Charles Ramsey, palming the small of a stranger's back with one hand and flashing a peace sign with the other, poses for an iPhone between two pretty little white undergraduate blondes who don't know what to say. So they say nothing. They giggle as Ramsey kisses their hands in turn and then eyes the throng of coeds that has taken shape in the back corner of the Jolly Scholar, Case Western Reserve University's campus bar.
It's karaoke night, and those not awaiting a photo with Ramsey laugh or cringe at the tuneless covers, courtesy of their classmates, blaring from a lo-fi amp up front. But it seems that everyone wants a photo with Ramsey, a photo with the hero, for his presence has established a kind of bar-wide magnetic North. People are re-positioning themselves to get a glimpse, drifting unconsciously closer as they seek out waitresses and rounds, texting and tweeting their coordinates before they ready their phones' cameras. And it's clear that the crowd and the cameras have magnetized Ramsey in some essential way as well. He has come alive in the darkness and the noise, slapping high-fives and leaning into hugs with these people whom he's never seen before. He is here to see them as much as the other way around; in fact, these college kids are doing him a service. They are assuring him that his celebrity is legitimate. They are easing a creeping anxiety that his fame might not last, that it might no longer be bankable. The anxiety has been getting to him lately, during the middle part of April, less than a month before the one-year anniversary of the Seymour Avenue rescue.
Ramsey has been working on a book scheduled for release on May 6, one year to the day since Amanda Berry, Gina DeJesus and Michelle Knight were freed from Ariel Castro's house of horrors after a decade of captivity. Ramsey's hopeful the book's publication will launch a global brand of which he will be the axis and face. To prepare, he and a few of his local associates have been working on a screenplay, dreaming up reality TV shows in which Ramsey will star. He shamelessly admits that this is all he has been doing for the past several months. He has no job, no regular source of income. He's been staying at a friend's apartment downtown since Thanksgiving, and continues to do so under the impression that he is lying in wait, keeping a low profile, steeling himself for the rigors of his future.
But that future is riding on this book, entitled Dead Giveaway: The Rescue, Hamburgers, White Folks, and Instant Celebrity . . . What You Saw on TV Doesn't Begin to Tell the Story..., a 168-page "manifesto" co-written by local freelancer Randy Nyerges and published by Cleveland's Gray & Co. Publishers, about Ramsey's rambunctious past and the media circus after Seymour that made him a nationwide sensation. Ever since then, he's been the victim of a curious and irreconcilable predicament: He is one of the most recognizable faces in Cleveland — for all intents and purposes, a celebrity — but doesn't have the cash to show for it. In his mind, those days are almost over: Charles Ramsey has a goal.
Ramsey's goal is simple, but conditional: become a billionaire, but not by profiting from his singular act of heroism. He wants to be famous independent of Ariel Castro. Independent of the girls. He doesn't want to be answering questions about barbecues and the dynamics of the Latino community on Seymour for the rest of his life. Nor does he have any pressing urge to go back to dishwashing. He doesn't think he should have to. Since May 6, 2013, Ramsey has tried to market himself as a new American urban black man, one with charm, candor and no apparent guilt. In an age when information is laundered and sterilized as a matter of course, Ramsey is the straight shooter who tells it like it is, who for a few short days in 2013 spoke openly about race and crime and injustice. He was a novelty, of course — a former crack dealer with a missing tooth and a berzerk afro mullet doesn't conform with our traditional images of saviors — and remains an icon of Instagram as much for his look as for his deed. To this day, he has the enduring gratitude of Amanda, Gina and Michelle (the latter of whom he sees regularly), the devotion of a girlfriend who has absolved him of his past, and the loyalty of friends who are convinced, or at least are convincing themselves, that his acclaim is far from over. On the contrary: They think it's barely begun.
And now, posing for photos in the Jolly Scholar, Charles Ramsey's goal seems credible, attainable. But there's something potentially icky going on beneath all the flashing smartphones, something which Ramsey and his crew might not even be able to decipher through the melee. It's not like these privileged kids are approaching him as they would Barack Obama or Malcolm Gladwell or even Lady Gaga. When he beckons four beplaided guys from the crowd, they array themselves around him, happily, ironically, as if it's a photo with Big Bird.
Matt Vann, the owner of Jolly Scholar, says the students are a better audience for Ramsey than "30-year-olds who call him a fraud. They're more innocent. More receptive." Instagram and Twitter would seem to agree; they're both convulsing with posts like this one: #CharlesRamsey #whattup #guy #who #saved #the #lives #of #three #women in #Cleveland #karaoke #jollyscholar #drunk.
Ramsey wears a purple polo shirt beneath which his arm muscles, thickly veined, protrude. His gray-wash jeans have prominent white stitching. As in at least one of his nationally televised interviews last year, his black ballcap is worn backwards and low on his forehead. His missing tooth is inconspicuous in the low light. He never says he's self-conscious about it — on the first page of Dead Giveaway he claims he lost it while biting into an apple the week of the rescue — but tonight he's favoring a closed-lip smile, and this makes him seem solemn or preoccupied. The most distinguishing things about Ramsey's face, though, are his eyes, deep black and doleful, eyes that within seconds can grow cold with anger or glow with affection, or, as now, fail to disguise his disbelief at the endurance of this collegiate mob.
At his table, a basket of chicken fingers and a hot pretzel languish untouched. Chris Gresham, one of Ramsey's good friends with whom he worked at Hodge's restaurant last year, experiments with a DSLR camera. He had hoped he might be able to get some high quality photos tonight, but the darkness is complicating things. The bespectacled Randy Nyerges, wearing a sport coat over a black tee, prowls the perimeter with satchel and business cards in tow. Jennifer Baker, Ramsey's girlfriend, monitors her lover's hands as they snake around college girl after college girl. Baker's wearing gold hoop earrings and has her hair pulled back tight, revealing a butterfly tattooed on the side of her scalp. She picks apart her chicken in silence.
After last year's rescue, Baker hunted Ramsey down. She'd seen him on TV like everyone else had and presented him with a proposal (what Ramsey still calls an "ultimatum"): "You're from Cleveland. I'm from Cleveland. You're not married. I know about your past. The whole world knows about your past. But I'm willing to give you a second chance, to love you. And before you say, 'I'm not ready for love,' keep this in mind: I will kill you if you do not accept."
Though that may sound outlandishly dramatic, it nonetheless expresses the fierce fidelity and what one friend calls "vestigial hardness" among Ramsey and his crew. He's fond of calling his inner circle the "Chuck Club," and he is committed fully and fearlessly to them, to those who have his best interests at heart. Uneasy, though, lies the man or woman who betrays Charles Ramsey — "I will fuck your wife and I will kill you if you do," he told Scene in an earlier interview, his jaw set, his eyes afire with conviction. "As long as you know the rules, we can play the game."
It is thus only warily and in private that those who protect Charles Ramsey concede that they cannot help but see profit for themselves. Much like Baker, for instance, Randy Nyerges sought Ramsey out. He went to Seymour and handed out business cards to everyone he saw, trying to ensnare the sudden media star, the potential cash cow. Tonight he's regaling listeners with the crumbs of information he's permitted to say about upcoming personal projects. The men who "had Ramsey's back" after the initial viral interview last year had been strangers until the day of the rescue, when Ramsey met them at a strip club in the Flats where he retreated during the madness. Viewing themselves as "handlers," they deleted most calls and inquiries out of hand, due in large part to the frenzy. And in hindsight, Ramsey laments the missed opportunities.
Emerging from the scrum is Jolly Scholar owner Matt Vann with a tall white guy behind him. Vann booked Ramsey this evening for a grand total of $250. (It's not like Ramsey is turning down $10,000 honorariums for speaking engagements). Vann did throw Ramsey an extra $100 afterwards, he later said, because of the crowd he brought in. Other than St. Patrick's Day, Ramsey's appearance was the biggest night of the year for the Jolly Scholar. Plus, Vann said, Ramsey was, "the perfect guest. He's golden in my eyes."
"Do you recognize this man?" Vann leans low to ask a sitting Ramsey, who has taken a brief moment to sip from his lemonade and catch his breath.
Ramsey squints and scrunches his nose. "You look familiar," he says. But he can't place him.
"I'm John Kosich, from Channel 5," the tall guy says. "I'm the guy who did the interview."
The interview. Charles closes his eyes, shakes his head like he should have known better and extends a hand for a shake before pulling Kosich in for a bear hug. The two begin talking quietly, almost intimately, in the darkness, Kosich on the left, Ramsey on the right. Kosich wears a light blue button-down shirt, jeans, and low-top Chuck Taylors, which seem out of place on a reporter so well-kept, whose favorite singers are Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra. Vann is a friend of Kosich and had personally invited him to stop by. He knew that Kosich hadn't seen Charles since the evening of May 6...
John Kosich: Walk me through again what happened this afternoon. You heard screaming?
Charles Ramsey: I heard screaming. I'm eating my McDonald's. I come outside. I see this girl going nuts, trying to get out of her house, so I go on the porch, and she says "Help me get out. I been in here a long time." So I figure, you know, it's a domestic violence dispute. So I open the door. We can't get in that way, cuz how the door is, it's so much that a body can't fit through — only your hand. So, we k-kick the bottom. And she comes out with a little girl, and she says, "Call 911. My name is Amanda Berry."
Kosich: Did you know who that was when she said that?
Ramsey: When she told me, it didn't register. Until I got the call on 911, and I'm like, "I'm callin' 911 for Amanda Berry. I thought this girl was dead."
Kosich: How long have you lived here?
Ramsey: I've been here a year. You see where I'm coming from? I barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and whatnot, and listen to salsa music. You see where I'm coming from?
Kosich: And you had no indication that there was...
Ramsey: Not a, bro, not a clue that that girl was in that house, or anybody else was in there against their will.
Kosich: What was the reaction on the girls' faces? I can't imagine, to see the sunlight, to be around people.
Ramsey: Bro, I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms. Something is wrong here. Dead giveaway. Dead giveaway.
Kosich: Charles, thank you very much.
Ramsey: Dead giveaway.