Charles Ramsey, the Cleveland dishwasher who heard a scream, kicked in a door and rescued three women from horrific captivity, stepped out of a white Rolls-Royce on U Street NW Friday night and seconds later was on Alex Soto’s Facebook page.
“You’re kidding me,” shouted Soto, who was strolling in front of Ben’s Chili Bowl with his girlfriend when Ramsey miraculously emerged from the gleaming Rolls. “You’re, like, a lifesaver. I’ve been watching this on the news all the time and here you are! This is Facebook material!”
Soto got the shot of his friend posing with a smiling hero and bid him farewell with a heartfelt, “Keep America safe!” Ramsey could barely take two steps before he was spun around to pose with a D.C. cop on a Segway.
It was day five of Ramsey’s moment, and he had already morphed from hero to celebrity. Here he was in Washington, flown in, along with his instant entourage of three young brothers — his neighbors and friends — and their tough-guy uncle, by boxing promoter and radio talk host Rock Newman, for a 14-hour visit that started with two bites of a chili half-smoke at Ben’s and continued with a private tour of the presidential yacht, the Sequoia; dinner at a bordello-red burlesque place; a visit to a club; a couple of hours of shut-eye at a hotel at National Harbor; and an appearance on Newman’s Saturday morning radio show.
Then back to the airport and home to Cleveland, where more madness awaits.
As does his dishwashing job at Hodge’s Restaurant, where he intends to report at 4 p.m. Monday despite a crazed week in which he told his story over and over to the likes of Anderson Cooper and George Stephanopoulos, a slew of FBI agents and random passersby.
Ramsey was cool with well-wishers on the street, comfortable bantering with executives on the presidential yacht, charming and funny on Newman’s show, yet clearly anxious about getting back to dishwashing Monday.
“I work for a living, man, and I will until I’m terminated,” he said. “I was suspended from work, so I gotta show. I live up to my obligation.”
Ramsey, who is 43, was at work a couple of weeks ago when he leaned over and a couple of rounds of ammo from an AK-47 dropped out of his pocket. He didn’t have any weapon; the rounds were souvenirs, gifts from a friend who had just returned from serving in Afghanistan, but his boss didn’t want anything like that in his place and sent Ramsey home.
The punishment was painful — losing a $269 weekly paycheck was a significant setback — but ultimately fortuitous, because, as Ramsey said, “If I hadn’t been suspended, I wouldn’t have been at home to hear the scream.”
Amanda Berry’s first shout for help, which Ramsey heard as he ate a Big Mac in his living room next door, “was a scream you never heard before,” he said on Newman’s show. Ramsey found the woman locked behind a screen door that wouldn’t open. He tried to open it with one hand, pulling as she pushed.
“I’m debating to put the Big Mac down or finish my sandwich,” he said. “I’m not letting go because I just bought it. I couldn’t figure out why she was freaking out.” Finally, he put the burger down, pulled with two hands and then kicked out the bottom panel of the door, springing Berry.
She asked him to call 911 and Ramsey told her to do it. “I don’t know how,” she replied, staring at his smartphone. “I’ve been gone for a while.”
Ramsey, growing tired of the week’s accumulation of accolades, made clear that he felt wronged by his neighbor. If he’d gotten his hands on Ariel Castro, the neighbor charged with the three kidnappings, “I’d be in the penitentiary,” he said. “I’d be the first person to take a man’s head off and kick it down the street like a soccer ball.”
Thanks to that kind of frank talk, the Ramsey phenomenon shows no sign of abating. His original TV interview about the rescue has drawn nearly 7 million views on YouTube, which was then topped by 9 million viewings of a video that turned Ramsey’s infectious storytelling style into a catchy tune called “Dead Giveaway.”
“I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran to a black man’s arms,” Ramsey’s autotuned voice croons in the remix. “We eat ribs with this dude, but we didn’t have a clue.”
Ramsey has been nothing but open about the racial angle of the story — a black man living in a Hispanic neighborhood helps save a white woman from her Puerto Rican captor and then sees his heroism tainted by news accounts of his conviction in a decade-old domestic violence case in which he hit his wife.
That reporting — for which a Cleveland TV station apologized, saying it regretted having dug into Ramsey’s past when the city was celebrating his selfless act — led some commentators to argue that the hero’s instant celebrity was not entirely a reward for a good deed but rather a resort to old stereotypes about a smack-talking, unsophisticated black man.
Ramsey doesn’t see it that way. “Look,” he said. “Those kids are at home now, so their mothers are going to have a Mother’s Day. So anybody who portrays me in any wrong way can” perform an act best left undescribed in a family publication. “I didn’t have any image before this, so I sure don’t care what one I have now.”
Newman agrees. “The idea that he’s being portrayed as a clown hurts me,” he said. “It is such a superficial observation. Charles is a real smart guy with comedic timing and a palpable sense of right and wrong. He has no filters. He’s one of the most unpretentious people I’ve ever met.”
Again and again during his visit, Ramsey wondered at the notion that a black dishwasher would end up thrust into a world he had seen only on TV.
Touring the yacht, he said, “This is mind blowing — better than what the [expletive] I do.”
Ramsey would have gone on talking all night, but after a time, the leader of his entourage, a large, muscular man who declined to divulge his name, stared down a reporter and drew his finger across his throat in a gesture that apparently indicated the completion of the interview.
“I wish I could get rid of the entourage,” said Ramsey, whose words are quoted here with the exception of one, two or three maternal allusions per sentence that are very much not in the spirit of Mother’s Day. “But this is the guy I go to when I can’t pay my bills and my check’s already gone.”
Ten hours later, at the Anacostia storefront studio of WPWC (1480 AM), Newman introduced Ramsey on the air with the Sly and the Family Stone number “Everyday People,” and the hero told about how he learned important lessons from his father, who had “no room for stupidity, zero tolerance for failure,” from getting kicked out of class and from eight months in prison for hitting his wife.
The incident that got him arrested began when Ramsey accused his wife of two-timing him. “You know how a man and woman are,” he said. “Words are going to get said. It’s an adrenaline rush, and I went to jail for it. I learned from that.”
During a commercial break, Cora Masters Barry, the ex-wife of D.C. Councilman Marion Barry, who was visiting the studio, urged Ramsey to “Get that reward money, hear? Brother, get that reward.”
Ramsey demurred, telling the story of how Amanda Berry refused to let police usher her away from her secret prison on Seymour Avenue until they had gone in to save the other two captives. “Amanda Berry — that’s the damn celebrity, not me,” Ramsey said. “I just played my damn position.”
In the small hours of Saturday morning, Ramsey, exhausted but still happily posing with anyone who asked, paused to consider the dawn of his sixth day in the spotlight: “What I’ve learned from the human race this week is we still ain’t got it right.”
A few minutes earlier, on the way out of the restaurant, his entourage rose from the table and walked away. No one looked back to see Ramsey still seated, busily gathering the plates and silverware, stacking them for the waiters. Then Ramsey ducked under the table. A couple of forks had fallen, and someone had to retrieve them.