Did you start watching True Detective yet?

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“I think human consciousness was a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self-aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself. We are creatures that should not exist by natural law. We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, this accretion of sensory experience and feeling, programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody when, in fact, everybody’s nobody. I think the honorable thing for our species to do is to deny our programming, stop reproducing, walk hand in hand into extinction, one last midnight, brothers and sisters, opting out of a raw deal.”
“What’s the point in getting out of bed in the morning then?”
“I tell myself I bear witness, but the real answer is that it’s obviously my programming, and I lack the constitution for suicide.”
– From Episode 1.
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Behavior of the Sexes : A mashup of Richard Dawkins and David Simon

An introduction is in order. Here is a mashup of two of my favorite authors, Richard Dawkins and David Simon. From two of my favorite books. The Selfish Gene by Dawkins and The Corner by Simon. The Selfish Gene is an iconic book, and Dawkins’ first. It is in one word, thrilling; once you get in on Dawkins’ train of thought, he carries you to fantastic places and with such a beautiful turn of phrase and such simple logic that one can’t help being thrilled. Dawkins is a Darwin fan, and his mission is to explain the lucidity, scientific solidity and aesthetic beauty of evolution. He did just that in a portion I have quoted earlier as Why are People. In the portion quoted here, he is talking about how could “male” and “female” behavior have developed. Also courtship strategies and domestic bliss. Read it for the expansion of mind.

The Corner is a remarkably different book. It is non-fiction, it is gonzo, and the scenario is a real geographical corner in a drug ravaged neighborhood in Baltimore. David Simon spent a year in the neighborhood, without judging, just observing. The result is this emotional minefield of a book that totally spent me. I have excerpted before from the book in The Paper Bag Solution, where I stumble over trying to explain why this is greatness right here. That this book right here could compete with Hell’s Angels for the best gonzo book ever. There are moments during the book where Simon is only observing, and there are others where he steps back and assimilates his thoughts. This excerpt here is one of the latter. He talks about sexual behavior of teenagers in Baltimore and government policy towards teenage mothers. He talks about why courtship rituals are always materialistic here, and why sex is easy. Read it to understand human behavior in trying environments.

This is going to be a fairly long post. If you are only going to read part of it, don’t read it. That is a necessary warning, as Dawkins would be the first to caution you, since context is quite an important element here with both these pieces of writing. It is essential to hold that spool of thought that these authors hand you, and let them logically unravel it till the end. They deserve that respect. 

This is also going to be a fairly indulgent post.

Should we then call the original replicator molecules ‘living’? Who cares? I might say to you ‘Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived’, and you might say ‘No, Newton was’, but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them ‘great’ or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them ‘living’. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like ‘living’ does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers. – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

I have kept the book The Selfish Gene open for the past two and a half months. As in, I have read through it, gone back to chapters, and specific points that I wanted to revisit time and again. For a little clarification. For that exact turn of phrase that Dawkins used. For relating to something else I thought. It is around this same time that I have undergone The Wire fever, absorbing up a couple of shows and two books by David Simon. In almost all the Wire posts I have put up on this blog so far, Dawkins has crept in. This has been a wholly unexpected but glorious One-Two combo. I can’t help thinking of the Dawkins book as theory and Simon’s books and show as simulation, though I am being unjust on both by that shallow example. Dawkins has written about as things are, a scientist’s observations upon naturally occurring phenomena. Simon’s work is no simulation either, it is an honest description of what he sees in Baltimore and his observations as a gonzo journalist.  Both describing reality. The content devoid of the observer describing it sounds unbelievable and yet by describing each as they see it, that content becomes contextual and logical and relatable (repeatable?).

While we are onto random connections in the head, I can’t help mentioning Hemingway’s notion of writing, further expanded radically by Hunter S. Thompson in Gonzo is that if a person writes about a scenario from an honest, personal view underlining his own contextual position, then the scenario being described – no matter how radical becomes understandable and relatable to the reader. The writing becomes independent of the person writing it, even though it is extremely personal writing. The reader’s brain decodes the context automatically if it has been honestly put in by the author, and eventually sees the scenario from the eyes of the observer, devoid of judgements.

Quickly on to the Mashup at hand. The first extract is Chapter 9 : Battle of the Sexes from Richard Dawkins’ first book, The Selfish Gene. The title is sensationalist and should not be paid much mind. In here, Dawkins talks about What it means to be male and female, evolutionary stable strategies of genes in male and female bodies, and discusses courtship rituals and strategies. It is fascinating to read, with the caveat that the spool of thought before this chapter has certified that where it says The genes want.., it doesn’t mean a conscious wanting or derive pleasure from getting, but just an explanation of tendencies in the population towards certain things (I shall write more about it later, not here).

To be mashed up with the above, the second extract is from the Spring section of David Simon’s second book The Corner (co-authored with Ed Burns). He talks about why Baltimore has the country’s highest rate of teenage pregnancies. This is pertinent because these are neighborhoods ravaged and destroyed by drugs and government/people apathy. No jobs, very high percentage of black teenagers either killed, jailed, or involved in the drug trade. In such a despairing future scenario, Baltimore has the country’s highest rate of teenage pregnancies. He explains why this seemingly contradicting sense of events stands true and makes sense. He talks about the conservative stand of trying to cut off welfare checks to such a population and how it would make no difference to this behavior.

In my head, these passages read very well together. And hence this mashup.

Indulge.

On to Richard Dawkins. Extract from The Selfish Gene.

Let us go right back to first principles

If there is conflict of interest between parents and children, who share 50 per cent of each others’ genes, how much more severe must be the conflict between mates, who are not related to each other? All that they have in common is a 50 per cent genetic shareholding in the same children. Since father and mother are both interested in the welfare of different halves of the same children, there may be some advantage for both of them in cooperating with each other in rearing those children. If one parent can get away with investing less than his or her fair share of costly resources in each child, however, he will be better off, since he will have more to spend on other children by other sexual partners, and so propagate more of his genes. Each partner can therefore be thought of as trying to exploit the other, trying to force the other one to invest more. Ideally, what an individual would ‘like’ (I don’t mean physically enjoy, although he might) would be to copulate with as many members of the opposite sex as possible, leaving the partner in each case to bring up the children. As we shall see, this state of affairs is achieved by the males of a number of species, but in other species the males are obliged to share an equal part of the burden of bringing up children. This view of sexual partnership, as a relationship of mutual mistrust and mutual exploitation, has been stressed especially by Trivers. It is a comparatively new one to ethologists. We had usually thought of sexual behaviour, copulation, and the courtship that precedes it, as essentially a cooperative venture undertaken for mutual benefit, or even for the good of the species!

Let us go right back to first principles, and inquire into the fundamental nature of maleness and femaleness. In Chapter 3 we discussed sexuality without stressing its basic asymmetry. We simply accepted that some animals are called male, and others female, without asking what these words really meant But what is the essence of maleness? What, at bottom, defines a female? We as mammals see the sexes defined by whole syndromes of characteristics — possession of a penis, bearing of the young, suckling by means of special milk glands, certain chromosomal features, and so on. These criteria for judging the sex of an individual are all very well for mammals but, for animals and plants generally, they are no more reliable than is the tendency to wear trousers as a criterion for judging human sex. In frogs, for instance, neither sex has a penis. Perhaps, then, the words male and female have no general meaning. They are, after all, only words, and if we do not find them helpful for describing frogs, we are quite at liberty to abandon them. We could arbitrarily divide frogs into Sex 1 and Sex 2 if we wished. However, there is one fundamental feature of the sexes which can be used to label males as males, and females as females, throughout animals and plants. This is that the sex cells or ‘gametes’ of males are much smaller and more numerous than the gametes of females. This is true whether we are dealing with animals or plants. One group of individuals has large sex cells, and it is convenient to use the word female for them. The other group, which it is convenient to call male, has small sex cells. The difference is especially pronounced in reptiles and in birds, where a single egg cell is big enough and nutritious enough to feed a developing baby for several weeks. Even in humans, where the egg is microscopic, it is still many times larger than the sperm. As we shall see, it is possible to interpret all the other differences between the sexes as stemming from this one basic difference.

In certain primitive organisms, for instance some fungi, maleness and femaleness do not occur, although sexual reproduction of a kind does. In the system known as isogamy the individuals are not distinguishable into two sexes. Anybody can mate with anybody else. There are not two different sorts of gametes — sperms and eggs — but all sex cells are the same, called isogametes. New individuals are formed by the fusion of two isogametes, each produced by meiotic division. If we have three isogametes, A, B, and C, A could fuse with B or C, B could fuse with A or C. The same is never true of normal sexual systems. If A is a sperm and it can fuse with B or C, then B and C must be eggs and B cannot fuse with C.

When two isogametes fuse, both contribute equal numbers of genes to the new individual, and they also contribute equal amounts of food reserves. Sperms and eggs too contribute equal numbers of genes, but eggs contribute far more in the way of food reserves: indeed, sperms make no contribution at all and are simply concerned with transporting their genes as fast as possible to an egg. At the moment of conception, therefore, the father has invested less than his fair share (i.e. 50 per cent) of resources in the offspring. Since each sperm is so tiny, a male can afford to make many millions of them every day. This means he is potentially able to beget a very large number of children in a very short period of time, using different females. This is only possible because each new embryo is endowed with adequate food by the mother in each case. This therefore places a limit on the number of children a female can have, but the number of children a male can have is virtually unlimited. Female exploitation begins here.

Parker and others showed how this asymmetry might have evolved from an originally isogamous state of affairs. In the days when all sex cells were interchangeable and of roughly the same size, there would have been some that just happened to be slightly bigger than others. In some respects a big isogamete would have an advantage over an average-sized one, because it would get its embryo off to a good start by giving it a large initial food supply. There might therefore have been an evolutionary trend towards larger gametes. But there was a catch. The evolution of isogametes that were larger than was strictly necessary would have opened the door to selfish exploitation. Individuals who produced smaller than average gametes could cash in, provided they could ensure that their small gametes fused with extra-big ones. This could be achieved by making the small ones more mobile, and able to seek out large ones actively. The advantage to an individual of producing small, rapidly moving gametes would be that he could afford to make a larger number of gametes, and therefore could potentially have more children. Natural selection favoured the production of sex cells that were small and that actively sought out big ones to fuse with. So we can think of two divergent sexual ‘strategies’ evolving. There was the large-investment or ‘honest’ strategy. This automatically opened the way for a small-investment exploitative strategy. Once the divergence between the two strategies had started, it would have continued in runaway fashion. Medium-sized intermediates would have been penalized, because they did not enjoy the advantages of either of the two more extreme strategies. The exploiters would have evolved smaller and smaller size, and faster mobility. The honest ones would have evolved larger and larger size, to compensate for the ever-smaller investment contributed by the exploiters, and they became immobile because they would always be actively chased by the exploiters anyway. Each honest one would ‘prefer’ to fuse with another honest one. But the selection pressure to lock out exploiters would have been weaker than the pressure on exploiters to duck under the barrier: the exploiters had more to lose, and they therefore won the evolutionary battle. The honest ones became eggs, and the exploiters became sperms.

Males, then, seem to be pretty worthless fellows, and on simple ‘good of the species’ grounds, we might expect that males would become less numerous than females. Since one male can theoretically produce enough sperms to service a harem of 100 females we might suppose that females should outnumber males in animal populations by 100 to 1. Other ways of putting this are that the male is more ‘expendable’, and the female more ‘valuable’ to the species. Of course, looked at from the point of view of the species as a whole, this is perfectly true. To take an extreme example, in one study of elephant seals, 4 per cent of the males accounted for 88 per cent of all the copulations observed. In this case, and in many others, there is a large surplus of bachelor males who probably never get a chance to copulate in their whole lives. But these extra males live otherwise normal lives, and they eat up the population’s food resources no less hungrily than other adults. From a ‘good of the species’ point of view this is horribly wasteful; the extra males might be regarded as social parasites. This is just one more example of the difficulties that the group selection theory gets into. The selfish gene theory, on the other hand, has no trouble in explaining the fact that the numbers of males and females tend to be equal, even when the males who actually reproduce may be a small fraction of the total number. The explanation was first offered by R. A. Fisher.

The problem of how many males and how many females are born is a special case of a problem in parental strategy. Just as we discussed the optimal family size for an individual parent trying to maximize her gene survival, we can also discuss the optimal sex ratio. Is it better to entrust your precious genes to sons or to daughters? Suppose a mother invested all her resources in sons, and therefore had none left to invest in daughters: would she on average contribute more to the gene pool of the future than a rival mother who invested in daughters? Do genes for preferring sons become more or less numerous than genes for preferring daughters? What Fisher showed is that under normal circumstances the stable sex ratio is 50:50. In order to see why, we must first know a little bit about the mechanics of sex determination.

In mammals, sex is determined genetically as follows. All eggs are capable of developing into either a male or a female. It is the sperms that carry the sex-determining chromosomes. Half the sperms produced by a man are female-producing, or X-sperms, and half are male-producing, or Y-sperms. The two sorts of sperms look alike. They differ with respect to one chromosome only. A gene for making a father have nothing but daughters could achieve its object by making him manufacture nothing but X-sperms. A gene for making a mother have nothing but daughters could work by making her secrete a selective spermicide, or by making her abort male embryos. What we seek is something equivalent to an evolutionarily stable strategy (ESS), although here, even more than in the chapter on aggression, strategy is just a figure of speech. An individual cannot literally choose the sex of his children. But genes for tending to have children of one sex or the other are possible. If we suppose that such genes, favouring unequal sex ratios, exist, are any of them likely to become more numerous in the gene pool than their rival alleles, which favour an equal sex ratio?

Suppose that in the elephant seals mentioned above, a mutant gene arose that tended to make parents have mostly daughters. Since there is no shortage of males in the population, the daughters would have no trouble finding mates, and the daughter-manufacturing gene could spread. The sex ratio in the population might then start to shift towards a surplus of females. From the point of view of the good of the species, this would be all right, because just a few males are quite capable of providing all the sperms needed for even a huge surplus of females, as we have seen. Superficially, therefore, we might expect the daughter-producing gene to go on spreading until the sex ratio was so unbalanced that the few remaining males, working flat out, could just manage. But now, think what an enormous genetic advantage is enjoyed by those few parents who have sons. Anyone who invests in a son has a very good chance of being the grandparent of hundreds of seals. Those who are producing nothing but daughters are assured of a safe few grandchildren, but this is nothing compared to the glorious genetic possibilities that open up before anyone specializing in sons. Therefore genes for producing sons will tend to become more numerous, and the pendulum will swing back.

For simplicity I have talked in terms of a pendulum swing. In practice the pendulum would never have been allowed to swing that far in the direction of female domination, because the pressure to have sons would have started to push it back as soon as the sex ratio became unequal. The strategy of producing equal numbers of sons and daughters is an evolutionarily stable strategy, in the sense that any gene for departing from it makes a net loss.

I have told the story in terms of numbers of sons versus numbers of daughters. This is to make it simple, but strictly it should be worked out in terms of parental investment, meaning all the food and other resources that a parent has to offer, measured in the way discussed in the previous chapter. Parents should invest equally in sons and daughters. This usually means they should have numerically as many sons as they have daughters. But there could be unequal sex ratios that were evolutionarily stable, provided correspondingly unequal amounts of resources were invested in sons and daughters. In the case of the elephant seals, a policy of having three times as many daughters as sons, but of making each son a supermale by investing three times as much food and other resources in him, could be stable. By investing more food in a son and making him big and strong, a parent might increase his chances of winning the supreme prize of a harem. But this is a special case. Normally the amount invested in each son will roughly equal the amount invested in each daughter, and the sex ratio, in terms of numbers, is usually one to one.

In its long journey down the generations therefore, an average gene will spend approximately half its time sitting in male bodies, and the other half sitting in female bodies. Some gene effects show themselves only in bodies of one sex. These are called sex-limited gene effects. A gene controlling penis-length expresses this effect only in male bodies, but it is carried about in female bodies too and may have some quite different effect on female bodies. There is no reason why a man should not inherit a tendency to develop a long penis from his mother.

In whichever of the two sorts of body it finds itself, we can expect a gene to make the best use of the opportunities offered by that sort of body. These opportunities may well differ according to whether the body is male or female. As a convenient approximation, we can once again assume that each individual body is a selfish machine, trying to do the best for all its genes. The best policy for such a selfish machine will often be one thing if it is male, and quite a different thing if it is female. For brevity, we shall again use the convention of thinking of the individual as though it had a conscious purpose. As before, we shall hold in the back of our mind that this is just a figure of speech. A body is really a machine blindly programmed by its selfish genes.

Consider again the mated pair with which we began the chapter. Both partners, as selfish machines, ‘want’ sons and daughters in equal numbers. To this extent they agree. Where they disagree is in who is going to bear the brunt of the cost of rearing each one of those children. Each individual wants as many surviving children as possible. The less he or she is obliged to invest in any one of those children, the more children he or she can have. The obvious way to achieve this desirable state of affairs is to induce your sexual partner to invest more than his or her fair share of resources in each child, leaving you free to have other children with other partners. This would be a desirable strategy for either sex, but it is more difficult for the female to achieve. Since she starts by investing more than the male, in the form of her large, food-rich egg, a mother is already at the moment of conception ‘committed’ to each child more deeply than the father is. She stands to lose more if the child dies than the father does. More to the point, she would have to invest more than the father in the future in order to bring a new substitute child up to the same level of development. If she tried the tactic of leaving the father holding the baby, while she went off with another male, the father might, at relatively small cost to himself, retaliate by abandoning the baby too. Therefore, at least in the early stages of child development, if any abandoning is going to be done, it is likely to be the father who abandons the mother rather than the other way around. Similarly, females can be expected to invest more in children than males, not only at the outset, but throughout development. So, in mammals for example, it is the female who incubates the foetus in her own body, the female who makes the milk to suckle it when it is born, the female who bears the brunt of the load of bringing it up and protecting it. The female sex is exploited, and the fundamental evolutionary basis for the exploitation is the fact that eggs are larger than sperms.

Of course in many species the father does work hard and faithfully at looking after the young. But even so, we must expect that there will normally be some evolutionary pressure on males to invest a little bit less in each child, and to try to have more children by different wives. By this I simply mean that there will be a tendency for genes that say ‘Body, if you are male leave your mate a little bit earlier than my rival allele would have you do, and look for another female’, to be successful in the gene pool. The extent to which this evolutionary pressure actually prevails in practice varies greatly from species to species. In many, for example in the birds of paradise, the female receives no help at all from any male, and she rears her children on her own. Other species such as kittiwakes form monogamous pair-bonds of exemplary fidelity, and both partners cooperate in the work of bringing up children. Here we must suppose that some evolutionary counter-pressure has been at work: there must be a penalty attached to the selfish mate-exploitation strategy as well as a benefit, and in kittiwakes the penalty outweighs the benefit. It will in any case only pay a father to desert his wife and child if the wife has a reasonable chance of rearing the child on her own.

Trivers has considered the possible courses of action open to a mother who has been deserted by her mate. Best of all for her would be to try to deceive another male into adopting her child, ‘thinking’ it is his own. This might not be too difficult if it is still a foetus, not yet born. Of course, while the child bears half her genes, it bears no genes at all from the gullible step-father. Natural selection would severely penalize such gullibility in males and indeed would favour males who took active steps to kill any potential step-children as soon as they mated with a new wife. This is very probably the explanation of the so-called Bruce effect: male mice secrete a chemical which when smelt by a pregnant female can cause her to abort. She only aborts if the smell is different from that of her former mate. In this way a male mouse destroys his potential step-children, and renders his new wife receptive to his own sexual advances. Ardrey, incidentally, sees the Bruce effect as a population control mechanism! A similar example is that of male lions, who, when newly arrived in a pride, sometimes murder existing cubs, presumably because these are not their own children.

A male can achieve the same result without necessarily killing step-children. He can enforce a period of prolonged courtship before he copulates with a female, driving away all other males who approach her, and preventing her from escaping. In this way he can wait and see whether she is harbouring any little step-children in her womb, and desert her if so. We shall see below a reason why a female might want a long ‘engagement’ period before copulation. Here we have a reason why a male might want one too. Provided he can isolate her from all contact with other males, it helps to avoid being the unwitting benefactor of another male’s children.

Assuming then that a deserted female cannot fool a new male into adopting her child, what else can she do? Much may depend on how old the child is. If it is only just conceived, it is true that she has invested the whole of one egg in it and perhaps more, but it may still pay her to abort it and find a new mate as quickly as possible. In these circumstances it would be to the mutual advantage both of her and of the potential new husband that she should abort — since we are assuming she has no hope of fooling him into adopting the child. This could explain why the Bruce effect works from the female’s point of view.

Another option open to a deserted female is to stick it out, and try and rear the child on her own. This will especially pay her if the child is already quite old. The older he is the more has already been invested in him, and the less it will take out of her to finish the job of rearing him. Even if he is still quite young, it might yet pay her to try to salvage something from her initial investment, even if she has to work twice as hard to feed the child, now that the male has gone. It is no comfort to her that the child contains half the male’s genes too, and that she could spite him by abandoning it. There is no point in spite for its own sake. The child carries half her genes, and the dilemma is now hers alone.

Paradoxically, a reasonable policy for a female who is in danger of being deserted might be to walk out on the male before he walks out on her. This could pay her, even if she has already invested more in the child than the male has. The unpleasant truth is that in some circumstances an advantage accrues to the partner who deserts first, whether it is the father or the mother. As Trivers puts it, the partner who is left behind is placed in a cruel bind. It is a rather horrible but very subtle argument. A parent may be expected to desert, the moment it is possible for him or her to say the following: ‘This child is now far enough developed that either of us could finish off rearing it on our own. Therefore it would pay me to desert now, provided I could be sure my partner would not desert as well. If I did desert now, my partner would do whatever is best for her/his genes. He/she would be forced into making a more drastic decision than I am making now, because I would have already left. My partner would “know” that if he/she left as well, the child would surely die. Therefore, assuming that my partner will take the decision that is best for his/her own selfish genes, I conclude that my own best course of action is to desert first. This is especially so, since my partner may be “thinking” along exactly the same lines, and may seize the initiative at any minute by deserting me!’ As always, the subjective soliloquy is intended for illustration only. The point is that genes for deserting first could be favourably selected simply because genes for deserting second would not be.

We have looked at some of the things that a female might do if she has been deserted by her mate. But these all have the air of making the best of a bad job. Is there anything a female can do to reduce the extent to which her mate exploits her in the first place? She has a strong card in her hand. She can refuse to copulate. She is in demand, in a seller’s market. This is because she brings the dowry of a large, nutritious egg. A male who successfully copulates gains a valuable food reserve for his offspring. The female is potentially in a position to drive a hard bargain before she copulates. Once she has copulated she has played her ace — her egg has been committed to the male. It is all very well to talk about driving hard bargains, but we know very well it is not really like that. Is there any realistic way in which something equivalent to driving a hard bargain could evolve by natural selection? I shall consider two main possibilities, called the domestic-bliss strategy, and the he-man strategy.

The simplest version of the domestic-bliss strategy is this. The female looks the males over, and tries to spot signs of fidelity and domesticity in advance. There is bound to be variation in the population of males in their predisposition to be faithful husbands. If females could recognize such qualities in advance, they could benefit themselves by choosing males possessing them. One way for a female to do this is to play hard to get for a long time, to be coy. Any male who is not patient enough to wait until the female eventually consents to copulate is not likely to be a good bet as a faithful husband. By insisting on a long engagement period, a female weeds out casual suitors, and only finally copulates with a male who has proved his qualities of fidelity and perseverance in advance. Feminine coyness is in fact very common among animals, and so are prolonged courtship or engagement periods. As we have already seen, a long engagement can also benefit a male where there is a danger of his being duped into caring for another male’s child.

Courtship rituals often include considerable pre-copulation investment by the male. The female may refuse to copulate until the male has built her a nest. Or the male may have to feed her quite substantial amounts of food. This, of course, is very good from the female’s point of view, but it also suggests another possible version of the domestic-bliss strategy. Could females force males to invest so heavily in their offspring before they allow copulation that it would no longer pay the males to desert after copulation? The idea is appealing. A male who waits for a coy female eventually to copulate with him is paying a cost: he is forgoing the chance to copulate with other females, and he is spending a lot of time and energy in courting her. By the time he is finally allowed to copulate with a particular female, he will inevitably be heavily ‘committed’ to her. There will be little temptation for him to desert her, if he knows that any future female he approaches will also procrastinate in the same manner before she will get down to business.

As I showed in a paper, there is a mistake in Trivers’s reasoning here. He thought that prior investment in itself committed an individual to future investment. This is fallacious economics. A business man should never say ‘I have already invested so much in the Concorde airliner (for instance) that I cannot afford to scrap it now.’ He should always ask instead whether it would pay him in the future, to cut his losses, and abandon the project now, even though he has already invested heavily in it. Similarly, it is no use a female forcing a male to invest heavily in her in the hope that this, on its own, will deter the male from subsequently deserting. This version of the domestic-bliss strategy depends upon one further crucial assumption. This is that a majority of the females can be relied upon to play the same game. If there are loose females in the population, prepared to welcome males who have deserted their wives, then it could pay a male to desert his wife, no matter how much he has already invested in her children.

Much therefore depends on how the majority of females behave. If we were allowed to think in terms of a conspiracy of females there would be no problem. But a conspiracy of females can no more evolve than the conspiracy of doves which we considered in Chapter 5. Instead, we must look for evolutionarily stable strategies. Let us take Maynard Smith’s method of analysing aggressive contests, and apply it to sex. It will be a little bit more complicated than the case of the hawks and doves, because we shall have two female strategies and two male strategies.

As in Maynard Smith’s studies, the word ‘strategy’ refers to a blind unconscious behaviour program. Our two female strategies will be called coy and fast, and the two male strategies will be called faithful and philanderer. The behavioural rules of the four types are as follows. Coy females will not copulate with a male until he has gone through a long and expensive courtship period lasting several weeks. Fast females will copulate immediately with anybody. Faithful males are prepared to go on courting for a long time, and after copulation they stay with the female and help her to rear the young. Philanderer males lose patience quickly if a female will not copulate with them straight away: they go off and look for another female; after copulation too they do not stay and act as good fathers, but go off in search of fresh females. As in the case of the hawks and doves, these are not the only possible strategies, but it is illuminating to study their fates nevertheless.

Like Maynard Smith, we shall use some arbitrary hypothetical values for the various costs and benefits. To be more general it can be done with algebraic symbols, but numbers are easier to understand. Suppose that the genetic pay-off gained by each parent when a child is reared successfully is +15 units. The cost of rearing one child, the cost of all its food, all the time spent looking after it, and all the risks taken on its behalf, is –20 units. The cost is expressed as negative, because it is ‘paid out’ by the parents. Also negative is the cost of wasting time in prolonged courtship. Let this cost be –3 units.

Imagine we have a population in which all the females are coy, and all the males are faithful. It is an ideal monogamous society. In each couple, the male and the female both get the same average pay-off. They get +15 for each child reared; they share the cost of rearing it (–20) equally between the two of them, an average of –10 each. They both pay the –3 point penalty for wasting time in prolonged courtship. The average pay-off for each is therefore +15 – 10 – 3 = +2.

Now suppose a single fast female enters the population. She does very well. She does not pay the cost of delay, because she does not indulge in prolonged courtship. Since all the males in the population are faithful, she can reckon on finding a good father for her children whoever she mates with. Her average pay-off per child is {152} +15 – 10 = +5. She is 3 units better off than her coy rivals. Therefore fast genes will start to spread.

If the success of fast females is so great that they come to predominate in the population, things will start to change in the male camp too. So far, faithful males have had a monopoly. But now if a philanderer male arises in the population, he starts to do better than his faithful rivals. In a population where all the females are fast, the pickings for a philanderer male are rich indeed. He gets the +15 points if a child is successfully reared, and he pays neither of the two costs. What this lack of cost mainly means to him is that he is free to go off and mate with new females. Each of his unfortunate wives struggles on alone with the child, paying the entire –20 point cost, although she does not pay anything for wasting time in courting. The net pay-off for a fast female when she encounters a philanderer male is +15 – 20 = –5; the pay-off to the philanderer himself is +15. In a population in which all the females are fast, philanderer genes will spread like wildfire.

If the philanderers increase so successfully that they come to dominate the male part of the population, the fast females will be in dire straits. Any coy female would have a strong advantage. If a coy female encounters a philanderer male, no business results. She insists on prolonged courtship; he refuses and goes off in search of another female. Neither partner pays the cost of wasting time. Neither gains anything either, since no child is produced. This gives a net pay-off of zero for a coy female in a population where all the males are philanderers. Zero may not seem much, but it is better than the –5 which is the average score for a fast female. Even if a fast female decided to leave her young after being deserted by a philanderer, she would still have paid the considerable cost of an egg. So, coy genes start to spread through the population again.

To complete the hypothetical cycle, when coy females increase in numbers so much that they predominate, the philanderer males, who had such an easy time with the fast females, start to feel the pinch. Female after female insists on a long and arduous courtship. The philanderers flit from female to female, and always the story is the same. The net pay-off for a philanderer male when all the females are coy is zero. Now if a single faithful male should turn up, he is the only one with whom the coy females will mate. His net pay-off is +2, better than that of the philanderers. So, faithful genes start to increase, and we come full circle.

As in the case of the aggression analysis, I have told the story as though it was an endless oscillation. But, as in that case, it can be shown that really there would be no oscillation. The system would converge to a stable state. If you do the sums, it turns out that a population in which 5/6 of the females are coy, and 5/8 of the males are faithful, is evolutionarily stable. This is, of course, just for the particular arbitrary numbers that we started out with, but it is easy to work out what the stable ratios would be for any other arbitrary assumptions.

As in Maynard Smith’s analyses, we do not have to think of there being two different sorts of male and two different sorts of female. The ESS could equally well be achieved if each male spends 5/8 of his time being faithful and the rest of his time philandering; and each female spends 5/6 of her time being coy and 1/6 of her time being fast. Whichever way we think of the ESS, what it means is this. Any tendency for members of either sex to deviate from their appropriate stable ratio will be penalized by a consequent change in the ratio of strategies of the other sex, which is, in turn, to the disadvantage of the original deviant. Therefore the ESS will be preserved.

We can conclude that it is certainly possible for a population consisting largely of coy females and faithful males to evolve. In these circumstances the domestic-bliss strategy for females really does seem to work. We do not have to think in terms of a conspiracy of coy females. Coyness can actually pay a female’s selfish genes.

There are various ways in which females can put this type of strategy into practice. I have already suggested that a female might refuse to copulate with a male who has not already built her a nest, or at least helped her to build a nest. It is indeed the case that in many monogamous birds copulation does not take place until after the nest is built. The effect of this is that at the moment of conception the male has invested a good deal more in the child than just his cheap sperms.

Demanding that a prospective mate should build a nest is one effective way for a female to trap him. It might be thought that almost anything that costs the male a great deal would do in theory, even if that cost is not directly paid in the form of benefit to the unborn children. If all females of a population forced males to do some difficult and costly deed, like slaying a dragon or climbing a mountain, before they would consent to copulate with them, they could in theory be reducing the temptation for the males to desert {154} after copulation. Any male tempted to desert his mate and try to spread more of his genes by another female, would be put off by the thought that he would have to kill another dragon. In practice, however, it is unlikely that females would impose such arbitrary tasks as dragon-killing, or Holy-Grail-seeking on their suitors. The reason is that a rival female who imposed a task no less arduous, but more useful to her and her children, would have an advantage over more romantically minded females who demanded a pointless labour of love. Building a nest may be less romantic than slaying a dragon or swimming the Hellespont, but it is much more useful.

Also useful to the female is the practice I have already mentioned of courtship feeding by the male. In birds this has usually been regarded as a kind of regression to juvenile behaviour on the part of the female. She begs from the male, using the same gestures as a young bird would use. It has been supposed that this is automatically attractive to the male, in the same way as a man finds a lisp or pouting lips attractive in an adult woman. The female bird at this time needs all the extra food she can get, for she is building up her reserves for the effort of manufacturing her enormous eggs. Courtship feeding by the male probably represents direct investment by him in the eggs themselves. It therefore has the effect of reducing the disparity between the two parents in their initial investment in the young.

Several insects and spiders also demonstrate the phenomenon of courtship feeding. Here an alternative interpretation has sometimes been only too obvious. Since, as in the case of the praying mantis, the male may be in danger of being eaten by the larger female, anything that he can do to reduce her appetite may be to his advantage. There is a macabre sense in which the unfortunate male mantis can be said to invest in his children. He is used as food to help make the eggs which will then be fertilized, posthumously, by his own stored sperms.

A female, playing the domestic-bliss strategy, who simply looks the males over and tries to recognize qualities of fidelity in advance, lays herself open to deception. Any male who can pass himself off as a good loyal domestic type, but who in reality is concealing a strong tendency towards desertion and unfaithfulness, could have a great advantage. As long as his deserted former wives have any chance of bringing up some of the children, the philanderer stands to pass on more genes than a rival male who is an honest husband and father. Genes for effective deception by males will tend to be favoured in the gene pool.

Conversely, natural selection will tend to favour females who become good at seeing through such deception. One way they can do this is to play especially hard to get when they are courted by a new male, but in successive breeding seasons to be increasingly ready to accept quickly the advances of last year’s mate. This will automatically penalize young males embarking on their first breeding season, whether they are deceivers or not. The brood of naive first year females would tend to contain a relatively high proportion of genes from unfaithful fathers, but faithful fathers have the advantage in the second and subsequent years of a mother’s life, for they do not have to go through the same prolonged energy-wasting and time-consuming courtship rituals. If the majority of individuals in a population are the children of experienced rather than naive mothers — a reasonable assumption in any long-lived species — genes for honest, good fatherhood will come to prevail in the gene pool.

For simplicity, I have talked as though a male were either purely honest or thoroughly deceitful. In reality it is more probable that all males, indeed all individuals, are a little bit deceitful, in that they are programmed to take advantage of opportunities to exploit their mates. Natural selection, by sharpening up the ability of each partner to detect dishonesty in the other, has kept large-scale deceit down to a fairly low level. Males have more to gain from dishonesty than females, and we must expect that, even in those species where males show considerable parental altruism, they will usually tend to do a bit less work than the females, and to be a bit more ready to abscond. In birds and mammals this is certainly normally the case.

There are species, however, in which the male actually does more work in caring for the children than the female does. Among birds and mammals these cases of paternal devotion are exceptionally rare, but they are common among fish. Why?(5) This is a challenge for the selfish gene theory which has puzzled me for a long time. An ingenious solution was recently suggested to me in a tutorial by Miss T. R. Carlisle. She makes use of Trivers’s ‘cruel bind’ idea, referred to above, as follows.

Many fish do not copulate, but instead simply spew out their sex cells into the water. Fertilization takes place in the open water, not inside the body of one of the partners. This is probably how sexual reproduction first began. Land animals like birds, mammals and reptiles, on the other hand, cannot afford this kind of external fertilization, because their sex cells are too vulnerable to drying-up. The gametes of one sex — the male, since sperms are mobile — are introduced into the wet interior of a member of the other sex — the female. So much is just fact. Now comes the idea. After copulation, the land-dwelling female is left in physical possession of the embryo. It is inside her body. Even if she lays the fertilized egg almost immediately, the male still has time to vanish, thereby forcing the female into Trivers’s ‘cruel bind’. The male is inevitably provided with an opportunity to take the prior decision to desert, closing the female’s options, and forcing her to decide whether to leave the young to certain death, or whether to stay with it and rear it. Therefore, maternal care is more common among land animals than paternal care.

But for fish and other water-dwelling animals things are very different. If the male does not physically introduce his sperms into the female’s body there is no necessary sense in which the female is left ‘holding the baby’. Either partner might make a quick getaway and leave the other one in possession of the newly fertilized eggs. But there is even a possible reason why it might often be the male who is most vulnerable to being deserted. It seems probable that an evolutionary battle will develop over who sheds their sex cells first. The partner who does so has the advantage that he or she can then leave the other one in possession of the new embryos. On the other hand, the partner who spawns first runs the risk that his prospective partner may subsequently fail to follow suit. Now the male is more vulnerable here, if only because sperms are lighter and more likely to diffuse than eggs. If a female spawns too early, i.e. before the male is ready, it will not greatly matter because the eggs, being relatively large and heavy, are likely to stay together as a coherent clutch for some time. Therefore a female fish can afford to take the ‘risk’ of spawning early. The male dare not take this risk, since if he spawns too early his sperms will have diffused away before the female is ready, and she will then not spawn herself, because it will not be worth her while to do so. Because of the diffusion problem, the male must wait until the female spawns, and then he must shed his sperms over the eggs. But she has had a precious few seconds in which to disappear, leaving the male in possession, and forcing him on to the horns of Trivers’s dilemma. So this theory neatly explains why paternal care is common in water but rare on dry land.

Leaving fish, I now turn to the other main female strategy, the he-man strategy. In species where this policy is adopted the females, in effect, resign themselves to getting no help from the father of their children, and go all-out for good genes instead. Once again they use their weapon of withholding copulation. They refuse to mate with just any male, but exercise the utmost care and discrimination before they will allow a male to copulate with them. Some males undoubtedly do contain a larger number of good genes than other males, genes that would benefit the survival prospects of both sons and daughters. If a female can somehow detect good genes in males, using externally visible clues, she can benefit her own genes by allying them with good paternal genes. To use our analogy of the rowing crews, a female can minimize the chance that her genes will be dragged down through getting into bad company. She can try to hand-pick good crew-mates for her own genes.

The chances are that most of the females will agree with each other on which are the best males, since they all have the same information to go on. Therefore these few lucky males will do most of the copulating. This they are quite capable of doing, since all they must give to each female is some cheap sperms. This is presumably what has happened in elephant seals and in birds of paradise. The females are allowing just a few males to get away with the ideal selfish-exploitation strategy which all males aspire to, but they are making sure that only the best males are allowed this luxury.

From the point of view of a female trying to pick good genes with which to ally her own, what is she looking for? One thing she wants is evidence of ability to survive. Obviously any potential mate who is courting her has proved his ability to survive at least into adulthood, but he has not necessarily proved that he can survive much longer. Quite a good policy for a female might be to go for old men. Whatever their shortcomings, they have at least proved they can survive, and she is likely to be allying her genes with genes for longevity. However, there is no point in ensuring that her children live long lives if they do not also give her lots of grandchildren. Longevity is not prima facie evidence of virility. Indeed a long-lived male may have survived precisely because he does not take risks in order to reproduce. A female who selects an old male is not necessarily going to have more descendants than a rival female who chooses a young one who shows some other evidence of good genes.

What other evidence? There are many possibilities. Perhaps strong muscles as evidence of ability to catch food, perhaps long legs {158} as evidence of ability to run away from predators. A female might benefit her genes by allying them with such traits, since they might be useful qualities in both her sons and her daughters. To begin with, then, we have to imagine females choosing males on the basis of perfectly genuine labels or indicators which tend to be evidence of good underlying genes. But now here is a very interesting point realized by Darwin, and clearly enunciated by Fisher. In a society where males compete with each other to be chosen as he-men by females, one of the best things a mother can do for her genes is to make a son who will turn out in his turn to be an attractive he-man. If she can ensure that her son is one of the fortunate few males who wins most of the copulations in the society when he grows up, she will have an enormous number of grandchildren. The result of this is that one of the most desirable qualities a male can have in the eyes of a female is, quite simply, sexual attractiveness itself. A female who mates with a super-attractive he-man is more likely to have sons who are attractive to females of the next generation, and who will make lots of grandchildren for her. Originally, then, females may be thought of as selecting males on the basis of obviously useful qualities like big muscles, but once such qualities became widely accepted as attractive among the females of the species, natural selection would continue to favour them simply because they were attractive. Extravagances such as the tails of male birds of paradise may therefore have evolved by a kind of unstable, runaway process. In the early days, a slightly longer tail than usual may have been selected by females as a desirable quality in males, perhaps because it betokened a fit and healthy constitution. A short tail on a male might have been an indicator of some vitamin deficiency — evidence of poor food-getting ability. Or perhaps short-tailed males were not very good at running away from predators, and so had had their tails bitten off. Notice that we don’t have to assume that the short tail was in itself genetically inherited, only that it served as an indicator of some genetic inferiority. Anyway, for whatever reason, let us suppose that females in the ancestral bird of paradise species preferentially went for males with longer than average tails. Provided there was some genetic contribution to the natural variation in male tail-length, this would in time cause the average tail-length of males in the population to increase. Females followed a simple rule: look all the males over, and go for the one with the longest tail. Any female who departed from this rule was penalized, even if tails had already become so long that they actually encumbered males possessing them. This was because any female who did not produce long-tailed sons had little chance of one of her sons being regarded as attractive. Like a fashion in women’s clothes, or in American car design, the trend toward longer tails took off and gathered its own momentum. It was stopped only when tails became so grotesquely long that their manifest disadvantages started to outweigh the advantage of sexual attractiveness.

This is a hard idea to swallow, and it has attracted its sceptics ever since Darwin first proposed it, under the name of sexual selection. One person who does not believe it is A. Zahavi, whose ‘Fox, fox’ theory we have already met. He puts forward his own maddeningly contrary ‘handicap principle’ as a rival explanation. He points out that the very fact that females are trying to select for good genes among males opens the door to deception by the males. Strong muscles may be a genuinely good quality for a female to select, but then what is to stop males from growing dummy muscles with no more real substance than human padded shoulders? If it costs a male less to grow false muscles than real ones, sexual selection should favour genes for producing false muscles. It will not be long, however, before counter-selection leads to the evolution of females capable of seeing through the deception. Zahavi’s basic premise is that false sexual advertisement will eventually be seen through by females. He therefore concludes that really successful males will be those who do not advertise falsely, those who palpably demonstrate that they are not deceiving. If it is strong muscles we are talking about, then males who merely assume the visual appearance of strong muscles will soon be detected by the females. But a male who demonstrates, by the equivalent of lifting weights or ostentatiously doing press-ups, that he really has strong muscles, will succeed in convincing the females. In other words Zahavi believes that a he-man must not only seem to be a good quality male: he must really be a good quality male, otherwise he will not be accepted as such by sceptical females. Displays will therefore evolve that only a genuine he-man is capable of doing.

So far so good. Now comes the part of Zahavi’s theory that really sticks in the throat. He suggests that the talis of birds of paradise and peacocks, the huge antlers of deer, and the other sexually-selected features which have always seemed paradoxical because they appear to be handicaps to their possessors, evolve precisely because they are {160} handicaps. A male bird with a long and cumbersome tail is showing off to females that he is such a strong he-man that he can survive in spite of his tail. Think of a woman watching two men run a race. If both arrive at the finishing post at the same time, but one has deliberately encumbered himself with a sack of coal on his back, the women will naturally draw the conclusion that the man with the burden is really the faster runner.

I do not believe this theory, although I am not quite so confident in my scepticism as I was when I first heard it. I pointed out then that the logical conclusion to it should be the evolution of males with only one leg and only one eye. Zahavi, who comes from Israel, instantly retorted: ‘Some of our best generals have only one eye!’ Nevertheless, the problem remains that the handicap theory seems to contain a basic contradiction. If the handicap is a genuine one — and it is of the essence of the theory that it has to be a genuine one — then the handicap itself will penalize the offspring just as surely as it may attract females. It is, in any case, important that the handicap must not be passed on to daughters.

If we rephrase the handicap theory in terms of genes, we have something like this. A gene that makes males develop a handicap, such as a long tail, becomes more numerous in the gene pool because females choose males who have handicaps. Females choose males who have handicaps, because genes that make females so choose also become frequent in the gene pool. This is because females with a taste for handicapped males will automatically tend to be selecting males with good genes in other respects, since those males have survived to adulthood in spite of the handicap. These good ‘other’ genes will benefit the bodies of the children, which therefore survive to propagate the genes for the handicap itself, and also the genes for choosing handicapped males. Provided the genes for the handicap itself exert their effect only in sons, just as the genes for a sexual preference for the handicap affect only daughters, the theory just might be made to work. So long as it is formulated only in words, we cannot be sure whether it will work or not. We get a better idea of how feasible such a theory is when it is rephrased in terms of a mathematical model. So far mathematical geneticists who have tried to make the handicap principle into a workable model have failed. This may be because it is not a workable principle, or it may be because they are not clever enough. One of them is Maynard Smith, and my hunch favours the former possibility.

If a male can demonstrate his superiority over other males in a way that does not involve deliberately handicapping himself, nobody would doubt that he could increase his genetic success in that way. Thus elephant seals win and hold on to their harems, not by being aesthetically attractive to females, but by the simple expedient of beating up any male who tries to move in on the harem. Harem holders tend to win these fights against would-be usurpers, if only for the obvious reason that that is why they are harem-holders. Usurpers do not often win fights, because if they were capable of winning they would have done so before! Any female who mates only with a harem holder is therefore allying her genes with a male who is strong enough to beat off successive challenges from the large surplus of desperate bachelor males. With luck her sons will inherit their father’s ability to hold a harem. In practice a female elephant seal does not have much option, because the harem-owner beats her up if she tries to stray. The principle remains, however, that females who choose to mate with males who win fights may benefit their genes by so doing. As we have seen, there are examples of females preferring to mate with males who hold territories and with males who have high status in the dominance hierarchy.

To sum up this chapter so far, the various different kinds of breeding system that we find among animals — monogamy, promiscuity, harems, and so on — can be understood in terms of conflicting interests between males and females. Individuals of either sex ‘want’ to maximize their total reproductive output during their lives. Because of a fundamental difference between the size and numbers of sperms and eggs, males are in general likely to be biased towards promiscuity and lack of paternal care. Females have two main available counter-ploys, which I have called the he-man and the domestic-bliss strategies. The ecological circumstances of a species will determine whether the females are biased towards one or the other of these counter-ploys, and will also determine how the males respond. In practice all intermediates between he-man and domestic-bliss are found and, as we have seen, there are cases in which the father does even more child-care than the mother. This book is not concerned with the details of particular animals species, so I will not discuss what might predispose a species towards one form of breeding system rather than another. Instead I will consider the differences that are commonly observed between males and females in general, and show how these may be interpreted. I shall therefore not be emphasizing those species in which the differences between the sexes are slight, these being in general the ones whose females have favoured the domestic-bliss strategy.

Firstly, it tends to be the males who go in for sexually attractive, gaudy colours, and the females who tend to be more drab. Individuals of both sexes want to avoid being eaten by predators, and there will be some evolutionary pressure on both sexes to be drably coloured. Bright colours attract predators no less than they attract sexual partners. In gene terms, this means that genes for bright colours are more likely to meet their end in the stomachs of predators than are genes for drab colours. On the other hand, genes for drab colours may be less likely than genes for bright colours to find themselves in the next generation, because drab individuals have difficulty in attracting a mate. There are therefore two conflicting selection pressures: predators tending to remove bright-colour genes from the gene pool, and sexual partners tending to remove genes for drabness. As in so many other cases, efficient survival machines can be regarded as a compromise between conflicting selection pressures. What interests us at the moment is that the optimal compromise for a male seems to be different from the optimal compromise for a female. This is of course fully compatible with our view of males as high-risk, high-reward gamblers. Because a male produces many millions of sperms to every egg produced by a female, sperms heavily outnumber eggs in the population. Any given egg is therefore much more likely to enter into sexual fusion than any given sperm is. Eggs are a relatively valuable resource, and therefore a female does not need to be so sexually attractive as a male does in order to ensure that her eggs are fertilized. A male is perfectly capable of siring all the children bom to a large population of females. Even if a male has a short life because his gaudy tail attracts predators, or gets tangled in the bushes, he may have fathered a very large number of children before he dies. An unattractive or drab male may live even as long as a female, but he has few children, and his genes are not passed on. What shall it profit a male if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his immortal genes?

Another common sexual difference is that females are more fussy than males about whom they mate with. One of the reasons for fussiness by an individual of either sex is the need to avoid mating with a member of another species. Such hybridizations are a bad thing for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, as in the case of a man copulating with a sheep, the copulation does not lead to an embryo being formed, so not much is lost. When more closely related species like horses and donkeys cross-breed, however, the cost, at least to the female partner, can be considerable. An embryo mule is likely to be formed and it then clutters up her womb for eleven months. It takes a large quantity of her total parental investment, not only in the form of food absorbed through the placenta, and then later in the form of milk, but above all in time which could have been spent in rearing other children. Then when the mule reaches adulthood it turns out to be sterile. This is presumably because, although horse chromosomes and donkey chromosomes are sufficiently similar to cooperate in the building of a good strong mule body, they are not similar enough to work together properly in meiosis. Whatever the exact reason, the very considerable investment by the mother in the rearing of a mule is totally wasted from the point of view of her genes. Female horses should be very, very careful that the individual they copulate with is another horse, and not a donkey. In gene terms, any horse gene that says ‘Body, if you are female, copulate with any old male, whether he is a donkey or a horse’, is a gene which may next find itself in the dead-end body of a mule, and the mother’s parental investment in that baby mule detracts heavily from her capacity to rear fertile horses. A male, on the other hand, has less to lose if he mates with a member of the wrong species, and, although he may have nothing to gain either, we should expect males to be less fussy in their choice of sexual partners. Where this has been looked at, it has been found to be true.

Even within a species, there may be reasons for fussiness. Incestuous mating, like hybridization, is likely to have damaging genetic consequences, in this case because lethal and semi-lethal recessive genes are brought out into the open. Once again, females have more to lose than males, since their investment in any particular child tends to be greater. Where incest taboos exist, we should expect females to be more rigid in their adherence to the taboos than males. If we assume that the older partner in an incestuous relationship is relatively likely to be the active initiator, we should expect that incestuous unions in which the male is older than the female should be more common than unions in which the female is older. For instance father/daughter incest should be commoner than mother/son. Brother/sister incest should be intermediate in commonness.

In general, males should tend to be more promiscuous than females. Since a female produces a limited number of eggs at a relatively slow rate, she has little to gain from having a large number of copulations with different males. A male on the other hand, who can produce millions of sperms every day, has everything to gain from as many promiscuous matings as he can snatch. Excess copulations may not actually cost a female much, other than a little lost time and energy, but they do not do her positive good. A male on the other hand can never get enough copulations with as many different females as possible: the word excess has no meaning for a male.

I have not explicitly talked about man but inevitably, when we think about evolutionary arguments such as those in this chapter, we cannot help reflecting about our own species and our own experience. Notions of females withholding copulation until a male shows some evidence of long-term fidelity may strike a familiar chord. This might suggest that human females play the domestic-bliss rather than the he-man strategy. Many human societies are indeed monogamous. In our own society, parental investment by both parents is large and not obviously unbalanced. Mothers certainly do more direct work for children than fathers do, but fathers often work hard in a more indirect sense to provide the material resources that are poured into the children. On the other hand, some human societies are promiscuous, and many are harem-based. What this astonishing variety suggests is that man’s way of life is largely determined by culture rather than by genes. However, it is still possible that human males in general have a tendency towards promiscuity, and females a tendency towards monogamy, as we would predict on evolutionary grounds. Which of these two tendencies wins in particular societies depends on details of cultural circumstance, just as in different animal species it depends on ecological details.

One feature of our own society that seems decidedly anomalous is the matter of sexual advertisement. As we have seen, it is strongly to be expected on evolutionary grounds that, where the sexes differ, it should be the males that advertise and the females that are drab. Modern western man is undoubtedly exceptional in this respect. It is of course true that some men dress flamboyantly and some women dress drably but, on average, there can be no doubt that in our society the equivalent of the peacock’s tail is exhibited by the female, not by the male. Women paint their faces and glue on false eyelashes. Apart from special cases, like actors, men do not. Women seem to be {165} interested in their own personal appearance and they are encouraged in this by their magazines and journals. Men’s magazines are less preoccupied with male sexual attractiveness, and a man who is unusually interested in his own dress and appearance is apt to arouse suspicion, both among men and among women. When a woman is described in conversation, it is quite likely that her sexual attractiveness, or lack of it, will be prominently mentioned. This is true, whether the speaker is a man or a woman. When a man is described, the adjectives used are much more likely to have nothing to do with sex.

Faced with these facts, a biologist would be forced to suspect that he was looking at a society in which females compete for males, rather than vice versa. In the case of birds of paradise, we decided that females are drab because they do not need to compete for males. Males are bright and ostentatious because females are in demand and can afford to be choosy. The reason female birds of paradise are in demand is that eggs are a more scarce resource than sperms. What has happened in modern western man? Has the male really become the sought-after sex, the one that is in demand, the sex that can afford to be choosy? If so, why?

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On to David Simon (and Ed Burns). Extract from The Corner.

As Good as it gets

It isn’t about the welfare check. It never was.

It isn’t about sexual permissiveness, or personal morality, or failures in parenting, or lack of family planning. All of these are inherent in the disaster, but the purposefulness with which babies make babies in places like West Baltimore goes far beyond accident and chance, circumstance and misunderstanding. It’s about more than the sexual drives of adolescents, too, though that might be hard to believe in a country where sex alone is enough of an argument to make anyone do just about anything.

In Baltimore, a city with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, the epidemic is, at its root, about human expectation, or more precisely, the absence of expectation.

On Fayette Street, the babies are born simply because they can be born, because life in this place cannot and will not be lived in the future tense. Given that fact, there is no reason to wait. The babies speak to these child-mothers and child-fathers, justify them, touch their hearts in a way that nothing else in their lives ever will. The government, the schools, the social workers, the public-service announcements wedged in between every black-family-in-the-burbs sitcom—all wail out the same righteous warning: Wait, don’t make the mistake, don ‘t squander every opportunity in life by having a child too young. But the children of Fayette Street look around them and wonder where an opportunity might actually be found. The platitude is precisely that, and no one is fooled.

From the moment that the children down here have any awareness at all, they are shaped by a process that demands that they shed all hope, that they cast off all but street-level ambition, learning to think and feel and breathe in ways that allow only for day-today survival. These children are not entirely unloved, or entirely unattended—even most of those growing up in the worst rowhouse hovels manage to reach adolescence in one piece, clothed and physically healthy. Fathering might be a lost concept, but on a rudimentary level, most of the mothers still manage some nurturing even in shooting galleries and crack dens. The love is there, but it makes itself felt only at odd moments, as an afterthought to the greater game of the corner.

True parenthood is more than love or intent or a set of learned skills; it’s all of that—practiced relentlessly. On Fayette Street, the men and women of the corner know what to do and sometimes, when the blast is there, they actually do it. But the game itself is relentless; when the blast is late, there’s no time for love’s expression.

Constancy becomes a luxury, so that a regular player at Fayette and Mount can love his son with the intensity of any father, yet when confronted by a choice between a tester line and a trip to the Bon Secours E.R. with a hurt child—well, there is no choice. Both his son’s arms are fractured from a bicycle fall, but Daddy ain’t trying to hear about medical emergencies. Damn if he ain’t a medical emergency all to himself. So the scene is that of a grown man backpedaling from his son toward the touts, mumbling a last-minute suggestion that some ointment might do the trick.

Day after day, the small promises that knit families together are frayed and unraveled: meals that aren’t prepared; weekend trips that never manage to find the right weekend; school clothes that aren’t there in time for September. Ultimately, the quiet moments that a parent and child ought always to have, the confidences and affection shared around a breakfast table, or at a bedside, or out on the rowhouse steps—these, too, become casualties of the corner. In time, it becomes clear to the children of Fayette Street that their look, their smile, even their unqualified love will never be enough to bring them what they need. Their cues go unnoticed by men and women obsessed.

So expectations change; tactics, too. The children learn that if they want to get fed, they better nag or whine: Ma, I’m hungry. Can I hold a piece of that there? Can I? Ma? In time, the begging becomes confrontational, demanding: I’m telling you. I can’t go to school ’cause I ain’t gonna wear these rags no more. Ma, you said you was gonna take me shopping at Westside. When you gonna take me shopping like you was sayin’?

The most important relationship in their lives is disappointing them, failing them, redefining them as less than they ought to be. This is the lesson that most carry from childhood: Even the most intimate relationship is essentially a construct of struggle and barter. Love is something to be spoken of, but rarely demonstrated.

Yet for the corner world, the lesson makes absolute sense. Children grow up in the Fayette Street rowhouses learning the manner by which human beings get and take what they need from one another. By adolescence, they understand that no one survives by carrying long-term expectations into any relationship, by giving of themselves, by risking anything valuable for the sake of that relationship. They watch their mothers scratch and claw their way through a string of failing, semi-hostile couplings—each running its predictable course, each fueled by genuine need and desire, yet built from such thin emotional material that it is less an act of human commitment than an exercise in planned obsolescence. They see their fathers—if, indeed, they see their fathers—hovering at the fringes, drifting in and out of the family as bit players, unable to provide and unwilling to commit. More likely than not, the men are on another path, caught up in new girlfriends, new addresses, new ambitions—all of it as fleeting and temporal as what came before.
With such grounding, the children venture into the streets, clumping into grade-school packs—boys with boys, girls with girls—and their play becomes savage as they crimp each other, honing the skills essential to the neighborhood. Their size, their shape, the quirks of their personalities—as with children anywhere, these things give them their early status, their reputation in the clique. But on Fayette Street, status exists only as it relates to the corner: This one can punch hardest, that one can shout loudest. This one can scheme and creep, that one is crazy and capable of anything. They each make their first pass at the game, and after an ugly failure or two, even the weakest manages to find a niche because that’s the timeless truth of the corner: It’s there for all of them, waiting and ready.

When the blood begins to warm, their status in the game is all that will matter, and what works on the corner will work with the girls. Sexual tribute will be paid to the hardest, the most daring, the craziest—but primarily to the teenaged slinger who at that moment carries the manicured bankroll.

For the corner boys and corner girls both, money becomes the centerpiece of a mating dance as ritualized as anything the middle-class mind might conjure. It begins with teenaged banter within the pack, with fourteen-and fifteen-year-old boys matching their wit and words with girls a year or two younger. The banter becomes flirtatious, and the flirtation ultimately produces the first, small transaction.

“Buy you a soda?”

If she’s willing, it won’t end with an Orange Slice. In the Victorian ideal, such conventions as love, fidelity, and personal commitment are the price to be paid, but those conventions can’t and don’t exist on Fayette Street. Instead, every embrace, every grope, every tryst is preceded and secured by a material exchange. For the girls, the process isn’t remotely connected to prostitution. It is, instead, about validation, about being able to have your personal worth displayed and proven with measurable evidence. It makes no difference that a young girl from Fayette and Fulton might genuinely like a boy who hangs at Baltimore and Gilmor. The geography of such a courtship demands that both play out their roles, that the boy give up some bills for his girl’s movie tickets and cheesesteaks and Nikes and jewelry, just as it demands that that girl part with her affections, measure for measure. Anything less from either party would constitute profound disrespect, so that in the eyes of the entire pack, the boy might easily be savaged as small-time and off-brand and the girl, if she tolerated such and still gave herself, might simply be branded a freak.

So the ritual brings the children of Fayette Street together, but they arrive burdened with the common awareness that nothing that passes between them can possibly last. They couple with little expectation that the relationship will succeed—if, indeed, any sexual relationship between fifteen-and fourteen-year-olds ever could—because no relationship they’ve ever known has ever succeeded. They find each other, copulate, and disengage; then they deconstruct the personal connections and move on. Anything beyond that would require real personal risk, a giving of the self that has nothing to do with the original terms of the transaction and can be justified only by a belief in tomorrow. To reveal one’s self to another is to lay bare weaknesses and vulnerabilites, and to do so on Fayette Street is to violate the rules of the corner.

For their parents—or, more likely, for their parents’ parents—legitimate birth and the nuclear family was at least a goal toward which you could strive. By contrast, this generation and much of the one before it have discarded even the pretense of that structure; whatever guilt haunted their fathers and grandfathers no longer nags at these young minds. On Fayette Street, the children have simply discarded the entire premise.

Shorn of all deeper meanings, what remains for this generation are the essentials: sex and babies. And because sex and babies, rather than fidelity and commitment, are the known terminus of any relationship, maturity has become utterly irrelevant. If validation requires only sexual capacity, then the mothers-to-be waiting on the plastic chairs at the obstetrics clinics at University Hospital and Johns Hopkins can be sixteen. Or fourteen. Or twelve.

Accident is not at all the word for it.

Most of these babies are very much wanted by the mothers and fathers alike. What better legacy for a sixteen-year-old slinger who expects to be dead or in prison by age twenty? What greater personal justification for a teenaged girl thirsting for the unequivocal love of another being? To outsiders, the babies are mistakes to be calculated in terms of social cost, as ward-of-the-state harbingers of yet another generation destined to spin through the cycle of poverty. But to the children suckled on the nihilism of the corner, such an outcome isn’t the sum of all fears. Poverty and failure is what they know; it’s what they accept for themselves every day and, by extension, what they accept for their children as well. For the child-fathers, the future is guns and vials and broken pavement; for the child-mothers, it is life as a twenty-two-year-old welfare mother, barefoot on the rowhouse steps, with the toddlers stumbling around her. And what, other than six years, is the substantive difference between a sixteen-year-old and a twenty-two-year-old welfare mother?

That the government pays something is helpful, of course. But the truth is that the government pays the mothers of Fayette Street only $234 a month and maybe $40 more for each new addition. Add food stamps and free formula from the WIC program and it’s enough to put Gerbers and Pampers in the grocery bag, but hardly enough to justify all the birthing. At this level, the conservative impulse to snatch at the purse seems beside the point: It’s not the lure of check-day that provokes these children to make children; something stronger than a couple hundred dollars is at issue, something that goes to the heart of the matter. Check or no check, the babies will come.

That we, as outsiders, know better is hardly the point. That we see lives stunted and consigned to poverty doesn’t matter because in the minds of these children, their lives were already consigned there. That we know the young fathers will give up and wander off means little, because on some level, the girls themselves know this too. They know from the get-go that the relationship is emotionally finite and they quickly reap what they can in status, gratification, and babies, then let the boys wander. On Fayette Street, it’s never about relationships, or boyfriends, or marriage, or living happily ever after.

Down here, a child is answer enough.

Once again, we know only what it is that works in our world, and so we talk welfare reform, devising middle-class solutions for a middleclass society. But, as they have with drugs and the drug trade itself, the men and women of the corner have judged our moral code useless under the circumstances. And they are right. As every fiend on Fayette Street knows that his place is at the point of a needle, so, too, does every teenager find some meaning in the obstetrics ward at University or the birthing rooms at Sinai. There, a girl acquires some womanhood; she is, for one dependent soul at least, the center of the universe. The father, a morbid and fatalistic boy, gives the infant his name and measures his doomed self to be one shade less mortal. If it didn’t do this much for them—if it was just about condoms, or abortion-on-demand, or abstinence and shame—then there might be a social strategy with some chance of success. Instead, these children have concluded that bringing about life—any life whatsoever—is a legitimate, plausible ambition in a world where plausible ambitions are hard to come by. This they can do.

To ask more from life on Fayette Street, to expect more from boyfriends, or wives, or parents—even to believe in more for one’s child—is to struggle against absurd odds, to ignore the living example of nearly everyone who came before you and who surrounds you now. Worse than that, to want more is to step beyond your own awareness—and that of everyone else on the pavement as well—about what’s possible. To do anything more than dream is to invite a crushing emotional defeat.

On Fayette Street, to struggle against the weight of circumstance—to try, in any sense—is not regarded as an act of strength. It is, instead, a public demonstration of vulnerability. Caring, expecting, hoping—these things bring only pain and contempt. Some carry that weight from one blast to the next, wrapping the pain around a syringe, transforming it from a thinking, emotional beast into something purely physical. For the fiends, the blast is the psychic safety net, the daily willingness to part with hope, ambition, and love. And for the yonger ones, for those not yet on the needle or the pipe, expectation is readily sacrificed for the leavings of the here and now; girls, props, weed, new Jordans, crew clothes, a little pocket money. Only for a rare few along Fayette Street—the churchgoers and the do-gooders, the home owners, the addicts who survived to reach recovery—does the hard business of living in the future go on. Is it the wise ones or the fools who shut down, who learn to avoid the uncommon thought, to break faith with possibility itself and take pleasure where they can?

Save for that rare handful, the children of Fayette Street employ their sexuality in a stripped-down facsimile of life. The boys limit themselves to the ambition of making it through the day without getting locked up, or stuck up, or shot down. They hope to be around long enough to see a son born, or maybe a daughter. Maybe scrape together the roll for a bassinet or a high chair, or failing that, a bag of Pampers once a week. The girls break it down to the singular, forlorn hope that the father-to-be will go to the clinic, maybe even show up at the hospital for the birth and then keep coming around for a while afterward. Maybe he’ll cover the cost of a crib or a stroller. And when the inevitable occurs, when he’s moved on to some new girl, the best that can be expected is some kind of vague alliance, some small connection to the life he created.

If things work out, he’ll show up once in a while to drag his son to the movies or down to Carroll Park for an afternoon. He’ll drift at the fringes, putting a $5 or a $10 bill into the kitty, just as she’ll feel the same cool allegiance now and then when he comes up short. They’ll manage that much, and because they’re from Fayette Street, they’ll count themselves lucky, knowing on some level that they have no right to ask more.

The end result of these adolescent pairings may seem predictable enough, but there is still something remarkable in the degree to which the participants embrace their roles. Knowing on one level that the relationship itself has no future, boys and girls along Fayette Street nonetheless take every opportunity to play at something greater, pretending to ideals and responsibilities that will ultimately be discarded. Catch up with any fifteen-year-old girl who is four months into a pregnancy, and you’re likely to hear about how the baby won’t change anything, how she plans to be a good and loving mother, how she still plans to finish high school and maybe go to college. Catch up to the sixteen-year-old father and you’re likely to hear that it’s time for him to grow up, to get a straight job somewhere and be a provider for his child. On one level, the boys and girls know how hollow these intentions are. They are painfully aware of how little is possible for them and their baby, but something deeper—some trace of an external standard, perhaps—still requires them to pretend.

In the weakest couplings, there is no time to play house. But in any relationship longer than a month or two, there can be seen all the requisite stages of serial monogamy, delivered in the most rapid-fire sequence imaginable. Infatuation, intimacy, a period of shared commitment and then disillusion and withdrawal—such is the stuff of months, years, even lifetimes in places other than West Baltimore. On Fayette Street, though, all of the relationships are subject to unrelenting pressure and all are expected to fail momentarily. As a result, the boys and girls have learned to couple and procreate, betray each other and depart with remarkable haste. They squeeze what validation, what drama they can from the coupling. But when the child is born, it proves to be an uneven exchange.

A corner boy hovers for a moment or two, then passes out Phillie blunts to his friends and declares his offspring right and fine. Then he goes back to the corner.

But the girl—she’ll be home in bed, the baby beside her, and she’ll take that phone call from a girlfriend, the one who says he was down there not half an hour ago and went off with some new girl from around the way. She’ll play it off, saying that he can do what he wants, that they haven’t been together for weeks now. Then she’ll get off the phone, go back to bed, and feel the sting.

Next time, she tells herself, she won’t be so weak and stupid. Next time, it’s going to cost more than some Harbor Park movie tickets and a trip to Mondawmin. More than some diapers and an off-brand stroller that lost a wheel after a week or two. Next time, she’ll keep her feelings out of it and just play him the way he’s playing her. It’s a small comfort that does nothing to take her any distance from the crying baby, the room, the rowhouse, the neighborhood. She lies there on the worn mattress of her childhood bed, loving her child but half-wishing for a moment that it had never happened or, maybe, that it had happened with some other boy.

For the girls—but never for the boys—life actually changes when the child arrives. They learn some, they grow some. Most will go back to the corners, leaving the infant to be raised by grandmothers and great-grandmothers. But some will come to understand that it’s not about a newborn’s unequivocal love, but about a mother offering the same night and day, day and night.

For those girls, this is the moment of reckoning: The boy is gone. The child is here. And finally, with the end of childhood and all the work and worry in the world staring her hard in the face, it might seem possible for a fifteen-or sixteen-year-old parent to see the bargain for what it is, straight, without fantasy or pretense. It might seem the perfect moment to wish for other outcomes, other choices.

But no, this is happening on Fayette Street.

The young mother lies in her bed, her baby asleep at her side, her hopes and fears proscribed by the world she knows, her future limited to questions about where the next bag of disposable diapers will be coming from.

This, for her, is as good as it gets.

The Paper Bag Solution

The paper bag solution is the crux of a story arc in The Wire. It is a bright idea against the futility of the drug war policing espoused by one of the prominent characters of the show from the third season on, Major Howard (Bunny) Colvin.

Another bright idea

The names and the details and the characters themselves are not central to the point here. The idea itself originated from the book The Corner, by David Simon and Ed Burns. The writing is beautiful, stark and probing, as you would soon read. It is an observation of real life, the details of human characters and institutions and the city blending in and out of the narrative in an honest, non judgmental gonzo voice. But that is again not the point.

Everyone knows about the drug war, the government’s position, the futility of all preventive actions, and yet this writing doesn’t let you in on the idea easy. The narrative emotively builds up to the idea by getting you around the corner first, getting one familiar with the Corner through eyes like Fat Curt’s, and the best beat police officer you would want for the discussion, Bobby Brown. So it gets you emotionally involved, intellectually alert, then greets you with the statistics and the futility of the current course of action, and the why of each. The Wire picked it up from here taking this idea, the paper bag solution, and giving it to a major character, and letting him run with it, to it’s logical end conclusion.

I can’t appreciate that point enough. Lots of us have bright ideas, about games we are in, and about games we know nothing about. We all feel we can give a pointers or two about games because we have had those ideas, and can justifiably feel above the rot, and better than the afflicted. And yet, people like me give up after a very shallow understanding of the scenario.

Why is there crime on the streets?

Because the police aren’t doing their jobs.

Why aren’t the police doing their jobs?

Because the political class benefits from crime, and has control over the police.

Why does the political class benefit from crime? Why is their no independent will of police, or politicians? Why can’t there be good police or good politicians?

Oh fuck it.

That is where my thought process stops. Moreover, at each of those stages, I made the glaring presumption that the police, the politicians, all other institutions don’t WANT to do their jobs. That there are bad cops and bad politicians and bad junkies. And how did I presume that? Because the problems are not solved.

If there were good cops or good politicians, policing and governance would not be fucked up. Right?

Wrong.

This is where The Wire as a simulation of the real life problems facing our cities, and us as seemingly smart, logical, emotional beings navigating through it together transcends any other example which I can think of. It is this Socratic method that David Simon employs with The Wire of continuing with Why, Why, Why along that logical ladder to find out why things don’t work out as simple as thinking idea applied becomes solution. Why it is wrong presuming that the problem is with correct intentions instead of a systemic rot and bottleneck in processes.

[I can’t help but compare this simulation with Richard Dawkins explanation of the evolutionary development of thought in The Selfish Gene (about which I shall hopefully soon write). He says that all thought is simulation for possible scenarios in life. All evolution (and hence the tendency of the natural world) is towards survival and if simulation helps genes survive, such processes that promote development of thought in organisms would be encouraged. (He goes on to say “Consciousness develops perhaps when your simulation of the world also includes a model of yourself”, an excellent thought when thinking of The Wire as higher consciousness)].

There is no mention of Major Colvin in the narrative below, there’s no character of that name here. This being a blog, I could easily have cut right to the idea for easier readability, but that would be losing the beauty of the narrative. However, I have highlighted in bold where the paper bag idea starts in the writing below. But enough with this long winded introduction, here you go with this extract below from the book The Corner. Read this and tell me how any fictional depiction could rival this, reality?

“He’s back,” says Fat Curt, caning away.

“Damn,” says Pimp. “I ain’t even had the chance to get lonely for the man.”

Curt laughs softly, and the two old friends beat feet toward the mouth of Vine Street. Grizzled and worn, Scalio is waiting there, a look of growing discomfort on his face.

“You seen him?” he asks Curt.

But there isn’t a spare moment in which to answer. Just then, the man himself comes cruising around from Lexington, grimacing behind the wheel. Scalio sags at the sight.

“Shit,” he says, falling in behind Curt and Pimp, “they gave him the wagon.”

At Fayette and Monroe, there is no sight more unwelcome than that of Officer Robert Brown, back from his vacation, laying hands upon the sinners and working the silver bracelets hard. He leads this afternoon’s blitzkrieg from the driver’s seat of the Western District jail van. Bob Brown and his lockup-on-wheels.

“What day is it?” asks Bread.

“Today Tuesday,” says Eggy Daddy.

“Zebra Day,” says Bread, with finality.

The others nod in agreement. Zebra Day is the blanket corner explanation for anything involving drug enforcement in West Baltimore. If it carries cuffs and a nightstick and hits you hard, it’s got something to do with Zebra Day.

“Where he at?”

“Gone down Fulton and round the block.”

“Aw shit. Bob Brown comin’ through.”

The patrolman grabs a tout down at Gilmor, then wheels up to Lexington and rolls the wrong way around the corner at Fulton Avenue, coming up on the Spider Bag crew, where he grabs one of the lookouts. Then down to Fayette again and up the hill to Monroe, where he takes off a white boy trying to cop outside the grocery. Then down to Payson and back up Lexington to Monroe, where he grabs one of Gee’s workhorses.

“Bob Brown collectin’ bodies.”

“Best move indoors.”

Slowly, the corner crews drift off Monroe Street, moving through the back alley between Fayette and Vine, slipping through the minefield of trash and broken furniture until they’re at the rear of 1825 Vine. They can’t help but see Roberta McCullough framed in the rear kitchen window. Though most manage to avoid eye contact, some of the older heads try to be neighborly.

“G’mornin’,” says Bread, waving.

And Miss Roberta, unsure, simply returns the wave.

That the shooting gallery has moved from Blue’s to the rowhouse adjacent to the McCulloughs is no surprise; since Linda Taylor caught the Bug and died in January, ownership of 1825 had settled on Annie, her daughter. Already on probation from one drug charge, Annie was doing little more than waking up every morning and chasing the blast until she fell into bed at night.

And make no mistake: Rita and her patients caught a real break when Annie decided to open her house to them in the dead of winter. After all, there was no heat or running water in Blue’s, and since Blue had been locked up, the fiends had stripped out all that was left of the furniture and most of the windows. By contrast, Annie would open the kitchen oven for warmth that could be felt throughout most of the first floor. And while Rita worked the candles and cookers at the kitchen table, the front room served as the lounge, with the regulars stacked up on what was left of an L-shaped sofa arrangement, all modular and maroon and looking like it belonged in the lobby of a Ramada Inn.

For the McCulloughs next door, the decline and fall of 1825 represented more than the daily irritation of nonstop drug traffic; that much was a given with crews already slinging at either end of Vine. For W.M. and Miss Roberta, a shooting gallery next door meant living with the possibility that they would wake up at three in the morning to the smell of smoke and find their Vine Street home and a half-dozen others ablaze. The McCulloughs could watch the foot traffic and imagine dozens of addicts stumbling in and out of that worn, wood-floor kitchen next door, dropping matches and knocking over candles. Any night now, Annie’s crew might burn half the street out of doors.

The McCulloughs could call the police, of course; Miss Roberta had thought about that. But then again, she had seen how many times the police had run through Blue’s and boarded up the place, only to have the fiends pull off the plywood and start over again. And what if Annie and her houseguests found out that the McCulloughs had called in on them, or even mistakenly believed that the McCulloughs had done so? If the police did come, it could mean more trouble than help. No, there was nothing to do but watch solemnly from the kitchen window, hoping against hope that Annie might pull herself together and tell the circus to move on.

Today inside 1825, the regulars warm themselves at the stove door and wait for Bob Brown to fish his limit. Bread, Fat Curt, Eggy Daddy, Dennis, Rita, Shardene, Joyce and Charlene Mack, Chauncey from up the way, Pimp and Scalio—all of them lazing around the first floor, waiting on Mr. Brown.

“He comin’ back down Vine,” says Scalio, peering at the edge of the front shade.

Annie moves toward him, muttering nervously. “You should come back from the window,” she warns. “He gonna see you signifyin’.”

“He ain’t see shit,” says Scalio, watching the wagon disappear at the east end of Vine. He moves to the door, cracking it enough to see Bob Brown’s jail van turn north on Fulton. Heading back up to the Western, maybe. Going to the lockup with a wagonful.

“Motherfuckin’ Bob Brown,” says Charlene Mack.

“He too evil,” agrees Bread.

Scalio goes outside, paces cautiously for a minute, then starts walking back up to Monroe. Down the block the Spider Bag crew is trying to set up their shop, the touts seemingly indifferent to the loss of their lookout. Pimp and Bread slip out the back door, then come back moments later with news.

“Death Row puttin’ out testers.”

In a heartbeat, the house is emptied of fiends, save for Rita, who stays in the kitchen, poking at the raw flesh of her left arm with a syringe. Two minutes more and a half-dozen of them are back, stumbling through the back door, winded from the run.

“You was quick,” says Rita.

Bread snorts derisively. They didn’t even get across Fulton before Bob Brown rolled down Lexington. And not just the wagon alone; Mr. Brown has a two-man car following him. The girl police, Jenerette, and that new white boy, the one with the marine cut.

“They just snatchin’ niggers up,” moans Annie.

“Zebra Day,” says Eggy Daddy.

It’s a timeworn phrase on these corners, dating back to the late 1970s, when some tactical wizard in the police department reckoned that the drug war could be won by alternating between East and West Baltimore and sweeping the corners clean at the rate of twice a week. Mondays and Wednesdays on the east side, Tuesdays and Thursdays on the west side, with Fridays off so the police could get a jump on their weekend—that was the Zebra schedule. On all other days of the week, the West Baltimore regulars might be subjected to ordinary law enforcement, but on Tuesdays and Thursdays, all bets were off and anything might happen. Knockers, rollers, wagon men, plainclothes jump-out squads—every spare soul in the police department seemed to be lighting on the corners. On Zebra Day, a routine eyefuck that might otherwise be ignored by a patrolman would buy a Western District holding cell, just as a routine insult would often result in a mighty ass-kicking. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays in West Baltimore, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were largely without meaning. On Zebra Day, there was no such thing as probable cause; any police could go into your pockets by invoking the Zebra logic.

Of course, it was all myth. The years had passed and the corners had grown and the once-awesome spectacle of Zebra Day had become merely a trace memory, the Baltimore Police Department having moved on to new tactics and new slogans. These days the corner regulars invoked the voodoo incantation of Zebra Day more than the police ever had; even thirteen-and fourteen-year-olds—born after the advent of the original Zebra—were still citing it as explanation for whatever events happened to occur on those days. Like today, a Tuesday in March, when Bob Brown is pushing the jail wagon, harvesting the corners, moving the sullen herds to and fro like some saddle-assed West Texas cowpoke.
Must be Zebra.

Peeking out of Annie’s front door, Eggy Daddy watches the top end of Vine for a few minutes more and, sure enough, the wagon makes the turn from Monroe, rumbling down the gentle slope of the alley street. Vine is empty now—Bob Brown has succeeded in momentarily chasing the crews indoors—but still the man is on an angry tear.

“He just all mean and miserable and a motherfucker,” says Charlene Mack, ascending to alliteration. “One day, someone gonna hurt him.”

Grunts of affirmation all around.

“Someone gon’ put a bullet in his ass,” says Eggy.

Someone, someday. Along Fayette Street, they’ve been saying such stuff about Bob Brown for twenty years, talking for two solid decades about a reckoning that never seems to come. Long after the rest of the police department has conceded the Fayette Street corridor to drug trafficking, Bob Brown is still decidedly undefeated. Long after every fiend in an eight-square-block grid wished him dead and gone, Bob Brown is still clinging to the real estate in eight-hour-shift installments. It’s sad and comical, but in some way genuinely noble: Bob Brown, walking the beat or riding that wagon, trying to herd the pigeons, trying to rake all the dry, brittle leaves into a pile on a windy day.

On one level, they hate him for it. Hating Bob Brown is an obligatory act for every fiend in the neighborhood. But at the same time, the souls on the corner allow a grudging respect for Mr. Brown and his game. If nothing else, the man is consistent, a moral standard in a place where it’s increasingly hard to take measure of morality. He can be brutal, but at the least he is consistently brutal, resorting to violence only when there is some justification for it. And when Bob Brown turns a corner, the odds are exactly the same for everyone. If he says get, you get or you go to jail. If he wants to go into your pockets, you put your hands against the liquor store wall and let him search, because there is no point in running from Bob Brown. If you run today, you’ll have to come back to the same corner tomorrow, and then, as sure as night follows day, there will come a reckoning. And if Bob Brown, while knocking you on your ass, decides to call you a low-life motherfucking piece of shit, you are—at that moment, at least—a low-life piece of shit. At street level, there can be no arguing with the man.

Even those who want Bob Brown dead have to acknowledge that it isn’t racial. Oh yeah, Mr. Brown is big and white and nasty, and every once in a while, on a day when he is truly pissed off, he might even let go of an epithet. But the Fayette Street regulars have lived with Bob Brown for years now; they’ve seen how much abuse he’ll readily heap on the white boys he catches creeping north out of Pigtown, venturing across Baltimore Street for a chance to hook into a better product. In their hearts, they know it isn’t race; it’s much more than skin-deep.

Bob Brown hates everybody, they are quick to assure you. And then, later, they think on this and realize that not even a police as mean and miserable as Mr. Brown can muster hate enough for everyone. Bob Brown doesn’t mess with the ladies up at St. Martin’s, or Miss Roberta, or Miss Bertha, or the people out at the bus stops going to work in the morning. No, when pressed, they have to admit that Bob Brown is not quite so unreasoning.

“He just death on drugs,” says Gary McCullough, watching from the steps in front of Annie’s as Bob Brown and his full-up wagon bounce around the corner and turn on Lexington.

“That’s what it is,” agrees Tony Boice. “He don’t like dope fiends even a little bit.”

On the corners, they tell themselves that it’s more than police work, that it’s something that happened to Bob Brown, or maybe to someone in his family. His first wife got addicted and turned out by her supplier, some claim. Not his wife, others argue, but a younger sister, who came up an overdose back in the seventies. The exact details have never been nailed down and, absent facts, such apocryphal stories become more melodramatic with each telling: Bob Brown grieving for lost loves and wasted relatives, swearing to make generations of Fayette Street fiends pay the price for some deep and painful family secrets. Out on the corner, only the worst kind of scenario could explain the angry timelessness of the Bob Brown Crusade.

The other police are different—more reviled, in some cases—but different nonetheless. Most no longer even pretend that they are trying to hold or reclaim their posts from the ceaseless drug trafficking. Instead, the best of them are content to harvest the comers for a quota of street-level arrests, a small sampling of lawlessness that will always prove as meaningless an act of enforcement as it is random. The worst of them have lost themselves in the siege mentality of the drug war, giving back to the corners the same hostility that greets them. Fayette Street for them is a place deserving of Old Testament justice: an eyefuck for an eyefuck, with handcuffs for minor insults and lead-filled nightsticks or slapjacks for any greater provocation. The new breed of police along Fayette Street—Pitbull and Shields, Peanuthead and Collins—has no feeling for the pavement on which they are warring, no sense of a communal past by which the present might be judged. For all of his bluster, Bob Brown carries that burden.

In that regard, Bob Brown is what every police official and neighborhood association claims as the solution to the trouble in their streets. He is every bit the old-time beat cop, the retrograde image of walk-the-footpost, know-the-people policing. Get the cops out of the radio cars, runs the latest theory, and you begin to get them back into the neighborhoods. Get them out walking their real estate, and they’ll start to reconnect with the people, learn the neighborhood, prevent crime. Community-oriented policing has become the watchword of the nineties in law enforcement. Houston, New York, Washington, Detroit—everyone is nostalgic for foot patrols and grassroots policing and whatever the hell else kept the streets safe in 1950. That Bob Brown knows his post from one end to the other, that he can recite most of the players and their deeds by name, that he has fought for the same terrain for two decades—all of it seems the textbook model of what the visionaries in law enforcement are promoting. That there are already Bob Browns on the streets, that for all their will and desire and knowledge, they have lost their private wars in hardcore places like West Baltimore—that is somehow beside the point.

And lost it they have. On Fayette Street, Bob Brown has fought tenaciously, clearing corners, herding fiends, chasing slingers, and arresting hundreds every year. Yet he has watched helplessly as the rot from the vials and glassine bags rolls upslope from the housing projects and down across the west side expressway, reducing the working-class neighborhood where he began his career to little more than a collection of open-air drug markets and crumbling shooting galleries. He’s witnessed a couple generations of young girls having their babies, then watched as those children were named and nicknamed, diapered and raised. And he’s been there when those children began their inexorable drift away from the schoolyards and ball courts, when they started to play at the fringes of the corner. Unlike so many of the younger police, Bob Brown knew many of the fiends before they ever chased a blast, many of the slingers before they went to the corner with that first stepped-on, scrambled package. More than any other cop working Franklin Square, he can bring names and faces and family histories to the history of disaster, and now, with the neighborhood in chaos, he bears witness as the dope-and-coke tide crests the hill at Fayette and continues south across Baltimore Street, down into Pigtown and Carroll Park.

Down there, the hillbillies aren’t proving to be any different; there are all-white and even some integrated crews selling coke all along McHenry Street, dope down at Ramsay and Stricker. The decay in West Baltimore is unremitting, epic; to police against it, you need either the quixotic rage of a crusader or sense enough to detach yourself from the totality of the nightmare, to hump your share of calls and make some cases and then grab that twenty-year pension.

The sad beauty of Bob Brown is that he shows no sense whatsoever. Against all evidence, he is still crusading, still defending a neighborhood at a time when the threat is from the neighborhood itself. For Mr. Brown, the question is the same on any day that he walks from the Western District roll-call room to a radio car: How do you make police work matter when more than half of Fayette Street, perhaps eighty percent of those between the ages of fifteen and thirty, is in some way involved in the use or sale of heroin and cocaine? To be sure, there are still citizens in Franklin Square: older men who still call 911 or 685-DRUG to provide information about the trafficking; women who let Bob Brown into their houses so he can peek from behind the drapes and watch slingers serving up in the alley. Still for every one of those embattled souls, two or three others are going to the corner.
Yet he endures. Like today, when he’s dragging that jail wagon around the corners, filling it with a half-dozen of the prevailing herd—and all but one of them locked up as humbles, charged with failure to obey, or disorderly, or loitering in a city-designated drug-free zone (“where drugs are free,” joke the sages and touts). The last of the unfortunates has gotten himself caught with a handful of vials, but no matter—all of them are going to disappear for a night, or a week, or a month at the most. And as Bob Brown finally tires of the chase and turns the wagon north on Fulton Avenue, heading toward the district lockup, the corners come alive again.

“Shop open,” says Hungry, sliding out of Annie’s.

The crews on Fayette and Vine Streets step gingerly back into the mix, one eye on the game, the other on the far corners, still nervous about seeing the motorized Mr. Brown making another pass. Back at Annie’s, Rita takes a rest in a broken-backed kitchen chair while Annie peers out the front window, worried as always, thinking that it’s her that they’re looking for. Her and her house. Thinking that they’re all out there—Bob Brown and Pitbull, Collins and Shields—wondering where the regulars from Blue’s have gone. Wondering which door they’ll have to kick in next to find the needle palace.

“I’m on probation already,” she says sadly.

She nurses such fears alone. The rest of them are there with her, but thinking no thoughts about anything beyond shooting dope, shooting coke, and staying warm. They’ve found a home and they know that as long as Annie gets her share of the hype, they’re going to be firing drugs and nodding off in a heated room with running water. With any luck at all, they’ll be at Annie’s until the March winds give way to April and true spring. By the standards of shooting-gallery life, the regulars from Blue’s are fortunate indeed.

It seems that way for a week or more until a fresh crew of New Yorkers sets up shop at Lexington and Fulton and begins selling some Black Tops of coke that are an absolute bomb. Before long the morning tester lines are stretching across the vacant lot at the bottom of Vine Street and the alley itself is filled with drug traffic. Annie’s refuge is suddenly in the center of the action, and the police seem to be snatching bodies off Vine Street on a daily basis. Sure enough, it isn’t long before one of the white boys from McHenry Street gets spotted after hooking up with some Black Tops on the vacant lot. The boy makes the mistake of trying to run with Pitbull chasing him; worse, he makes the mistake of trying to lose himself by running through the alley and up into Annie’s kitchen door.

“Not in here, fool,” yells Shardene.

But it’s too late. Pitbull is right on the kid’s heels, kicking through the warped wooden door and charging across the threshold with the back-up troops only a few seconds behind him. He grabs the white boy in the front room and slams him against the flaking plaster wall, punching him twice for luck. Out come the cuffs, with the white boy moaning and begging and Pitbull telling the kid to just shut the fuck up.

The other troops have everyone jacked against the wall, waiting, the room strangely silent in the wake of what amounts to a warrantless raid. On the kitchen table are Rita’s candles, a plastic tub of dirty water, and a half-dozen syringes. Scattered around the room is a who’s who of Fayette Street regulars, and when the rest of the occupants are ordered down from the second floor, it’s a veritable convention.

“Look at this shit,” says one of the younger police.

Leaning against the maroon sofa, Annie closes her eyes and waits for tears that won’t come. She’s lost her house, she figures. They’ll bring the city work truck and board up the doors and windows, and she’ll be out on the street with the rest of them. She might even take a charge, and that would mean a couple of years backing up on her, since she walked away from an Excel detox program, violating her last probation.

And yet, incredibly, after Pitbull drags the white boy out the front door, the other patrolmen follow him, leaving the fiends where they stand and the shooting gallery in place.

“They comin’ back?” asks Hungry.

Annie stares through the front blind as the white boy is dragged to the wagon. Finally, she shrugs.

“Don’ know.”

“Well fuck it then.”

The police stumble into a shooting gallery, the police leave the shooting gallery; the party goes on. It’s a telling moment, a wake-up call for anyone along Fayette Street who still believes in an urban war on drugs. But no one in Annie’s had any clue what to think until it happens again a week later, the cause on this second occasion being Bread, who’d been running and gunning at flank speed all month, chasing those Black Tops and slamming them home one after the next. They’d all been going at the coke heavy—Curt, Bread, Dennis, Rita, the whole crew—a celebration of sorts to mark the end of winter. They’d soldiered the hard months; now, there was a scent of easier times in the air, a hint of their just rewards for having struggled through so many twenty-degree mornings on the cold floor of Blue’s empty vessel. But Bread had been twenty-four, seven on the strong coke, not even taking time out to crawl into his mother’s basement door and sleep a morning or two away. When he did crash, it was on Annie’s sofa or in one of the battered bedrooms upstairs. All of them were soldiers, but Bread had become the Viking.

So when he finally falls out, no one pays it much mind. He stays in the front room, slumped in a heap on the sofa, his winter coat under him, his breath coming in rasps and wheezes. He tosses fitfully for a few hours, then begins mumbling in a half-sleep, telling unnamed and unseen adversaries to go away and let him the fuck alone. Then his breathing becomes more erratic; Annie, watching from a chair in the other corner of the room, is unnerved to see her friend open his lids wide for a moment. The eyeballs have rolled up inside his head.

“Bread, wake up now.”

“NNNAAAA.”

“Bread … somethin’ ain’t right with Bread.”

They get someone at the McCullough house to call 911, then open the front door and wait ten minutes for the ambulance, with Annie stroking Bread’s hand and rubbing his head, telling him that help is on the way. But the paramedics can’t stabilize him; they can’t manage a steady pulse in a forty-six-year-old body that looks to be twice that old. They hit him with the Lidocaine and the steroids and whatever else they’ve got in the truck, but nothing seems to bring him up from the abyss. When two or three police come through to watch the paramedics, they again give the house a once-over, shaking their heads in disgust. Catching the scent of Rita’s rotting arms, one of the young patrolmen actually orders her into the bathroom, using his nightstick to poke her across the threshold as if she’s nothing more than viral.

“What did he have?” asks one of the paramedics.

“Huh?”

“What drugs did he use?”

There’s only silence.

“I need to know what he had. If you care about this guy, tell me.”

“Coke,” says Annie. “Coke and dope both.”

Once or twice, Bread seems to let out a moan, or maybe it’s just an explosion of air from his emptying lungs. When the ambo pulls off down Vine Street, his eyes are fixed.

The funeral is scheduled for Saturday up at Morton’s. Because it’s Bread, many of the fiends along Fayette Street make noises about going up there, if not for the services, then at least for one of the viewings.

Bread had been one of the originals on these corners, one of those rare few who had lasted long enough to make the consumption of drugs seem something like a career. His standing was such that rumors about his death swirl up and down Fayette Street, each a vain attempt to give the event more meaning than it deserves. Some hear that he’d been given a hot-shot by some New York Boys who wrongly thought he’d stolen a stash. Others talk about how he’d been firing some of that China White, the synthetic morphine substitute that killed about a dozen people in a single week last summer. Still others are whispering that they’d heard that Bread’s friends—lifetime companions like Fat Curt and Eggy Daddy—had panicked when they couldn’t revive him and had simply dumped the body in the back alley behind Annie’s house. In the end, the only rumor with any truth in it is the one that always follows a death on the needle: When the fiends along Fayette Street hear that Bread had succumbed to a blast of coke, they all, quite naturally, want to know who is selling the shit. Bread is gone, they reason, and that’s a shame. But that doesn’t mean the rest of us don’t know how to handle the good blast of coke that killed him. Come right here with that nasty shit.

Inside Annie’s, among the people who knew Bread best, there is a grief as sincere and heartfelt as for any taxpayer. Bread was of that earlier epoch when the corner life had rules, when there were standards that any self-respecting dope fiend had to consider. Bread had done twenty years around Fayette and Monroe, and to anyone’s best memory, he’d never cheated his friends, or fallen to violence, or intentionally damaged anyone other than himself. So Eggy Daddy promises he’ll be at the funeral. And Gary McCullough. And Annie, who cried the whole night through when word came back from the hospital that Bread didn’t make it, that he had all but died right there on her sofa. And Fat Curt, too—he surely wants to go up to Brown’s for the homecoming, though he hasn’t been able to bring himself to so much as speak about his friend since the ambo rolled away. For Bread, they all tell themselves, they’d surely step out of their game for a day and pay the proper respects.

But at five o’clock on the morning of the funeral service, the snow begins falling in thick, dry flakes all across Baltimore. By eight, there’s a foot of new whiteness on the ground and no sign of any break in the storm. On this day, the surprise blanketing—the only major storm of the year—transforms the corners of Fayette and Baltimore Streets, covering the trash and the discarded furniture, rendering uniform and pristine the usual scenery of broken rowhouses, corner stores, and vacant lots. The tester lines don’t form up this morning; the package is late. Even the police radio cars are off the roads, waiting for the city plows to go to work.

The regulars inside Annie’s figure that the service is canceled, or even if it isn’t canceled, they reason that there is no way they’re going to make it ten blocks north of the expressway in this kind of weather. More honestly, they look out the window and figure that it’s a day to make money with the blizzard slowing the police cars to a crawl.

And so, the corner gives up its dead to an empty funeral parlor, with Bread Corbett laid out in a Sunday pinstripe for his mother and a handful of other family members. The preacher, who declares himself a recovering addict, offers no cheap platitudes; he goes directly at the tragedy, speaking bitterly of wasted years and misspent lives. The family that hears him already knows the story; the family that doesn’t—the strange, extended clan in which Bread truly lived his life—is slogging through the snow on Vine Street, taking care of business. Only Joe Laney, sitting quietly in one of the back rows, is there at the end to say farewell. Joe had been on the corner with Fat Curt and Bread and the rest for years, only to pick himself up and walk away. He makes his way to Bread’s mother with his regrets.

“He was a good friend,” he tells her.

Two days later, spring is back in the air, the streets are covered in a dull, gray slush, and Annie’s is still the shooting gallery. After leaving with the ambo crew, the police have not been back, and it has finally started to dawn on some of the regulars that it isn’t about real estate anymore, that the police could care less. Up on the corner, Eggy Daddy is touting for the Gold Star crew, as is Hungry. Fat Curt is across the street in front of the grocery, his eyes yellow, his body bent against the warming breeze. He stands there, unmoving, with a thousand-yard stare on his face, one fat hand wrapped around a funeral parlor pamphlet, a token given him by Joe Laney. In loving memory of Robert E. Corbett reads the cover. The photograph is a high school graduation shot: Bread, circa 1965, in a dark sports coat and thin tie, deep brown eyes staring mournfully.

Curt pockets the pamphlet, but a few moments later, he takes it out and looks again at the photograph. This time, Bread. And before him it was Flubber. Cleaned himself up at the end and showed the courage to get up at those NA meetings and talk about having the Bug. First one to talk about it like that. And Joe Laney, now living a new life so that Curt only sees him when he rides by in that little car of his, heading up to his college classes. And House and Sonny Mays, both of them doing good, talking that NA twelve-step shit. And soon it will be Dennis, his own brother, dying by degrees, staggering around these corners as the virus chews him down to the bone. The fat man, ever more alone.

“Hey, Curt,” asks Robin. “Who that?”

Curt looks again at the old photo.

“Bread.”

“Got-damn. That Bread?”

“Back in the day.”

He’s still holding the funeral pamphlet, still looking at the ancient portrait through jaundiced eyes, when none other than Bob Brown turns the corner. Mr. Brown on the hunt.

Curt is slower than usual this time, distracted. He’s barely able to plant his cane and take a step before the patrolman is on him. Bob Brown looks directly at Curt, then down at the pamphlet in his swollen hand. Wordlessly, he steps past the aging tout, concentrating instead on a coterie of teenagers hanging by the pay phone.

“Corner’s mine,” he tells them. “Move.”

Curt wipes his eyes, then pockets the pamphlet. Slowly, he finds his step, but to no real purpose. The teenagers have moved off down Monroe Street, leaving two longtime veterans of Fayette Street alone for a moment on the corner.

“Hey,” grunts Bob Brown.

Then he steps past Fat Curt again.

The paper bag does not exist for drugs. For want of that shining example of constabulary pragmatism, the disaster is compounded.

The origins of the bag are obscure, though by the early 1960s, this remarkable invention was a staple of ghetto diplomacy in all the major American cities. And for good reason, since by that time virtually every state assembly and city council had enacted statutes prohibiting the consumption of alcoholic beverages in public. They seemed good laws, reasoned attempts to prevent rummies and smokehounds from cluttering the streets, parks and sidewalks; codified weapons to prohibit unseemly displays of human degeneration. That these goals might have been accomplished in small-town America, or in the manicured suburbs, meant nothing, of course, in the core of any large city. There, on the corners of the poorest neighborhoods, dozens of men would live their lives at the lip of a bottle of 20/20 or T-Bird or Mickey’s, public consumption law or no. Long before the open-air drug market, the corner was still the assembly point, the clubhouse; those who spent their days there couldn’t afford bar prices, but nonetheless preferred the corner ambiance to downing a bottle at home, particularly since home was more likely than not a third-floor walk-up with three screaming kids and a woman who hated you even when you weren’t drinking. No, it was always the corner.

For the police working these ghetto posts, the public consumption law posed a dilemma: You could try to enforce it, in which case you’d never have time for any other kind of police work; or you could look the other way, in which case you’d be opening yourself to all kinds of disrespect from people who figure that if a cop is ignoring one illegal act, he’ll probably care little about a half-dozen others.

But when the first wino dropped the first bottle of elderberry into the first paper bag—and a moment of quiet genius it was—the point was moot. The paper bag allowed the smokehounds to keep their smoke, just as it allowed the beat cop a modicum of respect. In time, the bag was institutionalized as a symbol; to drink without it was to insult the patrolman and risk arrest, just as it was a violation of the tacit agreement for a cop to ignore the bag and humble anyone employing it. In a sense, the paper bag allowed for some connection between the police and the corner herd; for the price of an occasional bottle, in fact, the smokehounds could often be relied upon to provide information about more serious matters. More important, the bag allowed the government to prioritize its resources, to ignore the inevitable petty vices of urban living and concentrate instead on the essentials. This is a truth once understood by any cop worth his pension—if you’re policing an Amish town and the worst crime is spitting on the sidewalk, then enforce that law. But if you’re policing Baltimore or a city like it, and the worst crimes are murder, rape, armed robbery and aggravated assault, then don’t waste your time, men, and money throwing gin-breathed wrecks into a police wagon.

But with no equivalent to the bag in the war on drugs, there can be no equilibrium on the corners, no accommodation between the drug subculture and those policing it, no relativity in the contemplation of sins and vices. Without the paper bag, animosity and, ultimately, violence are the only possibilities between the police and the policed, because there is no purpose to diplomacy or proportion when war becomes total. Granted, a paper-bag solution wouldn’t reduce the power of addiction, or steal any of the profit, or mitigate the disaster of a single life lost to narcotics; it is in no sense a cure for the drug epidemic. But there is still a priceless lesson in the idea, a valuable bit of beat-cop sensibility that could rescue both the patrolmen and their prey from their own worst excesses. No doubt some kind of war on drugs was a political inevitability, just as that war’s failure to thwart human desire was inevitable as well. But we might have saved ourselves from the psychic costs of the drug war—the utter alienation of an underclass from its government, the wedding of that alienation to a ruthless economic engine, and finally, the birth of an outlaw philosophy as ugly and enraged as hate and despair can produce—if we had embraced the common sense that comes with the paper bag.

Instead, as the addict population grew, we could see no connection between the corner rummy and the corner dope fiend. One was deemed a harmless, self-destructive soul, while the other was declared a sworn enemy. That some of those chasing heroin are genuinely dangerous is beyond dispute; the first wave of the national drug epidemic helped to fatten all the crime stats in the late sixties and early seventies. But the other side of that statement—the assumption that many of those chasing a blast are more a threat to society than corner drunkards—has been neither considered, nor argued. Even today, with cocaine added into the mix, the corner is in large part home to a tired collection of bit players, struggling to make their shot within the confines of the drug culture itself. Touts, burn-artists, doctors, slingers, stash-stealers, stickup boys who never rob a citizen, who only hit dealers, metal harvesters, petty thieves who grab a few dollars by shoplifting or breaking into cars, fiends who spend only what comes by way of a government check—shake them all out and what’s left to play the roles of predator and sociopath is maybe five percent of the population on any given drug corner.

Rather than target the truly dangerous, rather than concentrate on the murders, the shootings, the armed robberies, the burglaries, we have instead indulged all our furies. Rather than accept the personal decision to use drugs as a given—to seek out a paper-bag solution to the corner’s growing numbers—we tried to live by mass arrest. And what has been lost in our abject failure to make any legal or moral distinction between a corner victim and a corner victimizer is any chance to change the drug culture itself, to modify the behavior of those chasing a blast, to wean the worst violence from the corner mind-set, to draw those who might have been willing to listen toward ideas like community, treatment, redemption.

Instead, we have swallowed some disastrous pretensions, allowing ourselves a naive sincerity that, even now, assumes the battle can be restricted to heroin and cocaine, limited to a self-contained cadre of lawbreakers—the quaint term “drug pusher” comes to mind—when all along the conflict was ripe to become a war against the underclass itself. We’ve trusted in the moral high ground: Just say no.

We threw a negative at them, though it’s unclear what they’re supposed to say yes to on Fayette Street. We’ve made war against drugs in a social and economic vacuum, until hopelessness and rage have the damned of our cities fighting for nothing more or less than human desire and profit, against which no one has ever developed a single viable weapons system.

Thirty years after its inception, the drug war in cities such as Baltimore has become an absurdist nightmare, a statistical charade with no other purpose than to placate a public that wants drug trafficking attacked and vanquished—but not, of course, at the price it would actually cost to accomplish such an incredible feat. In Maryland such cognitive dissonance translates to a state prison system that can manage a total of just over 20,000 prison beds for prisoners convicted of every act against the criminal code in Baltimore and twenty-three other counties. Yet in Baltimore alone there are between 15,000 and 20,000 arrests each year for drug violations, and in all of Maryland’s jurisdictions, more than 35,000 are charged every year with drug sales or possession.

Build more prisons, you say? How many more? Five? Ten? Keep in mind that Maryland is no slacker when it comes to locking people up; the state ranks tenth nationally in its rate of incarceration. You could bankrupt the state government by doubling the existing prison space and still there wouldn’t be enough space to house the estimated 50,000 heroin and cocaine users in Baltimore, not to mention the rest of Maryland. And that leaves no room for those priority cases who just happen to be convicted of murder or rape or armed robbery. Moreover, the construction of a prison is only the preamble; what inevitably follows is the financial drain of staffing the place, of feeding and clothing the prisoners, of maintaining security standards, of running a medical program that the U.S. Supreme Court says must correspond to outside community standards for health care. Soon enough, you’re spending more to lock a man down than it would cost to enroll him at Harvard.

More prisons is the impulse answer, the quick-and-dirty response of so many hack politicians and talk-show hosts. It’s what the Bush administration told state governments to do as early as 1989 and what the federal government itself has done amid the escalating drug war. Leading by example, the U.S. Bureau of Prisons has doubled its capacity in ten years in an effort to keep up with a federal inmate population that is rising at record rates—the logical result of the mandatory sentences and parole restrictions contained in all those omnibus crime bills.

Yet even with more than 100,000 souls in federal custody, the U.S. prison population is only a tenth of the total number of those incarcerated. State prisons and state budgets are responsible for the rest. In the drug war as in every other aspect of law enforcement, the federal courts handle only the tip of the iceberg—the major offenders, the headline cases, and the crimes that happen to occur in federal jurisdiction. And here’s the rub: The U.S. government can happily build prisons into the next millennium because they don’t need real money to do it. As with everything else in the federal budget, prison construction and operation can be undertaken simply by adding to the federal deficit. State governments, meanwhile, carry more than 90 percent of the burden of incarcerating people and they, of course, must spend real dollars and balance their budgets.

So what happens in places like West Baltimore? What becomes of all those bodies thrown into the police wagons, all those man-hours of police enforcement, all the dollars spent on court pay and overtime, all that work for the courthouse personnel, the pretrial investigators, the public defenders and prosecutors?

Not much. In a typical year, the Baltimore police department and the assisting federal agencies will lock up a greater percentage of the city’s population for drugs than any other major urban area save Atlanta. The rate of arrest for drug charges in Baltimore will be nearly three times that of Los Angeles or Philadelphia, more than double that of Detroit or New York. In all, 18,000 or 19,000 arrests for the distribution or possession of drugs will be the usual result of a year’s police work.

Yet just as typically, fewer than 1,000 of those drug defendants will be sentenced to state prisons and, of that number, less than half will be sentenced to more than a year. The rest of the city’s drug docket will result in sentences of probation or dismissals. In short, for the vast majority of those arrested, the threat of incarceration is generally limited to a night or two in jail until a bail review hearing or, in the rare event that a money bond is set and a defendant is unable to pay, a month or two of pretrial detention.

It can’t be otherwise, because whatever prison space is available is required for the thousands sentenced every year for violent crimes and other felonies. The state judges have known this for years. The lawyers know it as well. So do the police. And the learning curve reaches all the way down to the corner itself: As early as 1991, 61 percent of the felony cases brought into Baltimore Circuit Court were drug violations, and of those, 55 percent involved defendants with at least one prior conviction. Thirty-seven percent had two prior convictions; 24 percent had three.

Up at the Wabash Avenue district courthouse, where arrests from half of the city’s police districts funnel into the judiciary, farcical scenes are played out on a daily basis. One morning after the next, the men and women of the corner flood the benches that line Courtroom 4, the Western District bench of Judge Gary Bass, a patient and beleaguered soul charged with making sense of this travesty.

One by one, the street-level drug cases—distribution, conspiracy to distribute, possession with intent to distribute, simple possession—creep off the docket and receive the only sanctions the state of Maryland can afford.

“… one year probation, supervised.”

“… continuing your probation for a year, subject to random urinalysis to be performed by the Department of Parole and Probation …”

“Six months’ unsupervised probation with the condition that you seek drug treatment.”

“… case placed on the inactive docket provided that you continue in your detox program …”

For Judge Bass, whose memory for faces is legendary, it’s a recidivist hell. On occasion, a defendant who is charged with something more substantial than drug involvement and is unwilling to risk a circuit court trial will catch a year or three for a breaking and entering, or for a handgun. And, every now and then, there comes a drug slinger so arrogant or incompetent that he shows up in court loaded with prior convictions and pending cases. For him, there’s a chance to slow down with a couple years at Hagerstown, which means parole in eight months or so.

At the federal courthouse, it’s very different, of course, because the national government, with its freedom from fiscal constraint, has cranked up the war as loud as she’ll go. The new mandatory sentencing guidelines can tag first-time drug offenders with five or ten years, just as the elimination of all parole assures that most of that time will be served. Yet by contrast to the state courts, the federal system is handling only a handful of prosecutions: those involving either major traffickers or minor players unlucky enough to get caught at the fringes of a major trafficker’s organization. The variance between courthouses has produced an institutional schizophrenia in drug enforcement. Fiends and smalltime slingers sometimes take three or four state charges, then get caught up in a case that goes federal. Suddenly, the man in the black robes is running wild, talking fifteen and no parole. Say what? Who changed the rules?

But federal sentencings are the odd, angry shot in this war. It’s at the local level that the endgame has been reached: There are now a million Americans in prison and it still isn’t enough to close the corners. Should we lock up a million more? Three million? The cost would be exorbitant. The death penalty for drug trafficking, then? The legal costs of killing a man by state decree are even higher than warehousing him for a couple of decades.

Meanwhile, out on Fayette Street, the absence of real deterrent has been factored into the psychological equation. As the cocaine epidemic has expanded the addict population, thousands more have flocked to the corners, and the drug slinging has become more brazen. There is still some cat-and-mouse with the police; no one wants to go to jail, even for an overnight humble, nor does anyone want to be among the unlucky handful who catch a three-year sentence from some dyspeptic judge. But in terms of real estate, the war is over; by the numbers, the drug trade has proven itself invincible.

In the drug enforcement establishment, the smarter players have caught the scent of defeat coming from places like Fayette Street and they’ve learned the vernacular of diminished expectation. No, we don’t see any light at the end of the tunnel. No, we don’t believe you can arrest your way out of the problem. The careerists in the Justice Department and the DEA, the top commanders in the nation’s largest police departments—most have learned to embrace the comprehensive view. The prevailing wisdom has drug enforcement as only one facet, with drug treatment and education as equal partners in some kind of global strategy. The smartest ones make it sound as if it’s really a plan, ignoring the fact that all their enforcement is driving addicts toward a wealth of government-funded treatment slots that don’t exist, and, let’s face it, never will exist in sufficient numbers. As for education, what we have is media saturation; all those this-is-your-brain-on-drugs sound bites have reached and convinced those willing to be reached and convinced. The inner cities have heard the gospel and ignored it.

Still, give the drug warriors credit: They’ve learned to incorporate enough seeming perspective to justify their budgets and grab for more. And can you blame them? What commander ever admitted that a war was lost until the absolute end was upon him? The DEA, Customs, ATF, the joint regional task forces, the local narcotics squads—all of them are feeding voraciously at the wartime trough, their operating funds coming not only from budget line items, but from the shared revenue of seized assets. They’re vested in this debacle. They’re a growth industry.

Yet who can argue with a moral war? If you give up, they assure us, It will be worse. And in one sense, they’re right: It will be worse in places where poverty is limited, where the demographics prohibit the growth of a ghetto underclass. Call off the drug war and it will be worse in Pittsburgh, or Kansas City, or Seattle. It will be worse in Nassau County, or Dearborn, or Orange County. In any place where the deterrent is still viable, where the lid is still being held down, a cessation of hostilities will result in greater damage.

But in West Baltimore and East St. Louis, in Washington Heights and in South Central Los Angeles—at the very frontiers of the American drug culture—it won’t make any difference. War or no, 20,000 heroin addicts and another 30,000 pipers are going to go down to the corner in Baltimore tomorrow. Save for the twenty or forty that get tossed in a jail wagon, not one is going to miss his blast. Against that fact, the drug war stands as a useless and unnecessary brutalization, an unyielding policy that requires our government to occupy our ghettos in much the same way that others have occupied Belfast, or Soweto, or Gaza.

True, a policy of repression was never the intent. But greater ideals are soon enough lost to the troops on the ground. For them, there is only the absolute futility of trying to police a culture with an economy founded on lawbreaking, of pretending to protect neighborhoods that can barely be distinguished from the corners that are overwhelming them. By the standards of a national drug prohibition, half of Fayette Street’s residents are deemed outlaws. As the radio cars roll past, they throw out their communal eyefuck, showing twenty-three-year-old patrolmen and twenty-six-year-old knockers what it’s like to be despised, to be regarded as an absolute enemy. For the younger police—the ones who never knew the neighborhood when it was worth protecting, the ones for whom the fiends were always fiends—there is no harmony, no connection to the streets or the people who live there. They are not serving anyone; they are answering radio calls and running up the daily arrests, pulling down that court pay for jacking up one or two souls a day. They learn to throw the eyefuck back at the corner, to be cynical, brutal, and sometimes corrupt. They learn to hate.

Gone are the days in Baltimore when the police didn’t get court pay for just any arrest, when they were judged instead by the greater standard of how they controlled their posts, when a beat cop culled information and tried to solve those genuine crimes that ought to be solved, when detectives still bothered to follow up on street robberies and assaults. Now, the worst of the Western District regulars have become brutal mercenaries, cementing their street-corner reps with crushed fingers and broken noses, harvesting the corners for arrests that serve no greater purpose than to guarantee hour after hour of paid court time at Wabash. And among this new breed of patrolmen are quite a few who are known by touts and dealers to be corrupt, who routinely keep some of what comes out of the pockets of arrestees. Win or lose, for them the war on drugs means pay day.

There’s a racial irony at work, too. By the late seventies and early eighties, a predominantly white police department acquired enough racial consciousness to be wary of the most egregious acts of brutality. But on the Fayette Street corners today, it’s a new generation of young black officers that is proving itself violently aggressive. A white patrolman in West Baltimore has to at least take into account the racial imagery, to acknowledge the fact that he is messing with black folk in a majority black city. Not so his black counterparts, for whom brutality complaints can be shrugged off—not only because the victim was a corner-dwelling fiend, but because the racial aspect is neutralized. Not surprisingly, some of the most feared and most despised Western District officers along Fayette Street—Shields, Pitbull, Peanuthead, Collins—are black. They seem to prove just how divisive and alienating the drug war has become, and how class-consciousness more than race has propelled the city’s street police toward absolute contempt for the men and women of the corner.

Take, for example, the notable career of David Shields, a black officer who was allowed to run up four brutality complaints in little more than two years, yet stay on the street all of that time. A few months more and Shields claimed his first body—a twenty-one-year-old slinger from Monroe Street whom he chased into an alley and shot, the fatal bullet striking the victim from behind. And though the police review of the shooting cleared Shields, there wasn’t a soul on Fayette Street who believed that the knife on the ground actually belonged to the slinger, or that the young man was dead for any other reason than that he had run from one of the Western’s hardest and angriest soldiers. Finally, when one of the brutality complaints was sustained by an internal investigation and Shields was hit with a civil suit for brutality against a Fayette Street resident, the department moved him to desk duties. Shields may be the extreme in the Baltimore department, but many of those policing Fayette Street—black and white—routinely go out of their way to show contempt.

Take Pitbull Macer, who one day stood in the middle of Baltimore Street with his hand around Black Ronald’s neck, choking the tired, yellow-eyed tout, demanding that he cough up drugs that, in this rare instance at least, Black Ronald did not have. And Pitbull, still unsatisfied, pulled out Ronald’s wallet and let the contents—ID cards, telephone numbers, lotto tickets—tumble into the street as confetti, then drove away, leaving the man picking his papers out of the street in absolute humiliation.

Or Collins, perhaps, who one afternoon got out of his radio car, took off his gun belt, handed it to a fellow officer and offered to kick the shit out of fifteen-year-old DeAndre McCullough because the boy had taunted him with a hard look.

“You gonna beat a boy,” Fran Boyd had yelled at him, shaming him back into the radio car, “and you a grown man.”

Or a nameless Southern District patrolman, the one Ella Thompson saw on Baltimore Street, who grabbed a sixteen-year-old on a loitering charge at Baltimore and Gilmor, then punched him in the face as the boy stood cuffed against the radio car. “The boy said something to him,” Ella recalled. “And he just knocked him down.”

To watch this younger generation of police is to get no hint of the sadness involved, no suggestion that the men and women of the corner are tragic and pathetic and, on some basic level, as incapable as children. In Baltimore as in so many other cities, the great crusade is reduced to a dirty war, waged by young patrol officers and plainclothesmen already jaded beyond hope.

And yet the war grinds on. Not only because the police and prosecutors are vested in the disaster, but because the entire political apparatus is at the mercy of public expectation. In Baltimore, the mayor and council members and agency heads hear it at every community forum, every neighborhood association meeting from one end of the city to the other:

“I can’t walk to the market anymore.”

“They’re out there on the corner twenty-four hours a day.”

“I’m a prisoner in my own home.”

Even along Fayette Street, where so many of the residing families are drug-involved, there is a vocal minority, a long-suffering network of old-timers still clinging to pristine rowhouses. They’re the tired few who show up at the Franklin Square community meetings, who come out to the candidate forums, who are still willing to believe that government, if it truly cared, could end their nightmare. And they vote.

What is a police commander, a city councilman, even a mayor going to tell such people? The truth? That it can’t be stopped, that the thing is beyond even the best of governments? Is an elected official going to stand up and declare that all the street sweeps, the herding of the corner pigeons, the thousands upon thousands of arrests have accomplished nothing in places like Fayette Street? Is he going to take the risk of admitting that for the sake of public appearances and a salve to our collective conscience, we are squandering finite resources on a policy that can never work?

The district commanders, the narcotics captains, the plainclothesmen—at every rank in the Baltimore Police Department, they still defend the prevailing logic, citing as evidence those beleaguered souls who show up at the community forums and demand action. These people are desperate, they tell you. They need help. We’ve got no choice but to chase the fiends, if only to give these people a break. So like clockwork, the government sweeps the corners and sends the bodies to Wabash. But in Baltimore, not only is the street-level drug arrest not a solution, it’s actually part of the problem.

It’s not only that the street-level drug arrests have clogged the courtrooms, devouring time and manpower and money. And it’s not only that the government’s inability to punish so many thousands of violators has stripped naked the drug prohibition and destroyed government’s credibility for law enforcement. More than that, in cities like Baltimore, the drug war has become so untenable and impractical that it is slowly undermining the nature of police work itself.

Stupid criminals make for stupid police. This is a stationhouse credo, a valuable bit of precinct-level wisdom that the Baltimore department ignored as it committed itself to a street-level drug war. Because on Fayette Street and a hundred other corners like it, there is nothing for a patrolman or plainclothesman that is as easy, as guaranteed, and as profitable as a street-level drug arrest. With minimal probable cause, or none at all, any cop can ride into the circus tent, jack up a tout or runner, grab a vial or two, and be assured of making that good overtime pay up at Wabash. In Baltimore, a cop doesn’t even need to come up with a vial. He can simply charge a suspect with loitering in a drug-free zone, a city statute of improbable constitutionality that has exempted a good third of the inner city from the usual constraints of probable cause. In Baltimore if a man is standing in the 1800 block of Fayette Street—even if he lives in the 1800 block of Fayette Street—he is fodder for a street arrest.

As a result, police work in inner city Baltimore has been reduced to fish-in-a-barrel tactics, with the result that a generation of young officers has failed to learn investigation or procedure. Why bother to master the intricacies of probable cause when an anti-loitering law allows you to go into anyone’s pockets? Why become adept at covert surveillance when you can just go down to any corner, line them up against the liquor store, and search to your heart’s content? Why learn how to use, and not be used by, informants when information is so unnecessary to a street-level arrest? Why learn how to write a proper search warrant when you can make your court pay on the street, without ever having to worry about whether you’re kicking in the right door?

In district roll-call rooms across Baltimore, in drug unit offices, in radio cars parked hood-to-trunk on 7-Eleven parking lots, there are sergeants and lieutenants—veterans of a better time—who complain about troops who can’t write a coherent police report, who don’t understand how to investigate a simple complaint, who can’t manage to testify in district court without perjuring themselves.

Not surprisingly, as street-level drug arrests began to rise with the cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s, all other indicators of quality police work—and of a city’s livability—began to fall in Baltimore. The police department began using more and more of itself to chase addicts and touts through the revolving door at Wabash and the Eastside District Court, so there were fewer resources available to work shooting cases, or rapes, or burglaries.

For the first time in the modern history of the department, rates for felonies began falling below national averages. In one six-year span of time—1988 to 1993—the clearance rate for shootings fell from 60 to 47 percent, just as the solve rate for armed robbery fell below 20 percent for the first time ever. Arrests for rape declined by 10 percent, and the percentage of solved burglaries fell by a third. Alone among felonies, the arrest rate for murder remained constant in Baltimore, but only because the high-profile aspects of such crimes prevented department officials from gutting the homicide unit as every other investigative unit had been gutted. In a department where competent investigators were once legion, the headquarters building was threadbare; the coming generation of police was out on the streets, running the corners, trying to placate community forums and neighborhood associations with an enforcement logic of sound and fury that signified nothing.

In those same years, the war on drugs failed to take back a single drug corner, yet the city’s crime rate soared by more than 37 percent to all-time levels. In 1990, the city began suffering 300-plus murders a year—a rate unseen in Baltimore since the early 1970s, when baby-boom demographics and the lack of a comprehensive shock-trauma system could be blamed. Baltimore became the fourth most violent city in the nation, and its rate of cocaine and heroin use—as measured by emergency room statistics—was the worst in the United States. By 1996, the cumulative increase in the city’s crime rate was approaching 45 percent.

In time, fewer and fewer of those living near the corners were fooled. On Fayette Street, those paying attention had lived with the drug war and the drug culture long enough to discern the range that separates sin and vice. To them, it said something that the kid who had shot three people this month was still on the street, or that the crew that had been breaking into area stores and churches was at it again, hitting the Apostolic Church on Baltimore Street just this week. It said something that the stickup crews were working Fulton Avenue and Monroe Street with impunity, that no one bothered to even report armed robberies anymore because they knew there would be no follow-up investigation. And it said something, too, that the only police activity they did see all week was down at Mount and Fayette, where the Western District day shift was, yet again, rounding up a handful of the usual suspects.

Obsession with The Wire

The post below has spoilers, but not in the traditional sense. No plot lines are discussed, no eventuality given out, nothing that would take the pleasure out of experiencing the show on it’s own. Moreover, much of The Wire is contextual, moments point out to, but do not capture the entire import of a scene. So dive in.

It has been all consuming, this obsession with The Wire. Apart from the five seasons of the show (each a different novel at a different hierarchy, a different part of the puzzle), I have gone through an earlier HBO mini-series The Corner by the same team. I have also got my hands on a few seasons of Homicide and the mini-series Generation Kill, the first and the latest television forays respectively by David Simon. Treme is on my list next.

David Simon

I have also read Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets by David Simon, his first book coming together as a result of a gonzo journalistic experiment of spending a year with the modern day Sherlock Holmes, the murder police, the Homicide “detectives” of Baltimore city. I am currently halfway through Simon’s second book, The Corner : A Year in the life of an Inner City Neighborhood, this one where he spent a year observing the drug culture at a Baltimore corner, and reporting on the lives first hand.

Hey Yo, Blue Tops

For music, The Wire : Soundtrack has done the honors, and when that hasn’t sufficed, I have loaded on to a huge collection of hip-hop and rap, a genre I haven’t much heard at all. Since I first started watching the show, it is all I have been listening to.

This hasn’t sated the hunger though, I spent a good bit of time yesterday searching out a book called The Wire : Truth Be Told by one of the co-writers of the show. It has a series of articles on various aspects of The Wire and it’s impact. It opened with this fantastic introduction by David Simon, that I have read more than a couple of times since yesterday, even read out loud to friends. This slow burn is threatening to blow up into something much larger with me painstakingly finding out previous books by all writers who have contributed to the show, including George Pelecanos (The DC quartet), Richard Price (Clockers), Dennis Lehane (the whole lot). Yesterday, I found myself making a list of the books Simon first saw Ed Burns (his writing partner, an ex cop and teacher) with – The Magus by John Fowles. Bob Woodward’s Veil. A collection of essays by Hannah Arendt.

I have been greedy, and having been served in the immediate Think it-Get it world of internet resources, this entire experience has been squeezed into the last couple of months. I am fairly certain, an equivalent real life search and consumption of each of the above would be worth at least ten years of obsession and addiction with the characters and the various layers of The Wire.

SHEEEEEEEEEEEEIT. Clay Davis by Dennis Culver

Impressions of the series waver tremendously after each successive season. The big picture and the detailed pictures merge so hopelessly into each other that you don’t know who you are cheering for (or even if it makes sense to cheer for anyone). The emotions laying you low in a particular long story arc turn out at the other end of the city with someone else getting the short end of the stick in another season. My own impressions have gone through this tumble. I tried writing about The Wire after having closed in on the third season, and it didn’t quite come together. Yet, for all it’s gushing sentimentality it has in-situ feelings for the series. I am reproducing it for that reason, and that reason only.

One of the obvious disadvantages of having watched The Wire is that all cinematic representation there after loses it’s flavour. It directly conflicts all representation of characters like the cop, the judge, the politician, the gangster, the priest, the kid, the citizen, the criminal, the junkie and in the process makes every other representation in cinema or television or fiction seem overacted, overwritten, and overrated. Nothing else appeals anymore.

I had come to The Wire while accessing the list of best shows television has had to offer. Going through the same list, I have been watching Breaking BadThe Killing, and Justified. the latter two in-fact billed as cop shows. Each of these has been lauded at their own level for doing something new with the television show. And yet, once you are into The Wire, each and every one of such shows feel juvenile

I have thought long and hard about what would I say if I had to recommend The Wire as a watch. I’ve got it now.

The Wire resets one’s default settings about the world.

There is that story about me having asked a question to a research professor of mine who was extremely particular about the correctness of research, both mathematically and in the intangibles. I had asked him why do we need to be so particular with every single word when in the real world, a lot more out of control variables would make “correct research” an impossibility (because well, every research has finite time and money). He had zenly answered,”You must know the correct path to know how much you’ve deviated from it.”

If you’re in the game, you must know the rules. You do what you gotta do, but a man must have a code.

The Wire does it’s bit with re-aligning your world view with what is reality, and is pursued through intelligent, cunning and hard working men, all different ways to live, all with different ways to survive.

One usually describes a movie or television show or a book in positive terms as awesome, brilliant, mind blowing. A level above would be when it fucks with one’s expectations of it, in it’s entirety, in expectations with characters or scenes. Mind-fucked! Then there is another rarefied level, one that I can perhaps explain better as an example. George R. R. Martin created an entire universe for my pleasure. His characters are wholesome, real (even though his world’s not), one that I as a reader could inhabit in my head long after I was done with the experience of reading. What one could mean by real characters was that one could understand and identify with their motivations. That each character would be a believable (to steal a term from Richard Dawkins) “survival machine”, doing the best for itself with the circumstances provided to it without losing “it”self. As a reader, I was blown away with the number of layers in the world I got to experience, not only as objectified details but as different perspectives (Maybe that is what reality is, layers of superimposed different perspectives). It is magnificent. David Attenborough’s Planet Earth had a similar effect on me, with the added background that it WAS real and mighty educational.

The Wire is an amalgamation. It is about survival machines, it is real, and it is about us and society. And hell if it’s not educational. It is a step ahead too. It is about the world you and I live in, that we see around every day. It is about The City.

All in the game

David Simon in an Introduction to the Wire,

“We were bored with good and evil. To the greatest possible extent, we were quick to renounce the theme.

After all, with the exception of saints and sociopaths, few in this world are anything but a confused and corrupted combination of personal motivations, most of them selfish, some of them hilarious. Character is essential for all good drama, and plotting is just as fundamental. But ultimately, the storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world – these are stories that, in the end, have some chance of presenting a social, and even political, argument. And to be honest, The Wire was not merely trying to tell a good story or two. We were very much trying to pick a fight.

To that end, The Wire was not about Jimmy McNulty. Or Avon Barksdale. Or Marlo Stanfield, or Tommy Carcetti or Gus Haynes. It was not about crime. Or punishment. Or the drug war. Or politics. Or race. Or education, labor relations or journalism.

It was about The City.

It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanized species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St. Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the sides of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities – or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread – are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together.

The first time I heard about David Simon and his pronouncements of The Wire as having socio-political ramifications, I had scoffed. Whoever heard of a television show having socio-political intentions? Of course, I had heard about The Wire as having a cult following. More surprisingly for what initially appeared as a cops and robbers show, the endorsements came from a rather discerning class of persons, the intelligent, the pessimistic, the jaded, the players. Obama’s proclamation that The Wire was his favorite show had caught the eye, as had Peter Dinklage’s interview declaring The Wire as something else. As had a hundred other lists of Best TV Series ever. The entertainment value was never in question, so many touts couldn’t be guiding one to the wrong vial! And yet, “Socio-political” ramifications? No way.

Buy and Bust

The first season, starts as it does with procedural departmental bullshit within a city police department doesn’t endear itself much either. The first instance of the feeling that this was definitely a very different show came in episode 4 with the five minute “Fuck” scene, about which Simon says (from the same introduction above),

Perhaps the first fundamental test of our willingness to forgo exposition and an end-of-every-episode payoff came in the fourth episode of that first season, when D’Angelo Barksdale first claimed responsibility for the murder of a woman in an apartment out near the county line. Fronting for the boys in The Pit, D’Angelo describes the murder in some detail and suggests that he was the shooter. Later in the episode, McNulty and Bunk Moreland are in an emptied garden apartment, examining old crime-scene photos of a slain young woman and reworking the geometry of the murder.

The five-minute scene offers no explanation for itself beyond the physical activities of the detectives as they address the crime scene and the almost continuous use of the word ‘fuck’ in all its possible permutations – an insider’s homage to the great Terry McLarney, a veteran Baltimore murder police who once predicted that Baltimore cops, in their love of profanity, would one day achieve a new and viable language composed entirely of such.

A casual viewer could watch the scene and ascertain that the detectives had figured out the murder scenario. They conclude, in fact, by locating a rusting shell casing outside the kitchen window.

But what exactly is that scenario? And does it match the murder that D’Angelo spoke of earlier? And what were the white speckles on the floor in the crime-scene photo – the droplets that Bunk pointed to? And how did that lead McNulty to open the refrigerator door, then slam it closed? And why, for Chrissakes, will no one explain what the hell is going on?

For the answers, viewers would not have to merely wait out the episode, but all of them. Only during D’Angelo’s interrogation at the season’s end does he corroborate the crime scene details in a way that convinces Bunk and McNulty of his authenticity. And, even then, the exposition is at a minimum.

When D’Angelo explains that he had brought cocaine to the woman, who told him she would put it “on ice,” the detectives acknowledge the connection to their crime scene with a single word:

“Refrigerator,” says Bunk.

And McNulty nods casually.

Such calculating restraint offered viewers a chance to do something that television rarely, if ever, allows its audience: they were free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented, and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama. And the reward for such committed viewers would come not at the end of a scene or the end of an episode, but at the end of the season, indeed, at the end of the tale.

Still, I was all in by the end of the first season, embroiled, empowered and enlivened by the Jimmy McNulty bravado. McNulty was a case study in a person who routinely shoots himself in the foot, and yet from another perspective is trying desperately hard to do the right thing. Inspired from a real life homicide detective featuring prominently in Homicide, the book (Terry McLarney, who’s even written the afterword in that book), the attachment was immediate, the story arc scary.

Jimmy, Jimmy, Jimmyy

Then there was Frank Sobotka. I just could not accept or realign my understanding of a fair world and his reality. Season 2 is 12 episodes. At the end of episode 11, one I watched early in the day, I had so much heart-break that I had to practically withdraw from everything to mourn, my head filled with indignant anger. I stayed away from that last episode almost a week in a bid to delay the inevitable.

By the time I was into Season 3, I was rationing each episode to myself, like to a sick child, not exceeding a certain dosage per day. I had also begun reading Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, getting more fodder and rich background to my favorite part of the show, the Police department.

Simon had to take off the diamond stud from his ear to do research for this book. The detectives didn’t approve of it

The book is a treatise through a year with a homicide squad, and is truthful and stark about life as a cop and as a detective. The procedural integrity, chain of command and the board contrast so sharply with the actual work of solving murders and walking through death and decay everyday that you can’t help but notice the picture and the details. The resonance with chasing the juked statistic is felt sharply, a theme that builds across different institutions.

The Statistic

Not just major scenes or moments or storylines, but themes step out to me from the show, themes that disturbed me deeply, made me think, made me seek out others’ opinions. Like this one where this bright new drug lord, Marlo Stanfield steps into a convenience store and steals two lollipops in view of the security guard. Marlo is smart, ruthless, and bad ass. He’s the new kingpin, and gets a million self dosages of “You’re the best, niggah”. On that morning however, Marlo loses a good amount of money in card games with other big dealers. He comes out, is internally hurt and angry at losing, goes into the convenience store at the corner to buy something and then picks up a couple of lollipops as a a defiant Just so he can act (“Nigger’s killing niggers just coz he can, not because of business, not for profit; just killing coz he can. That shit ain’t right”- says an indignant Brodie at some different point in some different season),

[A security guard has spotted Marlo shoplifting lollipops at the corner store]
Security Guard: The fuck? You think I dream of coming to work up in this shit on a Sunday morning? Tell all my friends what a good job I got? I’m working to support a family, man.
[Marlo looks away]
Security Guard: Pretend I ain’t talking to you. Pretend like I ain’t even on this earth. I know what you are. Now, I ain’t stepping to, but I am a man. And you just clip that shit and act like you don’t even know I’m there.
Marlo Stanfield: I don’t.
[unwraps a stolen lollipop, throws wrapper on the ground]
Security Guard: I’m here.
[Marlo moves closer to him]
Security Guard: Look, I told you I ain’t stepping to. I ain’t disrespecting you, son.
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: What?
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: Man, I don’t want it to be —
Marlo Stanfield: You want it to be one way.
Security Guard: [losing temper] Man, stop —
[pulls himself together]
Security Guard: Stop saying that.
Marlo Stanfield: But it’s the other way.

From Obama, The Wire and Race in America,

Last year, the remarkable television series The Wire featured a scene in which Marlo Stanfield, a young man who combines entrepreneurial ambition with ruthless violence while taking over the west Baltimore drug trade, steals 50 cents’ worth of candy in full view of a security guard.

The security guard confronts him outside the ghetto storefront where Stanfield has committed this economically trivial but socially significant crime.

The guard knows who Stanfield is, and he’s enraged by the calculated act of disrespect. He says he’s just an ordinary law-abiding man, working at a convenience store on a Sunday morning, trying to support a family, while making less in a month than Stanfield makes in an hour. Stanfield replies, “You want it to be one way”; The guard is confused by this, so Stanfield repeats himself: “You want it to be one way. But it’s the other way.”

Part of The Wire’s power comes from its relentless insistence that, in places like west Baltimore, things are always “the other way”; In the ghetto, crime pays, honest work doesn’t and people who strive to overcome the bleak circumstances into which they were born are usually crushed by a brutally unfair and deeply corrupt system.

From here,

The security guard on the show knew who Marlo was and his capabilities in the neighborhood. The security guard wanted to try to chin check Marlo some because he wanted things to be the way he wanted them to be.  When it reality he didn’t fully understand that things were not the way he thought they were. He could have let Marlo walk out with the two dum dum suckers and went home to his family but he wanted to try things his way instead of recognizing the situation for what it was. I am not condoning the idea of the security guard being killed but the idea that he knew the rules of the street and decided to push against it was his downfall. He really wanted to be a security guard and do his job that bad over some dum dum suckers knowing that the man taking them was the biggest most dangerous drug dealer in Baltimore?

There are times where we have to survey the situation and understand that some the way we think things  are really are just a figment of our imagination. We then  have to ask ourselves the correct way we can go about the situation do we act it head on or do we find an alternative route around our issue or problem.

All this from one small scene. All this from that one small affrontage of losing a card game earlier in the day. And all of this mind-fuck from a character I don’t even want to think about, like who the fuck is Marlo Stanfield and what the fuck is he doing in my head.

You want it to be one way. Fuck you, it’s the other way.

Omar strollin’

David Simon says,

To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.

But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and thereby validating the amassed wealth of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless. The myth holds that those who are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work their asses off and come home and stay committed to their families, their communities and every other institution they are asked to serve – these people have a portion for them as well. They might not drive a Lexus, or eat out every weekend; their children might not be candidates for early admission at Harvard or Brown; and come Sunday, they might not see the game on a wide-screen. But they will have a place, and they will not be betrayed.

In Baltimore, as in so many cities, it is no longer possible to describe this as myth. It is no longer possible even to remain polite on the subject. It is, in a word, a lie.

Word out.

If there is a nirvana moment however, in  the show, it happened for me during a completely unexpected scene in Season Four with the kids. It was a far distance from where the first season had started, with an arrogant nod, a grin, a professional yeah, life’s fucked up, and we all know it refrain. For me, in that moment, it felt as if another part of the puzzle snapped back into place.

The Kids

The scene starts with three of the above four going into one of the vacant, boarded up dark row-houses to look for zombies. A couple of corner boys had disappeared from the neighborhood, and the urban myth perpetuating among the kids that Chris, a notorious drug killer is turning these corner boys into zombies. Dukie said there isn’t anything thing as zombies and he could prove it to Randy and Michael (who brings a baseball bat to the deserted house, just in case). They step into the house, scared of things that sound off at night, like any other young boys. Dukie then leads them to the corpse of one of the guys who was rumored to have transformed into a zombie.

See, he’s here. He ain’t moved”

And then, to calm down a confused Randy staring uncomprehendingly at the dead body, Dukie shares his depressing world wiseness,

“There ain’t no special dead. There’s just dead.”

I was overwhelmed by the scene, how it begins in an Enid Blyton fashion, and then just rips it through in-front of the kids, by the kids in fact. Reality pervades.

No doubt, The Wire is a pessimistic show. No matter where you stand, what you think about how things should be, The Wire will make you identify with a cause and see it get destroyed, and you depressed. You cannot be optimistic enough to not be depressed by the true stories in The Wire. You can’t be pessimistic enough to not be surprised by the true stories in The Wire. You cannot be realistic or pragmatic enough to not be engaged with the true stories in The Wire and in turn be depressed.

In that way, The Wire approximates the oft floated maxim Life Fucks Everybody. Because it’s true. It does.

The Wire is a show about earnest, hard working, conscientious, smart, cunning, self-serving, “good” characters (among the nincompoops and morons) who put their all into surviving and doing the right thing, the moral prerogatives of a life well lived. And yet, as in reality, despite best laid plans, they get fucked.

As an experiment with a micro-cosm of characters, The Wire shows that everyone gets fucked. Despite your best intentions, despite your smartness, despite your cause, despite your allegiance to the organization – whichever part of human civilization you belong to, it affects you. That the rot is systemic and endemic, that corruption is not a wishful immoral outsider but an integral part of the process and the system. That it doesn’t matter if you are good or bad, if you play by the rules or not, the rot still affects you.

The players might change, the rules might change,  but the Game is the same, and the game is rigged.

Oh Carcetti

There is a lot of unsaid subtext between individual good, community good, and society good. But David Simon voices it better,

We began writing The Wire when certain narratives were playing out within the American culture: the shocking frauds at the heart of Enron and Worldcom, outlying harbingers of the economic implosion that was still to come, as well as the institutional scandal of sexual abuse by priests and the self-preservation of the American branch of the Catholic Church. It seemed to us, back in 2002, that there was something hollow and ugly at our institutional core, and from what Ed Burns understood of the Baltimore police department and school system, and from what I had witnessed at the heart of that city’s newspaper, the institutional and systemic corruptions of our national life seemed near universal. In practical ways, America was becoming the land of the juked statistic – the false quarterly profit statement, the hyped school test score, the non-existent decline in crime, the impossible campaign promise, the hyped Pulitzer Prize.

We were observant, but not as prescient as the state of our nation now makes us seem. Or at least, we don’t now count ourselves as prescient; the enormity of the mortgage security scandal and the Wall Street pyramid schemes that wrecked the world economy were too shameless and absurd for even our fevered imaginations. We saw that there were elements in the culture that were parasitic and self-aggrandizing, that the greed and rapaciousness of a society that exalted profit and free markets to the exclusion of any other social framework would be burdened by such a level of greed. We understood that throughout our national culture, there was a growing inability to recognize our problems, much less deal honestly with them. But, forgive us, we had no idea that the greed had become policy, that the rogue elements were not being carried by corrupted systems, but were in command of those systems.

I have frequently been consumed by such ideas, gathering much the same conclusions from my own experiences. I am sure millions of us go through these same experiences and hide the truth each generation in a desperate bid to cling to an acceptable myth of ourselves, our jobs, our societies and the way we exist in and manage our cities.

Just like that, one understands what IS socio-political ramifications. Just like that, The Wire does it’s trick.

Despite the rich characterization and rich story arcs (or perhaps, because of them), you are left with a sense of something much larger than the engaging fun you had while watching a TV show. At various points of the show, my mind has been occupied with thoughts of McNulty, Bunk, Lester, Stringer, Omar, Poot, Slim Charles, Marlo, Proposition Joe, the Deacon, Major Bunny Colvin, Carcetti, Namond, Dukie, Prez, Frank, Niki, The Greek, and a hundred other characters that populate the universe of The Wire.

(Individual sketches by Dennis Culver, from his tumblr)

The Wire, Lineup of characters, sketched by Dennis Culver

But beyond each of these stories, the themes much larger than all of them put together jump out and stay with you. It makes you want to explore more such stories devoid of self elevating bullshit, about how people are seeing and living and coping with the real world.

Getting into the series is understandably tough, it has a LOT of characters, it does require you paying attention to the plot (“And all the pieces matter“), and the language is not very conducive to an immediate understanding (There are two characters in the show, in fact, coming into their own in the third and fourth season, Major Bunny Colvin and Deacon who play out a couple of scenes translating legalese, ghetto language, political and departmental bullshit into understandable words – The Deacon, in fact is played by Little Melvin Williams, straight out of jail, who inspired another character on the show, Stringer Bell ).

Subtitles are a necessary requirement, because it’s a whole new language to learn. As I learnt earlier in  the year while reading Trainspotting, the language and accent is an essential precursor to understanding the thoughts, and in both cases, entirely worth it. If you feel like it, stop when you encounter a new terminology like 5-O (shouted Five O), and google it, urban dictionary should give you a whole new vocabulary to work with. But commitment, it does seek.

Simon says,

As storytelling, it seemed like the best way to do business. But, even so, we had to acknowledge that this much plotting from episode to episode was an extraordinary risk, even for HBO. We would certainly lose some viewers: those who did not devote enough effort to follow the intricate story, those who gave it their all but were confused nonetheless, and those who, expecting an episodic television drama, would be bored to death by the novelistic pace of The Wire.

Bob Colesberry and I told ourselves repeatedly that we were making the drama for those remaining. A couple dozen or so hard cases, at least.

I certainly would unreservedly recommend the series.

Here’s where you can get the series. This is a painstaking collection by someone who must be as obsessed by the series. This is the best print you could find out there (only the first episode of the first season was re-shot in 720p HD). It also has the OST of the series. Also, all the series DVD extras.

The Wire Ultimate Box Set

Subtitles here.

Experience it and go spend on more new ventures by David Simon. As for those still obsessed with The Wire, here’s a parting gift, an extra from Season Five, About auditions.

Fascination with David Simon’s work : The Game is Rigged

We were trying to pick a fight

You can’t help being obsessed with The Wire and not being simultaneously fascinated with David Simon, the man behind the show. His journey is easy to trace back from The Wire. It owes it’s direct ascendants, the books Homicide : A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner : A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood, where in the former Simon spent a year with Homicide division of Baltimore city, and for the latter crossed over to the opposite side, to observe and write about the policed corner of Baltimore neighborhood. Both those books cover true stories, and much of The Wire reflects those stories. The Wire is more harrowing on the psyche however  than any fictional creation. In true Gonzo creationism, it has created a world, which though different in it’s physicality, but has just the same type of games as yours. The insistent message that one carries through is

“The players might change, but the game goes on. And the game is rigged.”

There is a lot that I want to write about on The Wire, which I shall probably cover in a subsequent post, but for now I want to pave the way for Simon who introduces his creation in a book called The Wire : Truth be told, which has essays on different aspects of the show by various people involved in the making (including a brilliant piece tying together Obama’s favorite sport, basketball and favorite show, The Wire with his political choices) .

TRUTH BE TOLD

The David Simon write-up below forms the introduction to the book and is a mash-up of motivations to get the series together, a sort of bibliographic reference to sources, and a thank you to all  collaborators. Now, this would sound like a load of bullshit coming from another author riding on the crest of a success. Simon however is arguing about nations feeding self elevating bullshit to their people generation upon generation to continue with an idealized image, a mythology. There is bitching about the television format sold to the commercial break, there is unbelieving head-shakes at the systemic and endemic corruption governing our national life which seems near universal. All themes that I highly resonated with (even though, as he says, I am not proletarian). It’s a fascinating and brilliant read.

Links to some more of Simon’s interviews and articles at the end of this piece, if you want to catch up.

On to David Simon.

INTRODUCTION to THE WIRE

by David Simon

“We’re building something here … and all the pieces matter.”
DETECTIVE LESTER FREAMON

Swear to God, it was never a cop show. And though there were cops and gangsters aplenty, it was never entirely appropriate to classify it as a crime story, though the spine of every season was certain to be a police investigation in Baltimore, Maryland. But to say so nearly a decade ago, back when The Wire first premiered on HBO, would have been to invite certain ridicule. It would have sounded comically pretentious to have invoked Lester Freamon’s claim.

As a medium for serious storytelling, television has precious little to recommend it – or at least that has been the case for most of its history. What else can we expect from a framework in which the most pregnant moment in the story has for decades been the commercial break, that five-times-an-hour pause when writers, actors, and directors are required to juke the tale enough so that a trip to the refrigerator or bathroom does not mean a walk away from the television set, or, worse yet, a click on the remote to another channel.

In such a construct, where does a storyteller put any serious ambition? Where are the tales to reside safely and securely, but in the simplest paradigms of good and evil, of heroes, villains, and simplified characterization? Where but in plotlines that remain accessible to the most ignorant or indifferent viewers. Where but in the half-assed, don’t-rattle-their-cages uselessness of self-affirming, self-assuring narratives that comfort the American comfortable, and ignore the American afflicted; the better to sell Ford trucks and fast food, beer and athletic shoes, iPods and feminine hygiene products. Consider that for generations now the cathode-ray glow of our national campfire, the televised reflection of the American experience – and, by extension, that of the Western free-market democracies – has come down to us from on high. Westerns and police procedurals and legal dramas, soap operas and situation comedies – all of it conceived in Los Angeles and New York by industry professionals, then shaped by corporate entities to calm and soothe as many viewers as possible, priming them with the idea that their future is better and brighter than it actually is, that the time is never more right to buy and consume.

Until recently, all of television has been about selling. Not selling story, of course, but selling the intermissions to that story. And therefore little programming that might interfere with the mission of reassuring viewers as to their God-given status as indebted consumers has ever been broadcast – and certainly nothing in the form of a continuing series. For half a century, network television wrapped its programs around the advertising – not the other way around, as it may have seemed to some. This is not to deny that HBO is a large and profitable piece of Time Warner, which itself is a paragon of Wall Street monolith. The Wire’s 35mm misadventure in Baltimore – for any of its claims to iconoclasm – is nonetheless sponsored by a media conglomerate with an absolute interest in selling to consumers. And yet, on that conglomerate’s premium cable cannel, the only product being sold is the programming itself. In that distinction, there is all the difference.

Beginning with Oz and culminating in The Sopranos, the best work on HBO expresses nothing less than the vision of individual writers, as expressed through the talents of directors, actors, and film crews. For a rare window in the history of television, nothing much gets in the way of that. Story is all.

If you laughed, you laughed. If you cried, you cried. And if you thought – and there is actually no prohibition on such merely because you had a TV remote in your hand – then you thought. And if you decided, at any point – as many an early viewer of The Wire did – to change the channel, then so be it. But on HBO, nothing other than the stories themselves was for sale and therefore – absent the Ford trucks and athletic shoes – there is nothing to mitigate against a sad story, an angry story, a subversive story, a disturbing story.

The first thing we had to do was teach folks to watch television in a different way, to slow themselves down and pay attention, to immerse themselves in a way that the medium had long ago ceased to demand. And we had to do this, problematically enough, using a genre and its tropes that for decades have been accepted as basic, obvious storytelling terrain. The crime story long ago became a central archetype of our culture, and the labyrinth of the inner city has largely replaced the spare, unforgiving landscape of the American West as the central stage for our morality plays. The best crime shows – Homicide and NYPD Blue, or their predecessors, Dragnet and Police Story – were essentially about good and evil. Justice, revenge, betrayal, redemption – there isn’t much left in the tangle between right and wrong that hasn’t been fully, even brilliantly explored by the likes of Friday and Pembleton and Sipowicz.

By contrast, The Wire had ambitions elsewhere. Specifically, we were bored with good and evil. To the greatest possible extent, we were quick to renounce the theme.

After all, with the exception of saints and sociopaths, few in this world are anything but a confused and corrupted combination of personal motivations, most of them selfish, some of them hilarious. Character is essential for all good drama, and plotting is just as fundamental. But ultimately, the storytelling that speaks to our current condition, that grapples with the basic realities and contradictions of our immediate world – these are stories that, in the end, have some chance of presenting a social, and even political, argument. And to be honest, The Wire was not merely trying to tell a good story or two. We were very much trying to pick a fight.

To that end, The Wire was not about Jimmy McNulty. Or Avon Barksdale. Or Marlo Stanfield, or Tommy Carcetti or Gus Haynes. It was not about crime. Or punishment. Or the drug war. Or politics. Or race. Or education, labor relations or journalism.

It was about The City.

It is how we in the West live at the millennium, an urbanized species compacted together, sharing a common love, awe, and fear of what we have rendered not only in Baltimore or St. Louis or Chicago, but in Manchester or Amsterdam or Mexico City as well. At best, our metropolises are the ultimate aspiration of community, the repository for every myth and hope of people clinging to the sides of the pyramid that is capitalism. At worst, our cities – or those places in our cities where most of us fear to tread – are vessels for the darkest contradictions and most brutal competitions that underlie the way we actually live together, or fail to live together.

Mythology is important, essential even, to a national psyche. And Americans in particular are desperate in their pursuit of national myth. This is understandable, to a point: coating an elemental truth with the bright gloss of heroism and national sacrifice is the prerogative of the nation-state. But to carry the same lies forward, generation after generation, so that our collective sense of the American experiment is better and more comforting than it ought to be – this is where mythology has its cost, and a cost not only to the United States but to the world as a whole. In a young and struggling nation, a moderate degree of self-elevating bullshit has a certain earnest charm. For a militarized, technological superpower – overextended in both its economic and foreign policy impulses – it begins to approach the Orwellian.

We began writing The Wire when certain narratives were playing out within the American culture: the shocking frauds at the heart of Enron and Worldcom, outlying harbingers of the economic implosion that was still to come, as well as the institutional scandal of sexual abuse by priests and the self-preservation of the American branch of the Catholic Church. It seemed to us, back in 2002, that there was something hollow and ugly at our institutional core, and from what Ed Burns understood of the Baltimore police department and school system, and from what I had witnessed at the heart of that city’s newspaper, the institutional and systemic corruptions of our national life seemed near universal. In practical ways, America was becoming the land of the juked statistic – the false quarterly profit statement, the hyped school test score, the non-existent decline in crime, the impossible campaign promise, the hyped Pulitzer Prize.

We were observant, but not as prescient as the state of our nation now makes us seem. Or at least, we don’t now count ourselves as prescient; the enormity of the mortgage security scandal and the Wall Street pyramid schemes that wrecked the world economy were too shameless and absurd for even our fevered imaginations. We saw that there were elements in the culture that were parasitic and self-aggrandizing, that the greed and rapaciousness of a society that exalted profit and free markets to the exclusion of any other social framework would be burdened by such a level of greed. We understood that throughout our national culture, there was a growing inability to recognize our problems, much less deal honestly with them. But, forgive us, we had no idea that the greed had become policy, that the rogue elements were not being carried by corrupted systems, but were in command of those systems. We could not have imagined Katrina and the hollow response to that tragedy. We could not have fathomed the empty lies and self-delusions that brought about the senseless misadventure in Iraq. We had a good argument, as far as we knew; but in the beginning we didn’t know how good.

To state our case, The Wire began as a story wedged between two American myths. The first tells us that in this country, if you are smarter than the next man, if you are shrewd or frugal or visionary, if you build a better mousetrap, if you get there first with the best idea, you will succeed beyond your wildest imaginations. And by virtue of free-market processes, it is entirely fair to say that this myth, more than ever, happens to be true. Not only is this accurate in America, but throughout the West and in many emerging nations as well. Every day, a new millionaire or three is surely christened. Or ten. Or twenty.

But a supporting myth has also presided, and it serves as ballast against the unencumbered capitalism that has emerged triumphant, asserting as it does for individual achievement to the exclusion of all societal responsibility, and thereby validating the amassed wealth of the wise and fortunate among us. In America, we once liked to tell ourselves, those who are not clever or visionary, who do not build better mousetraps, have a place held for them nonetheless. The myth holds that those who are neither slick nor cunning, yet willing to get up every day and work their asses off and come home and stay committed to their families, their communities and every other institution they are asked to serve – these people have a portion for them as well. They might not drive a Lexus, or eat out every weekend; their children might not be candidates for early admission at Harvard or Brown; and come Sunday, they might not see the game on a wide-screen. But they will have a place, and they will not be betrayed.

In Baltimore, as in so many cities, it is no longer possible to describe this as myth. It is no longer possible even to remain polite on the subject. It is, in a word, a lie.

In my city, the brown fields and rotting piers and rusting factories are testament to an economy that shifted and then shifted again, rendering obsolete whole generations of union-wage workers and their families. The cost to society is beyond calculation, not that anyone ever paused to calculate anything. Our economic and political leaders are dismissive of the horror, at points even flippant in their derision. Margaret Thatcher’s suggestion that there is no society to consider beyond the individual and his family speaks volumes in the clarity of its late-20th-century contempt for the ideal of nation-states offering citizens anything approximating a sense of communal purpose and meaning.

From Sparrows Point at the southeastern approaches to my city, the corporate remnant of the once-great Bethlehem Steel informs thousands of retirees that money is no longer available for their pensions. Men who worked the blast furnaces and shipyards – the very men who built Liberty ships to beat Hitler and Mussolini – are told that while they may suffer from asbestosis, they no longer have health benefits or life insurance.

From the piers of what was once Maryland Ship & Drydock, luxury condominiums and townhomes now rise in place of industrial cranes, while the yachts and powerboats of Washingtonians speckle an inlet where the world’s great shipping lines once maneuvered. And, as predicted, the grain tower and pier that Frank Sobotka tried to salvage in The Wire’s second season did indeed fall to the developers, who have transformed it into something called Silo Point, featuring luxury housing rather than union-wage jobs.

From Johns Hopkins University – now, by default, the city’s largest employer – comes the news that the remaining families who survived generations of poverty, neglect, and addiction in the barren ghetto just north of the East Baltimore Hospital would be moved out entirely, allowing the university to bulldoze their blocks into a biotechnology park. For most of the last century, Hopkins and city officials could find no meaningful way to connect the great research institution with surrounding communities; finally, they destroyed what remained of the village in order to save it.

From the city school system comes year after year of failure and decay, with graduation rates of no more than 30 percent as we prepare Baltimore’s children to join an economy that has no real need for them. And with each passing election, the test scores magically rise at the third and fifth grades, before collapsing entirely two years later when the same students – having been taught both the test and the Orwellian perfection of the slogan, “No Child Left Behind” – finally opt out and disappear from the classrooms, choosing the corners instead. From the police department, the arrest rates go ever higher as raw statistics dominate actual police work, and the numbers game ensures that the most incompetent commanders are promoted over those actually capable of investigating crime. The clearance rate for homicides – in the 80 percent range 20 years ago – is now below 35 percent.

And from the city’s last remaining daily newspaper, a string of buyouts and attritions now leaves Baltimore’s premiere watchdog institution with 140 reporters to report on a city once covered by 500 souls. And the Baltimore Sun is not alone in its collapse; from Martin-Marietta to Koppers to Black & Decker to General Motors comes a seemingly endless string of layoffs, reductions-in-force, half-shifts and idle assembly lines. And the city empties; drive through East or West Baltimore and behold a world of boarded-up rowhouses and vacant lots.

The new Baltimore? The Baltimore reborn?

It is here, too, at points, certainly: new technologies, tourism, an ever-expanding service economy. And yet this Baltimore is distant from too many people, heard only as a rumor in the east and westside ghettos, in Pimlico and Brooklyn and Curtis Bay and Cherry Hill. For too many in those neighborhoods, the new Baltimore exists as vague talk about a job at a computer screen well beyond the county line, where mice scrape on pads and cursors ticktack through data streams. If you sensed the sea change and caught the wave – if you were smart enough to tear up your union card and walk away from your father’s local to start over at a community college somewhere – then you are there in that world, perhaps, and not here in this one, and maybe it is all for the better.

But so many were left in the shallows – men and women on the streets of Baltimore who are, every day, reminded that the wave has crested, and that now, with the economic tide at an ebb, they are simply worth less than they once were, if they are worth anything at all in a post-industrial economy. Unemployed and under-employed, idle at a West Baltimore soup kitchen or dead-ended at some strip-mall cash register – these are the excess Americans. The economy staggers along without them, and without anyone in this society truly or sincerely regarding their desperation. Ex-steelworkers and ex-longshoremen, street dealers and street addicts, and an army of young men hired to chase and jail the dealers and addicts, whores and johns and men to run the whores and coerce the johns – and all of them unnecessary and apart from the New Millenium economic model that long ago declared them irrelevant.

This is the world of The Wire, the America left behind.

Make no mistake: a solitary television drama cannot – and would not – claim to be all of Baltimore, or by extension, all of America. The Wire does not claim to represent all of anything as large, diverse, and contradictory as the American experience. Our storylines and our cameras rarely ventured to Roland Park or Mount Washington or Timonium, and the lives misspent and misused in our episodes are not the guarded, viable lives of private schools and county tax-bases and tree-lined business parks. The Wire is most certainly not about what has been salvaged or exalted in America. It is, instead, about that portion of our country that we have discarded, and at what cost to our national psyche we have done so. It is, in its larger themes, a television show about politics and sociology, and, at the risk of boring viewers with the very notion, macroeconomics. And, frankly, it is an angry show, but that anger comes honestly.

I used to work at a great gray newspaper in Baltimore until Wall Street found the newspaper industry and eviscerated it for short-term profits, and out-of-town chain ownership proved that they could make more money producing a mediocre newspaper than a good one. The worship of the bottom line, coupled with the venalities of transplanted, prize-sniffing editors, sucked all joy from the place. My co-creator and fellow writer, Ed Burns, worked at a police agency in Baltimore, until organizational politics and Peter-Principled, self-preserving commanders undermined the best police work. On the writing staff of the show since the first season, George Pelecanos sold shoes and tended bar, and then spent years researching and writing novels about that portion of the nation’s capital that remains virtually invisible to the nation’s leaders, the Shaws and Anacostias where black life is marginalized in the very shadow of the great edifices of American democracy. A fourth writer, Rafael Alvarez, saw his father’s career on Baltimore’s harbor tugs end on the picket line outside McAllister Towing and was himself working as an ordinary seaman on a cable-laying ship when HBO came calling for an episode or two. A fifth, Richard Price, spent hour after hour, day after day in the Jersey City housing projects to find his lost and tragic voices, just as a sixth, Boston’s Dennis Lehane, brought to the page the working-class hurt and hunger of the rough-and-tumble Charlestown and Dorchester neighborhoods. And don’t leave out Bill Zorzi, who spent years covering the smoky backrooms of Baltimore politics before joining the staff to help create and guide the show’s political dynamic.

These are professional writers, of course. It would be a pompous fraud to claim that those of us who inhabited The Wire’s writing room are perfectly proletarian. It is one thing to echo the voices of longshoremen and addicts, detectives and dealers, quite another to claim those voices as our own. The D’Angelo Barksdales and Frank Sobotkas live in their worlds; we visit from time to time with pens poised above splayed notepads.

But neither would it be fair to categorize The Wire as a television show written and produced by people who were intent on writing and producing television. None of us is from Hollywood; soundstages and backlots and studio commissaries are not our natural habitat. Hell, never mind Los Angeles, with the exception of Price – and his great Dempsey books speak to the worn Jersey cities across the river – we are not even from the literary capital of New York.

Instead, The Wire and its stories are rooted in the ethos of a second-tier city, of a forgotten rust-belt America. No, it isn’t as if the angriest and most alienated souls in West Baltimore or Anacostia or Dorchester actually hijacked an HBO drama series and began telling tales. But, at this point, it’s as close as television has come to such an improbability.
Which credits HBO as well, for giving us the chance to voice something other than the industry’s standard fare. The Wire could not exist but for HBO, or, more precisely, a pay-subscription model such as HBO. Nor could Oz or The Sopranos or Deadwood or Generation Kill. These are stories that can entertain and amuse, but also disturb and nettle an audience. They can, at their best, provoke viewers – if not to the point of an argument, then at least to the point of a thought or two about who we are, how we live, and what it is about our society and the human condition that makes it so.

The first season of The Wire was a dry, deliberate argument against the American drug prohibition – a Thirty Years’ War that is among the most singular and comprehensive failures to be found in the nation’s domestic history. It is impossible to imagine pitching such a premise to a network television executive under any circumstances. How, he might wonder, do I help my sponsors sell luxury sedans and pre-washed jeans to all the best demographics while at the same time harping on the fact that the American war on drugs has mutated into a brutal suppression of the underclass?

The second season of The Wire was even more of a lighthearted romp: a treatise about the death of work and the betrayal of the working class, as exemplified by the decline of a city’s port unions. And how exactly do we put Visa-wielding consumers in a buying mood when they are being reminded of how many of their countrymen – black, white and brown – have been shrugged aside by the march of unrestrained, bottom-line capitalism?

Season Three? A rumination on our political culture and the thin possibility of reform, given the calcified oligarchy that has made raw cash and simple soundbites the mother’s milk of American elections. And having established our City Hall, the stage is set for viewers to coldly contemplate the state of public education and, by extension, the American ideal of equality of opportunity and what that might mean for the likes of Michael, Namond, Randy, and Duquan in the drama’s fourth season.

Finally, for anyone who has come as far as season five, a last reflection on why these worlds endure, why the crime stats stay juked and the test scores stay cheated and the majors become colonels while the mayors become governors – a depiction of what remains of our media culture, a critique that makes plain why no one is left to do the hard work of explaining the precise nature of our national problems, so that we have become a nation that comfortably tolerates failing schools and corrupting drug wars, broken levees and bought politicians.

And through all of this, how can a television network serve the needs of advertisers while ruminating on the empty spaces in American society and informing viewers that they are a disenfranchised people, that the processes of redress have been rusted shut, and that no one – certainly not our mass media – is going to sound any alarm?

The decoupling of the advertising construct from a broadcast entity was the key predicate for the political maturation of televised drama. It made it possible for writers such as Burns, Price, Lehane and Pelecanos to work in television without succumbing to shame and self-loathing. And again, HBO was smart enough to simply let it be.

As I learned on my earlier experience in network television, the NBC executives used to ask the same questions every time they read a first-draft Homicide script:

“Where are the victories?”

Or better still:

“Where are the life-affirming moments?”

Never mind that the show was called Homicide, as head writer and executive producer Tom Fontana liked to repeatedly point out, and never mind that it was being filmed in a city struggling with entrenched poverty, rampant addiction, and generations of de-industrialization.

Brave soul that he is, when Fontana wanted to write three successive episodes in which a violent drug trafficker escaped all punishment, he was told he could do so only if the detectives shot and killed the villain at the end of a fourth episode.

Good one, evil nothing. Cut to commercial.

To bring it all the way back, The Wire had its actual origins in the main Baltimore County library branch in Towson, where I went as a police reporter to schmooze a city homicide detective named Ed Burns.

It was 1985, and I was working on a series of newspaper articles about a career drug trafficker whom Burns and his partner, Harry Edgerton, had managed to bring down with a prolonged wiretap investigation. Edgerton, or at least his facsimile, would later become known to NBC viewers as Detective Frank Pembleton. But Burns? Too implausible a character, even for network.

When I first met Ed, he was sitting by the checkout desk, a small pile of books atop the table in front of him. The Magus by John Fowles. Bob Woodward’s Veil. A collection of essays by Hannah Arendt.

“You’re not really a cop, are you?”

Seven years later, when Burns – having alienated many of his bosses in McNulty-like fashion with his sprawling investigations of violent drug gangs in the Westside projects – was contemplating retirement and life as a city schoolteacher, I approached him with an alternative.

If he could delay his teaching career for a year and a half or so, we could venture together to one of Baltimore’s one hundred or so open-air drug markets, meet the people, and write a book about the drug culture that had consumed so much of our city. Which corner? Pick a corner, any corner, at random.

The idea appealed to Ed, who had spent 20 years watching the city police department win battle after battle with individual drug traffickers, yet continue to lose the war. As a patrolman in the Western District, a plainclothesman assigned to the escape squad, and finally a homicide detective, Burns was impressed by the organizational ethos of the West Baltimore drug trade. Amoral and brutal they might be, but the true players were committed – more committed, perhaps, than much of the law enforcement arrayed against them. It was not unlike Vietnam, he acknowledged, and it is fair to say that as a veteran of that losing effort as well, Ed Burns was more entitled than most to render the comparison.

We Brothers B

We chose Monroe and Fayette streets in West Baltimore and spent 1993 and much of the ensuing three years following the people there. The Corner was published in 1997, and by then – with my newspaper increasingly the playground of tone-deaf, out-of-town hacks – I had moved across town to the writing staff of Homicide, hired by Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana.

As a day job, it was a great one. And I found that the artifice of film and the camaraderie were enough to offset my exile from the Sun’s city desk, where I had long imagined myself growing old and surly, bumming cigarettes from younger reporters in exchange for back-in-the-day stories about what it was like to work with Mencken and Manchester.

Script by script, Tom shaved my prose style until the pacing and dialogue began to show muscle. Then he slowly began adding fresh responsibilities, sending me to set calls and casting sessions and editing. Jim Finnerty, the production manager and line producer who has long played Stringer Bell to Fontana’s Avon Barksdale, offered lessons of his own in practical filming, crew management, and, most of all, making the day.

“You become a producer to protect your writing,” Fontana explained.

By the time The Corner was published, Tom was already locked down in Oswald Penitentiary, proving to HBO and the world in general that even the most discomfiting drama now had a place on American television. Perhaps, I thought to myself, there was room at HBO or some other premium channel for something as dark as life on an open-air drug corner.
Tom and Barry didn’t see The Corner as material for a continuing series, but Fontana was good enough to call Anne Thomopoulos at HBO on my behalf. At the resulting meeting, it became clear that the cable channel was willing to take a shot, provided I could pair myself with a black writer.

It didn’t matter to me one way or the other – I knew I had those Fayette Street voices in my head – but the other white folk in the room were not about to let a lone pale scribbler produce a miniseries about black drug addicts and dealers.

“How about David Mills?” I ventured.

One of the HBO execs in the room, Kary Antholis, startled. “Do you know David Mills?”

“We’re friends. I worked on my college newspaper with him. We wrote our first script together.” And so we had. A second-season Homicide episode in which Robin Williams had guest-starred. Mills had taken that outcome as an omen, quitting his reporting job at the Washington Post and moving to Los Angeles, where he had spent five years making a name for himself in network television. Kary had known about Mills for a long time.

“If you can get Mills on this, that would be great.”

I volunteered him as an executive producer, no problem. And upon leaving the HBO offices, I used a cell phone to catch the man at home: “Hey, David. I know what you’re doing for the next year.”

On the production side, Jim Finnerty volunteered a protégé, assuring me I could do no better for myself. Nina Noble had been first assistant director on the premiere season of Homicide and had worked her way up in the Fontana organization. Of course, I immediately agreed to the partnership: a recommendation from Finnerty is enough for such things.
Mills, Noble, myself – that was all the producing we needed for a six-hour miniseries, or so I thought. But HBO had doubts aplenty, and the execs wanted a visual producer in the mix. Antholis arranged interviews in New York with several candidates.

Enter Bobby Colesberry, whose résumé of nearly two decades producing high-end features made me nervous. I saw myself and David fighting with Feature Boy over the down-and-dirty scripts, and over the rough-and-tumble, handheld manner in which we wanted to shoot the drug corners. I saw Nina, too, fighting with him to keep the budget down, to make him realize that series television was not a place for two-page days and arcing crane shots.

So there was little trust in Kary’s office that day, particularly when we walked in and saw a copy of The Corner splayed open in front of this Colesberry fellow, its pages already marked up in two different colors of ink. A healthier soul might have taken this as a good sign: here was a producer, a veteran of an industry where studio suits reduce all stories to single-sentence concepts, endeavoring to read a 550-page tome and then begin charting scenes and shots in his head. Instead, I’m embarrassed to say, I trusted him not at all.

“We’ll take your script notes, but the last pass is ours.”

Bob agreed.

“And we don’t want to be frozen out of production. We’re not as experienced as you, but David and I know how to put film in the can.”

No problem.

Months later, with The Corner beautifully cast and crewed, and with Charles “Roc” Dutton turning in magnificent dailies as the director of all six hours, I thought back to that first meeting with Bob Colesberry and realized I did not want to put anything to film ever again without him. For something that had begun as a shotgun wedding, it was turning out to be quite a marriage.

Looking past The Corner even before it aired, I thought about what it was that I still wanted to say about the drug war, about policing, and, ultimately, about what was happening in the city where I lived.

The Corner was the diaspora of addiction brought down to microcosm – a single, broken family struggling amid the deluge in West Baltimore. The scripts had allowed us to probe the human dimension of the tragedy; the failure of policy, however, could only be implied with something so intimate.

And so back to Mr. Burns, who was by now getting the full dose of the Baltimore public educational system as a middle-school teacher of social studies. There were days, Ed assured me, when a Western District patrol shift felt safer and more manageable than a tour of duty at Hamilton Middle School.

We turned in the pilot script a few months after HBO had collected a trio of Emmys for The Corner, and, so, the timing felt right. After all, had we not delivered on that previous project? Just write some checks and send us back to Baltimore where we belong.

But Carolyn Strauss and Chris Albrecht were unconvinced. The show’s emphasis on surveillance would be new, and the tone of the piece was different from network fare, but The Wire, as it began to be called, still appeared to be a cop show. And HBO’s primary concern became apparent: if the networks do cop shows, why are we doing one? The nightmare was to imagine critics across the country finally declaring that this was not in fact HBO, but TV.

I asked Carolyn for a chance to write two additional scripts, if only to show that the pacing, arc, and intention of this drama would be decidedly different from anything on a network. She agreed, and I went back to work as The Corner team drifted away, looking for fresh work elsewhere.

Nina Noble produced and managed the HBO movie Shot in the Heart for Fontana-Levinson, then headed home to North Carolina. Dave Mills went back to Los Angeles and began banging his head against the network wall, working on a series of pilots and producing a promising gangster epic, Kingpin, which, in true network fashion, would be canceled after six episodes. Bob Colesberry returned to features, producing the science fiction film K-Pax with Kevin Spacey.

In the end, it took HBO more than a year to agree to shoot even a pilot. There was a second pass of the three scripts, followed by a begging-ass memo to Chris Albrecht by yours truly, followed by an ingathering of The Corner crew – save only for David Mills, who could not be budged from a fat development deal. I remember picking up the phone to call Colesberry in Los Angeles, catching him as he was just completing post-production on the Spacey film.

“I bet you thought that HBO show was dead,” I remember saying to him.

“Very dead,” he admitted.

Asked what I had done to get the green light on the pilot, I confessed that other than begging Chris Albrecht, I was not entirely sure. I read Bob the memo over the phone, and in his own gentle, Bob-like way, he affirmed that it was pathetic, and that, ever after, I should consider myself Mr. Albrecht’s bitch.

“Also, no one likes the name Jimmy McArdle.”

Bob considered this for a moment. “How about McNulty?”

“Jimmy McNulty.”

“It’s my grandmother’s family name.”

“McNulty it shall be.”

By November 2001 we were back on the streets of West Baltimore. The scripts were in many ways the same ones that I had originally turned in, albeit with some scenes added to the pilot that hinted at the surveillance techniques that would be employed later in the season, once the detail had slowly earned the probable cause to secure a wiretap.

The casting by Alexa Fogel in New York and Los Angeles, and the redoubtable Pat Moran in Baltimore, surpassed all expectations.

Only the role of McNulty gave us fits, until a bizarre videotape landed in Baltimore, shipped from a London address. On it, an actor was tearing through the orange-sofa scene in which Bunk and McNulty jack up a reluctant D’Angelo, search him, find his pager, then walk him away in handcuffs.

Unlike every other casting tape ever made, however, this one seemed to be the merest suggestion of a scene. The actor, a square-jawed, Jack-the-Lad sort named West, was reading the McNulty lines, then pausing in silence, reacting to emptiness where the responding lines should have been.

With several weeks of fruitless searching for a lead actor weighing on our souls, the tape caught us off guard. Bob and I watched this weird half-scene for a long moment, then fell out of our chairs, laughing uncontrollably. Hearing us, Clark Johnson, the Homicide veteran who was directing the pilot, entered the room, watched a few moments of tape, then joined us on the floor.

“What the hell is this goofy motherfucker doing?”

The audition tape may have been comic, but the performance itself – when we gathered our wits and began to concentrate on what the actor had going – was impressive. A week later in New York, Dominic West explained that he couldn’t get anyone in London to read the scene with him, and he didn’t have access to a casting office to put himself on tape. His girlfriend had tried to help, but her full English accent kept making him laugh, throwing off the scene. Best she could do was keep quiet and hold the video camera steady.

“I didn’t know what else to do,” our McNulty confessed, “except say my lines and leave spaces where the other lines are supposed to be.”

By the time we returned to shooting the remainder of the first season, Ed Burns and I had drafts of the first six episodes in hand, as well as elaborate beatsheets that brought us all the way to the final episodes. Deliberate planning and overarching professionalism had exactly nothing to do with it, but rather a sense that a story so intricate, with so many characters and so much plotting, had to be considered a single entity.

An early script note from HBO execs – who, by and large, were gentle and discerning with their input – argued that an early-episode robbery by Omar and his crew should be omitted, primarily because the robbery was perpetrated on random street dealers who had no value to the central plot.

Our counterargument was basic: wait.

Omar seemed an aside early on, just as Lester Freamon and Wallace seemed to be mere hangers-on. But in time, they would prove themselves essential to the story. And we needed the street robbery to hold Omar’s place in the tale, to remind viewers that he and his crew were still in the world, so that by the fifth episode, when McNulty and Greggs try to pull him up for information, we are still aware of who, exactly, this much-talked-about Omar is and what it is he does for a living.

After all, we had it in mind that we would not explain everything to viewers. The show’s point of view was that of the insider, the proverbial fly on the wall – and we had no intention of impairing that point of view by pausing to catch up the audience. Consequently, all of the visual cues and connections would need to be referenced fully and at careful intervals.

Perhaps the first fundamental test of our willingness to forgo exposition and an end-of-every-episode payoff came in the fourth episode of that first season, when D’Angelo Barksdale first claimed responsibility for the murder of a woman in an apartment out near the county line. Fronting for the boys in The Pit, D’Angelo describes the murder in some detail and suggests that he was the shooter. Later in the episode, McNulty and Bunk Moreland are in an emptied garden apartment, examining old crime-scene photos of a slain young woman and reworking the geometry of the murder.

The five-minute scene offers no explanation for itself beyond the physical activities of the detectives as they address the crime scene and the almost continuous use of the word ‘fuck’ in all its possible permutations – an insider’s homage to the great Terry McLarney, a veteran Baltimore murder police who once predicted that Baltimore cops, in their love of profanity, would one day achieve a new and viable language composed entirely of such.

A casual viewer could watch the scene and ascertain that the detectives had figured out the murder scenario. They conclude, in fact, by locating a rusting shell casing outside the kitchen window.

But what exactly is that scenario? And does it match the murder that D’Angelo spoke of earlier? And what were the white speckles on the floor in the crime-scene photo – the droplets that Bunk pointed to? And how did that lead McNulty to open the refrigerator door, then slam it closed? And why, for Chrissakes, will no one explain what the hell is going on?

For the answers, viewers would not have to merely wait out the episode, but all of them. Only during D’Angelo’s interrogation at the season’s end does he corroborate the crime scene details in a way that convinces Bunk and McNulty of his authenticity. And, even then, the exposition is at a minimum.

When D’Angelo explains that he had brought cocaine to the woman, who told him she would put it “on ice,” the detectives acknowledge the connection to their crime scene with a single word:

“Refrigerator,” says Bunk.

And McNulty nods casually.

Such calculating restraint offered viewers a chance to do something that television rarely, if ever, allows its audience: they were free to think hard about the story, the different worlds that the story presented, and, ultimately, the ideas that underlie the drama. And the reward for such committed viewers would come not at the end of a scene or the end of an episode, but at the end of the season, indeed, at the end of the tale.

As storytelling, it seemed like the best way to do business. But, even so, we had to acknowledge that this much plotting from episode to episode was an extraordinary risk, even for HBO. We would certainly lose some viewers: those who did not devote enough effort to follow the intricate story, those who gave it their all but were confused nonetheless, and those who, expecting an episodic television drama, would be bored to death by the novelistic pace of The Wire.

Bob Colesberry and I told ourselves repeatedly that we were making the drama for those remaining. A couple dozen or so hard cases, at least.

Before the first season aired in June 2002, HBO made sure to send as many as five consecutive episodes to critics – all of those we had edited. The hope was that by seeing more episodes, those being asked to consider the show would understand that while the pilot episode violated many of the basic laws of episodic television, it was at least an intentional affront.

To that same end, in a series of press interviews, I began referring to the work as a “visual novel,” explaining that the first episodes of the show had to be considered much as the first chapters of any book of even moderate length.

Think about the first few chapters of any novel you ever liked, say, Moby-Dick,” I told one reporter in a phone interview. “In the first couple chapters, you don’t meet the whale, you don’t meet Ahab, you don’t even go aboard the Pequod. All that happens is you go with Ishmael to the inn and find out he has to share a room with some tattooed character. Same thing here. It’s a visual novel.”

All of which sounded great to me until I hung up the phone and turned to confront a certain Baltimore writer by the name of Lippman, who has penned and published nine actual novels and with whom I share quarters. Her lifework is replete with hardback covers, actual chapter breaks, and descriptive prose that goes a good deal further than “INT.

HOMICIDE UNIT/HEADQUARTERS – DAY.”

First of all,” she informed me, “you just compared yourself to Herman Melville, which even by your egotistical standards is a bit over-the-top. And second of all, if The Wire is really a novel, what’s its ISBN?

A mouthy broad; clever, too. But, fortunately, a lot of critics were less exacting with my hyperbole, and, more important, they actually put four or five tapes into their machines before writing reviews. At least in the hinterlands they did. In New York, where time runs faster than elsewhere and critics can give you no more than an hour to make your case, The Wire suffered poor reviews in every single newspaper. We went oh-for-four in The Big Apple, feeling much like the Orioles on a long weekend at Yankee Stadium.
Ratings dipped, too, but HBO – being HBO – did not panic.

“We love the show,” Carolyn Strauss said repeatedly, reassuring us. “We don’t care about ratings, so you shouldn’t care about ratings.”

For his part, Chris Albrecht called to say he had just watched the cut of Episode Five and “it’s getting better with every episode.”

I hestitated to argue that I thought they were all good episodes, that they were paced precisely for the maximum payoff over 13 hours. Instead, I took the comment to heart, reminding myself that when you read a good book, you are more invested with every chapter. What Chris was sensing was our intention.

By the last third of the season, the tide had slowly turned. Viewers were fully committed and there were more of them; ratings began to rise amid some healthy word of mouth. A couple of New York critics revisited the show and affirmed its worthiness. The actors, too, began to sense that we were building a different kind of machine. One Monday on set, Andre Royo, who owned the role of Bubbles, sauntered over to a pair of writers to say he had watched the previous night’s episode:

“Every time I start to wonder what you all are doing with a scene, I just wait a couple episodes, and, sure enough, there’s a reason for it.”

Other actors, notably those on the wrong side of the law, began to wonder what we would do if we were picked up for a second season, what with Avon and D’Angelo Barksdale heading to their respective prison cells.

Corey Parker Robinson, who played the role of Detective Sydnor, thought he had it figured: “They’re gonna get out on a technicality, right?

It was an understandable assumption, given that we were standing on a film set in the West Baltimore projects, where we had thus far filmed much of our story. But in our heads, the writers were already elsewhere, and, as a finishing touch, we made sure to deliver McNulty to the police boat at the end of the last episode.

By then, a lot of viewers had forgotten Sergeant Landsman’s prophecy in the pilot episode, that McNulty would ride the boat if he didn’t stop provoking the departmental brass. As far back as the pilot, we had decided on the substance of a second season, should there be one.

And when McNulty shipped out with the marine unit, it happened – typically – without dialogue, with nothing more than Bunk Moreland and Lester Freamon walking to the edge of the dock and tossing him a fifth of Jameson’s beneath the roar of boat motors.

If you got the joke, great. Thanks for staying with us.

If not, hey, sorry. It’s what we do.

It’s Laura Lippman, again, who gets a mention for making me read George Pelecanos. Not that I hadn’t been given fair warning of what George had been doing with his D.C. novels – half a dozen other writers had urged me to check him out, comparing his voice and material to that of The Corner. But we Baltimoreans have this chip on our shoulders about Washington, and though I’d grown up in the same D.C. suburbs as George, I had long ago taken my allegiances north, embracing every stereotype about those tie-wearing, GS-rated, lawyer-assed sonsabitches down I-95.

When I finally cracked The Sweet Forever and saw that Pelecanos had been mining a different Washington altogether, it made perfect sense. And, later, upon encountering George at the funeral of a mutual friend, I tried to explain what we were trying to do with The Wire, and why he might want to be a part of it.

It’s a novel for television,” I said, but under my breath, for fear that my consort, also in attendance at the memorial, would overhear.

Like many writers, George had suffered the slings, arrows and indignities of trying to get so many of his own worthy stories to film, and he immediately grasped the possibilities. In the feature world, after all, it’s the studios, if not the directors and stars, who have the drag. In episodic television, by virtue of the continuing storylines, it’s the writer with the suction. And at HBO, this is more so.

During the first season, George was given the penultimate episode – particularly because it included the stark, horrifying death of Wallace. The drama of that singular moment required a writer who had built so many of his novels toward similar crescendos. And George, true to form, nailed it.

Would he come back for Season Two? Would he commit to working as a story editor and producer? He certainly didn’t need the money; his day job of drop-kicking genre fiction into the literary ether was enough without the hassle of a television gig.

But George, who loves film and can’t resist a story well told, not only signed on, he set about enlisting other novelists who were doing much the same kind of work.

We could promise Richard Price and Dennis Lehane no reward commensurate with the talent. The best we could offer was that, unlike any other film project with which they might become involved, The Wire would not compromise story for the sake of a studio, a director, or a movie star.

“If you get fucked over, at least it’ll be another writer doing it to you.”

And while both Lehane (Mystic River) and Price (Clockers) are masters of a strain of crime fiction that long ago rendered the presumed boundaries of genre meaningless, the addition of Price to the writing staff seemed especially appropriate, if not at all probable.

Anyone who has ever read Clockers – which is to the cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s as The Grapes of Wrath is to the Dust Bowl – understands the debt owed to that remarkable book by The Wire. Indeed, the split point-of-view that powers The Wire is a form mastered first in the modern novel, and Price, in his first Dempsey book, proved beyond all doubt how much nuance, truth, and story could exist between the world of the police and the world of their targets.

On learning that the Season Three lineup of writers would include Price and Lehane, Bob Colesberry was beside himself with glee. And whom,I teased him, did he want Pelecanos to bring us for a fourth season? Elmore Leonard? Philip Roth? How about this Melville fuck I keep mentioning? He hasn’t worked in a while, has he?

And Bob would laugh at the effrontery of it, though in his own way, he, too, was expanding the show during the second season, transforming it from a limited cops-and-dealers saga into something larger, something panoramic enough to justify all the writing and acting talent.

The rotting piers and rusting factories of the waterfront – and, most of all, those Gothic cranes at Seagirt and Locust Point – gave Colesberry the visuals he needed to show just what could be done with a television series shot on location.

His standards had always been those of the directors he had worked with in his long feature career – Scorsese, Parker, Benton, Forsyth, Ang Lee – and Bob had learned well, rising from location manager to first AD to line producer. He was not a deskbound executive. He was instead a set rat, familiar with every aspect of filmmaking and committed to serving story.

His elegance, and that of Uta Briesewitz, the show’s director of photography in those early years, found subtle ways into the film throughout the first season. In the pilot episode, note the decision to stay wide, filming from across the street as Wee-Bey berates D’Angelo for talking about business in a car. As Bey dresses the less experienced player down, he stands outside a carryout and beneath a neon sign that reads BURGERS.

D’Angelo, humiliated, is framed beneath a second sign: CHICKEN.

The camera stays wide as Wee-Bey starts back to the parked SUV, only to pause as two police cars, blue lights flashing, wipe frame and wail away, seemingly after those, unlike Bey, who fail to take the lessons of the street to heart.

Film such as that, conceived and edited with intelligence and restraint, was Bob’s stock-in-trade. The projects of West Baltimore and the taut, credible precinct sets of production designer Vince Peranio guided the show’s first year to an appropriately claustrophobic look, just as the rogue fashions of costume designer Alonzo Wilson suggested a violent and stunted street world. All of it was creativity with absolute context.

As the show began to grow – carving off fresh slices of Baltimore – so, too, did Colesberry expand the show’s visual sense of a working city. And even as Season Two was underway, Bob and I were contemplating a third season in an altogether different locale, and a fourth elsewhere, too. With each season, by showing a new aspect of a simulated American city in all its complexity, we might, by the end of the show’s run, have a chance to speak to something more universal than Avon Barksdale or Jimmy McNulty or drugs or crime.
To do the same show over, season after season – this was never an option. And Bob – who was once made to concede that the last pass on The Corner scripts would be writers-only – had become a partner in every aspect of the storytelling. He was never happier about the show’s plotting than during the writers’ meetings for the third season – meetings at which he was a full and welcome participant.

Midway through the meeting on the second episode, in fact, Richard Price expressed surprise on learning that the man sitting to his immediate right was not actually a fellow writer.

“Bob’s an executive producer.”

A title which, in Hollywood terms, is often synonymous with asshole. Price was truly thrown, later confessing out of Colesberry’s earshot that this was the only production he knew in which you could not discern someone’s job title by the way he behaved.

For all of us who worked with him, part of the fun was pushing Bob out of the background – where he had long labored as the right arm of so many talented and noted directors – and bringing him into the light, where he belonged.

When The Corner won an Emmy for best miniseries, Nina, David, and I were determined that Bob should accept the award. And on The Wire, we pressed him into a small cameo as Detective Ray Cole, a shambling, hapless sort who symbolized the workaday ethos of the homicide unit.

Bob assumed he was on the hook for maybe a line or two of dialogue, but with great delight the writers began churning out more moments for Ray Cole, most of them comic and at the character’s expense.

Finally, and most importantly, we pressed Bob to do the one thing for which he had seemingly spent a lifetime preparing: the last episode of the second season was not only produced, but directed, by Robert F. Colesberry. Among other moments, he is the true author of that ending montage of dying industry seen through the eyes of Nick Sobotka – all that spare, brutal imagery, edited together in such a way as to imply the anger of the story as a whole.

When Bob, only fifty-seven, died in February 2004 from heart surgery complications, it seemed to all of us on the show nothing less than an outrage. His best was yet to come, or so we had all assumed.

In the ensuing three years, we did the best we could to maintain the template that Bob Colesberry brought to The Wire. And to that end, we continued forward with many of the same veteran directors that Colesberry chose in those first two seasons, and indeed, with Bob’s wife Karen Thorson handling post-production duties, familiar as she is with what Colesberry would want the film to be. Whatever we got wrong in Seasons Three, Four, and Five, he was unable to prevent, and whatever we got right can safely be credited to the man.

Lastly, we meant no offense.

We staged The Wire in a real city, with real problems. It is governed and policed and populated by real people who are every day contending with those problems. The school system we depict is indeed the school system in which Ed Burns taught. The political infrastructure is that which Bill Zorzi covered for two decades. The newspaper on which we centered some of the final season’s story is indeed the newspaper at which I labored and learned the city.

The mayor does not love us. Nor does the police commissioner, nor the school superintendent, nor the publisher of the Baltimore Sun. Nor should they. If I had their jobs, I would regard The Wire and its antecedents – Homicide and The Corner – as a necessary evil. And, ignoring for a moment the film industry that burgeoned here over the last decade, I would more often than not wonder what is so damned necessary.

In our defense, the story is labeled as fiction, which is to say we took liberties in a way that journalism cannot and should not. Some of the events depicted in the 60 hours of The Wire actually occurred, a few others were rumored to have occurred. But many of the events did not occur, and perhaps the only distinction worth making is that all of them could have happened – not only in Baltimore, but in any major American city contending with the same set of problems.

Certainly, we do not feel that the shots taken were cheap ones. The police department in Baltimore really did cook the crime stats so that the mayor could become governor. The school system truly does fail to graduate the vast majority of students, and faculty are, in fact, teaching the standardized test rather than attempting to educate children. Unionized labor and the dignity of work are disappearing from the city’s landscape, and the war against the only industry remaining in many neighborhoods – the drug trade – has indeed become a brutal farce. And, yes, Baltimore’s surviving newspaper spent the last two decades reducing its staff and content, and concentrating its remaining resources on the petty frauds of “impact” journalism and the prize culture. They actually did abandon comprehensive coverage of the city and now miss nearly every story that actually matters to the life of Baltimore.

It is a harsh critique, no doubt. But for the most part, we live in this city. By choice. And living here, we see what is happening in Baltimore for better and for worse, and we speak to such things as those with a vested interest in the city’s improvement and survival. Speaking as Baltimoreans, we quite naturally found it appropriate to reference our known world in these stories.

But, in fairness, the stories are more universal than this; they resonate not just in West Baltimore, but in East St. Louis, North Philadelphia, and South Chicago. And judging from the continuing reaction to this drama overseas, it seems these stories register as well in cities the writers were in no way contemplating when we began the journey. Perhaps Baltimore isn’t any more screwed up than some other places. If it were the case, then these stories would only have meaning for people here.

The Wire depicts a world in which capital has triumphed completely, labor has been marginalized and monied interests have purchased enough political infrastructure to prevent reform. It is a world in which the rules and values of the free market and maximized profit have been mistaken for a social framework, a world where institutions themselves are paramount and every day human beings matter less.

“World going one way,” says Poot, reflective, standing on his corner. “People going another.”

Many may regard these stories, in their universality, to be cynical and despairing of humanity as a whole. I am not so sure. The problems of this new and intimidating century are worthy of some genuine despair, certainly. And a supposedly great nation that cannot keep a single low-lying city behind functional levees hardly seems capable of grasping the challenge of, say, global warming. Considering that the Netherlands has for generations successfully kept most of itself out of the North Sea, the American institutional response to its problems thus far seems to justify a notable degree of cynicism.

But in all of these Baltimore stories – Homicide, The Corner and The Wire – there exists, I believe, an abiding faith in the capacity of individuals, a careful acknowledgment of our possibilities, our humor and wit, our ability to somehow endure. They are, in small but credible ways, a humanist celebration at points, in which hope, though unspoken, is clearly implied.

True, the stories themselves don’t exalt the bricks and mortar and institutions of Baltimore; nor do they spare American policing, or education, or politics or journalism much in the way of criticism. But they at least reckon with the city honestly, and they are written with a homegrown affection that should be readily apparent even to viewers in London, or Mexico City, or Beijing. Watching The Wire, true citizens of my city will smile when they see the mallet hit a crab claw, or when an a-rabber’s cart trundles past in the background; those foreign to Baltimore will miss many a reference, but not, I believe, the overall sense that they are learning about a city that matters.

If the stories are hard ones, they are at least told in caring terms, with nuance and affection for all the characters, so that whatever else a viewer might come to believe about cops and dealers, addicts and lawyers, longshoreman and politicians, teachers and reporters, and every other soul that wanders through The Wire universe, he knows them to be part and parcel of the same tribe, sharing the same streets, engaged in the same, timeless struggle.

David Simon

Baltimore, Md.
July 2009

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More to read:

Summing up David Simon’s career so far.

David Simon writes in the Guardian “The escalating breakdown of urban society

Dirt under the rug, Simon writing on his blog

Nick Hornby interviews David Simon for Believer magazine,

The HBO auteur, in New York Times.

The Vice interview with David Simon.

The Wire’s  war on the Drug War. In Time magazine. About the ineffectiveness of the show as a medium to bring about policy changes. (Nothing has changed)

Content watching on the laptop

And just like that (it wasn’t just like that), I have started watching things on the laptop again.

Over the last few days, I have seen some 4-5 episodes of Breaking Bad Season 2. (This is what I was using to try to kickstart the habit. Bad idea. So far, I have been mind-numbingly bored of Breaking Bad. It is so slow, I want to beat someone up to speed it up. It is a show about meth, for god’s sake. And the women in the show, takeadeepbreathnowtakeadeepdeepbreath such unbelievable non stop bitches. Sorry, wrong choice of word perhaps. Very believable). The show is very original and everything, but as of now it is trudging slowly, slowly, and slowly. This is perhaps the only TV show I have seen till date of which I can’t even watch two episodes back to back, not because it is that boring, but because it is the same thing over and over and over and over again. I won’t quit, shall keep trudging because I keep hearing a lot about Season 4. But seriously , man!

Then, I saw Rocket Singh, again. I had been thinking about watching it for a long long time. And on the day that I was in bed, foot sprained, worried about next month, and next year, watching Rocket Singh brought out everything holed up inside in a rush. I bawled my eyes out, not just on specific scenes, but pretty much through the film.

Risk to spiderman ko bhi lena padta hai, main to fir bhi salesman hun

Then there was Mad Max 2.Long time, no see scenario.

Then there was The Prestige, again. This time in HD. Still detest Hugh Jackman. Still don’t get the big deal about the movie.

That same evening, I saw Cidade de Deus (City of God). Completely by accident (I live for such happy accidents). I had been carrying the movie around with me for more than 3-4 years now. Saw it, and it seared my mind. One of those movies that seriously blow your mind. Not by how well it is made, but by the effect they have on you. BOOM BOOM. And such unrelenting speed, thrills upon thrills. I have severe attention deficit disorder in the last year whenever I start watching anything, fritting and restless within 5 minutes of putting anything on to watch. This is the only bloody thing in recent memory that I watched for 2 non stop hours. Blown away, as I said.

Then there were a couple of Homeland episodes. Building up REAL nicely.

And then, there was Valhalla Rising again, last night. I have a friend who on a drunk and stoned night years back, joined a couple of us in watching Valhalla Rising. He’s not much of a world cinema watcher, or any cinema, for that matter. He started watching though, and the rest, as they say is history. This was about 2-3 years ago. Till date, every-time he meets up the same set of people for an overnight stay and goes through the same set of agents, he wants to watch the movie yet again. I usually get spared the brunt of this fascination as he does it at the house of the common friend. He has seen it on his own as well, subsequently, but he wants to end a day of debaucheries with this film, every-time. To hear him talk about it, the first time he saw it was a life changing experience.

Valhalla Rising, imagine?

One can never know just which movie clicks for whom.

I’m quite pleased, to say the least.

To (download &) Watch List

TV Shows
Breaking Bad : Season 3,4
Dexter: Season 6
The Walking Dead : Season 2
Modern Family : Season 3
Bored to Death : Season 3
The Wire : 6 Seasons
Homeland : Season 1 still airing
Hell on Wheels : Season 1 still airing
Mad Men : Season 2,3,4
Twin Peaks : Season 1,2
The Sopranos : Season 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
Louie: Season 1, Season 2
Flight of the Conchords : Season 1
The Corner : All 6 Episodes
Deadwood : Season 1,2,3
Big Love: Season 1, Season 2
The Office : Season 1 & 2,
Rome : Season 1, Season 2
Oz : Seasons 1-6
Rubicon : Season 1
The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret : Season 1
Justified : Season 1&2
The Life & Times of Tim (Season 1, Season 2)
Sons of Anarchy

Documentaries aired on TV
The World At War (The book)
The Blue Planet (7 GB or 14 GB)
BBC Civilisation : All
Michael Palin’s Travel Shows
The Ascent of Man
Deadliest Catch

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Cannot access torrents currently, and in no social contact with relevant and rich HDDs. So well, will have to wait.