In my travels recently I met someone so interesting, I haven’t been able to forget him. It’s just too bad that what Kato Simeto really needs is a venture capitalist, not a journalist. But it would be a shame if nobody outside of Baltimore ever heard his story.
Simeto was introduced to me by a friend of a friend in the days after the Baltimore protests. I didn’t know the city and I needed someone to show me what happened and where, for a story I ended up writing in the wake of the Freddie Gray incident, about community policing.
A secondary motive for me (and I’m a little embarrassed to admit this) was my obsession with the show The Wire. Simeto, I knew, had been involved peripherally in the making of HBO’s true-crime epic, working as a fixer of sorts and having been an extra in multiple scenes.
Fanatics can spot him as a SWAT team member in the Season Two raid. He’s also in the dogfighting scene of the classic “All Due Respect” episode, looking on with a frown as Method Man’s Cheese Wagstaff character rips off his “That ain’t nothing but bait” line.
Anyway, Simeto took me around in Baltimore, I did my thing, and one night we got together for a drink. He said he had something on his mind. I figured it was a pitch for a movie or a book. Instead, he told me a wild story about a world-altering project he was trying to put together in his backyard.
He wanted, he said, to become the first African-American automaker, and had spent years designing an ultramodern, green-energy prototype car.
“It’s going to be the greenest car in history,” he said. “It’s an electric car and a solar car. And a wind-powered car. It’s going to use transparent luminescent solar collectors for windows. And then it’s going to be covered with supermaterials to help catch wind energy. Wind turbines, to charge the battery…”
He spilled into a long rant of ultra-technical gibberish. I had trouble following him. Finally, I interrupted.
“Wait,” I said. “Are you the engineer on all of this? You’re designing all of these things?”
He shook his head in irritation, like I wasn’t listening. He knew his own story by heart and was way ahead of me.
“No, it’s not like that,” he said. “I’ll get one person to make this part, another person to make that. I’ll just put it all together. Nobody will really know what the whole machine is except me.”
I felt a wave of déjà vu. I’d seen this act before, in the movie The Fly, when teleportation machine inventor Seth Brundle explained to a reporter how he farmed out the details: “Build me a laser this, a molecular analyzer that…”
This was exactly the same mad-scientist act, only it was from a guy who’d checked Method Man’s gun at a Baltimore dogfight, not Jeff Goldblum.
Then he showed me a picture on his iPad. Simeto’s “Ulozi Motors” sports car was a gorgeous looking vehicle, like a space-age version of a Jag or a Lamborghini, with a hint of DeLorean tossed in. He had a whole series of pictures of the long-hooded luxury sedan posed on country highways, sunlight gleaming off its superhydrophobic, corrosion-controlling waterproof coating.
I took one second to look it over, then blinked.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “You built this thing?”
He laughed. “Nah. It’s just a picture I made. But I can build it. I’ve got an old Porsche in my backyard that I can use for the frame.”
Simeto went on to show me some of his other invention ideas. His “Ulozi” brand is already a clothing line. He hand-designs t-shirts, jeans, hats and other stuff, all bearing a slick and distinctive sunburst logo. “It’s how I pay the bills,” he said, laughing.
He showed me photos of some of the famed Wire cast members wearing his clothes. I wondered how many hats and sneakers one could sell with Omar Little fronting the fashion line.
He branched out into gadgets. His Ulozi car, which he superstitiously refuses to give a model name – “I don’t want to jinx it” – comes standard with a series of accessories, like an umbrella with a gas spring.
“It just pops out with a gust of air, no little parts,” he said, describing the James Bond-like contraption.
He showed pictures of other doo-dads: watches, backpacks, a combination luggage-stroller and phone charger that looks like a folded-up drum set.
Even the Ulozi store of his imagination is a technological wonder. In fact, it looks a little like an homage to season 2 of The Wire: a series of shipping containers staggered on top of one another, powered by solar and wind energy.
As I listened to Simeto I became very aware of two things. The first was that I was absolutely the wrong person for him to be talking to. I don’t have a line to big money, and I wouldn’t have the remotest clue as to the technological or financial feasibility of his car project.
The second thing, though, was just a sense of amazement at the level of detail of Simeto’s inventions. If half the battle is perfecting the dream, he’s won half the battle. Over the years, his mind has raced over every inch of his wonder car, inside and out, to the point where the fantasy itself is a thing of beauty. Everyone who meets him and hears his pitch just wants to see the car in real life, just once.
Simeto has no illusions. He knows how high a mountain he’d have to climb to get a project as involved and expensive as an automobile built. He recognizes what a longshot it is to ever fulfill his dream of being the first inner-city entrepreneur to go beyond music and fashion and into heavy industry.
But that doesn’t mean all his goals are pie in the sky. He’s got that Porsche in his backyard and is ready to start tearing it apart. Even if he never gets to be an auto magnate with a string of factories, he still has a great shot of one day owning the world’s coolest car.
He tells me he’d almost be happy if he could just get that one prototype built – if he could just see it once, on the road.
“I have to get a prototype built to be taken seriously,” he says. “I want to create something that will last long after I’m gone.”