Over the twelve days from Monday, December 23 and concluding on Friday, January 3, we will present special Re-Podcasts of my Crime Story Podcast interviews with storytellers in the world of crime and justice. Each interview will be presented in its entirety, and so interviews that were previously offered in multiple parts can now be accessed in one download or streaming session.

This is Day 6: A Conversation with David Simon.

Kary:

This is the crime story podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is a conversation with David Simon. 

David and I met when he came in to HBO to pitch The Corner as a television series. The Corner is a book that he wrote with Ed Burns about the year that they spent in an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood ravaged by drug abuse and distribution. Together with his book Homicide, The Corner was the foundation for David’s series The Wire, which has been widely acclaimed as one of the great television series of all time. My aim in sitting down with David was to try to dig into where his storytelling instincts and values come from and how they manifest themselves in  his work on Homicide, The Corner and The Wire… three classics in the crime drama genre.

This is the first part 1 of a 4 part interview. In Part 1 we discuss David’s formative years as a storyteller and as a journalist.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with David Simon.

Kary:

Who was the first storyteller that made an impact on you?

David Simon:

Jim Bouton and Leonard Shecter together when they wrote Ball Four. The first time I picked up a book, I noticed the writing, the storytelling. In fact, I was in my bed reading a book that was probably over my head in some ways, but I could not put it down.

David Simon:

I wanted to know what happened to everybody in the book and there were points at which it made me laugh so hard and feel so alive that I wanted to write like that. That was the first time.

Kary:

Then when was the first inkling that you might want to be a writer? That you might want to tell stories for a living?

David Simon:

I perceive Ball Four to be journalism. I don’t know that I actually knew what journalism was when I was 11 years old. But I grew up in a household where my father had always wanted to be a newspaperman, where he loved and admired newspaper. He was a journalism major. He had edited his college paper at NYU and then he’d become a PR man. I knew him to be a writer. He was a speech writer. He was a ghost writer of books for people. He was the head press officer for a Jewish service organization, B’nai Brith.

David Simon:

So I knew him to work with words. I watched him at his typewriter, his Royal typewriter in our basement or in his office downtown in DC. I watched this parade of newspapermen come in and out of our house, have dinner with us.

David Simon:

One of them in particular was a real character and my dad’s affection for the newspaper that was on… You know, when we took every paper, we took The Washington Post, the Washington Star, the New York Times on Sundays. My dad’s affection for that was grafted in to my life.

David Simon:

Then the other thing was we were a Jewish American family, left and center, New Deal Democrats who argued, who love to argue. Argument was sport at our dinner table, and I was the youngest kid of three. Political argument was how you got attention. It was not taken personally. It never lasted more than the evening’s entertainment.

David Simon:

Sometimes people took contrary views just to sustain an argument. But the combination of talking about the day’s events and the affection for the guys who brought it. At that time, nobody… Even the TV was beginning its ascent over newspapers in late early ’60s, early 70s. The newspaper was still held in such high regard by my father.

David Simon:

It had such a place of importance in our family vernacular that I think I always just liked the newspapers. I just read them. I mean how many 10-year-olds get up and read the paper? I mean I didn’t read it cover to cover, but I remember Watergate happened in The Washington Post and I read the paper daily. I followed that like a local crime story. I did.

David Simon:

I mean it was my hometown paper who was… They were chasing a criminal conspiracy that was slowly outlining itself. I remember following it daily.

Kary:

What  was the first experience with journalism that you had?

David Simon:

Well, it’s incredibly nascent, but I edited my high school paper at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. I’d like to say that I took to it like a duck to water, but actually I don’t think I gave it as much attention. The stories were too uninteresting to me. It was like, “Okay.” They’ve developed a new Russian history course that they’re offering to seniors. That was like a front page story. It was like, “Jesus, nothing happens at this high school.”

David Simon:

The content was actually uninteresting to me. But what I did get excited about was putting out the paper, was the physicality of working with headlines, cut lines, sizing photos, halftoning photos, laying out pages. The physical manifestation of the newspaper, that occupied my time because all of a sudden I was putting out a biweekly tabloid. It was just exciting to work with the paste pots and be in the shop and learn how a newspaper came together.

David Simon:

That preoccupied my time more than actually writing stories which… I wrote editorials and we stirred some shit here and there, but the aspect of writing as a craft, I don’t think I took seriously that part of it until I got to college, until I was at a bigger newspaper with a bigger field of vision. But at least I had the fun of manufacturing the product. That was probably the first experience.

David Simon:

Then the second experience was editing a daily broadsheet at the University of Maryland.

David Simon:

I was the editor in chief of the high school paper and I was the editor in chief by my senior year at College Park in Maryland. When I say my senior year, I mean the fourth or five years, because that was a full-time job, putting out that newspaper five days a week.

David Simon:

It was between eight and 16 pages, depending on the ad stacks. You were there 3:00 in the morning, then you’d go to breakfast, all wired up after sending the paper to get printed. Then you wake up at noon having missed all your courses and then you’d do it again. I failed out I think three semesters in a row. It took me five years to get out of college.

Kary:

When you were at the University of Maryland, were there any stories that gave you a sense of what quality journalism might be?

David Simon:

I mean, I had some things that went well and I have some things I’m embarrassed about, but I remember the student union burned down at night. Not the whole student union, but the grand ballroom caught fires, big three, four alarm fire. It happened late. It happened 10 o’clock at night and we got it all in the paper.

David Simon:

We had another news day where… Oh, this is a beautiful story actually. I love this story, which we had a news day where it snowed. When it snowed significantly, they would close the campus and when they closed the campus, the ad people aren’t going to pay for the paper. They’ve paid for an ad to go in The Diamondback when the campus is open. So the presumption is campus is closed. Paper doesn’t come out. We don’t print it and that’s it.

David Simon:

Except on this day, they hired the new football coach Bobby Ross. That was a headline. That was a local headline. That plane struck the bridge, the 14th Street bridge in Washington. That plane went down on the Potomac. There was an accident on the Metro in DC, the subway, that killed several people.

David Simon:

It was just this incredible news day. We sent reporters to DC. We just had too much news and it broke my heart to think that we’re going to do all this work and it’s not going to come out. I was going to basically rob the honorarium fund and publish a four…

David Simon:

In fact, I figured out how much it would cost to publish just four pages without the ads. Just four pages of broadsheet and get all the news out. It was like, well, we’ll take about a $15,000 hit. We’ll have to pay a little less to ourselves at the end of the year for it. But I remember we were going to do it.

David Simon:

Anyway, we printed up two different newspapers. One of them was the 12-page newspaper with the ads. One of them was four pages, no ads. We didn’t tell the general manager that we basically printed up four extra pages of work and, he found out and he was pissed at me. I felt like I was doing God’s work. It was like, you know.

David Simon:

I remember his name was Mike Fibershon. We’re friendly now, but I was like, “Mike, fuck you. I’m publishing a newspaper.” That was pretty charming. I remember thinking to myself you don’t fail to publish if you’ve got stories. I just remember thinking, I get that. Why doesn’t he get that? I mean, it was that.

David Simon:

The student union thing, I remember one thing, which is a reporter from The Sun called at about 11:30 at night, and they called our newsroom in The Baltimore Sun where I would later go to work. She said, “Can you tell me what’s going on?” I remember saying into the phone, as a performance, because the whole newsroom was listening. I said, “Because Macy’s tell Gimbels. We’re publishing, you know. Come on down, you’ll find out what’s going on.” I’m busting her.

David Simon:

She was furious. She goes, “We’re not competing. Come on, help me.” I’m like, “No, Ms. Gunther. I’m sorry, I’m not.” Of course, when I got hired by The Sun, the woman at the desk next to me, when they first gave me a desk up there, was Katie Gunther, and she says, “I remember you, you son of a bitch.”

David Simon:

I mean we took it seriously and we had great pride more than we ought to have had in a campus publication. The circulation was 21,000 and that’s obviously, people picked up the paper twice and went to dorm rooms so more people… It was a 35,000 person campus and we took it seriously, and there I met some of my best friends ever.

David Simon:

Dave Mills was an editor there with me and Tony Pipitone other people. That’s where I got arrogant. By the time I’d edited that paper I walked into The Baltimore Sun newsroom and said, “I’m your stringer.” The day that I finished being editor and turns it over to the next guy for the next academic year, I walked into The Baltimore Sun with a story and just assumed you’re hiring me, I’m going to be your stringer covering College Park and PG and Montgomery counties, and there’s just no question.

David Simon:

I remember Tim Phelps, the state editor said, “That’s all well and good, but you need to show me a clipbook and you have to interview.” I was like, “Dude, I was the editor of the Diamondback. Fuck a clip book.” He went on vacation and by the time he came back, I had filed four stories. And the capper, the thing where he finally grudgingly said, “All right, you’re the goddamn,” you know, without ever getting… I think I did send him a clipbook and I don’t think he ever looked at it.

David Simon:

But there came a moment in that first couple of weeks where I was basically writing my way in as their stringer where Ronald Reagan, who’s been president, this would have been ’82, he went out to visit a family, black family that had a cross burned on their lawn College Park, black home owners in North College Park. To his credit, president, not known for his civil rights stances, nonetheless did this.

David Simon:

I heard about it and I raced out there and I couldn’t get near the president. They weren’t going to let me. I didn’t have a White House credential but I could see the motorcade leaving and I ran up and I got quotes from the family, from the husband and wife and one of the kids, got the basic facts of what had happened.

David Simon:

I called The Sun newsroom and I said, “This is Simon, I’m stringing for you down in College Park. Do you want something on the President visiting this family that had cross burned on their lawn?” I was talking to Gil Watson, the Metro editor then. He said, “President of what?” I said, “Of the United States.” He went, “What? Hold on.” They had me on hold.

David Simon:

Well, I knew what was going on. They were calling the Washington Bureau and saying, “How the fuck do you not know? We have a 12-man Washington Bureau. You know, are you guys sitting around?” Sure enough, this one eluded them. So he’s like, “Yeah, you got quotes? Okay. I’m giving you…” They sent me to rewrite and by the time Phelps came back off vacation, he was like, “All right, you asshole, you’re the stringer.”

David Simon:

Then I had a year of writing as a stringer, writing being paid by the piece before, and then I had some other stories and some other things happening. When I graduated, finally a year late, when finally I get all my credits, they hired me. I got hired right out of college with The Sun. That’s how I got into it.

Commercial break for crimestory.com

Kary:

Before we go into the beat you covered at The Sun, tell me about the world of ideas, ethics, the shaping of your moral worldview as a kid.

David Simon: I grew up in this family. It was a New Deal Democrats. I mean when I was eight years old, the argument at the dinner table was my mother would routinely berate my father for wasting his vote in ’48 because he voted… He thought he didn’t think Truman can win so he voted for Norman Thomas, the socialist candidate. My mother went to sleep early that night and said, “You’re an idiot. Truman’s going to win.” My dad stayed up till morning to find out that Dewey didn’t win and that he had in fact wasted his vote.

David Simon:

I mean the political range was what it was. But you got to remember, I grew up despising Nixon and understanding that his red-baiting was offensive and understanding… By the way, to be fair to him, believing that Alger Hiss was innocent as we now know was not the case. Nonetheless, believing that Nixon’s worldview was wrong.

David Simon:

I grew up with a… I wasn’t a newspaper man yet, but I… I didn’t like flag-waving cant. I knew it and I could smell it as a kid. It was weird. I was a product of being in that house. It was during the Vietnam War in ’70, the demonstrations downtown, college kids from all over the country slept in my living room.

David Simon:

We opened up our house for kids who were coming to protest the war in ’70. May Day. The family was rigorous about civil rights. I mean we weren’t lefty lefty. I wasn’t a red diaper baby. I’m not trying to suggest that. 

Kary:

As I recall, you were grew up very aware of the plight of Soviet Jews –

David Simon:

That’s my dad’s great accomplishment was he was one of the first people to write about in a coherent, reportorial way and mostly for reports for B’nai B’rith that were then helped shaped the press culture about Soviet Jewry.

David Simon:

I mean his reports on the state of Soviet and Eastern European Jewry, which were basically came out of B’nai B’rith, that was from his travels to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe at a time where I remember him packing prayer books in the linings of his suitcase because they wouldn’t let him bring prayer books in Soviet Union, Hebrew prayer books.

David Simon:

That sense of allegiance with the Jewish people was fundamental in my… My dad was a professional Jew. That’s what he was. He began with the ADL in the ’50s and then he became the national public relations director for B’nai B’rith which brought him to Washington. We were a New York family and he came to Washington to take that gig.

Kary:

So there’s a sobriety about leftist totalitarianism.

David Simon: I had a good radar for it from a very early age. You tell me you believe one thing explicitly and exclusively, you’re headed for a moment where you’re going to be wrong and wrong assholicly. I mean on a grandiose level. I mean that’s the problem with ideologies.

Kary:

Assholicly. Did you make that? That’s a good word.

David Simon:

You know, it works. I don’t know that you will find it in a dictionary. Ideology is one of the… Listen, having some sense of a general principle on which you live your life is… I mean certain things are…. But if you’re exclusively libertarian and the government is always wrong, you’re about to say something or propose something idiotic. If you’re exclusively organizational in structure and they ought to pass a law for everything, you’re about to pass an awful law.

David Simon:

That’s pretty much… If you’ve ever been a newspaperman and you’ve walked from issue to issue, as all newspapermen have to, you have to be an inch deep and a mile wide, you will find that whatever presumptions you bring in can only last as long as you actually examine what’s happening on the ground.

David Simon:

For me, that laboratory, in a very clinical way, was Baltimore when I got there as a reporter. But early in life, it was the front page of the newspaper and the arguments around the dinner table.

Kary:

What about film? Were there any movies that made an impact on you?

David Simon:

I didn’t find film, you know. I didn’t go to the movie theaters very much. I mean my parents would drag me to see the kid films. I remember the first time I saw a film and it fucked me up in a good way, which was I watched Bridge on the River Kwai when it was… You could probably date it. It had its first network… It was on the network. It had won all of these Oscars.

David Simon:

I liked war movies. I watched it thinking it was a war movie, and it was something very different from a war movie. Also, the whole notion that William Holden doesn’t want to go back. I mean he really doesn’t want to go back. It’s not like has to be talked into it. It’s like, no, they got him by the balls and he has to go back.

David Simon:

Then the idea that to the very last, when he gives his life, he has no regard for the mission. Like, “Oh, oh, antihero.” At that point, I was ready for I was ready for Altman. That was a moment where afterwards I was like, “What’s next?”

David Simon:

I remember finding Strangelove, another non-war movie, war movie and watching Strangelove and being like coming out of it energized by the humor but also scared shitless. I didn’t study film. For somebody who ended up making television, I had… I was about periodicals, nonfiction, books, history. I loved history.

Kary:

What were some of the books you remember making an impact on you?

David Simon:

I remember when I, Claudius came out, you could date it to that year. I read the Graves. I read I, Claudius and Claudius the God. I remember being fascinated by that because I didn’t think I would be, I was not a student of antiquity, but for whatever reason I picked it up. I remember reading about the Holocaust in various books.

David Simon:

I remember a history of the rising of Treblinka and the Uris novels about Mila 18 and Exodus, which now is a problematic book in some respects. But nonetheless, obviously, it had an effect on me. I remember reading Shirer…

Kary:

Yeah, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich?

David Simon:

Yeah. I was fascinated by the O’Donnell book, The Bunker about Hitler’s last days and also… What’s his name? I mean I read all that stuff. I became a student of the Holocaust for awhile. I read the Arms of Krupp. I read… What’s his name? He was in Spandau Prison, the architect. Speer. I read his memoir. Then I read all of these… Jesus, I read all the strategy books. I still do. I’m the guy who buys-

Kary:

Interesting.

David Simon:

I’m the guy who buys Rick Atkinson’s trilogy of the World War II and reads it.

Kary:

Did you read any of the new journalism, Capote?

David Simon:

Yes. I read it In Cold Blood in high school and like other people who were about to be journalists wondered how much was legit and how much was a cheat. I remember in high school I discovered… I should credit the high school journalism teacher for throwing them in front of us columns by Breslin or Royko.

David Simon:

I remember a particular Breslin column that had a real profound impact on me. I looked it up later in life. He put one in front of us when Daley died. Breslin wrote-

Kary:

Mayor Daley.

David Simon:

Yeah. Breslin went to Chicago and he wrote this. I think it was him. I don’t think it was Royko. I think it was Breslin.

David Simon:

I remember this column of… He used the metaphor of a… He had all these quotes from people talking about how Daley was this, Daly was that, , he was bigger than life. The people waiting outside to view his body. Then he ended with this metaphor that was fair and unfair in the same breath. Truthful but probably made up is, you know.

David Simon:

Who knows if it was… Who knows if he actually saw it? About some dead dog on the Dan Ryan, on the expressway that was blocking the lane, just a dead carcass a dog, big dog and the lanes are blocked. The guy tries to move the dog. He can’t move the carcass of the dog. So he’s got his car door flayed open in the lane and finally he just has to drive around it and move on.

David Simon:

Obviously, a metaphor for Chicago and Daley and what the machine had become. And it was a brilliant metaphor. Was there really a dead dog in that lane of the Dan Ryan? Only Jimmy Breslin knows for sure. But I remember reading it and thinking you can do a lot with a fucking newspaper. I remember thinking you can be as smart as shit in this vernacular of daily journalism and I can write better. At some point I’m going to have to learn how to really do this well.

David Simon:

You read something like that where guys are playing with metaphor or wit and you think, just the facts, man, is one thing. But if you have something to say and you can be smart about it, you can have some fun and you can speak to the world and just be a newspaper man.

Kary:

Do you remember the first piece of long form journalism … In other words a book… Then had an impact on you?

David Simon:

Ball Four, Ball Four not only had a profound impact on me when I read it when I was 11 years old. But to this day, I think it’s one of the finest examples of processed journalism of I’ll spend a year somewhere and I’ll tell you what life is like.

David Simon:

That books about way more than baseball. That’s about the transition of the country at a culturally pivotal moment in 1970. It’s everything from dissent. The ball players are basically a microcosm for the American public. And organized baseball was institutional America, which was having a hard time dealing with what was happening in the country ’68, ’69 ’70. I think it’s the ’69 season, ’70 season or something.

David Simon:

It’s funny, it’s loving, it’s savage, it’s angry. That book is so brilliantly written that when it came time years later for me to write a book proposal, because they were going to let me into the homicide unit for a year in Baltimore, I referenced that book right up front in the book proposal.

David Simon:

I said I don’t know what’s going to happen in a year, but they’re letting me in the homicide unit in a place where they’re going to have 200 homicides at a minimum next year. They’re letting me in a January 1. They’re not going to kick me out until December 31st. I’m going to follow a shift of homicide detectives.

David Simon:

I expect it will be a book that follows the calendar year, but it’s about much more than the casework. It’s about the culture of the city and about…

David Simon:

… the case work, it’s about the culture of the city and about the assembly line of violence and retribution. And I would model it after Ball Four, a book by … and I reference, I explain Ball Four in the piece. That’s in my book proposal. That book had … and Bouton just passed away a couple of months ago.

David Simon:

My wife, also an ex-journalist and a novelist, she knew how much that book meant to me and she got a later edition of it, one that included a later afterword by him about everything that had happened since they published the book, signed by him to me. It’s something I hold with pride.

Kary:

What was your path to that homicide assignment?

David Simon:

I’d been a police reporter at this … I got hired, I spent that year as a stringer and then at the end of the year, I guess this bears mentioning, the basketball coach at Maryland where I was still the stringer covering the campus, the basketball coach Lefty Driesell, he had an extraordinary Me Too moment. This is well before Me Too. I don’t mind telling it to you know because I think they just put him in the ACC Hall of Fame. Driesell was a son of a bitch, he was an empty soul bastard and we all knew it from having dealt with him.

This would have been 1983. I was just about to get out of college. And by the way there came a moment after these Driesell stories where the Metro editor, Steve Luxenberg said to me, “We’re going to hire you on a temporary basis to fill in for a reporter who’s on leave right now. He’s going to come back, you’re not going to have a job here, you’re going to have to go work at a smaller paper, but you have a six month job when you graduate. But you have to graduate.” He goes, he actually said, “I’m not going to be the Lefty Driesell of journalism. You’re going to have to get your degree before you have this gig. So promise me that.” And I think it was the last summer session of ’83 I finally got the last nine credits.

David Simon:

But before then, what convinced Steve I think, I had about 100 bylines and the union, the newspaper actually came to him and said, “He’s writing too much. This is a full time … the guy’s got three bylines a week, he should be a reporter.” They wanted to inquire as to how much I was writing and he said, “We’re going to hire him.” So they knew, but they hadn’t told me yet. (Clarification: David was noting that Luxenberg was going to hire him anyway, and was reassuring the union on this point.) But then the last, the final straw was Driesell had this player, I kind of want to name the player because the player got way more of a raw deal than … not a raw deal, but he doesn’t need his name now.

David Simon:

But he was at a party and he grabbed a girl, a co-ed and he picked her up and he carried her up to a bedroom, he threw her on the bed and he sort of … a little bit of tussle and then he heard, “No.” To his credit, the player heard no and so it didn’t go further than whatever that level of assault is. Certainly not sexual assault at that point, although she was kind of embarrassed. The whole party saw her go upstairs on this guy’s shoulder. Anyway, she made a complaint to the campus jud board and the player was held out of the ACC and nobody knew why , because of course it was all private. So the tip came from the news room and they said, “Can you find out?” And within about four hours I’d found somebody who was on that jud board panel and I found a faculty person who I tricked into confirming it. Classic.

David Simon:

By this time I knew half the … there was plenty more tricks to learn, but I already knew the trick of you add stuff into the story that you’re about to, you claim you’re about to put it in the paper. And he did this and he did that and the guy basically says, “No, no, no. Don’t print that, it was only this.” And you go, “Right, right. It was only that.” And now you’ve got your second source. So I called back within four or five hours and I had it. And everyone was chasing it. The Post was chasing it, The Sun was chasing it, so I had it.

David Simon:

And then Driesell lost his mind because the second thing was Driesell called the girl at her dorm room screaming into the phone that, “If you go ahead with this, if you keep going with this complaint …” He’d done this already and he lost his mind and he said, “Your reputation’s going to be ruined, you’re going to be trashed, you don’t want to do this.” And she called the head of the jud board who went down to her apartment, picked up the phone the last time, so that guy heard Driesell screaming at her, Gary Pavela. And I got that story, that was my second day story, that Driesell had done this. If you hear it today, in our vernacular today of Me Too, he should have been fired. The truth was, and this taught me a good lesson for journalism, Lefty Driesell was … they had a half a year investigation, they quietened it down and then the day of the press conference where they were going to decide what to do with him, you could go watch the players at practice and they were all slapping their wrists. They knew.

David Simon:

They gave Driesell a five year contract for more money than God and said, “He was only trying to warn the girl.” By this time she’d transferred to another school. 

Kary:

This is about three years before Len Bias died, right?

David Simon:

Right. And then they finally had to fire him after he was cleaning up the drugs in Len Bias’s room, you know? Driesell was a piece of shit. I mean the things he yelled at this girl. And to tell you how much of a piece of shit he was, his players … as the story broke his players fanned out and I sat across from three of them, three active members of the varsity basketball team including Chucky Driesell, his son, who was the 15th man on that team. While they enumerated all of the sexual improprieties that they wanted to tar this young woman  with, knowing they were … it was not for attribution, but they wanted us to know before she came to Maryland from Clemson she’d slept with the whole wrestling team.

David Simon:

It was all bullshit and we actually sent a reporter to Clemson because at this point the girl’s reputation was what the story hinged on. But his own players were running around campus telling everybody that she was a whore. I mean it was the most incredible  performance by a man who was ostensibly a faculty member and an intercollegiate coach at a division one school. It taught me something which is I control the narrative on the page. What happens after you write the truth, they may come behind you, they may pass a law, they may pass a bad law, they may pass the wrong law, they may fuck up the world worse, they may give Lefty Driesell a five year contract for being an asshole. You can’t control that…

Kary:

It’s interesting as a metaphor for what would happen in Baltimore after The Corner and The Wire.

David Simon:

Yeah.

Kary:

But we’ll get to that.

David Simon:

Yeah, you’re right. I mean you like to think as a journalist that you’re going to change the terrain for the better and sometimes you do and sometimes you don’t. But your job is on the page.

David Simon:

The Driesell thing gave me an ethos that I never was trying to cook it. There’s a whole culture of Pulitzer grubbing and prize grubbing where you report what you think is the affront to society, maybe you shave off the parts that make it complicated, you just keep the part that you want people to react to. So if there’s a controversy with six sides, you only need two facets to make it an outrage. So you shave off the complications that maybe somebody has an explanation for part of it. And then you report the shit out of it for a year, afterwards you report the shit out of the reaction to your five part series on whatever. The Baltimore Sun did this, The Baltimore Sun did that and they passed a law, they did this, they held committee hearings, the governor said this. And you hype that and then you submit the whole package for a public service to the Columbia School  of Journalism and they give you a Pulitzer.

David Simon:

That was the Gene Roberts school in Philadelphia. And I saw it upfront and I learned to have real contempt for it. Because guys would cook, you know, “Governor, isn’t this an outrage?” “I guess so,” he blasted. And they would play that game and I had really low regard for that game from Driesell on because it was like tell the truth, tell the whole truth, keep on the story if it still has legs, don’t quit, but where it leads and what happens to society afterwards, that’s not how you judge yourself because then you’ll start cheating. And I saw a lot of guys cheat.

End of part one of David Simon interview.

Kary:

This is the crime story podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is a conversation with David Simon. 

This Podcast is the second part of a 4 part interview. In Part 2, we discuss David’s work as a Crime Reporter for the Baltimore Sun, his writing the book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and his transition to writing for Television.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with David Simon.

Kary: Did you become a cop reporter, a police reporter immediately?

David Simon:

Yeah, that was the entry level place they put you. They gave you two weeks on the obit desk to see if you could be accurate with people calling in obits on family members and after that … they did some other stuff with me to stretch me a little bit. The federal court reporter went on vacation for three weeks and I covered federal court settling. Okay. The court is good, they send him to the court room, there’s a written record. If he’s inaccurate it’s going to show. So they did a few things here and there, but basically where I landed was my off days were Tuesday, Wednesday, I worked every weekend day for two years. I worked Saturdays and Sundays. I had off Tuesdays and Wednesdays and I worked four to two. Four to one, four to two and every night of those two years. And that was 19 … I think I had 350 bylines in 1984. Some sick amount. And by the way none of those clips … maybe four of those clips are worth talking about. The other 346 were dreck, yeah, just drek.

David Simon:

But there was one clip where I showed them a little something. I remember what happened was they started this little feature called City Life, where they wanted to get writing in the paper that wasn’t in the paper otherwise. And so they started this little thing and they said everyone has to come up with a City Life idea. Something that’s about the Baltimore essence of Baltimore and the city desk would start this and you could come up with the idea but you had to execute it. So separate from this, two things happened, one of which was I took the phone book and I looked up the names of famous people in the Baltimore phone book like Sherlock Holmes. There’s a Sherlock Holmes in the 1400 block of Dukeland Street. So I called him and I said, you know, “Mr. Holmes, how did you get the name?” And on we went. Anyway, it was a very charming piece about the phone book. I talked to Miles Davis who was a white guy, Charles Village. I talked to Edward G. Robinson, he had the middle initial and everything.

David Simon:

It was a lot of fun and it ran, it was one of the first … and Rebecca Corbett, who was my … she’d been my night editor and then when she became city editor I started getting some daytime gigs and then when she became projects editor I went to work for her projects team. And now she’s at the New York Times, she’s one of the top editors there. She did the Weinstein coverage and she was always top flight. But I remember she read that piece and she read another piece where they sent me to the last days of the wholesale fish market when it was in downtown Baltimore in this whole wreck of a building. They were going to move it out to a modern warehouse in Jessup and this old building that had a lot of charm, no air conditioning and smelled like 100 years of fish was about to become something else.

David Simon:

I wrote that for the front of the paper and I’ll never forget it, she came over to me and she goes, almost with a tilt of her head she goes, “You can write.” Like there was no expectation that you were … you were going to get a reporter maybe who was going to be accurate, you were going to teach them to be accurate, but the Baltimore Sun way was not exactly to hire great writers. It used to be said that the Baltimore Sun read like accountants wrote it, that was what the Evening Sun used to say. So I started to get a decent reputation for it and then I got a reputation for being fast, because they put me on rewrite two, three nights a week, so I was … their rewrite is, as Russell Baker said famously, he was a rewrite man at the Baltimore Sun at the beginning of his career, he said, “It’s the skill of writing an endless stream of cliches at flank speed.”

Kary:

For those who are uninitiated, what is the rewrite job?

David Simon:

Four to one and 12 to nine there were two people on the desk who breaking news reporters would be standing in a phone booth. And whilst some reporters can call in a story famously, “Here’s my lead.” Call it in paragraph by paragraph while standing on their feet next to a four alarm fire or next to a train wreck, a lot of people were just calling in facts and saying, “I’ll go find the battalion chief, I think he broke his leg.” “Which leg?” “I don’t know, I’ll find out.” So it all comes in as fact and then you have 20 minutes to write 15 inches on a four alarm fire. So that’s the rewrite desk. So you had to be clean, accurate and fast.

David Simon:

It sounds like most newspapermen would be that, but no, it’s actually like the fastest guys, they actually used to pay a differential, a 5% differential, a union rate if you were doing rewrite because it was supposed to be a higher skill level. But you’re also newsroom bound and you don’t cover … you don’t get a reputation for … you’re basically part of the machinery that gets the paper out. But for years I had re-write shifts and it made me cleaner and faster and I got a reputation for being sort of elementally functional. And it meant I had a lot … even when … because I was turning out to be a good reporter and Rebecca was trying to free me up for daytime shifts, I would have three daytime shifts to do my regular reporting and cover city stuff or cover … at the time I was doing a lot of police work, but then Sunday and Monday nights I would be late rewrite because those were Dave Ettlin’s … the regular rewrite man had to have two nights off, so I would be the late rewrite on two nights.

David Simon:

It was a badge of … to me, to a young guy, to a guy in his mid 20s it was a badge of honor. I’m the fastest, cleanest gunslinger here. I remember another moment of great pride was there was an Amtrak crash. Oh God. There was an Amtrak crash.

Kary:

That was-

David Simon:

That was, I know, it was-

Kary:

We planned that.

David Simon:

Yeah, that was pretty funny. There was an Amtrak crash north of Baltimore in January ’87. I think eight or nine people killed, I don’t remember the number but I was called in early, I was four to one rewrite. No, I was 12 to nine rewrite, but they called me in at 10 in the morning or 11 in the morning. “Get in here, we’ve had a big thing happen.” And I got there and they called Ettlin too, Ettlin was the night editor then. Was he night editor? Yeah, he was night editor and they said, “Get in here early.” And Ettlin was the veteran rewrite man, he was one of the guys who broke me in and they said to him … I watched it happen. It happened like in pantomime while I was stuck on the phone taking dictation from reporters out at the crash site.

David Simon:

So I’ve got the phone cradled and I’m typing with both hands and I was already writing the lead story for the first edition and this would have been late afternoon, maybe early evening and I watched John O’Donnell, the national night editor call Ettlin over and I watched them point to me and pinpoint. And what he was saying was, “Dave, you should be on the lead, put Simon on the sidebar.” I mean David was the veteran guy and, “You should write it. Even though you’re the night editor you should step in” and they were saying, “I’m sure he’s doing fine, but you’ll do better and you’ll be …” They were saying to the veteran guy, pull it out of his hands and give him the sidebar. And then I watched while still rewriting, I’m down in the body so I probably had 10, 12 graphs written and I’m on the phone so I can’t really talk to anybody, but I watched … I’m  taking notes and I’m telling somebody else to call Middle River Fire and Rescue, see if there’s any bodies in the water. It happened on a bridge outside of Chevy Chase, Maryland or near a bridge. And I’m yelling and David leans over my shoulder and he scrolls to the top and he reads the lead and then he scrolls down and then I watched him walk over to OD and he got close enough to OD that I could hear it because he just yelled, he goes, “He got it, I got the sidebar.” He read my lead and he read my first eight graphs and he was like, “The kid’s got it.” And I was 26 years old, Ettlin was probably 50 something and it was this moment of, “I can fucking do this, pal. Get out of my way, I am a newspaperman.”

David Simon:

That was one of the best moments of … and it only happened, it wasn’t a moment that was heralded, but it was me and Ettlin. I knew what Ettlin did, Ettlin basically said, “I’ll take the sidebar, you got it.” And it was his prerogative. He’d been there since 1966. If David Ettlin wanted the lead byline on that, he was taking it. So that was … I became a newspaper man in the viscera of how the newspaper got out every day. And from there, slowly, Rebecca weaned me away from the desk and started encouraging me to do project work and more stories.

Kary:

And how did the police beat fit into that?

David Simon:

Well for two years they put me on night cops and not a lot happens sometimes on night cops. Sometimes you work, you end up calling every police precinct in Baltimore and Baltimore County. You end up calling all the state police barracks in Maryland. You end up calling the Coast Guard, you end up calling Ocean City, you end up calling Annapolis, Annapolis Municipal. You end up calling P. G. Montgomery. Anything going on tonight? Anything going on tonight? You end up calling them three times a shift. I know these numbers now. 301-269-3101 is Annapolis barracks of the state police. I mean I know these numbers now.

David Simon:

565 … they may not be this anymore because it’s been 30 years, but what they were when I was calling them every night, 565-6105 Coast Guard Marine Safety Office, in case they had an environmental spill in Baltimore river. I mean the Baltimore numbers are easy, I’m trying to think of one that’s obscure. 298-3101, Maryland state police security barracks. You call them so much and this was before speed dial. When it first started it was frigging dial phones, but you just called them so much that they were … years from now I could not be able to remember my kids names when I’m going senile, but I’ll be able to remember how to make a fucking police round using the 1984 numbers for the Baltimore law enforcement. So it’s a shift that most people want to get off of.

The one thing that I did do is whenever it was a slow night, sometimes you get lazy, sometimes you sit there playing scrabble with Ettlin on a slow night, but sometimes I’d go over to the homicide unit and sometimes those guys were bored. Nothing’s going on and they’re watching a movie on TV. So one of them, Roger Nolan used to bring in a VCR once the VCR started happening later in the ’80s and they were going to watch movies all night on midnight shift. So you’d go over there and you watch Paths of Glory with Roger Nolan and the squad and you bullshit. And it stood me in good stead to make friends and get out of the newsroom and talk to desk sergeants and every now and then it helped, you know? Every now and then some guy would give you a home number or he’d tell you where he went drinking so you’d reach him at the bar when you needed him. And I started collecting names and numbers and sources. So that was the beginning of get out of the newsroom and meet people.

Kary:

And how did the opportunity to spend a year in a homicide squad materialize?

David Simon:

Well Christmas of ’85, like I said I took a bottle, I took a bottle of Johnnie Walker up to the homicide unit, because all year long you were calling and saying, “Have you got anything tonight? You’ve got one over on Durham Street? Okay.” And you get the facts and write a brief up. Or if something really big happened, “We’ve got a triple shooting.” “Oh shit.” You’re asking them … it’s in a house, you’re asking them to come out from working a crime scene and spend five minutes with you giving you the facts so you make your deadline. So you’re always sort of beholden to them. And if they thought you were an asshole they could fuck you up. “I’m not coming out of the house until after 11: 30 and you’re going to miss your home final.” So you try to be friendly.

David Simon:

And at Christmas I said I’d bring them a bottle, I’ll bring the guys at work a bottle and it was Nolan’s shift, Bill Lansey  who died a short time later, a good guy, Bill Lanzey, Donald Kincaid. I’m trying to remember who was up there. Nothing really happened. I went up on Christmas Eve and they had one small cutting. The guy didn’t die so they basically turned it over to the district. They went out on it but they came back pretty quickly. Mostly they sat around bullshitting and so I wrote a City Life about Christmas Eve in the homicide unit. It read so sweetly, it read just like the Kafka-esque notion of goodwill to all men and gee I hope the phone doesn’t ring. I hope that cutting over on-

Kary:

He doesn’t bleed out.

David Simon:

Yeah, he doesn’t bleed out. Right. It read very well. It read so well in fact that at that point in ’85 the Baltimore Sun was still an honorific paper, meaning we used Mr. and Mrs. and Ms. and Miss. Everybody had an honorific. It makes it very hard to write narrative when everybody has an honorific. It’s so distancing, so they were all “Detective.” Detective this says to detective that. I wrote it in the present tense. “Nolan says.” “Kincaid laughs.” I wrote it like it was a narrative and it read so well that it sailed … I watched, it sailed past the night editor, Peter Meredith at the time and it sailed past the copy desk and nobody noticed that it was a violation of the Sun’s style. It ran in the paper without honorifics.

David Simon:

And the next day Meredith came up to me furious. He was so pissed. And I tried to say to him, “Isn’t that a tell that we should abandon this? If you want really good writing what the fuck are we doing being honorific? We’re not the New York Times, but we could have great writing, we could be the Herald-Tribune.” And I had an argument with him over it, but I basically put one over. Anyway, that night, a quote that I didn’t use in the paper, Bill Lansey at about four in the morning finishing off the last of my bottle said to me, “Man, if somebody came up here and just stood in the middle of the fucking room for a year they’d have a motherfucking book.” And I remembered that.

David Simon:

It was Christmas of ’85. I thought about it, I kept brooding on it, then in ’87 we had a strike over medical. We were one of the most profitable papers. We were as profitable as we’d ever been, we later found out. They were pleading poverty and they were trying to cut our medical and we went on strike for about a week and I came back really irritated, so it would have been fall of ’87. It was fucking … I didn’t want to get … it was a good full-time newspaper job, but I felt like loyalty, institutional loyalty, I felt nothing but loyalty to this paper that hired me out of college and you need to cut my medical when we know you’re now the only paper in town? You’ve vanquished the Hearst paper two years earlier and you’ve got a monopoly and the paper is fat with ads. What the fuck you people?

David Simon:

So I’m feeling like I could use some time to do one of my own projects. And by this time I’d had a series of … I’d had a five part series, I’d done … I wasn’t just doing react stuff, I was now doing enterprise reporting for Rebecca. I wrote up that book proposal, that one I talked about … and I got myself an agent and he sent it around and it was a little bit of a bidding war and it was enough for me to live on for a year, at my salary maybe a year and a half and finish a book. And incredibly they let me into the homicide unit for a year. Something I don’t think-

Kary:

And you did that as a freelancer? You weren’t affiliated with any news organiza-

David Simon:

Oh I had to say to the Sun, they wouldn’t let me in if I’d been affiliated. They were saying, “You can’t talk to your newspaper while you’re … if you’re traveling with our detectives on pending cases you have to be …”

Kary:

I see.

David Simon:

So I was on leave and the guild contract allows you to be on leave for cause for a year once you’ve put in a number of years. I’d put in four year at that point, I had a book contract and they were letting me into the homicide unit, so they let me have a year and then I needed three months more to finish the first draft and then I needed to work on a second and third draft and I asked for six months more. I was out probably a year and nine months total. Then the book came out and then we were off and running. I remember thinking I’m going to act on what I’ve been brooding about with Bill Lansey to get out of this newsroom for a year because I’m pissed at the people I’m working for. They have no business cutting our medical like that. I was a strike captain. Strike captain doesn’t mean much, it means I was in charge of one little crew at one of the gates making sure we were always picketing. I’m always a good union guy, any union. So that was it.

Kary:

What were some of the lasting impressions and kind of gestalt impressions and moments from that year in the homicide unit?

David Simon:

I do remember human beings getting used to anything. I do remember that dynamic which was to say … listen, I’d seen some bodies, I’d been a police reporter for four years, I’d gone to a lot of crime scenes, it’s different to spend three hours in a kitchen with a body, especially one that’s been mutilated. Or then to go to the morgue and see one disassembled by a pathologist. It really becomes meat in a way that maybe only morticians and pathologists and homicide detectives and, I don’t know, maybe fire and rescue people understand. But human beings get used to anything, so I can tell you everything about the first body that I spent four hours with at a crime scene. Kenny Vines, drug dealer, Walbrook Junction, killed in his living room, bullet in the eye. I can tell you about the bullet hole, I can tell you about the wink of the one eye missing, one eye staring out. I can tell you about the fucking note he had on his refrigerator. I remember everything about that crime scene.

David Simon:

I can’t tell you shit about the 120th body that I stood … it’s like you get used to everything, which is something about humanity that … it’s like all of the crime fiction and all of the detective shit on TV, it immediately … by February and March and it was immediately playing false to me as I knew it would intellectually, but I really felt it. All that shit where the detective comes up and they care about the victim and they pick up the sheet and they look down at the young girl who’s been killed or whatever and they care. They’re vexed by the affront. It’s their job. And they look down and they say, “Shit, what am I not seeing?” The moment they stare down at that body and they’re overwhelmed emotionally, then they’re no good for their job. They’re not going to be that. If you want the detective to really care about his victim, you don’t want the guy to be… You’re not really asking for a detective. You’re asking for a fucking… You’re asking for some validation of humanity in the wrong place. So all of the conceit that has been applied by by society, what I was seeing was the assembly line of urban violence.

David Simon:

Is it kind of the same assembly line, and all the guys who were working on it to get the cars put together as fast as they could and not botch up too many of the cars, because they were solving 70%, 65% of the murders and that was good. By the way, they wish they could fall itself 65%, 70% nowadays. So I was, that’s what I was watching was this mass…

David Simon:

I was like on a Detroit assembly line of murder investigation. That leads to incredibly tough and dark and funny humor as you might imagine. It also leads to stress, great wit, great anger, great talent on the part of the guys who can put together eight, nine clearances a year. It shakes out the bad detectives. It means that like in a unit of 36 guys, there’s maybe 12 or 15 that are worth a shit and they carry the rest of the guys. Like in one squad there’ll be … If you’re sergeant’s good, he’s good. Maybe he’s got one or two guys he can rely on. And the rest of them, they’re trying to filter that police work to those two guys. Task those guys, “Hey talk to this guy and ask him this.” Or. “Bring this guy to me and I’ll talk to him.”

Kary:

How long did it take for you to develop your sense of or your appreciation of police craftsmanship… of police work.

David Simon:

I was still developing it a year and a half later when I was watching this case go to court or not go to court. I was still learning. I mean, you never stopped learning, but I will tell you that everything I wrote down that I thought was important in January when the first got to the unit and I filled note pads. None of that shit was important. What I wasn’t seeing right away became evident to me as I watched these…

David Simon:

I started realizing, everyone said to me, Ed Burns was not in the unit then… the guy who I later worked on  The Wire with and a colleague of mine in television and he was at… He was assigned to an FBI investigation, a wire tap case. So he was out of the unit that year. But I said, “Ed, who should I go with?” And he said, “Go with Donald Worden.” “Whose shift you on?” I said, “I’m on the D’Addario shift.” He said, “Make sure you follow Worden.” Then I say, “Worden, huh?” He goes, “Worden.”

David Simon:

Worden is this polar bear looking six foot four white guy, gap toothed, high school education, Navy vet, came out, worked his way up in Northwest district, Ops…. Probably got to robbery and like… Came on in ’62. He’s like an old timer and he looked… not smart. He looked like a guy from fucking Hampden, which is what he was, which was like white working class. He was like a goddamn gap tooth, polar bear.

David Simon:

And he was always a little bit abusive of me. Like he’d say,  “Simon, Simon from the Sun, motherfucker.” I didn’t know enough to be intimidated by him. I thought he was a little bit of an asshole. And by the time I got to May I realized, Worden’s carrying half this fucking shift. He’s that good. He’s that good. The joke was if you got him into a house in the Northwest district, it was solved because he knew everybody up there but … And he couldn’t write a lick.

David Simon:

They would put him with a guy who could write the reports because he was like, he… I mean if he had to, he’d sit there and write a “24” you know what I mean? I’m not saying he was illiterate, but he would rather eat his gun than type a report. He wasn’t typing no prosecution reports. For that, they put them with other guys.

David Simon:

But he ran his squad. He was a part of McLarney’s squad and he was as much, the conscience of that squad as McLarney. And by the time I got to-

Kary:

And when you see the conscience, you mean the craftsman, like he cared about… good police.

David Simon:

Yeah. Like… “I’m going to look over my shoulder at Dave Brown’s file” and he’d call Dave Brown a motherfucker because he hasn’t picked up this witness, which anybody would at this point. Or because he hasn’t seen that this caliber was also on another robbery on another 24 from the same night. Another 24 hour report.

David Simon:

I mean a lot of it was instinctive but it wasn’t like magical. It was common sense instinctive. But also Donald, he wasn’t a verbal guy. There’s a lot of different ways to interrogate a guy and if you’ve been a reporter, there’s a lot of good ways to interview people. One of which is… keep talking. If you think it’s going to be a belligerent interview, keep talking. So that he can’t say, “I don’t want to talk to you.”

David Simon:

Just fill the room with bullshit until you say something and the guy smiles and then maybe you let him say something. But that’s one thing. The other thing to do, if you think the guy’s not going to throw you out or you think the guy’s more of a supplicant as as a subject, is shut up. Don’t say anything and he’ll fill the silences just because he’s uncomfortable.

David Simon:

Donald would look at you with those fucking sad eyes and, just look at you. Some 16 year old black kid who’s about… trying not to give it up. He looked at you like, he was like, he’s somehow your old sad uncle and he’d just look at you like, and the kids lying and he’d just let the kid lie and lie and lie and lie. Donald would just… and finally the kid say some shit and implicate. If not himself, it’d be the guy in the next interrogation room.

David Simon:

And we watched him do it one time and McLarney passed me a note while it happened and said, “Wouldn’t you hate to have Donald as your father?” Because he had that, he had that ability to suck a room into silence. Ed knew that. Ed knew everything about who was good and who was not. There were other guys who as was famously said, who couldn’t track a bleeding elephant through snow, through fresh snow.

David Simon:

I mean there were some guys who shouldn’t have been in the unit. And the guys in their squad would carry them. It’s like that’s what you do. You carry the weak… It’s like a platoon at war. You carry the weak guys, you try to help them with their cases. Sometimes they have to sink or swim. You can’t help a guy forever, but as long as he’s in your squad, you get to try to help him solve the murders.

David Simon:

But then there were guys who were just so… Kevin Davis was great. Donald Worden was great. Harry Edgerton was good. Trying to think of who else I really admired in that unit. And then there were some guys who were like professional. A solvable case wouldn’t get away from them, but they weren’t going to bring in a tough drug murderer. They weren’t going to work at like a dog with a bone.

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

Garvey was great that way. Garvey would not let a case go if he could possibly solve it.

Commercial break for crimestory.com.

Kary:

So you wrote the book in ’88, I mean, you reported the book in ’88-

David Simon:

I reported in ’88, came out in 91 yeah.

Kary:

So you worked on it for the first nine months of ’89?

David Simon:

No, first three months. I went back in March of ’89, and then I had to go out again. I realized that my first pass was not as good as it needed to be.

Kary:

I see.

David Simon:

So then after six months back in the paper, I had to ask. So I said, I got to go out and I got to work on this draft to get-

Kary:

I see. I See. So that’s why I didn’t come out till ’91?

David Simon:

Yeah.

Kary:

Got it.

David Simon:

No, I worked hard on the draft. Plus you got to remember all the cases were being adjudicated and I couldn’t be as free about… One of the things I had to promise the police department was that in pending cases, they could adjust the manuscript or take stuff out and I didn’t want them to take stuff out. And they made no changes to the manuscript. But-

Kary:

But you had to wait for the cases to be-

David Simon:

Right. I needed those cases. And the average murder case takes a year to get to court after they charge. So send some of these, they didn’t charge until December. So all the while I had other reporting I was going to court with the cases and watching them go through the system, the ones that were solved anyway. And there were some that were solved and they arrested people in ’89 for ’88 even ’90.

Kary:

And it came out in ’91, tell me the story of how it ended up in Barry Levinson’s hands.

I had an agent who was a schmuck, a book agent. And he thought he could sell it on his own in Hollywood. He was out of DC and my book editor, who was not a schmuck, John Sterling was a very bright guy. He was the head of head of Houghton Mifflin at the time. He said, “This is not for a book, it’s not for literary guy. You need somebody out there in LA to be selling this.”

David Simon:

So he’s supposed to split it with one of the big agencies and so he went to CAA. CAA sends it to a bunch of feature directors, not Barry Levinson, for feature and no real nibbles on that. I’ll spare you the, the Billy Friedkin. His hilarious cold call to the re-write desk. But other than that failed attempt to interest anybody. It wasn’t selling. And so finally I said, “Have you sent it to Barry Levinson. He’s from Baltimore?” My big idea. So they did. And Gail Mutrux, who was I guess an associate producers in Baltimore Pictures working with Barry, she read the book and lo and behold at the time Barry was trying to make a television show for NBC. They wanted him to make a show for them. He tried to interest them and I think he’ll confirm this. He was trying to interest them in a show an hour show based on Diner, based on his movie Diner, a coming of age show.

David Simon:

And they weren’t biting on that. So then this book on the year in the life of a homicide unit came in and they went, yeah, okay, we’ll do a cop show, so Barry Levinson. And then, so I got this call and then sold them the book and they said to me, “Do you want to write the pilot?” And I said, “Oh God, no. Get somebody who knows what they’re doing. I’ve never even written a school skit.” So they got Paul Attanasio and he wrote a pilot and then they got Tom to run the show, Tom Fantana to run the show, and they were off and running.

David Simon:

And I said to them, I said, “Once you get it up and running, I’ll take a shot. Show me a couple of scripts as a template.” And so they did. And I wrote an episode. Tom gave me no beat sheet, but he said, “Just give me a case that goes from the murder to death row.” That’s what he said. And I thought to myself, as soon as he said, I thought, well that’s 12 and a half years in Maryland. That’s 12 and a half years. And it’s not one episode.

David Simon:

So I thought, okay, what we’re saying there is that it’s a felony murder case and they threatened to charge the death penalty, whether they do or not is immaterial because all we’re going to do is go to the point of arrest. But I called Dave Mills from my time at the Diamondback. David Mills was an African-American writer who became one of my friends from us editing the college paper at the same time.

David Simon:

He was the guy who when Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere were on TV on Wednesday and Thursday nights, when we were editing the Diamondback, he would have to stop putting out his pages to go watch these fucking shows. And I would yell at him, “Come on Dave, you just… Finish your fucking headlines and move the arts page.” He’d be like, “No, no, no, no, no. I want to … Just wait till the next commercial.” He would literally stop his page production because these shows so fascinating.

David Simon:

So when they gave me the chance to write the script, I called David, I said, “Do you want to do this with me because you actually watch this shit?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, I want to do this.” Because he was like, “Tom Fontana? St Elsewhere!” And I was like, “Yeah, I know I know. They told me he did St Elsewhere. He would regale me with stories about what a great show St Elsewhere was. I was like, “Whatever. I’ll take off work for a week. We can get this done in week, can’t we?”

David Simon:

So we wrote a script and we turned it in and it had the usual first-timers mistakes. But by the time we took Tom’s notes, half of it, even half of the shooting script was us. Half of it was Jimmy Yosimura and Tom writing behind us. And once they were able to get Robin Williams to play the victims husband as a guest shot, they had to write a bunch of scenes for him.

David Simon:

And so a lot of our scenes about the three kids that did the murder died on the vine there. But the cops stuff all stayed intact and how they solved the case and the point of the piece and who was the shooter was still… The detectives guessing wrong about who the shooter was stayed intact.

David Simon:

I saw the final shooting script and I thought well we failed. Half of it isn’t us, somebody else. Because as a newspaperman, if somebody writes half your story, you fucked up. What I didn’t realize, what I would only realize years later once I went on staff is that it’s really hard to write television from outside the show runners perspective. And also it’s like if you get half a script. I mean-

Kary:

It’s like hitting .500 in baseball.

David Simon:

It’s like hitting 500 in baseball. When George Pelecanos wrote his first script from me and he probably got a little more than half, and he was furious. He was ready to go Greek on my ass. And the truth was, I got a live one here. This one can write. But from his point of view, he’s trying to write his way in from the outside. I know the Baltimore Homicide Unit like the back of my hand. You’re a really good crime writer. You’re really good writing scenes with people. You know how to write for television even on this first pass, but I’m still taking a pass over your script because it’s got to be…

David Simon:

They all got to feel like it’s one of a kind. It’s got to have everybody’s input in it. Script one, script five and script 11 they all have to sound like it’s part of the same story in the same tone. And now George and I are writing The Deuce together and we’re all like, you take seven, I’ll take eight, you take nine. And we’re writing to the same tone because we’ve now… we’re inside the bubble. 

Kary:

So you and Mills thought you’d failed.

David Simon:

Yeah, we failed because they have this… I would say 40… It’s a lot of big scenes with Robin Williams pontificating about the meaning of life we’re not ours. everything else was pretty much ours. But that was 40% of the script. I mean, you get Robin Williams, you get him in the script

Kary:

And that was the kickoff of the second season of the show. Correct?

David Simon:

What happened was when we first wrote it, we wrote it for the first season. It was like supposed to be the last script of the first season. NBC read the script and said this is too dark. We don’t want to do this. This is too dark a story. And they asked him to come up with something else and they did. They held the script.

David Simon:

And Mark Johnson, Barry’s producing partner at the time went and talked to Robin Williams about doing television. This is the era where movie stars didn’t do television. It was like, there was a Chinese curtain there that you didn’t walk through. But he had had a couple movies in a row, Good Morning, Vietnam and stuff for Barry. And they prevailed upon him to read the script and he said, “Yeah, I’ll play the husband.”

David Simon:

So once they got Robin Williams, then NBC, they had a four episode order for the second season. Four episodes was what they gave Tom… Warren Littlefield. And once they had Robin Williams wanting to play that part, then they’re, “Oh yeah, the script’s fine.” So it actually, they used it a year late and it led off and pulled like a 30 share. Probably the best number Homicide ever pulled. Not because of our script, but because of Robin Williams obviously.

Kary:

And you ended up winning an Emmy for that?

David Simon:

No, no Emmy. WGA award. WGA writing award for episodic drama… First script and listen, were  there chunks of Yosh and Fontana in there? Yeah. I mean, let me say we all won it together. But David and I got to go up there. David immediately told the Washington Post I’m going… He had a great job in the style section of Washington Post, he was much beloved, he’d been a Pulitzer nominated for some of his cultural coverage of sort of African American issues.

David Simon:

He told Len Downie, “I’m gone. I got to take my shot now.” And Len Downie tried to say, “Well, just go on, leave. We love you. You don’t have to quit the paper and David…” And, by the way, I said the same thing too. I said, “Are you a fucking idiot?” I tried to argue with him, his father tried to argue with him like “This is a great… You’re working at the Washington Post Style section. Take a leave, give it a year but they want you back. Don’t burn the bridge.” David was like, “I won’t give it my all if I don’t burn the bridge, if I don’t walk away.”

David Simon:

And so he left and he very quickly got a job on Picket Fences. Found out that David Kelly writes all the scripts himself. So he moved on to… I mean how he moved onto Milch, it was its own charming story. But he ended up writing for NYPD Blue. And he kept saying to me, “You will not believe how many motherfuckers out here can’t write. If you leave and come here, you will not starve.”

David Simon:

He just kept laughing at me. But the truth is I was like, Dave, I want to be a newspaperman. I want to do this. I love this and it was fun to do that script with you. And I mean what happened was the second they offered us a script on season three and I gave it to David because he needed a credit on his own.

David Simon:

So he did season three and then I asked for one for season four and so I did one for Homicide and by season four of Homicide, David was working on NYPD Blue and he went to Milch. David Milch, his boss on NYPD Blue and said, “Can Dave Simon get a script from us?”

David Simon:

Back to back, I wrote scripts for Homicide season four and I wrote one for NYPD Blue and David Milch called me and offered me a job at the same time that Fontana did writing for the show in the same window when the Baltimore Sun had its third buyout. Which is telling you something that they were now, at a time of great profit… This was before the internet, but at a time when newspapers were more profitable than ever, Wall Street had figured out how to make more money with shittier newspapers, less coverage, shittier newspapers, smaller news hole. We can make more money than with better newspapers.

David Simon:

And so they’d had one buyout in ’92 where I thought about taking it… I was eligible and I thought about taking it. Rebecca Corbett, my editor and I went to the Washington Post and we had interviews and they offered me a job. First they were trying to offer me the Virginia Bureau and I remember saying to  Milton Coleman, I think, was the AME for Metro. I said to him, “That’s not a victory for The Post… to have me in fucking Richmond. I’m sorry. I’ve learned to do the job better than that.”

David Simon:

I actually said I wouldn’t do that. “What else you got?” Because I wasn’t going to jump to go laterally into… It was like the Post was a better newspaper and it was my hometown paper but what happened was they finally, like, they waved the flag… Marilyn Thompson had a Metro Projects unit. I thought that’s me. And so I talked to her, I got along well with her and I was on the phone with Bob Kaiser, managing editor I remember.

David Simon:

And I was waiting to hear from Rebecca. If Rebecca had jumped. I was going, I was not staying behind without my editor… She was that much my mentor. And she decided to hang on at the Baltimore Sun. I stayed with her. And Kaiser had said to me, “Because if we make the official offer and you turn us down, then you’ll have burned a bridge. So don’t make us make the, yeah, you can still call us back.” And so that’s where I left it with the Post.

David Simon:

So that was the first buyout. Second buyout, it was for management only, it was for editors. That they were buying out editors. Third buyout was ’95. And I just done these two scripts and both Tom on Homicide and Milch. They both offered me jobs. Milch offered me more money. Tom said something to me that resonated. There were two things, one of which was, and I liked NYPD Blue, I thought there was a tone there that I recognized as being very cop.

David Simon:

It was like in some ways, although the Baltimore stuff was from my book, what Tom had created, was a much more of a philosophical bunch of detectives. They were much more agonized over the nature of evil. And I mean especially if you think about Andre Braugher’s character.

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

It was great writing. It was really great writing. I’m not denigrating it at all, but the workaday cops that I knew who would no more discuss the nature of evil with you, then they would, you know-

Kary:

Yosh was raised Catholic too?

David Simon:

Yeah. There was a real Catholic streak of man, God, pain, the nature of pain. Like they were really fucking with their Jesuit upbringing there.

Kary:

Right. Right.

David Simon:

And I had nothing on that. What I had was-

Kary:

What Milch had-

David Simon:

I had… I know how probable cause works. I know when you can put handcuffs on a guy when you can’t. So in some ways I was more akin to what NYPD Blue was chasing, but A, this was in my home, it was on the East coast and my parents were getting up in years and I had, my son had been born the year before and I wanted him to be around his grandparents. So taking him to LA, LA didn’t appeal to me but-

Kary:

And it was on a show based on your book.

David Simon:

Yeah. So like, right. I mean it was in my town and I thought I’m going to do this for a couple of years and then I’m going to go to the Washington Post. So why don’t, why get out of the area while I’m learning how to do TV and having some interesting adventures and learning a new craft and I’m figuring out how people film shit because I’ve never been to film school and I don’t even know what the camera does.

David Simon:

While I’m learning that. I’ll probably write a couple pieces for the Washington Post Sunday mag and keep them interested in me and you know, and keep my friendships up and Luxenberg was there at that time. He’d moved over. And I’ll end up at The Post a couple of years. And the other thing is, I was trying to finish… by ’97, you know, I’d been out for a year on The Corner, the second book. ’93 I spent researching, a year on a drug corner. And so I was working on that manuscript and preparing to publish that in ’97 with Ed Burns. So got to get that book done before you can… Because you can’t, once you’re in a book, you can’t like get a job with Washington Post and go, “Oh by the way, I have to take a year’s leave of absence to finish the manuscript of this book.” No, once you get to a new newspaper, you got to kick ass.

David Simon:

So I knew my next window for jumping to The Post was probably ’98… ’97 was probably my next window. On the other hand, you can go to work for a television show and with your other hand finish writing your fucking journal… you know your next treatise of journalism because… it’s a fucking script and I know this shit and it’s going to take me… Okay now I’ve got to go to set or I got to go to casting. It’s okay.

Kary:

So was it a tough decision or was it pretty clear you were going to go with Homicide?

David Simon:

I was leaning to Homicide but then Tom said something that sealed the deal because the other thing though truly Milch said “I will make you…” He was like, “You come out here…” because that script went in fairly intact.

David Simon:

And by the way I gave him a prototype. If you ever look at that script, Giancarlo Esposito played a prototype of Omar. I gave him the character of Omar and he killed him off and I didn’t kill him off. I let them get away. I was like, “You can run with this guy for a while.” Because Omar is based on some real guys in Baltimore.

David Simon:

“So you run with this guy who robs drug dealers for a while, you’re going to have some fun with him.” And they were like… And that’s how it was originally written. Bochco looked at it. Bochco looked at that episode and said, David was in the room when they screened it and he said, “Kill the guy. At the end, it’s better.” And he killed the guy. So they ended up killing off Giancarlo Esposito at the end. The drug dealers catch up with him before the last commercial break, I was like, okay.

Kary:

What was it that Tom said that sealed the deal?

David Simon:

Oh, well what Milch said was, “I’ll pay you more money than God.” And that does get your attention if you’re a police reporter in Baltimore. But the LA thing was like, “Ah, I’ve got to move out to LA and tell my parents, and I got a new baby that they’re crazy about.”

David Simon:

Tom said, “I don’t have Bochco money and I can’t match it, but I will actually teach you how to do this. I will teach you how to do all of it. I’ll teach you how to produce.” And I said, and thinking I’m still going to the Washington Post or New York Times thinking I’m still going to end up in journals and I said, “Why Tom? Why would I want to produce?” And he said, “Because that’s the only way to protect your writing in this business is to be the last guy in the room on the cuts and to know what you’re doing in editing to know what you’re doing in casting to make it all come together. I’ll teach you how to do this.” He was basically saying, “I’ll show you how to showrun.” That word wasn’t invented yet. And that was like when he said it, it struck a chord to me, not because I thought I was going to end up doing it, but I thought if I’m really telling myself I’m doing this to gain a skillset and to learn something that I don’t know, why not learn all of it, just to know it.

David Simon:

I mean, I may not do it, but at least I’ll know what goes into it. At least when I watch movies, I go to the movie theater, I’ll know more about it. And Bochco and Milch as I later heard from David, they didn’t want you going to set, they didn’t want you going into the editing room. I mean, you could go in and sort of sit, but they were not trying to-

Kary:

Groom you.

David Simon:

They were not trying to groom you. And to Tom’s great credit and the reason I’ve had some great mentors, Rebecca Corbett was the first one. John Sterling made my books 30% better. He is a great editor.

David Simon:

Anyway, Tom turned out to be an incredible mentor. Think about it. You’re in a world where, there was at that time a limited amount of shows being bought. It’s not the wide open world that is now in terms of content and you’re training everybody and you look at all the people that came out of Tom’s shop who are showrunners now. Eric Overmyer, Anya Epstein, me, Yoshimura.

David Simon:

He basically, if you were in his shop and you had the skill sets necessary, he was going to let you develop them. You know, first year, he sent you to set. You learn how to cover set slowly. Second year, he sent you do day player casting. Third year, you came up and you sat in on the edits and he’d let you start playing with an edit with Jay Rabinowitz, the editor. Jay would keep the real edit over here because you were fucking it up, but he would at least let you try.

David Simon:

Eventually, you started to produce episodes. But it was years. I took that job in ’95 and I think I went to… When would Homicide have ended? ’99.

End of Part 2.

Kary:

This is the Crime Story podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is a conversation with David Simon.

This podcast is the third part of a four-part interview. In part three, we discuss David’s reporting for the book The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood and his experience producing the multiple Emmy Award-winning miniseries based on that book.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with David Simon.

Kary:

What year did The Corner come out?

David Simon:

’97 and that’s when we met.

Kary:

Why don’t you tell that story?

David Simon:

So the second book comes out. It’s about a year I spent on a drug corner following people in this drug saturated neighborhood in West Baltimore. It was the opposite side of Homicide. One of the things I learned at a certain point was that getting to know all the cops and drinking with the cops and hearing their stories and following their case work and, you learn a lot but you only learn it from the one perspective. The other perspective is the people being policed.

David Simon:

It started to occur to me that The Drug War was problematic in some very basic ways and there had to be a way of telling that and the only way to tell that was — not to follow a bunch of narcotics detectives around and do “dope on the table,” but — to find out what’s happening in a neighborhood that’s being policed where they’re fighting The Drug War.

David Simon:

Are they winning? The only way to do that is — not to follow the case work, but — to follow the neighborhood. So Ed Burns, this detective who had been one of my sources from a very early point, he helped me do a five-part series on a drug case that he did involving Melvin Williams, a big drug dealer in Baltimore, and who I’d known since about ’85. He was getting ready to finish his career. He’d had about 20 years. He was going to go be a school teacher. He was getting his certification for teaching in Baltimore City Schools. Ed was an interesting cat, is an interesting cat. A veteran of a lot of lost wars. He fought in Vietnam, fought The Drug War, taught in Baltimore City Schools. It’s a lot of losing. It’s a lot of being on the losing side. But generally lefty. His politics were similar to mine. Maybe even more lefty than me, which is unusual for a cop but also…

David Simon:

I mean I used to meet him in the… I’ve told this story a lot, but I used to meet him in the Baltimore County Library branch up in Towson. First of all, books. Okay, you read books. But I would look at what he was reading and it would be everything from… I remember one time I took stock of the five books he was checking out. It was like The Magus by Fowles, his novel. Veil, the Bob Woodward book on the CIA. Trying to remember some of the other ones. I’d be like, “Okay, you may be better read than me.”

Kary:

Combat veteran in Vietnam. Like serious in country combat platoon.

David Simon:

Yeah, yeah, yeah. He was in I think the Air Cavalry, Air Cav division, I think. (Ed. note: He was actually in the Americal Division.) I think that’s where he was. He was in the Central Highlands, I know that. Very serious guy and ran wiretap cases in Baltimore, very good homicide detective.

David Simon:

I said to him, I said, “John Sterling, my editor, thinks this is a good idea. We should go to one corner and meet people and report a neighborhood from the ground up that’s being policed for The Drug War” and I got him interested. Even before that I tried to get The Sun, I thought “The Sun might be interested in hiring you. They should. They should hire you. I said, “You’re not a writer, you’re not a journalist by trade, but you know the hell out of how to report stuff and I’d love to work with you.”

David Simon:

I tried to get them interested in somebody who had Ed’s skill set. I can’t remember if I got a definite “no” on that or if the book intervened. I think maybe the book intervened. I came up with a better plan to engage with Ed. But we went and we did The Corner as a book. We spent ’93 in the area around Monroe and Fayette, out on Fayette that stretch. We met all the people. We wrote the book up. Book came out.

David Simon:

There was a moment of tension because it was two white guys writing about an all black community. Then Reverend Reid, one of the largest… Frank Reid had one of the largest African American churches in the country, Bethel AME in Baltimore. 

David Simon:

He hosted booknotes, C-SPAN book notes at his church. He wasn’t going to play the Moynihan card of how dare these white boys. Right? He recognized that the book was not an insincere effort to grapple with what was happening with the war on drugs and with inner city Baltimore. He became an immediate ally of the book, which was a … It was a relief to a lot of people.

David Simon:

Then I went to Tom and I said, “You want to do something with this? And we’d like to…” I basically pitched The Wire. I pitched him The Wire because I thought he’ll be half cops. It won’t be the book. I wasn’t ready to do The Corner… I didn’t see The Corner as being a miniseries. I didn’t even think about miniseries. I thought series because it’s all I knew from Homicide.

David Simon:

I said, “But you know, this one we can critique The Drug War and you could have it from the point of view of the neighborhood. Some of these characters that you’ve spent an episode with developing and you develop them over the course of the season. You’re doing a neighborhood.” You’d have to ask Tom (Fontana), but my understanding is he went to Barry (Levinson). He’s joined at the hip with Barry. Barry who felt like he had taken as much out of Baltimore as he could in terms of a tough cop show that I think this material was a little bit dark and it felt like a long day’s journey for him. I think he was uncomfortable with it.

David Simon:

I haven’t really talked about it with Barry. But the gist I got was that he found it… So Tom, being Tom and not wanting to not do right by me, first Tom was all gung-ho and like, “Yeah. This is an interesting thing to develop.” He called me back and said, “Listen, you know, Barry doesn’t see it but I’ve called the guys at HBO in the miniseries department.” Which was, you know, he did something for me and he called you and I guess Anne (Thomopoulos of HBO).

Kary:

I think he probably just called Chris (Albrecht of HBO).

David Simon:

Maybe called Chris. I don’t know that part of the story. I know that I got a call from you or maybe I was supposed to call you. I can’t remember.

Kary:

My memory of it was, Tom called Chris. Jake (Jeff Jacobs, agent at CAA) called Chris. 

David Simon:

There was the meeting. We went to that meeting.

Kary:

Then there was the meeting.

David Simon:

Right.

Kary:

It was you, Jake and me, Anne, and Chris.

David Simon:

And Chris. I came in trying to pitch The Wire and Chris very quickly brought me around to “No, just do the book, just do the book.” I realized we were talking about a miniseries. I was like, “Okay, I’ll do a mini. What the fuck.” All I want to do is… You know. A moment before I saw Oz, before he saw the pilot or the first 20-minute sample piece of the first, which was Tom. Tom was giving HBO its first dark drama.

David Simon:

Before I saw that I thought The Corner has no future in TV and no network is going to touch this material. Nobody’s going to critique The Drug War, who am I fucking kidding. Then suddenly I watched the first 20 minutes of Oz and I said, “These fuckers at HBO, they’re counter-programing in television.”

David Simon:

I mean I saw right away what you were doing. Having worked on Homicide, it was like, “Okay, you know somebody is about to… If you’re going to do this prison show, you’ll do anything as long as it’s got some credible purpose. Well, okay, let’s go pitch that to… “So that was my pitch to Tom. Tom did make the appointment or did call and did the advance work for me. I ended up in a room with you and Anne and Chris and Jake, and I started pitching The Wire, brought it around to the mini.

David Simon:

Okay, I’m still going to sell some books if I get a mini made. I got a warehouse full of them and I liked the idea of… You know, I had sold a lot of copies of Homicide after it became a television show. I liked the idea that the books have a shelf life if you get a television show behind it, so it’s worth it. Even if I only got six episodes, I’ll give it a shot.

David Simon:

But in that meeting, as you will recall, you wanted to know who I would write it with. Obviously, I’d done a lot of work with Yosh. He’s probably the guy who I’ve done the most episodes with on… I liked them all. I liked working with Julie… Julie Martin. I liked working with Anya. I liked working with Eric, but Yosh I probably have worked on more episodes with Yosh than anybody. I said, “I would write it with Yosh” and there was no reaction in the room.

David Simon:

Then I realized… Did you say African American? I don’t think you did.

Kary:

No.

David Simon:

I think what I said was, “Or you know, I got David Mills,” who I think at the time he was on L.A. Law by then, he had moved on from… I said, “You know, I’m friends with Dave Mills for a long time and I’d write it with Dave.” And it was like, “Ba-ding, you know, Dave Mills?” Because he’s an African American writer, and clearly there was nervousness.

Kary:

Do you know how I knew who David Mills was?

David Simon:

No.

Kary:

George Pelecanos.

David Simon:

Oh.

Kary:

David and George were friendly in DC.

David Simon:

Right. George had used David as a slight character in… Which book was it? The ’70s book.

Kary:

King Suckerman.

David Simon:

Yeah. Yeah. As a funk fan.

Kary:

George said, “You’ve got to look up this guy. He gave David Milch all kinds of shit and ended up getting…”

David Simon:

“Getting hired by Dave Milch.” Yes. David was ballsy. He really was a ballsy cat.

Kary:

We were keenly aware that the story of a black family in Baltimore-

David Simon:

Drug-involved. Yeah.

Kary:

Yeah. Needed some context. We really needed to-

David Simon:

You were not going to let me and Ed Burns write it, which is what I had to tell Ed Burns. I had to say, you know, after that meeting I realized… because I was going to bring Ed along to write with me and… You know. But I realized you wanted somebody with some TV credits. I was like, “Okay, well that’s not Ed.” But then I realized after I went to the meeting, you need at least half of this script work to be from a black guy. That’s what you needed.

David Simon:

To me, David is not a black guy. I mean he is, he’s completely a black guy but what I mean to say is we’re so… I had known this guy since he was 19. To me-

Kary:

I had no idea. We had no idea of your relationship but I had just been telling Anne about this guy that George Pelecanos connected me to.

David Simon:

That’s so funny because… And I’d only met George once at this point. I met him at the party when David did the P-Funk book. It’s the first time I met George and that was after The Corner was… George had never met me. I’d met him then at that party and then I got him to write for The Wire when we were at a funeral together in Baltimore for a bookstore owner.

David Simon:

So I didn’t know George, but I knew David. Once I’d picked up on the vibe of, “Oh, man, they need me to be with a black writer because they need… You know, you guys needed cover.” That’s a fair way of saying it. But David is somebody who I… I wrote my first script with him and we-

Kary:

To be honest, I didn’t think of it as a cover. I thought it was really respect. It was the idea that-

David Simon:

But see, I got to say-

Kary:

There’s cultural appropriation…

David Simon:

That may be the case. You’re talking to a guy who with Ed Burns, two white guys, we did the book already. We did the book. We went out to that neighborhood. We stayed there every day for a year and then we continued to follow the characters for two more years. Then we waited for that pregnant moment when we basically put the book in the world and said, “Yell if you want, but we think we’ve got it right.” And Frank Reid picked up the book and said, “This is good. This is the world that surrounds my church and this is what I want to… I want to champion this.”

David Simon:

It’s like we’d already crossed the Rubicon. You were basically saying, we, HBO can’t cross there with you. We need to… To you, you may be thinking it’s respect. To me, it’s cover because Ed and I have done it already and now it’s just a matter of conveying that to script form. Eh, you know, I’m sorry.

David Simon:

Having said that, I love writing with Dave. I love writing with Dave cause he’s Dave because we wrote our first script together, because we have the same sensibility, because we laugh at the same shit. He’s my close friend. So when I realized you wanted a black writer, I threw his name out. You were like, “You know Dave Mills?” You guys jumped on the hook.

David Simon:

I remember leaving the HBO offices and splitting up with Jake and I walked. I was going across the courtyard there at the… Where you guys used to be.

Kary:

Right. Old Century City.

David Simon:

Yeah. Old Century City. I got Dave on the cell phone. I forget where I got him. He answered his cell phone on two rings. I said, “Dave, what are you doing next year?” He said, “Ah, probably going to give another script to a L.A. Law…” He started telling me like I gave a shit. He started telling me what his plans were. I said, “That’s not what you’re doing next year.” I said, “You’re writing an HBO miniseries, you know?” He said, “What on?” I said, “The Corner.” He said, “You sold that?” I said, “Yeah, I just sold that and you’re on it.” “Does Jake know?” Because Jake was his… He was Jake’s client as well. I said, “Jake was in the room. He had me sell you.” “I did it without his permission.” I said, “Yeah, no. He’s on. He’s on.” So I called him and he was just laughing. He was going like, “Motherfucker.” He’s like, “I just…” He’d read the book. He was polite enough to read my book. He said, “They’re going to make this?” I said, “Yeah.” He says, “All right. That’s what we’re doing.” I ended up seeing him that night for dinner.

Kary:

A couple of reflections. I vividly remember going to a Barnes & Noble or one of those bookstores near your old house in Columbia.

David Simon:

Columbia. Yeah.

Kary:

And being amazed at how much you took it all for granted. Like you, you sold Homicide. It became a TV show. Your second book, you sold it and it was on the road to becoming a TV show and I was like, “This happens to everybody. This is the way it works.” You know, having observed a number-

David Simon:

As I said, I didn’t think The Corner was going to sell to anybody because of its content until Oz.

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

Oz was the thing that convinced me HBO was maybe a possible home for the kind of shit that I was interested in addressing.

Kary:

Talk a bit about two people. Bob Colesberry and Charles Dutton and their involvement in The Corner.

David Simon:

You made the marriage with Bob. You gave me a choice of guys. When I met with Bob, you basically wanted somebody who could put film in the can, to boost your confidence that we would get the project done. Now, I had already acquired Nina, I went to Jimmy Finnerty who was the line producer at Homicide who had mentored me in the production stuff. Whereas Tom was the story, the creative element nurturing me, Jimmy Finnerty was “have a conscience, do it for what it costs, don’t waste the money, be smart about how you proceed.”

David Simon:

I asked Jimmy if he would do The Corner now that I’d sold The Corner, and Jimmy was like, “I’m joined at the hip to Fontana Levinson, but I’ll get you somebody.” So I went to his office and there was Nina Noble, this tiny bantam woman who seemed to immediately look through me like I was a piece of shit. Impressed me with that… To this day. She’s: “You’re not bullshitting anyone Simon, and least of all me.” That was that marriage.

David Simon:

My attitude was if I got somebody who Jimmy Finnerty is saying is (a clone of) Jimmy Finnerty, well I can do this. To be honest with you, I could have. Would it had been as filmic? No. I mean you actually made a marriage to somebody who not only made that work, I’m pretty sure way better in a lot of ways, and had a lot of nuance that… You know, there was stuff I still needed to learn that I didn’t know.

David Simon:

I could have gotten through it and I could have given you a miniseries, but Bob was a great addition. Also, Bob became a mentor in that Bob was the guy where I started to learn the camera, really what the camera could do. You’ve got to remember, by the time I joined the Homicide staff, it was in season four. It was already an established template… a visual template.

David Simon:

A lot of the hard decisions about what the camera would do, what it wouldn’t do, what the story culture would be. They were all made and I could affect certain episodes, but I wasn’t going to be building anything. It had already been built. This was the first chance I’d have to decide how something might feel or look.

David Simon:

I didn’t know how much I didn’t know, and Bob started teaching me. I mean even on The Wire on the first season where I remember Bob teaching me about crossing the line, he had to explain it five times. I couldn’t spatially understand it until he would… Ketchup bottles, salt shakers, here’s the camera, here’s the, you know…

David Simon:

I couldn’t get it until one day, we purposely crossed the line in a scene. We did it on purpose. As you know, if the camera crosses it and you see the camera cross it, then you’re fine. It’s just in cutting across the line that you get in trouble. Once I saw it done properly, I knew it. But that shows you how camera-impaired…

David Simon:

I was the ears of the show in the early years. I could hear a bad line. I could watch bad acting and know it was bad acting. I could see a scene and know it wasn’t working. I couldn’t fix it.

David Simon:

By the time I’d had The Corner and a season, season and a half with Bob, I didn’t have a vocabulary that he had for film. I certainly didn’t know what the sizes of the lenses were that I needed. I couldn’t have called for a lens, but I knew when a shot was right. I knew when the camera was failing to tell the story in the proper way. That was Bob… Bob slowly imposing some rigor on my ability.

David Simon:

So Bob… to this day, things that I watched Bob do, things that Bob imposed with the camera, the creative elements that Bob brought to bear on the visual part of it are part of my DNA. He died after season two. He died in surgery and having some cardio surgery that went awry at the end of season two, before season three of The Wire. There’s many times where I’m on set… where we’re building a new world in some television show and I just think, “Man, Bob would love this. Bob would be out there taking still shots of all these places that were, you know. He’d be hunting this location with such joy in his heart.” He was just a great filmmaker. He’s a guy with a lot of feature credits as a producer, associate producer. Worked his way up from locations. I mean he’d done everything on a set. Worked with a lot of great directors.

David Simon:

Then finally, he was directing his own episodes for us which is… He directed the last episode of season two of The Wire. On The Corner, he was the directorial producer who went shot to shot with Charles Dutton who was hired to be the director on those six episodes.

David Simon:

Dutton is a real force and Dutton commanded performances in The Corner that are very, very real. He was unrelenting about getting the people to inhabit their roles and inhabit the world that he knew. He came out of East Baltimore, Mura Street and he famously did some time in The Pen and discovered drama and had become an incredible actor, theater actor and then film actor… television.

David Simon:

Now he was directing and he had material that he knew it innately. He knew the world innately. So it was a great hire. Camera wise, I think he would tell you everything was shot to shot with Bob. Bob was helping him move the camera because Charles understood performance and he understood the material. Bob understood the camera, and the two of them together, they delivered that miniseries and educated me in what the camera could do. It was a great marriage that got set up there.

BREAK

Kary:

Can you talk a little bit about Janny Scott’s article in The New York Times about race in the workplace.

David Simon:

Yeah. Well, I had said they had approached… I forget how I heard about it, but they had approached me about it. They had heard about this salt and pepper team that was writing this HBO miniseries, me and David, and they wanted to write about that because they were doing a series on Race in America and by race, they really-

Kary:

Race in the Workplace in America.

David Simon:

Is that what it was?

Kary:

Yeah.

David Simon:

Okay. I think it was Race in America.

Kary:

No, it was Race in the Workplace in America and that series won a Pulitzer Prize.

David Simon:

Yeah, I do remember that. Charlie LeDuff was on it.

Kary:

I remember Richard was like, “Why would you want to do that? Why would you-”

David Simon:

Right. “It’s so uncontrolled.”

Kary:

Yeah.

David Simon:

Well, I wouldn’t do anything I was ashamed of and my theory… I like reporters. I just like reporters. Unless I’m doing some dirt, why wouldn’t I want a reporter interested? I don’t give a fuck. Are we trying to sell a miniseries to the viewers? So I was like, “Yeah, let the Times in.”

David Simon:

There was some worry. I didn’t give a shit. Then it became clear to me long after we had made that decision that Charles was very stressed. I mean I get it, which is.. I told Janny that I got it, which was… I had sensed. I was very polite and I had never raised this with Janny, and I didn’t know that Dutton would, but eventually he did. Dutton did not like having me on set. He didn’t trust David, either. David was light-skinned, lighter skinned than Charles and there was a level of distrust as if he wasn’t… David grew up in Southeast Baltimore until the family got a little money together and moved out to PG County. But David grew up… David was living in Southeast Washington. I said Baltimore. I meant Washington.

David Simon:

He’s growing up in Southeast Washington when the riots happened. I mean he remembers because his father was a light-skinned I think his mother was half Panmunkey Indian. P-A-N-M-U-N-K-E-Y. It’s from the neck of Virginia tribe down there. The mother had some Native American ancestry, so the family was very light-skinned but completely identified as African American. David can remember the riots and people, neighbors in a good-hearted way, writing on the door “The Millses are black.” Their neighbor is writing that so that they wouldn’t have any trouble when the riots kicked off in ’68. David was, I guess seven at the time. Or no, David would have been… Yeah, seven. Charles had lived this world. He’d fought his way out of it. And here are these writers who… one of them is some white Jewish kid who was the police reporter at The Sun, not exactly the pedigree of who’s supposed to be writing The Corner in his mind and maybe in reality. The other guy was an ex-cop who he wasn’t on set but the book is by an ex-cop and a police reporter. And here’s Dave Mills who, okay, he may be black, but is he black? There was a little bit of that vibe and I think Charles would… Well, he would cop to this.

David Simon:

As we were filming, I get the sense that he really resented where the material came from. On the other hand, I was watching the dailies and he trusted Bob. So I backed away from the set and I worked in editing and I would come to set to see stuff, but I would not get near the monitors. If I had notes, I would give them to Bob and Bob would effect them. So we worked that way.

David Simon:

I tried to be as pleasant to Charles as I could. As we started to pull out of it… We started realizing we were going to get through it. Charles became friendlier at the end, but at one point he told Janny, the New York Times reporter, of his resistance to the fact that he was working with me and that I was the source of the material. This was probably at the trough of his relationship with me.

David Simon:

There was one particular moment that I remembered exactly, which was — we were trying to do the scene where the mother of Gary’s drug-shooting partner/girlfriend behaves in an incredibly crass and crude way in a courthouse hallway. So it was obviously a real moment that happened that we were approximating from the book and so many actresses had not been able to get there to this moment and make it feel real.

David Simon:

Then we brought somebody from New York for this one-day player role — it was not a very big role — who nailed it. I remember watching her nail it, and I’m thinking of Ronnie Boice’s mother that day, and to me, it’s a fucking miracle that this New York actress was delivering the moment as it needs to be delivered. And Charles was looking at me smiling and laughing at the performance and going, “Goddamn.”

David Simon:

Now for me, I’m laughing at the fact that this is an attenuated version of a reality that I’ve experienced. I’m laughing at the ability of us to fake a moment. I’m not laughing at the crassness of the performance. I’m laughing at our facsimile of it. I know why I’m laughing.

David Simon:

In fact, I’ve seen Charles laughing at the same thing. Charles was laughing at, Donnell Rawlings doing a dope fiend lean. He’s laughing at Corner humor because it’s all attenuated for him. He knows we’re making a movie. I know this isn’t really Ronnie Boice’s, you know.

David Simon:

I was guilty of no sin other than being a filmmaker and living in the moment. But there’s all this baggage for, you know. I mean, Charles is a guy who… He went to jail.

David Simon:

… He went to jail for, if I remember this correctly, he got like three years for manslaughter in a fight where both guys were I think armed, it was mutual combat. They gave him three years for killing another black man. And then he hit a white guard and they gave him eight. They put like more… He had more time for punching a white guard.

David Simon:

Charles grew up in a Baltimore I only reported on; he lived in it. And so I understood on some fundamental level how there’s a level of, “This is infuriating. What the fuck? How the fuck did this guy get on my project?” But as we got to the end, he realized that the cuts were good and that we just made something that was going to be… He got friendlier, but he had already talked to Janny.

David Simon:

So Janny waited, as a good reporter does, she waited until the end then she basically read me back all of Charles’… that Charles had bled out to her. And so I said, “Oh, well if Charles is talking about it, I guess I’ll talk about it too.” And I said to her exactly what I thought, which is, “I can understand why he would think that I was laughing. But the truth is we’re making a movie here and everything’s attenuated.”

David Simon:

“And I’m laughing at the… the fraudulence of the movie, that we were pulling everything off. Same way as you laugh at… guy’s doing a perfect dope fiend lean. You’re not laughing at addiction, you’re laughing at Donnell Rawlings, an actor pulling this off.” And I said, “As far as me working with Charles, he’s making a better movie because I wrote it. And I wrote a better movie because he’s directing it. And at the end that’s where we’re going to be.”

David Simon:

And by the Emmy’s, we won for writing, he won for directing. That’s where we were. I mean I would’ve worked with him again.

Kary:

And the show won for Best Miniseries.

David Simon:

Yeah, I would’ve worked with Charles again. I feel like we… I feel like the process was one in which by the end, by the time he trusted me, we were at the end. I mean, I have nothing but the highest regard for him and some things didn’t… there were some things that were really admirable that only he could do. Which is, for example, we made that for 16 million. We had no money by standards… and we made it for very cheap. One of the things you have when you have 16 millions, you can’t bring a lot of people in from out of town. So you have the crew base you have in Baltimore. Crew base in Baltimore was heavily white. That’s not something that Barry Levinson and Tom had as a priority, was to heavily integrate the crew. There were some black people in the crew, but it was like department head by department head, it was a much whiter crew base in Baltimore than The Corner was a piece of narrative.

David Simon:

So on the first day of the first scout, location scout, Charles is looking all the faces in the van. Dave Wilkens was there. Again, African American, light-skinned. Not like standing out in a crowd. Dave Mills is there, but African American, light-skinned. And I think Adam Law’s location manager was black.

Kary:

And Anthony too.

David Simon:

And Anthony. Yeah, the first AD. But by and large department by department, he’s looking around and going, we’re making a miniseries about black Baltimore and we don’t… To which, in his fury, I remember Bob and I saying to him, “You should take this up with HBO.” I may not get Carmi Zlotnik to give me an extra 2 million dollars to bring in people from out of town, but I’ll bet an angry Charles Dutton is going to get an extra… Go with God. We’re on your side, but you’re our weapon here.

David Simon:

But by the time he’d walked away from that van, he was angry to begin with. So I mean, there was some cost to that. But on the other hand, we pulled people through the keyhole, we got some people into the union. It was a good thing. So none of it seemed particularly stressful to me because it was like, okay, I got a director who’s pissed off at me. He’s still shooting what I needed him to shoot.

Kary:

To me, I mark the release of the publication of Janny Scott’s article as the beginning of your kind of Dreiserian position in the culture.

David Simon:

I just thought it was an interesting artifact from the time we did The Corner, was that it was on the front page… the Sunday front page of The New York Times.

Kary:

Because I was living on the East coast at the time, I was in Baltimore a lot. And I was in Baltimore on one of those days where Janny was on the set and Charles had been a very voluble about his unhappiness about certain things.

Kary:

And I had to call HBO in L.A. and say, “Look, we’ve got this going on. What do you want me to do?” And then I remember when the article came out, my father called me, he was in New Jersey and I was in L.A., and he says, “Hey dude, your name is on the front… in an article on the front page of The New York Times about race in the workplace.” And, I was like, “Oh, my God. My career is over.”

David Simon:

No, but the article, Janny wrote a good article. 

Kary:

Excellent article.

David Simon:

Excellent article. And it was about race in the workplace. And she came into it thinking she would have a story about me and David writing together. And what she ended up with there was like, you guys are not interesting. Because David and I were now… it was Mills and Simon. I know he’s black, he knows I’m white, but we’ve been through so many years and so much shit… we’re like writing in shorthand. We’re like two guys who… it’s all story to us at this point. And we’ve just been through too much not to see each other as who we are to each other.

David Simon:

So like she had no story there. But Charles turned out to be a great story. Charles was wrestling with, how do I work with this white guy and this other guy who was his friend and isn’t from the kind of black community I’m from or I don’t believe he is. How do I reconcile this in my head? And Charles was fighting his way through it. And to give Charles credit, he was fighting his way through it. By the end, we were talking about, man wouldn’t be great to do the Melvin Williams thing as like War of the Roses and do a series of… do that and do Charlie Burman is the other… like Lancaster/York… We were talking about shit and we never got it together.

David Simon:

But I mean I… To this day, I felt like by the end of it, he saw me. I lost it one battle in that… on the making of that miniseries and it wasn’t to Charles. The battle I lost because… the work Charles did was simpatico with our intentions. He was chasing the same stuff we were, as much of a struggle as it seemed at points.

David Simon:

The fight I lost was with Chris. I wanted those front and end pieces to be desaturated, almost black and white as if they were video. Because those pieces are lies. Those pieces are people with skewed views, not telling the truth about what’s in the interior of the film. That’s how they’re written.

David Simon:

And I remember trying to explain this to Chris and all Chris cared about was “The first three minutes of my movie is going to be in black and white. Fuck that!” And I remember him saying to me, “You’ve over-thought it.” To which I wanted to say, “Well who the fuck doesn’t over… Like, who would want to under-think shit?” I was so mad at that comment.

David Simon:

Listen, there’s a part of me that is… “They think I’m a complete hothead,” but I do remember thinking, “He’s making my miniseries, this is the battle I’m going to lose. I made my best argument. Now I’m going to lose it. God dammit.” But to this day, when I see… I mean, I don’t go back and look at stuff, it’s too painful. All you see is mistakes. But I will say that, if The Corner happens to come on and I catch one little piece of either the end interview or the front interview where Charles, the narrator Charles, because he was the narrator behind the camera; the unseen narrator who’s asking questions of characters.

David Simon:

Whenever I see those pieces, I’m like, “Man, that would be… it would be so thematically beautiful and clever if those were in black and white. And it would be, it’d be a better piece.” So I’m telling you, you got that one wrong.

David Simon:

Oh, I want to remember one other thing before we leave The Corner. So after that New York Times piece ran, I got a call from somebody who I’d been on a project with, it doesn’t matter what project. From an L.A. person, a big macher running a production company in L.A. And she called… The project we were on had not done well. It was a feature project that went nowhere. It hadn’t gone well because she.. Not having been particularly well-behaved about sort of the dynamics. So I didn’t expect to hear from her.

David Simon:

And she cold-called me after reading the article and she was just fascinated. She said, “How did you survive the hostility?” And I was like, “What?” She goes like, “Charles was so angry at you for so long until the end and you know, how did you, how is it you can even like be friends at the end… friendly and like, you know, I would’ve…” And she was just so freaked… she was so freaked out that she actually picked up the phone and called me months after our project had run into the rocks.

David Simon:

And I remember thinking, this is how most of white America lives. Which is, if there’s any unpleasantness they run like hell. Like, this is really uncomfortable for people. And I realized, I’ve been a police reporter in Baltimore… I’m used to going to… Like one of the things I said to Janny, I said, “You think… because I went on set and Charles was grousing or you know, or giving… or eye-fucking me a little bit?”

David Simon:

I went to a drug… For this book, I went to a drug corner, like a lumpy, balding white guy. And said, “Hey, you know, you guys mind if I write a book?” It’s like… the origin of this book is, I’ll be the fool, I’ll be the idiot. DeAndre McCullough, God rest his soul, and boy, that is a heartbreak what happened there. But… I remember he said to me, he says, “Do you know when I realized I was going to let you write about me and do this book? We were up on Vine Street and we were twirling. We were just… we were slinging left and right and you were standing in the middle of it looking like the dumbest motherfucker on the planet. And I realized somebody’s got to help this motherfucker cause he doesn’t know anything.”

David Simon:

And, I mean, he was being… he was having fun with me, but there was a little element to that, of like, if this guy is so stupid that he’s going to come out here and ask us what it’s like to sell drugs and ask us his dumb fucking questions and stand around while we sell drugs, I don’t know; I’ll sit down on the stoop next to him and talk. And that’s really what happened.

David Simon:

And in some respects, everything that I’d been through with The Sun of being a white suburban kid who gets hired by paper in a majority black city and made the police reporter, it was premised on the idea of, “Okay, this has happened to you. Do you want to be a good reporter? You want to be a bad reporter? If you want to be a good reporter, then you have to listen to people. You have to accept people in terms other than your own. You have to… Sometimes the jokes going to be on you and sometimes some belligerence is going to land. And how you deal with that it’s going to be on you, not on them. Not on the people who are living in Baltimore and going, ‘If you want a report on Baltimore then there’s some stepping up…’” 

David Simon:

So here comes Charles Dutton and he’s mad about certain things and he’s discomfited by the origins of the material and he’s not sure he can trust me. I’m not going away.

David Simon:

You know, I didn’t go away… If I went away, I would’ve left Vine Street. I realized how fucked up the dynamic seemed to outsiders. Like, for you it’s like, “Oh shit, this is happening on our set, this is mayhem.” To me it was like, “What, somebody’s angry at me?” I’ve been a reporter my whole fucking… You know, “Get in line, I’m not going away. And by the way, I’m not going to lose my cool about it.”

Kary:

Right.

David Simon:

So I mean, I heard from this woman. I was like, “You really picked up the phone to tell me that this was… like you couldn’t imagine? Why can’t you imagine that… What, you think I was going to run away?” Every day the dailies look good. Every day Charles was shooting the shit out of this miniseries. What the fuck?

End of Part 3.

Kary:

This is the crime story podcast with Kary Antholis where we have conversations about how and why narratives of crime and justice are told. Today’s podcast is a conversation with David Simon. 

This Podcast is the last of a 4 part interview. In Part 4, we discuss David’s creation of The Wire and some of the key themes explored in that series.

And so with all that said, here is my interview with David Simon.

Kary:

How did The Wire evolve?

David Simon:

Well, we tried to pitch it to you and you ended up wanting The Corner if you remember. So we were at TCA and I was preparing to publicize The Corner, which was done and we were pitching to the critics at TCA. It was my first TCA. What I thought it would be my last TCA because I thought I was going to go to the Washington Post after I delivered this miniseries. Help myself sell some books and now it’s my time to go to a newspaper then write more books.

David Simon:

And after we did the presentation, Carolyn Strauss sidled up to me and said, The Corner turned out really well, do you, do you have anything else?” I said, “Like what?” And she goes, “Well you know, like a series? Do you have anything you ever wanted to do?” And I said, “Well, you know, I actually pitched The Corner as a series to you… to you guys; not to you, but to HBO. And you know we ended up doing this. But yeah.” So she said, “Well why don’t you come in and talk about it?” So I did. That’s what happened.

David Simon:

Effectively, all the stuff about the real institutional stuff of the drug war couldn’t all be done in The Corner because that really was the story of a family in diaspora…in the diaspora of addiction. It was a much more delicate story. The most you could start saying about why the drug war wasn’t working was probably in that two minute section at the end where the beat cop, Bob Brown, the actor playing Bob Brown, talks about how… he’s asked about the numbers… “The numbers don’t make sense. You can’t arrest your way out of this problem.” And that was the beginning of our critique of the drug war. But it ends there. I mean there’s nobody who can really… nobody’s gonna walk on and be that didactic except in those interview situations. So there was a whole bunch of what The Corner was trying to say about the drug war that was still left to be done. So that was the beginning of The Wire.

Kary:

And what were you trying to achieve in the first season of The Wire?

David Simon:

We were trying to train the viewer to watch a cop show and be completely upended by the premise of what they were watching. We wanted you to begin by thinking you were watching a “catch the bad guys” adventure. And by the end you were supposed to be questioning: Who are the bad guys? What is “bad guys?” What is “good guys?”  What is the whole point of what we’re doing? You’re supposed to question the drug war by the end of it. 

David Simon:

The first season is about… It was the conclusion that Ed and I had reached in The Corner, which was: This is not a war against illegal drugs. This is a war against the poor. This is a monetization of the poor by a legalized construct. And so you’re supposed to feel like… not that the drugs are good, not that they’re not wrapped in a mantle of violence that is untenable, because the levels of prohibition and penalty have reached the point where killing people is a plausible business tactic. You were supposed to feel all that, but you were also supposed to feel that there is nothing that law enforcement can do that addresses that, that the root causes of this dynamic are not about prohibition. And you’re supposed to doubt the entire premise of the drug war, which we were by then very down on as an amoral policy, which it clearly is. And so that was the first season.

David Simon:

And then as we were building the first season, I remember saying to Bob Colesberry, I said, “What we should do if they let us have more,” I said, “This thing… If they’re ready to cancel it after one, we will have made a good statement.” I was treating it like a miniseries. I said, “But if they let us go on, what we should do is we should do a critique of the American city and where it’s at and why we can’t solve any of our problems. And we should start slicing off different pieces of the city. And the next thing we should do is The Death of Work. The idea of we don’t need as many human beings to run our economy as we once did. And that’s an existential crisis.” And that was the ….

Kary:

The ports.

David Simon:

It was the ports but it was… I had just finished reading… oh, fuck me… The Harvard guy. He wrote The Death of Work.

Kary:

William Julius Wilson?

David Simon:

Yeah, William Wilson. Yeah, he was a great guy. By the way, I’m a recipient of the William Julius Wilson Award.

Kary:

Are you really?

David Simon:

Yeah, from Washington… Washington State.

Kary:

This is crazy so, the reason I knew who you were talking about is because there’s a friend of mine, his name is Chris Foote. He’s an economist at the Boston Fed. And I asked a bunch of my friends for questions for you when I knew I was going to be doing the interview, and this was his question: “A lot of people have pointed out that the themes in The Wire are consistent with the academic work of the sociologist William Julius Wilson who has written that the most significant problem for black people in inner cities is not some impoverishment of culture, which is what the conservatives say or outright white racism, which is what some liberals say. Rather, it’s the exodus of decent paying, blue collar jobs from big industrial cities in the 1960s and 70s. That act has stranded black Americans economically and led to all sorts of social dysfunction.” It’s interesting because that’s also the premise underlying The Corner.

David Simon :

Right. There’s some of that in Gary’s backstory and in the world that he inherited from his father when it was a different Baltimore. That’s right. Listen, we don’t need as many human beings to run our economy. There should be a guaranteed income. I mean there should be at this point. Society’s affluent enough for it and the truth is it’s only going to get worse with automation and with AI, what we need people to do in order to sustain this society is much less than what we did. We have no less the number of human lives that require existential meaning. And that is… that underlies most of The Wire.

David Simon:

I remember reading Wilson’s work and thinking: “He’s dead right. He’s dead right. This is the Baltimore I know. The factories are gone. And what jobs there are in the service industry are often… We don’t even maintain the bus routes to get to them. The fucking governor of Maryland just shit-canned a subway line for Baltimore because he doesn’t need our votes. His paradigm is: ‘suburban Washington, Eastern shore, Western Maryland. Fuck Baltimore.’ That’s Larry Hogan. So I mean, public works that would actually take people from the inner city and make it so they can get to Hunt Valley, get to Owings Mills, get to Columbia. (Hogan:) ‘Why would you want that? Might as well invest in barbed wire.’ Wilson’s dead right.”

David Simon:

So I remember reading his stuff and thinking, “That’s the part we have to get across.” Originally, I was going to try and do it with a closing of an auto plant and the GM Broening Highway Plant  was still open at the time, GM plant. And they said no. And then I was going to do it with Beth Steel, which was like running one half shift or something. And Beth Steel was really interesting to me because I think as an artifact of history, you had separate black and white steel workers unions. Think about that. I mean there were still two separate numbers for the majority of black and majority white steel workers union. And I thought that’s interesting. And I wanted to do Beth Steel. Beth Steel said, “We’re not letting you; you’re not coming into our foundries.” So then we went to the port. There was a racial subtext to it… black stevedores, white stevedores. There was some tension within the union, but basically they were all being marginalized.

David Simon:

And we were playing The Death of Work. So that was season two.

Kary:

Could we talk a little bit about the exploration of youth and particularly young black boys in The Wire. Of course there’s the Wallace character in season one and the kids in season four in the schools. Can you talk a little bit about the evolution of your thinking over the course of the five seasons of the show about the experience of young black boys becoming young men on those corners?

David Simon:

A lot of that is Ed. And Ed had taught for eight years. Between the time… First we reported The Corner. But then after we were done reporting (and writing the first draft of) The Corner and I was busy (re-)writing the book and then working on the miniseries, Ed had eight years of teaching middle school and then high school in Baltimore. And he had a lot of sensibility about what he was experiencing. I had some, because… I’d reported The Corner with him and I watched the attrition that overtook DeAndre and his friends. Most of those kids are gone now. I mean, DeAndre is dead. RC has passed. I think Tae is still around. Dinky was shot to death. Boo was shot to death. One kid did good. Little Kevin who was like a stoop kid and his mother kept him close. I think he got to college. I mean like if not college, he’s got a good job. He’s got a great normative life. Everyone else, the level of attrition was exhausting and defeating and grievous.

David Simon:

But more than that, what I wanted to convey with Wallace and what Ed often came back to in theme when we were in the writer’s room was… First of all, people are people and you’re experiencing somebody, as I had often experienced DeAndre when I was getting to know him… He’s charming, he’s funny. There are moments where you almost can stand outside of what he’s experiencing and you know, because he’s got like intakes like television and stuff he can do…. He used to do a savage imitation of Kramer. He loved Seinfeld. You know, there were like moments of like the exterior world. Like I can acquire stuff when it comes in, even if it’s artifice. He had a couple of quotes of… I don’t know if he knew they were Shakespeare, but like he had… a few little Shakespearian sonnets that he could deliver at moments.

David Simon:

If you’d put a plate of the external world from West Baltimore in front of him, he could’ve lapped it up. He was no fool… On the other hand, everything he was experiencing on a daily basis was telling him to be prepared for this one world and that the rest of the world was malevolent. And it’s hard to convey that to people who don’t have any interaction with what the inner city does to kids in this sense…

David Simon:

I’ll tell you a story which is… Early on when I was reporting The Corner, DeAndre was like 15. We realized we were going to have to… If we’re going to follow a teenage drug dealer, we’re going to follow him. But he won’t be of the age of majority where you can ask him for his permission to write a book about him for another three years. I mean, I’m writing a book about what it’s like to sell drugs as a kid in Baltimore in a drug saturated neighborhood when both your parents are struggling with addiction. That’s what the story is about. It’s about… It’s about a neighborhood subsumed by addiction and by a drug economy that is the only hiring agent on these streets.

David Simon:

If I wait for a kid to be an 18 year old drug… it’s too late. Too late. I’m years late on when this becomes a rite of passage. So it’s got to be DeAndre. But I’m doing my best to bring clarity to the fact that, “Kid, I’m really a reporter. I’m really gonna write this book. Here’s a copy of my last book. You know, whether you read it or not. Here’s Homicide. When I say I’m going to write a book, I really am going write a book. It’s going to be about you. I’m going to use your name. You know, by the time it comes out, you’re going to be 18, 19. But this is going to be the world as you inhabit it. At a certain point… I’ll let you back out after we get to know each other. I’m not gonna hold you to… But there’s going to come a point where I’ll be too committed.” So I tell him all this. And at one point I’m like, “I’m not sure the kid actually believes it.” So I say, “You want to go to New York?” And he says, “New York?” I was like, “Yeah, can you go to New York this week?” He says, “What are we going to New York for?” “Because I want you to meet my editor. I’m going to meet John Sterling. I’m writing this book for Broadway Books. We’re going to go to New York.” “I’m going to go to New York with you?” “Yeah, yeah, in the Acc.” I had a Honda Accord at the time. ” Yeah, in the Acc.” “Yeah, I’ll go to New York.” All right. So like years later, DeAndre was like, he goes, “I’d seen, I’d seen you with your wife once, you know. I’d seen you with your wife once, so I knew you probably weren’t a pervert, but I was ready to kick your ass if you were. But I wanted to go to New York.”

David Simon:

So he was pretty funny about it. So I drove him to New York and he met John Sterling and John Sterling who had edited Clockers, gave him a copy of Clockers, thought he might be interested in that. And John and I knew what we were doing. We were saying, “This is the book publishing company. This is where the book that is going to be about you, The Corner… you’re the main kid in The Corner, man. It’s going to be a burden in some ways. It’s not all going to be fun. It’s going… The book’s going to exist…” Like I did my best to basically… “Shot across your bow.” You know, “Look at the shelf full of fucking books out here in the front office. The Corner‘s going to be up there years from now.” And I told him, I said, “Even the detectives when I’ve showed up in the homicide unit, they didn’t believe I was going to… like years later, they’re like, this motherfucker actually wrote a book about us.” I say, “That’s what’s going to be like, DeAndre. So I just want you to know. Now I’ve done what I needed to do. What do you want to do in New York?” “I want to go to Harlem.” “Okay, we’re going to Harlem.” Now for me, this is 1992… 93. Harlem isn’t what it is now… Bill Clinton hadn’t moved to Harlem. But it wasn’t the Harlem of rage. Again. It wasn’t 1972 either. It wasn’t. And I’m a police reporter from Baltimore. I parked the car near 125th and I’m ready to walk and we’re going to go to Sylvia’s. I’m going to take you for dinner. You wanted to go? Here we go.

David Simon:

And I get out of the car and I come around and he’s not getting out of the car. And I’m like, “Are we going?” He’s like, “I’m not getting out of this car.” DeAndre, “What the fuck?” And… “We drove all the way uptown. Let’s go to dinner. I’m hungry.” He’s like, “No, man. I don’t know if it’s Bloods, Crips, I don’t know who runs these corners.”

David Simon:

I’m like, “You know what? It’s EAB. EAB has these corners.” And he goes, “Really?” EAB was the Edmondson Avenue Boys. They were a rival from Baltimore. I go, “No!” I said, “Get out of the fucking car.” His ass was so tight, he thought he was going to get machine-gunned. We walked up to try to go to dinner and he turned around after two blocks. He was like, “It’s cool. I’m okay. I don’t want it.”

David Simon:

And I realized all the damage that gets done from the earliest age of this is what doesn’t exist and this is what is not for you. And those things are subliminal at the earliest age of childhood in places like West Baltimore. That’s the real poverty of experience.

David Simon:

Another time, we were going white water rafting in the Youghiogheny up in Western Maryland. It was a trip that, Dick Irwin, one of the police reporters, used to have for Sun employees… We did it once a year. And that’s when I said, “Do you guys want to go white water…?” “Yeah, I totally want to go white water.” But we got to the McDonald’s near Cumberland on Route 70 just off the interstate and they were like, “We’re not gonna walk in there.” I’m like, “It’s a fucking McDonald’s. It says rest stop.” He’s like, “This is where the Klan is out here.” On some level, I’m sure they’re not wrong. “Someone is in the Klan in fucking Cumberland, Maryland. But you’re going to get a fucking cheeseburger. That’s all you’re going to get here. I promise you.”

David Simon:

But the sense of what the world offers was so … And this is not because they’re foolish. This is because everything that they’re acquiring from the early stage says, “You’re on a path and the path it’s this.” And it’s really extraordinary to have faith in the unseen world that you don’t experience. And that faithlessness, that unwillingness to believe that you, yourself, are entitled to any future or any construct as anybody else in the world, or anybody else who’s an American or whatever, was really painful to witness. Especially because I thought so much of a lot of DeAndre’s heart. Dinky as well. You would just see these moments of certitude about who they were and what their destiny was. And so we wanted to get that like when Wallace goes to the eastern shore… He has an aunt out there and it’s like trying to change the vector. And he comes back. He comes back.

David Simon:

I remember driving up that first time to New York. You know that moment in The Wire where Bodie is going to mule drugs from Philly and the radio station changes? I took that word for word from DeAndre. We were driving up 95 and we lost 92 Q. We lost the hip-hop station and we started to acquire some end of the dial station. And all of a sudden, he’s listening to Garrison Keillor and Garrison Keillor’s doing his little Lake Wobegon voice and Deandre is like, “What The fuck?”

David Simon:

And I said, “Oh, yeah. We’re picking up the Philly stations.” He was like, “Philly has different stations?” It sounds like I’m making fun of him, but I’m not. He’d never been out of Baltimore. And as soon as he acquired that, he was like, “Yeah, that makes sense. Okay.” But then he said, “But why?” And I was like, “Well, frequency and the state and the FCC.” You had to explain because we take it for granted. We take it for granted. 

BREAK

Kary:

I just want to ask a couple more questions because you’ve been incredibly generous with your time and I really appreciate it. Putting together the writer’s room on The Wire, You put together a virtual murderer’s row of the great crime novelists in America. Talk to me about how you came to do that.

David Simon:

The Wire gets credited for being fresh work and changing stuff in television. Some of which I think was already changed and there’s other examples of it changing already… and other people were pursuing it.

David Simon:

But the one thing I think The Wire did better than a lot of previous shows and maybe blazed a little bit of a path was we used a season to tell one story, to tell a singular narrative. There may have been some side stories here and there and some C lines. But basically, there was a spine to the story and there were 10 or 12 hours, whatever it was, 10, 12, 13 hours and we’re going to tell one story over that many episodes. It is not going to be episodic. It’s not gonna be Dubliners. It’s gonna be Ulysses

David Simon:

It’s not a series of linked short stories like Homicide or NYPD Blue. We’re telling a novel, so let’s go hire novelists. Let’s not hire TV writers. That was my vibe. That was my vibe. Whatever else you want to think about the narrative nonfiction of Homicide and The Corner, they were singular stories. They were all a year in the life of… But the characters had to be followed for a single a year and that narrative had to be beginning, middle and end. And chapter four had the lead into chapter five and to chapter six. So I may not have been writing a novel, but I was writing a work of narrative nonfiction. It was a singular story. And people like my wife (novelist Laura Lippman) and George (Pelecanos) and Dennis Lehane and (Richard) Price, that’s what they’d been doing for years. So they were the people I wanted to make a writer’s room out of.

David Simon:

To critique that writer’s room, early on, I looked at maybe bringing in Walter Mosley because I wanted a black writer who was a novelist in the room. I thought he would be optimal. We checked and his agent basically said he’s under contract to do (film and TV adaptations of) his own novels for a year. We weren’t getting him. And we ended up with who we did. And it was weirdly white considering, David Mills came in, did some episodes and Kia Corthron did one episode. We tried to stretch ourselves. But the truth is Ed and I knew that world. Ed had policed it. I had reported on it for more than a decade.

David Simon:

And the other guys, Price had been mining the same universe for novel after novel. So had George. So we were fairly indifferent to race.

Kary:

When it came to directors, you hired fairly diversely…

David Simon:

That’s what we did. I don’t think that takes the onus off the fact that I don’t think… we didn’t make it a priority. We didn’t worry about it. In the same way that Ed and I just wanted to tell a story that we thought deserved telling. I got George because you sent me The Sweet Forever and I finally started reading him.

Kary:

Yeah, it was in a comment on your scripts…

David Simon:

My scripts being delayed. I thought it was. I thought you were being a smart ass. But my wife was saying, “You’ve got to read George Pelecanos. He’s doing the same thing with his novels in DC. He’s chasing the same stuff as you.” I was like, “Fuck DC. I’m from Baltimore.” I’m really from DC which the fucking joke there. It took me a while, but when I got into him, I realized I should be working with him. And then George said, “We should go get Price.” The Jersey novels are all right in the same pocket. And so we went and got Price. And then from there, Lehane was just somebody that… We admired the work and the way he was carving up Boston, so we did it. And we really weren’t attending to the fact that maybe we were supposed to leaven that writing room racially.

David Simon:

I don’t think the show would’ve been that much different. I really honestly don’t because we were so locked into what was going on with the drug war in Baltimore. I think it would have been the same show. But we would have brought people along and we would’ve spread some credits out. Some voices would have been heard and it would have been a good thing. And I wish I had that to do over again. I would make that more of a priority in the same way that we did make it a priority on Deuce in terms of gender.

David Simon:

We were like this will not be two white guys writing their view of gender and pornography and sexual commodification and misogyny. By the way, the story has to be as much about “the male gaze” as about what does to women. It’s also about what it does to men. So the story doesn’t work without “the male gaze” being thoroughly examined. On the other hand, I really wanted to hear from women in the room and I wanted them to be belligerent in the room about what they wanted to see in the piece.

David Simon:

And so we’ve gotten better. 

Kary:

Can you talk about some of the directors that you groomed on The Wire?

David Simon:

Oh, Anthony Hemingway went all the way from 1st AD to being a feature director. Nina and I are going to his wedding this weekend. And Seith Mann. We no way can lay claim to Ernest Dickerson. He comes fully formed from the world of Spike Lee and from his own work. But yeah, we did a much better job. Joy Lusco, we gave her our first gigs. We were diligent there and we also used a lot of women directors on The Wire as well as men. I would say Nina ran a more socially responsible shop than I did.

Kary:

OK, I’m going to ask you one last question. What’s the best piece of advice you ever got?

David Simon:

Don’t be afraid to be the fool.

Kary:

What did that mean when you got it and what has it come to mean to you?

David Simon:

I have routinely shown up in places where I was either improbable or ignorant of the environment, the vernacular, the process. And I’ve opened myself up to it. There’s no level of uncoolness or embarrassment or ridiculousness that you could foist upon me that would stop me from getting a story that I wanted to tell. And I know a lot of great reporters who’ve done the same thing. Whenever I’m with one of them and we compare notes, it’s always the same dynamic. There are reporters who want to know everything before they know it. There are writers who want to pretend that they’re smart before they’re smart, that they come smart to the story.

David Simon:

Look, I know I’m smart. I know my skillset. My skillset is I can acquire information. I have a good ear. I can listen to the way people talk and reproduce it. I can think about why people do what they do. I can write characters. I can structure a story. I know all the things I can do.

David Simon:

What I can’t do is know a story before I acquire it. For that, I need to attend to other people and their realities. And that’s a reporting set that… you’d be amazed the number of reporters and journalists who don’t have it. They want to know all the answers before they ask the first fucking question. I worked with guys like that. I remember there was a moment maybe a year after I’d gone to the homicide unit, so probably in 89 and I was drinking with Terry McLarney who is a very wise man, a sergeant in the homicide unit. Very thoughtful but funny. He presents as Falstaffian, but he’s actually a very honorable and clever man.

David Simon:

And at one point, we’d both had a lot to drink and he said, “You motherfucker. You’re going to do it.” You gotta remember the book isn’t out yet. But I’m done being in the unit. And now I’m just following cases and I’m checking in with him. So I’m drinking with Terry. He says, “You’re actually gonna write this fucking thing,” and he said, “And I know what the book’s about.” And I said, “What?” And he said, “It’s not about the cases. You will have the cases in there. You’ll have a Latonya Wallace.” But, it was just a regular year. For him, they’re all just murders. He said, “This is about us. You’re paying attention to who we are, how we deal with each other, how we deal with the job. You’ve been watching us.” And I said, “No shit.”

David Simon:

He goes, “You’re going to do it. You’re actually gonna write this.” He was the first guy to get it. He goes, “And we fucking let you do it. We let you in. We showed you our ass.” And I said, “Yeah. Well, that’s what you do.” He goes, “When we let you in, you were fucking amusing to us. We were like a bunch of cats who were bored and they’re like little this electronic mouse loose in the squad room and we were having fun batting you around.” There was a million practical jokes. It was like I’d come in, there’d be a message in my mailbox, call Mr. Suite. It was spelled S-U-I-T-E. It was Suite. And I’d call. It would be like the Gay and Lesbian Alliance. Ah, fucking Landsman. Every stupid joke that these fucking guys could deliver. I didn’t give a shit. I was in the homicide unit. Just let me alone for a fucking year. I’m going to have a great book. I knew it. Get up to the drug corner. Put me with Charles Dutton. Put me with Bob Colesberry. Colesberry, when you made that marriage, he probably thought I was an idiot. He didn’t think I was an idiot idiot.

David Simon:

But when it came to film, the camera, I was a guy who, when they first put me… The first day on set on Homicide, I had to ask, “Who’s turning the knob on the camera?” “That’s the guy pulling focus.” “You mean the guy looking through the camera doesn’t focus the camera? That’s fucked up.” I knew nothing. So nevermind Hitchcock, Truffaut and how the camera’s supposed to move. Nevermind the shit that I had to learn. But I was not afraid to be stupid because the world has mercy.

David Simon:

If you’re sincere about, “I’m trying to learn, I don’t get it.” the world’s pretty merciful if you come in open like that. It’s amazing the number of people who don’t. So you were the one who brought me Generation Kill, that work.

David Simon:

And I remember thinking it was a remarkable feat of reporting. He stayed on point. It was my kind of book. It was my kind of journalism and I loved working on that. But I remember talking to Evan Wright the first time. “The moment where I knew I was in with these guys where they were going to let me get my book…” when he fucked up. That moment … we had it on screen, with the gas mask. When he made himself into the goddamn clown of the century with the straps and the blue balls and the gas mask that didn’t fit and they’re cracking up, that’s when he was in and that’s when I was in with DeAndre. And it stood me… 

David Simon:

In reporting, I remember I was doing this one story one time, heatwave in the middle of the summer, and I went out with the truck that was supposed to go from open hydrant to open hydrant and seal them back up because the kids would open them up because you want to play in the streets. So, some poor bastards had to have the job of ruining summer. So I basically followed the truck for a day. I thought it’d be a good feature and it turned out to be a good feature. And I followed these guys. And at some point, I realized I’ve been following the guys and the kids sort of behave when the guys get out of the DPW truck with the big wrench and they shut it off. And nobody argues. Two big black guys in a neighborhood, they’re like, “Eh, you’re going to need the water pressure. Can’t, sorry. Sorry.” But then we would drive on.

David Simon:

I’d be like, “What happens now?” I’m looking back over my shoulder and I realized in order to get the rest of the story, I got to stay. I got to stay after this. I’m not worried about physical safety, but there’s 30 kids in the street and they’ve just been told, “No.” So I stay. Finally, I’ve had enough quotes from these guys. It’s like, “Okay. Now, what happens if…” So instead of following the truck, I come, I pull back around and I walked down, I think it was Monument Street or Madison. It was someplace on the east side. And here comes a kid out of his rowhouse with a bigger wrench and the kid reopens the thing.

David Simon:

And I mean you can shut it off from the street, but they usually don’t want to do that because then the fire department comes. So the kid reopens it, the water spraying out, the kids who are cheering again and they all look at me. And I’m standing there and I’m in a street full of 30 kids. The joke of it is I knew it was going to happen. It wasn’t a surprise. Once I saw the kids get it open, I realized I’m not making it back to my car dry. I came back into the newsroom. I was drenched from like a thousand buckets hitting me all the way back to my car. But it made for the best part of the story.

David Simon:

It made for the pivot of the story. If I hadn’t stayed and I had all the quotes, if I could’ve stayed in the car behind the windows, I could have seen him do it, but I wouldn’t have the quotes. I knew when I got out of the car and walked to that, I said if they turn it back on, white boy reporter is going back to his fucking Honda sopping, fucking wet. He’s going back to the newsroom that way. And he’s going to squeak when he walks in the door. And I did. Not only were the kids laughing at me out on Monument Street, but all the reporters were like, “What the fuck happened to you?” But it was a good clip.

David Simon:

You’re supposed to be the fool. And then the moment when you’re not the fool, that’s when you write it. The moment you write it, you’re the smartest fucking guy in the room, so that’s the pivot and how you appear while you’re chasing it is… It’s the same thing with reporters who are … You talk with some white supremacists. I would always hear about these reporters. They would get “caught” agreeing with somebody in the room. You said something that was agreeable to this guy? I don’t mean use the N-word or anything, but you’re empathetic?

David Simon:

Feel like, “Oh yeah, no, I see why that would upset you. Yeah, no, I had the same thing one time …” I’d be like, “That guy’s working. It doesn’t matter what he says in the room to the fucking asshole. It matters that he keeps the guy talking. And then when he sits down to write it, that he write it with all the clarity, now that he’s pulled back through the keyhole.” I did not need to assert my liberal politics to a bunch of Irish and Italian cops. I needed them to be and to explain the world to me as they saw it and to demonstrate the world to me. And then when I’m writing it, now that’s when the integrity happens.

David Simon:

And so the whole premise of reporting to me was such a denial of ego, whereas the ego’s all there in the: “Hey, look at the story I brought back.” That’s it. “I’m now back here at the campfire. I’m the village griot and I have a great fucking story. But everything I did to get it to this point is just sublimation of ego.” And I always knew that. So a reporter early on said to me, he goes, “Don’t be afraid to be the idiot.” And I didn’t know what he meant immediately, but I knew pretty quick.

Kary:

David Simon, thank you so much for your time.

David Simon:

All right, man. Let’s go see what’s happening on my film set.

End of David Simon Interview.