David Simon, Unspooling 'The Wire'
David Simon, creator and executive producer of HBO's series The Wire, joins Fresh Air to talk about his career and the genesis of the show. Simon writes many of the episodes — and some story lines come from his former job as a police reporter for the Baltimore Sun.
Other segments from the episode on March 6, 2008
DATE March 6, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Profile: David Simon, creater of "The Wire," discusses the show
and the experiences he used in the show
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
(Soundbite of "The Wire")
Mr. JAMIE HECTOR: (As Marlo Stanfield) My name is on the street, and I'm
going to bounce this...(word censored by station)...in here and I'm going to
down on them corners, let them people know word did not get back to me. My
name is my name.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: That's Marlo Stanfield, the most powerful drug dealer in west
Baltimore, who was taken down by the police in last Sunday's episode of "The
Wire." This Sunday, on the series finale, we'll find out the fate of Marlo and
many of the other characters on "The Wire." This HBO series was described on
the editorial page of The New York Times as the "closest that moving pictures
have come so far to the depth and nuance of the novel." My guest, David Simon,
created the series and wrote many of the episodes.
"The Wire" is set in Baltimore and has told the interconnecting stories of
drug dealers, the kids who sell the drugs on the corners, the teachers that
try to reach out to them, the cops that try to keep order on the streets, the
city politicians who pressure the police to manipulate crime statistics and
the newspaper reporters who cover the city. Simon is a former reporter for
the Baltimore Sun, where he covered crime. Many of the stories and characters
in "The Wire" are based on his reporting. Simon is also the author of the
nonfiction books "Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets," which was adapted
into the NBC series "Homicide," and "The Corner: A Year in the Life of an
Inner City Neighborhood," which he adapted into an HBO miniseries.
David Simon, welcome to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on "The Wire." What a
Mr. DAVID SIMON: Oh, thanks, Terry.
GROSS: I'm so sad the series, you know, is ending or is over. I love these
characters, and I'm so sorry to lose them from my life. I wonder what it's
like for you to be finished with them.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah, it's strange saying goodbye. The whole universe became
very real to the writers. We cared about every little corner of it, you know,
in some very absurd ways, maybe, for television.
GROSS: You had to decide what the fate of each of the characters would be as
the series ended, who gets to live, who gets to die, who gets a second chance,
who lives a life of misery.
Mr. SIMON: Yom Kippur in the writers' room.
GROSS: Can you talk a little bit about what the process was like of deciding
the fate of some of our favorite characters?
Mr. SIMON: Well, we've been stealing big. I mean, we've been stealing from
a lot of the Greek tragedies, and a lot of the characteristics of the
protagonists in those plays are apparent in "The Wire," and usually if
someone's demonstrating that, they're going to get it.
GROSS: Give me an example.
Mr. SIMON: Well, you know, hubris, a willingness to challenge the gods, a
willingness to engage in an argument against one's fate, the same things that,
you know, Antigone or Oedipus struggled with, we gave the same sort of dynamic
to our characters. So there wasn't a lot of escaping that. I mean, we knew
where people were going for a long time based on that logic.
GROSS: Who are the gods?
Mr. SIMON: The gods are the post-industrial institutions of modern life.
GROSS: City hall, the police department, the school system.
Mr. SIMON: Whoever you serve. Whoever you serve, wherever your paycheck
comes from, whatever calling you thought you had. On "The Wire," there's
every possibility it will betray you.
GROSS: I just want to talk about a couple of characters and their end in this
series. You think that either Omar or Marlo is going to die. Omar is the guy
who holds up the drug men and takes their money. He holds up the drug
dealers. Marlo is like the drug dealer that controls most of the trade at
this point, and he's kind of a sociopath. And so we think that one of them's
going to gun down the other because they're out to get each other. But Omar
dies in a convenience store. I think he's buying a pack of cigarettes and one
of the kids, one of like the little kids in Marlo's drug gang just kind of
pops him in the back of the head when Omar is not looking, and bam, he's gone.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. There was a little bit of homage to some Western motifs,
some John Ford and some Sam Peckinpah there. But the other thing is, you
know, everyone has that Achilles heel, to go back and steal some more Greek.
And Omar is--you know, I love the look he gave when the bell rang in the store
on the door. And he obviously dismissed the notion that Kenard was in any way
It seemed like the right way. You know, it seemed wrong to have anything
happen other than what happened. Once we had arrived at that decision--and we
arrived at it a long time ago, at least I did, I had a lot of arguments with
writers before we got there. But, you know, it was sort of certain. The kid
that was Kenard, his first scene in season three, he has a stick in his hand
and he's shouting in the street, `I want to be Omar. I want to be Omar,'
after a particular gun battle and Bunk, you know, the detective sees this. So
that's how far back the fates had written Omar's name down.
GROSS: And it's interesting you decided to end his life not in a big dramatic
gun down, high noon.
Mr. SIMON: Right.
GROSS: It's just like, pop, back of the head, he's gone.
Mr. SIMON: I hate television. I do. I mean, yeah, the impulse would be
always go bigger.
Mr. SIMON: And in fact, you know, we gave him almost sort of the closest
thing to a mythological moment.
Mr. SIMON: Omar's jump.
GROSS: Mm-hmm. Yep.
Mr. SIMON: You know, Omar's leap. In truth, Omar is based on several guys,
several stick up guys in Baltimore who are quite legendary, and one of them,
Donnie Anders--who I know and who has since righted his life and gone on to
better things--he jumped from about the fifth floor of the Murphy homes in
GROSS: Trying to escape?
Mr. SIMON: It was that or the bullets.
Mr. SIMON: And he said he wasn't really thinking when he jumped, you know,
and screwed up his ankle a little bit, but where there's a will, there's a
way. He also jumped from the Poplar Grove rail bridge another time, which is
about three stories. So, you know, it didn't strike us as being impossible,
but it did strike us as being a wonderful, near-mythic moment for a character
that had come very close to the Greek mythic ideal.
GROSS: Another murder I want to ask you about, this is the killing of Prop
Joe. And Prop Joe is this really large guy who runs the co-op of drug
dealers. So he runs the co-op, where the guys get together and make deals to
do what they can to protect themselves from the law. And so he's killed by
Marlo, who's taking over the drug trade. And Marlo says to him as he's about
to kill Joe, he says something like, `Close your eyes. Relax.' And it's such
a creepy scene.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah.
GROSS: Can you talk about deciding to kill Prop Joe in that scene?
Mr. SIMON: That was Ed Burns' call as to how to do it, and at the time, I
remember Robert Chew thinking--and talking to us, and saying--that's the
actor, wonderful actor from Baltimore--saying to us, `You know, I don't
think--I think I would keep arguing. I would keep trying to get out of this.
I might make a move. I'd do something.' And Ed said, `Well, just go on set
and try the scene. See where it goes.' And after the first rehearsal, he came
back and told Ed, `You know what? That's exactly the right way. When it
comes for you, it comes for you.' And it was just the right way to go. You
know, his efforts to, quote/unquote, "civilize" Marlo run counter to the basic
essence of the drug culture, to the idea of unencumbered and pure ruthless
capitalism. You know, it's Aesop's fable of the turtle and the scorpion
crossing the stream. And so...
GROSS: I really liked the character of Prop Joe. It's like, you know, if you
were in another neighborhood, he'd be a really good businessman, you know?
Mr. SIMON: I liked him too.
GROSS: He's really smart.
Mr. SIMON: I like what he'll do with a toaster. You know, he won't let a
second-hand toaster go. I love all these characters. I have to say, you
know, I'm going to miss them. But they're there, you know.
GROSS: You know, "The Wire" doesn't present any easy answers. There's no
real like solutions, but we do get a sense of how and why the system doesn't
work. We don't learn how to fix it, necessarily, but we do come away, I
think, with a kind of understanding of the victims within that system, and you
walk away with a sense of empathy for people who you might never come in
contact with in the real world and you might be able to like demonize them.
But watching this series, you just develop empathy for so many people in so
many different situations.
Mr. SIMON: I hope so. I do. I hope so.
GROSS: Was that one of the things you wanted to do?
Mr. SIMON: Yeah, I mean, in fact, that's about the only victory that you
could ask for from a television drama. I think you can't become too didactic
and start spouting policy. Having said that, I mean, I think it's the lack of
empathy that has lead to this disastrous and venal drug war. And, you know,
if we've said anything with "The Wire," we've tried to critique the drug war
for being what it is. In places like west Baltimore, it is no longer a war
against dangerous narcotics. It maybe have begun as such, but now it is a war
against the under class, and it's being fought by people who have against
people who have not. And it is as cynical an exercise as anything I've ever
seen, and I was a newspaper reporter for a lot of years. And so if it was a
credible critique of anything politically, we hope that was it with the show.
GROSS: As you said, you were a reporter for The Baltimore Sun for many years,
and covered crime for many years. And I have a February 1994 article from The
Baltimore Sun that you wrote that was headlined, "Drugs: A War with Futile
Tactics." And I just want to read an excerpt of that because I think what you
were reporting in 1994 is evident in "The Wire."
You wrote, "There is simply no prison or jail space available for Baltimore's
street level drug offenders, and given the realities of Maryland's fiscal
conditions, little likelihood that more prison space will soon become
available. Nevertheless, much of the Baltimore Police Department's effort in
the war on drugs remains geared to arresting street level violators. The rate
of drug arrests in Baltimore remained nearly three times the national average
for cities of comparable size in '91, the last year in which such statistics
were available. Why? Many reasons, say veteran commanders and officers, not
the least of which is the simple overriding act that no arrest is easier than
a street level lockup for drugs."
And then you end the article later by quoting a cop by saying, "The people in
these neighborhoods know who the more serious traffickers are, and they know
who the people doing the shootings are. When they see the police coming
through and leave those people be while grabbing up some small time tout or
junkie, they lose any faith they ever had."
So I just read that as an example of how your police reporting informed within
Mr. SIMON: It's all from there.
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. I mean, you know, it's myself, Bill Zorzi who covered
politics for the Sun, it's Ed Burns, who policed Baltimore and then taught in
the schools for seven years. The show is rooted in people who are rooted in a
real place. And that's improbable for television, and I think that's what
everyone felt was so subversive. It was a very idiosyncratic message from a
very real place.
GROSS: My guest is David Simon, the creator of the HBO series "The Wire." The
series concludes this Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is David Simon. He created the HBO series "The Wire" and
wrote many of the episodes. "The Wire" concludes its fifth and final season
This season, you have some of the detectives breaking all the rules with the
larger goal of doing the right thing. What the rules have become is that
funding has been cut back. In order to get good statistics, that there's been
a lot of drug arrests, people are being pressured to arrest small time...
Mr. SIMON: Right.
GROSS: ...small time dealers as opposed to going after the big guys. The
monies from the police department is being siphoned off into the school
department because that's what the mayor needs to do politically.
Mr. SIMON: Right, and he's already got the test scores from the schools up,
on the third grade level only.
Mr. SIMON: So he can now shift his focus.
GROSS: So in order to get like money for overtime, which the police
department no longer has, one of the detectives decides to kind of fake a set
of serial killings among the homeless, figuring `this is going to get the
city's attention, they'll give us money, they'll give it to me for overtime.
I'll give it to other people in the department to investigate a series of
drug-related murders that will lead us to the big drug dealers.' Were you ever
frustrated enough in your career or do you know cops who were ever frustrated
enough in their career to ever do anything illegal like that in pursuit of a
Mr. SIMON: Jeez, in my career as a reporter, the only thing, I mean, the
great sin would be making stuff up, and, no, I didn't do that.
GROSS: Which you have a reporter doing in the final season, too.
Mr. SIMON: Well, yeah. I mean, there was a guy at the...
GROSS: But that's not for a greater good, that's just for his own personal
Mr. SIMON: No, that was for self-aggrandizement, and it's always for--you
know, I've never seen a fabricator in journalism that wasn't just trying to be
the guy at the campfire with the best story. And we had one at the Sun. I
mean, you know, he's based in a real eventuality that, you know, I sort of
lived through. So no, I was never tempted. I mean, when I was tempted to
make stuff up, I was writing for a television show and there was no penalty.
And Ed Burns I know has kept it clean. I think probable cause on the street
level is lied about routinely in Baltimore's district court. I go up there
and I listen to how police explain the various manner in which they've
undertaken street arrests, and, you know, some of it's quite laughable. And
the judges will tell you that when they get off the bench. You know, if you
have a drink with a judge in Baltimore district court, they'll roll their eyes
at what's become a probable cause because of the drug war.
Has anyone tried to manufacture a serial killer? No. That really is the
drama of television. At the same time, the way in which we had him do it is
actually credible. Ante-mortem strangulation is something that actually can
confound even a good pathologist.
GROSS: This is after a body's dead, when you strangle a corpse and make it
look like the cause of murder was strangulation.
Mr. SIMON: A freshly--yeah, a relatively fresh corpse.
Mr. SIMON: And if the body's in a dependant position, or if the head is in a
dependant position, meaning the blood, the lividity is going to the head.
Mr. SIMON: And I found that out because I was in the morgue one day when I
was working on the book "Homicide" and I saw a county detective get in an
argument with a cutter over that precise thing. And later on, I took the
cutter to lunch, and, you know, he explained, `Look, there's no way you can
tell the difference under these circumstances. This is one that anyone could
miss.' So, yeah, I mean, we cheated it, but we cheated it credibly, in our
GROSS: Let me ask you about another story that you wrote that one of the
characters in "The Wire" is kind of based on, and this store was headlined
"The Metal Man." With quick drug money as their goal, they're stealing and
selling every bit of aluminum, iron, brass and copper they can cart out of
city buildings. This is datelined September 3rd, 1995. And the story was
about mostly junkies who were scavenging the city, taking like metal and
aluminum off of buildings to sell to companies for scrap, and they were not
only doing this out of abandoned buildings, but they were sometimes taking
apart usable, currently in-use buildings...
Mr. SIMON: Absolutely.
GROSS: ...and destroying them. And here's like one quote from a character
named Gary, one of the metal men. And you write, "Gary is the rare metal man.
He won't lie about any of it. Fact is, when he's sated with chemicals and the
nausea is gone and he can think about things for a few minutes, he's genuinely
ashamed. Quote, `We tore up the boiler in this school for $70 in copper,' he
says. `For $70, we did like $10,000 in damage.'" Can you talk a little bit
about how you got onto this story and what...
Mr. SIMON: Sure. Well, actually that was...
GROSS: ...if any the repercussions of it, you know, the after-effects of it
Mr. SIMON: Well, actually that was the story that ended my career in
Mr. SIMON: You happened to have come across it. Those are the repercussions
for me, anyway. There were no repercussions in the outside world, I don't
think. I think business went on as usual. But the Gary that you quote is
Gary McCullough, and I, you know, three years later, I published a book about
him called "The Corner." And he's no longer with us, but the main characters
were, you know, he was one of the guys, but I actually followed other people
to keep it separate from the book for the main narrative of that story. That
story got spiked by the editor of The Baltimore Sun without explanation. And
I think it was towards the end when I had started to critique the paper from
within and started to, you know, make arguments for the journalism that I
valued, and I think he was quite disappointed in me. So the story was, as it
ran, ultimately he spiked it.
And when I went in to talk with him, it became a wide ranging conversation
about me getting on the team and not criticizing a variety of things that were
as institutional as anything you'd ever see in "The Wire." And then one of his
other editors came in and said to him, `I don't know why you spiked that
story, that, you know, you brought him here to do that kind of work, and, you
know, why is that sitting in the kill basket?' So it ran in the magazine. He
wouldn't run it in the paper. He put it in the Sunday magazine, which was on
its last legs then. They were about to kill it. But I had made up my mind as
a result of sort of that conversation, that it was time for me to leave
journalism because, to me, that story was what I valued. It was a nuanced
narrative. It held what was happening to account. It talked about the damage
done, but it did so in human terms.
GROSS: So this is an example of why you're so cynical about some editors in
"The Wire." Because there's a couple of editors in "The Wire" who are kind of
Mr. SIMON: Listen, I'm cynical about everybody in management.
GROSS: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.
Mr. SIMON: I mean, I don't think they differ from--you know, Valchek, one of
the police commanders, he destroys a man because they're fighting over the
place of a stained glass window in a Catholic church. You know, I think the
archetype of all of our bosses comes from "Paths of Glory." I don't know if
you know the Cooper film "Paths of Glory."
Mr. SIMON: But that is to me one of the fundamental political films of the
20th century. And you look at George Macready and Adolphe Menjou in that
movie, and those are "The Wire" bosses throughout seasons one through five.
So I don't think we're any more cynical about the editors than we are about
politicians or police commanders. I think some--yeah, some newspaper men got
a little bit upset about it, but, you know, that, you know, journalism's a
little bit self-absorbed and onanistic. And, you know, it was all fun and
games when we were making fun of politicians and police commanders and school
superintendents but, you know, God forbid you mock the foibles of an editor in
chief somewhere. And now you got trouble.
GROSS: David Simon created the HBO series "The Wire." The final episode will
be shown this Sunday. Simon will be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with David Simon, the
creator of the HBO series "The Wire." He also wrote many of the episodes.
Many of the characters and plot lines are based on stories he covered when he
was a crime reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Before the break, we were talking
about Gary McCullough, a junkie and metal scavenger who inspired the character
of Bubbles on "The Wire." David Simon and his co-executive producer Ed Burns,
a former Baltimore police detective, shadowed Gary for a year while they were
working on their book "The Corner." Simon says Gary had no problem with them
following him while he was participating in illegal activities.
Mr. SIMON: Gary was sort of an open soul. Gary was interested in
everything. You know, Gary would get high and go to his basement and read.
I'll never forget, Gary read Karen Armstrong's "History of God"...
Mr. SIMON: ...the year that we were following him. You know, Gary one time,
he wanted to...
GROSS: That's a pretty--that's a lot of scholarship. That's not...
Mr. SIMON: It was. It was.
Mr. SIMON: And Gary, he was just open to the world. And the idea that, you
know, I should tell a story here, which is that Ed and I would go up to the
corners late in '82--or '92, rather--and say `We're going to do a book here.
We're this. I used to be--I'm the guy that wrote "Homicide." Ed was a police
detective. Yes, I know you remember him. I know he once served a warrant on
you. Stop, you know, eyeing him. He is now retired. We're going to do a
book. Please trust us.' And everyone would go, `Cops.' You know? Nobody
And then we went up into Gary's mother's house up on Vine Street and met Gary
in the living room, and we gave him the same spiel, and he looked at us and
went, `OK, great. This is going to be an amazing book.' You know? I mean, he
was a little bit credulous, which was part of his problem in the drug culture.
You know, he suffered from being a little bit credulous. You know, in our
case, we weren't lying but, you know. But he was really open to the world,
and we followed Gary everywhere. And, you know, part of that is he's a little
bit preoccupied trying to get through the day, but part of it was just his
GROSS: So when you were watching Gary steal metal and you knew it was going
to be bad for the city and bad for some individuals, whose homes or offices he
was scavenging from, did it present any moral dilemmas to you as the witness
Mr. SIMON: I confess it didn't. Let me take it a step further. When Ed
Burns and I were in that neighborhood in 1993, there was a guy killed,
murdered, stabbed to death on the street, and we knew who did it. We weren't
eyewitnesses, but we had all the information as to who did it, why they did
it, you know, how it happened, who said what to whom just before the knife
went in. And we had the whole thing. Ed had been a former homicide
detective, and I had many friends in the homicide unit from having done the
previous book on the homicide unit, and we did not pick up the phone and call.
When we came into that neighborhood, we told everybody that we were there as
journalists, not as police, not as any other arm of the government, that we
were there to record life in that neighborhood of Franklin Square, and around
those drug corners, for one year. When I gave my word to anybody, in any
regard, it's my word. And, you know, I have to abide by the terms of the
situation if I've given my word. And so, you know, there was no real
practical way that I could start mitigating that because certain things had
happened. You know, I mean, that's not--you can't play that way. I was there
under certain terms.
Mr. SIMON: And I wanted to be able to look at everybody in the eye and say,
`When I told you all this stuff back in '92 about how we would behave, we kept
GROSS: There's a lot of fantastic African-American actors on "The Wire," most
of whom I'd never seen before in other roles. How did you get the word out
when you were casting?
Mr. SIMON: That's Alexa Fogel, and it's Pat Moran in Baltimore.
Mr. SIMON: There is a wonderfully deep reservoir of African-American talent.
There really is. And they're not working. There's just not enough work.
Nobody's writing the parts. What they are writing is marginal, at best. And
so there's just a natural hunger there, and, you know, our second and third
choices for some of these roles were great reads. You know, sometimes we came
back and used them for something else later in the run; but, you know, I
always bristle when I hear people on shows that are supposedly race neutral in
their casting and, you know, they come out lily white and somebody asks them
about it and they say, `Well, you know, there's just not that level of talent,
you know, among black actors.' I hear that, I just, I get furious.
GROSS: David, do you have a favorite casting story?
Mr. SIMON: That's an interesting--oh, I'll give you a casting story. So
we're going to read Wendell Pierce for Bunk.
GROSS: This is one of the detectives.
Mr. SIMON: Yes, absolutely, and a true character. And by the way, the real
Bunk is in our heads because he was named Oscar Requer, and he was quite a
character, and he's a wonderful guy. Retired now from the police department,
just retired. And so Ed and I have this guy in our heads, and, you know,
Wendell comes in to read in New York, and he just nails it. Like, he is Bunk,
you know? We're so solid this is, you know, if this guy's available, the show
begins with us casting him. And then after he apologizes--he was a little
late for the--and a little flustered; he didn't think he did well. And he
started telling this long story about getting in an argument with a New York
cab driver, who wouldn't pick him up because he was black and, you know, he
was trying to get here and this and that, and this was the night before and,
you know, and he got locked up, like, you know, he get in an argument and the
police locked him up.
And it was in the telling of that story that--I mean, I was holding my
side--he told it in, you know, classic Bunk fashion. It came out as if Oscar
Requer had been telling it in the Baltimore homicide unit. And so the telling
of the story was like, you know, `No, we don't need to call you back. We're
going to call you back when we have a McNulty and you'll read with him, but
you're Bunk.' And I'll never forget the story because he was infuriated and
apologetic at the same time, and funny. And, you know, to do all three things
in a long anecdote in front of a couple of producers, and a director and a
casting agent, I thought it was just--it was a tour de force.
GROSS: Were you confident he'd be able to do that when somebody else was
writing the lines?
Mr. SIMON: I'm confident he could, you know, read the phone book and I
could, you know, I could probably pull in a couple hundred thousand viewers
with it. I mean, he's a special guy.
GROSS: Did the real detective who you based the character on smoke a cigar
Mr. SIMON: He did, all the time. In fact, he showed up at the first scene
that we were filming with Bunk, which was the crime scene of the killing of
William Gant, which ends the pilot episode. And here comes this, you know, I
think it was a Buick, to the curb and out gets Oscar Requer, you know, `Yeah,
where's Bunk? Where's Bunk?' You know? I'm like, `You're the Bunk.' `Nah, I
mean the other Bunk. Where's your Bunk?' You know, and he goes, grabs his
bands, like looks him up and down and goes, `Yeah, all right. All right. All
right.' You know, like stands around for a few minutes and then goes, `All
right, I got to go.' He puts his cigar back in his mouth and drives away. It
was like, `OK, you know, you've been blessed.' It was just beautiful.
GROSS: Did you shoot a lot--I mean, I know you shot a lot on the streets of
Baltimore. I'm not sure whether, like, were the streets that were largely
made up of abandoned houses real streets with abandoned house?
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. No, listen, I don't want to take away from our art
direction because choosing the locations and finding the locations and then
carefully dressing them to exactly what we need is really, you know, I mean,
there was a lot of hard work done. So I'm not--I don't want to suggest we
just ran out into Baltimore and turned the cameras on; but, having said that,
Baltimore is an amazing place to film. I think it falls down better than any
city short of New Orleans. It's beautiful in its tragedy, at least the inner
city part of it, and it's beautiful in other way in places that--you know,
listen, I live in Baltimore. It's not all, you know, impoverished ghetto.
But having said that, there's something about those row houses, those
federal-style row houses and the boards in the windows and the form stone and
the red brick, you know. To me, it's just beautiful. And the more we could
shoot out on the street, the better.
GROSS: Did you shoot in places that you'd never go to on your own without
cameras and a crew because they were too dangerous?
Mr. SIMON: I was a police reporter for a lot of years, and I felt that my
city was not Beirut, it was not Fallujah; it was a place that I ought to be
able to go with a notepad and talk to somebody if they needed to be
interviewed. And so there was no place that I felt like I wouldn't go. I
admit to being squeamish when I would have to get into lifts, you know,
elevators at the...
GROSS: At the projects?
Mr. SIMON: ...Murphy homes at Lexington Terrace, at the high rises.
Mr. SIMON: Which are no longer there. You know, just that sense of going up
and, you know, you got to talk to somebody in unit 10B, you know, in the 770
building and, you know, you're going up, and where the lift is broken you got
to climb the stairs and you're walking past drug deals. That was kind of
creepy because like, you know, `I'm going up, and I got to come back down.'
But I always felt like, you get about five minutes on the street, if you know
where you're going, when everyone's trying to figure out whether you're worth
robbing or not.
Mr. SIMON: You know, you get that five minute like, `Is that a social worker
or is it a cop or--I can't, you know, what's that notepad about?' And in that
delay, I felt like I could go anywhere. And I have to say, you know, I never
got robbed in years of being a police reporter and going to every neighborhood
in the city. The one time I got robbed, I was with Gary McCullough, doing
"The Corner" book, and Ed and I were driving...
GROSS: You mean the metal man Gary?
Mr. SIMON: Yeah. He was going to cop. Actually, we were not going to cop.
We were just walking on Fulton Avenue, and Ed Burns and myself and Gary, and
they thought we were--we looked like--two white guys, you know, with Gary, who
were looking to cop. So they held us up for, you know, $2.50 I had in my
pocket, and it was all very officious and, you know, sort of like pro forma.
And they said, `This is all you got?' `Yeah.' And they were like, `OK. Done.'
That's it. That's the sole extent of my violent encounters in Baltimore,
GROSS: My guest is David Simon, the creator of the HBO series "The Wire." The
series concludes this Sunday. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: My guest is David Simon. He created the HBO series "The Wire" and
wrote many of the episodes. One of the story lines this season revolves
around The Baltimore Sun, where Simon used to work as a crime reporter.
Listen, I don't want to get into the whole controversy about you vs. the
editors who you've represented in a fictional way in the series...
Mr. SIMON: I don't blame you.
GROSS: I just want to ask you one question about that. One of them is
presumed to be Bill Marimow, who had been with The Philadelphia Inquirer and
then was at The Baltimore Sun. When you were there, was back at The
Philadelphia Inquirer, now was at NPR in between, and you not only appear to
have based one of the editors on him, or so everybody thinks, but one of
Mr. SIMON: So everyone thinks.
GROSS: Yeah. One of the people in the police force who was kind of brought
in as a kind of disciplinarian--is that fair to say?--was named Marimow. And
I wonder if you have any regrets about that, because of it being a real
person--do you know what I mean?--and not...
Mr. SIMON: Well, he was named Charlie Marimow, and we used the first name.
Mr. SIMON: And I did think I was being playful in my teasing at that point.
And I was very--in my mind, what I was doing was I was burying the name on the
police side of things. And since, you know, Bill Marimow has never been a
police officer and never will be, I thought I was having my play in a way that
was safe for him. I would not have had anyone named Marimow anywhere near the
media story or even the political story. I thought that might intersect with
the newspaper story. I placed the name in a locale where I thought there was
plausible deniability, and then I changed the name to make it Charles.
And my past is my past and, you know, I think I'm entitled to tell stories
with it the same way that anybody working in fiction tells stories using their
past experiences and conversations and relationships and, you know, that's
what, you know, I'm writing like anyone else is writing. And ultimately, you
know, that has to stand. You know, if that is saying something meaningful
about the matter at hand, which is, in this case, journalism, then, you know,
I don't think I'm going to hesitate to write it.
And ultimately, the bottom line is that, you know, Mr. Caro and Mr. Marimow,
they value a different kind of journalism than I do. You know, what I was
doing and what mattered to me at a newspaper, they did not have much regard
for, and what they were doing at The Baltimore Sun, I had low regard for. So
that's just, you know, that's just going to be a divorce.
GROSS: One of the major plots that a couple of the seasons of "The Wire" turn
on is that the drug dealer's hitmen are killing people and hiding their bodies
in vacant houses and then nailing those bodies shut. And so like 22 murders
are hidden behind 22 vacant houses. Did you come up with that plot idea?
Mr. SIMON: No, that was Ed Burns. Ed loved the idea of using the vacants,
because there were, I think, at the time there were like 20,000 vacants in
Baltimore boarded up like that.
Mr. SIMON: And, I mean, as soon as he said it, it was totally credible. I
mean, in this sense. I had been with the homicide unit in '88, and I knew
that when you were called to a vacant for an unattended death there, you just
prayed it wasn't a murder because, you know, it's the worst place--you know,
it wasn't on the street, there's going to be no witnesses. You know, the
crime scene's going to be screwed. It was the worst thing you could have
happen as a Baltimore detective, to have one in the row houses.
And there were murders in the row houses, people who were lured in there and
shot and killed and, you know, I'm not suggesting anybody ever did 22, you
know, you could lay 22 names on any given person or anything like that, but
there were murders in those vacants. And there were also a lot of straight
overdose deaths and natural cause, you know, squatters who died in there. It
was a cemetery in plain sight. And sometimes the bodies would be in there for
a long time because if there were vacants on either side, you know, the body
would decomp without anybody really thinking much of it, you know. People
might walk past the row house and think, `Wow, you know, there's a dead animal
in there.' But, you know, but when Ed said it, it was like, `Oh my God, that
is Gothic, you know. What's wrong with you, Ed? You know? That's
GROSS: Ed Burns, who co-wrote with you a lot of the episodes of "The Wire"
and worked with you on it from the very beginning to the very end, had been a
detective in the Baltimore police force. And you knew him as a reporter when
you were covering the crime beat. Can you talk about how you met and what
Mr. SIMON: Sure.
GROSS: Like, how you worked together?
Mr. SIMON: Well, I was--I mean, I guess we didn't work together when he was
one of my sources. He was doing his job, and I was pulling on his coat about
stuff. And I guess I got--I've obviously revealed him as a source, but, hey,
I'm not working as a reporter and he's not working as a cop. It feels
completely benign to do it. But when I first met him, it was over the Melvin
Williams article. I'd been assigned by my editor to do a series of articles,
or at least a long article, at that point, on Melvin Williams and his career
because he'd just been busted by Ed and Harry Edgerton in that wiretap case.
GROSS: This is when he was busted as a drug lord?
Mr. SIMON: Yes, in 1984. And so March '85, April of '85, somewhere around
there, I went up to the DEA offices where Ed was still doing a lot of work
sort of cleaning that case up. And I met him and Harry and did a very sort of
cursory kind of like, `We're in the office' interview, you know, it was all
very cautious. And I asked if I could meet Ed sort of later. One of my
things as a reporter was if I can get a guy, you know, having a beer or, you
know, eating a meal or just sitting around, I'll get better stuff than if
they're sitting at the DEA offices, you know, with me having my notepad out.
And so Ed said, `Yeah, you know, but I don't really want to meet you in a
bar.' You know, Ed is not that kind of guy, or not that kind of guy anymore, I
guess. But I've heard stories when he was back in the Western; but, you know,
when I knew him, he was, you know, happy homebody. Anyway, he said, `Why
don't you meet me at the Towson library branch?' And I thought, `Wow, this is
furtive.' You know? `He really doesn't want to be seen.'
And when I got up there, he was checking out a bunch of books, and it was--I
remember some of the titles. It was "The Magus" by Fowles and it was a
collection of essays by Hannah Arendt, and it was "Veil" by Woodward, which
was out at the time. And I looked down at the books, and I remember saying to
him, `You're not really a Baltimore cop, are you?' You know, `What do you do
for a living?' Because, you know, it was just a wide range of interests.
And I got to know him. You know, not only was he more forthcoming outside of
the place, but he had a lot of very strong opinions about what was going wrong
with the drug war, what was going wrong with policing. You know, everyone
jokes about my assertive and violent rage over all the things that happened to
journalism and the guys who were my supervisors. You ought to hear Ed talk
about the police department. I mean, all that stuff's in "The Wire" as well,
they just don't, you know, they don't write about themselves. So I guess it's
just, you know, different dynamic. But hearing his dissertations on what had
gone with the drug war, I was fascinated. And, you know, that was the
beginning of a relationship. Now, at the this point, not including the source
stuff, but I started to, when he left the police department, I hired him to do
"The Corner" with me, and we co-wrote that together and co-reported that
together. And so this relationship now goes back, wow, 16 years.
GROSS: Yeah, that's great.
Mr. SIMON: Professional relationship.
GROSS: Well, David Simon, our time is up. I just want to thank you so much
for "The Wire."
Mr. SIMON: I want to thank you for having me.
GROSS: And for this conversation. Thank you so much.
Mr. SIMON: I want to thank you. I've been a fan for a long time. I really
GROSS: David Simon created the HBO series "The Wire." "The Wire" concludes
Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews the new CD by soprano
saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: Kevin Whitehead on a new CD from Jane Ira Bloom, "Mental
TERRY GROSS, host:
Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says there are a lot of soprano saxophone players
in jazz, many of them have a whiny tone, like the horn has a bad cold. And
then there's Jane Ira Bloom.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: Jane Ira Bloom's soprano sax, shadowed by Dawn
For over 20 years, Bloom has had one of the most distinctive and noble sounds
in jazz, instantly recognizable once you know it. Her tone is uncluttered and
pure, with very little vibrato. Some would say no vibrato, but most jazz
musicians have at least a little. Those tiny fluctuations in pitch help push
a note forward in time.
Bloom likes to move when she plays, and occasionally drapes her sound in gauzy
electronics. She may combine those tendencies using motion sensors to trigger
the gizmos when she swings the bell of her horn around. One reason it works?
Her lines have strong momentum to begin with.
(Soundbite of "Mental Weather")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: That's "Mental Weather," from Jane Ira Bloom's new album of
the same name. To these ears, it's one of her very best, owing to her
invention and good taste as an improviser, and an alert quartet. Beside or
behind Dawn Clements on piano, drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Mark Elias
really hear how to push and pull together.
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Jane Ira Bloom's writing is also strong on "Mental Weather."
The tune "A More Interesting Question" deliberately evokes the stately motion
and dramatic sweep of classic Broadway ballads. It starts very like
Gershwin's "I Loves Ya, Porgy" and borrows a lick from Bernstein's "Some Other
Time." But she places those found objects on her own canvas.
(Soundbite of "A More Interesting Question")
Mr. WHITEHEAD: Cribbing bits of old tunes for that ballad isn't Jane Ira
Bloom's only exercise in modular recombination. The "Mental Weather" CD
includes two versions of the program: the full one in nine separate tracks;
and a shorter, continuous edit tucked away on disc as an MP3 file. That
version is sequenced like a live set, with the tunes in a different order and,
in some cases, lightly trimmed to accommodate new transitions. But for all
that cutting and pasting and Bloom's use of electronics, her music always
feels organic, full of life and with plenty of heart.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas, and he's a jazz columnist for emusic.com. He reviewed "Mental
Weather," the new recording by Jane Ira Bloom on the Outline label.
You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.