Doing this column with you has indeed been a great experience. It’s made me pay even more attention to The Wire each week, like going back to film school and really studying a great work. I love that quote from Algren: “We are willing, in our right-mindedness, to lend money or compassion—but never so right-minded as to permit ourselves to be personally involved in anything so ugly.” There’s another quote from last week’s Fray that speaks to me, too. It’s from Groovelady and was part of a trenchant exchange between her, David Mills (Undercover BlackMan), and Isonomist on the dilemma of personal responsibility versus social responsibility. She writes that The Wire “illustrates how our institutions promise all sorts of escape hatches while essentially functioning as giant traps.” No episode demonstrates that more powerfully than this last one. As Bodie says, “This game is rigged. We like the little bitches on the chessboard.” He speaks not just for himself but for so many characters in the world of this series: among them, Prez, Carver, Bunny, Bubbles, Carcetti, Cutty, and most tragically of all Randy, Namond, Dukie, and Michael. Most of these characters have their blind spots, their contradictions. They wrestle with ambitions; they rationalize the “wrong” choices or the only choices they could make. But if there is one thing about this series and this episode especially that hits me hardest, it’s seeing people courageously trying to do right in a world gone wrong. And failing.
And at risk of setting off the Frayster who took me to task this week for mentioning my work too often, I want to talk about a relevant personal experience that did later become a film. As you know, I once served as an Advocate Big Brother when I was a student at Southern Illinois University. They assigned me a kid from a poor country hamlet who’d been born out of wedlock, beaten as an infant, given over to a stepgrandmother to raise. When I met Stevie Fielding, he was 11 years old, living next door to his real mother, whom he knew did not want him. Back then, I believed the sales pitch that being a Big Brother meant pulling a kid up by his bootstraps and setting him on the right path. If I volunteered to spend one day a week with him, I would surely change his life.
This kid had ADHD and was so uncontrollable that his middle-school teacher completely surrounded him with filing cabinets to keep him from disrupting the class. When he needed her attention, he had to ring a bellhop’s bell. During my time with Stevie, his temper landed him in a foster home, just like Randy. There, he met an extraordinary foster care couple he grew to love. If this was ER or Touched by an Angel, et al, the couple would have adopted him and he’d have been on his way to a happy life. Instead, the couple left to fulfill a lifelong dream for the husband to become a minister and raise their own children in a safer environment than a foster home. Soon after they left, Stevie was raped. By the time he turned 18, he’d been in every foster home in southern Illinois because of his violent behavior.
I was Stevie’s Big Brother for two and a half years. When I left southern Illinois to pursue my own career ambitions in Chicago, I became just one in a long line of adults and institutions that had failed and abandoned Stevie. Today, in his early 30s, he’s serving a 10-year sentence for criminal sexual assault of a cousin. My leaving was not as profound a transgression as his mother’s, nor as heartbreaking as the foster parents. But it was abandonment nonetheless. Stevie told me during the course of the film that he understood why I left. He knew I had to start my career some place other than southern Illinois. Like Randy, Stevie chose to remember my effort, however inept it was. When Randy thanks Carver for trying, it was a blow to my gut, just like it was to his. Carver feels he has completely failed this kid. His muffled moment of rage in the car—at himself and the world—will be one of my lasting memories from this series.
Carver and Cutty, Prez and Bubbles—especially Bubbles—all pay the price of caring. But The Wire says to us all: Without the individual attempt to do good in the world, all is certainly lost. In the end, all any of us can do is try to do something that allows us to look at ourselves in the mirror each day. In the car, Carver pushes his away.
Frayster Isonomist wrote last week, “I wish everyone who was drawn to [the kids] would volunteer at their local school, Head Start program or literacy program. Any real child is more valuable than all the Namonds, Michaels, Dukies and Randies in the world.” Some may say that The Wire proves such acts to be hopeless. Just look at my own failures with Stevie. But the series cares too much about its characters, the city of Baltimore, about America, for such despair. And telling a story—this story, above all—is a profound act of faith on the part of an artist. The Wire screams that these stories matter.
David Simon was asked, what’s the highest compliment somebody could pay the series. He said, “That we didn’t lie.” That sounds right. But maybe the highest compliment those of us so profoundly affected by the series can pay it is to take Isonomist’s advice. If the individual doesn’t act, The Wire seems to be saying, the future of schoolchildren in poverty will be like those lost souls laid out on the gym floor of an abandoned school. They are just bodies waiting to be buried.