When I was a kid one of my favorite TV shows was, peculiarly, The Waltons, the syrupy saga of a large, loving family struggling through the Depression years in rural Virginia. My affection for The Waltons was inexplicable on the surface; the show’s setting and characters were even more alien to me than those of another childhood favorite, Star Trek.
Writers—and their work—is invariably a product of who they are and where they came from. The Waltons was largely based on the childhood memories and experiences of the show’s creator, novelist Earl Hamner, who grew up in a place very much like Walton’s Mountain.
I grew up in a Philadelphia suburb that wasn’t really a suburb but more an extension of the city, filled with city people and imbued with city attitudes. A place where the dialogue in the Irish bars was much different than anything ever heard in Ike Godsey’s General Store.
There were a lot of good hard-working people in the neighborhood, with collars both blue and white. There were also outlaw bikers, drug dealers, meth freaks, gamblers, loansharks, burglars and mob guys, as well as businessmen, cops and politicians with some very creative ideas regarding money, law and ethics.
As a teenager and in my early 20s, I wasn’t any angel. I socialized and did business with quite a few individuals that most people wouldn’t want to know. It wasn’t the Iowa Writers Workshop, exactly. But it did provide rich training ground and source material for storytelling—a certain kind of storytelling–nonetheless.
The neighborhood was a bit of a bastard, as neighborhoods went. Long, steep streets named after American presidents swept down into a densely populated plain, a bewildering grid of narrow backstreets, before climbing yet more hills on the far side. Delivery truck drivers and out of towners constantly became lost. The configuration of the streets was no more receptive to outsiders than was the citizenry.
It was a community of quirky demographics and zoning apparently born of midnight handshakes and envelopes plump with cash. There were corner bars, rowhouses, nondescript apartment buildings, even a trailer park discreetly tucked away in the woods by the railroad tracks. There was a steel mill, a stone quarry, a beer distributorship that looked like an aircraft hangar, a sandwich shop built to resemble a space ship, a truck depot and a Knights of Columbus hall.
There were also large center hall stone homes with Lincolns, Cadillacs and Mercedes in the driveways, with colorful gardens and in-ground pools. A country club. A Jewish cemetery. Professional buildings. Two busy shopping centers. Beautifully maintained parks and athletic fields. A bucolic creek. A diner that later served as the setting for a pivotal scene in a popular Oscar-winning film. A 19th Century mansion on a wooded tract owned by two wealthy eccentric spinster sisters. The mansion was located just yards from the trailer park, which symbolized the bipolar dichotomy, the odd gestalt, of the neighborhood, as well as anything.
The county political boss lived nearby, as did the avuncular anchorman of Philadelphia’s top-rated TV newscast and a once-famous 50s rock and roller.
The Mudman lived there too.
If you Google the words ‘Robert Mudman Simon’ or type them into the archives of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News, links to hundreds of articles magically appear. I knew Bobby Simon much better than did any of the reporters whose bylines appear on those stories, which is nothing to be proud of. It just happened that I grew up three blocks from him; we moved in the same circles, such as they were. The reporters were much better off remaining at a safe distance, like visitors to the lion’s den at the Philadelphia Zoo.
A brief, ill-advised interest in botany led, thorough a curious combination of circumstances, to my initial encounter with The Mudman.
It was a warm, sunny spring afternoon. I was in sixth grade. Bobby Simon should have been a high school senior. He was not, for reasons readily apparent to anyone that ever met the man, or even saw a photograph of him. Dealing with structured environments was never Simon’s forte.
I stood near the top of the long grassy slope behind the local public elementary school. I was perusing a field guide to American flora, attempting to determine which wildflowers were which. It might have been related to a school project. It might have been the latest in a long and strange list of childhood obsessions, somewhere between the Roman Empire, the Civil War, the Old West, 1940s film noir, the Manson killings and geology.
Yo-Yo was a hulking whackjob with a blond crewcut and biceps like Mr. Universe after a full tray of steroids and a long day at the gym. Yo-Yo, who could’ve single-handedly transformed the Summer of Love into a winter of discontent, sneaked up behind me.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he demanded. Yo grabbed the book from my hand. He stared at it, puzzled. “You got a flower book!”
I did…until Yo-Yo tore it up and tossed the pieces on the ground. They resembled small rose petals in the wind. “You’re looking at flowers! I’m gonna tell!” In that neighborhood, one didn’t necessarily want to cultivate a reputation as a guy that stood around on grassy knolls looking through books about flowers.
“You’re a fuckin’ pansy!” Yo-Yo charged. He shoved me hard, knocking me onto the grass. “I’m gonna kick your pansy ass!”
While I was hardly a shrinking violet physically, Yo was some three inches taller and twenty-five pounds heavier than I was. He was known to be a bit touched in the head, and not by an angel. He was later a Golden Gloves amateur boxing champ. “Get up and fight, flower girl!”
I was rescued by the timely arrival of a neighbor, Mr. Carr, walking his poodle Trixie. Mr. Carr said, “You boys aren’t fighting, are you?”
“No, Mr. Carr,” I assured him as I stood, dusting myself off. “We were just practicing our blocking techniques for football season.”
I executed a great escape by walking off with Mr. Carr, thoughtfully informing him that Trixie was the favorite dog of everyone in the neighborhood. Mr. Carr loved Trixie; a few white lies never hurt anyone.
Yo-Yo glared at me, baring his teeth. “I’ll catch up with you later!” he hissed behind Mr. Carr’s back.
I considered siccing Trixie on him, but the poodle was busy taking a leak on some of those troublesome flowers.
Yo-Yo did catch up with me later. I was in an all-purpose neighborhood deli-grocery store-butcher shop operation of the sort rarely seen anymore. Yo-Yo strolled in, buying cigarettes: ‘for my Mom’.
His mother smoked about as often as mine did, which was never.
He spotted me–even there behind the protectively raised Daily News–and smiled. Ominously. “I’ll be waiting for you outside,” he promised. “With some petunias. For your grave.”
I gave it a few minutes, and then looked out the window. There was Yo-Yo, pacing restlessly, smoking one of those Winston’s allegedly purchased for his mother. He was cracking his knuckles.
Yo appeared rather impatient and irritated. A rich fantasy life wasn’t required in order to imagine whom he planned to take his irritation out on, given half the chance.
I eyed the pay phone on the wall, but that didn’t offer much of a lifeline in this situation. Who was I going to call? My friends? My mom? The cops? No, no and no.
I returned to a careful, time-consuming study of Campbell’s soup cans. I heard someone clear his throat behind me. “Hey, you. Soupy Sales.”
I turned around. Bobby Simon was seated on top of the horizontal ice cream freezer. The Mudman was beefy, scraggly-bearded and ponytailed, with an ever-present smile and small, deep-set blue eyes with a lunatic gleam. Tattoos decorated both of Mud’s massive arms. With a bit more hair and a little less ink, these might have been the limbs of a lowland gorilla.
Simon had either dropped out of or was expelled from high school. Smart money was on the latter. He had already done at least two stints at the county juvie facility; his criminal career had begun at the age of eight. He was rumored to be both deranged and dangerous. For some reason, I always got along just fine with people that were deranged and dangerous. The D&D crowd just loved me.
Bobby Simon had recently moved on up from membership in a local ‘fraternal organization’ known as the Warlords into the Warlocks Motorcycle Club, among the hardest of hardcore one-percenters. Even by Warlock standards, Simon was a piece of work. Not long before, Mud had burned down a store on the Ocean City, New Jersey boardwalk. Apparently he had unsuccessfully attempted to ‘return’ some items for which he lacked, unsurprisingly, a receipt. The Mudman could be one seriously disgruntled customer.
He slid off the ice cream freezer, sauntering over to me. “I been eyeballing you, pal,” the raspy-voiced Mud said. “What are you doing, anyway? Casing the place? You want a partner? The locks on the front door are shit. Tell you the truth, I been considering a B&E myself. Or you got a piece? You goin’ armed robbery on this?”
“There’s a guy outside waiting for me,” I confessed. “He’s a boxer…and a black belt.”
“So you’re scared of him, huh?”
“Not really. But he might knock my teeth out. And I’m scared of dentists.”
That apparently struck a raw nerve. “Yeah,” Mud said, with a thoughtful nod. “Shit, who ain’t? Tell you what,” he added, slapping me on the back. “You go outside and I’ll follow you.”
“Don’t worry about it, little brother. I got your back, no problem.”
The Mudman virtually shoved me out the door. I felt like a paratrooper that had left his chute behind in the plane and was now doggie paddling three thousand feet above sea level.
Yo-Yo spotted me. He started in my direction, with obvious enthusiasm. But he froze suddenly, looking behind me.
Simon strolled out of the store, chewing gum. “Who is this asshole?”
“This,” I said, “is Yo-Yo.”
“Yo-Yo,” Mud repeated, his inflection making it sound like the name of a disease that people didn’t mention in polite company. He spat his gum out on the sidewalk. “Shit.”
Yo, pointing at me, said, “I’m gonna kick his ass. He reads flower books!”
I winced. Reads flower books? I might as well have been a child molester. And the local child molester had recently been dragged out of the creek, beaten half to death by ‘unknown assailants’.
“So what?” Mud said as he lighted a cigarette. “Maybe he wants to be a fuckin’ landscaper and he’s studying on it. Go screw a squirrel or something. Get lost.”
Yo-Yo either did not hear this last sentence or chose to ignore it…with disastrous consequences. He moved toward me once again. He didn’t get very far. People rarely got very far once Mudman Simon stepped into their path.
Simon grabbed Yo by the collar. He casually smashed his face into the brick wall on the side of the store. You could hear something break. It wasn’t the wall. Mud tossed Yo-Yo to the ground as if he was a Raggedy Andy doll, and then applied a steel-toed boot to his groin.
Yo-Yo rolled around on the sidewalk, moaning and crying, his face bloody and already beginning to swell. Along with his testicles, which Yo was now clutching with both hands.
Simon, grinning, said: “Now Yo-Yo got a pain in both of his yo’s. And he might be sipping his dinner through straws for a while. Maybe he can borrow my old man’s dentures.”
He leaned down, exhaling Marlboro smoke into Yo’s battered face. “You bother my cousin here again, doofus, I’m gonna throw your sorry ass in front of a trolley, get it?”
Yo-Yo got it. The hard way.
Simon winked at me. “Take it easy, boss. Go pick some flowers. Give ‘em to your mom. Maybe she’ll buy you a can of soup.”
He chuckled and swaggered off toward his house up the block. I stepped around poor Yo-Yo and quickly got the hell out of there myself.
Yo-Yo was lucky, all things considered. I was even luckier, I suppose, ultimately spending a great deal more time in close proximity to Simon than Yo did. A number of others that crossed paths with cheerful sociopath Robert F. Simon weren’t quite so fortunate.
Following a lengthy series of felonies and several prison stints, Mudman Simon was convicted of murdering a local girl who had ‘disrespected’ him at a party. Having a reputation to protect, he shot her in the forehead and dumped her body in a water-filled abandoned strip mine. He was suspected of involvement in several other murders.
Mud killed a guy in the chow line at SCI Pittsburgh. He was acquitted. It was ‘self-defense’. Mudman was paroled somehow. There were rumors of money changing hands, of intimidation. Eleven weeks later he gunned down a New Jersey police officer during a traffic stop following a burglary. Mudman’s mea culpa: “Guess I overreacted again, huh?”
A firestorm of controversy swirled around the parole. Questions were asked. Heads rolled. The governors of Pennsylvania and New Jersey were dragged into the finger-pointing, buck passing and heated debate that fueled outraged newspaper editorials and filled airtime on TV and radio. The Mudman became a national cause célèbre, a 250-pound symbol of everything that was wrong with America’s criminal justice system.
Mudman said that he had killed the cop because he didn’t want to go back to prison. He didn’t stay very long.
On a sunny September morning Mud got into an altercation on the death row yard with a con known as ‘Squirt Boy’, a scumbag awaiting final judgment for the rape and murder of a young artist. The fourteen other inmates housed therein, a quirky crew including a shy and sensitive child murderer and a transgender cop killer in a platinum blond wig, looked on. The pest control contractor had come that morning to eradicate the roaches in their cages. Roaches, apparently, being considered cruel and unusual punishment for a group of convicted murderers.
The Mudman, who frightened even fellow killers and the toughest veteran cops, was definitely not someone that you wanted to tangle with. But even superstars have the odd off day, suffer the career-ending injury. In Mudman’s case, appropriately, that injury was a bit more substantial than a blown ACL.
Mud went to bash his opponent, but lost his footing. He fell and hit his head on a metal table. Squirt Boy took the opening and ran with it, stomping the Mudman until his brains oozed onto the ground, then popped his eyes out for good measure.
Mudman, many felt, received a lethal Bollingen Prize of poetic justice. He was described as a sociopathic monster, as profoundly evil, as the antichrist. Was he? Sure he was, in many ways and on many occasions. But things aren’t always written in simplistic black and white, in the harsh neon of a single dimension. People, even the worst people, are more complex than that.
While I hated the things that he did and shed no tears over his death, the fact is that ‘The Mudman’ was also just Bobby Simon from the neighborhood, who made bologna sandwiches at the corner store, adopted and loved stray dogs, protected younger kids from bullies, changed flat tires for senior citizens and helped my mom carry her groceries. You could have a couple of beers and a few laughs with him and escape unscathed. He didn’t seem like much more of an asshole than most people when you were dealing with him.
The major difference being that when things soured, Simon would literally shoot you in the head rather than figuratively stab you in the back.
I used Simon as the basis for the character of Ronnie ‘Sludgeman’ Simmons in my novel The Blue Route. Sludgeman, like Simon, is a likeable and funny guy who happens to kill people without getting too bent out of shape over it. Writers are, of necessity, selfish. We use people. In crime fiction, many of those people—both fictional characters and their real life counterparts—aren’t very nice. At all.
We use events and experiences in our own lives, pull them from a Santa sack of memories, and rework those memories for our own purposes. In fiction and in life, people do what they do. In order to write about those things, a certain journalistic detachment is required. Novelists generally don’t have the luxury of making moral judgments, although possibly our moral judgments lie in what happens to characters in the final chapter. Mudman met Squirt Boy on death row. Sludge Simmons has a fateful encounter with a 300,000-pound locomotive.A price is paid, as it should be.
In any case, you work with what you’ve got, your own personal deep well, or strip mine, of source material. Some people light a fire with a 14k gold Dunhill lighter, others rub two sticks together; six of one, a half dozen of the other. Earl Hamner had the gentle folk of the Blue Ridge. I had The Mudman and his cohorts, and their victims.
In the immortal words of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: ‘Girl, we can’t change the places where we were born’. Sometimes that’s a good thing. Sometimes not.
It is what it is.