The Saturday Rumpus Essay: Never Really Alone

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About two years ago, I started working with a woman who’d moved to Baltimore for her new job, and she asked me, in an exaggerated kewpie-rube tone, if “it’s all just like The Wire.” Being asked this question was one of the reasons I’d avoided the show for so long—especially since I was living in DC for most of its five year run. DC felt like Baltimore’s well-heeled cousin: flashier, better connected—always looking down (at least a little) at its poorer relation. There was always an anthropological air to the questions I’d get about growing up in Baltimore—aka Smalltimore—and I’d always play to the asker’s bias in my response: “Everyone wants to know where you went to high school, not college.”

Baltimore was a straightjacket of Dem O’s and crab guts and that accent—that wet, nasally accent, great slayer of consonants, champion of elongated vowels. The accent that my mother, herself a Baltimorean born and bred, clucked despairingly at in her best friend; the accent that she trained me out of like some housewife Henry Higgins: There was no ‘hon allowed, even in jest. My mother traded the city for the county and that, by Baltimore standards, made her fancy. As a friend of mine, a non-native but long-time resident, told me: “Most of the people I know here have never lived anywhere else, wouldn’t consider it, don’t travel much, and are content to maintain the same social circle they’ve had since grade school without expanding it in any way.” In my twenties, I was hotfooted for anywhere else—applying for graduate programs in Boston and New York, Seattle and San Francisco before settling for the program in DC.

I made friends in DC, but it’s such a transitory city; instead of born and bred, it was here and gone. Crowded metro cars birthed a quintessential urban melancholy that was still odd and unknown to me: I’d shared air with these people and I would never know them; sometimes, when the car lurched on a hot day, we’d touched skin-to-skin, and they would never know me. That hotfooted 22-year-old aged into a lonely 27-year-old who wanted to put her hands on the ground and feel the density of roots.

So I joined the cycle of Baltimore kids who try to live somewhere—anywhere—else for a while, only to return to a place where we feel known. We find old sweater’s warmth and fit in Charles Village and Hampden, Medfield and Mt. Vernon, Bolton Hill and Hamilton and Station North, even if, at times, that warmth can still smother and the fit feels far too snug. When I finally did watch The Wire (although “watch” is too mild a word, and “binge” too cutesy: I devoured and dissected it) I saw that all the raving fanboys were right—this was our modern-day Dostoevsky, our great study in the grey muddle of ethics and circumstance.

Instead of Prince Myshkin, the holy fool, we get Jimmy McNulty, a “real po-lice” who deploys an uncanny cunning against the drug kingpins of West Baltimore, only to let his indignant, impassioned sense of justice run him afoul of the bureaucrats with badges who run the department. Our Raskolnikov (or even Michael Corleone) is Stringer Bell, a dopeland impresario who must weigh the cost of lives against his ambition to take the Barksdale crew legit. The Underground Man ruminating on virtue and spite becomes Omar Little, the stick-up man devoted to his code: don’t put no gun on no “citizen,” keep it all in the game. You can watch The Wire for the fuck-yeah gangster moments or the grand sociological thesis statements about the drug war and the war on poverty—but if you’re a Baltimorean, you’re watching for something more subtle: a sense of what it’s like to be from, to be of, a particular place.

In The Wire, Baltimore—or Bodymore, Murdaland—has its own presence and character, much in the way that Manhattan is elemental to Woody Allen’s early films and that the great wide American West birthed the Beat poets. Baltimore attains a literary significance in the show’s portrayal of people who, by happenstance of birth and zipcode, die the death of a thousand indignities. David Simon, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who created the show, has said that The Wire is, at its essence, an American story about America’s issues. Still, the show is very uniquely, very specifically about Baltimore—and not just in the ways that Richard Byrne describes in an essay for The American Prospect: “The Wire’s Bodymore is obsessively Baltimore, right down to the thick accents and the detectives swilling ‘Natty Bo’ (National Bohemian) and eating crab guts.” It’s about Baltimore as a state of mind, a way of being—a state of eternal return.

Omar, as a minxy mix of Robin Hood and Puck, dances on the blade between both edges of the law—colluding, at times, with the cops, to put away some of the soldiers in the crews he hunts. His testimony at the trial of a Barksdale hitter who killed a state’s witness earns him a get-out-of-jail free card; when Detective William “The Bunk” Moreland comes to release him from lock-up (where he is, as one can imagine, quite a hunted man), he rebukes The Bunk’s offer to put him on a train to New York—even though there is a considerable bounty on his head. “Baltimore is all I know,” he says. “A man got to live what he know, right?” Omar’s hypothetical “right?” finds an answer from Friedrich Nietzsche:

This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more; and there will be nothing new in it, but every pain and every joy and every thought and sigh and everything unutterably small or great in your life will have to return to you.

The very first scene in the very first episode puts the spokes on that wheel of time: McNulty sits on the stoop of a boarded-up row house, staring at the body of a man who’d been christened “Snotboogie” by one of the guys he’d grown up with. He sits with one of Snotboogie’s buddies, and the man tells McNulty that every Friday night, a group of guys rolled bones, and every Friday night, when the pot got deep, Snotboogie snatched it up and ran, because “he couldn’t help himself.” And every time Snotboogie ran, the guys “would beat his ass, [but] ain’t nobody went past that” (until, of course, someone shot Snotboogie in the back). “I’ve gotta ask you,” McNulty says, “If Snotboogie always stole the money, why’d you let him play?” The man pauses before finally saying, “You got to. This America, man.”

The young men that the titular wiretap traces are trapped in the gravitational pull of their neighborhoods. They see money, and the promise of power, of community and connection, lying on the ground and try to take off running—only to fall. Always. There is Wallace, a teenage hopper put into witness protection on the Eastern Shore, who grows itchy and bored in his rural hideaway and returns to the low-rises of West Baltimore so he can return to the game; he may not love it, but he knows how to play it, and that familiarity is what makes it home. Bodie and Poot, his two best friends, boys barely older than he is, are conscripted into killing him by Stringer Bell. Stringer envisions dope-dealing as an inevitable, yet impermanent, means of securing the power and the capital to become a legitimate businessman; the young hoppers and soldiers are just cogs in the wheel of profit. Of course, Stringer is, in turn, equally disposable to Clay Davis, the state senator who dupes him out of his money in a development deal. “I seen it coming,” laughs Avon Barksdale, Stringer’s partner, the man who looks at the prospect of having the kind of business that will require glad-handing councilmen and developers, and doubles-down on “wanting my corners.” Nobody is ever getting out of the game—whether it’s on the streets or the squad room. Everything unutterably small or great in these characters’ lives happens within the same few blocks.

The blood-raw brutality and bleached-bone despair of The Wire’s Bodymore is what the Twitterati responded to when, on April 27, Baltimore became a grenade imploding on itself—the pin pulled by the death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old African-American man whose spine was severed (“allegedly,” and, since I am not a journalist, I can vest that word with the full venom of doubt), his voice box crushed, while he was in police custody. Twitter lit up with jokes about live-streaming “the sixth season of The Wire,” and earnest pleas for anyone who wanted more context about the piling-up and piling-upon of injustice after injustice that finally made the city burst to please, please, please watch The Wire. David Simon has become a kind of symbolic spokesman for the city, his pleas for rioters to “Turn around. Go Home. Please” shared far and wide (presumably by some of the same white folks who suddenly become Martin Luther King, Jr. scholars in times of unrest).

In a piece for the Guardian, Lanre Bakare assesses whether a man who has “become a de facto translator for middle class audiences looking to understand elements of black America” has overstepped his bounds and undersold the very people whose stories he mined by denying them the full expression of their anger. He smartly contrasts Simon’s words with those of Ta-Nehisi Coates, “another Baltimore son,” who writes at the Atlantic:

I grew up across the street from Mondawmin Mall, where today’s riots began. My mother was raised in the same housing project, Gilmor Homes, where Freddie Gray was killed… Wisdom isn’t the point tonight. Disrespect is. In this case, disrespect for the hollow law and failed order that so regularly disrespects the rioters themselves.

Baltimore’s past, present, and future exist, all at once, in this everlasting loop of dialogue: the urge to return to a stultifying normalcy we’ve called peace, and in the fiery yell to be seen and honored and avenged. Memories of the 1968 riots sparked by MLK’s assassination press against the city’s consciousness like thick knuckles testing a screen door’s resolve. On the cover of Time magazine, a young man runs away from police in riot gear; above him, 1968 is X’ed out in red, replaced with 2015. People post memes featuring photos of burnt, boarded-up row houses and words like “Baltimore after the 2015 riots… Oh no, wait, that was before.” The woman who cleans my office complex tells me about being a child in 1968, feeling heat lick her windows: “I was scared back then and I’m scared now.”

My natural instinct is to tell her that I’m scared too, because this feels like solidarity, and solidarity feels like a salve that can soothe the stinging at the centers of our chests when we ride past boarded-up pharmacies. But that isn’t true. There was no heat at my door. My area of the city is removed from downtown proper, let alone Penn North, by the Jones Falls Expressway, which is a tattered sleeve of interstate eaten with holes (until, of course, you reach northward, toward the counties). And if I was scared when I threw figurative darts at a map chanting “anywhere but here,” it was because I didn’t want my world to open up—and then grumble shut again—at the county line. And if The Wire has shown me anything, it’s that this fear is a privilege.

Late in the fourth season of The Wire, we see Bodie, ride-or-die street soldier, feeling guilt-ridden over another friend, heartsick and infuriated at the sadistic methods of the kingpin du jour. McNulty, sensing the chance to turn him, takes Bodie out to the Cylburn Aboretum, a sylvan stretch of heaven: flowers and statues, walking trails, benches in the park. “Are we still in the city?” Bodie asks, incredulously. McNulty replies that Pimlico—one of the areas that people refer to (however unknowingly) whenever they ask if Baltimore is really like The Wire—is right up the hill. Bodie will be dead by the episode’s end, gunned down on the corners that had been the unutterable smallness of his life. My apartment is a ten-minute drive from Cylburn, a fifteen-minute drive to Pimlico. Those five minutes are the gap between the comfortable and the hungry, the people who stay here because they want to and the people who can never leave. But this eternal return doesn’t have to mean defeat. We suffer and we get to work. We rage and we rebuild.

Blood and smoke and broken windows aren’t the only images out of Baltimore (though they sure do get good ratings). Our streets were legion with people from all faiths and races, of all ages and creeds, marching with righteous anger, with hope, and with love. Amid the signs for “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice, No Peace,” there were many reading, simply, “We Love Baltimore.” Even after the formal protests have ended (for now), these words—sometimes with the love replaced by a cartoon heart—appear everywhere: stenciled on t-shirts, spray-painted on buildings. They catch me in the throat every time I see them. I can analyze the composition of a scene, find the nuances in dialogue, but I can’t fully explain the tears sparked by a cartoon heart. I think of Bunk Moreland telling Omar that, “we had us a real community, no body, no victim, didn’t matter,” and I hear my friend say that Baltimore is “a living, breathing organism,” that everyone who lives here, for good or for ill, is never fully anonymous, never really alone.

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Image credits: Featured image, image #2, image #3, image #4, image #5, image #6.


Laura Bogart's work has appeared in Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, Prick of the Spindle and The Rattling Wall (among other publications). She is working on her first novel, tentatively titled Your Name is No. More from this author →