Authors: David Simon/Ed Burns
‘Powerful and revealing … it shows us the plight of urban America honestly and without condescending to those trapped on its mean streets. I defy you to read about them and not be moved.’
‘A brave, unblinkered and heartbreaking look at the residents of a few blocks of West Baltimore’s ghetto … So far above most reporting on the underclass as to demand attention.’
NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW
is an intimate, intense dispatch from the broken heart of urban America. It is impossible to read these pages and not feel stunned at the high price, in human potential, in thwarted aspirations, that simple survival on the streets of West Baltimore demands of its citizens. An important document, as devastating as it is lucid.’
‘This harrowing work of journalism should come with a label: Do not read unless you’re ready to be shaken to your soul … Stick with it, and the reward is a deepened understanding of America’s complex, intractable drug culture, and, indeed, of human nature.’
‘A complex and beautifully written narrative … A timely and important report from the front.’
SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE
‘A bracing read.’
‘A devastating account of the almost daily hardening of children’s hearts and hopes … This is another world.’
LOS ANGELES TIMES
‘Because the authors have been able to humanise their subjects without romanticising them or making heroes out of them,
r offers rare insight into not only one aspect of inner-city culture, but also into the utter failure of so much public policy at all levels.’
A YEAR IN THE LIFE OF AN INNER-CITY NEIGHBOURHOOD
For my parents,
Bernard & Dorothy Simon
For Anna Burns
“You can hold back from the suffering of the world. You have free permission to do so and it is in accordance with your nature. But perhaps this very holding back is the one suffering you could have avoided.”
= Open-air drug markets in 1993
Numbers in italic type refer to inset
Fat Curt is on the corner.
He leans hard into his aluminum hospital cane, bent to this ancient business of survival. His fattened, needle-scarred hands will never again see the deep bottom of a trouser pocket; his forearms are swollen leather; his bloated legs mass up from the concrete. But then obese limbs converge on a withered torso: At the heart of the man, Fat Curt is fat no more.
Turning slightly, Curt watches Junie glide over from the other side of Fayette, heading into Blue’s for the evening’s last shot. Curt stops, a few feet from Blue’s door, and here’s Mr. Blue himself, standing on the front steps of what was once his mother’s pristine rowhome, scratching at the edges of his beard between arrivals, pocketing two bills from each, though it’s two more if you need a fresh tool. No charge, of course, for share and share alike.
From down the hill near Gilmor comes a short string of gunshots—too even, too deliberate for firecrackers. Barely tensing, Blue allows Junie to edge past him on the marble steps. A regular: no charge for Junie.
“They shootin’ already,” says Blue.
Curt grunts. “Motherfuckers can’t tell no time.”
Blue smiles softly, then turns to follow Junie inside.
Fat Curt slips slowly toward Monroe, reddened eyes tracking a white boy who pulls to the curb in a battered pickup. But there’s no play here; one of Gee Money’s younger touts has already laid hands on the sale.
Curt works his way around the corner to Vine, passing Bryan, who nods acknowledgment. No sale here, either; not with Bryan Sampson out here working his own tired hustle, selling that baking soda. Curt shakes his head: Bryan looking to get his ass shot up again behind that Arm & Hammer shit.
From down the hill, from somewhere around Hollins and Payson
this time, comes more crackling syncopation—the beginning of the deluge to come, though it isn’t quite eleven yet. Curt shrugs it off and shuffles back toward Fayette. Time enough left, he knows, to make a little money.
Finally, a face he knows from down on Mount Street, a gaunt dark-skinned fiend, scurrying up the hill in the hope of catching a better product. Coming right at Curt.
Curt growls assent. Shop’s open.
Fat Curt, the oracle. Twenty-five years in service on these streets, and everyone knows there’s no better tout at the corner where Fayette meets Monroe. Curtis Davis is the gravel-voiced purveyor of credible information, a steadfast believer in quality control and consumer advocacy. No bullshit, no burn bags, no watered-down B-and-Q garbage. Fat Curt, a tout among touts.
“Might try ’round the way,” he says, turning and gesturing with his cane toward the entrance to Vine Street.
The fiend takes his hunger down the block as Curt gives a confirming nod to the lookout at the mouth of the alley. Slowly, the aging tout canes his way back to the corner, shuffling beneath the jaundiced glare of sodium vapor. The city has put stage lighting out here; it’s harsh and direct, openly contemptuous of the scene itself. Fat Curt is forever exposed in the ugly glow, but he can remember when dull blue light washed more gently over these deeds, a time when the neighborhood was permitted some small privacy. Now, at an hour to midnight, the corner is visible at a full block’s distance. Dope and coke. Coke and dope. Twenty-four, seven: twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
More gunshots. Fulton and Lex by the sound of it. But Curt is still on post, waiting for the next sale, when the Western uniforms roll up for a last pass at the corner. The radio cars move slowly down Monroe, but it’s not a jump-out this time, just the ceremonial eyefuck and a sullen showing of the colors.
From down near Hollins and Payson again comes a long, staccato string. Ten or twelve in a row and nine millimeter by the report. But the police ignore it, their faces instead scanning the foot traffic, their brake lights showing red.
The lookouts raise up and go. The touts, customers, and runners
stream away, evaporating like mist, moving down Fayette and into the back alleys. Fat Curt, too, turns from the police cruisers, stepping cane-to-foot-to-cane so slowly that any movement is more implied than real—just enough effort to suggest a polite, territorial retreat. From experience, Curt knows that it will be a short visit, that no right-minded police will be out on these streets fifteen minutes from now.
Over his shoulder, he watches as the brake lights go dark and the cruisers roll quietly through the traffic light, first one car, then its companion heading down Monroe. Curt, having covered barely half the distance to Lexington, turns back again. Shop is still open, but the salvos are now coming seconds apart, hitting all points on the compass. Six in a row echoing from over by the hospital; the snap of a .22 up on Lexington; the roar of what has to be a shotgun from somewhere down on Fairmount.
Time to go, thinks Curt. Time to go before they’re digging some hopper’s bullet from my lonesome black ass. He staggers around the corner and up the steps to Blue’s house, rapping the front door with his cane. Blue cracks the door, then gives way; Curt slips inside. The corner watches its aging wise man; Fat Curt tells them it’s time to go and the last soldiers take heed and drift in behind him. Eggy Daddy and Hungry, then Bryan and Bread and finally Curt’s brother, Dennis, who’s got a hospital cane all his own since he spiked himself in the neck and caught some spine. One by one they cross Blue’s threshold and cluster together amid the cookers and candles and syringes, most of them waiting for Rita to make her rounds. Rita, the corner physician, works a rare magic, finding veins in cold, dying places where no living blood vessel has a right to be.
Outside, the streets are empty. No touts, no runners, no fiends. No police either, as Curt predicted. At a quarter to the hour, all the radio cars are in Western District holes, parked hood-to-trunk behind tall ware-houses and school buildings, or, better still, below something solid.
All across the west side, the distinct reports of individual shots now blend into cacophony. Down Fayette Street toward the harbor, and up Fulton toward the expressway, the bright orange-yellow of muzzle flashes speckles from front steps, windows, and rooftops. They look like fireflies amid the crescendo, beautiful in their way. A window is shattered on Monroe Street. Another on Lexington. And a block north on Penrose, some fool without sense enough to come in from the rain suddenly winces, grabs his forearm, and races for the nearest doorway to examine the wound.
The hour approaches, and the great, layered dissonance grows even louder, the flashes of light racing up and down the streets as visible proof of this explosive percussion. It is a sound both strange and familiar: the signature sound of our time, the prideful, swelling cannonade of this failed century. Shanghai. Warsaw. Saigon. Beirut. Sarajevo. And now, in this peculiar moment of celebration, West Baltimore.
On Fulton Avenue, two teenaged girls stand in the vestibule of their rowhouse, ready for a run to a girlfriend’s apartment on Lexington. They start down the steps, giggling, edging into the maelstrom, but they don’t even make the curb when the next-door neighbor appears in his doorway, grinning drunkenly, gripping a.38 long barrel with both hands in a crude military stance, aiming up into the ether.
Six flashes light the street; the girls dive back to their front stoop. Still laughing, they peek across the marble steps as the reveler returns to his vestibule, reloads, then chimes out six more in perfect sequence. Like a statuette in some bastardized Swiss timepiece, the gunman drops his arm and slides backward through the door to reload again, and the girls, having timed the process, now risk the run up Fulton. They race up the block, consumed in adolescent laughter, holding their ears against the din.
The hour itself arrives with perfect vacancy—a rare midnight with no one soldiering on the Monroe Street corners or down Fayette. No touts, no slingers, no fiends on Mount Street. No crew manning the intersection of Baltimore and Gilmor. And certainly no stray citizens either—most taxpayers with sense fled this neighborhood years ago; the few that remain are now nestled inside hallways and interior rooms, as far from a stray bullet’s reach as they can manage. Twenty blocks east, there are thousands milling around Inner Harbor promenades and downtown hotel lobbies, watching fireworks of a different kind in the night sky. But here, in West Baltimore, the celebration of sound and light requires an empty landscape.
The crescendo continues for ten full minutes before individual salvos can be distinguished from the din; another ten beyond that before the tempo slips noticeably; a full half hour before there are only odd, scattered reports from the belated few. Then, slowly, this world begins to stir. A Vine Street drunk drifts down the alley and makes for Lexington. A tout materializes on Mount, and a police radio car glides past the crumbling commercial strip on Baltimore Street. A fiend skates across Fayette and bangs on the door of Blue’s house; Blue answers, collects
two bills, and peers outside at the sudden calm as the man slips wordlessly past him.
A moment or two later, Fat Curt appears. Cane-to-foot-to-cane, he moves across Blue’s vestibule and onto the front steps, pausing there to take stock. Head tipped to one side, bloodshot eyes scouring the corners from Monroe to Mount, Fat Curt is the oracle again, the keeper of this lost world’s cumulative knowledge, the presignification of whatever still passes for truth out here. He stands on the threshold like a village shaman, reading the street for the pagan hordes clustered behind him in the shooting gallery, his antennae tuned to who knows what frequency. If the fat man sees his shadow, perhaps, they’ll all stay inside and shoot dope for another half hour. If not, shop’s open.
A semiauto’s long crackle carries from somewhere down by the crabhouses, but Curt pays no mind. Too little, too late, and too far away; the flood has crested and gone. Once again, he hobbles to the corner of Fayette and Monroe, laying claim to the pavement.
Fat Curt is on the corner.
Gradually, the entire neighborhood seems to take the cue. By ones and twos, the shooting gallery gives up its wraiths; Junie and Pimp and Bread slide out onto the sidewalk and get back into their game. The touts reappear at the mouth of Vine Street. They’re back in business on Mount Street, too, where Diamond in the Raw has the best package. And around the corner on Fulton, where the Spider Bag crew has set up shop. And down the bottom at Baltimore and Gilmor, where it’s all Big Whites and Death Row and whatever else the New York Boys are using to market dope this week.
The fiends begin to drift back toward the corners. Rail-thin coke freaks and abscessed shooters press dirty singles and fives into waiting hands, then line up for the quick run down into the alley, where the slingers work ground stashes hidden in used tires, behind cinder blocks, or in the tall grass by the edge of a rear wall. Tattooed, toothless white boys, up from Pigtown in battered pickups and rusting Dodge Darts, idle nervously on Mount, watching for trouble through cracked rearview mirrors, hoping that whichever nigger took the twenty dollars is coming back with some product. Soon enough, all of them will be heading to some shithole rowhouse in absolute, dick-hard anticipation, battering their way past every remaining shard of their life to reach the room with the spikes and the pipes and the burnt-bottom bottle caps. They’ll fumble with these things impatiently, kicking the old sofa’s ass in a futile hunt
for matches or jabbing themselves a dozen times in search of a vein. But at last they’ll slam it home and wait for that better-than-sex feeling to crest. Then it’s back again to the corner.
Fat Curt, up on post, watches them come. Year in and year out, he tells it true, steering them away from the trash, hooking them up to whatever will work. As always, he weds his timeworn credibility to some younger soldier’s dope.
“Who got that Gold Star?”
“Come right here with it.”
“Good as yesterday?”
“Man, that shit’s a bomb.”
By one in the morning, this night is like any other, and Curtis Davis knows that it can never end, that money and desire will not be denied. He can tell this story going back a quarter century, back to when he stood on these same corners and the game was just beginning. He had some money in those days, and God knows he had the desire. He has stayed out here nearly every night since, until only his desire remains. He was out here yesterday and he’s out here tonight, and come tomorrow, he’ll be at Monroe and Fayette, watching the same scenes play.
No point in talking about changing, or stopping, or even slowing down. In his soldier’s heart, Curt knows that everyone talks that shit and no one believes it a minute after they say it. Like Blue—running and gunning tonight, but telling himself he’s going to quit come tomorrow. A resolution, says Blue. Naw, Curt tells himself, the shit is forever.
“Wassup, Mr. Curt?”
Curt smiles sadly, then growls out simple truth: “Oh, man, ain’t nuthin’ here but some of the same foolishness.”
He touts for another hour at Fayette and Monroe, then drags himself back to Blue’s for his last blast of the night, the syringe finding a way through one of the fat man’s swollen limbs. When he leaves the shooting gallery, he’s fortified with a good cap and carrying a small eighth of cheap rye in his hand—a rare liquid concession to this evening’s traditions.
Cane-to-foot-to-cane he struggles up Monroe Street, heading nowhere in particular, wandering a bit beyond the usual boundaries of his shrunken world. Penrose Street. Saratoga. Curt limps on, nipping at
the bottle and caning his way down the pavement until this short, spontaneous excursion toward the expressway overpass becomes a modest declaration of free will. Tonight in West Baltimore, for no reason whatever, Fat Curt is no longer on post. At last report, he’s left the corner traveling due north. He’s walking; goddamn if the fat man isn’t taking a walk.
At Mulberry Street, a passing Western radio car slows at the sight. Maybe the cop is pausing to consider invoking the city liquor laws, which in this neighborhood would be a little like handing out littering citations in a hurricane. More likely, a veteran roller, familiar with Fayette and Monroe, is stunned to see one of that corner’s fixtures several blocks north of where he should be. Either way, Curt senses the attention and tries to palm the bottle in his bloated hand. It’s enough of a gesture to imply submission. The cop gives a little nod, then rolls away.