A Masshole in Full
Charleston is a city where the men dress as if they might have to go golfing or drinking at a moment’s notice: polo shirts, pastel shorts, Croakies, flip-flops, with a nice seersucker suit in the closet for weddings. The city has an insular, fraternal feel; a place of old money and old southern history, of secret gardens behind secret gates.
Robbie dresses as if he might have to come off the bench for the Celtics. He wears a T-shirt and track pants every day, specifically the tear-away kind, in case he needs to strip down quickly (though it’s frequently been noted that he always keeps his sneakers and socks on). He’s 38 now, and after all those years in the minor leagues, where trouble-makers operated without the protection of face masks, his face is full of interesting furrows from countless stitches. His hairline is higher, and his curly hair is now cropped close to his head, but he’s still lean and ripped. A lot of people say he looks like Lance Armstrong. After nearly 14 years in Charleston, though, his attitude and accent are still the same, still very Robbie.
“The other day I was in the park with my dogs and I told this kid to pick up his dog shit,” he explained shortly after I arrived in town. “He flashed me the peace sign twice. So I smacked him twice. The cops came to my house. I don’t know how they knew where I lived. We had a little talk.”
I can tell you how they knew where he lived: Everyone in Charleston, from the debutantes to the homeless guys in the park (Robbie has learned all their names and gives them money and clothes), knows Robbie. “He’s a natural, larger-than-life entertainer,” says Andrew Savage, a bigtime Charleston attorney known for representing accused Al Qaeda operative Ali al-Marri (and occasionally Robbie, “for stuff that I usually deal with for clients between the ages of 15 and 20,” Savage says). Savage’s staid, wood-paneled law office looks like the setting for a John Grisham novel. It’s also the setting for a popular Robbie Concannon story: Once, in the middle of the day, he hopped onto a table to show a secretary “the difference between a man and a woman.” The display sent another employee, who is now an FBI agent, diving under a desk.
When I asked Robbie to help me understand why he’s always getting naked, he said, “It’s an impulse.” Then, impulsively, he got up and vanished. “If you spend an hour with Robbie, you only see him for 10 minutes,” says Brett Marietti, who was Robbie’s teammate and roommate during Robbie’s five years with the Stingrays. “Don’t ask me where he goes. We’d go to the mall and he would disappear, and then we’d walk by Old Navy and he’d be in the window wearing the mannequin’s clothes, or no clothes.” When I ask his family about the nudity, they have no explanation. “As far back as I can remember, he’s been naked,” says his brother, Brendan. “I’ve seen him naked more than I’ve seen myself naked.”
The only person you won’t hear Robbie Concannon stories from, it seems, is Robbie Concannon. A lot of this has to do with the fact that he rarely stays put long enough to be introspective. He’s antsy and hyperactive; his mother says he hasn’t sat still for an entire meal in his life. He makes about 100 phone calls a day, and they all last 20 seconds. To learn about Robbie, you have to talk to others.
When I asked Charlestonians to tell me their favorite Robbie Concannon story, I figured I’d hear stories of outlandish behavior that would reveal some conflict between the Boston wild man and this well-mannered city of belles. But what I heard surprised me. There were plenty of crazy Coocs tales, to be sure, but ultimately it was the subtler side of the classic Boston guy that won over his adopted hometown, it seems. “When he walks into a room, he’s going to know everyone by the time he leaves,” says David Plyler, who lived with Robbie for a couple of years (and who, according to Robbie, “dresses like a typical Charleston fuck”). “And if he doesn’t like you, he’s going to let you know. People liked that because he was so different.”
When Robbie was still playing hockey, there was a 15-year-old girl named Mandy Hill who absolutely loved him. She’d wait for him at his car after every home game to say hello. One night, she wasn’t there, and Robbie was worried. It turned out that earlier that day she’d been killed in a car accident. Robbie called her father and asked if there was anything he could do. The answer was yes: He wanted Mandy to be buried in Robbie’s jersey. Minor-leaguers don’t have extra uniforms, and so Robbie wore another number for a few games. In Charleston, this is everyone’s favorite Robbie Concannon story. When I talked about it with Robbie, his eyes welled up. Hockey had given him a great gift: a community who loved him for being him.
Late on my first night in Charleston, Robbie drove me across the city’s majestic new Cooper River bridge in the rain. He told me that his life was now centered on taking advantage of the opportunities he’d found here. He said he thought a lot about his father, who died two years ago, and of Mark Bavis, the guy who had talked him into coming to Charleston, and who had been on the second plane to hit the twin towers on September 11. He told me how, for the past year, he’s been going to church. He goes on Wednesdays, he said, because he can think clearer when it’s less crowded. “I want to be a better person,” he said as the rain beat down outside, making the night seem even darker. “I don’t want to be as fired up as I am. I don’t want to punch people in the park.” He went on. “It’s taken me forever, but I’m almost through with this book I saw on TV. It’s called Choosing Civility.”