On Homicide, Truth and Journalism
Deal him out into
the streets of Baltimore,
a city with more than
its share of violence,
filth and despair.
That's how David Simon introduces Detective Sergeant Jay Landsman, Baltimore City homicide detective and the first man on the scene in Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets.
That's also how David Simon began the odyssey that led him from the Baltimore Sun's police beat to the homes of millions of Friday-night television watchers.
Here, in Simon's own words, is how the journey began and where it continues.
This text is excerpted from David Simon's remarks and answers to questions at the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Press Association's Annual Conference last month at Fell's Point in Baltimore.
Simon ... on Why You Didn't Read Homicide in Newsprint
"It was always my belief that I would have a career, probably with one newspaper in one urban area, die at my desk - probably the copy desk - while bumming a cigarette from somebody else, and my body would go out with the double-dot edition, mixed in with the ink. That would be my life. You'd read my obit as you held my remains.
It didn't happen that way - I like to think through no fault of my own.
I ended up leaving The Sun, which is the newspaper I grew up at, a couple years ago in 1995. I did it primarily over a growing sense of frustration about what my idea of truth - what a true story was.
I think you've got to learn the ropes, the mechanics of journalism. You've got to get good at it. It's got to become second nature to you. Not just the pyramid style of reporting. We now have rote formulas: the rote formula for the five-part issue series, for the 80-inch Sunday thumb-sucker. You know, great anecdotal lede, nut graph, best quote.
You've gotta learn those things because they are the rules, and they're the rules for a reason. They get you 60 percent of the way there. But there comes a point - and I didn't see it coming; it sort of hit me like a train wreck when it finally hit - sort of as a result of trying to capture that elusive something in the homicide unit that I could see and feel that I knew wasn't getting into the newspaper.
I covered crime for years and years in Baltimore and I had some good stories and some good by-lines, but they were all of a kind. They were all the newspaper's view of the story.
In some ways, you learn the rules and then you live by the rules the rest of your career, and you're sort of crippled by the rules. You don't know it because you're doing fine. You're making the front page now and then and you're getting some stories. But they only take you so far. That's sort of a weird thing, but you don't know it until you know it, and sometimes you never know it, I guess. Some times people are content with the straight way of reporting.
But I'd like to submit that our feigned notion of objectivity - we all get our points across in some ways - only takes you so far toward the truth. There's a lot of arrogance, institutional arrogance. The 'distanced observer' is what's most valid, most important and most precious to the reader. I am the de facto story teller. My point of view wins. I got the ink.
The great disease there is that our points of view are decidedly similar: middle class, maybe a little less white middle class than they were. It's the point of view of the collective consciousness of that centrist point of the country that we're writing for in all of our demographic surveys. We're looking where circulation grows, and it's always that guy with the 2.4-car garage and the 3.2 kids, and he has an information-sector job. We're all really sort of writing for that guy.
The horrible thing about that is that after a while, the stories don't capture anything but our own sense of what the story should be.
It's like sharks: if you're not doing something different in your career than you were doing the year before, then you're going to drown.
When I wrote Homicide, I came to the conclusion - and I only came to this conclusion after struggling around, trying to write it in pure journalistic perspective - that this story would be best told if the narrator, rather than adopting the communal voice of the newspaper, adopted the communal voice of the city homicide detective.
Homicide was written very consciously. It's not me slipping out of my own subjectivity. It's me consciously embracing the subjectivity of my source material, saying 'The world doesn't care what David Simon thinks. There's plenty of David Simons filling up newspapers all over the country.'
They would like to know what Richard Garvey thinks about the world or Donald Worden or Tom Pellegrini or any of these other detectives who are living this extraordinary event year in and year out."
Simon ... on How to Tell a Story
Caper. That is Gary's word for it, and it is Gary's mind-set, too. And though it might be lost to any prosecutor reading the Maryland Annotated Code, everyone living off a corner understands and accepts the distinction between a caper and a crime. Stick a gun in a man's face and take his wallet; that's a crime and, hey, you're a criminal. But steal the copper plumbing from a rowhouse under construction and sell it for scrap; that's a caper.
-The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood
"I tried to do the same thing with the second book. I'm not just talking about the quotes or letting the color of the person come through in their own performance on the page. I'm talking about even the narrative force of the book. There is the language of the corner consciously embraced.
My argument here is that it's more interesting for people to feel what Gary McCullough or DeAndre McCullough feels on the streets of West Baltimore than what David Simon feels. This idea, I've found, scares the living ____ out of editors because, in a sense, what we're doing is allowing for diversity of experience and existence that is very risky and won't always gratify our readers in the way we intend. It won't always lead to heightened circulation.
What it will lead to is great storytelling.
It will lead to a sense of the world that is much more rounded and has much more truth in it than the mere transmission of facts and quotes and clever anecdotal ledes ever can. One of those methods is going to yield a great story that's going to be a factual story - beginning, middle and end - in pure narrative. You're going to walk with the character, feel what the character feels. The other is going to produce a news story masquerading as a narrative and that is a little bit false.
To get real true narrative, it takes time. To do a magazine article of 10,000 or 8,000 words in a culture I don't know, it's going to take me two or three months of being with those people. For Homicide, it was three years of knowing the detectives: one year of following them every day, two years of staying with them. Same thing with the drug corner. So it's really time-consuming stuff.
But I'd like to argue that we all know from our own lives that the moments of highest truth, in a way, often don't involve dates and times and meetings. That's not the framework in which truth occurs. Truth is often something that quietly happens between two people in a kitchen. If you're not there to capture it and see it and know what it means and have total context with these people, you can't possibly bring it home.
There's a moment I'm very proud of in The Corner. I was very proud to be there and to get it and bring it through the keyhole and make it what it was in reality on paper.
It was a moment with Fran Boyd, this woman who could find angles in a circle. Somebody's gotten put out of their house and all their furniture was on the corner, on Fayette Street. There was a sofa that was not so banged up that she couldn't get $20 for it at one of the secondhand stores. So she gave another guy a couple of cigarettes to sit on the sofa while she went to get another couple guys to move it.
The guy's name was Scalio, and he had a great sense of humor. He sat there smoking a cigarette and the sofa was sticking out in the traffic lane so it was forcing one lane into the other. It was the middle of the day, and you could see all of these commuters who were trying to get by this unlikely obstacle.
The guy had enough presence to carry this moment off. He owned this moment.
He said 'See' - and he was not talking to me. He was talking to two other guys - and he said, "See, this is why they hate us.' And then he went into this routine - '_____, lazing around on the streets.'
The beauty of it is that that came about 200 pages into a book where you saw - I hope you saw - that being a drug addict is the hardest job in America. It's 24, seven.
Scalio captured the essence of the book the way no statistic, no flow chart could. The voice belonged to him, and David Simon just had to get out of the way and let Scalio have his moment on the page.
So this is the world I'm discovering with my books."
Simon: On Leaving The "Sun"
"Stories [like that] got to the top editors and they said, 'We're not comfortable there. These people are committing crimes and you're ennobling them.'
'No,' I said, 'I'm humanizing them. It is what it is, and they have a point of view. Are we to say there's no place in the Baltimore Sun for people with that point of view?'
I didn't know quite where I was going, but I knew at that point I couldn't stay at The Sun - and it's a good newspaper.
You look around the country, there may be three or four papers capable of producing that kind of narrative journalism. It's real hard to do because it requires absolute patience and an absolute belief - I'm not going to force this - that the story over weeks and months will take shape.
Nowadays I look at the best things in the newspaper, and they all have that element of I'm walking away from my own point of view a little bit. I can't walk that far 'cause I've got an editor looking over my shoulder, but I'm going to walk deep enough into somebody else's existence that I'm going to capture those quiet little [moments of truth].
I can't advocate for narrative journalism enough. When everybody stops reading all the other stuff, they might still take a paper or a magazine because somebody told them a story once there, a story that had a beginning, a middle and an end. A story that took them to a part of the world and they knew some people they had no other chance of knowing. That's really rare.
So now I'm working for TV. So it ended really badly."
On Narration in the "Now and the Then" ...
"Narrative can be two ways. It can be proactive, meaning you're with the people while events are going on; you're following people in the present tense. Or it can be retroactive. You can be recreating the story but committed to getting enough detail that you're going to be able to tell it as a narrative piece.
I'm not comfortable when a reporter has something happening 20 years ago and has somebody taking a long draw on a cigarette. You know nobody remembered that; it's a total literary device, and I'm not comfortable with that."
On Ingratiating Yourself
"We're all selling ourselves like insurance salesmen My hero in this is a guy named Frederick Weisman, a famous documentary filmmaker in the '60s, '70s and '80s. He had one famous technique of putting the camera in the room and not putting film in it for four months. What he was saying there was, I know you'll be conscious of the camera and you'll be performing and I won't get anything that resembles truth until you forget the camera is there.
Essentially, since you're the camera, you're doing the same thing. I think you need to be omnipresent in the beginning, sitting there becoming furniture. When you go down to the environment you're going to and they say, 'Oh, the reporter's here,' then you're not going to get your best stuff.
In the homicide unit, I got farcical performances by detectives conscious of a reporter for the first six weeks, and on the drug corner for about the same. Eventually, people just got to get on with their lives.
If somebody were to follow me around, I would give them three days showing them the David Simon I really want to be. Then I'd be picking fights with people and double parking cars ..."
On Working Hours
"I go home at night. I have a wife and kid. She wasn't perfectly enamored of the idea that I was going to go down to the drug corner. The idea that I wasn't going to come back at night would have ended it right there."
Down Fayette Street toward the harbor, and up Fulton toward the expressway, the bright orange-yellow of muzzle flashes speckles from front steps, windows and rooftops. They look like fireflies amid the crescendo, beautiful in their way.
"To be honest, you can't hang on the corner at night. Even locals can't hang on the corner at night. It's a much more predatory environment. The stickup crews come out, and they're not from the neighborhood; they're from the next neighborhood over. They're not seeing two white writers; they're seeing guys who have no reason to be there unless they're buying drugs or cops, and once they determine you're not cops, they're going to rob you.
It was pretty benign during the day, and 95 percent of the people we met were absolutely nonviolent. It got to the point toward the end of the year where other people who were new on that corner and start to cop drugs would say 'who are those guys?'
The regulars would say 'Those are the writers.' It was really funny. Some people went 'The writers?' and questioned it, but I would say 75 percent said 'hmmm, well that's it,' like that: lamp post, white boy journalist, cop."
On Getting Involved
"There's that Star Trek theory of journalism, if I change the present, I'll change the future ...
One of the ultimate interventions in the corner book is that I've got a car.
You can tell yourself, 'If the guy wasn't meant to get to his parole hearing, then he might have been violated ' But at some point, you cannot keep thinking about every conceivable occurrence. If you don't give him a lift, maybe your act of not giving him a lift, that decidedly un-Christian, un-Good Samaritan act, that was what sent him over the edge so he's never going to attend another hearing. How do you know?
The great thing about that is that the car's like truth serum. You get somebody in the front seat of your car driving for any length of time, and they will tell you anything.
There were things I would not do. I knew who did murders. Everybody but the cops did. But I would not call them because that would be a huge intervention. I'd come into the neighborhood saying, I'm not a cop, not a snitch, I don't care what you do. To violate that would be a lie.
On the other hand, a guy spends three hours with you and you're sitting on a bench in Union Square and he's a drug addict and he hasn't been in the game, you've taken him out of his game and now he starts to get sick, physically sick. If he wasn't talking to a reporter for three hours, he'd have $10. But now he looks at you and you can see the guy's getting nauseous. I gave him $10. I didn't think twice."
On Getting the Word
"As far as how you do it, I couldn't use a tape recorder for the reason it's sort of second generation evidence.
With the detectives, it was great because they're carrying notepads, you carry a notepad. If you start taking notes, you're not affecting the event.
[As far as keeping up with rapid-fire conversation] if you'll notice the long interrogations in Homicide, there'll come points where I wrote for as long as I could. When I was falling behind where I couldn't remember what was said, there'll be the gist of the conversation in narrative rather than in quotes. That's me catching up.
On the corner, it was even more problematic. You've got somebody selling drugs to somebody else, and you pull out a notebook, the sale is going to stop. Then you've really affected events. [My partner retired homicide detective] Ed[ward] Burns and I would keep our pads very close by. If you see the event and you immediately walk away and start writing in your book, even if it's like 30 seconds, later, the person doesn't get offended.
It's not the easiest way to take notes: I have a 30-second walk over to the car or the vestibule of a house. But the trick is to get the quote right, exactly what the guy meant. That was as good as we could get."
On Why Homicide's Detectives Lack Baltimore Accents
"All the actors are from New York and Boston."
On the Realism of TV Dialogue
"First of all, they're not cursing.
The Corner is under option to HBO. I'm writing [the screenplay] for HBO, and I think the first words will be _____, _____, _____! so I can get it out of my system.
Sometimes, dialogue is a little more real than others."
On Where Homicide Stories Come from
"I steal from myself. I'm taking scenes that I saw in 13 years of police reporting. Or I go drinking with a cop that I know and he tells me the funny story that happened last month and I'm writing it on the cocktail napkin.
All the writers on the show [come from different points of view.] I have more cop stuff, more procedural stuff. Jim Yoshimura, my boss, came from a working-class Catholic area in Chicago and before he became a playwright, he was one of the guys taking rolls of newsprint and getting them on the presses at the [Chicago] Sun Times. So a lot of the working class stuff thrown onto Kellerman is his. It's lines he's heard people say.
You write what you know."
On Telling Truth from Fiction
"I think Clockers is one of the best pieces of American journalism in the decade. It's fiction, but it's not fiction. It's Richard Price, who spent a year hanging out with drug dealers and cops in Jersey and then wrote a novel. But it's great journalism in the sense that Grapes of Wrath is the best journalism to come out of the Dust Bowl even though its not true.
I'm less enamored of the lying guy. Where does that line begin or end? I think a guy should honestly say if he's making up characters and plot devices. I think that Lorenzo Carcaterra should have said that Sleepers was fiction. I have the same problem with some of these other narrative books like The Perfect Storm where the guy [Sebastian Junger] is cheating on reporting to get not the perfect storm but the perfect narrative.
I can't make a character get off drugs to give you a perfect ending. My characters end where they end. I can't make them solve Latonya Wallace's murder to give you a better ending."
Tom Pellegrini sits like Ahab himself staring hard at the white whale of his own making.
On Where His Next Book Will Take Him
"I couldn't tell you. If I were to follow a botany professor at University of Maryland, the botany department would have me under arms.
We've talked about a few things, but I don't know."
David Simon: The Man Behind Homicide
Baltimore, and especially its harbor neighborhood of Fell's Point, have become famous to watchers of television over the past six years as the headquarters of NBC's Friday night drama, Homicide: Life in the Streets.
Baltimorean David Simon is the man behind Homicide, which was adapted by another son of Baltimore, filmmaker Barry Levinson, from Simon's real-life experiences in 1988, when he spent a year shadowing the Baltimore police department's homicide unit. Then a Baltimore Sun reporter, Simon - as he explains in these remarks - found newspaper writing too restrictive for what he had seen and told the story of his "year on the killing street" in the 599-page documentary, Homicide.
He followed Homicide with another book in the same vein, The Corner, A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. That 1997 book will be made into a television movie by Home Box Office.
Also on the screen, Simon continues as a writer and producer for Homicide and has worked as a consultant for its older cousin, NYPD Blue. He is also working on a film script for Disney Feature Films.
Simon graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park, where he was editor-in-chief of the campus paper, the Diamondback.
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VolumeVI Number 10
March 12-18, 1998
New Bay Times
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