To a large degree, I grew up in my dad’s dry cleaning store located at 564 McMechen St. in West Baltimore, just off of Pennsylvania Avenue. I worked in the store on Saturdays and after school as a young teen. It gave me a chance to spend more time with my dad. As I got older and began driving, I became a delivery driver for the shop, Nicholson Brothers.
During the late ‘60s, the thriving West Baltimore commercial hub that World Book encyclopedia called " A Black Fifth Avenue” began to decline, however. Following the riots in 1968, a number of stores closed, and Provident Hospital, a social and financial anchor, began plans to move to Liberty Heights Avenue. The Club Casino, the Sphinx Club and the Alhambra Grill fell into disrepair. My R&B band played in one of the last Christmas shows at the Royal Theatre.
The numbers runners still walked their routes, taking bets and paying off lucky players like clockwork, but a thriving commerce in illegal heroin and cocaine sprang up. I spent a lot of time in the area, and I could see the change coming. Even as a teenager, I knew it was not good. One of the young women who worked in the store came back 10 minutes after she had gotten off from work and left. Crying hysterically, she said she had arrived at her home around the corner to find her brother dead with a needle in his arm.
It was also common knowledge that if someone was arrested on a drug charge, made an appointment with certain lawyers and went to that appointment with $40,000 cash, the case would wind up being dismissed because of a Fourth Amendment evidentiary issue.
Young “entrepreneurs,” like “Little Melvin” Williams, thrived in the illicit trade. They presided over distributions networks that delivered a deadly and illegal product as quickly and efficiently as Amazon or Alibaba do with all sorts of products today. The show “The Wire,” which Little Melvin later appeared on after redeeming himself post-prison, captured reality so well that my mother, a member of the Baltimore City Planning Commission, said it “realistically represented the worst of Baltimore.”
I knew many of the people involved in the trade. Little Melvin, Quiet Man, Hawk, Montana and others were customers at the store. I spoke with them when they came in. Little Melvin, an intellectual, often asked me what I was studying in school. We discussed Machiavelli’s “The Prince” after I suggested that he should read it.
“The Wire” character Omar Little could have walked into Nicholson Brothers on a Saturday, and he would have fit in right in. Omar was vehemently opposed to drug dealers and he simply dispensed “street Justice.” To the best of my knowledge we did not have a version of Omar Little, a shotgun-wielding gay man who robbed drug dealers with impunity, but we did have a version of Stringer Bell and all of the other characters from “The Wire.”
Michael K. Williams, whose funeral was held Tuesday, played Omar in the show. He died suddenly last week, at the age of 54, of a suspected overdose. He had talked openly of his struggles with drug abuse, which began during his filming of “The Wire.”
I met him at a theater party in New York City several years ago. The craft of acting involves absorbing a great deal about the character he is portraying and projecting that to the audience. Mr. Williams’ portrayal of Omar was spot on. I told him how “Baltimore” he was. He smiled that unique smile of his and replied, “Thank you, suh.”
Roland Nicholson Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) lives in Tampa, Florida.