Sudhir Venkatesh, who’s got a dialog with Alex Kotlowitz over at “Slate” about his new book “Gang Leader for a Day,” is back now with his fourth installment of watching “The Wire” with a group of New York-area gang personnel. His previous entries can be found here.
“Pay up fools!” Shine cried as Marlo entered Prop Joe’s kitchen. After the first episode, Shine predicted that the upstart “street nigga” would kill the “schoolhouse Negro.” He was predictably gleeful after pocketing several thousand dollars in rolled-up bills. “Chicken wings and mac and cheese on me,” he offered the losers.
This was not the only thing the self-described thugs got right about the final season of The Wire. They correctly surmised that Bunk and McNulty would split up and that our Irish detective would start down the corrupt path of a bad cop.
Much to my surprise, there was little empathy shown for Prop Joe. “It’s no one’s fault if you’re that stupid,” Orlando explained. “You can’t let that young buck [Marlo] run around like that without responding. Prop Joe screwed up, got sloppy. You never, I mean you never believe in co-ops. You got to be out for yourself … But, hey, I screwed up too. I put up $5,000 that Prop Joe would come back and kill Marlo. Just goes to show: never bet with your heart.”
Flavor, the youngest in the room at 29, felt a strong tie to Marlo. “I can’t tell you the number of these old fools, like Prop Joe, that stand in the way when we try to make things happen. They always talk about the old days. F-ck the old days. I got kids, I got bills, I don’t need no old crumpled up, fat fool telling me to give my money up to n***ers who don’t do nothing for themselves.”
Flavor’s comments started a heated discussion about generational change in the urban drug economy. Shine, representing the 40-year-olds who came up in the 1980s, alluded to the tradition of “family” that once united urban gang members; Flavor said that kinship was outmoded and that the free market was the only way that the gangs should operate.
This debate, literally flavored with beer as it flew around the room, brought me back to the salad days of the late 1980s, when I watched the major street gangs in Chicago figure out the best way to deal crack. The older members wanted to create a socialist model, in which all members of a gang pay their drug revenues to a general fund and the profits are distributed equally among the group. The younger ones wanted to embrace individualism. In the words of one leader I knew: “All for one, and one for himself.” Each person would be paid according to what he earned slinging.
Free marketers have won the day, as we know, on the streets of the ghetto and in boardrooms downtown. But folks like Shine (and Prop Joe) ended up forming co-ops because supply routes were unpredictable, cops needed to be bribed, and money needed to be laundered. So the fight between Marlo and Prop Joe carried a lot of significance. And as Orlando explained, Prop Joe mistook the co-op’s power to stabilize distribution for a capacity to function as a regulated monopoly — like Major League Baseball, in which teams agree to general rules of commerce. The only real thing co-ops can do is help you get your product on time.
I was pleasantly surprised that the thugs (finally) took some interest in the media soap opera. They were drawn to the affairs of our young, white hero, Scott Templeton, a rogue reporter who may be making up quotes to get ahead in the newsroom. They contrasted his hubris with Marlo.
“He’s got that look,” Tony-T said, “like he’s ready to climb. But you know the saying, ‘the higher you climb, the harder you fall.’”
Tony-T offered a prediction: the reporter would start making up stories, find his way to the pipe, get addicted, and join McNulty and Marlo in a great fall. That’s a lot of drama for the few episodes in front of us, but the others felt the hero was also in for a spill. (They also remained insistent that the lovely Alma, the other junior reporter, would sleep with McNulty in the next two weeks).
At one point, there was a lull in the conversation. Shine turned to me and asked, “Who reads these reports you write?”
“You mean the blogs?”
“Yeah, who reads them? I mean, what are the people like? They’re white, right?”
“Well, actually,” I said, “I have no idea. They comment, you know; they react to what I write, but I’ve never met any of them.”
“They’re white,” Flavor said, dismissively. “But I’m with Shine, I’d like to know what they think.”
I told them to read the blog, but they offered up an altogether different proposal. “I want them to tell us whether Marlo will kill Omar, or the other way around,” said Orlando, picking at his teeth, like a Southern gentleman on his front porch. “I want to see how smart they are.”
“Yeah,” Flavor pushed on. “And I want them to say exactly how it’s going to go down. Because you know what this whole thing is leading up to … Good versus Evil — if you can tell the difference around here.”
“See, Omar has a choice to make,” Tony-T explained, “and I’m not sure if everyone would get it, unless they worked in the ghetto. Omar can kill Marlo. That’s easy enough. But he has to think about his own future. Getting back for Butchie is one thing, but he’s got to be smart about how he goes after Marlo — see, you got the Greeks now and that makes things different.”
Tony-T stopped talking. The others nodded. I felt confused.
“How?” I said. “How do the Greeks make things different? Because they’ll protect Marlo? Because Omar will befriend them? Does Omar even know them?”
No one answered. They just grinned slyly.
So, readers: what say you?