Within the Acela cocoon

18 Jul
July 18, 2014

There is something about human beings compacted in a cylindrical tube, hurtling between cities at a high speed, unable to maneuver in any other manner than to, say, grab a beer from the cafe car or visit the rest room. It is lost time. And when you’ve made all your cell calls, and answered the last of your email, and you are still only in Wilmington and another forty minutes from home, the last distractions are the people sitting around you.

This fellow was at the four-top table immediately behind me. I clocked him as we left New York, but as he is a busy man, and as most of our previous encounters have been a little edgy, I told myself to let well enough alone. I answered a few more emails, looked at some casting tapes on the laptop, checked the headlines. And still, with all of that done, we were only just south of Philadelphia.

I texted my son: “On the southbound Acela. Marty O’Malley sitting just behind me,” then joking, “Do I set it off?”

A moment later, a 20-year-old diplomatic prodigy fired back a reply: “Buy him a beer.”

I waited until just after Wilmington, for fear that the Governor of Maryland and I would not be able to endure the requisite formalities of forced proximity for much longer than that. Then I stood up, noticed that Mr. O’Malley was sipping a Corona, and I walked to the cafe car to get another just like it. I came back, put it on the table next to its mate, and said, simply, “You’ve had a tough week.” My reference, of course, was to the governor’s dustup with the White House over the housing of juvenile immigrants in Maryland, which became something of a spitting contest by midweek.

Mr. O’Malley smiled, said thanks, and I went back to my seat to inform my son that the whole of the State Department could do no better than he. Several minutes later, the governor of my state called me out and smacked the seat next to him.

“Come on, Dave, ” he said, “we’re getting to be old men at this point.  Sit, talk.”

I joined him. He still hates “The Wire” with a taut fury. I suggested he might watch it some years from now, when there was less at stake. I am still no fan of some of his policies, especially with regard to the drug war and the use of mass arrest, but I held my tongue and told him instead that I thought he’d been misused this week by some White House aides who misrepresented his position on the immigration issue, which indeed, I believe is true. We searched for common ground and landed eventually on The Pogues, a band beloved to us both, as well as some mutual memories of the more farcical personages who once held court on the Baltimore City Council. At one point, we both lamented the death last year of Pogues guitarist Phil Chevron and  sang some lyrics to Chevron’s magnificent “Faithful Departed.” This no doubt brought a vague nausea to the aide traveling with the governor and anyone else still awake in our vicinity. More than that, I can’t say, as discussion of a few other matters was agreed to be off-the-record. I will honor that.

As the train neared Baltimore, the governor suggested that perhaps we both suffered from Irish — or as I know the joke, Jewish — Alzheimers. As he explained,  “That’s where you…”

“…only remember the grudges,” I finished.

We laughed, and the governor used his iPad for a photo. We shook hands, and I got off in Baltimore. He continued on to the BWI station, and, from there, I presume, to Annapolis.

Again, for the most part, I credit Amtrak, with an assist from my son. But Mr. O’Malley, who is now contemplating a presidential run, seemed last night to be as much at ease as I remember from his earliest days on the council. And me, I’m no longer trying to film a dark story in his political backyard. The two of us did okay, too, considering.

 

52 replies
  1. Ian says:

    Great post. I was at a conf in DC a couple years ago, standing right next to O’Malley and was dying to talk The Wire with him, but I just didn’t have the balls.

    Reply
  2. Lakshman says:

    I have found the greatness of Steve Earle and The Pogues, thanks to The Wire and you. A newbie I am and by no means have as refined a sense of music as many on this forum I would imagine but I find Shane McGowan’s rendition of The Band Played Waltzing Matilda one of the most haunting melodies I have ever heard.

    Reply
  3. Jojo Girard says:

    There was a girls high school basketball coach from the Seattle area who wrote a book about his experiences. One of things he practiced was making sure the girls had no issues between them. If ever two of them had an issue, he would put them in his office, and they couldn’t leave until they had settled their differences or at least made headway toward that goal.

    Funny thing, when we have to find common ground, we do.

    Great story, nice lesson, Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
  4. Charles Nelson Reilly says:

    I’m not singing for the future
    I’m not dreaming of the past
    I’m not talking of the fist time
    I never think about the last

    Reply
  5. Mark J. McPherson says:

    My one train/pol story occurred late in ’95 or early in ’96 when I was taking Amtrak down to DC from North Jersey and arrived at Union Station very late in the night. This was at the absolute height of Newt Gingrich’s campaign to shut down the federal government, and at a time when the tide had turned against him. IIRC it was right around the time of the infamous Daily News cover cartoon showing Newt in baby diapers throwing a tantrum. His face and voice were everywhere on the air and in print. I was traveling alone and groggily arrived at the station well after midnight and as I stepped out of the doors of the train there he was, larger than life, all alone and standing right in front of me actually blocking my exit, as if he had come to meet my train. I didn’t have young Simon to advise me, nor my own son yet, so I just gave him an unsatisfying smirk crafted to convey recognition and dismissal and moved right passed him.

    O’Malley, if not, Warren. And the Pogues by all means.

    Reply
  6. James says:

    Having played a role in Baltimore’s criminal justice system and now the VA situation, I am amazed by the parallels I see now and the final seasons of the Wire. Love to share a corona with you on that one day. One could easily have an HBO series on this stuff…

    Reply
  7. Rusty Gardner says:

    This reminds me of a story I heard from Tony Kornheiser (Washington Post/ESPN). For years TK referred to Brian Billick as a “preening shmo”, then one day he runs into Billick on the train to NY. They had a long and very pleasant conversation with Kornheiser coming away with a new respect and fondness for Billick. Funny thing that train.

    As a city resident and film worker, O’Malley lost my vote with his shortsighted disdain for your work. I never saw him as a bad person, just someone who seemed consumed by ambition more than doing good work. I wish only good for him.

    Reply
  8. Orioles #33 says:

    In reference to off the record remarks. I’m currently in the midst of some very intense investigative journalism, albeit in documentary form. I’m in a position where in the course of an initial phone conversation in regard to my subject matter, a high level official made a very powerful comment about the actions of other officials. Nothing was ever discussed regarding on the record or off the record. He was fully aware that I’m a member of the media and making a documentary and this conversation was in discussion of the issues at hand and in a preliminary phone call in order to set up the interview.

    I imagine that being a government official that this party would likely not make this comment on camera, however the comment was made in my discussion with him in the midst of in depth conversation regarding heavily politicized issues that affect the livelihoods of many people. Since there was never any discussion of on or off the record, am I okay to use the quote in the film. The quote would also need attribution to retain significance.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      If you identified yourself and your purpose, yes, you can use the comment. Both parties must agree that what ensues is either off the record, or not for attribution. If not, whatever follows is assumed to be on the record.

      Reply
  9. AMS says:

    This is awesome. Governor O”Malley taking a pic with his iPad is so Carcetti.

    Reply
  10. Andrew says:

    Drug proabition will continue for ever until the quote unquote experts in public life speak out against it. For something as minor as marijuana legalization the police union is leading the fight against it. And mayors, governors and presidents wil continue to use police organizations as reasons against ending the war. ( just like with military officers wanting to keep wars going and presidents differing to their judgment) So just as Tom Ricks says its good to have military recruitment on campus as it will help liberalize the military, until there is a call to action for people against the drug war to become police and dea officers, the “experts” will always be against it and nothing will change.

    Reply
  11. Wade P. says:

    I saw in the headline David Simon and train and hoped he’d finally detail the symbolism of the train tracks in the show.

    Reply
    • kt says:

      You know, I gotta admit…I still don’t get it either.

      Reply
    • Ben G. says:

      It’s about the inevitability of giant machines. It’s a symbol for one of the core themes of the show: that institutions will always prevail over and/or destroy the individual who attempts to challenge the institution.

      Reply
      • kt says:

        But the trains don’t destroy anything — in fact the trains hardly ever even come, right? I thought that was the point for a while, that the city was once a bustling hub of industry and transport etc. and now it’s abandoned, there’s nothing left but this empty & broke-down infrastructure. The cops are waiting for help and resources that never come.

        But there is that one scene where the train does come, while McNulty is pissing on the tracks. So…maybe it’s that he thinks he can defy institutional control when he cannot. All he can do is make his statement and get out of the way.

        I DON’T KNOW! I’m usually good with symbolism! I get the orange couch, I get the old lady cleaning her steps, but I don’t get these train tracks! I just wanted to admit it for once! Ha.

        Reply
  12. katie says:

    I propose we lock you in a train with the House of Representatives and a copy of Rum, Sodomy, & the Lash. Maybe a karaoke machine will do the trick.

    Reply
  13. Patrick says:

    I guess the real question is; did he ask for your vote in 2016?

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      He did not.

      But at one point he suggested provocatively that I looked to him like a Rand Paul supporter, a suggestion that I find astonishing as I regard the libertarian philosophy as little more than bad citizenship, and have said so elsewhere. I suppose his confusion might have something to do with my very loud opposition to the drug prohibition, which makes me a fellow traveler of the Randians on that isolated issue. I replied with an eyeroll, and volunteered that if Mr. O’Malley achieved the Democratic nomination, he would in all likelihood have my vote. Unless of course the Republicans nominate Teddy Roosevelt, or either the Trotskyites or Menschiveks field a viable candidate.

      I’ll keep my vote in the Democratic primary in confidence for the time being. Let’s see who gets in and who stays out.

      Reply
      • Frank Black says:

        I’ve always wondered what your thoughts were on Ayn Rand and her most important books: The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged. To be honest, i’ve never seen them as “libertarians works” and Ayn Rand herself said she wasn’t a libertarian. Sadly, many libertarians people adopted those books as their “written voice” and maybe they got a bad reputation. What do you think about Ayn Rand as a philosopher and thinker rather than as a writer?

        Reply
        • David Simon says:

          I find her to be a political and socioeconomic luftmenschen, if such a word can be applied to a woman.

          Reply
  14. Tom Gregory says:

    Q: What has twelve arms, twelve legs and twelve teeth?
    A: The Pouges

    Reply
  15. Baynard Woods says:

    Weirdly, I had a similar, but not quite as conciliatory, meeting with Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake at roughly the same time. Of course, we’re not quite in the same category, but it was actually nice to see her angry. http://www.citypaper.com/arts/art-seen/bcp-baltimore-mayor-stephanie-rawlings-blake-and-me-20140721,0,5824123.story

    Reply
  16. Stephen says:

    The only thing that would have made this serendipitous meeting, and the recounting of it, more perfect, would have been the availability of Natty Boh at the Amtrak bar.

    Reply
  17. Max H. says:

    This is what I love about Amtrak. Thanks for sharing this story.

    And “casting tapes”? Does that mean we have a new David Simon epic to look forward to? I hope so.

    Reply
  18. MrsDavidSimon says:

    You sang? I hope you weren’t in the Quiet Car. I’d have had you both thrown out in Perryville.

    Reply
  19. Brendan says:

    Don’t understand why he hated The Wire. I don’t think he resembles Mayor Royce in any way.

    Reply
  20. Kevin says:

    Mr Simon:

    Is there an expiration date for off the record conversations? Would journalism be possible if everything was on the record? Loaded broad questions, yes but based on your interactions with Gov. O’Malley one couldn’t help but wonder. Thank you

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      In my opinion, when a reporter agrees that a conversation or a portion of such is off the record, then the reporter is ethically required to keep that confidence until the source releases him from the obligation, or until the source dies. I had an off-the-record conversation with William Zantzinger, he of “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” notoriety, in 1988. I did not reveal the substance of that conversation until Mr. Zantzinger had died nearly a quarter century later.

      A reporter does not have to agree to off-the-record or not-for-attribution terms, nor does he have to suggest such terms. But once he does suggest or agree to them, in the hope of receiving more frank or honest information than might be confirmed in some other fashion, or that might provide insight and context for other information already known, then he’s obligated to honor his given word.

      I understood a lot more about my beat and the events of the day by talking to some sources off the record, or not for attribution. It was a valuable tool. It can be misused by either party of course, and it should not be granted or sought capriciously. Bbut there is no arguing that a lot of insight comes from sources who either don’t wish to be named, or don’t wish to provide that insight publicly.

      Reply
  21. Ed says:

    You’re too mature. I would have just sulked until he got off the train.

    Reply
  22. Alan says:

    Hi David,

    Love this story & that activity is picking up on the site again.

    Appropro of nothing….. I’m wondering if you are familiar with Reuben Castenada & his work for the Washington Post & his recent book “S Street Rising” you guys had similar beats in cities gripped with similar problems. Many of the themes you write about are in his book as well. Interested in your thoughts, & if you haven’t seen the book I think you’ll like his story on several levels.

    Thanks for your writings,

    Reply
  23. Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    “Again, for the most part, I credit Amtrak, with an assist from my son.”

    Don’t underestimate the beer!

    Reply
  24. Dan Mitchell says:

    OK, I love the Pogues thing, and I give him a little credit for that. But at the same time, I’m always amused when stiff, tin-eared conservative types express their fanhood for any kind of “edgy” music: metal, punk, rap, lunatic Irish hyperfolk. Not that I think it’s always just for effect, but it often seems to be, and it’s funny either way.

    Great story, though. I wish I had been sitting just behind. And for all the things that depress me these days about the world of public affairs and media, I’m glad to live at a time when it’s possible for a politician to be sufficiently wary of a TV showrunner that he insists on going off the record.

    Reply
    • David Simon says:

      I brought up off-the-record on some matters of interest to me, just to give him room to speak bluntly.

      Reply
      • Dan Mitchell says:

        Either way. I just like that it’s possible for it to happen with someone in TV (TV, which, of all things, is good now, and where quality can actually matter, unlike so much else, like the news media). Nobody ever went off the record with Aaron Spelling or Sherwood Schwartz.

        Reply
    • kt says:

      I get the point you’re making — and it can be hilarious ( a la Nixon’s “Sock it to ME?”) — but I gotta submit that we’ve been immersed in the blue, blue waters of Maryland politics for too long when we start calling O’Malley “conservative”. Even if you just meant socially…

      I buy that he genuinely likes all forms of Irish music. Not every governor can be spotted at Liam Flynn’s fiddle jam, hoisting a pint.

      Reply
    • Andrew L. says:

      Not a music example, but my favorite recent instance of a politician having surprisingly esoteric taste was Rick Perry’s favorite movie being Immortal Beloved.

      Reply
  25. Rajiv says:

    The death penalty issue was a pretty un-Carcetti move wouldn’t you say? Not a whole lot of political upside, it seemed like he really cared about something.

    Reply
  26. Mark Gately says:

    David,

    Nice story. There really is something about riding on the train. Having done so more times than I can recall, I’ve often thought that it would be a wonderful experiment to take enough money to ride the Accella back-and-forth to New York for six months or a year year ust to see how much could be made on investments learned about on the train. For whatever reason, be it the most confidential of potential corporate takeover information, or the grimy details of their divorce, people just seem to think that there in the wonderfully conceived Zone of Silence from Maxwell Smart exists on the train. I’ve been stunned at some of the things that I’ve heard riding on the Acella that people would dare not talk about anywhere else.

    I am not myself an O’Malley fan, but I am a great fan of talking to anyone and everyone, particularly those with whom I might disagree.. It’s a family disease. I do remember many years ago you addressing a gathering of the combined Law Clubs. I took Gary with me to the dinner and I still remember well your core point: we need to focus on violence, and drugs associated with violence. As to The Drug War, forget that. We’ve already lost.

    I have thought of that speech many,many times and wish that our law-enforcement efforts would have focused more on violence then on all drugs. But then I know well that the Jaggers rule applies: You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

    Hope all is well.

    Mark

    Reply
  27. Mark Gately says:

    David,

    Nice story. There really is something about riding on the train. Having done so more times than I can recall, I’ve often thought that it would be a wonderful experiment to take enough money to ride the Accella back-and-forth to New York for six months or a year year ust to see how much could be made on investments learned about on the train. For whatever reason, be it the most confidential of potential corporate takeover information, or the grimy details of their divorce, people just seem to think that there in the wonderfully conceived Zone of Silence from Maxwell Smart exists on the train. I’ve been stunned at some of the things that I’ve heard riding on the Acella that people would dare not talk about anywhere else.

    I am not myself an O’Malley fan, but I am a great fan of talking to anyone and everyone, particularly those with whom I might disagree.. It’s a family disease. I do remember many years ago you addressing a gathering of the combined Law Clubs. I took Gary with me to the dinner and I still remember well your core point: we need to focus on violence, and drugs associated with violence. As to The Drug War, forget that. We’ve already lost.

    I have thought of that speech many,many times and wish that our law-enforcement efforts would have focused more on violence then on all drugs. But then I know well that the Jagger rule applies: You Can’t Always Get What You Want.

    Hope all is well.

    Mark

    Reply

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] This summer, O’Malley also found that an unexpected selfie can be a diplomatic, peace-making tool. While traveling south on Amtrak, the governor ran into his former nemesis David Simon, the creator of “The Wire,” the HBO show that focuses on Baltimore’s worst qualities and has long been loathed by O’Malley. Simon bought O’Malley a beer and the two had a wide-ranging conversation. Then O’Malley suggested they snap a selfie (which you can see on Simon’s blog). […]

  2. […] BREAKING: Politicians are human entities, may have emotions, souls and senses of humor too. Cases in point: * City Paper’s Baynard Woods: Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake and Me * David Simon and Governor Tommy Carcetti Martin O’Malley meet, drink, and sing together on a train: Within the Acela cocoon […]

  3. […] his blog, The Audacity of Despair, David Simon recounts his recent impromptu sit-down with Governor Martin O’Malley aboard the Acela. “As the train neared Baltimore, the governor suggested that perhaps we both […]

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