PHOTO ILLUSTRATION BY RICHARD FRIEND
A Life of Bars and Cars in the Era of Laurel's Honkytonks
Laurel Noir is a series focused on historic crimes and the darker underside of our hometown.
By Richard Friend | This article originally appeared in Voices of Laurel Summer 2021
My mom, without exaggeration, is the only person I’ve ever met who could literally be a saint. Universally loved and kind almost to a fault, I’ve never heard the woman say a curse word. I’m not kidding. She’s also never drank, never smoked, and never done anything that could even remotely be construed as dangerous, let alone illegal.
But this story isn’t about my mom. It’s about her younger sister—my aunt Patsy—a woman completely opposite in every way imaginable.
Patricia Ann Baxley was born in the back of an Army truck in 1951, the eighth of ten kids my grandparents would have in Washington, DC. By all accounts, she enjoyed a normal childhood, and by 1969 she’d married a good man named Don and had a baby—my cousin, Jenny. They settled in the Chillum Heights neighborhood of Hyattsville, where my mom and dad would soon move to as well after I was born.
But something in Patsy changed in the early 1970s when Jenny started school—she became restless and bored in the empty apartment with Don at work and Jenny at school. One day, the neighbor lady across the hall suggested that they kill some time at a local bar. That was Patsy’s introduction to what would become a lifetime of alcoholism and the troubles that so often accompany it.
Before long, Patsy was living a completely different life. She couldn’t drink in moderation; it was all or nothing. And doing it all meant shirking her family responsibilities and often staying out all night. Don eventually had enough and they separated. He effectively became a single parent, and Patsy left domestic life behind for good, content to roam from bar to bar, taking up with the occasional new boyfriend—none of whom came close to matching Don’s character.
My parents and I moved to Laurel in 1976, and my grandparents soon followed after selling their house. Recognizing a safety net of sorts, Patsy began to show up around Laurel soon thereafter, too. She would occasionally drop by to visit, and when sober, was actually a lot of fun to be around. She would spend a few days at my grandparents’ apartment, helping them with chores and such. And she would take me and my cousin Jenny rollerskating or to a movie or something. She could be kind and incredibly funny, and I can remember even looking forward to Patsy coming over. But inevitably, she would disappear just as quickly, failing to show up at a promised time and leaving us wondering what had happened.
Dive bars were abundant in Laurel in the late 1970s and early 80s, and for someone like Patsy, it was a perpetual field day. The Main Street and Route 1 corridor was a haven, with Town Tavern/Oliver’s, Laurel Tavern, the B & E Tavern, Boots n’ Saddle, Randy’s California Inn, and Sam & Elsie’s. Further out, there was Fyffe’s, the Turf Club, Nuzback’s, the Princess Bar, Club 602, the Tack Room, and the Starting Gate. Patsy was drawn to these places, day or night. It was in these honkytonk bars, wearing her usual tight jeans and western bandana, that she quickly developed a bad reputation. “Bandana Patty” became something of a legend among bar patrons, bartenders, and the local police alike.
At least once every few months, our telephone would ring in the middle of the night. It would either be Patsy herself, or more often than not, a Laurel or Prince George’s County officer calling from one of the local bars. She had been asked to leave, and had no place to go. In her inebriated state, she had no qualms about calling at 2 a.m., asking to be picked up and driven to my grandparents’ place. And my dad, who’d have to be up for work just a few hours later, would grudgingly oblige.
On one particularly harrowing night with Patsy in the car, he encountered a sobriety checkpoint. Of course, my dad hadn’t been drinking, but being stopped with her clearly drunk made him a nervous wreck. “Patsy,” he whispered before rolling the window down for the approaching officer, “don’t say a f******word.” He explained that he’d been called to be her designated driver, and the officer allowed them to proceed without incident. She thought it was hilarious. He did not.
When she wasn’t calling for help, she was often calling long distance from some new locale. Some of the men Patsy would meet at the bars were truckers, and she wouldn’t hesitate to hitch a ride with them when she found out that they were heading out of state. Anytime she phoned, your first question was always, “Where are you now?” I can remember getting calls when she was as far away as Florida, New Mexico, and California. In the middle of the call, whether she was sober or not, she’d insist on putting her latest boyfriend on the phone so we could meet him, albeit virtually. My mom especially used to dread this, as there was nothing to say to these people, and the conversations quickly became awkward.
Patsy usually wouldn’t linger on these trips for very long. Within a few days, another phone call would come in. This time, it would be the boyfriend, wondering if we’d heard anything from her. The story was always the same: everything seemed to be okay until he’d noticed her putting on makeup—that’s when he knew she’d be heading to the bar without him, and off to the next adventure. Within a few days, she’d somehow resurface in Laurel once again. Even without an actual address of her own, Laurel was her home base.
By the mid-1980s, Patsy had met a man named Sonny. Sonny, whose real name was Orville, lived on the eastern shore with his elderly mother. I’ll never forget the time Patsy brought Sonny by our apartment to introduce him. Picture Waylon Jennings as a beach bum, sporting blue short-shorts, flip flops, and a red tank top. He had a gravelly voice that had undoubtedly been steeped in whiskey and cigarettes, and he was especially fond of the phrase, “Right on.”
Reaching into a pocket of his short-shorts, he pulled out a folded sheet of notebook paper, upon which he’d written a poem for Patsy. He proceded to recite the poem, proudly. Of course, no record of it exists today, but I do remember part of one particular verse that he emphasized with that whiskey-tinged voice: “But first, you’ve gotta get away from bar and car.” He’d frequently pause and try to explain certain lines to us, (as one might do with complex poetry) but there was something about that line that actually made sense, and really summed up Patsy’s life. She wasn’t ever going to get clean unless she left that “bar and car” lifestyle.
Patsy and Sonny got married and lived on the eastern shore for awhile, but it was a tumultuous relationship to say the least. Patsy would frequently leave, returning to Laurel. I can remember being at my grandparents’ place when Sonny once called there from a payphone, looking for her. My grandfather would answer, tell him she wasn’t there, and then hang up. He’d call right back, and my granddad would pick up the receiver only to hang it up again without saying a word. He’d wink at me and say, “Made the son of a bitch lose his quarter.” This would happen at least five more times before Sonny either finally got the point or ran out of change.
Patsy eventually filed charges against Sonny for abuse, which sent him to prison. I don’t believe they ever bothered getting a divorce.
Next in line was a man named Ron, who looked old enough to be Patsy’s father. In fact, he looked older than my granddad. I once asked Ron how old he was, and he said 59. Patsy laughed and said, “This motherf*****’s been 59 for 20 years!”
Patsy and Ron did the same dance for a couple of years to close out the 1980s, with Ron frequently calling to ask if we’d heard anything from her. Once, he called to say that she’d set his house on fire after an argument. That was the first of her longer stints in prison.
In the early 1990s, Patsy’s next steady beau was a man named Gary who looked a bit like an Elvis impersonator down on his luck. She’d met him in the Florida panhandle area, after hitching a ride from a trucker at Randy’s California Inn. It was the summer of 1992 when she called to excitedly announce that she and Gary were driving up from Fort Myers to visit Laurel. They barely made it—Gary’s old Buick Skyhawk station wagon died just down the street from my parents’ house, fittingly next to the Starting Gate on Whiskey Bottom Road. I remember driving to work that day and seeing Gary sitting in the car alone waiting for a tow truck. When I came home from work, he was still sitting there. Patsy was nowhere to be found. She’d predictably decided that the bars of Laurel would offer a more comfortable setting.
That visit was the last time I saw her in person. A few days later, she called to say that they’d be heading back to Florida, and asked if we could give them a few dollars for gas and groceries. Both of my parents were at work that day, so I quickly made a bunch of bologna sandwiches and snacks, and put them in a bag along with a little bit of cash I had. I met them just off of Main and B Streets, in Tolson Alley in front of the old boarding house, where they’d apparently been staying. I can still picture them waving in my rear view mirror as I headed home.
Patsy ended up staying in Florida permanently after that, but not with Gary for much longer. She continued her ways, often landing in women’s correctional institutions for theft, disorderly conduct, and trespassing. Over the next two decades, she easily spent as much time in prison as she did out of it, and gained the nickname “Grandma Dynamite” from younger inmates who enjoyed hearing of her escapades.
Still, she had no trouble meeting needy men who were all too happy to supply her with a place to stay and access to the bars, beers, and booze that had been the one constant of her life. Although the older she got, the slimmer the pickings became. One gentleman named Joe, whom we only met over the phone and through his frequent calls when she’d inevitably disappear, was wheelchair bound and legless. Another was Eddie, who once literally scattered some dirt and foliage in his house “to make her feel more at home” knowing she’d spent some time sleeping in the woods.
It became easier to keep tabs on Patsy by simply doing an online inmate search, which would let me know whether she was incarcerated or not. When she was, it was somewhat of a relief. At least she was safe. By 2015, she’d amassed more than 50 separate mugshots.
Patsy’s health finally began to decline in 2016, and after suffering from liver failure and pneumonia, she passed away peacefully at the age of 65. A dedicated social worker had made Patsy’s final months comfortable, and had her admitted to the hospital where she was sedated until the end. At long last, Bandana Patty had finally gotten away from bar and car.
This handpainted sign was displayed over the bar at the Starting Gate from its earliest days until its demolition in 2018. Patsy was undoubtedly one of the patrons most frequently asked—or forced—to leave in the 1980s.
LAUREL HISTORY BOYS COLLECTION