Introduction

25 Apr
April 25, 2012

I’ve had a leasehold on davidsimon.com for years now.  People smarter than I am told me that even if I had no sense of its use at present, I should throw a few shekels down in case.  But until recently, I saw no reason to do much of anything with the site.

My ambivalence rests on a couple basic ideas:

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Nightcops

12 Aug
August 12, 2016

Following is an excerpt from a new compendium of essays about the life and history of my alma mater, the old Baltimore Sun. “The Life of Kings” is edited by my former colleagues Frederic B. Hill, Stephens Broening and is being released by Rowman and Littlefield Publishers. This essay is reprinted here with permission of Steve, Fred and the publishing house. Available to purchase online.

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Nightcops

Behold, a prince of my city, or so I imagine myself, resting next to Ettlin and before the algae-green glow of the Harris terminal, dialing through the long-call list of Maryland State Police barracks and city districts, hunting down the brutalities and miscalculations of a reckless, teeming metropolis.

“State Police, Glen Burnie barracks . . .”
“Hey, how’re ya? Simon from the Sun. Anything going on?”
“Nope. Quiet.”
Right then. Next call.
“State Police, Waterloo . . .”
“Afternoon. Simon from the Sun. Anything up?”
“Quiet today.”
Quiet. Okay, next.
“State Police, Annapolis . . .”

The long-call sheet—sixty-some-odd numbers for damn near every police agency operating in the Old Line State—wasn’t even on my desk at that point. No, I had all the numbers memorized, not as a parlor trick, but simply because I’d called every night police desk from Cumberland to Ocean City two or three times a shift for nearly two years at that point.

Is it a testament to the power of human memory that, to this day, I can still tell you that the state police barracks in Hagerstown is 301-739-2101, or that the Coast Guard marine safety office in Baltimore was then 962-5105? Is it worth describing the recurring dreams suffered well into my fifth decade, in which I slow dial the entire list on one of the newsroom’s early 1980s-era rotary phones, waking in a sweat only after reaching the last entry in the long column, the Ocean City Fire Department, and then beginning anew with the Baltimore police com center? Is it any wonder that for years, to better sustain the pleasure of a sexual partner, I would not—as Woody Allen once wryly remarked—lay abed focused on baseball, wondering whether to steal Alou or have McCovey hit away? No, whatever restraint came to me was gleaned from imagining a full round of Baltimore Sun cop calls. Being chivalrous, I would sometimes even imagine myself taking info for a two-car fatal from the Salisbury barracks, trying not to moan in the darkness about a westbound vehicle crossing the center line on Route 50.

I did this five shifts a week as the Sun’s night police reporter—my nights off, for the love of God, were Monday and Tuesday—harvesting death, dismemberment, and criminality, and then reducing most of it to bite-sized morsels for the “Maryland In Brief” feature, deep inside the metro section.

On a good night, something approximating real news would happen, and the night police reporter would work the phones, calling neighbors and detectives or even rushing over to one of the city districts to pry the incident report from a reluctant desk sergeant. If the story was especially notable, he might roll out of the newsroom, pen and notepad in hand, ready to wash up on the 1400 block of North Dallas Street or the 1800 block of West Lombard to gather some actual humanity and color on whatever brutality might be written to the front of metro, or perhaps, on some sacred and improbable night, the bottom of a front page largely reserved for the national and foreign desks, or perhaps, the more substantive and official happenings of government and politics in Maryland and Baltimore.

Such moments could never be conjured; they were elusive and decidedly random. For the night police reporter to find purchase on a front page, whole city blocks would need to catch fire, cops or firefighters would have to die, or, of course, upstanding white people would have to be killed in the right zip code. Otherwise, the great, insatiable maw of “Maryland In Brief” beckoned:

“A twenty-four-year-old West Baltimore man was shot to death . . .”
“Two Gambrills men were killed and a third injured in a three-car collision on Route 2 that police said . . .”
“A two-alarm rowhouse fire proved fatal to an elderly Curtis Bay woman . . .”

No, reportorial immortality was seldom to be found in the long-call list on ordinary nights. Young Baltimore Sun reporters harboring the most lurid and secret ambitions for their careers could go a week or more without a byline when working cops on a four-to-twelve shift. By the time they arrived in late afternoon, the metro editors were already meeting, their news budgets more or less cemented. And the daycops reporter, Twigg or LoLordo or Prewitt, had by then picked clean the police blotters of most everything from overnight to well past midday. Even the late-breaking stuff from the two afternoon papers had been gathered up and reprocessed. Certainly, any happenstance that a hungry nightshift reporter might slice and dice into enough column inches to rate a byline was no longer hanging low from any civic branch. Best a young fellow could do was sit at his desk and begin to make fresh calls . . .

“Homicide.”
“Simon from the Sun. Anything happening?”
“Simon from the sun! Kurth from Earth!”

Charlie fucking Kurth. Every call to homicide, twice a night, the same goddamn joke. It made a cop reporter pray aloud for Worden or Kincaid to answer the goddamn phone.

Once, quite early in what at that point could only be generously referred to as my career, I came upon a remarkable coincidence that seemed to promise at least eight inches of copy and a byline somewhere in the bowels of the metro section. I took the discovery to the weekend night editor.

“Bill, I have two shootings on the same city block. Only an hour apart.”

I showed him my notes: two human beings hit by gunfire on the same, solitary block of Baltimore, Maryland, on the same night, only an hour apart. My breath in my throat, I wondered secretly whether it might just be necessary to remake the metro front for the final.

The night editor pushed up his reading glasses, squinting at my ballpoint scrawl, then frowned.

“The eight hundred block of George Street is the Murphy Homes,” he explained, almost sympathetically. “When you don’t have a shooting there, it’s news.”

Oh, the reckless, teeming city.

In time, I learned the margins and even managed to get off a decent story or two. A gas truck caught fire and took a block of Pimlico rowhouses with it, and while the other reporters were at phone booths, dumping impressionistic quotes about leaping flames and acrid smoke, I managed to call the late Sunday rewrite, Jane Smith, with the actual cause of the fire and quotes from a battalion chief, earning the front-page byline. An undercover narcotics detective was shot to death after the double-dot deadline in a buy-bust on Frederick Road, and I managed to make the final with twenty inches and a photo. A Hopkins undergraduate was found murdered in her Charles Village apartment—a beautiful young woman, white, slain in a neighborhood that mattered. Bottom of the front, with a photo, in time for double-dot and then re-topped for the final.

But mostly, no. Mostly, the life of a twenty-something Sun acolyte, hired out of college and consigned to the night desk, was lived in four-paragraph installments, the kind that either ended in an acknowledgment that homicide detectives had no witnesses or suspects, or that the rear passenger in the second car was treated and released at an area hospital.

The written formula itself was an affront to the human spirit, so much so that Dave Ettlin, the late rewrite man who raised young pups relentlessly in the Sun way, once deigned to show me his lede for the apocalypse, composed so that it would fly without debate past the night editor and the copy desk slotman:

“Life as we know it ended in Baltimore yesterday, as the dead rose in every city cemetery and demon spawn from hell were seen wreaking havoc throughout central Maryland, police said.”

The “police said” made it perfect, we both agreed, with Ettlin assuring me that attribution is always key.

In desperation, after almost a year in the existential nightmare that was night police reporting—if a drug dealer falls in West Baltimore and no one reports it, does he make a sound?—I handled the problem in part by learning to write a feature story.

My first attempt was the last early morning of the city wholesale fish market, an old but epic wreck of a building just off East Baltimore Street. The market was to be pushed out of the city for redevelopment, with the fishmongers decamping to modern facilities in Jessup. Slipping the surly bonds of police reporting, my lede on that piece had something about unseeing scrod staring one-eyed and uncomprehending at the cavernous old building one last time. Seriously.

Bob Benjamin, a veteran reporter with the dignified beat of higher education, sought me out the morning that the fish market piece ran off the front.“Well, well,” he said, trying, I suppose, for some facsimile of a compliment. “I’m reading my paper this morning, and I had to take note: Simon actually wrote something.”

But the next day, the fish market was closed forever, and what remained for me, shift after shift, was more crime-blotter jetsam from a reckless, teeming, and wholly repetitive metropolis.

“Homicide.”
“Hey, Simon from the Sun, Anyth . . .
“Simon from the sun! It’s Kurth from Earth!”
“Fuck you, Charlie. Fuck you and the whole Kurth family and everything on God’s green fucking earth that you stand for . . .”

The occasional feature story, coupled with the fact that I was quick and clean on breaking cop stuff, resulted in only one modest enhancement in my status. On Sunday and Monday nights, the off days for Ettlin, I was given a rewrite shift.

The new duties offered only slightly more dignity and gravitas than night police reporting, in that you got a chance to boss around and abuse the nightcops scribe. But it was at least an acknowledgment that, in the eyes of those making up the work schedule, your copy was fast, clean, and accurate. In his own legendary memoir of life at the Sun, Russell Baker described a good rewrite man, more or less accurately, as a soul entirely capable of stringing an endless series of newspaper cliches together at the highest possible rate of speed. Baker shortchanges some of the nuance for the sake of humor, but mostly, he’s on the money. Night after night, I got better at reducing the moral foibles and grievous tragedies of Baltimore, Maryland to crisp, clear formula.

These heady days of instantaneous tweeting and perpetual, real-time digital information have made the very style of news writing—if not spelling and punctuation—almost a presumption. And the job of quickly writing and rewriting cogent, readable newspaper copy for three editions a night is now about as useful to humanity as that of a celluloid projectionist or typewriter repairman. But I can still give you twenty clean inches on a three-alarm warehouse fire in ten minutes. It may not count for much in the world as she now spins, but I can do it.

The other thing that rewrite taught me is that only a portion of those laboring with me at the Sun were of a temperament to accept the actual terms of engagement.

Simply put, I was ready and willing to insert myself into the tragedy of other people’s lives, to stand there on a doorstep talking, begging, until the broken mother or shocked widow invited me inside. I would get the quotes. I would ask for the photo. I would watch other reporters get sent away and then I would ring the doorbell, convinced that my pitch was better, that I would not be denied.

A less honest soul would attribute this to a hunger for the story, or more shamelessly, the public’s right to know. But no, sorry, it’s just good old sociopathy that luckily finds some utilitarian purpose in the obscure craft of police reporting. Even wrapping this skill set in as much human warmth as I might, I knew it to be some cold shit, and the best I can say for myself is that I never lied to anyone, and I treated the words and experiences that I acquired with as much respect as the job allowed.

Others in my tribe had no stomach for it.

Once, when I was working weekend rewrite, we caught a story about an assault on an infant in the neonatal unit at Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore County, a twisted little incident in which some wreck of a teenager had wandered from the psychiatry wing and, finding the door to the delivery ward open, had proceeded to batter a random infant in the nursery.

The cops reporter that evening was a kid, earnest and virginal, fresh from the Sun’s internship program. He came to me with nearly enough to write up a brief, but this was more than that.

“You have the baby’s name and address,” I told him. “Use the criss-cross directory and call the parents. We have twenty minutes until the double-dot.”

He looked at me, stricken.

“Call them.” I repeated.

“I don’t think that’s right.”

“Right?”

“They’ve been through a lot here. I don’t think we should bother them tonight with this.”

I used the criss-cross myself, found the home number and put it in front of the poor kid.

“This is the job. Call.”

He let the phone ring twice, then hung up the receiver in a rush. I saw it and he knew I saw it, and there was nothing else I could do but walk over again, check the number, dial, and let it ring. A voice picked up, and after I identified myself, a father screamed in the phone for about thirty seconds, calling me everything from a parasite to a son of a bitch. I replied that I was sorry to bother him at the late hour, but asked again if he was sure that he didn’t want to take a moment and reflect on the incident. The father screamed some more and hung up. The kid, looking up at me, was self-satisfied.

“See?” he said, after I replaced the receiver.
“See what?”
“He didn’t want to talk.”
“We know that now. And you know what else we know? That he probably won’t be talking to Jayne Miller on the eleven o’clock news, or to anyone from the Evening Sun early tomorrow.”

A good, clean writer and a smart hire, he was entirely unconvinced. And in that moment, I like to believe, his career as a sports columnist was born.

No, ambulance-chasing and widow-consoling wasn’t for everyone in newspapering, but at the Sun, it was for even fewer when the terrain was the inner city, where the carnage was largely confined to black lives.

In truth, police reporting in Baltimore, I came to understand, was a balancing act between the cynicism and self-interest of the police sources on which you relied, and the voices in the street that were, in my city anyway, very different from those I had known. I was a suburban kid, a child of New Deal Democrats and liberal, but nonetheless suburban, and the world being policed in Baltimore was elusive and angry. In my first year of police reporting, I had somehow accomplished something without giving it much thought at all: I had acquired an ear, an interest, and a patience not only for the banter of Irish and Italian detectives and desk sergeants, but for what was coming at me from the largely African American street. The Sun had put me here, and to do the job I needed to listen to voices and cadences and arguments not my own. I found that I was willing to appear ignorant, to ask a stupid question, to be the fool. Most of all, I was willing to listen to anybody and everybody, and more than that, I was not simply humoring them to get facts for the next day’s edition. Not entirely, anyway. I was actually learning.

Inside the newsroom, of course, such lessons were of little practical importance, if they were acknowledged at all. At a predominantly white newspaper that had institutionally devalued black life in Baltimore for much of its existence—as a cynical and diminutive cue to white readers, black crime victims and suspects were routinely identified in the paper as “Negro” until 1961—my deepening curiosity, I later came to understand, was improbable, maybe even self-defeating. These were crimes that to society did not matter, in communities that did not matter.

Decades later, after I’d written a couple non-fiction narratives and some television dramas, a Baltimore detective I had come to regard not merely as good police but as an intellect would credit me with this much only. Most of my copy, in Terry McLarney’s eyes, was the usual dilettante’s from-on-high bullshit, albeit a little more amusing to him at a few odd points. But, he told me, before Homicide and The Corner, and before The Wire as well, “all of these ghetto murders didn’t rate. They were invisible. Not because everyone couldn’t see them, but because no one inside or outside the police department gave a shit. To get our attention in Baltimore, you had to kill a white person.”

The city might be reckless and teeming, but much of it was apparently not meant to be glimpsed as more than a Maryland Digest brief in the verdant sinecures of Roland Park and Mount Washington. Ill-dressed and inconstant in his newsroom demeanor, Mr. Simon had apparently misspent his first years at the Sun undertaking an awkward, vaguely inappropriate embrace of the city’s demimonde. After a year or so on the beat, he could actually find his way to Whatcoat Street or Lemmon Alley without so much as consulting a city map book.

This was not entirely a good thing in the eyes of some, so much so that some of my editors began to wonder just how long I was going to continue to slum on a split schedule of rewrite and police reporting. The way of the Sun was to quickly demonstrate a basic and rote competence on obituaries or nightcops, and then graduate to a couple years manning a county bureau in Columbia or Towson, showing the powers-that-be that school board politics or a circuit courthouse was manageable. With that much experience, the chance to be the third or fourth man in Annapolis during the legislative session was now a possibility. Cover yourself with honor in that assignment and, perhaps, the Washington bureau or a foreign assignment beckoned.

My career inertia was noted. When the Howard County reporter went on vacation for two weeks in the spring, I was offered to the county editor as a temporary replacement, but it was made clear to me that this first loan-out from the city desk was a harbinger.

“See how you like it,” the metro editor said cryptically, banishing me for a fortnight from the downtown newsroom on Calvert Street.

How I like it? Like what? Getting my police information through a wire-mesh window rather than at the bar at Kavanagh’s? Parsing a zoning board agenda as if it was some intricate Talmudic tract? Listening to the county scanner channels in the hopes that a wing of the mall might burn to the ground, or that county detectives might be rushing to one of the seven or eight annual homicides in a planned community where the subdivisions were named Hobbit’s Glen and Harper’s Farm?

“Bring me home,” I begged the city editor. “I’ll do anything you ask, including babysitting and window treatments.”

And she did.

Which leaves me, of course, opposite Ettlin, who is now simultaneously eating his lunch and taking dictation from Jeff Price in Jerusalem—a real newspaperman with a real expense account covering real world events—while I climb the blank walls of the same rote, repetitive purgatory.

“Anne Arundel fire . . .”
“Simon from the Sun. Still quiet tonight?”
“Yup. Still quiet.”
Ettlin watches me finish out the long-call list, and after cleaning up Price’s copy and sending it on to the foreign desk, he’s talking about setting up the Scrabble board for an early round of humiliating, triple-word-score dominance. At a penny a point, I am into the son of a bitch for more than ten dollars this month.

And I can’t bear it. When the last of the phone numbers yields nothing so much as a brief, I grab notepad and car keys, rise and stare down at the rewrite desk and the prospect of another wasted shift.

“I’m gonna run the districts.”
Ettlin raises an eyebrow. Run the districts?

Not since the days of hot type and Mergenthaler have day police reporters volunteered to run the nine Baltimore police districts, visiting desk sergeants and perusing arrest and incident logs. Why bother? You’ve already called the city com center and homicide, as well as traffic investigation. Other than street robberies and purse-snatches, what is there to be gleaned from showing up at the Southwestern or Western Districts, presenting a press card to the desk man, and being handed the useless and inconsequential dross of a quiet news day, the stuff of which newspaper columns are never made.

“Why?” Ettlin asks.

“Because they’re there.”

But at the Southern, there’s only some shoplifting and a prostitution arrest on the books, and at the Southwestern, someone robbed a Korean carryout of twenty-two dollars with either a gun or a finger in the pocket of a hooded sweatshirt. The Western yields some penny-ante drug arrests, and the Northwestern has two minors arrested for joy-riding an AMC Gremlin.

In the car on the way to the Northern, it all seems so empty, so utterly valueless as the instrument by which the great men of journalism might be sifted out and exalted. Here I am, cycling like a fool through police districts, and doing so after calling fifty-odd other places, looking for some fresh, creative, and fascinating manifestation of man’s inhumanity to man. And Baltimore is just not up to the task.

At the Northern, the desk sergeant refuses to let me see the incident book, as desk sergeants at the Northern always seem to do. The shift lieutenant is called, and he eventually arrives and hands me the clipboard as if it is a holy relic. One residential burglary from lower Hampden: taken, a purse with eight dollars and change.

“This is what you didn’t want to show me?”
The desk sergeant shrugs.

I’m thinking of skipping the Northeastern District. Nothing happens out there. Ever. In Mencken’s memoir of newspapering, his first assignment as a police reporter is the Northeast and, as a wide-eyed apprentice, he asks his editor how far out he should go looking for news.

“Until you see the Philadelphia reporters walking toward you,” he is told.

But now I am standing at the Northeastern desk, running through the scant pickings on the incident sheet, telling myself that Howard County might not be so bad, that any idiot can manage ten or twelve bylined inches every day on the school board or the county council agenda. I am barely listening to the squawk of the district channel on the deskman’s radio.

“. . . in a tree, two youths . . .”
“What’s your twenty?”
“Herring Run. South end.”
“Ten-four. Has fire been called?”
“Ten-four. Waiting on ‘em now.”
What, I ask, was that about a tree?

Five minutes later, I am down in Herring Run Park, watching Baltimore firefighters rescue two fifteen-year-old prodigies from a tall oak. They had skipped a day of middle school, climbed to an upper perch, and then proceeded to freak out about the risks of returning earthwards. There are two young girls on the ground as well, teasing them for their cowardice, giving what is known in this business as good quote.

One of the firefighters starts up the tree, while his partner waits below, holding an axe.

“Hey, man, what’s the axe for?” asks one kid.

“That’s if you don’t want to come down,” replies the Northeastern patrolman, dry as dirt.

And why they were up a tree in early afternoon, it being a school day and all?

“Let’s say we took a vacation,” explains the other kid, nodding at my notepad, “but please don’t print that.”

Once aground, both of them regain their composure, if not their bravado, eyeing the girls and even bumming cigarettes from the patrolman.

I fill about ten notepad pages and race back to the newsroom just in time to give the city editor a budget line.

“How long?” Rebecca asks.
“Twenty, twenty-five . . . ?”
She looks at me, dubious.
“It writes itself,” I assure her.

An hour later, she reads my stuff, and Paul, doing makeup, begins dummying my story for the front of metro. It runs to twenty-five inches.

“If we had art, telegraph would have taken it,” my editor tells me. “Did you think to call photo on it?”
The front page—immortality, or at least the whispered margins of such. At the sound of Rebecca Corbett’s words, my whole being puffs into a state of reportorial tumescence. For want of a photo, I might have made the front. The next morning, Milford Prewitt, the daycops reporter, sits with his legs crossed atop Ettlin’s desk, reading my righteous shit. Like me, Milford has lived and died with the long-call list, but he’s done so for years now. He’s sick of it, too, and will be gone in less than a year, moving on to something else, something beyond newspapering.

“Simon, you got twenty inches on kids in a tree.”
Twenty-five, I correct him.
“You got twenty-five inches on kids in a tree in Baltimore. How in the hell . . .”
“I ran the districts and picked it up.”
“You went to the Northeastern District and got twenty-five inches on kids in a tree on the front metro.”
Milford folds the paper and laughs loudly, but not at my expense. Sometimes, the magic is there, waiting to be conjured. Sometimes not. But yesterday, I had a good story.
“You’re gonna be alright, Simon,” he says, still laughing, beginning his own long-call round, his second of the day. “Two kids in a tree.”

Oh, my reckless and teeming city.

What’s My Line?

01 Feb
February 1, 2016

I wrote this up some months ago, at the time that the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries was broadcast on HBO, but then held the essay back for the simple reason that viewers were still acquiring the narrative. After all, nothing is more distracting to the viewing of any edifice than to stumble through a side door and be confronted by all the interior scaffolding, if not evidence of an architect’s early mistakes and lesser intentions. But as the miniseries has now been airing for six months — and as the DVD release of “Show Me A Hero” is slated for tomorrow — I’m guessing that any little extra attention to detail can only be a good thing. And, oh yeah, SPOILERS:

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Most of the time, writing for film or television – if the writer retains a producer’s title on the set – is a straight, simple negotiation: Here’s the page. Say the lines. Yes, like you mean them, as a good actor would. You’re a good actor, right? Of course you are. That’s why we wanted you. So, you talented, photogenic prick motherfucker, say the fucking lines the way they were fucking written and then we can all go to the bar pretending to be friends.

Okay, so it isn’t quite that totalitarian.

And yes, the actor has to believe in the pages, and yes again, he or she is entirely correct to raise questions when a line or a scene bumps, when something seems emotionally inconsistent or implausibly plotted. Good actors live in those characters, or at least reside in the general vicinity; if they aren’t comfortable in the skin of their intricately created personas, then yes, perhaps, there’s a scene or three that needs rewriting.

Filmed narrative is intensely collaborative. And the script is just a script; until you film the sonofabitch, it doesn’t actually exist in a form that matters to anyone. So it makes sense to stay reasonable, and to open one’s ears to any actor who is thinking carefully about character, or perhaps even story, especially when the questions are selfless, and sincere, and in service of the greater whole. Every now and then, the actor is right.

It’s quite annoying when this happens.

And not because I hate to be wrong any more or less than the next man. Though I do. I hate it more than the next man because the next man is usually not right, and quite often he’s astonishingly and epically incorrect, which is, of course, why he’s The Next Man. If he were right, he’d be this man – me. Which would make me, I suppose, the next man – and if I was that ignorant rube, then okay, I’d shut my pie hole because I’d fucking realize that as The Next Man, my weak-sister argument is no match for this keen-witted fellow who is savaging me intellectually and rhetorically. Understand, I say all of this with the humility of a gentleman who wants at all points to be agreeable and kindhearted, to be yoked in tender harness to any and every soul in our divine human comedy. Seriously, I’d love nothing more than to agree with my Next Man brethren at every point possible. I would. But then we’d both be fucking wrong.

Which is a long-winded way of saying that the thing about me letting an actor be right is he damn well better be right. When he makes a choice to go off book or omit some element of the storytelling, he better be servicing not just his character, but the narrative to which that character is in service. He or she better be so sure of the decision and its effect on the entire story that directors and film editors and producers aren’t sitting in a dark room months later cursing some Hobson’s Choice in a scene that is missing the necessary elements. I’ve been there. And rest assured, it will not be only the Hobson’s Choice that I’m cursing.

On the other hand, the good actors do know their business. And their business is something so ineffable and extraordinary that when they completely understand a role and the purpose of that role in the context of a story, an argument or two about some dialogue or action is probably unavoidable.

And with that preamble, I’d going to tell a story on myself and a couple of actors and a director because, hey, I’m not sure they ever get around to teaching this stuff in film school. Maybe they do. I wouldn’t know having never been within rock-throwing distance of a film school. Regardless, it strikes me as a pretty good primer for anyone interested in the inside baseball of filming. What follows is a bit of how we actually do.

The actors are Oscar Isaac and Winona Ryder and the director, Paul Haggis. The project is the “Show Me A Hero” miniseries recently broadcast on HBO. And the scene in question is the culminating, confrontational moment of a storyline involving the characters played by Isaac and Ryder, the ex-mayor of Yonkers, Nick Wasicsko and his longtime political ally and friend, Vinni Restiano, respectively.

Cornered at the end of his political career, Wasicsko has decided to run against Restiano for the Yonkers council president, and Restiano, finding him alone at a bar, confronts him with the betrayal.

“I gotta ask you,” Restiano says angrily, “do you actually believe in anything other than yourself?”

After which, in the script, I wrote a line for Wasicsko, at the bar alone, after Restiano has stormed away: “What makes you think I believe in myself.”

It is an overt line. Too much so. And as Haggis pointed out when we were contemplating the script prior to filming, no one actually talks to themselves aloud in a bar in such fashion. Nonetheless, I was determined to hang on to the line – at least through the filming of it. Why?

Because – and here we come to the spoiler, so read on only if you know the end of the story or don’t care to watch the series – in a few subsequent scenes, Nick Wasicsko will take his own life. And singularly among all of human behavior, ending one’s own existence, absent, say, a clear and required act of martyrdom, is a choice that affronts and repels viewers. The compulsion to argue against even a careful established narrative construct for suicide, with all the requisite tells and clues, is so powerful that any story that concludes with a willful act of self-destruction risks a corresponding backwash of disbelief and disconnect by the audience.

The solution to Paul’s very valid note was to rewrite the moment so that Wasicsko delivers the line directly to Restiano in reply: “What makes you think I believe in myself?” In such a reading, the line is delivered without belligerence, as a wry attempt to parry the insult with self-effacing humor, to convince Restiano to sit and share a drink and maintain the friendship in spite of all. A line-read such as that is plausible, and while it doesn’t reveal fully the depth of the self-loathing required to take one’s own life, it feeds the storyline by speaking the words aloud and leaving them there to be slowly absorbed by the audience, and to remain in evidence as the tragedy takes its final turn.

Having contemplated the whole of the story for months with great care, Oscar Isaac was nonetheless unconvinced even by this sardonic reading of the line and after revisions were published, he mentioned his concern, to which I replied, with all the manipulative and false equanimity to which an executive producer is entitled: “Okay. We’ll get it both ways.”

Behold, the ultimate argument against committing too early to either a writer’s or actor’s choice. Why decide now? Let’s wait for the close coverage of a line or action in question and then film it both ways. Yours and mine. Then, when film editing the whole of the narrative later, we can assess the storyline and our execution of it, and make the proper choice.

The only problem from the actor’s point of view is, of course, he has to trust in the wit and taste of the director and producer; he won’t be in the editing room to participate in the final decision on which take to use. By offering the variations in the first place, he’s opening the door to differing outcomes. What if the writer is unwilling to kill one of his writerly lines, even if it impairs performance? What if a director is unwilling to kill a more dramatic moment, or worse, a pretty shot, for the sake of a real or authentic one? What if someone’s special, blessed baby needs to be murdered in the crib and no one has the stomach to do the deed?

As seasoned and as talented an actor as we have, Oscar Isaac was working with Haggis and myself for the first time. Trust goes only as far as it does in such circumstances, and on the day of filming – at the rehearsal of the scene, in fact – it became clear enough that he did not want to give up the line.

Paul came to me with the actor’s adamant objections.

“I think we’ll get it in the performance,” the director offered, trying to ameliorate the standoff. “I don’t think we’ll need the line.”

I couldn’t be sure. A subsequent scene involving Wasicsko’s further breakdown as he returned to his home and sat alone with his own thoughts – this had yet to be filmed. Therefore, I couldn’t yet know what Oscar was going to bring to that moment. Would there be enough in that scene – which offered little in the way of dialogue – to convey Wasicsko’s deep rage and loathing, as well as his final resolve? If I walked away from this barroom scene without even a passable read of the overt line, would I be cursing Isaac and Haggis later, trying to vindicate the narrative without all the necessary assets? Get your choices now, or go without them forever.

I went over to Oscar to make my pitch.

“You may be right. I may not need it,” I argued, “but suicide affronts an audience as few other things do.   How are they going to be reconciled to the character’s choice if we aren’t explicit enough?”

Oscar showed real irritation with me for the first and only time in the long weeks of filming: “How?’ he said. “Acting.”

Christ. He was offended by the suggestion that he might not be able to convey the interior of his character’s disjointed and desperate mind — either in the last look of this bar scene, or in the soon-to-be-filmed sequence in the Wasicsko home. I was doubting him. Trust, it seems, runs both ways.

“I’m not saying that line,” he declared with finality.

I went back to the video monitors, frustrated and angry. Haggis tried to carry water for me, going to Oscar and asking for a take or two with Oscar’s best read on the line, if only in the spirit of compromise. But the actor was still ambivalent.

To this point a bystander to the debate, Winona Ryder found me at the monitors and immediately registered my mood.

“Do you think you need it?” she asked of the line.

“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Maybe not. But this is suicide that we are trying to explain, and if it isn’t selling and we leave here without it, we can never come back for it, can we?”

Winona is as much a pro as Oscar; at this point, she’s had nearly three decades of this stuff. So being as good as she is at her craft, it’s entirely likely that she saw right through what I did next. But hey, maybe not. Because while I’m not an actor by any means, I was, in a previous life, a pretty good newspaperman; ergo my skill-set of honed, manipulative, shit-eating gamesmanship is not inconsiderable. I have talked sealed grand jury reports out of federal prosecutors and story confirmations out the most tight-assed FBI agents. In a pinch, I can get a Northern District desk sergeant to log on to the computer and pull a half dozen full criminal histories of private citizens.

I commenced to pout.

“I don’t know why the fuck I’m even here in Yonkers,” I vented to Ryder. “I might as well be back in Baltimore if the script isn’t the script and if I’m here to be ignored. I mean, why am I even up here every fucking day sitting here at a monitor if this is what it is.”

There’s an old saw that I use on actors about all of this, an easy parable about how we’re all just tools in the box – the writer, the actors, the props, the camera lenses – that none of us actually matter unto ourselves, that it doesn’t matter if one doorway is perfectly plumb, or if the mantle is beautifully trimmed, or the balustrade elegantly finished. What matters is the house we’re building — the whole of the house. It’s all that ever matters.

I threw some of the house metaphor at Winona. She nodded politely and quickly; she’d no doubt heard it before, perhaps from me earlier in the production, and certainly elsewhere in her time wandering the vast diaspora of filmmaking. The house talk isn’t original to me; not even close. I forget where or when I acquired it, but no doubt it was cribbed it from some other ink-stained screenwriter.

And yet I fired that old chestnut up and then, in a manner that probably conjured for Winona Ryder some of the most amateurish thespianism this side of dinner theater, I looked away from her with what I imagined was a look of wounded, self-loathing commensurate to what Oscar would soon be summoning for this scene. I tried my best to play as wrecked and tortured a writer as might exist.

Winona then went back to Oscar, arguing with her fellow actor that he could find a good, throwaway reading of the line, that it could work, that he could trust us not to use the take if it didn’t. She later told me that she even started to invoke the house-building metaphor, but Oscar looked at her with the weariness of a combat veteran: “Not the house speech,” he said, rolling eyes.

He also chided her for switching sides, with a remark that she later admitted was guilt-inducing: “So now you’re playing for the other team, huh?”

Later, I would find myself amused and a little surprised to hear the dynamic acknowledged so explicitly by an actor, but I’m not really sure why. Every screen or television writer I know tells tales in which the actors are ever portrayed as the Unreliable Other. Why should actors think differently about these games within the game? In any event, Winona Ryder had wandered across the neutral ground, advocating selflessly for the scribblers and shot-listers, and therefore, to some extent, against her own colleague and calling. Learning as much, I felt wrong for having done my backhanded best to enlist her, but here and now, at least, I’ll credit her last, gentle appeal to Oscar with having achieved the outcome.

Because after devouring several takes that omitted the dialogue in dispute – ending each with a look of such deep shame that there could be no mistaking his character’s lethal despair – I found myself startled to hear Nick Wasicsko throw the line back at Vinni Restiano on a read that worked beautifully. It was wounded but flippant, a retort that clearly and credibly sought to make light of a deep insult and maintain the normalcy of an old friendship. The extra line even worked without punching holes in Winona’s opposing and equally marvelous performance; though Restiano had to contain herself long enough to wait on Wasicsko’s reply to her question, her fury at the flippant answer fueled a savage, visceral exit. Oscar’s read of the line and Winona’s reaction to it both made actual sense, and in giving it up, Oscar had granted me an honest choice.

“You won’t need it,” Haggis said again after we had the take.

“Probably not.”

And we didn’t. A week later we shot the ensuing scene in the upstairs bedroom and Oscar Isaac delivered an extended, agonizing nervous breakdown that culminated in a moment of grievous surrender. Everything we needed to make sense of a man’s choice to self-destruct was therefore evident without a scripted utterance. Later, in editing, I watched the alternate take from the bar scene one last time, listening as a great actor landed a clever but unnecessary line. A writer’s line. A beautiful, fatted, blue-eyed baby of a line.

Lose it, I told the editor.

I like to imagine that I’ll work with these fine actors on some future project, that every line and gesture in every future script will be butter, that we’ll go from scene to scene agreeing amiably on every single notion. But, no, that’s impossible and ridiculous. More plausibly, I’d like believe that by carefully enveloping and achieving a line that I actually didn’t need, two actors had earned enough of my trust that I might be more assured of their insight and sense, and too, that by discarding their gift to me once it was given, I’d earned their respect for my own restraint and taste. Next time, I’d like to believe, it isn’t going to be so fraught. Next time, we’ll all know each other better. Next time will be easy.

Yeah, no. They’re actors.  You gotta keep an eye on those fuckers.

*           *            *

And congratulations to Oscar Isaac for his receiving a Golden Globe Award for his work in “Show Me A Hero.” No, really, I mean that genuinely.  For real.   – DS

 

What I did on my humble-brag trip to Western Maryland

27 Jan
January 27, 2016

For reasons too improbable and esoteric to explain, I was recently invited to a small coterie of vacation shacks in Thurmont, north of the city of Frederick in Western Maryland.  Franklin Roosevelt christened the joint as Shangri-La — in honor of his “Lost Horizon” reference following the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo — and that name stuck until Eisenhower renamed it for his grandson, Daniel or Douglas or whatever.

Anyhow, the rule is that what happens at Camp Daniel stays at Camp Daniel.  When you get an invite, they don’t want you to describe the place on social media, or to relate the goings-on. And the Marines at the gate hold your cameras and smart phones so there’s nothing visual I could or should post here.

It will have to suffice as humble-brag to say that I drank a couple shots of presidential Jose Cuervo and I played a game of presidential darts and tilted a presidential pinball machine in the game room. Then I threw a couple jumpshots into the hole on either end of the presidential ball court, then powered my way down the lane past an imaginary presidential defender for a graceful lay-up. For a finale, I put on a pair of presidential bowling shoes and rolled a game in one of the presidential lanes.  I did not use the presidential ball, which was clearly labeled atop the rack.  They told me that was a definite no-go, and, well, Guantanamo.

All in all, I was feeling pretty damn special — 118 ain’t shabby when you haven’t bowled in a few years — until I look up on the wall of the lanes and there is a photograph of President Obama, the slightest suggestion of a smile on his face, pointing wryly upward at the tabulated bowling score on the overhead projection.

Two-thirteen.

In between every other mess with which he’s contending, Barack Obama came here to the presidential retreat one day and rolled a 213.

Two thirteen! The man is a beast.

Me, I’ve never been more ashamed of a 118 in my entire gutter-ball-rolling life. And now that weak-ass score, with my name affixed to it, is winding its way to the National Archives or some other federal drain-swirl of historical ignominy.

Anyway, I’m guessing that’s about as far as I can go in terms of discussing my day in the hills of Frederick County. I don’t wanna break the rules. But a cabinet secretary later told me that considering my negligible background and general reputation, everyone thought I behaved myself and my little talk on public housing policy went swell.

Armed with such assurance, I promptly went back to the bar and stuffed the small item you see below into my sweater and made good my escape.  The Marines at the gate probably assumed my conquest to be a gift-shop purchase or some such. Hah! What rubes. As if any chump of a visitor can pull out a credit card at the Shangri-La bar and waltz away from the place with $32 worth of presidential bar gear. As if.

My late father-in-law, Ted Lippman, who specialized in presidential politics for The Baltimore Sun for much of his long career, would have been so damn proud to down a martini from this bad boy. After all, who knows which historical lips savored its chemistry: Ike, or Truman, or Jackie Kennedy; Brezhnev or Sadat or Begin.

And, too, Ted would have been especially proud once I explained to him that they had renamed the entire camp in honor of my visit.

So that’s where it stands, Mr. President. You want this martini shaker back, you’re gonna roll me ten frames for it, double or nothing.  And, to keep it fair, I’ll need a 70-pin spot.

It followed me home.

It followed me home.

Ain’t no justice. It’s just us.

18 Dec
December 18, 2015

March 1992 Twigg Simon Bal Sun Article

In light of the frustration that many feel in the wake of this week’s mistrial in the first Freddy Gray prosecution, I thought I’d dig out an old newspaper clip. Written by veteran police reporter Roger Twigg and myself, it is an account of another Baltimorean who died in the back of a police wagon, and the early stages of an investigation that went nowhere once prosecutors, a city grand jury and police union lawyers did their business.

In this instance, now nearly a quarter century old, the sustained injuries were not to the victim’s spinal cord, but to his spleen and his ribs. In this instance, the prisoner was also clearly in distress and ignored.  In this case, the wagon man rode the victim around Baltimore not for 45 minutes without medical assistance, but for a full hour. In this instance, the wagon man actually told other prisoners not to step on the prone victim, because, he said, the man had AIDS. And in this case, too, as with Mr. Gray, there was considerable discussion about the criminality of the victim, as if by diminishing his human worth and highlighting his failings, a police-wagon death was somehow deserved.

Robert Eugene Privett, 29, died in Baltimore police custody in March 1992. There was no uprising and no riot. Coverage of the death produced no civic outrage. And a Baltimore State’s Attorney also took the matter to a grand jury and emerged with no indictments — not for depraved-heart second degree murder or involuntary manslaughter. Not even for reckless endangerment.

It was death that just slipped quietly below the waves.

A police reporter for nearly a decade by then, I was certain it would.  I knew it once I heard prosecutors and union lawyers both mitigating the outcome with talk of the victim’s enlarged spleen, his drug use, his HIV status, effectively constructing a legal hole so large that a truck could be run through the center of the case.

The greater truth is that Freddy Gray is in no way unique or remarkable. Not in Baltimore, and not anywhere else in urban America. He comes to us amid a policing culture debased by thirty years of open warfare on the city poor — a conflict that has allowed, if not actually required, officers to see a large share of the men, women and children they are policing as the enemy, as arrest stats, as very much less than human.

Mr. Privett was white, by the way.  The desire to construct the Freddy Gray narrative along purely racial lines is understandable — Baltimore is a majority black city, and further, people of color are disproportionately represented among the poor, who are the specific, targeted cohort in the drug war — but it is nonetheless not an entirely honest construction.

Anyone who has watched drug prohibition applied in my city’s poor white or mixed neighborhoods — in O’Donnell Heights or Morrell Park, Pigtown or pre-gentrifying Remington — understands fully that the battle claimed against dangerous narcotics long ago morphed into a full-blown war on our most vulnerable and disempowered citizens, regardless of race.  I recently happened to find myself the only white fellow on a New Yorker festival panel on race and I tried to make this point gently — to acknowledge that while people of color suffer police violence disproportionately, they are not alone.  And that class warfare, as much as racism, now underlies our savage, repetitive reliance on law-and-order brutalities.

“Then how is it that we never hear about white people being victims?” asked a fellow panelist.

I told her I had covered cases in Baltimore, that I had seen the war on drugs play itself out against poor whites and blacks alike. She looked at me with disbelief and disappointment, as if I had obliviously blurted that all lives matter.

Make no mistake: racism is still good fuel for much of the brutality. Moreover, I understand the natural inclination to view the whole of the nightmare of institutionalized police violence through the prism of race. From that perspective, poor white victims are indeed less useful as martyrs for a movement that begins by affirming for black life. But America’s misuse of the drug war to overpolice and beat down its poor is simply bigger, and more complicated, than race alone. The hue of the six defendants in the Gray prosecutions suggests this.  And the fact that the Robert Eugene Privetts of the world were going to their deaths in the back of Baltimore police wagons decades ago affirms as much.

I waited for a verdict in the first Freddy Gray prosecution before posting this.  I didn’t want to add to pretrial foment or mangle the specifics of the present case with those of the distant past.  But I’m writing now, in light of a jury’s inability to find any guilt whatsoever in the death of Mr. Gray in police custody.

Fair-minded people can argue about whether sufficient intent was proven to justify a manslaughter conviction, or whether this particular officer was more or less complicit in what happened to Mr. Gray.  But if, over the ensuing trials, our justice system determines that a prone, unresponsive human being can be legally ignored for nearly an hour by the authorities who have taken custody of him, well then, what exactly is the law saying to us as citizens? In a civilized republic, a law officer, in taking custodial responsibility of a fellow citizen, must do all he or she can to transport that citizen safely and attentively. If the law in the Freddy Gray cases allows otherwise, without sanctioning those who so abjectly fail that test, then our police wagons and jail cells will continue to be bodied for another couple decades.

Baltimore failed Robert Privett entirely.  Again, there were no indictments for reckless endangerment as he rolled around Southeast Baltimore for over an hour, pleading for medical help and dying of a ruptured spleen. The wagon man made his HIV-status into a bad joke. The state’s attorney then failed him and the city grand jury failed him.  His fellow citizens failed him as well, in that in 1992, the hue and cry against overpolicing, the drug war and mass incarceration wasn’t yet on the horizon. A series of articles covered the case in The Sun, but produced little reaction from any quarter.  Privett was The Other.  Some dope fiend. With AIDS.  Fuck him.

And now Mr. Gray.

If Baltimore today can’t figure out how to legally hold accountable the law officers who failed for nearly an hour to secure medical assistance for a man in their custodial care — at least to the point of declaring that they failed in their duty and recklessly endangered a fellow citizen — then we will have stayed the course. And twenty years from now, amid some other wagon or jail death, someone else will be posting old Freddy Gray stories and explaining that there is nothing new under the sun.

 

Old faces and fresh dishonor

25 Nov
November 25, 2015

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Save for the image of a six-year-old Hungarian girl which I do not possess — these are the photographs of 10 of the 11 members of my family who did not escape from Europe in the critical prewar years, when the path for refugees fleeing fascism narrowed, then disappeared. Fear of these people — their otherness, their politics, their faith — was sufficient to close borders and deny safe passage to America and elsewhere. The first six photos are an extended family on my mother’s side lost at Auschwitz, the last four a branch of my father’s clan slain in the woods outside the city of Slonim, in what is now Belarus.

The facelessness of the hundreds of thousands fleeing our time’s great cruelty is in some basic way part of their undoing. In their anonymity, the Syrian refugees running from Assad or the Islamic State appear in our political discourse as mere numbers, abstract and enormous. Save for the occasional photograph of a child’s body on a beach or some video footage of an exhausted woman in a rail station, these lost souls exist for us as an amorphous collective. To our minds, they are a vast multitude of disordered humanity, victims and victimizers, terrorists and those terrorized. Sorting them will be exhausting and imprecise and burdensome. There will be costs. And risks.

And yet every time I begin to listen to someone explain to me the social or political problem of opening our country to this breaking wave of humanity, every time some sonofabitch summons fear or prejudice or uncertainty, I am steadied and restored by my own familial history. Yes, populations are vast, uncontrollable, threatening. Their swell and weight are great enough in our frightened minds to overwhelm systems, or resources. But people are people. Our precious singularity, when at last acknowledged, makes the cowardice of our worst politicians and the fear of those who respond to their rhetoric that much more craven and shameful.

For me, I just have to turn the page of the family photo album and stare at these faces. The people of my blood, the lost branches of my tree — Esther and Solomon, Fanci and Gitel, Leo and little Batia and the others — ordinary mothers and fathers and children who an entire world failed to see as completely and irreplacably human. They, too, were a feared and unwanted wave of chaos and risk, confusion and otherness. And they were butchered on the short end of someone else’s geopolitical equation.

Knowing that much, I can’t look at these lost faces and then succumb to the worst imaginings of a Trump or a Cruz or a Carson. It would be an affront to the memory of my tribal dead, and to the fortunate journey, too, of all of those in my mother’s and father’s family who got out, who got here, or to Palestine, or Australia.

This, now, is the same moment, with the same stakes. Soon and forever, many more families will have nothing left but names and photographs over which to grieve, just as the names and images of others — today’s Tafts and Coughlins and Lindberghs — will be stained and dishonored by what they say or do in this time. These are men and women who wish to claim the mantle of moral leadership, yet would trade innocent lives for any and all chance for an abject and equivocal safety, or worse, for some immediate political gain. Tether yourself to their ugliest fears and you, too, can embrace the shame that this moment offers.

Or be more.

But know for certain that the history that is happening today — right now — will judge us all.