Melvin Williams was unhappy. This news had come flying at me from all points of the Baltimore compass, with one emissary after another calling or sidling up to me on the film set in West Baltimore, or in Park Heights or down at the Mitchell Courthouse.
"Melvin wants you to call him," said one of the deputies in Courthouse East, an old-timer who always seemed to know everyone.
"He's home?" I asked.
"Been home. And he's got some kinda beef with you."
I hadn't crossed paths with Little Melvin in years. Hell, I wasn't even a reporter anymore. I hadn't covered his return from the '84 case, or written a word about the later pistol charge and the violation of his parole, or even about his lawyer getting that last sentence overturned. I was making television shows. How could Melvin be angry with me?
Two days later, I heard about it again from one of our set security guys: "Ran into Little Melvin at Lafayette Market the other day…"
"Man, your ears must be burning."
"Why? What's he angry about?"
"He says you need to call."
Christ almighty. The last time I'd talked to Melvin Williams was a decade ago, and then only briefly. Back then, he was still in Lewisburg Penitentiary, still doing part of the big 34-year bit.
'A so-called European'
That conversation had been business-like and abrupt. I was leaving the newspaper and wanted to send him a last parting gift — some paperback books — a small token for having danced with me on a series of '87 articles that were even then yellowing with age. Melvin had been my first real newspaper project, a five-part series that I began reporting when I was 24 years old — a suburban kid from Silver Spring who knew little more than what a handful of Baltimore police were willing to tell me. I had washed up at the penitentiary to interview Melvin about his life and times as Baltimore's pre-eminent narcotics trafficker, and the man had sized me up immediately as farcical.
"What makes you think I can explain myself and where I come from to you, a so-called European from … where was it again?"
"Silver Spring," I offered, and then, because that sounded utterly ridiculous, "just over the line from Washington D.C.…"
Little Melvin shook his head. He'd been a street legend since his pool hustling days of the late 1950s and one of Baltimore's drug lords since the middle of the next decade. Launching himself into the rough-and-tumble of the early heroin trade, he'd spent — at that moment — a quarter of his life behind bars.
Me? I had a general studies degree from the University of Maryland and a year and a half of police reporting under my belt. I'd like to think my naivete charmed him or that my sincerity convinced him I was ripe to write biographies of Baltimore's notorious gangsters. But no, the truth is I got Melvin Williams to talk to me by just showing up and staying put. I wore out the highway up to Lewisburg, time and again. And Melvin was bored. He had time on his hands.
The articles ran a couple years later. By then, Melvin and I had danced through a series of maneuvers on what quotes I could use and what I couldn't, what was embargoed until his appeals were done and what was allowable in print, what he was willing to say about this politician or that federal investigation. It was exhausting, and his mind — keen, calculating, entirely wary of so-called Europeans like myself — left me more weary with each encounter. I was, for the most part, glad when fewer and fewer collect calls came to me from Lewisburg in the years that followed.
Eventually, I read that Melvin made parole in the late 1990s. And I read again that he'd been charged with pistol-whipping someone in an argument shortly thereafter. He went back to prison, then returned to Baltimore when his appeal was successful. And now, suddenly, as I was filming this second television show, from all over Baltimore came the word: Little Melvin was furious.
Not a snitch
We met at Mo's in Little Italy. Neutral ground. A lunch. Broad daylight: If I was going to get pistol-whipped, I would at least have some waiters and busboys as witnesses, I joked, without finding myself entirely amused. Ed Burns, my writing partner on "The Wire," came to lunch as well, raising the stakes dramatically.
Ed, after all, had been the lead investigator in the '84 case — the one that had dropped Melvin on that 24-year sentence, plus a 10-year backup on federal parole for attempting to buy cocaine in weight. That charge, part of a two-year wiretap probe, had introduced me to Ed, who had since retired as a detective, then taught public school, then transitioned with me into television. He and Melvin would be seeing each other for the first time since the federal sentencing 18 years earlier.
Burns ordered an iced tea. I had a glass of the house red. Melvin Williams showed up late with a surprising fourth for our party; his driver that day was a fellow — nameless he must remain — who, I immediately realized, had been an informant for Ed during his years working narcotics cases.
"Nice to meet you," Ed said, taking the mortified fellow's hand and playing out the string cleanly. As we ordered, I thought Ed's old informant would be a ball of quivering sweat before the salads came — Melvin had no use whatsoever for anyone who would ever snitch under any circumstances — but somehow the man held it together.
And Melvin got down to it: "Mr. Simon," he said, "you are familiar with my history?"
At some point in our protracted relationship, I had earned the label of Mr. Simon, a marked improvement over the You So-Called European to which I had answered in the early-going. I took it as a good sign that I was still, even amid the present hostility, accorded an honorific.
"Mr. Williams, I think you know I have some general awareness of you and your career."
"Correct. Then tell me, Mr. Simon, have you ever known Melvin Williams at any point in his life to have been a snitch? Have I ever given any testimony against anyone for anything?"
I knew where this was going. In the run-up to lunch at Mo's, I had sussed out the affront for which Melvin had demanded audience. From my lap, I quickly pulled a hardback book and slid it gently across the table. Melvin stared at it.
"What is that?"
"If you've got a complaint, it goes there," I said, nodding at the text.
DayGlo pimp suits
And such a complaint Melvin Williams had on that day. Here, he had spent nearly two decades in prison for a criminal career in which he had cut no deals and given no quarter, a journey through Baltimore's underworld that had never — not once — traded information with any cop or prosecutor for any benefit whatsoever
And yet Melvin Williams had returned home from federal prison for the last time in his life to find a narrative by Baltimore's Barry Levinson in theaters, a film entitled "Liberty Heights" in which a character named Little Melvin, played by the actor Orlando Jones, turns state's witness against another character. In order to keep himself out of prison, this fictional Melvin rats out a notable Block gambling impresario.
I pointed to the book on the table. It was a novel entitled "The Block," written by the late Howard "Chip" Silverman, a friend to both Mr. Levinson and myself. Chip's story was the original source material for Barry's movie.
"I have nothing to do with the movie, Melvin."
"But you know Mr. Levinson. You work together."
"I do. He made my first book into a television show and I wrote scripts for it. I know Barry and I know Chip, too. But I didn't have anything to do with Chip's book or with Barry's movie. I know why you're upset and you have a right, but it isn't my project."
Melvin picked at his pasta, disappointed.
"You have no financial interest in the "Liberty Heights" movie?"
I shook my head.
"Because as you know, I had the utmost admiration for Julius Salsbury, and there is no way I would ever provide any information about him or anyone else to the government. Under no circumstances."
"I know your high regard for Mr. Salsbury," I said, speaking of The Block gambler who had fled from federal prosecution in 1970 and had not been seen or heard from since. Fictionalized in the Levinson movie, the Salsbury character had to flee Baltimore because of Little Melvin's supposed cooperation with the law.
Even worse, Melvin continued, the actor portraying him had been adorned in the most ludicrous DayGlo pimp suits, bright orange and yellow and green, making a spectacle of himself as he bounded across film screens nationwide.
"Do you know where my suits were made?" Melvin asked me.
"Italian. Cut to order."
"So how is it that Little Melvin is being seen in movie theaters dressed in the most ridiculous fashion. Why would Barry Levinson do that?"
"You'll have to ask Barry," I said, throwing Mr. Levinson under the bus swiftly and cleanly. "I can't honestly answer."
"I wouldn't be caught dead wearing anything like that," Melvin added, genuinely wounded. "Did you see how they had me dressed?"
Off the hook
Ed took me off the hook: "Well, Melvin, it looks like we can't do much for you on the movie. But maybe you'd like to get some other things off your chest."
The two men looked at each other for a long moment.
"Oh no, not at all, Mr. Burns. You made a clean case. I'm not here to complain about any of that," said Melvin. "I mean, Walter Robinson lied on me, but you're not responsible for him. You made your case clean. "
"Walter lied?" Ed asked, referencing the key witness in his case.
"Correct. But that's on Walter," he told the ex-detective who had backed him into his longest prison stretch. "So we can let bygones be bygones. I'm just glad I'm now free and I have some years left to enjoy some of the funds remaining to me."
Ed didn't miss a beat: "We didn't find much of the money, did we?"
"You most certainly did not," Melvin assured him.
Even Ed's old informant, tense and mute across the table, laughed at that one.
Later, leaving the restaurant and walking Melvin Williams back to his SUV, we all laughed again when the man handed me a card, and Burns, who had spent a long wiretap case chasing down a pager number for Little Melvin, nodded at the scrawled digits: "What I wouldn't have done for that twenty years ago."
Then Ed told Melvin to stay free.
"I intend to do just that," said Melvin, ending our lunch date.
A week later, after talking with Ed, I called Little Melvin back, asking if he had ever considered acting as a profession. True, it might be too provocative to have the city's most prolific drug trafficker play a gangster on "The Wire," but there was another role upcoming, a church man, a deacon at one of the city's large African Methodist Episcopal congregations.
And, well, I offered, "a lunch with Melvin Williama suggests that he's already quite a performer."
"David," he said, after a pause, "this interests me."
It was, I think, the first time he used my given name.
David Simon (along with Ed Burns) was a writer and producer of HBO's "The Wire," which was broadcast 2002-2008. Melvin D. "Little Melvin" Williams, 73, who played the role of "The Deacon" in the drama, died of cancer last week.