Shorty's displays an addition to the back of his smoker.
Shorty's displays an addition to the back of his smoker. (J.M. Giordano/City Paper)

Shorty Davis has his hands in everything.

When Duane "Shorty" Davis isn't marching, demonstrating, training others on the ins and outs of organizing, working with the homeless, mocking and sometimes interrupting media outlets not up to his standards, or creating funny protest art in the form of collage-covered toilets that he leaves in front of buildings to "potty-train politicians," the 56-year-old is grilling.


He began when he was 8 years old, he says as he prepares hambugers and hot dogs in Upton for a National Night Out, put together by KEYS Development and the No Boundaries Coalition. Shorty was the ninth of 10 kids, so cooking was a good skill to pick up, he adds.

"But you know when I really got started," he asks. "You know Jesus with the fishes and loaves? That was my first day on the job, I've been cooking ever since." He smiles big: "I showed [Jesus] how to cut shit and make it stretch, know what I'm saying? I was there. Last Supper? I was there. They ain't never say shit about the cook but they always talk about the meal."

Before Shorty moved to Baltimore in 1991, he lived in Zion, Illinois, where cooking was one of many hustles. "When I used to sell dope I did this on the side," he says as he drops another bag of burgers onto the grill. He'd sell food along with shots of Hennessy and Crown Royal for two bucks back in Zion.

Shorty and Son

From 1997-2007, he ran Shorty's Pit Beef & Ribs, a well-regarded BBQ stand (slogan: Shorty's Meats Taste Good In Your Mouth) which moved around but began at Greenspring Station.

Over the past year or so, he has resurrected his stand as a massive portable grill called Shorty's Bootleg BBQ, which he and his son, Philip, take to events such as Peabody Heights' Book Thing benefit, the Charles Village Festival, and the National Night Out. And every weekend downtown he feeds the homeless, something he's been doing most weekends since he arrived in Baltimore.

Just a few days before National Night Out, Shorty was in front of the Sam's Club in Randallstown selling food to passersby to raise money for the Special Olympics. He also sometimes posts up on the side of Route 40 and elsewhere without a permit—yet another subtle form of civil disobedience and why this new endeavor is dubbed "Bootleg BBQ." At National Night Out, as kids and adults dance, browse piles of free books (provided by Shorty), and devour hamburgers, Shorty's attention is on Democratic candidate for mayor Catherine Pugh, who just arrived.

"Cathy! Cathy!" he yells. "Ms. Pugh!" She comes over and says hi to Shorty. They know each other well. Earlier this year, Pugh presented Shorty with the Verizon Community Innovator Award. Also in attendance at National Night Out is Lt. Governor Boyd Rutherford (Shorty ran for Lt. Governor himself back in 2014), and councilman Eric Costello, who mostly avoids Shorty—though in his defense, he's deep into a game of basketball with some local kids.

By now, this batch of burgers Shorty has been flipping are good to go.

"HOT! HOT! HOT!" he shouts as he rushes a tray of burgers over to the line of people waiting for them. Then, he spins around and tells fellow activist PFK Boom, who is helping on the grill, "Now, let's cut them dogs."