Somebody had to peel a hundred pounds of onions every day, and that job almost always fell on me.
I had been working at Hodge’s restaurant in Cleveland for seven months. I enjoyed working the 4-to-close shift because it was more laid back (and if I were asked to prep 20 steaks, no one minded if I prepped 21). I was a lowly dishwasher, but I showed up for work every day, did what I was told, and paid attention to the details. My bills were paid.
But French onion soup and French onion ravioli were very popular items on the menu, and that meant a lot of onions. I loathed onion-peeling duty. It’s hard enough on your eyes to peel and chop one onion. But I had to peel, slice, and chop one hundred pounds. I’d rather skin a hippopotamus.
This particular day was one hundred pounds too many.
“That’s it,” I yelled to Jim, the executive chef. “I’m sick and tired of putting up with this shit. The next sonofabitch who doesn’t help me peel these onions is gonna get peeled by me.” I slammed the knife down on the table and stormed off.
For probably the millionth time in my life, my big mouth (which now had a big gap because I’d recently lost my front tooth when biting into an apple) got me into trouble. Jim—the boss—called me into his office.
“Chuck, you’re really starting to frighten me,” he said. “We just can’t have that kind of behavior in the kitchen.”
“Oh, come on,” I said. “I was just letting off a little steam. I’m not about to do anything to anyone. No big deal, man.”
“That’s not the ethics we want around here,” Jim said.
“Ethics?” I asked. “You don’t seem to have a problem with ethics when we call each other ‘nigger’ around here.”
I went back to peeling those damn onions.
But about a week later we had another run-in. I was leaning over to wipe down a table when a brass cartridge slipped out of my pocket out onto the table. It was a spent shell casing from an AK-47 assault rifle. A friend of mine who served in Iraq had given it to me.
Jim called me into his office again.
“Go home, Chuck. You’re off for two weeks.” He told me I was perceived as a “threat.”
Hell, any knife I might pick up while clearing a table could do a lot more damage than a spent cartridge. What did he think I was going to do with that bitch, throw it at someone’s eye?
* * *
On Monday, May 6, 2013, I got up early like I usually do. This was the last day of my suspension, and I was worried about how I was going to make the $75-a-week rent without those two $269-a-week paychecks. One thing I was sure of, at least: A few stints in the penitentiary had long cured me of any desire to sell drugs again.
I watched some TV, putzed around the house, surfed the Internet on my Samsung smart phone (which now sits on the bottom of the Hudson River—more about that later). Eventually I heard the familiar soft clanging of the mailbox as the mailman made his delivery to the boarding house I shared with two other guys at 2203 Seymour Avenue. I stepped onto the porch, flipped open the lid, and looked through the mail. One piece of mail didn’t belong to me, but I saw the guy who it belonged to standing in his driveway.
“Hey, Ariel! That mailman brought me some of your mail again,” I said. For some reason, the mailman frequently put pieces of his mail in my box and pieces of my mail in his box.
“Geeze, I need to just move in with you guys,” Ariel Castro said in his charming Puerto Rican accent, a smile outlined by his salt-and-pepper beard. He was wearing his usual white shirt, black jeans, leather motorcycle jacket covering a tattoo on his left bicep, brown construction boots, dark shades, with a fisherman’s cap topping off his pudgy 5-foot-8 frame. I stepped off my rickety porch and handed it to him.
Ariel Castro seemed like a normal, regular good neighbor. He pretty much kept to himself, but when we saw each other we always said hi. He would often barbeque in his back yard and we’d share some ribs, pork chops, burgers, and chicken. The dude could cook with the finest Puerto Rican flair. Just the right combination of spices and fiery habanero pepper. With spring beginning to take hold in Cleveland, I was looking forward to more evenings of that sweet smoky odor wafting from his yard into mine.
“The hotter the music, the hotter the food,” Ariel would always say. Sometimes he had his granddaughter, or who I thought was his granddaughter, over for his cookouts, saying that he wanted to “Americanize her.”
Ariel referred to everything good as “muy caliente.” The food was muy caliente. A nice day was muy caliente. The salsa music he liked to play was muy caliente.
* * *
A bit after five that afternoon I fumbled through the remaining $11 in my pocket and giddily concluded I had more than enough for a Big Mac meal. It was a bright, brilliant, sunny, late afternoon, so I thought I’d hop on my Schwinn mountain bike (which I bought off some crackhead for $10) and pedal to my local McDonald’s at West 32nd Street and Clark Avenue.
“Hey Poppy, what can I get you today?” the polite Puerto Rican kid asked as I squared up to the counter. “Big Mac, medium fries, small Sprite,” I said. My usual order. The kid quickly gave me my change, gathered my order, and pushed the white bag across the counter. “Thanks, bro,” I said as I made my way out the door and back to my Schwinn, which fortunately was still where I left it.
I made my way east on Clark, and just before I hung a right on West 25th Street a couple of dudes in the parking lot of the Family Dollar store called out to me.
“Yo, Poppy, you wanna buy a pit bull puppy? Twenty dollar.” They had a cardboard box in the back of the car, and out of curiosity I cruised over there.
“Whadaya got there?” I asked.
“Pit bull puppies,” one of the dudes said, pulling open the top of the box.
I looked in. Obviously these idiots were trying to capitalize on the status and home security of owning a pit bull on west side of Cleveland, and they thought this black dude was a sucker sale.
“What pit bulls?” I laughed. “Those aren’t no pit bulls. Those are Shih Tzus.”
“Wha? No, them’s pit bulls,” the one dude tried to convince me.
Hey, I may be a dumb dishwasher, but I know the difference between a pit bull and a Shih Tzu. A Shih Tzu wouldn’t last five minutes in a cockfight. I’m sure these morons probably stole those dogs from a pet store and thought they could pass them off as pit bulls to someone dumber than them. So I just headed down West 25th and hung a left on Seymour. I rolled up on my house and parked my bike on my porch. I went in the house, took a seat on my porch, and took a bite into that juicy Big Mac. Life was tough, but it was good.
And then something happened that would change the lives of so many people in so many ways . . .
Sitting there, burger in hand, I heard a sudden banging from next door. At first I didn’t know what to make of it, and I wanted my sandwich. But the banging continued. It got louder. Then I heard a woman’s scream—the blood-curdling scream that you would hear if a kid got run over by a car.
Children playing on the street froze. Then more cries for help. I thought I’d seen Ariel go off to work, so I had not a clue as to what was going on. I looked outside and saw this Dominican dude, Angel Cordero, run across the street and onto the sidewalk. Without putting down my sandwich I ran to the sidewalk where Angel was standing.
BANG BANG BANG.
“Who the fuck is that?” I asked Angel.
“I don’t know,” Angel said, “but I’m not going up there.”
I knew that Angel and Ariel didn’t like each other, not for anything specific other than Angel was Dominican and Ariel was Puerto Rican. I guess that made them something like natural enemies within the Hispanic world, I don’t know.
“Ok, I’m gonna check it out,” I said. “You watch my back.”
Big Mac still in hand, I ran up to Ariel’s porch while Angel stayed behind. There was this young, attractive white woman, wearing a white tank top, clutching a child, lodged behind the storm door, banging and screaming.
“Get me out of here! Get me the fuck out of here!” she shrieked.
I was stunned. I had believed all this time that Ariel lived alone. I had never seen anyone over there other than him, other than the little girl I thought was his granddaughter. I figured this was some sort of domestic violence thing, a situation I was all too familiar with.
I stood on the porch. “How the hell did you get in there?” I asked this frantic woman. She had squeezed her left arm out from behind the storm door and was in no mood for a conversation.
“Just get me outta here!” she yelled.
I grabbed the storm door handle and yanked. Then I noticed the door was locked shut from the inside. I gave a couple more yanks, but that door wasn’t going to budge. The girl gave the bottom panel a few meager kicks.
“Get the fuck back, bitch,” I yelled. “I’m gonna kick the door in.”
This excerpt picks up the story partway through Chapter 2. It's two days after the rescue. Charles has barely slept, has been interviewed by the Cleveland Police and the FBI, and is in the middle of a whirlwind of media interest . . .
The ABC people in New York wanted to fly me out there for an interview. My entourage and I would be flown out there first class, and I would be interviewed for ABC’s “Nightline” program. The boys and I were excited about the trip—we were going to live like true cool-ass niggas! We went back to Gino’s house in Brunswick to get ready. We had to catch an 11 a.m. flight out of Cleveland for Newark, N.J.
My entourage and I arrived at the airport about 10:45 a.m. A golf cart whisked us away to a special TSA holding room. We waited in there until we were carted to the gate. No identification, no metal detector, no getting half-undressed and standing in line. We also had no baggage. None of us. Not a single clean pair of socks among us all. While we were in the holding room, Wesley was monitoring the incoming phone calls. The phone buzzed, and Wesley’s eyes got as big as Ariel’s testicles.
“It’s the White House!” he shouted. “The goddamn White House is calling.”
Wesley carefully put the phone on a table. Everyone, including all the TSA people, gathered around with hushed anticipation. I gingerly pushed the green button and put the phone on speaker.
“Hello?” I said softly. We all knew what voice we were about to hear.
“Yes, right here, sir.”
“Mr. Ramsey, this is Secretary—.” He gave his name, but I can’t remember it.
“Wha? Dis ain’t Barack?”
“No, I’m a cabinet secretary. I work very closely with the president. On behalf of the United States government, I want to commend you for your quick action and heroic deed. Congratulations, sir.”
Pause. “Dis ain’t Barack?”
“No, Mr. Ramsey. The president has seen on the news what you did. He’s very grateful for what you did for those girls.”
“Uh, thanks. Just did what I had to do, bro.” The group let out a collective sigh of disappointment. I guess it’s still an honor to be called by a cabinet secretary, and it probably was a good thing that it wasn’t Barack calling me. Trust me, I would have had a few things to say to him. He would have wound up hanging up on me, and for sure my ass would have been audited.
When we arrived in Newark, we were picked up in a cool-ass black Lincoln Navigator, complete with tinted windows, that was going to take us across the river to a cool-ass Hyatt Regency Hotel.
“Oh, you’re amazing,” the driver said. “I have daughters. What you did makes me want to cry.”
I probably heard that a few dozen times over the first few days.
Of course my phone kept ringing and ringing, but I had Wesley monitor it. While on the way to the hotel, a certain name kept popping up on the caller ID over and over.
“Hey Chuck,” Wesley said excitedly. “The caller ID says Snoop Dogg!”
“Yeah, like hell it is,” I said. Yeah, sure, Snoop Dogg is among the thousands of people trying to get ahold of me. Some schmuck was putting that in his caller ID to trick me into answering. You’re not going to fool this cool-ass nigga.
But the phone kept buzzing with Snoop Dogg showing up on the caller ID. So finally I told Wesley, “Tell that mothafucka to text me his picture. If he won’t do it or it’s not the Snoop Dogg, then tell him to go play with his mother.”
Sure enough, Wesley told the caller to text a picture. There was Snoop Dogg’s picture. I told Wesley to go ahead and call the number back.
“Hello, is this Mr. Ramsey?” Snoop asked Wesley.
“Yeah, this is his representative, calling back.”
“Whadup, this is Snoop Dogg. I’m tryin’ to highlight him, man. We love what he did, man. He’s a hero around my way.”
“Hey hey hey, we love him too. You know what, Snoop? I’ve been denying everyone’s phone calls, but because it’s you calling I’ma let you get a couple seconds with him right now because he hasn’t slept in four days since the incident happened. You know he hasn’t had no rest. But since it’s you calling I’ma let you get on the phone real fast.”
Wesley handed the phone to me. “It’s Snoop Dogg. Snoop Doggy Dog.”
I snatched the phone out of Wesley’s hand. “Snoop? Get the fuck outta here!”
“Mr. Ramsey, it’s me baby. Wassup wit ya, brudder? I just wanna commend you for your great work. You’re a hero.”
“Oh my God,” I said in disbelief. “What’s crackalackin’ cuz?” I had a specific reason for using the word “crackalackin’.” Snoop was a Crip, so you use words with “c.” You do all you can to avoid words that begin with “b,” since that was the first letter for Bloods, the Crips’ sworn enemy.
“I’m chillin’ with a friend of mine,” Snoop said. “I just want you to know you’re a hero, man. That was some great, great shit you did, man, and you should be commended for that.”
“No, no. Come on, Mr. Broadus, you would have done the same thing, bruh, you know how we cut. You’d a done the same thing, my nigga. It ain’t about no fuckin’ hero. Couldn’t let that girl stay up in that crib no mo, bro.”
“Now you did that. Now hopefully we can make the shit aware so that someone else can get found along the way because that was some great shit you did.”
While we were having this conversation, I was with my boys chillin’ in the back of the Lincoln Navigator that ABC had provided us. And I thought Snoop was just chillin’ in his crib. I had no idea this was a live interview for an Internet broadcast on the GGN Hood News Network. Otherwise I wouldn’t have said the stupid shit I said next. I went off on Angel Cordero, telling Snoop Dogg that I wanted him to come to Cleveland and help me beat the shit out of Angel.
“This mothafuckin’ Dominican, on the fuckin’ news, talking about what the fuck he done did and how he helped me do something. Hey—if you could just watch my back while I beat the fuck out this nigga when I get back to Cleveland. I think it’d look real good if Snoop watch me beat this so-called hero up.”
“I got your back, loved one. You just let me know when and where to be.”
Now, I have no desire to go beat anybody up. I just said that out of frustration because I had seen reports on the news questioning my truthfulness on how this whole thing went down. I had no idea my words were going to be broadcast anywhere. It was a dumb thing to say. But hey, after going on four days with almost no sleep it was plenty easy to say something dumb.
We arrived at the Hyatt Regency and checked in. A fancy joint crawling with Caucasians, except for the help. I noticed the room rate—$517 a night. We got two adjoining rooms, which we combined into one by opening the pass-through door. Now I was getting a taste of how a cool-ass nigga lives. And I didn’t have to sell any crack or pimp out any pain-in-the-ass whiny crack whores. I flicked on the TV. There I was, again.
“Shit, this is turning out to be more of a big fuckin’ deal than I thought,” I told the boys.
Even though the Hyatt was a five-star hotel, just across the street were the projects. What a contrast, but that’s what you find all throughout New York.
Around 4 p.m. we left the hotel for Flatbush, a community in Brooklyn, where Gino’s sister lived in a two-bedroom apartment. She cooked us some beef empanadas with Spanish rice. Good Puerto Rican shit. We chilled out, watched more TV, and played cards. Gino’s sister kept sobbing for joy every time I showed up on the news. We got back to the Hyatt about midnight. For the first time since the rescue, I actually got a decent night’s sleep. The next afternoon I was going to be interviewed by Cynthia McFadden for ABC’s “Nightline.”
Meanwhile, back at Hodge’s, “Nightline” interviewed Peter Brooks, a manager there at the restaurant.
“All I can say is the phone here is non-stop ringing,” Pete said. “They are doing T-shirts. There are people calling to donate money. There are women calling to ask him if he’s married.”
Yeah, I’m every woman’s dream. My track record with women isn’t very good. If I married you, I’d probably run up your debt, mess up your credit, take what I wanted, then leave you. Oh, yea, I’d probably sleep with your sister, too.
The next morning we got up and out to see the sights. I wasn’t getting paid a nickel for this interview, and we didn’t have much expense money. Room service was not part of the deal. I told the driver that I wanted to see all five boroughs in the five hours we had until I had to be at the ABC studios. That’s a near-impossible task since it can take an hour just to drive through some sections without even taking time to look around. Still, we drove all around, and I rolled down the tinted window and waved at the people. Many of them recognized me, and I heard many more “God bless yous” and the like. Many came up to shake my hand and get my picture. Hell, even some damn homeless people came up and gave me money.
I didn’t want to see just the glamorous parts of the city. I wanted to see where the city never sleeps. I wanted to see the projects, the scummy parts, where the drug dealers work the mean and tangled streets. Our driver was either too scared or just knew better. “Not on this trip,” he said.
I wasn’t prepared for the frenzy that followed the rescue. How could anyone have been ready for that 10-ring circus? But the first 43 years of my life definitely weren’t spent grooming myself for the public eye.
It would be easy to blame it all on the dysfunctional relationship I had with my parents. Dad and I got along about as well as a couple of barnyard roosters. But as long as I can remember, I had to do things my way. That got me into trouble over and over again. What should have been a comfortable, upper-class suburban upbringing turned into a chaotic path of delinquency, stupidity, pretty crime, serious crime, drugs, prison—not exactly the things that prepare you for instant international celebrity. I always managed to find drama, but on May 6 the drama found me. Yet, when you look back, it all makes sense in a bizarre sort of way. There has never been a state of “normalcy” in my life. Looking back, I see how the jagged pieces of my life were jammed together, by my parents, teachers, friends, and most of all myself.
* * *
My father, Charles Ramsey Sr., was born in the sawmill town of Pine Apple, Alabama, in 1937. In Pine Apple, you either worked at the lumberyard or picked cotton. Those were the only two lines of work available in that part of the country during the Great Depression.
Dad’s father worked at the lumberyard as a lumber checker. It was his job to account for every piece of lumber that was being shipped out. One problem: My grandfather never went to school—ever—and thus didn’t know how to count. Fortunately he had a white friend who taught him how to count, and, eventually, how to multiply. What my grandfather lacked in knowledge he made up with hard work and grit. He had a nephew, Willie Ramsey, who worked for Daugherty Lumber in the faraway city of Wickliffe, Ohio. Willie put in a good word about my grandfather, and in 1954 the family packed up and moved to Cleveland.
Dad, who was 17 at the time, drove the car. This was before the days of interstate highways, so it was a slow drive through the country roads of the Deep South. At one gas and grocery, they stopped for some gas. Dad went into the store for some milk for his younger sister and promptly got a taste of the darker side of the white Southern hospitality of the times. “You can’t buy that,” they told him, directing him back to the door. Dad continued on his way, and after a few long, grueling days the Ramseys made it to Cleveland, where they moved into a two-bedroom apartment with two other cousins and their families.
Dad was assigned to East High School, which was 99 percent white at the time. He was enrolled in the 10th grade, but after meeting with a couple of administrators and taking a couple of tests, he was moved up to the 11th grade. Dad had an advantage. Back in Alabama, one of his grandmothers owned a large house and rented several rooms to local elementary school teachers. Being surrounded by teachers, Dad learned to read at an early age, could spell very well, and was well ahead of the other kids, and in fact well ahead of many of their parents, when he started school. Even though he was smart enough to go to college, Dad chose to enlist in the Air Force after graduating from East High.
After three and a half years stationed in France, Dad came back to Cleveland and became a street hustler in the St. Clair/Lexington/Hough/East 55th area of Cleveland. Dad’s specialties—picked up while in the Air Force—were cards and gambling. He became an expert at sleight of hand and dealing off the bottom of the deck. Dad’s first exposure to gambling came when his father set up what was known as a “juke joint.” Simply, that’s what illegal gambling establishments were called. Dad sold drinks from a pop stand in the juke joint while his dad ran the business by cutting the card games and shooting dirty dice. In 1966, Dad was present while another street hustler named Don King stomped the shit out of Sam Garrett, an employee who owed him $600. That was the second dude Don King killed.
Dad then lived for a while in Hempstead, New York, on Long Island, and when Chrysler Corporation announced it was moving its stamping plant from Detroit to Twinsburg, Ohio, Dad drove his cousin to Twinsburg to apply for a job. While waiting for his cousin to be interviewed, one of the supervisors handed Dad an application. Dad said he wasn’t there to apply; he was just waiting on his cousin. But the supervisor encouraged Dad to fill out an application anyway, so Dad did. When he got back to New York, he received a telegram to come back to Twinsburg. When he got back, he interviewed and Chrysler offered him a job as long as he could start right away. Dad didn’t bother retrieving his clothes or belongings in New York. By the way, his cousin wasn’t offered a job.
Married to his first wife, Dad and his family became the first black family to move into the area of East 124th Street and St. Clair. Ten blocks over, another black family moved in—the family of George Forbes, who soon after ran for Cleveland City Council and won. Like George, Dad was a leader of the pack, and George sought Dad out for support. The first person George lined up for a city job was his brother. The second person was Dad. Dad became a draftsman in the civil engineering department, and he continued to work for the city, eventually becoming commissioner of urban development and housing until his retirement in 1988.
Dad and his first wife eventually divorced, and he married my mother in 1968. On September 7, 1969, I was the first-born son to Charles Ramsey Sr. and Maratha Townsend Ramsey in Warrensville Heights, Ohio, at Brentwood Hospital, just to the southeast of Cleveland.
Our family started off in an apartment on Northfield Road. Dad, of course, worked for the city of Cleveland, and my mother would later on work for the Ohio Lottery. My parents bought a house in Cleveland on Hollyhill Drive, off Lee Road between Harvard and Miles, in 1973. With the arrival of my younger brother, Kevin, they bought a five-bedroom house at 15110 Judson Drive through a Veterans Administration foreclosure sale in 1976. (I experienced some sibling jealousy when Kevin was brought home. I liked the being the center of attention.)
When the Cleveland school district was ordered to institute system-wide forced busing, Dad knew what would happen—a mighty school district was going to crumble. He wanted nothing to do with that. Besides, I was already turning into a bit of a troublemaker, and busing me off to some other school farther away would make it harder to keep an eye on me. So in November of 1978 we moved to a three-bedroom house in Richmond Heights. Their house on Judson sold in 1979 for $42,000. Dad paid $155,000 for a slightly larger, but much nicer, home on Donald Drive, near Richmond Mall.
* * *
Over the years we made several trips to Alabama. My grandfather liked to go out on his small boat, so one day he hitched the trailer and boat to the back of the car and went to a local lake. I was 13 or 14, so my grandfather trusted me with the important job of holding the rope so the boat wouldn’t float away while he launched it from the trailer. I wasn’t sure if I was strong enough, so I decided to wrap the rope around my neck so I could use my whole body weight. Common sense tells you that I should have wrapped it around my waist, but common sense was never a strong point of mine. My grandfather launched the boat, and the current began to pull it away. I had no idea just how much force that was going to create on the rope. The next thing I knew, I felt the rope tighten around my neck. Shit! This was the Deep South, and it felt like the Klan had found me. I tried to yell for help, but I couldn’t. I hacked and acked like Bill the Cat. The boat floated farther away, and I turned purple. Problem is, it’s awfully hard to notice when a black kid’s face turns purple. I hit the ground and flopped around like a fish, trying to get the rope off my neck. Finally my grandfather grabbed the rope, yanked the boat back a few feet, and pulled the rope off me.
“You stupid nigga,” he said, so matter-of-factly.
* * *
I attended Ridgebury Elementary School in Lyndhurst. I was still a wide-eyed innocent tyke when I started school. I remember my first day of school—I proudly wore my Buster Brown shoes, and Mom packed a pickle loaf sandwich and a bag of Fritos in my lunch. Mom was crazy about those brown shoes, but personally I would have preferred a pair of Converse high-tops, like Dr. J wore. After school, we went to Sea World, where I tried to feed some of the Fritos to Shamu. Ever since I can remember, I’ve always enjoyed entertaining the crowd.
Every chance I could, I would get up in front of the class and tell jokes, make fun of teachers, or just be generally obnoxious—as long as it got a laugh. One time the teacher got so sick of my antics that she locked me in a broom closet all damn day, checking on me every 10 or 15 minutes. Then she told Dad exactly what she did. Dad, of course, thought I deserved that and a whole lot more. Can you imagine the outrage nowadays if a teacher would do something like that? My, have times changed.
At home, I would hear music by the Supremes, the Temptations, the O’Jays, Captain and Tennille, Sonny and Cher and Aretha Franklin. Mom liked to watch “The Dinah Shore Show” and “The Merv Griffin Show.” I enjoyed watching “The Little Rascals,” “The Three Stooges,” “Scooby-Doo,” “Fantasy Island,” “Speed Racer,” and old Tarzan movies. Dad liked to watch golf, “Meet the Press,” golf, Dick Feagler, more golf. Dad really liked Dick Feagler, saying it was because Dick “was from Cleveland, smart, and white.”
Even in the 1990s, when I was well into my 20s, Dad made me watch “The Cosby Show” every week. Every Thursday at 8 p.m., Dad flicked it on and ordered me to sit down. Dad never laughed at any of Cosby’s jokes or any of the cute things the Huxtable kids said or did, but he had a specific reason for sitting me down to watch that show. Whenever Theo Huxtable got into trouble, Dad would glower at me. Theo would always get these harebrained ideas of how to make fast money or beat the system, and he would always wind up in deep shit until Bill Cosby came along and bailed his ass out, and Theo would realize he wasn’t the smartest nigga in the house. That was my recurring pattern of behavior as well, and Dad wanted me to learn from Theo’s fuckups.
By the time I was in the fourth grade, all those Captain and Tennille songs messed up my head so bad and caused me to get into trouble so many times that my mother took me to see a psychiatrist. But there was nothing wrong with me, the psychiatrist lady concluded. And she was right. I knew exactly what I was doing. It was fun to cause trouble and be disruptive. One time I took a standard No. 2 pencil, nice and freshly sharpened, and balanced it upright on a chair belonging to a girl who sat next to me. She didn’t see it and sat straight on it.
“Yeowwwww!” she screamed, with tears running down her face. But I actually found that to be funny. I know, it was a horrible thing to do. But to me school was boring and uninteresting. The poor girl had to go to the hospital, and I got into a fuckload of trouble, but it was worth it. This was my type of entertainment.
I can’t begin to estimate the number of times Mom got a call from school about my behavior. She’d just shake her head and hang up the phone and then beat the shit out of me. Eventually it got to the point where she just took the call, listened to the teacher, and hung up. She no longer gave a damn about what I got into and didn’t want to expend the energy it would take to wallop me.
By the end of Chapter 4, Charles has managed to get himself kicked out of high school, skips almost all of his GED classes, but still manages to pass the test. Now, it's off to college—sort of . . .
Fifteen years old, and done with high school. I had convinced myself that the world had been outsmarted by this nigga. Dad, though, was still in charge of me, which I didn’t like, but there wasn’t much I could do about that. Still in disbelief that I had passed the GED with flying colors, Dad said that it didn’t stop here. Now that I had this GED certification, I needed to do something with it other than admire a laminated piece of paper on the wall.
Dad’s favorite cousin was the president of Knoxville College in Tennessee, a small, historically black college. Dad wasn’t sure that I’d learn anything, but he thought that at least I’d be monitored. I liked the idea of getting out of the house and out of his abusive control.
The day came that we loaded up the Sedan de Ville for the nine-hour drive down Interstates 71 and 75. Mom cried as we left, not because this was a big day in her baby’s life, but because she knew I’d be back.
I turned 16 just as school was starting in the fall of 1985. I was independent and could pretty much do what I wanted to do. School? What was that? I had a roommate, some guy from Indianapolis we called Ali. He had gotten to college the more traditional way of hard work and study through four years of high school. He envied the fact that I beat the system and was there at 16. Because Dad had given me a wad of cash and would wire me what I needed for school, I quickly became the most popular guy in the dorm. I was too young to buy beer, but I funded the supply for the entire dorm with Dad’s money. Anybody needed money, I would help him out. This kept even the toughest and biggest muthafuckas at my disposal.
Not only had I beat the system, I was going to live life to the fullest.
It took me maybe 72 hours to get into trouble.
Just outside the campus were the projects, the slummy part of Knoxville. Guys in the projects looked at the college guys as rich and snobbish. My newly formed posse and I decided we needed to get some beer. Not just any beer, but Olde English 800. If you wanted beer for social purposes, you bought Miller. But if you wanted beer so you could become ignorant, Olde English 800, or “8-ball,” was the ticket. It was a smooth and sweet malt liquor, packing more of a punch than Colt 45. So we walked the half-mile to the convenience store to get some. After we paid for the beer with Dad’s money, a group of the local project slugs stopped us at the door.
“How much money you got there, niggaboy?” one of them asked menacingly.
“Uh . . .” I fumbled through my pocket. “I got seven dollars.”
“Good enough for today,” he said as he snatched it out of my hand. From that point on, I realized that these guys controlled the streets. Every time I walked into a store or any establishment in their hood, I would have to either buy my way out or fight my way out. For me, the first option was more practical. I always made sure I had a few extra bucks to buy myself out of any situation.
I never attended a single class. In fact, I never even registered for a single class. I was enjoying the college experience too much. Parties, girls, road trips, girls, beer, girls. It just didn’t stop.
I would call Dad and make up some story about how I needed to get this super-expensive textbook for this class, and ask him to wire me $500. No problem. We needed money for a road trip to Florida. I called Dad, told him there was an expensive lab fee due. Another thousand dollars, no problem. Dad wasn’t stupid. I’m sure he knew I was up to no good, but this was keeping me out of his house. If one of the female students needed a little help with tuition money, well, I was the man. I could make it happen, in exchange for certain personal services.
I kept beating a path to the Western Union office, and by the end of the semester I had easily fucked away $20,000 of Dad’s money. This was the life! Do whatever I wanted to do, go wherever I wanted to go, endless supply of women, and Dad just unknowingly kept greasing the rails with his cash.
During Christmas break, my report card arrived at home. Dad insisted on seeing it. He sat down and looked at it, then looked at me. He looked at it again, then looked at me again. I knew trouble was brewing, that he knew I had been scamming him.
“This says you have a grade point average of 0.00. Just what the fuck are you doing there, you stupidass muthafuckin’ nigga? You even got an F in LUNCH! How did you manage to get a fuckin’ F in fuckin’ lunch?”
After getting himself kicked out of the Army, and then his parents’ house, Charles strikes out on his own . . .
I took whatever legitimate jobs I would come across. For a while I was a groomer and shit-pitching stablehand at Thistledown racetrack, southeast of Cleveland. I would walk the horses around as a warm up, then walk them around as a cool down. I was making only minimum wage and not getting that many hours in. I found out that once they knew you and thought you were cool, management at Thistledown didn’t mind if you spent the night sleeping in a stable. Being banned from home, that’s where I stayed, sleeping amid the horseshit. After a few weeks of that, I became friends with another stablehand, who noticed my shit-lined accommodations. He invited me to live with him in his house on Primrose, just off Euclid Avenue. I had a newer car now, a Mitsubishi Montero that I bought for 50 bucks off some crackhead on the street—strictly don’t ask, don’t tell. I realized that I had to do one of two things: rob people or sell drugs. Street robbery just wasn’t my thing, so I chose the latter. I began hanging around on Euclid Avenue with the tough crowd—the scummy fuckers who would sell crack to your grandmother while in rehab. This was a profession in which I had the experience, and for which I had the balls.
East 105th and St. Clair corridor, in the heart of the Glenville neighborhood, was an open goldmine for drug dealers like myself. Plenty of despair, violence, and other sound reasons for people to turn to crack. It was easy work and big money—just my style.
My day would start at the Landmark Restaurant on St. Clair. They would open early in the morning, shut down in the middle of the day, then re-open in the evening. Perfect hours for the neighborhood drug dealers.
Driving down St. Clair Avenue, you might not notice a whole lot of suspicious activity. Mothers push baby strollers past dilapidated, century-old, dingy brick buildings. Some old-timers hanging out by the barbershop. A few fast food joints. Rusty cars rattling over a maze of potholes. You might not see a drug dealer, but they’re there. Turn down any of the side streets. You won’t have to go very far until you see a couple of dudes standing around looking like they’ve got nothing to do. They’re doing plenty. If they’re true professionals, the customers come to them. Only the amateurs try hanging on the main drags. That’s where the cops will find them. Not only are the dealers waiting for their customers, they’re keeping a watchful eye on their territory. If some punkass kid tries to break into the business by moving in on an established dealer’s territory, he takes his life into his hands as if he were walking through a male grizzly bear’s territory during mating season. Dealers will do what they have to do to protect their territory. I sure did. Yet, while on the street, I didn’t carry a gun. Most dealers don’t.
I would stand there on the street corner and sell $20 rocks by the boatload. Sometimes, though, I needed a place to hide so I could cut up some more rocks. I noticed a dark back porch on the back of a brick four-plex on the corner of Glenville and East 105th and determined it provided just the right amount of cover. I was working the street with my boy Tiny Man. I crouched down on the back porch and began to cut up some more of the Glenville Gold when a woman came out with a bag of garbage.
She saw me, dropped the bag, and let out a scream.
“Who the . . . get the hell out of here before I call the police!” she yelled, trembling.
“Whoa, easy there, it’s cool, I’m cool, relax, baby,” I said. I had no desire to do anything bad to this woman; I just needed her porch as a hiding place.
* * *
I didn’t conduct business out of the house all of the time. Sometimes I had to meet some people out on the street. You see, drug dealers think they’re invisible. They think only the dumb fuckers get caught, and everyone else is a dumb fucker. You are untouchable. You are the man. You are the law. Reality, though, is that when you’re a drug dealer, you’re just an asshole in an upright position.
Sooner or later, it was bound to happen. I was out working when a cop car slowly cruised by. Experienced drug dealers know that you need to keep your inventory in your hand, not your pockets, so you can easily toss it away. Also, never run, because that of course is a dead giveaway that you’re dealing. So when the cop car cruised by a second time, I casually dropped the crack rocks and kept walking like I owned the damn street. I thought I had positioned myself so that the cops wouldn’t see the crack fall to the ground, but I was wrong.
“Think you’re pretty smart, huh?” one cop said as he came at me from the front while the other cop grabbed my arms from the back. I knew it was useless to run or fight. I was busted.
from Chapter 9: Seymour Avenue
Circling back to present day, Charles talks about the neighborhood around Seymour Avenue and living next door to Ariel Castro . . .
The community around Seymour Avenue was tight-knit and self-sufficient. Almost everything you might need could be found within walking distance. Everyone there knew each other’s business. There weren’t very many secrets. This is why I speculate—not accuse, but speculate—that somebody on that street had to know that something was going on in Ariel’s house. Ariel obviously was a genius monster, but to carry out the so-far crime of the century for 12 goddamn years without anyone knowing just stretches the limits of believability.
But I’m not saying it’s impossible.
Ariel was, at least on the outside, the ideal neighbor. He went to work every day, cut his grass, brought his garbage cans in, fixed his cars, painted his porch, and kept to himself.
One of the guys in the neighborhood, Juan Perez, told ABC News, “Everyone thought he was a great guy.”
I can look back with 20/20 hindsight and realize there were several clues that something really odd was going on.
When we had those barbeques, Ariel would always do his cooking and bring it over to the neighbors’ houses. Neighbors never came onto his property.
I had noticed that Ariel’s windows were boarded up or covered up with plastic. There were no air conditioning units, so you can only imagine how stifling that place would be in the summer. When I asked some of the neighbors why Ariel’s house was boarded up in the summer with no air conditioning, they told me that’s just a Puerto Rican thing, that he liked everything muy caliente. Well, I’ve got plenty of African DNA in me but I would at least want some ventilation in my house. No one ever said, “Hmm, that is odd.”
In the winter, my roomie Shultzie and I once noticed that one of the windows was constantly iced over while others weren’t. I wouldn’t be surprised if that bastard was heating the rooms he was using and freezing the rooms where the girls were kept.
I remember Ariel’s daughter Angie coming over to the house several times. She was one fine-lookin’ babe. I kept my distance since she was Ariel’s daughter and the man code made her ineligible for me. But when Angie would come by, Ariel would take forever to answer the front door. He would then give her some sort of hand signal to go around the back.
Many times Ariel would see me outside and call me over. “Hey, I’ve got this leftover food here—you want it?” he would ask. It looked good to me, so I gladly accepted, appreciative of his generosity. But it turns out he wasn’t being generous—he was using me as a guinea pig. He would sometimes have the girls cook for him, and fearing they might be trying to poison him, he figured he’d better try it out on the nigga next door.
Introduction - 9
The Rescue - 11
Media Madness - 27
The Beginnings - 51
Class Dismissed - 65
Higher Education - 80
Military Mayhem - 96
Domestic Untranquility - 112
The Girls - 123
Seymour Avenue - 127
Ariel - 131
Stop the Madness - 138
Who’s Stereotyping Now? - 142
Cards and Letters - 152
Let the Love Live On - 157
One More Thing: Hamburgers - 163
Acknowledgments - 165
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