What follows is from this month’s GQ Magazine, which named actor Michael B. Jordan — who we first victimized in “The Wire” — for the breakout performance of 2013. His fine work in “Fruitvale Station” is wholly deserving and the film is an important one. I was honored when the magazine asked me to write something for the year-end issue, and it’s reposted here with the magazine’s kind permission. Congratulations, Michael. We knew you when.
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Perversely, we are at the edge of creating a hard-and-fast rule of film narrative in which the one assured means by which we can get America to care about young men of color is to shoot Michael B. Jordan.
Not Michael, to be fair. But any character portrayed by Michael.
The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something, it pays to aim a handgun at Michael B. Jordan’s delicate and nuanced humanity and pull the trigger. Suddenly the risks of being young and black on an American street are apparent.
A decade ago on The Wire, we put Michael in the path of a bullet, knowing we were breaking hearts. Not merely because the kid was a fine, careful actor playing a grandly sacrificial role. But that smile—the open, adolescent warmth that filled Michael’s face in ordinary moments—God, the smile alone was going to wreck anyone watching as Wallace’s story played out.
We started him sweet and foolish and playing with action figures, and we finished him in a vacant public-housing unit, with a high-caliber bullet in his chest. On that last day of work, even the Baltimore crew—veterans of all manner of cop-show savagery and betrayal—were sullenly setting up the shot.
“I can’t believe you’re killing Michael,” said the makeup lady.
No, we’re killing Wallace.
“It’s just wrong. It’s evil.”
When J.D. fired the prop gun and the squibs spurted and Michael dropped onto the stunt mat, the script coordinator started crying.
So now, a decade later, comes Fruitvale Station, a quotidian, last-day-in-the-life account of Oscar Grant, another young black man—this one shot to death by a transit officer in the early hours of New Year’s Day 2009 at the Fruitvale stop of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.
Now, again, a few earnest souls in our film industry are taking steps from the beaten path to present the human-scale cost of our racial pathology. And the right actor is again required to take a bullet in such a way that we will feel the loss in all of its intricate detail.
No surprise who gets the call. Now Michael B. Jordan, an actor honed by a decade of meaningful work, turns in a performance that surrounds the doomed Oscar Grant, making him seem idiosyncratic yet average, ordinary yet precious. That’s the power of Fruitvale.
It’s easy to say as much, but to feel it? And it’s harder when we are obliged to consider those who wear hoodies, who smoke a little weed, who text the wrong thing to a girl, who ever make a single mistake in their short lives. Harder still if the dead man can’t win us with his smile.
And there’s the lesson.
If we shoot Michael dead a few more times, there’s a small chance we might actually learn it.
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At GQ, online:
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[…] If you’ve seen The Wire, you should read David Simon’s very brief piece about the film, which is heartbreaking all over again in its final […]
Have you and Michael B. Jordan remained in touch with each other?
******THE WIRE SEASON 3 SPOILERS BELOW******
I’m curious to know if, in light of a number of horrifying stories of supposedly “justified” white murder of African-Americans in recent years, you would write Prez’s accidental shooting of another cop in a different way were you writing it in 2014.
If it were today, would that story make national headlines? Would Prez still be a character that we love and root for in season 4? What I take away from that storyline is that Prez was a character who has poor, violent judgment when he panics (as further evidenced by the pistol-whipping from season 1) and that, whether or not his panic was in part amplified by racial prejudice, the most important ‘lesson’ is that he should never have been carrying a gun in the first place. Is that how you felt then, and is that how you feel now? When Daniels asks Caroline and Lester if they ever found anything racially ‘off’ about Prez and Lester said “are you really asking?” did you (the writers) agree with Lester? If you were writing season 3 now, would you devote more time to that storyline and approach it from more angles?
My apologies for the many questions within my main question! I love The Wire so very much and I’m curious to know what about it would be different if it were written today.
No, the scenario was white cop shooting an African-American cop who is not in uniform. This scenario has actually occurred in several jurisdictions, and the outcome we depicted is consistent with the institutional dynamic exhibited in those police departments. We placed the reaction of the white officer, his black coworkers and representatives of black officers as a whole in proper light. Not to mention the reluctance of a city prosecutor to seek a grand jury indictment in such a circumstance.
If you research the comparable cases, you’ll see that we are in the pocket of what actually occurred.
Well, let me see. I do not see why we, mainstream people, need to be coerced to feel for black young people being killed. The most of us do it without reminder. We do feel for them for being harassed by searches, by barely warranted traffic stops, by uninvited questioning by police. But that as well extends to all people – black and white moving about in certain areas. And sure it is all done within a framework of drug war. The problem with drugs for people who do not use them is the ongoing arrangements of drug consumption and distribution, not the drug use per se(which is separate problem). There would be much less outcry about drugs if all the problems were confined to the dinky apartments of the habitual users, to their family members, their children and their own health, and frequent public charge resulting from all of it. But what we have is illicit distribution network that occupy the same public space as normal people. To avoid capture by police there are several people usually participating in the operation, there are also numerous lookouts and friends hang out on the street corners to provide company and cover to the actual dealers. There are frequent robbery attempts (by other dealers and by destitute end users) that erupt into fights, shootings, and kidnappings. No normal people want to walk through the crowd of rowdy youth regardless of race consideration. I am not talking about myself. I walk around protected not by law but by attitude. You take a swing at me and your last day on earth is today. I would not have your lying ass stand in court and milk the jury for disability payment. But there truly vulnerable people and they all want to be able to walk the streets without nascent fear. It is not police, prison complex or Bloomberg or other rich who want to walk there. Rich can call the cab and get where they want. It is weak and vulnerable who cry for safe streets. In essence drug war is war against street presence of people who are the source of danger. On the footnote, many drug operations are setup in the way that drug carrier only has one user dose on him or her. But if cops happen to catch this person few times in a row with the same single dose, more often than not for possession without intent off he goes, not some unlucky one time buyer.
What we need as the society is to design recreational drug. Not a single illegal one existing today would fit the basic health safety requirements – not to induce immediate harm, addiction or long term health consequences. We need to setup legal and transparent distribution network to put most of the street thugs out of business. We need to get over prohibition, but not by dereliction of enforcement of prohibition. One thing legal distribution network could easily address is distribution of drugs to minors. Just like with booze and cigarettes there will be people who will try to sell restricted stuff to minors. But it would be sporadic, as one cannot make a living out of minors only, it is very hard. For now the age restrictions is non-existed. There is a separate problem of the wave of crime by destitute and often underage young drug users. Society at large is barely aware of it as there vast underreporting on crime that not results in murder. The recent knockout game which is manifestation of the retaliation for lost sense of safety by young thugs who roamed the streets searching for the next victim of blitz impromptu robbery is mere reflection of the stakes in the street game. The situation is exasperated by removal of legal guns from the hands of potential victims so perpetrators can act with impunity, and so the fact of another felled lowlife would not excite riots. The attempt to compensate for absent guns with police patrols caused the feeling of occupied city and caused more people to be struck by the brick over the head, along with more innocent people being harassed by police. There are more murders on the streets of Philadelphia. But I more vary to walk less glamorous streets of New York.
Dear Mr. Simon: no one comforts the afflicted, nor afflicts the comfortable better than you do. You have no idea the value this blog, your talks, and your art holds for people like me. I’ve worked as a community organizer, and sometimes still substitute teach in urban public schools where the only thing thriving is educational apartheid. The Wire was so brilliant in its authenticity, I couldn’t bear watching without it being an exercise in masochism. You can’t spend your day looking into the eyes of these beautiful kids too often drained of hope, without feeling their despair and trying to hide your broken heart. Most of them are reduced to struggling just to survive. There are millions of people like me who couldn’t do all the work that needs doing without people like you.
I’m sure one who feels as you do about this mans writing must have read THE CORNER.
If not…You will be moved. this is the ultimate story of where we are going and how we feel
about those around us that we refuse to see or even look toward.This is not just a district
in a city anymore but in every place you care to look. Society needs to CARE and ACT.
(before the brick)!
Two things I’ve read lately make me think of David Simon and his fans.
The article “Invisible Child” http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/invisible-child/#/?chapt=1 (about a homeless child in NYC), and THE IMMORTAL LIFE OF HENRIETTA LACKS . (About black woman from Baltimore who had cancer and her doctor secretly harvested her cells. She died of cancer, but her cells went on to totally revolutionized modern medicine.) I believe many of her descendants still live in East Baltimore. While companies made billions of dollars by reproducing cells, her descants made nothing. In fact, they didn’t even know they were her cells until the 1970’s. The book was published in 2010, but I just discovered it, and it is so amazing!I had to share.
That is one of my favorite books. It’s an amazing story, well told and balanced between facts and narrative, and raises so many important questions about what is “mine” and what rights we all have to our own bodies.
Thanks for mentioning it. I might pull it out and read it again. 🙂
Fascinating book. I know HBO optioned it and someone is writing a screenplay on it.
Henrietta Lacks’ story makes me think of the McNuggets conversation from The Wire season one. It makes for a brilliant illustration of the injustice inherent in inequality.
May as well take this opportunity to shill an e-book an acquaintance of mine wrote along with a couple of members of the Lacks family. If any of y’all are interested in reading more personal stories about Henrietta and her family, or just willing to throw down a few bucks, it’d kick some royalties to Lawrence and Bobbette Lacks. They still live over in East Baltimore.
First of all want to say I’m very happy about Michael B. Jordan’s success. I fell in love with his acting in Chronicle before I saw The Wire, and he’s incredibly talented in both. You bring up a very interesting argument though that I think rings true across modern mainstream media. It takes a lot to get us, white America, upset about or invested in things we don’t see as impacting our lives. Run an article on a major news website about stop-and-frisk, and the majority of the comments will be something along the lines of, “Whiny liberals stop at nothing to make us feel guilty about our race. If they didn’t do anything wrong they have nothing to worry about. Of course they are targeting african-americans. If they didn’t, they would be completely ignoring statistics.” Run an irresponsibly sensational article about the so-called “Knock-Out Game”, you get a lot more hits, a lot more outrage, and people calling for heaven-and-earth to join forces to stop the madness.This kind of narrative is highly marketable because it fits in with the ideologies of the viewers. For every Twelve Years a Slave or Fruitvale Station, there are a thousand stories that should also be told in an honest way, and ten thousand other stories America would rather hear. Not even Michael B. Jordan (as marketable as he is) is capable of making these stories palatable enough for a wide-spread audience.
I think the Joker summarizes this pretty well: “If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it’s all ‘part of the plan’. But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds! ”
The Wire is incredible because it breaks down these false perceptions we have about our societal narrative we’ve established of us, the good guys, vs. them, the bad guys. Incredible show, but low viewership. For people who watch it, it represents an earnest attempt to show the madness we’d be much more comfortable and happier ignoring. But that’s the problem. We can ignore it and thus, narratives like it are not very marketable.
To me this seems like a systemic, self-affirming, and inevitable result of modern media – we just don’t care about “the other half”; their problems are theirs to deal with. There are people like Jon Stewart who will take the media to task, but ultimately people will watch him for entertainment if their ideologies align with Stewart’s or not at all if theirs’ don’t. Either way, even Stewart acknowledges that he doesn’t have much impact over the overall message or people actually caring enough to do anything.
Mr. Simon, you have been one of the most vocal critics of the media. While The Wire brings up a couple of the issues with it, I feel that plot line did not seem nearly as damning or universal as the other institutions that are examined. It’s all part of that same numbers game though (substitute Pulitzers, page hits, ad revenue with crime stats or test scores). In every instance in The Wire, the numbers game ultimately wins out. So I guess my main question would be, if you have the time, how do we escape it? I.e. if the media is rewarded for ignoring the issues that dominate those who have less social capital’s lives and fabricating stories that play into our narrative of white victimization, why won’t they indefinitely, and even, if this changed, would it even have an effect?
David, I attended the symposium in London with yourself, Eugene Jarecki and Rachel Seifert. There, an ambassador for Columbia (?) said that there are, in South America, some exciting developments happening in the near future. Your response was as Simonian as it could possibly be, a I-believe-it-when-I-see-it-but-I-won’t-‘hold-my-breath expression on your face and a despondent verbal “Good luck”. In lieu of that, will you be writing anything on Uruguay’s monumental step to legalize marijuana?
Elsewhere on this site, I’ve written about my concerns about how fundamental opposition against the drug war is being diluted by the successes at rationalizing marijuana use alone — never mind Uruguay, but in the U.S. as well. I’m interested in Portugal, for that reason.
I never thought of it that way, but you’re obviously right. I guess, having debated against the revolting war on drugs for 15 years, I thirsted for anything I could claim as a victory, regardless of how small.
For me, Uruguay is still significant, as it marks a Latin American country that has taken this step. If nothing else, would you not say it hints at a wind of change in the region, previously dictated by US policy? Maybe a breeze?
Also, have you read Peter Hitchens’ book “The war we never fought”?
I got as far as I could humanely get with Mr. Hitchens on that ride.
He might want to explain to the U.S. prison population — which constitutes the largest gulag in human history — about this war that went unfought. Offensive hyperbole, that.
It reminded me of creationist literature, denying evolution. But far more immoral.
One thing I think is missing from your numerous speeches on drug legalization is a devils advocate. I think too often you are in front of a like minded audience or the interviewer agrees with your position. (ie when Anthony Bourdain took over Piers Morgans show for the night).
Don’t you think it could have a bigger impact if you had a respectful debate with Mr Hitchens?
I have watched him debate Russel Brand and recently Mathew Perry and he is infuriating. His argument was so weak and it needed someone just as well versed in the debate to shut him up. He flat our said doctors are lying about addiction and didn’t get called out on it nearly enough. I know you are busy but if you ever get a chance please don’t pass up the opportunity to debate this important issue with him.
(warning don’t watch at night because you won’t be falling asleep after watching.)
I go where the gig is and talk with whomever they so wish.
OT here but I have to say, opening episode 3 with Davis “we are a Creole Nation. Deal with it:” and closing the penultimate episode with Booker. Damn.
The show deserves more seasons.
It is awesome seeing Michael become a big movie star because he seems like such a great guy in real life. (based the bs report podcast he did and other interviews) For some reason that makes me like certain actors more. When I saw Wendell Pierce on real time kick ass, it made me like Bunk and Antoine even more.
Congratulations to Michael B. Jordan. I attended the Austin Film Festival, and I heard George Pelecanos talk about writing that very episode where Wallace was killed. If I remember correctly he turned in the script, and he said you rewrote like 90% of it. He talked about how he learned to write for the showrunner…how at the end he figured it out and you were barely rewriting him. Just hearing how writers worked together to pen the masterpiece THE WIRE was fascinating, but that is an aside.
The character of Wallace was heart breaking. He was so vulnerable and likable…taking care of all those siblings. I felt I knew him, as much as I could know any TV character. I still miss him. Glad that Michael B. Jordan has moved on, but I haven’t. RIP Wallace.
I think you are most alive at those moments when you are forced to re-examine everything you took for granted as true. It’s happened so often I feel to folks like me (white, upper middle class, suburban) to become cliche, but the Wire did that for me. I suppose it’s some thing that great art tends to do.
It’s sad that it took a television show for me to recognize the basic humanity of my fellow Americans, all of them. But I’m grateful that it did.
Not really sad, because it did reach you. Art is beautiful that way. Even cathartic, heart rending art. Maybe especially cathartic and heart-rending art.
Now go read THE CORNER,( David Simon & Edward Burns)
Perhaps I am too cynical but I don’t imagine the racist mind is changed upon viewing of any of the aforementioned pieces. While I too wish for learned lessons, we can learn, we can know but if we don’t fucking act, we’re right where we are. Art can’t shoulder all of this responsibility alone. We suck if we can’t get off our asses, and make some noise as citizens. And why is it I don’t need the virtual death of anyone to put myself in his or her shoes and feel empathy? That said I liked your piece, I always like the WAY you write and I completely agree regarding MBJ’s talent. Just pissed I guess.
I realize this is not relevant to the particular piece and I apologize for branching the thread but would you be so kind as to post a link to this talk. If it is available someplace and is allowed to be posted, that is.
Well, you just did. I’m going to be writing some on the NSA stuff in any event. You can repost there, too, if you want. I don’t think the Atlantic summary actually conveys the crux of what was at issue on the panel, personally. And the twitter line on it is certainly ambiguous. I seem to be focused on the fears of the potential for an Orwellian nightmare. What I actually said was that potential is not actuality or even evidence, and that while there is much to be addressed in terms of privacy and civil liberties amid new digital technologies, the hyperbole and overreach of the NSA imbroglio has made it less likely we are going to intelligently address anything. Again, there is, at present, so much less to the NSA stuff than our worst fears require some to believe. While some of that conveys in the Atlantic coverage, it is, I feel, hidden beneath the banner that I was somehow trumpeting the rise of the authoritarian surveillance state. I was not.
Should have clarified. I was hoping there was a video recording of sorts so I can see for myself what was said by you and the other panelists. Precisely for the reasons you mention above.
They live-streamed it and I offered the Atlantic the opportunity to maintain the entire event as a post, so that is up to them. I specifically insisted that the Atlantic not use edited portions of the filming after the fact, as I hold in low regard that organization’s ethics when it comes to the misuse and mischaracterization of my comments. Or I have ever since that jacked profile they did in 2008 and the contorted logic and behavior that I got when I tried to address an ethical query to the editor there. Since then, I’ve steered clear of all invitation to participate or contribute to the Atlantic, which was easy enough until I agreed to do this gig for PEN. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice..,
I did not know at the time that the Atlantic would be a cosponsor of this week’s event and only realized the connection in the days prior.
In order to fulfill my promised participation to PEN, I asked the Atlantic not to display anything other than the complete event. And to their credit on this issue, they agreed. It is up to them if they wish to post the full event anywhere, I suppose. It would certainly be a more accurate reflection of the argument, in all respects.
A piece fitting of a great young actor. I always enjoy seeing a Simon “alum,” especially in such an important and timely film as Fruitvale Station.
But, to echo what James said, I’m kinda glad Michael got a nice break of not dying in FNL and Parenthood.
His portrayal of Wallace is brilliant, just amazing acting. I actually almost start getting myself every time I watch the scene, but not when the deed is done, when the camera goes to Poot.
Great piece. The two best movies I probably saw this year were 12 Years A Slave and Fruitvale Station.
Really cool to see Mr. Jordan and the other actors from your “company” expanding their resumes. You (or whoever does casting on your shows) are a boon for casting directors everywhere, that’s for sure. I’ve noticed that someone over at ABC is definitely a fan (NASHVILLE, SCANDAL, THE GOOD WIFE).
I think I first saw Michael on the soap opera, All My Children. He was great on that show and his spark continued on The Wire.
He was excellent as Wallace.
Glad to see him as well as many other actors from The Wire finding success.
david (not simon, the other guy) is an ass. his statistics are bogus and his argument is strange and nonsensical.
whites are much more likely to be killed by other whites. the odds of a white person being killed by a nonwhite are almost nil, and when it does happen it is almost always the byproduct of economic violence than some kind of secret kill whitey agenda.
maybe he need to do more reading:
I’m glad that the industry is finally starting to take advantage of this fine young actor. It felt like too long a time between Wallace and Oscar Grant. But with ‘Chronicle’ and ‘Fruitvale’, I hope a long career lies ahead.
Also, I’m glad Vince Howard made it out alive!
I saw Michael B. Jordan first as Wallace on The Wire. Heart broke like everybody else’s when he was killed. Fast forward a little and he got to play football and overcome much hardship on Friday Night Lights.
Knew Fruitvale Station would be hard to watch, but went to the cineplex twenty miles away to watch him anyway. He was so perfectly cast and delivered so well.
Treated myself by watching a video interview on Grantland with the young and talented Michael B. Jordan after Fruitvale came out. He talked about many things including how much he learned from working on All My Children for a while.
We don’t always shoot that beautiful smile, but too often it is needed. Love your blog post.
Oh, and I have new Treme on dvr to watch later tonight.
Nice piece and congrats to the well-deserving Mr. Jordan. While the Wire usually kept me in feelings of rage and despair, killing off Wallace made me cry. It was so well done and a great counter to heartless ways we write off murders in the ghettos as happening to those who deserve it, doing society a favor, or saving the taxpayers money.
As to your last line – amen.
“The drug war? Stop and frisk? Racial profiling? Black-on-black violence? Our separate Americas? All that is commentary. If you need white folks to actually feel something”
Well played, sir. Racial bigotry at its finest. An entire race portrayed as evil and/or barbaric. Hmm, was it that I was taught in school? Words have meaning. Words lead to violence. Like, aside from the fact that Trayvon was shot by a self-identifying Hispanic, blacks are eight times more likely to commit interracial murder on a white person, on a per-capita basis, than the other way ’round, based on FBI statistics.
Or maybe the fact that white working class women now have a lower life expentancy than black working class women, how does this square with the conventional thinking on race?
Or take the fact that a poor white working class kid has less of a chance to get into college than the rich offspring of black elites.
Maybe you should read this. (It also deals with the de-facto quota on Asians in Ivy Leagues, as well as White Gentiles, particularly from red state America)
And then there’s the intangibles. The fact that it’s increasingly common to hear racist jokes about white women, there’s even a name for them, “white women jokes” in significant quarters of the cultural left, which is spilling into the mainstream. Or that every racial group has its civil rights organization, except whites. Because why would whites want to organize? You know, being disproportionate victims of interracial hate crimes can’t be one reason, you know? But if any white person wants to organize, good luck with the hatestorm that ensues. That’s the hallmark of an empowered community, surely. I’m sure the white top 1% does well. But they have no relation and no bearing on the bottom 99% of whites. But it’s not like you care, when you wallow in your bigotry.
That’s a lot of words to say, “I really have no fundamental answer for why Mr. Martin or Mr. Grant, unarmed as they were, are now dead and I don’t wish to honestly pursue an answer. I wish, desperately, to change the subject to something, anything else.”
And at this point, frankly, it is hard to pretend we don’t know why you wish to do so.
I know why they are dead. They both had the misfortune to encounter twitchy paranoids with guns. Paranoia that is stoked by both the right wing media and the NRA. I can’t find anything in David’s reply to your article on Michael B. that is even tangentially related to said article.
Yes, just keep telling your self that white people are an aggrieved minority. Yes, tell yourself, tell your friends, all you like. Doesn’t actually make it true in any way.
Mr Simon: Great piece. While sad in some ways, I think it also points to the power of dramatic storytelling to provide insight into the world that all the news media will never match.
David (not Simon), you left the “Knockout game” off of your list of indignities that the white man must endure.
Oh the blues of being a white man in these United States. In the words of the great Martin Mull: “I woke up this morning and both my Cadillacs were gone. I felt so low-down and disgusted, I threw my drink right across the lawn…”
Never have so many with so much advantage cried so hard at even the suggestion that some of that advantage might be removed. Candy-ass motherfuckers, that lot.
“Candy-ass motherfuckers, that lot”
I was going to write a long response to David (not Simon) discussing the facts of both the Martin and Grant cases, having actually read the police reports and transcripts involved…then refute the bogus statistics that he got from The American Angry White Guy Magazine or whatever…but then I read the above reply and it is no longer necessary. Have a good holiday season, Mr. Simon.
“Candy-ass motherfuckers, that lot”
Nominee for C-a M-f poster boy of the year… Matt Lewis of The Daily Caller (with an unbelievably long list of supporting cast in the comments for any willing to face the very, very ugly reality)…
I stopped reading the comments when someone said that Oprah Winfrey is going to cause a bloody revolution. That sounds like an SNL skit to me.
Calling David Simon a bigot relegates all your well thought out ad hominem to redneck noise. You may have an argument, white robe sheathed as it is; but surely you have the wrong enemy.
David not Simon, there is so much silliness here, but l will ask you consider a simple one. You are sounding the alarm about decreased life expectancy for white women without college education.
Never mind that the chart does nothing to explore why that happened. Just look at the chart. The white women line has deceased to meet the consistently lower line that represets the life expectancy of black women without college degrees.
In other word, the alarming thing you find here is that less educated white women now have the same life expectancy as less educated black women?
Never mind the decade of skin color disparity. What you’re upset is the loss of white privilege.
That pretty much says it all.
“Never mind the decade of skin color disparity. What you’re upset is the loss of white privilege. ”
That is ALL the White Guy Lobby will ever worry about. They remind me of a child who has just been informed about the new baby on the way, constantly fucking crying about how they’ll get less attention and have to share their toys.