you're reading...

Magazine features

David Simon profile

interior-simonThis article first appeared in the Sunday Herald, in August 2008.

If you boarded up a window or two and sold crack on the corner, you could shoot The Wire outside David Simon’s office. But as we walk down the street, past a row of Baltimore’s distinctive terraced houses, he tells me for a second time: “Don’t say where I live.” People have started to leave screenplays on the step. The last time he filmed on location, someone broke into his home.

Trouble is, anyone with the slightest interest in Simon already knows where he lives, because until recently it was the only thing he ever wrote about. He has filled two books and three television series with Baltimore, Maryland, creating such a nuanced, complete world that describing his work has become an exercise in literary one-upmanship. Dickens is the most common reference point, Tolstoy the next. Simon himself cites Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths Of Glory as inspiration for his “post-industrial tragedy”.

On the way over, I asked the taxi driver whether he was a fan of The Wire. More than that, he told me, he was an extra in series three, in a gang of Hispanic labourers. So is the city really that bad, I wondered? Because as we drove past municipal buildings with manicured lawns, the grand old Pennsylvania Railroad terminal behind us, it didn’t much resemble the blighted urban community I had been spending my evenings in, gripped by the drama unfolding on screen.

The cabbie nodded his head. “Oh yeah, black people in this city are nasty. I’m not prejudiced, you know, but they kill each other every day.” Welcome to Bodymore, Murdaland.

That graffiti, seen in the title sequence of the show, is not unjustified. Around 600,000 people live in Baltimore, roughly the same number as Glasgow. Last year, there were seventy-three murders in the area served by Strathclyde Police. In Baltimore, two hundred and eighty-two men, women and children were shot, stabbed, strangled or beaten to death, most of them as a consequence of the drug trade in African-American neighbourhoods.

In 2005, image consultants hired by the council reported that Baltimore was “plagued by negative press” and went on to blame Simon, claiming his television shows had contributed to the image of “a hopeless, depressed, unemployed, crack-addicted city.”

After a couple of hours in his company it’s clear he loves the place. He takes me for a drive around “wholly viable” areas that have caught the information industry wave, stopping at a coffee shop where the waitress knows his name, then a car park near the Baltimore Sun building where he started out as a reporter on the police beat, then the grain pier that became luxury apartments, just as the Wire predicted it would.

Finally, he takes me to “the one thing that anybody who’s from the UK should see in Baltimore.” In September 1814, Fort McHenry was shelled heavily by the British navy. Watching from a frigate in the Patapsco River, Francis Scott Key wrote that “the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The failed siege proved to be a turning point in the war and Key’s poem was later adopted as America’s national anthem.

Simon’s city could never be called the land of the free. Junkies are slaves to their habit, scrabbling to put two bills together for the next blast, teenagers sell dope because it’s all they know, there are fewer jobs at the docks each year and manufacturing industry is long gone.

“The show wasn’t claiming to represent all of Baltimore,” he says. “There are eight hundred and ninety-seven television shows about the viable, affluent America. There was one about the America that was left behind. Are they saying that it was one too many?” Simon is most animated when berating his critics. He’s genuinely convinced they’re missing the point, but he also enjoys a brawl.

“The truth is, unencumbered capitalism will eventually triumph over labour, so human beings are worth less and less,” he says. “I believe that the effects of capitalism have to be mitigated by a social compact that allows for a moderate amount of wealth distribution amongst the classes. But the idea of incorporating the whole of society in your economic model is, to some ears, outrageous. What can you do?”

I return the rhetorical question in earnest: What can you do? “Nothing. Write a television show about it, have your say and that’s about it.”

“The truth is” is a revealing verbal tic of Simon’s, rooted in his belief that if you hang out long enough in the same place every day, other people’s private truths will fly straight into your spiral-bound notebook, and that these fragments of conversation will eventually form something larger – no longer a truth but the truth, yours to keep.

In 1988 he took a sabbatical from the Sun to follow three squads of murder detectives led by Lieutenant Gary D’Addario. The cops were dismissive of the long-haired young writer taking notes at crime scenes and listening to interrogations with his ear pressed to the door, but he waited them out, staying up with the night shift, learning the terminology, slowly earning their respect and running up a huge bar bill on his credit card.

Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets is written in the vernacular of Baltimore’s police, faithful to their language and their customs, but it reaches moral conclusions that the detectives steadfastly avoid. Terry McLarney, Jay Landsman, Donald Worden and their colleagues are “men for whom studied indifference to human weakness and misery is a necessary survival skill.”

Simon does not have those antibodies, so while he is able to write dispassionately about horrendous crimes, recording every sick joke at the expense of a victim or a bereaved family, he is not immune to the sickness itself. He is forever reminding readers that he is documenting a human tragedy. That year, two hundred and thirty-four people became a red name on a white board, re-written in black if detectives worked out who killed them.

As Simon tells it, America’s inner cities – not just West Baltimore but East St Louis, North Philadelphia, South Chicago and all the rest – have been given up for lost. Rather than make any meaningful attempt to save them, the government has chosen to wage a “permanent war of attrition against the underclass.” In the USA, if you’re black, male and didn’t finish high school there’s a 60% chance you’ll go to jail.

For his second book, Simon spent a year in the ghetto, returning to the corner of Monroe and Fayette every day with his writing partner Ed Burns, to get to know a community consumed by heroin and crack cocaine. Through the seasons, they watched the touts, slingers and dope fiends, absorbing the rhythms and imperatives of “the only employer in parts of America where the rest of the economy has left.”

When they took a dealer to hospital to have his tooth pulled, it earned them street credibility. When they knew who had committed a murder, they didn’t tell police, even though Burns is a former homicide detective, because to have done so would have violated a promise not to intervene. “You go back every day, you don’t lie. If you’re consistent, eventually people get tired of arguing with you,” Simon says. They were robbed only once, by a gang from across town.

The Corner is a heart-rending study in persistence and despair, centred around a single broken family: Gary McCullough, a successful businessman who lost everything to drugs, his ex-wife Fran Boyd, big sister of an entire clan of addicts living in the same house, and their fifteen-year-old son, DeAndre, skipping school to sling crack because it’s the only game there is in West Baltimore.

Watching The Wire intensively, reading Simon’s non-fiction between episodes, I’m reminded time and again that his characters seem real because they are. His two years on either side of the war on drugs have provided him with so many stories that he only needs to stitch them together, change the names and attach them to narrative arcs. “Stealing life,” he calls it.

As an authenticity junkie, he’s proud that The Wire was popular with Baltimore’s poorest communities. “When we would film in West Baltimore and East Baltimore there was an allegiance in those neighbourhoods to the show,” he says. “It was as if, for the first time, a television show was acknowledging that stories from their world were identifiable as first-rate drama.

“Having them say ‘it doesn’t feel anything like my world’ would have been appalling, but having them say ‘it’s exactly everything I’ve been through’ wasn’t the point either. There are always elements that are heightened in drama.”

Taken after a chapter of Simon’s journalism, the contrivances demanded by television are glaring. Resolutions are neater, speeches more likely to advance the plot. The dialogue, written in the esoteric Baltimore slang of re-ups, burners, knockers and hoppers, sounds juiced and unnaturally poetic. Plus, to state the obvious, the lighting isn’t as dramatic on the real corner of McHenry and Gilmor.

The other key difference is that Simon’s message has been packaged out like a consignment of heroin. Because he can’t pause the action to drop in statistics or history lessons, the script has to do the work. Sometimes, for all the perfectly pitched Baltimore dialect, the most clearly audible voice is Simon’s own, lamenting the abject failure of America’s institutions to protect and serve its neediest people.

“The Wire is dissent,” he says. “We’re either going to find a way to live together and share the wealth and benefits or we’re not, but it matters. There were people who watched this dystopic vision of Baltimore and didn’t get that, they thought ‘why should I give a shit about this fucked-up place?’ That’s an ignorant, simplistic reading of the material.”

Simon is on the defensive again, as always favouring attack as the best form of defence. It’s hard to disagree with him. The Wire is great television not because it gets police procedure right, unlike every other cop show, but because it makes us care about a huge, sprawling cast of characters we are accustomed to seeing as one-dimensional victims and criminals.

Omar Little, to pick an obvious example, is a gay stick-up man who robs drug dealers with his boyfriend. He follows a rigid moral code, never swears and rarely loses his temper. He occasionally helps police, but most of the time he is at war with the Barksdale and Stanfield gangs, knowing that his chances of survival are slim.

When Barack Obama mentioned that The Wire was his favourite television programme, he singled out Omar as a prime reason why. “He’s not my favourite person,” Obama was careful to note, “but he’s a fascinating character.” Simon is amused that so slick a politician would admit to liking a homosexual killer. “He said that Omar was his favourite character,” he chuckles. “Good Lord. Doesn’t he have people to warn him against that?”

For a while, The Wire appeared to be critic-proof. Fewer people watched than its broadcaster HBO would have hoped, but as long as magazines were lining up to declare it the best show on television, it could survive with a third as many viewers as The Sopranos. By series five, when it took aim at the newspaper industry, the backlash was primed.

Simon had already chronicled the slow death of Baltimore’s docks in series two, the corruption of its politicians in series three and the failure of its schools in series four. But when he unsubtly poked his stick into a beehive by portraying the Baltimore Sun as an understaffed, incompetent organisation which missed every major story in the city, it enraged a lot of bees.

Mark Bowden, at Atlantic Monthly, wrote a piece entitled The Angriest Man In Television, accusing Simon of waging a personal vendetta against John Carroll and William Marimow, the Sun editors who oversaw cuts in the 1990s, but also more seriously of ignoring ordinary, decent people getting by in the inner city.

Simon is eager to engage, pointing out that Bowden worked with Carroll and Marimow and was merely speaking up for his friends. “I don’t mind being called the angriest man in television,” he says. “It’s actually worth points on the deal if you walk into a room with people from Hollywood and they think you’re angry.

“But when journalism expresses its legitimate rage at an injustice or an unfairness in the world on people’s front pages no-one makes the accusation that by bringing us all this bad news, you’re engendering a sense of hopelessness. If you wouldn’t ask it about journalism why would you ask it about drama?”

His latest series, currently showing on HBO, is an adaptation of Rolling Stone reporter Evan Wright’s book Generation Kill, which followed the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the U.S. Marines during their invasion of Iraq in 2003. This time it was Wright loitering at the edge of conversations, scribbling down impenetrable jargon and in-jokes. Simon calls it “the best war reporting since Michael Herr’s dispatches from Vietnam.”

Generation Kill is another story about a small group of men with an “us against them” mentality, told in the vernacular, without compromise, in which the us gets ever smaller and the them gets larger. Marines, just like Baltimore cops, know that shit rolls downhill, or as Simon puts it, again with a nod to Paths Of Glory, “the perspective is middle-management, the bosses are self-righteous assholes and good help is hard to find.”

He describes it as “an act of contrition for having whole days and weeks when I look away from what’s happening in Iraq and Afghanistan.” Although he believes the invasion was “an incredible foreign policy blunder” he has enormous sympathy for the volunteer soldiers themselves. As ever, he’s not slow to make a point.

“We were trying to rub people’s noses in it – your country is involved in the most intimate acts of violence,” he says. “Lose forever the idea that war is pristine and careful and only the right people get killed.”

The green and purple plastic beads that hang from the rearview mirror are a clue to his next project. Treme is set in post-Katrina New Orleans and promises to be another tale of a broken, dysfunctional city, this time with musicians as the main focus. Simon has taken holidays there for years, but he’s been slang-fishing with intent since the hurricane. Somewhere in his notebook there is another imagined universe, as rich with detail as Oliver Twist’s London.

“I look at Dickens as someone who had his finger on the pulse of the industrial revolution,” Simon says. “But rather than follow through on the premise of his work he would turn away at the last minute and invent some old rich uncle to save the day and the book would end in a hug. He was right at the edge of saying something.” Simon has no such reluctance to speak his mind, because he knows that in West Baltimore or the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, no-one is coming to the rescue.