Saturday, March 12, 2011

Part two

So what does my re-dedication to loyalty, duty, hard work and being a square have to do with The Wire, aka the greatest television show ever made? To me, The Wire, especially its second and fifth seasons, is a 60-hour eulogy for communities and ways of life that are dying all around us.

The second season focuses on Baltimore's struggling shipping industry and dockworkers union. It's about what it means to come from the Rust Belt. Sons can't make a living in the industry that their fathers and grandfathers did. The next generation has to either leave home, or stay at great economic sacrifice. Nick Sobotka, a young dockworker, is a central character of the second season. Over its course, he loses so much in terms of his family, his livelihood and the future he thought he would have. The life of an honest day's work paying enough to own a home, family close by in the neighborhood, camaraderie in the union hall, drinks after work with your best friends -- it's all been lost to smuggling and fancy condos, big paydays for a handful of people and nothing for everyone else. The second season closes with a montage of all of those changes. When I watched it, I noticed one thing was missing: someone like me packing up the u-haul and hugging friends and family goodbye.

In addition to the small-town America I grew up in and the no-nonsense values of the Rust Belt city that became my adopted home, the life that I knew as a young adult is disappearing too. I applied to journalism school at 16 and showed up at the student paper at 17, earnest, idealistic, and full of ideas for opinion columns I wanted to write. Dedication was the number-one quality for succeeding at The Bona Venture and when I demonstrated it, they put me on staff right away. Journalism was my life until I was almost 24, when I pitched it and went to law school. My reasons for doing so were not well-formed but it turned out to be a good decision. After I left, my old colleagues, incredibly bright and incisive people and good writers too, started getting laid off in droves. Newsrooms shrunk, contracted again, and shrunk some more. In my kitchen cupboard here in Brooklyn I have a mug that says "Circ's up!" -- the whole staff got them when the circulation of our small-city daily newspaper rose. It looks like a rotary phone or an eight-track tape, just eight years later. Newspaper circulation rising and profits going up, when did that happen?

The small-town main street where my dad had a sporting goods store when I was young now looks battered and broken, infinitely more commerce taking place at the Wal-Mart outside of town.
The factories where generations of Buffalonians made their livings are shuttered and the old neighborhoods are largely abandoned too, filled with boarded houses, weedy vacant lots, drug dealing and sad corner stores with almost nothing for sale.
The newsrooms where I began my career, learned who I was and what mattered to me and formed lifelong friendships are now ghosts of their former selves, scores of literate and smart people left adrift in a world that doesn't always value those qualities.

In The Wire's fifth season, we see seasoned veterans taking buyouts as the staff of the Baltimore Sun contracts, the paper loses institutional memory, and its quality declines. David Simon, who created The Wire, was one of those veterans who took a buyout. It's no wonder journalists and former journalists love The Wire so much; Simon sees the world through our eyes. We see sweeping narratives everywhere, in the lives of everyday people. It's all part of the larger story. The final episode of The Wire is called simply -30-, which is the way reporters once signaled the end of an article. It's the end of a brilliant piece of work that chronicled the end of so many other things. Just -30-. It's over, done and gone.

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