All the old names and all the old faces are gone now. Big Angelo the jeweler. Crazy John the Greek. Baby Boobs. Big Billy. China. Hops. Gone. Every night, Charlie Demby sits on a stool at the Midway Bar, drinking a Pepsi and remembering those faces. That's when he has time to sit. Demby, known as the "handyman of the Block," does it all. Well, almost.
When you talk to him, he'll tell you that he's been everything but a dancer on the buzzing circuit of East Baltimore Street, his second home for about 44 years. He'll tell you he was the first black doorman. The first black "runner." And that he's remodeled no less than seven clubs, including the Red Room, the Harem, the 408, and the Flamingo. Asking around about these claims will get you a resounding agreement from the elders on the street.
"I came to the Block about 1969," says Demby, who claims both Harford County and the Eastern Shore as childhood homes. "It was the place to make money. I started off shining shoes for 75 cents and made my way to the top. I was also a member of the Baltimore Black Panther Party at this time. I wasn't a member long, though," he adds, saying that a shootout with police got his best Panther buddy killed and landed Demby himself in jail for the first time. "I learned to woodwork and renovate when I was in jail," he says.
Demby eventually became a "runner," someone who runs errands for the doormen and dancers inside the clubs, and then a doorman.
"It was up there at the Flamingo.," Demby says as the shadows of night begin to leak down East Baltimore Street and the dancers change shifts. "Times was different, but I didn't really have a problem down here."
During the disco '70s, the street was three blocks long with clubs, Turkish baths, pimps, girls, hustlers, long, dark cars with chrome rims as bright as the signs on the bars, and patrons in three-piece suits ducking in and out of peep booths.
"It never closed back then," he says, taking a pause to sip his soda and stare down the empty bar. "There was always people on the street. Always. Man, it was crowded. It hasn't been like that in a long time. Where the parking garage is now, there were clubs like the Oasis. That's all gone now. Man, in the '70s, as a doorman, whatever I was pulling in, two, sometimes three thousand a night on the street," he says. "It was by any means necessary to make money. I'd do anything. Now, you can't pay me to get out there."
When he wasn't working, he used to like to sneak into the 2 O'clock Club to watch his favorite dancer "pick up a barstool and hold it with those big titties."
"They called her Baby Boobs back then," says Demby. "I used to go over there just to watch her. She was nice as shit. They had a DJ in there every night. I do work for her daughter now."
But it was in the '90s, according to him, that he really got busy.
"Man, in the '90s I was the biggest drug dealer down here," says Demby, who seems to start every sentence with the word "man." Miss Vick, the bartender at the Midway, raises an eyebrow and the regular sitting next to him shakes his head, tips his fitted cap back, and looks to the ceiling as if to say, "here we go." "I was the man down here. I told all the police. They knew me."
This is Demby's world. And it's starting to show its exhaustion. Doormen aren't as vocal as they once were. Whispering "right in here, sir," mumbling "we have dozens of lovely ladies, sir," is as far as they go to engage the occasional businessman walking to his car. You'll still occasionally catch a flash of wobbly flesh peeking out from a club foyer and a stray "runner" getting a hair clip, sandwich, or something darker for the dancers inside. And the red carpets are worn very thin.
Sitting at the Midway, with five decades of faded burlesque fillies smiling down at him from photographs behind the bar, the 64-year-old handyman swears this is the worst it's been in a long time.
"There ain't no money down here no more. You got more hoppers down here than anything right now. They upsetting [the Block]," he says. "And the girls used to perform for money, but now it's just about drugs. People don't come down no more either because the police harass them. The police block the street off at [midnight] and they don't let people hang out at the lunchrooms. They won't let you get on the Block to get into the lunchrooms. If ain't nobody squawkin', no one is making no money."
So, as the millennium drags past its first decade, Demby's doorman and dealing days are long gone. Now his lanky frame is always dressed in the uniform of the street's handyman: tan Dickies overalls and a bent baseball cap. He gets calls from bars to come fix this or that.
"I do any kind of fix work as long as it's money," he says. "Except for the [Midway], I'd do anything for [Miss Vick] for free. I'm putting a sink in the second-floor bathroom of Chez Joey's now."
Demby finishes up his soda and heads for the street. Outside, a short dancer in her street clothes immediately comes up to talk to him, flicking her cigarette in the gutter.
"Hey Charlie," she says, exhaling. Her name tonight is Boots. "They need you at the Circus."
"Charlie's a real nice guy," slurs Boots, whose real name is Mary but she goes by the latter moniker as well as Little Darling when she feels like it. "He's been down here forever. I don't think he'll ever leave."
Demby weaves his way past a few men in hoodies smoking in the doorway of the sub shop and heads straight for the Circus bar to perform some unnamed task. "I lost my phone, but if you need me," he says hustling through the door of the club, "I'm always here. I ain't goin' nowhere."