"Otis and I started talking and decided to set up that soup-and-sandwich buffet. We stayed there five years. Then I went over to Lee Street and set up Danny's on Lee Street. That was very successful. I was there 10 years.
"I owned the Owls Club for six months and sold it to Otis, so he had his restaurant. He started Laury's in 1978.
"I'm down on Lee Street and life was good. I drank every day. My drug use has always been grossly exaggerated. My interest was more into booze, blended Canadian whiskey.
"I owned a bar. It was free, so I drank more than I should have. I never drove drunk. I lived downtown into the 80s. I was young and slim. It was a great life. But I was tired of the work.
"I decided to run for sheriff. I knew I would win. I had been on the Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission and had learned about the sheriff's department. Ned Chilton suggested it. I said, 'But Ned, I'm a Republican.' He said, 'Well, we will whip their asses into line,' meaning the Gazette editorial board. And he did, him and Jim Haught.
"I spent four years as sheriff. We reorganized the tax department. I think I did a good job as sheriff.
"When I left the sheriff's office, I opened a place where Impulse is now and did that for 18 months.
"I lived at the Holley Hotel between 1973 and '78. [Hotel owner] Frankie Veltri and I had a very close relationship. If he said it, I did it. If he told me not to do it, I didn't. He was the man. Very intelligent. I learned the most stuff from Frankie.
"I had a motorcycle, a big Honda. He says, 'I'm worried bout you being on that bike.' So I sold it. He had that kind of effect on me.
"He always wanted me to run for mayor, and he didn't live to see it. That's a regret of mine.
"So I had Frankie to advise me and, earlier, Doc Harless and my dad. And Tim Barber in the '70s helped shape my mind.
"I spent two years in the Legislature, but that was a lost cause. There were 100 members. I wasn't going to be anybody in the Legislature.
"Zack was born in '89, and I didn't have a job. So I tended bar at the Plaza Lounge in Dunbar. Nobody knew it. I didn't know what I was going to do with myself. I had failed at the place on Capitol Street. The Lee Street place burned in 1986. My mother bought the building and Otis opened it back up later.
"Then I went to Nitro and was there four years. It was the most successful restaurant I ever owned, Danny's Rib House. It was unbelievable. People came from everywhere. I lived out back.
"Then we had that murder in February of '93. One dishwasher turned on another for no reason. He just wanted see what it felt like to murder somebody. He was a sociopath. He killed the guy with the most potential in the whole restaurant. It was real sad. Every three years, we go up there to testify to make sure he stays in prison.
"I wanted to come back to Charleston. By that time, I was doing talk radio. I've always been an AM radio guy. I've got 45 antique radios. I've got the first radio I ever bought at Heck's.
"I came back downtown in the spring of '94. I knew I had to stop drinking. On May 24, 1994, 18 years ago, I took my last drink.
"Federal agents interviewed me in the drug bust [involving Mayor Mike Roark]. It was mostly pot. I did a little cocaine, but I didn't like it. But pot, well, that was different. They didn't like the fact that I was nonchalant about what I'd done. I was honest, and I made a mistake by ever cooperating. They couldn't prosecute me, so they leaked my file.
"The stuff on me was too old, and they wouldn't have known about it if I hadn't volunteered it. I was trying to posture myself different from Mike. Roark had done stuff while he was an elected public official. I never did and never would, and that was the difference.
"The radio talk show went on through the '90s. I ran Coonskin for a year, and did very well. In 2000, I did the Regatta. They were $120,000 in debt. They gave me $50,000 and we actually made a profit of $96,000.
"We turned it into a four-day event. All the sponsors were leaving. There was nobody left to pay for those things. When [Will] Brotherton was fired, they got rid of someone who could bring in the dollars. You have to have sponsors.
"I started selling barbecue and hot dog chili to restaurants. I did that until 2002. Then I got a job with the city picking up garbage. I was assistant refuse director. One day, the day after the Fourth of July, it was a disaster. We didn't have enough help. I went and got a bunch of inmates to help me. We all got on a truck, and we worked until dark, picking up garbage.
"When I was out driving around on back of those trucks, people would say, 'Why don't you run for mayor?' I thought, what the heck. I will give it a shot.' So I ran for mayor and got elected. I like it. It's me.
"Chris Smith made a mistake running against me. People all my life have made the mistake of underestimating me. I like Chris, but I knew I was going to win when Jay [Goldman] got beat in the primary.
"This is not a job you work. It's a job you wear. It goes to bed with you and gets up with you. The first 18 months, I was going to everything and trying to do everything. If you try to micromanage this, you are going to fail. You have to be part of the bigger picture and answer to people's ideas and give them ideas and run things around them.
"That's how FestivALL all got started and all this stuff on the Boulevard and that cover for the park. I think that cover was Sen. Byrd's last earmark. Then we got Betty Schoenbaum involved. She wanted to put the stage in the river, and we had to get her away from that, because the river goes up and down, and it just wouldn't work. So she contributed to putting a stage there, and every time we have a band, we save. For a good stage, you pay $20,000.
"I think my major achievement was the ballpark, because that was dead. I'm proud of all those events on the Boulevard and FestivALL and shutting the Regatta down. A lot of mayors wanted to do that. They knew it was time. I just did it. A lot people are still upset about that. But show me the money. They say I shut down Regatta to have FestivALL. We didn't. You give me half a million dollars, and we will do a Regatta next Labor Day.
"I don't regret the user fee one bit. You take that $6 million out of the budget and what are you going to do? How many police do you want to lay off? What services do you want to get rid of? We've paved more streets in the time I've been mayor longer than any mayor in the history of the city.
"The user fee will probably have to go up next term. They charge $4 in Huntington, and in Parkersburg, they charge $3. Most cities get an income tax, 1 percent. Pittsburgh gets 3 percent. Two bucks? Three bucks? What's the deal? It's something you can drive on, policemen you can see. That's the best $2 or $3 you ever spent.
"What we are able to manage for ourselves we do very well. When the state gets involved and puts us in pensions that we can't possibly pay for, that's them, not us.
"Will I run for re-election? That will be in three years. I say yes.
"The [prostate] cancer diagnosis is changing everything because of my boys. Frightened? Certainly. And I am very humbled. I was with the doctor all day today. I'm still trying to figure out what path to take. Some people just watch and wait.
"If it weren't for those kids, a 5-year-old and a 4-year-old, I wouldn't do anything. Now I have to try to stay alive. Sara [his ex-wife] and I get along very well. My sons were with me last night and will be with me tonight.
"Men stop me now and say they got their PSA checked because of me. That made it worth going public. And a lot of men who have prostate cancer have told me their experiences.
"There is nothing in my life I would have changed. I wish I could have raised my older son. Back then, the guy who wasn't married to the mother got to write checks.
"Maybe I would have gotten a college education, but what would that have done for me? I've done a lot of fun stuff. I did a lot of theater. I've had a good time. It's been quite a ride."
Reach Sandy Wells at san...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5173.