Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Wire is Tapped

A few weeks ago, I was taking the Acela back from New York and the train was slowing into Baltimore. The row homes on the east side of town were boarded up and burned out. The woman in the seat in front of me said to her traveling companion, "This looks like Africa." The row homes resembled the "vacants" referred to in Season 4 of The Wire where Snoop and Chris hid their dead victims. As a native Baltimorean and a human being, I was offended by the comment but I also understood her ignorance. She'd never spent time on Federal Hill with the whole city laid bare before her as I have. Riding along the same tracks years ago, Randy Newman referred to the blight in a song about the city when he sang, "hard times in a city/in a hard town by the sea." Baltimore has not been tarted up like Bloomberg's New York theme park. It is a real place and these gritty edges helped shaped one of the greatest shows in the history of television.

Writers like George Pelecanos, David Simon, Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and Rafael Alvarez penned amazing scripts and created characters like Stringer Bell, Omar Little, Felicia Snoop Pearson, Brother Mouzone, Jimmy McNulty, Bill Rawls and Bunk Moreland.
Stringer broke new ground as a drug dealer whose harbor-view crib featured samurai swords and The Art of War. His betrayal of Avon Barksdale and their final exchange on the balcony of Bell's condo overlooking the harbor as Barksdale had already returned the favor invoked Shakesperean tragedy.

The gay assassin, Omar Little, may have been one of the most compelling characters ever created for television, harkening back to Cormac McCarthy's, bald six foot-seven Judge who handles most of the killing in the masterpiece "Blood Meridian," a story that makes "No Country for Old Men" seem like child's play. Omar's murder of Stringer Bell was one of the show's finest moments.

The muscle for Marlo's crew, Felicia Snoop Pearson played herself. The show had manufactured a crown jewel. That's the sign of a good show. She walked off the street into a starring role, a found actor. Her purchase of the nail gun at Home Depot in Season 4 was also a memorable moment. Her acting was so amazing the players around her seemed in awe. "How's my hair look?" Those were her last words.

The one character most closely linked to the city itself was Bubbles, a heroin addict, who should have died of an overdose by season three. In the final season, we find Bubbles attending Narcotics Anonymous meetings, changing his life. Living with his sister in the basement, he is finally able to join the family at the dinner table. We have the same aspirations for the city of Baltimore—that it will one day change course and address its problems.

The good guys were great too. McNulty's crazed and wild-eyed full-blown alcoholism to begin the final season produced startling results as he altered homeless deaths to look like murders. Bunk Moreland's creation was similar to Homicide's Stanley Bolander (Ned Beatty) and his lecture to Omar on how he ruined the Edmundson Village neighborhood he had grown up in brought a tear to my eye--my father grew up there. Bunny Colvin, Bill Rawls, and Cedric Daniels portayed the essence of leadership under fire.

The show pulled off the impossible by making the schools, the street corners, the newspaper, and goings-on in the port must-see tv. It showed you how the corners offer kids a better alternative than the disgraceful inner-city education system. It revealed how corporate mergers have destroyed one of the greatest newspapers in the country. We saw the teamsters and their corrupt activities with imports and exports. We witnessed the endless vicious cycle of the drug game in all its glory--still in operation today.

The show offered solutions. It presented a "drug free zone" called "Hamsterdam" as an alternative to drive crime down. It ended with a policeman manufacturing a serial killer to get more resources. It was riveting from start to finish, a letter to Baltimore exhibiting tough love--the good, the bad, and the ugly--laid bare.
And much of what was shown was grounded in truth.

Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley reportedly didn't like the portrayal of Baltimore in The Wire. Like the fictional Mayor Carcetti, O'Malley originally gave Baltimoreans hope when he took office. The people soon discovered the real truth.

Martin O'Malley has never taken a train into town.
Locations of visitors to this page