Yonkers, N.Y., may be the setting of David Simon’s newest TV drama — his miniseries Show Me a Hero premiers Aug. 16 on HBO — but the chronicler of the streets of Baltimore — Homicide, The Corner, The Wire — insists the struggles remain the same.
“It was a different argument, but it was the same structural, political disconnect,” says Simon, a former Baltimore Sun city desk reporter. “The one that says ‘I got mine. I’m not letting anyone in my club, I don’t want to risk what I have on the table to let anybody else have any share of the same.’”
In excerpts from his interview with Gayle Jo Carter, Simon, a long-time Baltimore resident, shares his thoughts on fixing Charm City, former Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley’s bid for the White House and the state of the Jewish community today.
What makes a good story?
A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It seems so elemental but … once you get a franchise, if you get it up, there’s so much money involved in sustaining [it] that you basically do everything you can to keep it going. So if people like more of this, you give them more; if they like less of that, you give them less. You stop thinking of the story for its own sake, that every story is finite; you run it out until you glean the last viewer for the last possible episode. … When the stories are complex and they’re not gratifying people right away, the way people are accustomed to being pleased by television, it’s hard to find an audience. They find it years later, on a shelf, and realize ‘Oh, they were building something.’
Is that why it took so long for people the discover The Wire?
Yeah. There were a lot of people who said, ‘Boy, these guys don’t know how to make television,’ and, hey, maybe we didn’t. …We’re now getting to the point where people are evaluating things in terms of seasons or possibly complete arcs of shows. In the sense that places like HBO are becoming lending libraries, you watch it when you want to. Even though I probably haven’t punched my weight for ratings, I’ve probably punched my weight in terms of their subscription model. I’m part of what’s on the library shelf for them; maybe it helps them down the road. I hope so. Otherwise, I don’t understand the business model. I don’t know why they are paying for me.
Was there a lot of storytelling in your childhood?
I came from a very literate household. My father had hundreds of hundreds of books. He was a writer, the public relations director for about 30 years for B’nai B’rith. …We argued current events all the time. That’s how you got the attention of the family, by staking out some position on what was going on in the world and trying to hold it.
Did you have a bar mitzvah?
Yeah. Even davened Musaf. I didn’t just read the siddur. I came from a very liberal Jewish New Deal Democrat household. I grew up in the ’60s: The fundamentals of integration and civil rights and what was at stake in terms of sharing power were almost completely assumed. That was the one thing my family got very, very right, and I’m grateful to them because right after college I found myself the police reporter in a majority black city and I had to pay attention to lives that were different from my own. I had to be able to walk into a room where I’m now in the minority, and I didn’t think much of it until I saw how hard it was for other people at my paper. My parents gave that to me.
What’s your Jewish practice today?
I’m fairly secular. I celebrate the high holidays. I do Passover with my family. My kids were bar mitzvah’ed. I have a hard time with theology. I’m certainly with [Baruch] Spinoza. I’m much more pluralistic in my view of whether there’s a god and if there’s a god and what he’s up to, but culturally and philosophically I’m very Jewish. I don’t know how that works.
I find the Jewish community drifting a little bit away from what I thought was its most admirable stance in American life. We’ve become a little bit more monied, more suburban, more self-obsessed. Years ago, after I wrote The Corner, I ended up doing a series of talks at synagogues out in Northwest Baltimore. I kept urging Jewish people to re-engage with the inner city; there’s no Jewish presence in inner city Baltimore, very little at that time. Everywhere I turned when I was doing the corner, the infrastructure that was trying to help people was all the Catholic charities. I very much urged re-engagement and an end to the divorce instilled by the riots of the late ’60s, ’70s. It was disappointing to me that I would go and speak at these places, and I would finish 30 minutes of passionately arguing that there has to be one Baltimore, and I’d get down off the bima and some bubbe would come up and point her figure in my chest: ‘But they started it.’ I’d be like, ‘Oy.’ I find myself alienated from structural Judaism, not necessarily my own shul, and I try to exert within the synagogue I belong to.
I’ve been a member of Beth Shalom in Columbia [where his son, now college-age, grew up with his ex-wife]. I have a daughter who’s 5 and she’s getting ready to become engaged in Hebrew stuff, so I’m going to end up in a shul in Central Baltimore. … I find the insular nature of the Jewish community to be disappointing. Nobody likes it when I say that, but it’s how I feel. I’m a Leftie. I’m very proud of that tradition in the Jewish community. Jews are now by and large an established community in a way that other immigrant communities are not, other people who’ve gotten to the economic pie later than [we have]. We’re not looking behind us the way we used to.
What’s your take on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict?
I’m a Zionist. I want Israel to endure, but I’m also for a Palestinian state. … As [Yitzhak] Rabin said, you don’t negotiate with your friends, you negotiate peace with your enemies. I worry they’re missing what might be that last window.
Will print journalism endure, or is it similarly moribund?
The cutting down the trees and throwing it on people’s doorsteps is. Ultimately, the need for it to be a profession will reassert itself and they’re going to figure out a way to create a revenue stream.
… At some point I don’t believe a million points of blogger light equals the beat structure of a professional news organization. The paper part of the newspaper I don’t care about; the newsroom part of the news I do care about. The professional newsroom produces a much better, more systematic, more comprehensive product, and it does so with an ethical rigor that is at least superior to what the Internet is now and that will always be the case.
It sounds like you grew up in a household where maybe Bernie Sanders would be the one to vote for?
The arguments would have been between Sanders and Hillary [Clinton]. There would have been a practical argument of who’s the nominee most likely to keep out the son of a b*tch and who’s the nominee we really want. When I was 8 years old, the fuss around my dinner table was that my brother was for [Eugene] McCarthy, my sister was for Robert Kennedy and my dad was the reactionary because he was for [Hubert] Humphrey.
You’ve had some harsh words for Governor O’Malley …
Listen, my politics are such that if I have to vote — and I do have to vote — I’m voting for the Democratic nominee. If it’s Marty O’Malley, I’m voting for Marty O’Malley. I have some real admiration for things he did with regard to gay rights, eliminating the death penalty in Maryland. In terms of the budget struggles after the market crash, he handled them well as governor. But in terms of the claims about dropping crime in Baltimore 40 percent and doing so without the wholesale destruction of the Fourth Amendment and civil rights for black people? That’s a lie. It’s a dishonest use of statistics.
Can Baltimore have a better future? How?
We have to end the drug war. I used to say that, and people would think I was crazy 10, 15 years ago when The Corner came out. But we have to end it. It’s completely destructive. It’s not achieving anything. This level of incarceration is astonishing, no other country in the world would tolerate it. You’re basically putting people in jail who are not violent, and taking what is basically a medical problem and you’re criminalizing it to the point where you’re bankrupting the society. You’re also alienating the groups who are most brutalized by this. … There are two Americas. We’ve hyper-segregated one. The truth is, I live in Baltimore. I live 20 blocks from the worst stuff, but it might as well be 100 miles. My chance of being a homicide victim in my city, in Baltimore city, is the same as if I lived in Omaha, Neb., because I’m white — meaning, I’m living in a different Baltimore. If I was an African American, a significant cause of death would be violence. That’s what Show Me a Hero’s about.