Monday, August 21, 2006

Petey Greene’s Crustacean City

Washington activist Petey Greene’s grandmother An't Pig once told him, “Petey, you gotta stop smoking those reefers because they make you too hungry, and I can’t buy all that extra food.” I was thinking about Petey Greene this weekend, and food, when I had to help out my brother. A few weeks ago his car was stolen. When the police showed up they told him that it probably hadn’t been broken into, but rather towed away, which is the new mode of operation for car thieves. The police said it makes their job harder because you can’t pull over every tow truck you see toting a car around to make sure if it is a legitimate service or not.

Happy Harbor, indeed

Anyway, my family responsibility on Friday was to get to my brother’s and take him out to rent a car. We decided to make a day of it, which started with a haircut over in Deale, Maryland, opposite the Happy Harbor Marina on Rockhold Creek. My brother used to dock his boat at Hansel’s Marina a short distance from there, so it was an area he knew very well by land and water.With lunchtime approaching, we drove down the road to Skipper’s Pier, a restaurant which sits out on the water and is famous for it’s seafood, but especially it’s locally caught crabs. There was a strong breeze coming in over the water, and the waitress had to get masking tape to hold down the brown paper they put across the table, or it would have blown out into the water.

You've heard of pecking order, right?

I wrote about crabbing before with my brother last year, when he taught me about running crab lines and bait and the best way to eat crabs, which is using a small knife rather than the traditional pounding with wooden mallets. We were literally sitting out over Rockhold Creek, and one of our biodegradable table napkins flew off and landed in the water. I hadn’t noticed, and my brother said, “Look. A jellyfish,” only it wasn’t. It was the napkin. Later a jellyfish did mosey on up to our table, and I thought “If he thinks he’s getting some action off that napkin, boy is he going to be disappointed.” We saw seagulls sitting on the pilings out in the water, and my brother taught me that the bigger, heavier birds were the ones who got to sit on the higher posts, while the smaller birds fell in descending order of seagull hierarchy to the lower perches. While we waited, I sketched a crab on the paper, saying, “Oh! The ignoble end…”

Soon enough the crabs arrived, and we tackled the pile. While we ate, my brother was pointing out across the water where he used to go crabbing at Holland Point. He talked about the laws governing the length of crab line, and while most people think chicken is the most effective bait for crabs, it’s actually bull lips. Yes. The lips of bulls. He told me he used to buy these things in bulk from Mt. Calvary Meat Locker in Calvert County, and how if you coil the baited line when done for the day, then cover it in rock salt and put it in garbage bags you can use the bait again. He said it really stinks, works. He also told me that eel, which used to be plentiful in that area, was also a good bait for crabs, but that the Asians had hipped to the availability and gone into heavy marketing to ship the eels overseas at a profit, making it too expensive to use eel anymore when you crab. While we were eating, there was this huge Monarch butterfly hanging around by the large planter next to our table. I whimsically named him “Ambrose.”

"Hello, my name is Ambrose, and I'll be your server."

Driving away from the restaurant, back down Drum Point Road, I screamed out, “Petey Greene!” Only it wasn’t D.C.’s Petey Greene, but rather a bar called Petie Green’s, and it’s roof was lined with gargoyles and Christmas lights. So who is this Petey Greene that I’m going on about? Ralph Waldo “Petey” Greene grew up poor in Georgetown of the 1930's. He overcame that poverty; he overcame being a Lorton Reformatory convict, where he landed after a 1960 armed robbery. He overcame addictions. He referred to himself as a “wine-head bum.” By the time of his death in the 1980’s from cancer at age 53, he was remembered as a community activist, but he’s not merely that name you see on the United Planning Organization’s satellite center over on Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue. He was an award-winning television and radio broadcaster, a humorist, and a folk hero.

Petie Green's, But Not Petey Greene

He had a radio show on WOL called “Rapping with Petey Greene,” but he was better remembered for his television show on WDCA-Channel 20 called, “Petey Greene’s Washington.” Petey would talk with his guests about life in non-bureaucratic D.C. as well as offer street-wise advice and commentary, all while sitting in this huge rattan peacock chair popular during that era: the type of thing you would buy at Pier One before they became tricked out, back when Pier One meant “exotic imports” with things like…incense and wicker and brass gongs.

Don Cheadle as Petey Greene in Talk To Me

On July 30th, the Washington Post did a story about an upcoming movie on Petey Greene’s life, starring Don Cheadle. The movie will be called Talk To Me and, according to Cheadle, it will not be a heroic depiction. “I think that was his whole thing, being straight up. He saw what he thought were injustices, what he thought was right or wrong.” I was very hard pressed to even find information on Petey Greene online when I started writing this piece, and I never did find a photograph of him, only a humorous clip from his television show where he explains the proper way to eat watermelon. I would add that I already knew the trick about salting a watermelon, as my southern Mama taught me the importance of that to bring out the flavor. I’ve added a link from a clip of Petey’s television show. In this segment, he’s quoted as saying, “I got it off the vine. It’s sweet like honey, and I plug it all the time.” I don't think he's talking about watermelon.

Petey Greene - How to Eat Watermelon - Google Video

Petey was also an early user of the term “Chocolate City” to describe Washington. Many think the term originated with the release of a 1975 album of the same name, issued by the group Parliament, whose members included George Clinton and Bootsy Collins. (There was another great song on that album, “If It Don’t Fit (Don’t Force It.” Just sayin’.) In truth, the term had been in use on local D.C. radio stations for some time prior to that.

When he died in 1984, more than 20,000 people lined up outside the Union Wesley AME Zion Church over on Michigan Avenue in Northeast D.C. to pay their respects. I am hoping this new film brings up more facts and more stories so that people can understand that time in Washington’s history. Like Petey's grandmother complaining about how marijuana made him eat too much, at the beginning of this piece. She later went on to amend her view where she said she’d rather “have him smoking reefers and just sit and smile at people than drink old wine and coming in throwing chairs around.” Hopefully not that rattan chair, Petey. That’s history.

He would always end his show with a trademark sign-off. To this day, if you say “Petey Greene,” in D.C., this is what people will shoot back: “I’ll tell it to the hot. I’ll tell it to the cold. I’ll tell it to the young. I’ll tell it to the old. I don’t want no laughin’, I don’t want no cryin’, and most of all, no signifyin’. This is Petey Greene’s Washington.”

Postscript: We did get to the car rental place, and I told the dealer I didn't care what I rented because I could drive anything. He shouted out to his co-workers, "The girl can drive!" Or, to channel Petey, "I'll tell it to the North. I'll tell it to the South. The girl can drive, and that's no jive."


Blogger cuff said...

Beautiful post. I read that article about the upcoming movie, and like many post-1980's transplants to this city, I had no idea who Petey Greene was. I'm quite interested now.

3:09 PM  
Blogger playfulinnc said...

Thanks for this, Cube!
N and I are looking into the how's and where's of crab fishing in NC, so it's funny that you were thinking about that too.

Did you and your brother travel by boat to get a car?

3:14 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Cuff: Given his popularity in Washington, I was amazed how hard it was to come up with some history on him. I do hope the movie improves that situation.

Playful: No, we came in by land, but we were surrounded by water. That was my brother's marina, for a time. A lot of people with boats in D.C. don't dock them in D.C. because of the cost factor. Annapolis is equally bad, so they search out places like the Patuxent River or South River or oversized creeks like Rockhold which feed directly out into another bay like Holland which has one of those white hexagonal lighthouses that sit on pilings. My brother has done every type of fishing from deep sea on down, but he hung out a lot in the Holland Bay area. If you study a map of the Chesapeake Bay, there are tons of these little inlets and such along the coastline. We've both known how to crab since children. I haven't done it since I was a teenager, and I'd like to do it again, but to do it seriously (fair warning to you,) you really have to go out before dawn to start, at least when you are running crab line or pots. With a net, and enough crabs, you could probably go out any time. Also, you'll probably be using chicken necks as bait. My brother just did a crab feast for his friends on Saturday. I "think" he said he did five bushels. He has a commercial cooker he uses out in his yard to steam them. It's all very primitive and very Maryland, but the guy knows his stuff and everyone loves them.

3:38 PM  
Blogger I-66 said...

Sheesh, Cube. You never cease to amaze.

I've never been big on crabs since they usually require mallets and plenty of elbow grease to eat and I prefer to just pick food up, chew it, and swallow it. With a knife, though, I might reconsider.

...and really, is not the shape of that chair somewhat... phallic?

3:49 PM  
Blogger Johnny said...

Very nice story but I wonder if theres not another one about you getting laid in a boat somewhere... sometime...

And then you got sunburn on your ass.


3:50 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

I-66: At the place where we ate, they provided us with the mallets, but also wooden handled paring knives, which is what we actually used. My brother has in his home these things called "crab knives" that were made on the Eastern Shore in Cambridge--all metal and small, used specifically for eating crabs. Once you learn how to do it, it's faster too. As for that chair, sure I see it, but just as a FYI, it's actually called a Royal Peacock Chair, based on the shape of a fanned peacock's tail (at least they got the "c" word in there.) Oh, and 66? :::passing tissues for the sniffles::: Feel better soon.

Johnny: You are such a brat, but you do make me laugh. No boat stories, but I am sure plenty of people have "on the beach" stories.

3:57 PM  
Anonymous TravelGirlDC said...

DC parking enforcement is also towing cars for being illegally parked. The only thing is they are just towing them to a legal spot, so you go out and your car is missing so you assume it is stolen when actually DC parking enforcement just moved it with force. Did he check to make sure this didn't happen? My roomies car and our neighbor's car were both moved like this.

4:17 PM  
Blogger TYSEN said...

I guess it make sense when you only post once or twice a month, you know, that your posts would be sooo long. I like all the pictures. If it wasn't before, it's now clear that I have attention problems.

I like the "black cat" photos in a prevous post, those are cool.

4:53 PM  
Blogger TYSEN said...

ug, they're "black cobras" according to you.... I jumped the gun and got confused. My comments on your site must make me see retarded. I guess I'll just have to leave some more intelligent ones in the future.

4:56 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Travel: That was the first thing he did, make sure the police hadn't towed it. No such luck.

Tysen: I do post more than once or twice a month. Granted, I do not post every day. You are thinking of a piece I wrote on fireworks back for the Fourth of July, and if you go back and re-read, you'll realized I lost a week of power back then, so not only was I not blogging, I wasn't doing much of anything, having checked into a hotel.

4:58 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Tysen: I'm glad for the readership and I don't set judgments on the comments. I'm glad to hear back from people.

4:59 PM  
Blogger Hustleman said...

This was a nice post. My mentor was a good friend of Petey Greene's back in the day. According to my mom, he would actually come down to Fredericksburg VA to hang out with him and my father back when I was a baby. I definitely want to see the movie starring Don Cheadle.

Glad you all made the most of your trip to the rental place and got to go crabbing. I used to go fishing all of the time, but I've never been crabbing. Sounds fun, especially since I love eating crabs.

5:12 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Hustle: These are the stories I love. Having been born and raised in D.C., I remember Petey Greene's importance in this town, as do many, but I am really hoping that when the Cheadle movie comes out, that more people will be stepping up with memories of the man. He certainly made his mark...back in the day.

5:21 PM  
Blogger E :) said...

What a great post! Don Cheadle and crabs all in one.

BTW, you're sketch of the poor little crab is fantastic!

5:22 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

E: Thanks. We aim to please at Cube Central. :)

7:36 PM  
Blogger ThaiMex1 said...

That was "the day" in DC when Petey Greene and Captain Twenty shared time on WWDC Channel 20. Such diverse characters which also included Maury Povich when he hosted the local show "Panorama" on WTTG which was an intellegent unlike the pandering drek he does now.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous lonniebruner said...

Crabs: me likey.

9:11 PM  
Blogger Reya Mellicker said...

Petey Green has to have been either a Capricorn or a Scorpio. yes? Do you know? I saw Parliment in the very early 80's. In fact our table was in the front of the hall where they played. George Clinton danced on our table - I can still remember the way he smelled - with his purple dreads and wild outfit.

AWESOME sketch of the crab! Wow.

9:23 PM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Thai: I was trying to think if D.C. has had such a character since Petey and no one jumped to mind.

Lonnie: Me's too.

Reya: I don't know his exact date of birth so dunno. Thanks re: crab drawing. I always doodle in restaurants.

10:50 PM  
Blogger Stef said...

I love these photos today. Marinas and other water scenes are among my favorite settings. I'd love to someday live in a place with a view of water... anything, a river, a lake, the ocean, I'd be happy!

11:48 PM  
Blogger Megarita said...

Fabulous. I want to adapt "no signifying" to my own sign off. Make it all academic and hot and stuff.

7:06 AM  
Blogger Brunch Bird said...

Any native Marylander will tell you you don't need a fancy schmancy "crab knife" either. Any butter knife will do: use it to peel off the apron on the underside and then the shell, then put it sharp side down on the claws and whack against the back of it to get inside. Take a swig of Natty Boh, repeat with next crab. You're in business.

9:55 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Stef: That's my ultimate dream, too.

Brunch: The beauty of the crab knife is the way it's shaped and that it's solid steel, so the blade isn't going to snap off on ya. They are even weighted a certain way to help you plow through a lot of crab cleaning in a very short time. As I said, we used paring knives that were provided, and they worked fine.

10:45 AM  
Blogger Ryane said...

Cube: Yes, that was an amazing sketch! I am a DC local and growing up, had cousins who lived in Shady Side...we have been to the Skipper's Pier and I have also driven by Petey Greene's.

I will be very interested to see that movie, as well. Great post...

3:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'll bet Pat Collins thinks he's the local "man of the people" broadcast personality for D.C. What an idiot!

Just goes to show you how broadcasting as it currently exists is utterly lacking in true local news and public affairs programming. Oh well, thanks to the joys of deregulation, we'll never see the like of Petey again.


3:41 PM  
Blogger Fiery Nuggets said...

Thanks for the great bit of DC history. And the whimsical depiction. Food for thought. I don't know enough about the real history of DC. And, as a Maryland native, I really like the crab eating convo -- and wholeheartedly endorse your brother's crab-eating method. Mallets are just overkill.

7:13 AM  
Blogger Washington Cube said...

Ryane: Thanks. And I hope to get back to Skipper's one more time in the next few weeks of summer.

Grince: I don't think that television would let a Petey Greene on the air today. Things are much too homogenized. The blanding of America.

Fiery: That's what my brother always says about mallets, "overkill."

9:50 AM  
Blogger Phil said...

Petey Greene is awesome! I've never heard of him until now. Thanks, Cube.

I also learned something about crabbing. I always used chicken necks to lure my crab.

12:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Petey Greene? I'm still waiting to see a movie about the late, great Sam Cooke. Don Cheadle could probably do a good job of portraying him, too. (Either Don or Will Smith.)

Penis Enlargement Device

2:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great comments about my one of a kind uncle Petey. January 23rd was his birthday. There's a lot that I could say about him. However, I'd be writing a book. I bumped into this page and just wanted to thank all that loved him. See you at the movie.

9:24 PM  
Blogger ROBERT said...

As I was surfing the net , I saw on you tube "How do you eat a watermelon". Petey was the first shock jock of radio.The city would buzz from his most forward comments. Blue crabs from NC are the best.

9:42 PM  
Anonymous prosolution said...

Very nice story but I wonder if theres not another one about you getting laid in a boat somewhere... sometime...

And then you got sunburn on your ass

9:31 PM  

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