David Mills, now a television writer in Hollywood, worked with Simon on the Diamondback, the University of Maryland paper, and remembers that Simon produced great humor pieces. Mills said, “He had a full-blown writing personality as an undergraduate. He was always getting parking tickets, so he did these rambling, profane, angry pieces about the student ticketers, his nemeses.” He continued, “Though people don’t talk much about the humor in ‘The Wire,’ it’s there. You drop somebody into an alien environment—a closed society like the homicide cops or the drug culture—and the key to working your way into that culture is to understand the jokes, which David does. It’s crucial, because, if it weren’t there, the work would be too depressing. It’s crushing subject matter, but not necessarily to the cops—they’re making jokes while they’re looking at dead bodies—and not to the people shooting dope, even. They’re not necessarily walking around saying, ‘Woe is me.’ There’s a grim humor that springs out of that life.”
In his senior year, Simon became the College Park stringer for the Baltimore Sun. He wrote so many stories that a shop steward complained he was violating the union contract; after he graduated, the Sun put him on staff full time. He was assigned to the police beat. Rebecca Corbett, the former Sun editor, told me that Simon “saw the cop beat as a whole window onto the sociology of the city, a way of examining the failings of government, a way to think about policy, especially drug policy, and a way of telling stories.” She continued, “David would say that all he ever wanted to be was a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. It was his home. He was tremendous fun, because he was passionate. He always wrote too long; he could be pigheaded; he was a deadline pusher. And he got into all kinds of labor stuff at the paper. At one point, I told him that he could not circulate another memo until I’d seen it.”
Simon wrote about how the interplay of cocaine and semi-automatic weapons jacked up the city’s murder rate; he wrote about the homicide unit on Christmas—“which seemed ironical enough to my twenty-five-year-old sensibilities,” he said. And he wrote an obituary of a police informant with a photographic memory and a talent for ruses, who became the basis of the character Bubbles on “The Wire.” Occasionally, he published articles that strained for literary effect—such as an extended comparison of a convicted drug dealer and Shakespeare’s Richard III. But even as “Homicide” and “The Corner” were published to excellent reviews, he continued to write standard newspaper fare—“F.B.I. NOW MONITORING STATE PROBE OF HAGERSTOWN PRISON RIOT,” “MURDER SUSPECT, STOPPED FOR SPEEDING, WAS FREED.”
After years of reporting in Baltimore’s ghettos, he found himself at ease with being the only white person in a room, or the only person in the room who didn’t know how to re-vial drugs, and found, too, that he could channel the voices of people in the game. “To be a decent city reporter, I had to listen to people who were different from me,” Simon explained. “I had to not be uncomfortable asking stupid questions or being on the outside. I found I had a knack for walking into situations where I didn’t know anything, and just waiting. A lot of reporters don’t want to be the butt of jokes. But sometimes it’s useful to act as if you couldn’t find your ass with both hands.”
Along the way, Simon grew deeply attached to his adopted city, Baltimore—or Bodymore, Murdaland, as the graffiti in the title sequence of “The Wire” has it. Rafael Alvarez, the Sun colleague who became a “Wire” writer, told me that when he and Simon worked together they liked to “hang out at 3 A.M. at the end of Clinton Street, drinking cheap beer, maybe whiskey. You know those scenes of McNulty and his partner drinking at the railroad tracks? That’s basically what we were doing. There were old warehouses and scores of feral cats. We’d sort of stare across the harbor at Fort McHenry, talking about the city we both loved.” Simon and Alvarez were both connoisseurs of the Baltimore vernacular, and some of the sayings that Alvarez learned from his father, a merchant marine, made it into the scripts. If you were crazy, you were “half goofy,” and if you were drunk you were “half in the bag” or had “half a load on.” (“Why half? I always wondered,” Alvarez said.) If you lost your job or died, you were “finished with engines.” Simon relished Alvarez’s eye for Baltimore detail, and let him indulge it in his work for “The Wire.” In one script that Alvarez wrote, there’s a scene in the office of the union boss in which a dartboard hanging on the wall features a photograph of Robert Irsay, the owner of the Baltimore Colts, who, in 1984, took the team to Indianapolis. “Simon and I are the kind of guys who, when we see those horseshoes with the word ‘Indianapolis’ on them, we want to throw up,” Alvarez said.
Alvarez noted of Simon, “He could have been out there in L.A. years ago, writing scripts.” But Simon never considered leaving. It helped that Laura Lippman, Simon’s third wife—whom he began dating in 2000 and married last year—was a Baltimore girl, whose mystery novels were set in the city, and who had no intention of leaving it. And it helped, too, that his second wife, a graphic artist to whom he’s still close, and with whom he shares custody of the couple’s thirteen-year-old son, Ethan, lived just outside the city. (Once, when I was visiting the tall, narrow Baltimore row house where Simon and Lippman live—Simon also owns and writes in the place next door—I noticed a menorah that Ethan had made for them, in which the candleholders were tiny handcrafted facsimiles of the books they’d published.)
In the early nineties, the Sun came under new leadership, and Simon’s “Front Page” fantasy sputtered out. The Times Mirror Company, which had bought the paper in 1986, brought in a new editor, John Carroll, and a new managing editor, William Marimow, both veterans of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and both with fine reputations as newsmen. “When the boys from Philly showed up, they arrived with a mythology that they had the keys to the kingdom and they were gonna show us how to do journalism,” Simon said. “But to my great surprise—because their reps preceded them—they were tone-deaf and prize-hungry and more interested in self-aggrandizement than in building lasting quality at the paper.”
Simon liked the new regime even less when it began thinning out the staff with buyouts. It was only the beginning of an era in which newspaper readerships and budgets got smaller. In 2000, the Times Mirror Company was itself bought by the Tribune Company. And when John Carroll later quit the editorship of the Los Angeles Times, rather than institute cutbacks, he became a hero to many newspaper reporters.
Though Simon took the Sun’s second buyout offer, he still misses breaking news, his wife says. As he once wrote in an essay, he “had long imagined” himself “bumming cigarettes from younger reporters in exchange for back-in-the-day stories about what it was like to work with Mencken and Manchester.” For a man who has been as successful as he has in a new career, his anger hasn’t abated much toward the forces that, as he sees it, drove him out of journalism. The flip side of his loyalty—he is the kind of guy who will take off work to attend a funeral for the ninety-something mother of a retired rewrite man he used to work with at the Sun—is his tendency to hold a grudge. In April, on a Baltimore public radio show, Simon remarked that he still remembers the name of the girl who wouldn’t kiss him in grade school when they were playing Spin the Bottle, and of the pasteup guy who, back in 1985, excised the last precious paragraph of one of his stories. He went on, “Anything I’ve ever done in life, down to cleaning up my room, has been accomplished because I was going to show people that they were fucked up and wrong and that I was the fucking center of the universe.” It was a joke, but not entirely. Evidence of Simon’s feuds often ends up on “The Wire.” In the fourth season, Simon introduced a highly unpleasant supervisor of the major-crimes unit—someone who is more than willing to close down any investigations that might embarrass politicians, and of whom a sergeant says, “He doesn’t cast off talent lightly. He heaves it away with great force.” His name is Marimow.
The real William Marimow, who is now the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, says that he’s baffled and dismayed by Simon’s “obsession” with what went on at the Sun: “He is as monomaniacal as Captain Ahab pursuing the white whale.” Marimow says that the Sun made great strides in narrative and in-depth journalism—and was acknowledged for doing so in the Columbia Journalism Review and other publications—during the same years that Simon “claims we were destroying it.” He recalls only two conflicts with Simon: one over a raise that Simon wanted, and one over an article that Simon wrote about “metalmen”—people who strip houses of copper piping and sell it. Marimow didn’t like Simon’s use of the word “harvesters” to describe “people who were destroying homes. I thought it glorified them. He disagreed.” Now, Marimow says, “it’s this drumbeat, year after year, of rewriting history.”
Carroll, for his part, said that when he became editor the Sun was a “fallen angel” that had enjoyed “its journalistic peak in the nineteen-twenties and thirties. . . . Among newspaper journalists elsewhere, the Sun was regarded as uninspired and underperforming. It clearly needed work.” He said, “Were we prize-hungry? I’d be thrilled to accept a Pulitzer. Wouldn’t you?” He went on, “David considers himself the ultimate police reporter, and he disdains anyone else who succeeds at it. Bill Marimow won two Pulitzers as a police reporter; David won zero. One doesn’t need a degree in psychology to understand why David is so enraged about both Bill and the Pulitzers.”
Simon’s television career has been less acrimonious. In 1991, the director Barry Levinson optioned Simon’s book “Homicide” for a television series. Simon was happy to receive a check, and hoped that the show would lead to more sales of his book, but he didn’t think it would change his life all that much. Then the show’s producers suggested that Simon try writing a script. Simon called up David Mills, his old Diamondback colleague, who was now working as a reporter at the Washington Post. Neither Mills nor Simon had ever written a script. But Simon has proved remarkably good at identifying friends and associates who could make a major life transition—from journalism to screenwriting, from crime to acting, from police work to television production. Mills says of Simon, “He brought me on for a lark, and it changed my life.” The two men wrote a script about a tourist whose wife is killed in front of him and their young children. Tom Fontana, one of the producers, considered it too dark, and held on to it until the second season of “Homicide,” when Robin Williams agreed to guest star. The script won a Writers Guild Award. Mills recalls, “I jumped all over that. I got an agent, I moved out here to L.A. I was, like, ‘David, a door has opened for us.’ I got on ‘N.Y.P.D. Blue’ and I kept trying to tell him, ‘There’s money to be made out here.’ But he’s a newspaper guy in a way I never was.” Eventually, though, Simon did immerse himself fully in television. He became a producer on “Homicide,” and spent years learning from Fontana—how to write scripts, how to cast actors, how to be a useful presence on the set. It was worth it, Fontana told him: “You become a producer to protect your writing.”
Last November, Simon and his wife travelled to New Orleans. On a chilly Sunday morning, they walked up Louisa Street, in the Ninth Ward, with the Nine Times Social and Pleasure Club parade. The Nine Times is a “second-line club”—part of the New Orleans tradition of honoring people who have recently died with a high-stepping, glitzily costumed procession, accompanied by brass bands. It emerged in the post-Reconstruction period, when African-Americans couldn’t get burial insurance but wanted their friends and neighbors to pass on in style. This particular club was made up of people who lived in a Ninth Ward housing project called the Desire, which had been torn down. The day’s parade was a sendoff for a Mr. Hollis Magee and a Mr. Donald (Pig) Green, and it proceeded boldly across a freeway overpass to Desire Street and, ultimately, to Piety Street. Simon was visiting because the next series he hopes to do for HBO is set in New Orleans—he loves the city, and wanted to use it as a setting even before the storm, though he certainly does not know it as well as he knows Baltimore. He was doing the kind of hangingout research that he used to do as a reporter: listening to how people talk, picking up phrases and perspectives on the world.
The series will focus on New Orleans’s music community, and Simon plans to base some of the main characters on real people: a jazz trumpeter named Kermit Ruffins, who plays with a band called the Barbecue Swingers; Donald Harrison, Jr., a musician who is also the chief of an Indian tribe that performs at Mardi Gras; and Davis Rogan, a local d.j. and piano player. Rogan was at the parade—Simon had picked him up earlier at his house, whose decrepit interior had more shades of paint than I had ever seen in any dwelling. Rogan is a tall, shambling guy with unruly sandy hair and a soul patch. He seemed to know every musician in New Orleans, and perhaps two-thirds of the people at the parade. He teaches music in the New Orleans schools, and he once ran for state representative on a platform of legalizing marijuana and using the revenues to fix the city’s streets—“Pot for potholes!” was his slogan.
Simon had tracked Rogan down in France, where he’d been some sort of artist-in-residence at an abbey. “I was in the Loire Valley, surrounded by very rich old people, most of whom had been dead a thousand years—Eleanor of Aquitaine, people like that,” Rogan recalled. “And French people kept asking me, ‘Is New Orleans dead?’ ‘No, you fucking idiot!’ ” He spoke good-humoredly over the parade musicians, who were playing “It’s All Over Now.” He said of the city, “It is what it is now.”
We walked over washboard streets, past boarded-up houses with desiccated spider plants hanging from the porch ceilings. A large dead gull lay in the street. Many of the houses were still spray-painted with messages indicating the number of live or dead people inside. Some had messages about animals, which Rogan found objectionable: “How’d you like it if your house was spray-painted in big black letters with something about a pit bull? Why didn’t they take it all the way—spray-paint, you know, ‘Rat in back!’ ”
Simon said he had heard that some of the housing projects hadn’t been reopened yet, though they could, with some cleaning up, be viable places to live.
“Yeah, they’re going for a scattered-site housing plan now,” Rogan said.
“Really scattered,” Simon said. “Like, from Houston to Atlanta.”
It was a blue-sky day, and the nip in the air was just enough to wake up a musician who’d played a late-night gig. A woman in a black puffy jacket and ankle-strap stilettos drank Sutter Hill wine through a straw, while a white hipster girl in her twenties banged on a Little Tikes drum. Another woman stood over a man who was lying on the ground; both of them laughed as she joked, “I’m gonna whip your ass!” People were smoking cigars, taking photos with their cell phones, dancing to the music. Somebody was selling two things—Jack Daniel’s and candied apples—from the back of a truck. Simon looked around quietly, taking it in, though every once in a while he hummed along to the music or asked Rogan a question. Simon wore slightly baggy jeans, one of his porkpie hats, shades, and a black fleece jacket. He wasn’t being secretive about his information-gathering, but he was being low-key. As he told me later, “It was too early in the process to have politicians or community leaders, or all the people looking to get on some Hollywood tit, trying to bum-rush this thing. There’s a time and a place for that down the road, if this thing gets any kind of green light, but now it’s just about getting comfortable with these voices and this world, and writing a good pilot and first-season bible. If I screw that up, it ends right there.”
Musicians, Simon complained, were harder to pin down for meetings than drug dealers. He decided that it was better to attend gigs and approach them between sets. That evening, we went to a club, Jin Jean’s, to watch Kermit Ruffins play. Sipping a vodka-and-cranberry, Simon explained, “I’m listening now for how they use a phrase or tell a story. Like, I’ve asked musicians, What do you say when you hit a bad note? They said they call it a ‘clam.’ I was, like, Really? I called it that in my high-school jazz band thirty years ago.”
Compared to “The Wire,” he said, the New Orleans project will have to be “a smaller, more intimate story about musicians reconstituting their lives.” Simon is planning to work with Eric Overmyer, a writer who lives part time in the city. “New Orleans is a place where even nuances have nuances,” he said. “It has an incredibly ornate oral tradition.”
Simon said that he was eager to explore his love of music on the new show. The singer-songwriter Steve Earle, a friend of Simon’s, says, “David is a music freak.” The two men met after Simon cast Earle in “The Wire,” as a scruffy twelve-step drug counsellor named Walon. For “The Wire,” Simon did not want music perpetually in the background; it had to come from something visible in a scene, like a boom box or a car with open windows. There were two exceptions: every season ends with a montage accompanied by a song, and the opening credits feature “Way Down in the Hole,” a twisted gospel song written by Tom Waits. Simon’s search for the right opening song was intense. He went through his record collection—which runs to Woody Guthrie, the Pogues, Muddy Waters, jazz, and R. & B., including New Orleans groups like the Meters—looking for something that would imply “misplaced faith in the postmodern, post-industrial gods. Obviously, given that order, there was not a lot that worked.” Waits’s song fit this high-flown criterion, but Simon felt that his “white man’s growl” wasn’t right for the first season, which was so deeply rooted in black West Baltimore. So he decided to use a cover version by the Blind Boys of Alabama. For the next season, set at the port, where many of the main characters were white union guys, he returned to the Waits original, and then he decided to change the interpretation every season, to reflect the shifting focus of the show. The fourth season, with its schools story line, featured a version by a Baltimore boys’ choir. This year, it will be Steve Earle, whose bottomed-out voice suits the homeless theme.
The day after the parade, Simon took a drive around New Orleans. He said, “This show will be a way of making a visual argument that cities matter. ‘The Wire’ has not really done that. I certainly never said or wanted to say that Baltimore is not worth saving, or that it can’t be saved. But I think some people watching the show think, Why don’t they just move away?” Indeed, the City Council of Baltimore once nearly passed a resolution that proposed steps to counter the bad image of Baltimore propagated by “The Wire.” In 2005, the Sun quoted a report by an image-consulting company that the city had hired. “Baltimore is plagued by negative press and harmful characterizations in the media, resulting in an inferiority complex,” it said. “The perception of Baltimore is ‘The Wire,’ ‘The Corner,’ ‘Homicide’ . . . a hopeless, depressed, unemployed, crackaddicted city.” And, under the headline “NO WAY TO TREAT A TOWN,” a reviewer for the New York Post quipped, “I don’t know this Simon guy, but he doesn’t seem to like Baltimore very much, although he makes a very good living writing about it.”
Simon discounts such criticism, but he acknowledged, “On ‘The Wire,’ we’ve been so angry about what’s been mangled in public policy, and what’s at stake, that we really didn’t have time to celebrate what the city can be.” A goal of the new series, he thinks, will be to make a case for the glories of the American city—“why we need to accept ourselves as an urban people.” And, to his mind, it doesn’t get any better than New Orleans. “At the Macy’s parade, when they show New York, they gotta get the dancers from Broadway shows out in the streets doing a kick line,” he said. “In New Orleans the musicians are already in the streets.”
Not long ago, Simon pulled off a coup that only he could have. It combined his media savvy, his loyalty to the people he’s written about, and his commitment to changing the way the underclass is represented. In “The Corner,” Simon and Burns had written extensively about a woman named Fran Boyd, a smart, likable person who had a devastating addiction to heroin, and whose first husband eventually died of his addiction. After Simon and Burns finished reporting the book, they introduced her to a man named Donnie Andrews, who was serving time for murder. Like the character Omar in “The Wire,” Andrews had robbed drug dealers at gunpoint. Eventually, he killed one.
Andrews had turned himself in to Burns, and Simon had written about him. Burns sensed that he was somebody who could support Boyd in her flickering hope of getting off heroin for good. As Burns told her, “You think you know it all? Well, I’ve got someone for you.” After Burns gave Boyd’s phone number to Andrews, the two began talking for hours on the phone every week, and Andrews, a former heroin user himself, persuaded her to change. For twenty-eight harrowing days in the Baltimore Recovery Center, she got detoxed, and, over the next twelve years, she became a drug counsellor for recovering addicts, a far better mother to her two sons, and a guardian for two nieces and a nephew, all while lobbying to get Andrews released. She and Andrews fell in love. In April, 2005, after seventeen years in federal prison in Phoenix, Arizona, Andrews was freed. The two made plans to marry in Baltimore, in August of this year.
Since Boyd and Simon first met, they had become close friends. In fact, she and both of her sons played small parts on “The Wire”; her younger son even became an assistant film editor on the show. When Simon heard about Boyd’s engagement, he jumped into action.
In recent years, Simon had become an unlikely fan of the “Vows” column in the Times—the Sunday feature in which a couple’s wedding is described in detail. Wouldn’t it make a statement, he thought, if Fran and Donnie’s wedding was covered by “Vows”? Usually, the couples were privileged: Ivy League graduates in Vera Wang dresses and Armani tuxes. Simon called up one of the “Vows” editors, introduced himself, and made his pitch. When the editor called back to say she liked the idea, she told him that the paper wanted to do a feature article about Boyd and Andrews as well. A few weeks later, the editor told Simon via e-mail that the “Vows” column had been cancelled. That made him mad. “Having Fran and Donnie in the ‘Vows’ section was inclusive and smart, an unspoken triumph for the N.Y.T. itself—a democratization,” he explained to me in an e-mail. “To do a feature was far less so—in fact, it was the opposite, in a way. As if such a marriage were grist for a news feature but unsuitable to be considered among other romances.”
So Simon called Bill Keller, the editor of the Times, and made his pitch again. Are you saying, Keller asked, that you’d rather have the “Vows” piece than a front-page feature? Yes, Simon told him, strange though it might seem. Keller said that he’d have to think about it and call him back; he was a fan of “The Wire,” but this decision would have to be made on its merits. In the end, he called Simon and said that he’d read the feature and it made him want to go to Fran and Donnie’s wedding. The feature ran—on the front page of the August 9th edition.
The “Vows” column ran on August 19th. It said that Boyd and Andrews were married at a catering hall in Baltimore, by the pastor of the A.M.E. church where Andrews is now head of security and does anti-gang outreach work. According to the Times, the bride wore a strapless, beaded wedding dress. The groom wore a black tuxedo with a pink tie. They marched down the aisle to the accompaniment of a Luther Vandross song, “Here and Now.” The guests included the actors Dominic West, Sonja Sohn, and Andre Royo from “The Wire.” David Simon was the best man.