NEW YORK (AP)
A neighbor who helped free three women from nearly a decade in captivity in Ohio has become a star, offering moments of levity in an unspeakably horrible story, free publicity for a restaurant chain and unexpected lessons in race relations.
Charles Ramsey lived next door to where Ariel Castro is alleged to have kept the women in a makeshift prison in a Cleveland neighborhood. On Monday afternoon, 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 filled with colorful language to Cleveland television stations as the story broke Monday night that were replayed on national news. 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 an emergency dispatch operator (whom he later called an imbecile) is circulating on the Web.
During his initial interviews, Ramsey said he was shocked to learn of allegations that Ariel Castro led a 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 an interview Tuesday with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, Ramsey, who works at a 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 in his poor, largely Puerto Rican section of Cleveland 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.”
Ramsey attracted so much attention that websites and media organizations dug into his past. He did jail time for domestic violence in the 1990s, according to the Ohio Department of Corrections.
There was some indication Ramsey’s attention was prompting some jealousy. A Cleveland television station ran a story quoting Angel Cordero, another neighbor of Castro’s, who also said he was there helping Berry on Monday. “I was there and I was first,” Cordero said, according to WEWS-TV.
Phone calls to Ramsey’s house Wednesday went unanswered.
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 the ABC network’s “Good Morning America” on Wednesday. He did flash signs of his personality, doing a brief dance upon recalling how he used to listen to salsa music with Ariel Castro.
Ramsey has said he doesn’t feel like a hero and was quiet when asked what all the attention means to him.
“There is no feeling,” he said. “You do what you’ve got to do.”
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