My father owned three dry cleaning establishments in West Baltimore, but it was the one at 564 McMechen Street that I remember the most. Nicholson Brothers was just off the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, which World Book Encyclopedia described as "A Black Fifth Avenue," and was one of the few black-owned businesses in the area. In the '60s I spent many hours at that store, which gave me a chance to spend more time with my father, who was a successful businessman; politicians running for office often stopped in to meet employees and customers at his establishments.
I worked in the store on Saturdays, our busiest day. Everyone knew who Melvin Williams was. He often came in late in the afternoon with a suit that he had purchased at an expensive New York men's clothing store earlier in the day. The store must have had his size, but the suits all required cuffs, sleeves and fine tailoring. In addition to paying for the work, which had to be completed by closing, Melvin would tip whichever seamstress did the work as much as $100 if he had two suits to be finished. Melvin was not the only person who did this, and while I never discussed what business these customers were engaged in, it was not a secret. There was usually a Cadillac or a Bentley double parked outside. We had other customers who were involved in the numbers game, which my father said, "at the very least kept the numbers money in the black community." Provident Hospital was around the corner on Division Street. As a child I remember seeing administrators, doctors and nurses come into my dad's store to pick up their clothes. If they ran into one of the neighborhood numbers runners they also placed their bet for the day. Everyone played numbers and Melvin had some early success with numbers as a teenager. The Royal Theatre, The Club Casino, The Sphinx Club, The Alhambra Hotel and three movie houses added to the hustle.
Melvin was lucky and he was also incredibly intelligent. One of my dad's customers, a black police detective told my father that he found a 14-year-old Melvin in a pool hall, and because of his age took him home. When the cop informed Mrs. Williams that her son was found in a pool hall with $500 in his pocket, she responded, " Really? He left here with $50." He also seem to have a special "relationship" with dice and usually walked away with most of the pot after a game. Melvin's early lush lifestyle was made possible through gambling, but eventually he did make his way into the drug business and law enforcement authorities were willing to stop at nothing to convict him, even if it involved crossing the line of propriety. Some estimates of his holdings are as high as $500 million.
Sometimes Melvin would come into the store and find me reading a book or newspaper between customers. He often asked me what I was reading and what I thought about it. Sometimes he would ask me what would be good for him to read. He always wanted to know what my band was doing and where he could hear us play. None of our other customers ever showed that kind of interest. One of the books I gave him was "The Prince," by Niccolo Machiavelli. We actually discussed the book. I thought to myself, "How did this really smart guy get involved in the drug trade?" As a 16-year-old, I never got the answer I sought, but as I got older I began to realize that we are all very much the products of our environment. Melvin was no exception. He was a brilliant businessman who once said to me, "Warren Buffet says 'Being smart is not everything, you also need luck.'" Melvin showed a genuine interest in people. He remembered my dad's employee's birthdays and always asked how they were doing. He listened. I later learned from a high school guidance counselor that Melvin had been a brilliant student, but felt that if the amount of money one made was a measure of success he simply didn't need a high school diploma or a college degree to get rich.
I was a high school football player and on fall Saturdays Melvin always asked, how my school football team had fared on Friday afternoon. In 1966 I joined the Baltimore Rams football team. When I told Melvin what I had done he asked if was it possible for him to try out for the team, I was shocked on the next day when he showed up at practice and made the team. Melvin, in spite of his nickname, wasn't all that little and he became a "serviceable" back-up linebacker. We won our league championship and my teammates were amazed an my connection to Melvin.
When I moved on to college I spent less time in the store on Saturdays because Saturday is game day in college. I was surprised to see him reaching down to shake my hand in New York after my team left the Yankee stadium field after winning a game. I moved away from Baltimore for football, the Army and law school, but whenever I came home I tried to connect to Melvin.
Years later he apologized to me for missing my dad's memorial service because he was incarcerated. He was interested in the fact that I was serving as the chairman of the Board of the Fortune Society, an organization dedicated to helping heal the damage done by mass incarceration and assisting formerly incarcerated people become productive people. Melvin also told me how much he regretted the damage that his products had done on the streets of Baltimore. I wished my dad could have seen Melvin Williams, the actor playing the deacon on "The Wire." Melvin offered to travel to any destination to talk to young men about drugs, gang violence and the lure of the fast money on the street. He would take phone calls. He would help ex-offenders trying to find their way back to productive lives. He talked about his mistakes and warned young men not to follow his path. When I walked around Sandtown-Winchester during the period of unrest following the tragic death of Freddie Gray I spoke to some young men about the devastation and hopelessness they felt.
Melvin died last week from cancer at the age of 73. His funeral is set for Saturday. I am truly sad that we have lost a powerful messenger as we try to give those young men hope and guidance.