A last lemon meringue pie for the real-life gangster at the heart of ‘The Wire’
For a Baltimore drug dealer, Melvin Williams got a pretty good ride when he died December 3, at age 73. He wound up with an obituary in the New York Times, Variety, People magazine and dozens of other publications. Even on a bunch of websites, and in magazines and newspapers overseas in other languages.
No other drug dealer, not Eddie Tucker, Japan, Walter Kid, Big Butch or Big Head Brother carried that kind of weight in the end.
Melvin would have liked that. He might even have smiled.
The obituaries identified him first as an actor and then as a criminal. What made him noteworthy was his role in The Wire on HBO; he played The Deacon, a street-savvy churchman who dispensed wisdom and advice.
Most often, it could be tough to bring a smile to Melvin’s face. He was a hard man, legend among Baltimore’s most-storied drug dealers. “Little Melvin,” as he was known, was a street hustler and gambler who spent a lot of time in prison and had little patience for curious white boys, much less anything else.
I met him when I was a writer on The Wire. A few years ago, I called to see if he minded if I came over to talk; I never think it’s a great idea to drop in unannounced on a drug dealer, reformed or not. He said come on over. But he quickly added, “You know, what I’ve got a taste for? A lemon meringue pie from Lexington Market.”
When I showed up with a pie from the Berger’s bakery stand at the market, he grinned wide. Then proceeded to eat the entire thing.
That’s how it started.
After that, I’d take him a lemon meringue pie every year on his birthday — December 14. Only occasionally would he not completely finish the monstrosity I had brought.
He did nothing to dissuade fans that his story was the inspiration for The Wire. In fact, the cover of a self-published book, Fruit of a Forbidden Tree: The Autobiography of Little Melvin Williams, makes a point of stating just that. He didn’t shy away from it, either, when he was featured on a segment of the BET network program, American Gangster.
The truth was that The Wire was based in part on his exploits. But the characters were composites of people the creators and writers had known.
I started as a writer on The Wire in 2004, before the third season began. A few months later, I asked Melvin to teach me how to shoot craps because I had to write a scene involving young men in a dice game on a West Baltimore street. He was the man to see when it came to craps. He had been shooting dice masterfully since he was a teenager, playing behind the famed Royal Theater — and winning — against grown men.
Since then, he became a key figure in a book I’ve been working on about the rise of the drug culture. I spent hours upon hours talking with him about gangster life back in the day, in the second half of the 20th century, particularly on Pennsylvania Avenue, the one-time Main Street of black Baltimore.
We would meet in his tiny office inside a warehouse on North Avenue in West Baltimore. I never knew what or who I’d find there among the steady stream of visitors.
“Flea Market” was painted in enormous block letters on the outside wall, beside a loading dock, where a guy sold bootleg DVDs. The black Chevy SS that Melvin drove too fast and recklessly would be parked out front. I once found him riding a red adult-sized tricycle along the sidewalk talking wildly into his ever-present cellphone earpiece and microphone. I wish I had thought to take a photograph.
Inside, it was always cold, even in the summer. The warehouse looked like a bargain-basement fencing operation, with all sorts of junk piled high – countertops, sheetrock and plywood, washers and dryers.
At one point, Melvin started to put in a barbershop and hair salon. Then he decided a billiards parlor was the way to go. But there were zoning issues to be wrestled with. Ultimately, he put in a gym, where his mentees could learn the finer points of boxing and martial arts.
In his tiny office, a space heater blasted uncontrolled, regardless of the season, and in the background, a portable TV played all the time, tuned to MSNBC.
Once I arrived to find a medieval axe and sword on the credenza behind his desk chair. Another time he offered me my pick from a pile of shoes, a collection out of a bad 1970s blaxploitation movie: low-slung slip-ons, two-tone snakeskins, green alligators and more. He had been cleaning out his closets and realized his old shoes no longer fit.
Melvin almost always referred to himself in the third person — “Melvin” this, “Melvin” that — which could be jarring at first. But a close listener grew used to it. It was as if he were actually talking about a completely different person, especially as his tales grew taller as time went on.
Melvin was given to hyperbole. He likely had a genius-level IQ, and he did have an amazing ability with numbers. But each time he mentioned his IQ, it seemed to grow astronomically, until it surpassed anything linked remotely to even Einstein’s name. In recounting events along Pennsylvania Avenue over the years, the amount of money wagered, won or lost on any evening seemed to increase exponentially. Even the amount of dope he sold, as Melvin told it, jumped to $1 billion over time, though he spent 26.5 years of his life behind bars. More than once he claimed to have seen 200 men killed in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta during his stay.
It was such an outrageous claim that I never bothered to ask why I had never read anything about an investigation by the U.S. Bureau of Prisons into the alleged Atlanta prison murders.
Whatever his version of reality, the fact was that Melvin put a lot of dope on the streets of Baltimore, and in doing that, he did a lot of damage to a lot of lives. No doubt.
Did he sell more heroin than anyone else in Baltimore?
“I don’t know if he was the biggest drug dealer,” said one former federal prosecutor, “but he had the biggest mouth.”
And he did. He was the antithesis of shy and retiring. In the day, Melvin was flamboyant and flashy, garrulous and all but unrepentant. He drove a black Maserati sedan, wore expensive gold jewelry and designer sunglasses, dressed in full-length furs.
He once was charged with waving a machine gun at a cop in a bar. Another time he accidentally dropped a loaded pistol in a phone booth at the Club Casino, and the damned thing went off. Got him banned from there permanently.
He had a violent temper and could be impetuous. A wiretap once revealed that he threatened to shoot and kill a state senator, only to be talked off the ledge by his associates.
Word was that he “had some bodies on him,” as they say in the community, but the police never collared him for a murder. The Baltimore Homicide Unit still has some open cases in which he was a suspect, detectives have assured me over the years.
His name rang out in Baltimore and beyond. He was known not just by hustlers but also by the police and lawyers, reporters and hangers-on.
Melvin was a fixture on The Avenue, as it began its slow descent in the 1960s. He grew up poor, though his parents both had solid “straight” jobs. He learned to be a hustler as a young teenager, first with dice, then with a pool cue. A scrawny, short build won him the name “Little Melvin.” It stuck, even years after he had grown into a fierce and feared player on The Avenue who touted himself as a martial artist.
Melvin was a proud man — some would say arrogant — but he was complicated, angry and bitter. He referred to a lot of people as “roaches” to show his contempt for them. He could let loose a furious tirade at whomever happened to be standing in front of him, for no apparent reason. Yet he could be charming.
He was a personage. People flocked to him, wanted to be next to him, say they knew him. And they probably did. He was not unlike a politician on The Avenue, which is how one prosecutor-turned-judge once described him to me.
He often would refer to himself as a gambler. He was a master of “one-pocket” and made a lot of money with his cue stick in the pool halls of Pennsylvania Avenue, first in the 1400 block and then in the 1500 block, where the “big boys” congregated.
Melvin did four stretches in prison, three for drugs and one on a handgun charge. He would later swear he had been framed by dirty cops in a 1967 drug arrest and had decided in that first prison term that he would show them: If they said he was a drug dealer, then he would become the very best drug dealer he could be, once he got out.
He didn’t disappoint.
I missed his much-discussed religious conversion after he came out of prison the last time. I don’t ever remember him invoking the name of the Lord Jesus Christ as his personal savior. Yet, he could recite long passages from the Bible, as he could from both statutes and case law.
I must say, though, in his mentoring mode, I never remember him telling young folk that selling drugs was wrong; it was always that they were going to get caught if they dealt the stuff. “The government got satellites now that can count the hairs of your mustache,” he’d say.
He did preach mutual respect to the young ones who flocked to him. A couple years ago, he handed out yellow-on-black bumper stickers that read, “RESPECT / DAZ WATZ SUP!” He frequently came to greet and say goodbye by saying only, “Respect.”
The final time I saw him was last December 23, in the food court of a West Side mall. He was on a last-minute Christmas shopping mission. I was at a meeting with a group of friends, for the most part, original gangsters, ex-offenders, one-time hustlers and other assorted old heads who had formed a youth-mentoring club and had agreed to accept me into the fold.
I was genuinely glad to see Melvin, who seemed as surprised to see me and his old friends as we all were to see him. We shook hands and embraced. He smiled that wide Melvin smile. He seemed lighter.
I confessed that I had missed his birthday because I had been working in New York. It was OK, he assured me, but added that he was counting on that lemon meringue pie when I got back to Baltimore for good.
I promised him I would deliver. I was planning on it — when I got word that he had died, 11 days shy of his birthday.