The Corner (Part II)

December 27, 2009

If you read around, you’ll find dozens of David Simon interviews online. Vice just published a new one this week, and he’ll surely line more up as his new show prepares to launch in 2010. In that interview, he remarked that after writing this book, he wrote an editorial for the Sun about an addict who wakes up every day and has to harvest metal to pick up his $10 so that he can chase a blast. The Sun didn’t want to run it, instead pushing that “Dickensian” theme that Simon lambastes in Season 5 of The Wire. He identifies that as one of the moments when he knew he had to leave print journalism. Let’s be thankful that he did and admire what Simon has done to present inner-city issues for public view.

Inner city Baltimore is its own economy and Simon makes that clear. He emphasizes it more in the book than the miniseries, but it’s evident in two instances. Consider DeAndre’s pursuit of a job scrubbing tables at Wendy’s. For a manchild that can earn more money slinging heroin and coke to support his child, he sees no self-growth or actualization in such a path. Is it any wonder why DeAndre slings spider bags when he has no education, needs more money every day, and can’t find a real job because (by the way) nobody manufactures anything anymore? There’s no need for unskilled or even semiskilled labor in this country, what’s the boy to do?

And then Fran’s struggle to cope with sobriety and readjust to an unknown life. She’s gotten high every day for 4+ years. Her body and mind have been controlled by drugs. Drop it all for some algebra classes and a job two hours away stocking makeup kits? What we consider normal human life, they think alien. Gary says it once (and Bubbles says it in The Wire): “I don’t know how ya’ll can do what ya’ll do every day and not want to get high.”

Simon drives home this point that dope fiends define themselves as dope fiends. The waking up broke, scraping or running capers for money, copping, firing blasts – this becomes their identity. They resent fiends that have cleaned up and gotten sober. Witness Bunchie always offering Fran dope, Fran insisting that Scoogie is getting high even when he claims he’s been six years clean. You’ve probably seen this self-identity to a lesser extent with people who smoke a lot of weed. They talk about weed, they reminisce about bong rips and quality strains, they surround themselves with other potheads. Weed is a big part of their lives. Or you see it with people who drink a lot, how they brag about how many 30-racks they can knock down in a weekend or how much vodka they slurped off the ice luge at that party on Saturday. Now write this ten times larger and make the drugs leagues more destructive.

Not even the miniseries supporting the book does enough to put readers or viewers in Gary McCullough’s place. Every day, the man wakes up and scampers through West Baltimore like a rat, picking apart houses for scraps of metal, surviving off the bowels of a city that is becoming ever more barren because everyone is turning away from it. Without sounding heavy-handed, can you believe this happens in America? Can you believe that right down the street the Orioles offer $160 million to Mark Teixeira but Gary McCullough has to pick apart row houses or strip apart renovated construction just to survive? There are limited detox beds because there’s limited city money put toward drug treatment (but millions put toward New Westport). Simon keeps calling Baltimore “the world that America left behind” and it’s purple but it’s true.

I would lose interest in Ella Thompson’s sections of the book, but found her portrayal in the series much more engaging. I’m guilty of saying, “why doesn’t she just move out of Baltimore?” but she can’t. And Simon can’t either, because that would concede everything to dope and remove even the smallest crumbs of humanity from Baltimore’s table.

I could have done without the theatrical device of Charles S. Dutton questioning characters at the beginning and end of each episode. However, his interview with the real Fran, Blue, Tyreeka and DeAndre at the end of the miniseries was unexpected but helped close the circle. DeAndre had that glassy look in his eyes, and Fran equivocates about his chances for survival. As Simon did with this book when it was complete, and as Fletch does with his biography on Bubbles at the end of The Wire, prescreening it with the subjects it shows compassion and commitment to truthful reporting. I think Simon wavers before calling the sum of his products “journalism.” His media agnosticism has done more for inner-city issues than anything else produced in this country over the last ten years.

I think you can include The Corner in a larger discussion with with The Wire and Homicide and evaluate Simon’s message. Obviously The Wire is Jupiter in his pantheon, and its large theme is how individuals operate within institutions. The Corner is a granular depiction of one of those system actors, and it’s the most harrowing portrayal he delivers.

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