Breaking Down The Wire

Watching The Wire With Kids
Talking television.
Nov. 20 2006 6:48 PM

Breaking Down The Wire

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Steve,

After a stint in prison, Poot's an educated man. Among other things, he's learned about global warming—and about human nature. He observes that the world may be warming up, but people are just getting colder. "The world going one way, people another," he tells Bodie. And that about sums up this episode (and the episode's epigraph). Some chilling stuff—especially for three of the kids. Michael now belongs to Marlo. Marlo's the only person Michael knew to turn to for help, and so he had asked Marlo to take care of Bug's dad, who's moved back home, and who it's clear sexually molested Michael. Well, Marlo obliges Michael. He has Bug's dad killed, and it's one cold-blooded killing—one that powerfully intimates that Chris must have seen some abuse of his own in the past. Marlo's been trying to get Michael under his wing for a while, and now he's there.

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Marlo's put the word out on the street that Randy's a snitch, and in this neighborhood this isn't exactly a badge of honor. You can't help but wonder if Randy, who was privy to the murder of Lex, is going to "disappear"—as did Little Kevin, who was privy to that same crime and whose body now rests in one of the vacant homes-turned-mausoleum. Michael and Randy are friends. Is Marlo going to ask Michael to help quiet Randy?

Finally, speaking of loyalty—or misplaced loyalty—there's Namond, whose mom undoes any good that's come her son's way. After getting hauled in for slinging dope on the corner, Namond calls his teacher, Bunny Colvin, for help. His mother is away in New York, and so Colvin is the only adult he can lean on. Colvin takes Namond home for the night, where his good manners impress Colvin's wife. The next day, when Colvin brings Namond home, mom growls at Colvin, "You leave my son the fuck alone," and then berates Namond for being afraid to go to "baby booking." Colvin now knows what he's really up against. I mean, it's one thing to try to pull a kid away from the streets; it's another thing to try to pull him away from his home. Poot's right. People are cold. At least as we see them here. You know things don't look good for these three kids.

Steve, last week you mentioned that we've marveled at the passion of Wire fans. I was at a radio documentary conference last month, and two people came up to introduce themselves. They didn't want to talk radio. They wanted to talk about Omar and Carcetti. But some of the real Wireheads are in the inner city, in the very neighborhoods depicted on the show. Apparently, bootlegged CDs of this season are being hawked on the streets of inner-city New York and Baltimore. The boys—now young men—I wrote about in There Are No Children Here swear by the show. It's their life. And someone on television has finally gotten it right.

Well, this is what gave us the idea to visit with a group of junior-high-school kids from Chicago's West Side and talk with them about the show. They all attend an after-school program at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, an oasis in this hardscrabble community. We had hoped for a mix of kids, but in the end the boys—as boys are apt to do—opted for something presumably more fun, and so we were left with one boy and five girls, one of whom I think was really there because she just wanted to hang out with her friends. She admitted she hadn't seen the show—though that didn't keep her from commenting on it. The kids sat on two sofas. The girls were all dressed in their school uniforms—blue pants and white shirts; the boy wore a T-shirt that read "Dead Man Walking" under a photo of Osama Bin Laden. They were brought together by Deborah Lee, who's helping them make films of their own. We had given Deborah a few of the season's earlier episodes to screen for the kids, but most were already familiar with the show. One, in fact, told us that her dad insists she watch it, as a lesson for what she might face out there. In listening to them, it's clear how much the show mirrors their own lives. They talked of the Bubbleses of their neighborhoods, including one guy named "Hustle Man" who, like Bubbles, pushes a shopping cart and sells junk he's gotten in the alleys—things like silverware, plates, and curtains. And the kids talked about the guys who control their streets. (In Chicago—unlike Baltimore—the drug trade is run by some rather organized street gangs.)

But what clearly got these kids' attention were their counterparts in the show, the middle schoolers. The girls fell for Namond, or, as one of the girls described him, "that boy with the pretty ponytail." And they seemed hopeful that he would walk away from the corner, and that we might offer an introduction. "You gonna let us?" Ashley asked. They worried about the girl who gets her face slashed, as well as the girl who assaulted her. Kiki wanted to know why Michael "don't trust adults." She had watched the early episode where Michael didn't want to get in the car with Cutty; she sensed something was amiss, and, as we now know, she sensed right. "He probably worried he gonna kill him or rape him," Kiki told us. And another knew a kid just like Randy who managed to sneak into every lunch period.

So much of the television they usually watch reflects something far different from their reality, which isn't all bad. After all, the power of film and TV is that it provides a portal onto a seemingly grand landscape. But—and I'm stating the obvious here—it's often a rather narrow portal and the landscape not quite as grand as we think. But here on The Wire they see their streets, they see their homes, they see themselves. Kewan, the lone boy, has declared ownership. "It's one of my TV shows now," he told us. The Wire offers affirmation that they're not alone, and what could be more powerful storytelling than that? In their eyes, Simon and company get it: that the world these kids inhabit is one cold place, and that finding warmth takes a lot of hard work sprinkled with some just plain luck.

As Latara told us toward the end of the conversation: "Other shows, it's hard for us to relate. The Wire's one of the few things I seen where I can relate to them. No preppy kids. They don't have all that money. Everything's not perfect."

Alex

Alex Kotlowitz is author of There Are No Children Here and The Other Side of the River.

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