Nonfiction * David Simon & Ed Burns * Total Social Failure * 1997
I don’t read very much nonfiction. My ratio is somewhere in the realm of ten fiction books for every bit of reality I read. Of course I like learning things, so much of my nonfiction reading tends to be an attempt to fill in knowledge. I’ll read a biography about T.S. Eliot, or about the volcano I work in, or about the punk rock scene in L.A. back in the day. Then I went and picked up this book, which was co-written by the dude who created Homicide: Life on the Streets and The Wire. Now, I’ve never seen the former and have only seen the first season of the latter (yes, I know, shut up), but if you’re even passingly familiar with those things, you get a pretty good understanding of what this is all about. Here’s the thing. The Corner definitely fills in some gaps in my knowledge, because quite frankly I know very little about living in West Baltimore. However, while learning about life on the corner, I’ve had my worldview upended, and that’s always a difficult thing.
The Corner is the result of these two authors, one a former crime journalist the other a former police officer, spending a year with the residents of a single neighborhood in West Baltimore. This neighborhood is the site of a large, open-air drug market, mostly heroin and cocaine. The book is largely written as a narrative following a few primary individuals – not characters, because these are real people using their real names – over a year of their life. While there many people flitting in and out of the narrative, the center of the story told here is the McCullough family. I use the world “family” loosely. There is a father, Gary, who is a heroin addict. The mother is Gary’s ex, Fran, who is also a heroin addict. They have two sons. The oldest is DeAndre, who is fifteen. He goes to school perhaps once a week and otherwise spends his time selling both heroin and coke on the corner. Then there is the younger brother who mostly just keeps his head down. He’s like nine and doesn’t figure much in the narrative. Thank God.
Their stories are terrible. Once upon a time, Gary was successful. Somehow, someway, he managed to transcend his surroundings and actually make something of himself. Then he succumbed to a fatal flaw, which was to stay put in the neighborhood. Eventually, he hooked up with Fran, who was something of a bad girl. One thing leads to another and suddenly Gary is chasing the blast and as he tumbles, all his money and possessions fade away until he’s living in his parent’s basement nodding off to sleep every night and spending his days looking for ways to score a blast. And that’s the story of The Corner. This book is primarily about these lost and forgotten people of West Baltimore, it’s about the overarching situation as a whole.
Every once in a while, the authors will interrupt the narrative and provide context for what we’re reading. These bits are every bit as important as the narrative, because while they’re just as bleak as the narrative, they at least provide a reprieve from the specific tragic suffering the rest of the book is largely comprised of. These segments are an indictment of the War on Drugs, but do an excellent job of pointing out how and why this problem of extreme poverty and open-air drug markets are so intractable. The Corner is a pessimistic book, there are no answers given here. While the narrative is awash in tragedy, and the commentary mostly boils down to throwing up your hands and saying “it’s real fucked up!” there are still moments of redemption here and there. Yes, it’s mostly terrible, but the authors do manage to dig up some moments of quiet inspiration and goodwill. It’s real rough, but considering not much has changed since this was researched and written (the early 90s), The Corner is still a vital document.
All of the context, the facts and statistics, the conclusions drawn about national policy over poverty and drugs, all of it, pales when compared to the frustration of following the life of DeAndre McCullough. He’s fifteen years old, and as such is a little shit most of the time. He’s smart, but he’s stubborn, and like every other adolescent on earth can swing wildly between boisterous, sullen, aggressive, and giddy. As the book moves along, two things become fairly clear. The first is DeAndre absolutely has the potential to rise up and out of his surroundings. The second is the boy never had a fucking chance. Over and over again, DeAndre finds himself in situations where his potential flashes and it looks like maybe, just maybe he can get over. He never quite all-the-way quits school like his fucked up friends. He never quite all-the-way commits to the corner. Something in him pulls him back from the abyss over and over again, and every time it happens – whether he’s dressing up in a suit and giving a speech for a school competition or supporting his mother in her effort to clean up – I would get my hopes up. And then, over and over again, he would fail.
DeAndre’s failures are a microcosm of the entire system described within The Corner, which is what ultimately shifted how I think about this aspect of the world. Look, I’m not going to hype this book up and say silly things like “it changed my life!” or even “it changed how I look at the world!” Very few books have the power to do that, especially once you’ve grown up and your views have calcified somewhat. That said, the story of DeAndre and his sad, doomed father and the other poor drug-addled bastards of Fayette Street messed me up. It’s one thing to understand intellectually that environment is a major factor in individual development, it’s quite another to feel it. If someone like DeAndre is born into a quiet, suburban community, he thrives. Maybe he doesn’t go to Stanford, probably like UC Santa Cruz or something, but he gets by. He looks back fondly on his Banana Slug days, smoking weed at the beach and chasing girls and getting C’s, then he gets a job as a middle manager somewhere in the Silicon Valley, gets married, has some kids and a dog and a townhouse in San Jose. Good times. The exact same amount of effort on the corner in West Baltimore gets you maybe a year of wavering back and forth between maybe getting out and falling all the way in.
Early on, the authors give us the ground rules for inner-city, open-air drug markets like that found on Fayette Street:
“The rules of the game are a two-step program to nonrecovery, as valid a living credo as anything on those pamphlets that get tossed around at Narcotics Anonymous meetings. First among them is a declaration of intent as all-encompassing as the first commandment to roll down the slopes of Sinai.
- Get the blast.
Get it and live. For whomsoever believeth in good dope shall live forever, or if not forever, at least for that sugar-sweet moment when he chases down a vein, slams it home, and discovers that what they’ve been saying about them Green Tops is true: The shit is right….
If faith and spirituality and mysticism are the hallmarks of any great church, then addiction is close to qualifying as a religion for the American underclass. If it was anything less, if at Fayette and Monroe there was a single shard of unifying thought that could compete with the blast itself, then the first rule would be null and void. But no, the blast is all, and its omnipotence not only affirms the first rule, but requires the second:
2. Never say never.
On the corner, the survivors do what they’ve got to do and they live with it. When mere vice is sufficient to get the blast, it ends there. But eventually, it’s sin that is required, and when sin falls short, absolute evil becomes the standard.”
It, uh, goes on like that for some time, but you get the point. Simon and Burns do an excellent job of illustrating the reasons why society in places like West Baltimore failed, and has been failing for decades. It’s a complicated tableau of social pressures born from various aspects of our civilization. In Baltimore there is an obvious racial component born from the vast migration of former slaves northward after the civil war, in the grim hope of escaping institutionalized racism and Jim Crow. Beyond that, there is a clear decline of good, solid industrial and manufacturing jobs. Globalism and neoliberal deregulation policies shifted those jobs overseas, and vast swaths of the population were left with nothing. There is one booming local economy left, however, and that’s the drug market. When you have a desperate demand for a product like you get with heroin and cocaine addicts, that economy will fill the void. Throw the utterly misguided approach to curtail the drug trade on top of it, and what you get is a scene of destructive chaos that follows the above two rules, and those two rules only.
Once someone like Gary McCullough is addicted, there is very little chance for escape. His entire support system is neck deep in the game with the exception of his poor, overwhelmed, and confused parents. Step one, get the blast. Ain’t no one out there working harder than a junkie trying to come up with ten bucks to get high. The section about the swarm of junkies stripping the city bare of its copper and aluminum is striking because it illustrates an obvious problem as a group of entrepreneurs figuring out a way to get their blast. I actually caught myself almost respecting these thieving addicts for their hard work and ingenuity. Then I shook it off and continued to be sad about it.
There is a success story here, at least. DeAndre’s mother, Fran, finally decides to get clean and get out, and while during the year the story takes place she fails, there’s at least a friendly epilogue to explain that yes, she did finally get clean. Further, DeAndre’s fourteen-year-old baby mama is also able to escape the life on the corner. It turns out that when you follow people around for a year, you get attached to them. So the authors, of course, couldn’t be said to be entirely above their own humanity for the sake of ‘pure’ journalism, and continued to keep tabs on their subjects and friends. Fran got out and stayed clean, Gary is dead from an overdose. Actually, nearly everyone in the narrative is either dead or incarcerated, because the life expectancy of those on the corner is notoriously short. There are many, many ways to die. Either you can overdose, or get some horrible disease from needle-sharing, or you can get shot over a shortage/territory/deal-gone-wrong/total accident.
By the end of the year depicted in The Corner, DeAndre is back on the street, and using as much as he’s selling. Once again, he almost-but-not-quite gets himself out, only to fall back into the rhythms of the street. And really, what chance did he have? Both of his parents are fiends, his only room in the world is the backroom of a shooting gallery. The only people with money in the neighborhood have it from selling dope and coke. The school is an unfunded, mostly empty, chaotic mess, and besides, what the fuck does anything taught there have to do with his day to day life anyhow? There is nothing, nothing, for a kid like DeAndre to hold onto that would look like anything your typical middle-class American takes for granted. So it’s no wonder that DeAndre, despite being smart and sensitive, ends up getting high on his own supply. It’s no wonder that despite having, eventually, a friend that could get him a job in showbiz (DeAndre had a part on The Wire, while his younger brother managed to avoid the corner and got an education, which allowed him to live a better life) didn’t matter much. Back and forth, almost but not quite. DeAndre McCullough died in 2012 of an overdose. Fuck.