How do you go from being an unknown dishwasher living in a ramshackle Cleveland neighborhood to an honored guest on national television?
1. You help rescue three young women who were kidnapped and held hostage for a decade, and ...
2. You crack more irreverent one-liners than Chris Rock.
That, bro’, would be Charles Ramsey.
One of the big reasons Ramsey has gotten so much face time is that he consistently talks to the media as if he’s sitting on a bar stool next to a lifelong buddy.
The 43-year-old African-American started his international assault on political correctness just minutes after the stunning May 6 rescue, when he said to WEWS (Channel 5) reporter John Kosich, “I knew something was wrong when a pretty little white girl ran into a black man’s arms.”
Within one day, that line became the centerpiece of a flurry of Auto-Tune songs on YouTube. The best one, called Dead Giveway, has been viewed nearly 15 million times.
(An Auto-Tuner is an audio processor that can, among other things, alter the pitch of spoken words to turn them into something close to singing.)
In live interviews, Ramsey also lauded his neighbor’s “large testicles.”
The man’s whacky personality is no surprise to at least one resident of Akron.
Stephanie York, an assistant law director and spokeswoman for the city, was in the same graduating class as Ramsey at Brush High School in the Cleveland suburb of Lyndhurst. She sat next to him in homeroom.
“He was funny even then,” says York, in those days known as Stephanie Post.
“He doesn’t mean to be funny. It’s just his nature.”
She liked him.
“A great guy. Just charming.”
York was jokingly reluctant to provide a yearbook page that contained both her and Ramsey’s photos because of her funky ninth-grade hairdo, which she describes as “an almost mullet.”
York also wore braces at the time. But in terms of looks, she figures she got the better of Ramsey in the long term. When she sees him on TV, she can’t believe they are essentially the same age.
“I have good preservatives,” she says, laughing.
York was one of only two Jewish students in her homeroom, and Ramsey was not shy about zooming in on their differences.
“Hey, I’m Jewish, too,” he would joke.
York, 42, has an easy time remembering Ramsey not only because of his personality, but because “there we were only a handful of African-Americans in our school at the time, and he was one of them. And he was a cut-up. He really was.”
Still, the modern-day Ramsey is even more over the top than the guy she knew at Brush.
“He did not talk like that in high school,” York says. “He used proper grammar and was very respectful. He didn’t call people ‘bro’ and stuff.
“You just don’t know what happened after high school, but he was a great guy in high school.”
York doesn’t remember what kind of grades Ramsey got, or even whether he graduated with the rest of the class in 1988.
Now, admittedly, the guy is not ready to join the U.S. Diplomatic Corps. But you have to love the way he doesn’t bother to adjust his filter regardless of who’s talking to him.
The first sit-down interview I saw with him took place at WKYC (Channel 3), where he sat next to anchor Russ Mitchell and wore a backward ball cap, called Mitchell “bro” every five seconds and ended the interview with a soul shake.
As Ramsey drew more attention, the hits just kept on coming.
He flashed the peace sign a couple of times on Good Morning America (where he again wore his cap backward) and joked about trying to get along with his Hispanic neighbor by dancing the merengue to salsa music.
When flying out of Cleveland Hopkins on his way to a barrage of national media interviews in New York, he reportedly was stopped by a woman who wanted her photo taken with him and told her, “I couldn’t hug this many white women if I had Bill Gates’ money.”
Some see Ramsey as divisive, reinforcing stereotypes. But others look at him as a person who is poking a stick at stereotypes and letting some of the steam out of them.
In any event, his bottom line has consistently been a plea for unity. As he said during an interview with Anderson Cooper on CNN, “Bro, I’m ... an American. I’m just like you. We bleed the same blood, put our pants on the same way.”
It’s just that some of us are a lot looser than others.
Bob Dyer can be reached at 330-996-3580 or firstname.lastname@example.org.