Here is a letter written in support of leniency for Marc Henry Johnson, a fellow producer on “The Deuce” who was involved in the tragic overdose death of a woman in New York last year. The letter was written to the sentencing judge and is part of the court record, and I post it here out of concern that certain news outlets, including the New York tabloids — which did a poor and imprecise job of covering the original incident — are now quoting it piecemeal. As it is addressed to a presiding court, it would be inappropriate to comment beyond the letter itself, but I am going to link to it here so that a full, contextualized argument is available to those concerned or curious about my reasoning:
Author Archive for: David Simon
Forty years ago this week, my father was taken hostage when the Hanafi Muslims, a breakaway sect from the Nation of Islam, took over the District Building, the Islamic Center and the B’nai B’rith headquarters in Washington D.C. As the 56-year-old public relations director for B’nai B’rith, a Jewish service organization, my father was selected by the Hanafi sect’s leader as one of eight older men who would be the first killed if police stormed the building. A young radio reporter was killed at the District Building and a D.C. protective services officer fatally wounded. There were others harmed as well, largely in the initial moments of the siege.
Eventually, through the brave intercession of the ambassadors from Egypt, Pakistan and Iran who negotiated by citing the Koran to the Hanafis, all of the hostages were released. My father emerged from his offices and embraced his family after 38 hours, his shirt streaked with the blood of a younger worker who had been cut during the initial takeover. As a 16-year-old high school student, it is an image and moment I will never forget.
What I will also remember is my father’s reflective, thoughtful forgiveness of Hamaas Abdul Khaalis and his followers. We lived only a couple miles from the 16th Street home where six of Khaalis’ followers, including his family, had been murdered in apparent retaliation for the sect’s breakaway from the Nation of Islam. Clearly, the man’s grief and rage had overwhelmed and unhinged him.
And while my father understood that the men who had terrorized Washington required prosecution and punishment, he showed me colors in the aftermath of the siege that made me proud. His encounters with his captors had convinced him that some were reluctant actors in the insane, purposeless drama. One in particular, wearing a knitted cap, was noticeably concerned about the treatment of hostages and had been solicitous at all points. Testifying at the trial, my father hoped that one of the lawyers would ask him a question allowing him the opportunity to make the distinction on behalf of this defendant. None did.
In the days after his release my father serviced all the media inquiries of reporters, but also found enough time to pen the following essay that ran on the op-page of the March 15, 1977 New York Times. I remember him banging it out, on his manual Royal typewriter, late at night in his basement office. Clean copy. On deadline.
* * *
I thought I was going to die and throughout those 38 hours my mind was a jumble of visions in which I’m telling my wife Dorothy and the family of how I kept thinking I was going to die. That doesn’t make sense — or does it? Is hope really stronger than fear? Is it that you’re not alone, that there is comfort in the nearness of more than 100 other anguish captives sharing an imposed camaraderie? Shock. It numbs the emotions, insulating you from the worst of your fears. It keeps your sanity intact while, your hands bound, you are squirming from flat on your back to flat on your belly, inching for a more comfortable resting place on the hard cement floor.
For some 38 hours the discipline is an ominous silence. “Keep your mouth shut or get killed!” is a precise order. You exist in an eerie quiet, except when the guards, fondling their weapons, bark commands or shout threats or obscenities. Or when the one they call the Khalifa — their leader Khaalis — enters the room to deliver one of his tirades, and then your mind begs for silence. It is the sound of a colleague asking to go to the lavatory or to have his wrenching bonds eased or an occasional whisper from a body alongside you. Otherwise you lie there with your disconnected thoughts . . .
The first hours. They’ve moved you away from beside young Alton with the deep knife wound in his back? Why him? Because he is black? A jacket and handkerchief is all you could offer your secretary to help stauch his blood. Now, your hands are bound behind your back with your tie. The one your daughter-in-law had given you along with the promise of a grandchild in July. It’s not fair to have to die before meeting your first grandchild. Or what? What do these gunmen want? Keep your wits. Make mental notes of what’s happening. You’re the B’nai B’rith information officer. The media people will want the details later. But my glasses are slipping from my face. Oh no? A gunman lifts them and tosses them into a refuse can. Speak up. “I can’t see without them.” He retrieves them and fits them on my face. Is this the way assassins act? What the hell do they want . . .
The Khalifa’s first appearance. His voice is angry and frightening. He sounds incoherent, irrational. Maybe I’m missing some words because of this useless deaf left ear. Who needs to hear? Deafness can be a blessing. The slaying of his wife and children. Oh, God. I rmember the sick feeling in my gut reading how the children were drowned in bathtubs. Why is he blaming “Yahudis?” This is absurd. Jews — everyone — felt for him. Hanafi. That house on 16th Street, of course. I drive past it each morning. Two of our captors — I remember seeing them patrolling the grounds, with some kind of sword, wondering how they must live with such fear. The Khalifa is bitter and bloodcurdling, threatening to put hostages to the sword, the older men first. This can’t be for real, can it? Arabian Nights. Hanafi — aren’t they a nonviolent sect? This is crazy.
What is this? The guard is unbinding me. And seven others. We’re the “old men!” A gunman had called me that when he ordered me to paint windows. This is ridiculous. There are still older men tied up. The first thing I’ll tell Dorothy when I see her is: “Imagine, 56 years old and they call me an old man!” My wrists are numb. Thank God the bonds were removed. Decapitation? Oh God! It can’t be? What do I do? The Khalifa wants a telephone. Relax. They won’t behead us without him present. Will they? . . .
* * *
Do we die without resistance? But how can we resist? If they mean to massacre us, why are they so meticulous about our bathroom needs? They stabbed Alton Kirkland in a moment of frenzy, then released him on a stretcher. They’ve tried to do something for the diabetics and heart cases. Ask for water and you get it. They allow medication. The women are treated courteously. They abused Eddie the painter inhumanly. Gutsy Eddie. He never whimpered. Then they eased up on him and praised his courage. Are they fanatics? Some don’t look the part. How do fanatics look? Why won’t they tell us their demands? The rule is, the longer things go on the better the chances to survive. Isn’t that the rule. I’ve learned that I don’t fear death. But, please, let it be quick, with a bullet. I want to live. So this is what the holocaust was like! Hannah Arendt, you don’t know what you were talking about! . . .
It’s taking so long. This must be a political thing. A Middle East thing, with Rabin in town. Are they demanding that Israel release Arab terrorists? I’ve always agreed with the Israeli policy against giving in to terrorists. It’s U.S. policy too. Do I still have those convictions? Logically, yes. But, please, somebody do something . . .
“Sid, how does it feel to be called an ‘old man’?” Sid grins. I say. “Our families must be terror-stricken, worse off than we are.” Joe whispers his wife’s name and rolls his eyes upward. He is more concerned with her than with himself. Joe is the oldest. He is supposed to retire next month. I hear: “Bernie, what the hell are you doing here? You should be downstairs figuring the pre-retirement death benefits.” That’s right. I can’t die. I’m the plan administrator. It’ll take the actuary two years to backtrack and straighten out all the death claims. Dorothy and the kids will have enough to get by. How will my 82-year-old mother take it? The fellow from accounting is really hurting. I grin at Sid’s efforts to cheer him: “You’re gonna go nuts when you’re out of here figuring out everyone’s overtime!”…
Maybe I should pray. I believe in prayer. Do I believe in petitional prayer? I grope for words and phrases. Never mind. God hears my thoughts. Doesn’t he? . . .
Night. Bone-weary. Shivering cold. Blessed catnaps. Guilt feelings. Unlike most of the others, I’m unbound and can stretch my arms and shift my body.
Daydreams and fantasies: This ends the nonsenses of Jews fighting Jews over Breira . . . Jabbar is hitting those beautiful skyhooks and President Carter is talking to him about appealing to the Hanafis in the 16th Street house he bought for them . . . Teddy Kollek will be angry. It’s taken too long to finish the Jerusalem Gardens project. Now they’ll make it a memorial to us; it will help the campaign . . . The insurance company has a whole crew in the building passing out death-benefit checks to the wives . . . This has to end by Sunday; I have to be at my daughter Linda’s art show at Catholic U . . . Entebbe raiders . . . I’m choking. Tear gas . . . police . . . shooting their way in through windows. All dreams.
Thursday morning. The “old men’s” job of feeding the tied-up men doughnuts and coffee is a blessed chore. I can move around. Everyone I’m feeding — their eyes are filled with hurt and fright and friendship. Many non-Jews, many blacks. Everyone is wonderful! No one has pleaded he’s not a Jew and doesn’t belong here. Not one! This is family, the human family. What do they say: Adversity brings out the best or the worst in people? These people are the best. “Don’t worry, you’ll be all right.” He’s a Christian. I hope they let him go. Surely, they’ll let the women go . . .
The gunman with the knitted cap is guarding us. Pleasant looking fellow, quiet-spoken, civil. He seems the best of the lot. How many are there? I count seven. Knitted Cap hasn’t been abusive. What is he doing here? He doesn’t want to die, does he? For what purpose? He looks like he’s role-playing. I empathize with him. Is that wrong? . . .
What are their demands? Why won’t they tell us? It can’t just be the complaint the gunman read to us about some movie. Too silly! What is it? Does the Khalifa want the imprisoned killers of his wife and children? He shouts about retribution. If it’s that, we’re in a pickle. A gherkin. I don’t like gherkins. The authorities can’t give in to that demand. The way we’re barricaded, rescuers can’t reach us without a bloodbath. The terrorists can’t leave . . .
* * *
Food arrives for dinner. They’re binding us hand and foot. All of us. I like being treated like the others. Hands in front now, not too painful. Binding us in a security measure. Something is happening, some sort of rescue attempt. They don’t want a massacre, negotiations must be going on. Some of us — maybe the “old men” — will be in a plane heading for Libya or Entebbe.
“I’ll take corned beef.” A mistake. It’s on white bread, not rye. No mustard but mayonnaise. This for a Jewish boy? Sid smiles: “My mistake too. A travesty.” Meal time is activity, easing the tensions. Besides, something is going to happen soon. It’s in the air.
My turn for the bathroom. I signal but the two gunmen on guard ignore me. “Lie down. Face down!” is the curt order. I do as I’m told, cover my head with my hands and left my knees to make a smaller target if there’s a shoot-out. The gunmen have slipped out of the room, the first time we’ve been left unguarded.
“Stay where you are! Keep your head down! Keep still!” The orders are the same but the voices sound different. And there are many more voices. I peek a look. The follow with the gun standing over me has a Metropolitan Police patch on his arm. A beautiful sight . . .
People keep saying: “I’ve now begun a new life.” Not so. It’s the same one. But different.
* * *
Bernard Simon is the public relations director of B’nai B’rith.
I had the distinct honor of being asked to give my union’s award for lifetime achievement to fellow Baltimorean and film legend John Waters. These were my remarks, or those that were in the teleprompter, anyway. I may have veered at points:
John Waters, who began an improbable career of deep cultural relevance with the equally improbable notion that people from Baltimore should be allowed to put stories on film, is perhaps one of the most influential voices we have.
He is laughing at this. I know he is. I am going to look over there to where he is sitting now and see that he is laughing — yes, there he is — laughing at what I just claimed for him.
I know that he is laughing because John is perhaps the great modern master of self-effacement and self-mockery. He has gone to lengths to characterize his entire career as a storyteller and filmmaker in terms that purport to show him standing on the outside of the joke, looking in: “Pink Flamingos,” he writes in his wondrous autobiography, “was billed as ‘an exercise in poor taste.’ And I like the understatement.”
That right there is a man who
One. Knows exactly what he is doing and why.
Two. Knows how to write.
I will pause right here, early in these Writers Guild of America remarks to express how much I admire John Waters for not just his film career, but for his prose work. If you’ve read “Shock Value,” or “Car Sick” or “Role Models,” then all the dogshit swallowed by all the actors ever cannot convince you that John Waters is farce, or fraud, or Barnum. Again, this man knows not only who he is and what he has to say, but who we are, and why we need to hear it.
In all earnest, this man has a writing voice to envy, though again, that voice is carefully cultivated so as to dismiss any such notion. Discussing the early years of his filmic journey, he concludes that it is all so very thoughtless and playful:
“Thanks so much for letting me get away with it,” he tells readers os his autobiography.
Good line. Charming line.
But tonight, I’m calling bullshit.
I first encountered John’s films as an undergraduate at the University of Maryland, when a viewing of “Pink Flamingos” at the local theater on Route 1 had the staid, plaid-sports-coat-wearing Prince George’s County political cohort good and affronted. And while theater owners and the student body and the nascent crowd of John Waters fans were having enormous fun using a celluloid provocation to challenge the suburban mores of a county where blue-haired councilwomen talked ill of school integration, and where 16-year-old black kids were routinely beaten inside police stations, John himself was up in Baltimore, running circles around the state’s film censor — yes, you heard that right, the Maryland state film censor — a deeply Catholic spirit named Mary Avara.
It was the late 1970s, which is so long ago that we forget where we were on the continuum of permissible speech, and dissent, and any art that affronts or disturbs or otherwise fails to capture an immediate majority.
John made the the fight in Maryland fun, even at some points, delightfully ridiculous. But it was, in fact, a fight. A frontier in the same war in which Nabakov or Kerouac, Kinsey or Burroughs or Lenny Bruce found themselves drafted. John made an absurd cartoon out of Mary Avara. You couldn’t watch that bedeviled and angry woman vent about John without ever again seeing the ethic of government censorship as anything but abomination.
So I knew what John represented in my state before I ever met him. When we did meet, I humiliated myself, I’m pretty sure.
I was a young newspaper reporter sent at the last minute to a memorial gathering for one of John’s great local character actresses — Edith “The Egg Lady” Massey — and I knew enough of Edith’s oeuvre to be stupidly flippant about the tastelessness of some of her screen personas. And this at a time when John was grieving at the loss.
Walking up to him in a crowd inside Edie’s gift shop, I led not with any human sense of Ms. Massey or her connection to John and the others in the room. I wanted to shape the life lost around the outrageousness of what I’d seen onscreen. The look on John Waters’ face as he used his answer to address the reality shamed me. I never got a second quote from him that day. I was too embarrassed.
But my third and lasting encounter with John was the best and most enduring. By then, John’s art and narrative force had traveled beyond shock value, beyond even the provocations of a censorious culture. By then, “Hairspray” and “Cry Baby” and “Pecker” were demonstrating how much John Waters actually had to say about the world.
Beginning with “Homicide” and journeying through “The Corner” and “The Wire,” I shared a crew with John and learned to love and admire the same colleagues and collaborators. And I came to realize just how much Baltimore and its film community owed to John as a pathfinder and civic presence.
But more than that, by then I’d seen enough of John’s to learn an essential lesson about life and people and society. And this brings me back to my first claim — the one at which John was laughing, the one that is nonetheless the real gift to us from a great storyteller. And it’s this:
There is no normal. Normal is a lie. Normal is a locked gate, a wall, a prison. Normal is a fascistic sentiment, and one that prevailed within the American experiment for far too long. Indeed, today in this country, we are witnessing a last, retrograde and reactionary assertion for whatever normal is supposed to be.
John’s filmmaking and storytelling — from the guerrilla effrontery of “Pink Flamingos” to the sweet civic affirmations of “Hairspray” — are among the most eloquent arguments against standardized modes of being ever lensed.
None of us are normal. Black, white, brown, Jew, Gentile, Muslim, atheist, Satanist, gay, straight, bi, transgendered, whatever…the more you honestly assess all the varied allegiances, motivations and impulses that cause human beings to get up in the morning and face the world and each other, the more you know that none of us is close to normal.
Conjure even the known secrets of yourself, your family, your friends, your neighbors and realize how ridiculous the very idea of normal is. Hell, if you find anyone with political and social opinions that soothe, someone without racial or religious idiosyncrasy, without sexuality that veers froma strict heterogeneous application of the lights-off missionary position, someone with 2.1 kids and two-car garage and unrusted lawn furniture on the manicured patio of theisr split-level rancher, I will argue that nothing is more fucking abnormal than that. We are — all of us — at least two standard deviations from the mean. And if you think you are not, you are either lying to yourself or worse, it may be time to reflect on the grievous possibility of an unlived life.
Other writers and filmmakers and social voices have argued this very thing in their work. But pound for pound, I think you will be hard pressed to find a greater and more influential enemy of normal — and the lie that normal forces upon human lives — than John Waters. It’s a legacy of which any storyteller would be proud and one that honors the 2017 WGAE Ian McLellan Hunter Award for Career Achievement.
It’s my honor to bring to the stage, John Waters.
February 19, 2017
New York, N.Y.
The event is sold out.
There will NOT be tickets available at the door. A ticket is required for entry.
Not attending? Please consider making a donation to the organizations we are supporting:
ACLU of MD, National Immigration Law Center, Tahirih Justice Center, International Rescue Committee.
Click here to make a donation through our online page. Donations made online and at the event will be matched up to $100,000 by Blown Deadline Productions.
The event will be livestreamed by the Washington Post.
Blown Deadline Productions & Tech Solidarity
Date & Time:
Monday February 13th, 2017
7:00 – 8:30pm
Doors open at 6:15pm
Tickets are required for entry. Please bring your printed ticket with you or be prepared to show it on your phone. A reminder that a very small number of tickets will be released at 4pm tomorrow (Sunday) afternoon.
About the event:
Baltimoreans united against fear, nativism and the immigration ban will gather on Monday, February 13 at Beth Am Synagogue in Reservoir Hill to hear speakers as varied as Beau Willimon, Deray McKesson, David Simon, Taylor Branch, and others urging religious and racial inclusivity. The program will conclude with singer-songwriter Steve Earle adding his voice and guitar.
Admission is free with a ticket and donation to groups assisting visa holders and refugees: ACLU of MD, National Immigration Law Center, Tahirih Justice Center, and International Rescue Committee.
Donations made through the event’s donation page and at the event will be matched up to $100,000 by Blown Deadline Productions, the Baltimore-based television production company that created The Wire, Treme and Show Me A Hero.
Tech Solidarity works to better connect tech workers with the communities they live in. Our emphasis is on regular in-person meetings, volunteer assistance to organizations serving the vulnerable, and the creative use of labor law in pursuit of an ethical agenda.
- Leana S. Wen, M.D., MSc., FAAEM – Health Commissioner, Baltimore City
- Nancy Kass, ScD – the Phoebe R. Berman Professor of Bioethics and Public Health, in the Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Deputy Director for Public Health in the Berman Institute of Bioethics.
- Marielena Hincapié – Executive Director, National Immigration Law Center
- Ruben Chandrasekar – Executive Director, International Rescue Committee, Maryland
- Kristen Strain – Executive Director, Tahirih Justice Center Baltimore
- Sonia Kumar – Staff Attorney, ACLU of MD
I was asked by the BBC to write and read an essay about a book that changed me — a request that offered an opportunity to bring more readers to one of the more epic and honorable acts of American journalism. Acquiring “Famous Men” was seminal for me as a twentysomething reporter, and provided both tactical and ethical ballast for the journeys in narrative non-fiction I would soon undertake in a homicide unit and on a drug corner. Have a listen and maybe pick up a copy of Agee & Walker’s masterpiece:
David Simon describes how “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” by James Agee and Walker Evans changed his work as a journalist. The celebrated work capturing the lives of ordinary people during The Depression made him realise the importance of sharing “the simple, raw vulnerability” of lived experience. “Page after page was fully ripe with the delicate work of a thinking journalist who knows with all moral certitude that he is approaching and attempting to capture the love, fear and sadness of real lives.” Produced by Smita Patel.