At 9 p.m. as Ron was setting the front door alarm prior to their intended departure, the alarm indicated there was a fire somewhere. He thought he was receiving an error message as the alarm “beeped back,” so he tried setting the alarm again … and that’s when smoke started permeating the ceiling, stairway, and entryway. He yelled to Steve, who was in the kitchen, telling him to grab the cats and leave immediately, which he did … just as the firemen were breaking out the front windows… just as Ron decided at the last second to run upstairs and save the “good jewelry,” a decision that nearly cost him his life.
Within two minutes the entire upstairs was engulfed in acrid smoke making Ron cough, searing his eyes tightly so he could not determine the direction he was moving in. He was lost. And then “Divine Providence,” in the form of a handrail, appeared out of nowhere.
Once safely outside, they witnessed their beautiful 1880s Victorian townhouse, their home since 1989 where they spent 25 years of their life, literally burning like a fireball – just like Gatlinburg, Tennessee, did three weeks ago. Everything was lost within minutes.
Ron was dazed but Steve was highly distraught. They were homeless and had only the clothes on their backs. Yet, as Steve recalled for Baltimore OUTloud, “We were blessed! If I had set the alarm and we had gone to the bar, half the block would have burned down and the cats would have died.” They were blessed too that the apartment above the Rowan Tree was vacant, permitting them to rest there for four nights sleeping on a quilt on the floor and in the same clothes they were wearing the night of the fire before going to their vacation home in Cape May, New Jersey.
At the shore, Steve found the serenity and time he needed to collect himself to deal with the heartbreak associated with the enormity of their losses. Ron returned to Weichert Realtors the following week. Three months later, both Ron and Steve had recovered sufficiently from the fire that they were able to resume their charity work, providing a catered “gesture luncheon” at the beginning of the school year for the staff of Thomas Johnson Elementary / Middle School (TJEMS). But painful memories still lingered.
“Cunsuela died in the fire,” Steve recalled for Baltimore OUTloud. “All her costumes were destroyed.” Cunsuela is one of Steve’s drag personas – the other is Elvis. When he said “Cunsuela died,” that means a part of Steve died in that fire, along with Cunsuela and her signature song “Proud Maria.” Cunsuela’s career started at the Stagecoach in 1994 and ended with her retirement party at the Rowan Tree in 2010. Following the fire, the firemen shoveled debris from the second floor out of the rear of the townhouse and into the two goldfish ponds, debris that included Cunsula’s dresses, high heels and purses. Amazingly, the goldfish were blessed, too, swimming among the debris and apparently unharmed. As they are avid animal lovers, Ron dutifully returned to their townhouse and retrieved all ten of them. The goldfish, some original and some new, now reside in a beautiful aquarium.
Several fire companies responded to the alarm and determined the cause of the “flash fire” was corroded wiring on a wall sconce. Ron and Steve were also blessed to have an understanding and sympathetic insurance agent who arranged and paid for a furnished place for them to live until they moved back into their restored Victorian townhouse on October 24th, 2015.
After facing a personal disaster of this magnitude, many people experience a fight-or-flight response due to stress, which can lead to making hasty decisions with enormous social and economic consequences, such as leaving behind lifelong friends and starting life over in an unfamiliar location. Unexpectedly, Ron and Steve had to make one of the most important decisions in their lives. Like the New England traveller in Robert Frost’s poem “The Road Not Taken,” they had come to the proverbial fork in the road: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – I took the one less traveled by. And that has made all the difference.”
Having debated the “moving vs. restoration” issue, restoration seemed wiser and more logical rather than risking a move to a different part of Baltimore, such as Bolton Hill, Charles Village, or leaving Baltimore altogether. Poetically speaking, if they had decided to leave Federal Hill, would it really have made a difference in their lives? In this case, “Yes.” It would have meant abandoning the place where Ron’s grandmother, Alice Power, arrived from County Cork, Ireland, in the 1930s and where she met and married Thomas Nolan, giving birth to Alice “Chris” Nolan who married Ronald J. Zimmerman. Ron’s roots are firmly planted in Federal Hill, roots that are inexorably linked to every breath he takes. Ronald F. Zimmerman is “Mr. Federal Hill.”
With 2017 fast approaching, not only are Ron and Steve’s New Year Eve resolutions focused on improving their Victorian townhouse with a new guestroom and office in the basement, they are actually planning two new charitable initiatives. Ron revealed to Baltimore OUTloud, “We want to create a ‘Gay Day’ for seniors on Thursdays at the Allen Center, and we want to get more involved in education, helping to establish a program where kids get into business as entrepreneurs.”
Outwardly, Ron and Steve’s Camelot has been restored. Their businesses, Weichert Realtors and the Rowan Tree are thriving; their charitable work and commitment to the Federal Hill community, Thomas Johnson Elementary / Middle School, and the Allen Senior Center, are stronger than ever – and their townhouse has new parking pads and landscaping in the backyard.
Recently Steve performed as Elvis at the “12 Day of Christmas” gala on December 10th, singing a medley of Elvis’s songs from the 1970s, including “Jailhouse Rock,” Don’t Be Cruel,” and “Hound Dog.” After his performance, he learned he had just been chosen to serve as an honorary King of Gay Pride in July 2017. For their numerous charitable functions, in both the gay and straight communities, as well as for their “courage” that Hemingway aptly described as “grace under pressure,” Ron and Steve have achieved a Kennedy-like stature in Federal Hill and Baltimore.
Inwardly, the fire never destroyed their relationship. That is because as Ron emphasized, “We live by a code built on honesty. It’s the glue that has held us together.” Steve quickly added, “Nothing has ever been an issue.”
“Honesty” is definitely the key to their personal and business relationship. But, prior to that relationship, there had to be a magnetic connection when they had their first and only date at the Hippo. Perhaps it was coincidental that on that cold winter’s night of January 11th, 1981, the number one song in the U.S. was Kim Carnes’s song “Bette Davis Eyes.” Baltimore OUTloud isn’t sure who had those “special eyes,” Ron or Steve, although it may have been Steve as Ron laughingly-lovingly refers to him as “The trick who never went home.” Readers will have to decide for themselves as Ron’s eyes are blue and Steve’s eyes are brown. One thing is for certain, however, 35 years later this dynamic couple is still singing the number two song from 1981, Lionel Richie and Diana Ross’s duet “Endless Love.”
Everyone is welcome at the Rowan Tree Tavern (1633 South Charles Street), featuring karoake hosted by two multi-talented and titled divas: Anita Minett, Miss Rowan Tree 2016 (on the second and third Saturday) and Shawnna Alexander, a.k.a. The Queen of Benefits, and the Reigning Miss Mixers (on the first and last Saturday of the month). Show times are 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. Free off-street parking passes are available.