21 June 2008

Summer Reading #1: David Simon and Ed Burns, THE CORNER

David Simon's first book HOMICIDE focused on the activities of Baltimore police detectives as they investigate crimes, many of which are related to the inner-city drug trade. In a sense, his next book, THE CORNER (co-written by former police officer Edward Burns) explores the other side of the situations he saw riding with the cops, in picking one West Baltimore intersection and looking at the people who live there by observing them for years.

Fayette and Monroe is only one of more than a hundred "open-air drug markets" as Simon calls them, places where people go to buy and sell (and near which they often use). Typically, the sellers or their helpers will call out the name of the drug on offer -- as anyone who saw "American Gangster" knows, they all have nicknames, almost brands, like "Red Tops" or "Blue Magic" -- with the drugs either on them or in a stash close by. Also close by are a number of houses known as "shooting galleries" in which addicts either rent the space to one another to shoot up or have broken into a boarded-up house for the same purpose. Police enforcement of the corner is spotty; the local cops know the dealing is going on and occasionally round up people on the corner, but they recognize the futility of arresting the lower-level operatives while those with larger crimes -- bringing the drugs in over state lines, packing it and cutting it with intent to sell -- remain at large.

The McCullough family is just one whose activities revolve around the corner. Once father Gary was an up-and-coming real-estate developer and his wife, Fran, worked at a telephone company. Now the parents, separated, are both drug users, and older son DeAndre is developing a neighborhood reputation for small-time dealing with his friends in the Crenshaw Mafia Brothers (a gang named for a more famous L.A. outfit). Younger son DeRodd isn't involved in drugs yet, but since many of the dealers recruit young adults for small jobs, it's assumed he will somehow get involved in DeAndre's gang or in a different organization. The book also follows a number of other neighborhood characters, including a 25-year user whose health problems are at odds with his addiction, a community organizer who runs a children's after-school program in the neighborhood and a "shooting gallery" owner whose troubles with the law are tempting him to kick the habit and his friends once and for all.

I'm still not sure how to respond to this book because the lives described in it are so alien to me, it's hard to know where to begin. I think the authors do a good job treading the line between sympathizing with their subjects and holding them accountable for what they do, illegal, dangerous or otherwise. I don't know that I would be able to give the situations they were in such an objective reading.

This book reminded me of one of my favorites from 2006, RANDOM FAMILY, which examines social life among teenagers in the Bronx, but Simon and Burns go a step further and address the reader directly, taking us to task for our belief that the war on drugs can be "won," that welfare recipients are "lazy" and that teenagers on the corner have babies because they don't know any better. (The chapter on teen pregnancy alone should be required reading for everyone; the authors really challenge us to think about how teenagers think and act. If you've been following the Gloucester High story, a little of this may be familiar to you.) In a nutshell, and to put it obviously, the factors driving the way people act on "the corner" are extremely complex, and what we societally are doing to help them sometimes isn't really that helpful.

These thought-provoking passages get more and more prominent as the book goes on but they never overwhelm the narrative, which is as riveting as a fictional story. An epilogue discloses the subjects' fates as of its paperback edition in 1998, but I actually Googled one of them to see what had happened later and found that he had become involved in David Simon's next project, the HBO show "The Wire." ("The Corner" was also adapted by Simon into a miniseries for HBO but I haven't seen it.) The authors almost make it easy to forget that these are real people and that they continue to live because or in spite of this attention.


Elizabeth said...

Fayette is the street I use to bike to work, when I bike (which is not very often these days). I've never been that far west, though, and Baltimore is a city where the character of a neighborhood can change completely in the difference of one block or one corner.

Liz said...

Did you ever watch "The Wire"?

Ellen said...

Liz - I haven't yet but given how critically acclaimed it is I'm looking forward to getting into it.