When I was a cub reporter at the Times-Picayune in the mid-1980s, the sports section featured a brief daily racing column called Railbird Ronnie.
Buried in the way back pages – even behind the fishing page – its eponymous author took readers far beyond the usual handicapping tips, turf conditions and other minutiae of the parimutuel world.
Thoroughbred owners, trainers, grooms and jockeys were bit players in Railbird Ronnie’s world. Instead, he introduced readers to the vivid, vibrant community of the unwashed, unkempt, unseen and unknown denizens of the Fair Grounds paddocks, grandstands and tap rooms.
The heroes and the hustlers. The lifers and the losers. The gray and grizzled old sods who cast no judgment, brook no fools, live every day for the big payoff, and with whom he spoke the arcane and profane language of the track – albeit with a considerably more impressive vocabulary than the rest.
Railbird Ronnie was the voice of the dispossessed. And what a voice he had. A beautiful Y’at rasp. A clogged drain of dialect. Shakespearean command of language and lexicon. A poet and sonneteer in soiled Dockers and wrinkled Panama shirts, scuffed shoes, tobacco-stained fingers, pockets full of crumpled bills and a three-day stubble.
His gruff demeanor and rumpled presentation belied a profoundly rich education and knowledge of history, literature, the arts, culture and politics. His words and stories were concise, precise crystal daggers. After reading his column, you could smell cigarette smoke in your clothes.
God, how I wanted to write like that.
In real life, he was Ronnie Virgets, the loyal and difficult son of Minor and Virginia Virgets, a member of their 3rd Ward brood, lunch bucket folks, devout Catholics with a truant, smoking, gambling, knock-about blackest of black sheep in their midst, who would eventually will himself to be a local legend in the newspaper back pages, then the front pages, then on TV and radio.
I’m far from the first to note that Virgets was New Orleans’ own Damon Runyon, spinning wild and jagged tales about true underworld characters in our midst, those with checkered pasts, nefarious motives and exotic nicknames; personae that most of us associate with back rooms, black markets, bail bonds and old black and white movies.
Ronnie was the last gasp of that generation of newspapermen I admired and longed to be like, caustic, hungover ink-stained wretches who observed city life through a dark lens and told stories with clear and jittery intent, piercing honesty, jaded wit and absolute confidence. A world of smoky newsrooms filled with social misfits, posturing intellectuals, nighthawks, lonely hearts, drunks, angry scribes, bitter poets, communists, atheists, addicts, adulterers, homosexuals and, yes, railbirds.
Ronnie Virgets was an unapologetically louche, groggy, cantankerous chronicler of local life. An outcast, chronically unemployable, wary of the social scene that adored him, contemptuous of the power elite who courted him, dismissive of the phonies who embraced him.
In short, Ronnie didn’t give a shit. Not about fame, money, power or influence. Not about the clothes you wore nor the car you drove nor the bed you slept in nor who with, nor the job you may or may not have.
He was real, a lost art. He possessed the rarest of personality traits: He was both interesting, and interested. And if you weren’t one or the other, then pass by, horseman.
Ronnie died Monday night at the age of 77. That’s at least 10 more years than any knowledgable handicapper would have given him.
From the ever-expanding portfolio of “Ain’t Dere No Mores,” the people, institutions and events that define and characterize this strange place we call home, he was one of the last of the great chroniclers, truth-tellers, legends, prophets.
RIP, Ronnie. Race in Peace.
As the sound and true Catholic boy from St. Aloysius that you were, I trust you’ve hit your trifecta payday in the sky. If you get a chance, hold a place on the rail for me.