Last year, The Sun reported on a trial in which the accused, variously described as “an out-of-town hit man for a gang or an opportunist lured by the city’s desperate heroin users,” proffered this warm encomium on Charm City to the court: “This is the heroin capital of America, ain’t no more dope sold nowhere than right there on Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s the largest open-air drug market in the world for heroin.”
I drive across Pennsylvania Avenue early in the morning on my way to teach at University of Maryland, Baltimore County. Past the Red Fox Lounge and To God Be The Glory Deliverance Outreach, the Friendly Carryout and Grocery Store and Let ‘Em Go Bail Bonds, across the endless blocks of boarded-up buildings stenciled with “if animal trapped…” My route takes me right through the fabled “Corner” immortalized in David Simon and Ed Burns’ book of the same name, as well as the HBO miniseries: Monroe and Fayette streets, hard by Bon Secours Hospital. Even at dawn’s early light, Wilkens Avenue is a gantlet of crack whores and corner boys— and Baltimore, as every schoolchild knows, is the home of dawn’s early light. Baltimore is also the home of “The Wire.”
On my early morning run across West Baltimore, I buy an extra Sun at Monroe and North Avenue from an old man who always cheerfully tells me, “Have a blessed day.” He reminds me of Bubbles, a recovering addict, ubiquitous snitch and uber survivor on “The Wire.” He’s older than Bubs but he has that worn but still jaunty look that you often see on the streets that lifts the spirits and amazes.
Last January, I saw a body near this corner. The police were diverting traffic so I could not tell on quick glance whether the person had been struck by a car or shot. The light changed and I moved on. Another time, another corner, I saw a similar scene— but they were filming “The Wire” that day.
By the time you read this, the last flicker of eavesdropped telephone conversation will have flashed across the monitor, the final sounds of Tom Waits’ “Way Down In The Hole” (I preferred the Blind Boys of Alabama’s version from the first season) will have faded and “The Wire,” the best television drama in the short and not especially distinguished history of that medium, will have ended.
But I think it’s premature to believe that “The Wire” is over. Maybe it is if you live in Paducah or Peoria or Panama City. But if you live in Baltimore, it is not. Never will be. And I’m not talking about reruns.
While I was musing on this, a crack mother gave her baby methadone to quiet the child so she could have a party. The baby died. Some guy threw his child off the Key Bridge and told the cops that demons told him to do it. News came in the horrifying case in which a gang of thugs beat a young man walking near Patterson Park— the victim remained in a coma for months, then died. And recently The Sun featured the lively tale of a vast drug ring busted, including one of the high-spirited lads involved in the “Stop Snitching” video.
Despite one or two (or 10 or 12) too many inside jokes and maybe a few too many cameo appearances by real Baltimorons— former Mayor Kurt Schmoke, former Maryland Gov. Robert Ehrlich, WBAL-TV’s Jayne Miller, disgraced former Police Commissioner Ed Norris— “The Wire” understood our story. I don’t know about anyone else but I have often been surprised that things that actually happen in Baltimore seem scripted for the show.
To whit: A gentleman dressed as woman who may have been involved in the recreational pharmaceutical industry drives an SUV into attorney Warren Brown’s swimming pool on a midsummer’s night eve and dies. There goes the neighborhood! Warren Brown says he’s had enough, says he’s thinking about moving to the county! That incident—and attorney Warren Brown—could have been on “The Wire.” (Attorney Billy Murphy was.) Same with old Judge Ward— in his 80s— capturing a desperado on the mean streets of Bolton Hill on another summer’s day, and the near riot when the city distributed recycling containers. And what about the “press conference” featuring unsuccessful mayoral candidate Keiffer Mitchell’s father and two of the city’s more colorful barristers, the aforementioned Billy Murphy and Larry Gibson? That was “The Wire!”
“The Wire” was a kind of acknowledgment that we are living where up is down and left is right. “The Wire” was through the looking glass. At its best, and it was almost always at its best, “The Wire” captured everything about Baltimore that we know to be true, whether we live in Poplar Hill or Cherry Hill or Butcher’s Hill.
If you have ever been called for jury duty in Baltimore, you’ve seen the cavalcade of zanies who make up our town. If you have lived in Baltimore, you have met people like Major Valchek, Proposition Joe, Maury Levy, Omar Little, Ziggy, Stringer Bell, Snoop and Bunk Moreland. These are not caricatures. These are our people. We will always have them, for better or worse, and we will always have “The Wire.”