught me what it was to be a man, that you had to be there for family and good people and you had to stand up to the bad people—and above all, try and keep the cops out of it. A takes care of business, doesn’t get on the phone to call in the cops that’s a woman’s role, if it needs done at all. I really did have a good, loving home life with two grandads that I spent significant time with, a hardworking, taking care of business dad—whose sitting right over there. He still hits the bars, makes an appearance. Every Tuesday I drive him around for his errands. I am worried about his neighborhood and how it’s going since he’s getting on in years and the police have just totally given up on keeping the Dindus in line. He’s not worried. He just wants to be ready.

Recorded 4/4/17


Tattoo Rick’s many violent stories of late 20th Century Baltimore may be found in The Logic of Steel, The Logic of Force, and When You’re Food. Rick’s Uncle Joe, was a Moo-Do-Kwon instructor who recently passed away, another tough military veteran. It seems, as Ron and I discuss these things, that what is missing most in Baltimore in terms of the failure to keep the lid on the mushrooming black-on-white violence is the increasing absence of such men from the ranks of our fading race.

And yes, I spoke with Ned and Melvin, the two black fellows behind me, and they were as most of the men of their race and age are, happy to be able to relax with some white fellas rather than dealing with the world of bitches and brats that the Welfare State has turned their community into.

Thriving in Bad Places

Add Comment
IshmaelApril 6, 2017 12:51 PM UTC

They hate the working guy until they need their car, or house fixed, add power, water, sewer! The dirty work in life. Maybe they will keep a few of we hillbillies around for a museum piece.