Well, this is about as good a gig as you can get. The Wire’s the truest, most provocative, and most riveting show on television, and now I can justify watching it during the day in place of tending to my own writing. A point of disclosure before we begin: David Simon, TheWire’s creator, is a friend. We met, in fact, because I so admired his work and because our interests over the years had converged. But we’re not here to judge or critique each episode, but rather—so I’m told—to walk the terrain that The Wire treads each week.
It’s now in its second week, and having missed last season I have some catching up to do. For one, I haven’t been able to quite figure out Carcetti, the white man running for mayor in a predominantly black city. He seems so damn cynical, not so much about politics but about himself, that it’s hard to imagine why he even considered running in the first place. But the mayoral race is the backdrop for the real drama in The Wire: the coarse, confused, tiring life on the streets. The Wire portrays it with such intimacy and empathy, unwilling to either let people off the hook or treat them as victims. The show gets it: People—whether poor or rich—are complicated, filled with their own contradictions. And it also gets it that these people are not fools. I love it that they call their heroin “pandemic,” well aware, I’m sure, of the irony. Once in Stateway Gardens, about as dreary a Chicago public housing complex as you could find, which is saying a lot, I entered a high-rise breezeway to the cry of young men marketing their wares: “Fubu,” “Mike Tyson,” “Titanic,” and “Dogface.” I’ve always thought it’d be a kick to meet that smartass kid who comes up with these brand names—though of course Fubu’s just an out and out rip-off from the clothing line by that name.
Well, after only two episodes, I’m completely hooked. There’s a moment toward the end of the first episode that haunts me. It involves Randy, a pre-adolescent boy who has this wonderfully mischievous smile. (I loved his misguided effort at revenge when he suggests to his friends that they retaliate against another group of shorties by filling balloons with urine. Such a benign effort in the midst of some considerably more heinous activities. Well, it turns out, they figuratively were “pissing into the wind.” The retaliation doesn’t quite work out the way Randy envisioned.) Anyway, toward the end of that first episode, an older boy asks Randy to tell a local corner drug dealer named Lex that a girl wants to meet him later that day. So, Lex, who’s just killed someone in a rather cold-blooded and brazen fashion, goes to the appointed spot and is shot in the head. (A retaliation that, unlike the urine balloon raid, works.) Randy soon realizes that he unknowingly lured Lex to his death. That hour ends with Randy sitting on his front stoop looking angry and completely lost. I’ve seen that face before. Angry not at anyone in particular but angry that you can’t make sense of things. Angry at the realization that what control you thought you had is just a fiction.
It’s hard to find a youngster in the central city untouched by violent death. More often than not they can’t or won’t talk about it. They fear they’ll be held culpable—either by the police or by the gangs. Or they want to push it away. Or they think nobody will believe them. Or they can’t make sense of it. (Who can, I suppose?) Years ago, a teenage boy I’d known for years took a cab from my house to his mom’s on the city’s West Side, and as he was getting out two men pushed their way into the back seat. It was a stickup, and the cabdriver apparently panicked, and as he pushed down on the accelerator one of the stickup guys shot him in the head, killing him instantly. My friend, frozen in place on the street, watched the whole thing unfold. I remember afterward trying to talk with him about it. He avoided my gaze. He mumbled something about it not being a big deal. And then he got testy at me for probing. I recall feeling his anger, directed at me, but realizing this anger would never find its real target. He was lost, and his hold on the world was slipping. And he knew that. I’ve tried at various times since to get him to talk about the incident, and each time he tells me a little more. But it’s never much. He thinks the memory’s receded, but I know it can’t ever be too far away. As I am with my young friend, I’m rooting for Randy to get his hold back.