A Masshole in Full
The first time I saw Robbie Concannon’s penis was in the early ’90s at a party on the top floor of a triple-decker in Southie.
It was one of those kill-me-it’s-so-hot summer nights, and you can plug in only so many air conditioners before the fuse blows and the house goes dark. When the lights came back on, I noticed the room wasn’t as bright as before; the lamp next to me had a pair of shorts covering it. Before I had time to think it through, a lean, curly-haired kid in his early twenties was standing there wearing nothing but sneakers and a smile. "Do you want to see the terrier?" he asked a group of young ladies. It was a rhetorical question, because he immediately turned away from the girls, tucked his junk between his legs, and bent over. So this was Robbie Concannon, the crazy kid from Dorchester I’d heard all about.
When I was growing up in Southie, there were really only three things we ever talked about: girls, sports, and some crazy stunt some kid pulled. There were lots of kids pulling crazy stunts in the Irish neighborhoods—that place unto itself centered in Southie and reaching into Charlestown, large swaths of Dorchester, and pockets of the South Shore. Hollywood has done a great deal to mythologize the Boston Irish Guy, building stock characters whose motivation is booze and drugs and crime. But the things that motivate the real legends in the neighborhood are far more benign—a simple desire to make your friends laugh, to entertain the troops, to be talked about. A guy’s reputation hinges on delivering bits of comic chaos. In this world of larger-than-life characters, Robbie Concannon was as big as they come. Every story about him seemed to top the last one.
"Did you hear about Robbie riding a bike into a party down the Cape naked with a mask and snorkel on?"
"I heard he rode a moped up the stairs of a party naked."
"Sully told me he crashed his Camry into a sand trap on the golf course at Franklin Park."
"You know he got kicked out of BC High."
"And Providence College."
"O’Connell told me he jumped out of the second-floor window at one of the Mods at BC on Marathon Monday, naked with a spaghetti strainer on his head. Then he went back into the party and jumped out four more times with the crowd chanting, ‘Robbie, Robbie, Robbie.’"
"I heard he trashed the airport in Bermuda and got kicked off the island."
"I heard he was in a bar in town the other night, walking around on all fours like a dog and pretending to pee on people’s legs. He ended up having to fight the whole place. And he almost won."
Robbie was a half-dozen years older than me, and I didn’t know him personally, but I’d occasionally seen him doing his thing. Once, I was hanging with friends on East Broadway when a car came flying down the hill from the courthouse. It was on the wrong side of the street and it looked as if nobody was at the wheel. Robbie had his head hanging out the passenger-side window and he was screaming. He screeched up in front of us, and when we looked inside the vehicle we saw his penis, and the fact that he was driving with his left foot. (The car was second only to the penis as Robbie’s favorite comedic prop.)
Driving from the passenger side was a signature Robbie move, as was playing with the radio and pretending not to notice the people he was driving toward, a trick that would send pedestrians diving into snowbanks. He also enjoyed pulling over on busy roads to do pushups or jumping jacks in the nude.
Robbie and his crew were all very good hockey players, arguably the greatest group to come out of the city; they were also world-class ball-busters who dragged menace in their wake. "Robbie didn’t hang out with any saints," says his mother, Lorraine. As Brendan Walsh, who was part of that group and is now a Boston cop, points out, "The scariest guy in the room is the guy who doesn’t give a fuck." None of them gave a fuck. They’d show up at a party, steal all the beer, beat up all the boyfriends, and take all the girls. Their actions were impossible to condone, and impossible not to laugh at. They were the older kids, and my friends and I idolized them the way the younger kids always will.
If you grew up around here, I’m certain you know someone like Robbie Concannon. And you probably know that what passes for funny at 18 can seem pathetic at 38. Those crazy kids—the truth is that a lot of them don’t turn out so well. The motivation has a way of changing, and the drugs and the booze and the fighting quickly get problematic. The cliché is that many end up dead or in jail, and there’s a reason it’s a cliché. I drifted away from Southie, went off to college, and stopped hearing Robbie Concannon stories. Last I knew, he was playing hockey in the minor leagues. If I’m being honest, I always feared the next Robbie Concannon story I heard would be the last.
But not long ago, I caught wind of what sounded like the craziest tale yet. Robbie was still nuts and still getting naked, according to the grapevine, but had become a full-blown celebrity in, of all places, Charleston, South Carolina. I poked around and found, among other things, a MySpace page where a woman lists her heroes as "Jesus Christ, Robbie Concannon, and the men/women of the military." "He’s nearly worshipped in Charleston" is how the local Post and Courier has described that genteel city’s fascination with the Boston kid they nicknamed "Coocs." Beyond wondering how it all happened, I got to thinking about whether Robbie was the same guy we’d adored in the neighborhood so many years ago. I figured I had to go see for myself.
Robbie washed up in Charleston in 1995. He’d finished college at Salem State and played 20 pro games in the American Hockey League, the rung right below the NHL, before getting sent down to the South Carolina Stingrays of the East Coast Hockey League. The ECHL used to be where hockey careers went to die, a league where long bus rides and empty rinks inspire a sinking feeling that your best years are behind you. Robbie knew this, and he was ready to hang it up. But then he talked to an old buddy, Mark Bavis, a former BU standout from Roslindale who was playing for the then-three-year-old Stingrays. Bavis told him, "If you come down here, you’ll never leave."
At the time, hockey was a novelty in town, and the games regularly drew over 10,000 fans. Simply by being himself, Robbie instantly became a huge star. He wasn’t the best player, or the toughest, or even the first from Boston (Bavis and his twin brother, Mike, were already there). But Robbie was an entertainer, and the fans couldn’t get enough of the Irish kid from Beantown. He made funny faces at them. He scored big goals and did big dances in front of the other team’s bench. He tried to bite a guy’s finger off during a fight. "He’d tease his curly hair up into an afro," says teammate Jared Bednar, who now coaches the Stingrays. "Once, he smoked a cigarette during warmups." Robbie cost the team a fortune in pucks—he would stand at the end of the rink before games and flip them over the glass to the kids.
His second year, the team won the Kelly Cup championship. Robbie was everywhere. He was on billboards; he was on the cover of the program; he did a milk mustache ad. The southern fans didn’t understand much about the game (the team tutored them on icing and offsides), but they liked the fights and they loved Robbie. "We’ve had two huge blows of wind since I’ve been in Charleston," says Jack Hinkle, a fan who became a friend. "One was Hurricane Hugo. The other was Robbie Concannon." The fans started calling him "Coo Coo Concannon," or just "Coocs." When the souvenir stand, spotting an opportunity, began stocking "Coo Coo" T-shirts, it sold out the entire run in one night.
The local newspaper covered all his antics, and reported that he was bombarded with invitations from fans who wanted to take him out for his birthday. Robbie would instruct the rink announcer to introduce him as hailing from "North Charleston," and the arena would go wild. After games, he’d have the announcer tell the fans to meet him at the Wild Wing Café down by the old slave market, and they’d come out in droves and watch him put on a show.
The huge personality, the classic Masshole behavior—they might have led Robbie toward nothing good if he’d stayed in the neighborhood. But in Charleston he found a kind of salvation. That’s because Robbie did it all, all of it, completely sober. The wake-up call came 15 years ago, after a late-night brush with the law. "We were waiting in line to buy food at the yuck truck after the bars had closed," says David Cunniff, an old Southie friend who is now assistant coach of the Worcester Sharks. "Robbie thought it would be funny to cut the line and steal some guy’s sandwich and play keep-away." Naturally, a fight broke out and Robbie was arrested. "I was in jail handcuffed to some guy," Robbie explained to me, "and he asked what I was in for. I told him I tried to beat up a guy with a turkey, bacon, and mayonnaise sandwich. He told me he’d tried to kill his wife."
Robbie realized some things had to change. The court informed him that with his next arrest he could expect a nice, long sentence. So he stopped drinking, cold turkey. "If I hadn’t quit," Robbie told me several times, repeating the old maxim, "I’d be dead or in jail."
Even without the booze, he was still Robbie Concannon, and Robbie Concannon stories still always end the same way. "I think it’s safe to say," says Brendan Clark, lead anchor for the local NBC affiliate, "that he has the most seen penis in Charleston history."
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."
Trio Club is on Marion Square, a large park that’s kind of like Charleston’s version of Boston Common. The club has two levels—first floor has live music, second floor has a DJ—and in a city that takes its nightlife seriously, it’s routinely described as the bar. A year ago, Robbie bought a half-ownership stake. After retiring from hockey in 2003, he’d bounced around for a little bit, struggling with that athlete’s transition when the limelight fades, when he has to stop staying out late with the boys and instead has to get up with the men. Robbie was a fireman for six months, but quit because he was going nuts sitting around waiting for action. Then he got into real estate and did well enough (despite showing houses in sweatpants and a T-shirt) to buy and renovate an elegant two-bedroom loft overlooking fashionable King Street. But since the market tanked, he’s been focusing on his bar. He’d been a bartender at Trio for a while, and when he inquired about acquiring a piece of it, the owner, Andy Selent, was skeptical. "People would say to me, ‘Coocs is a good hockey player and he knows everyone, but what does he know about running a business?’" says Selent. "Since he took over, business has been up 50 percent. Now I just stay out of his way."
Watching Robbie behind the bar, you see him in his element. Bartending is a series of micro-encounters, which fits his attention span perfectly. He’ll bust balls, serve drinks like a maniac, down leftover Red Bull, go and go and go. He’s been known to vacuum the club in his underwear, or take a ladder out to the middle of the packed dance floor and start changing the light bulbs.
He’s also become legendary for his tactics in dealing with the drunken "birdbrains who think they’re hot shit," as he says. If there’s trouble, he’ll hop over the bar and pull his go-to move, grabbing the guy and ripping the pocket right off his dress shirt. "You wouldn’t believe how perfectly it comes off," says Patrick Sullivan, who’s tended bar with Robbie for years. "He should have them hanging on his wall like a hunter has horns."
If some bigshot comes in and runs up a $250 bar tab and then leaves a $10 tip, Robbie will follow him outside and return the tip, in his face. For Charlestonians, this is Coocs at his most endearing. "In his world, he’s the police for the bad guys," said Brian King, who works in a clothing store on King Street where Robbie goes to rib the seersucker set. (King, incidentally, wants it noted for the record that he lived with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead in Oregon in the summer of ’68, and says Robbie definitely stacks up against the big personalities he’s known in his life.)
Chantel Fitzsimmons, the wife of one of Robbie’s former teammates, Jason Fitzsimmons, gets emotional remembering how she was at the bar once and some guy was messing with her. Robbie jumped over, and this time ripped the man’s whole shirt clean off. "It made my heart swell, just knowing he had my back," she says.
This is a piece of Robbie that’s always been there, though perhaps it was obscured by his antics. When he was growing up, he was often the smallest kid, the last picked for the game. His mother says he was very, very sensitive. So he forged a reputation in the only way he could: He became a scrapper, someone who wouldn’t back down, who always stood up for himself and took care of his friends. Even when he was drinking, he’d brawl all night, spend the early morning in the ER getting stitches, then go straight to the North End to bathe his uncle, who has cerebral palsy. (Robbie would often get naked himself, his way of trying to keep things from getting awkward.) In Charleston, it seems fair to say, he’s felt free to fully be himself, maybe in ways he wouldn’t or couldn’t back home.
"When people think about Robbie, it’s just this crazy, crazy guy. But deep down, he does it because he just wants everyone to be happy," says his sister-in-law, Holly Concannon. "The day of my father’s funeral, it must have snowed 10 inches. After the funeral, Robbie drove my mother and me home. And he starts doing doughnuts in the parking lot. Here’s my mother, who just buried her husband, and she’s dying laughing."
I spent three days with Robbie in Charleston, and it went by in a blur. The city was hosting one of its best-known events, the annual Cooper River Bridge Run, a six-mile road race that this year drew more than 30,000 runners (the Boston Marathon, by comparison, has about 20,000), which meant it was a zoo at Trio Club. As I watched Robbie tend his bar, I tried to put my finger on how this crazy kid had changed, and how he hadn’t. Whether Robbie has mellowed with age is a topic of profound debate among his friends. "He hasn’t walked into my house naked in a couple of years, so I guess that’s a start," says his old roommate, Brett Marietti.
Robbie has a live-in girlfriend now—which is a big step for him. Her name is Keri, and they seem to work well together. She’s from a farm in California and has a good bit of the Charleston laissez faire to her. "He can be such a martyr on the smallest things," she says, but she’s able to roll her eyes instead of going after him. And she can accept the fact that she’s never going to be the only one who sees her boyfriend naked. "He’s just so proud of himself. He’s always telling me he’s ripped up like a fat girl’s phone number." Whether Keri can finally settle Robbie down is yet to be determined. "He gets up every day, throws on his sweatpants, and goes around and acts up," says Jason Fitzsimmons. "He’ll always be a kid." But I’m not so sure.
It was 6 a.m. on a Sunday when Robbie stuck his head into the guest bedroom and told me it was time to wake up. He had been at the bar until after 4, and had slept about three hours the entire weekend, but he refused to let me take a cab to the airport.
As we drove, I didn’t have anything left to ask him. So I told him something that had been working its way through my head all weekend. "When the people of Charleston think of Boston, there’s a good chance they’ll think of you," I said to him. He kind of nodded his head. "And that makes me proud," I said.
He thanked me, and then he changed the subject. Because Robbie Concannon is no good at telling Robbie Concannon stories.
BILLY BAKER lives in Cambridge. His story about an MIT scientist’s search for the Loch Ness monster appeared in the December issue.
Source URL: http://www.bostonmagazine.com/2009/05/a-masshole-in-full/