There's this guy standing in line at Circle K with a live snake around his neck. The last time I saw a guy wearing a snake around his neck I was terrified, scoring meth off him at an L-shaped, weekly-rates motel in west Phoenix, where dogs barked and babies cried, where the only cheer was the year-round Christmas lights that dropped between a nail in the roof's fascia to a nail driven into a sad palm tree, and some neglected toys scattered in the rocky dirt.
But that was another lifetime.
Now I occasionally run into gentlemen in Tucson (well, twice since summer) sporting fangs-bared snakes creeping up their necks. Both times I was walking along 22nd Street, near that Wal-Mart. Drunk on menace and hustle, each guy glowered at me like a question I couldn't ask. Anyway, those snakes were only tattoos, and I'm no expert on tattoo iconography, but I'm pretty sure the etchings had a vague biblical genesis of sin and evil, and tra la la la la la la.
But those guys had nothing on this guy at Circle K just off Glenn on Tucson Boulevard. If you're truly badass, wrap a real, fence-post thick scaly reptile around your neck, one that stretches out to nearly six feet and could strangle you. A snake whose head bobs in unpredictable, soundless ways, flicks a tiny forked tongue, and shows real fangs. Like the one this guy was wearing.
And who strolls into a K with a snake swathed around his throat? I had to hear his story. So I asked him.
Turns out this spindly gent with steely dark eyes and a biker 'stache is no hustler, and claims no proficiency as a faith healer, or a snake charmer, and he's not exactly trying to scare anyone. He's Sherman Ramsey, and he grew up with a fondness for reptiles, a dude struggling to get by like the rest of us. He also happens to have endured a brutal childhood.
A few days later I'm in his apartment, an organized two-bedroom duplex off Glenn, and a short walk from that K. It's sparsely decorated, revealing the essentials of a guy enduring the absolute burden of modern economics. Hanging inside the living room is a signed Insane Clown Posse promo pic, a mirrored Becks beer sign, and framed Doors album covers with snaps of his four children slipped into the frame. A TV is connected to a PlayStation, and there's a couch. He smokes his cigarettes outside.
The snake, named Satan's Little Helper, is a non-venomous Dumeril's boa. In its living-room aquarium, Satan is lovely in transverse bands and mushroom patterns of brown and gray. Ramsey feeds Satan rats.
There's an empty aquarium that housed his other pet snake. But Ramsey had to sell him off. He got $40 bucks. He paid $140.
In a Guinness Beer T-shirt and Levi's, and sitting on his sofa, Ramsey looks younger than his 38 years, but his eyes tell of a lived-in life, bloodshot; equal parts sadness and kindness. And he's guarded—an inherent suspicion of others—so it takes some time for him to offer his personal narrative. When he does he reveals a lot of himself, like an old friend.
After graduating from Cholla high school, Ramsey apprenticed his way up to becoming an electrician. But days of sweet take-home pay ended when the economy nosedived. He lost a steady job of seven years and it put him on a collision course with life, which included a pair of DUIs. "It's harder and harder in my trade to find work," he says. Now he scrapes by on unemployment and help from his dad and uncles.
He has four children by two mothers. The kids are with their mothers and grandparents for now. He lost his last job in October.
Life is rarely in step with your heart but he's working on solid footing; there's progress, a present tense. Ramsey shakes his head. "I had my fun when I was younger," he says, "and I stopped doing all the crazy stuff."
But things he remembers from childhood startle. He knows how difficult it is to erase the early years, the ingrained stuff that can define us. For Ramsey it's the stuff of terror and loss and displacement and homelessness.
Born in Phoenix, Ramsey never knew his real father. His mother traded sex for drugs. "She was a biker whore to feed her habit," he says. "I saw a lot of guys coming and going.
"I tasted weed for the first time when I was five. I could show you how to cook up heroin when I was six because I'd seen it so much. You'd be surprised what a kid can pick up on."
One night when Ramsey was five, his mother and her boyfriend were arguing. The boyfriend was pissed off, and was "probably high on something." He walked the young Ramsey out to the nearby railroad tracks near their place in Phoenix.
(As Ramsey relates the story, Sophie, his strangely beautiful and relentlessly joyous pit bull-Chihuahua mix, antagonizes Junior, a larger dog who's confined to the patio, the other side of a sliding glass door. Barking ensues.)
The two waited alongside the tracks for the train to come by. Ramsey was a trusting little boy. Just before the train passed, the boyfriend went and put himself on the tracks. The roaring train decapitated the man in front of the boy.
Ramsey tells of wretched abuse by his grandmother in San Bernardino, Calif. "My childhood was not fun. I guess I came from a hard background. I block most of it out of my mind."
His mother dumped him with friends in Tucson, because she knew she couldn't care for him. When he showed up at school with a black eye, the cops intervened and placed the 6-year-old in Casa de los Niños, a local home for abused kids, which jettisoned him into the foster care system.
He laughs, "But my mom taught me well, I could steal a loaf of bread and a gallon of milk without anybody noticing me."
He's not blaming anything on his troubled childhood. Instead he's grateful that his original foster parent, Robert Ramsey, a now-retired schoolteacher and pianist at a local Baptist church, had adopted him after one year, thus sparing him a life in and out of foster homes.
When Ramsey was 21, he reunited with his mother. It was a tear-filled reunion and he moved back to Phoenix to be with her.
"I hadn't seen her since I was 6. I wondered about her every night. And for a long time I blamed her for everything. But by the time I saw her again I didn't hold any resentment. I thanked her. Who knows where I would've been, or if I would've been here at all if she hadn't given me up?"
Ramsey didn't get along with her then-boyfriend, and returned to Tucson and settled back into electrician's work. His mother died several years ago under bizarre circumstances involving a head injury. Though no charges were filed, her boyfriend vanished. He and his uncles think the boyfriend murdered her.
"I never did heroin or any of that because I saw what it did to my mother," he adds. "I could be fucked up on some sort of drugs. If you're going to have kids, don't be drug-addicted."
Ramsey has an electrician's job interview the following day, and he's hopeful; for his children, his life, and to battle loneliness. This treading water shit will eat a man alive.
* * * *
Ramsey lifts Satan's Little Helper out of its tank and gently drapes him around his neck. Like he's fitting a scarf. As Satan slither-snuggles into place, Ramsey says, "He's got the death grip. But I could overpower him if he ever tried to strangle me." His talking voice is softer now, and higher in pitch because of the pressure Satan's putting on his throat. He strolls down the block to the Circle K. Everyone stares. Ramsey’s aware some folks might be terrified of snakes, but he insists he not trying to scare anyone. To him Satan is his gentle pet. “I took him on the bus once and the driver got all mad,” he says, like he was surprised. “He made me get off.”
Of the patrons inside the K, some are bemused at the sight of the snakeman. A corpulent dude with a large head and too-small plastic mirror shades, sporting a “Trump that Bitch” button on his t-shirt, spots Ramsey and Satan, pays the cashier for his smokes and twelver, and exits hastily through the glass doors, exhaling extra loud through his mouth and shaking his head like a road rager.
A regular named Debbie has long gray hair and strolls in leading a sweater-wearing Chihuahua on a leash. The incongruity of Satan, his iridescent shimmer under the fluorescent lights, stops her. She marvels at his beauty and quizzes Ramsey all about him while the tiny dog growls.
Ramsey, his voice still higher in pitch from Satan’s tight embrace, politely answers her questions. Debbie reaches out a finger and makes a gentle connection with the snake’s head. “Just so beautiful,” she says.