Cleveland kidnappings: Charles Ramsey's turbulent 15 minutes of fame
NEW YORK • Helping to free three women from nearly a decade in captivity would seem to be enough. Hero neighbor Charles Ramsey has also become a star, offering moments of levity in an unspeakably horrible story, free publicity for a restaurant chain and unexpected lessons in race relations.
Ramsey lived next door to where Ariel Castro is alleged to have kept the women in his makeshift prison until Monday afternoon, when Ramsey happened to be home and heard Amanda Berry's scream.
Or let him tell it: "I got the day off from work, so naturally you're doing nothing."
Actually, he was "eating my McDonald's," a fact he trumpeted so frequently that the grateful food giant is trying to get in touch with him. A website that compiled some of Ramsey's television interviews kept count of how many times he mentioned McDonald's in each.
Ramsey, 43, gave a series of interviews to Cleveland television stations as the story broke Monday night that were replayed on national news. CNN's Anderson Cooper tracked him down for a lengthy conversation the next night. The interviews are performance art masterpieces, so filled with colorful language and astute reporting that he trended on Twitter and was the subject of Internet memes and an Auto-tuned song.
Similarly, a tape of a much more profane Ramsey talking to a 911 operator (whom he later called an imbecile) is circulating on the Web.
During his initial interviews, Ramsey said he was shocked to learn of Castro's double life. Ramsey said he "used to barbecue with this dude. We eat ribs and what-not, listen to salsa music."
There was nothing exciting about Castro, he said. "Until today," he added.
"You've got some big testicles to pull this off, bro," he said.
During his Tuesday interview with Cooper, Ramsey, who works at Hodge's Restaurant in Cleveland, noted that he had trouble sleeping with the knowledge of what had been happening in the house next door. "Up until yesterday, the only thing that had me losing sleep was the lack of money," he said.
If he had known what was going on, he said he'd be facing a homicide charge for taking matters into his own hands.
"I'm glad it turned out this way," Cooper replied.
Ramsey's realization of what was happening on Monday was itself a revealing observation on race. Seeing a white girl in that situation was "a dead giveaway" that she was either homeless or had other problems, he said.
"When a little pretty white girl ran into a black man's arms, something was wrong," he said.
That sentence itself made Ramsey's interviewer uncomfortable; their conversation quickly ended. But the sound bite was also highlighted in a parody song that was quickly doctored with Auto-tune and posted online. The phrases picked out for the song like "we eat ribs with this dude" also seemed to emphasize Ramsey's blackness.
Past examples of television interviews that seem to play to exaggerated ethnic stereotypes have been the subject of online mockery that struck some observers as racist. An Alabama man, Antoine Dodson, had his comments about a relative's attempted rape go viral.
Ramsey is the latest "hilarious black neighbor" to become an Internet celebrity, wrote Aisha Harris on the website Slate. "It's difficult to watch these videos and not sense their popularity has something to do with a persistent, if unconscious, desire to see black people perform," she wrote.
"There's always this sense of 'otherness' when something like this happens, when you see people who don't look like you or talk like you," said Tracy Clayton, a writer and editor for the Root website. "I like to laugh and make jokes as much as the other person, but I hope that we remember the women in this story, too."
Eric Deggans, media critic for the Tampa Bay Times and author of "Race Baiter: How the Media Wields Dangerous Words to Divide a Nation," said he was most struck with how comfortable Ramsey appeared in front of camera. It's not a shot of national attention he could have prepared for.
"It almost seems weird when you see somebody who is nervous in front of a camera anymore," he said.
McDonald's seemed particularly delighted by the unexpected association with a hero. The corporation tweeted on Tuesday: "Way to go Charles Ramsey we'll be in touch." A company spokeswoman said Wednesday that it was trying to reach out to Ramsey through its local franchise.
Clayton said she hoped Ramsey's legacy will be in his actions, not his words.
"I would like for him to be remembered, as he said, as a good man who did what anyone else would have done in that situation," she said. "Unfortunately, I fear that he'll be remembered as the guy they made a funny Auto-tune song about."
It was a far more subdued Ramsey who appeared on "Good Morning America" on Wednesday. He did flash signs of his personality, holding up a can of Red Bull when he was asked how he was dealing with the attention and joking about being rivals with George Stephanopoulos' high school alma mater.
He did a brief dance upon recalling how he used to listen to salsa music with Castro.
But he turned serious when Stephanopoulos asked if he had noticed any signs that his neighbor could be capable of the crimes he is accused of.
"No," he said. "Isn't that scary? Either I'm that stupid or his kind are that good."
Ramsey has said he doesn't feel like a hero and was quiet at Stephanopoulos' question about what all the attention means to him.
"There is no feeling," he said. "You do what you've got to do."