Wire Insider, Part One
The Big Boys
Afaa M. Weaver, author
The Plum Flower Dance
East Baltimore Muse has its home in East Baltimore, which is part of the setting for the HBO Series The Wire. The Wire is an excellent program that is very true to the scene it depicts, the daily struggles of the black poor in the city where America’s national anthem was written. I thought it might be good to go back in time for this blog entry, back to the time of rhythm and blues, when black life had another kind of rhythm…I was born in Baltimore and know every corner of the East side and much of the West side of The Wire.
Baltimore has a heroin problem, and it has a problem with urban violence that seems pretty stubborn. The real heroes in this struggle are people like my three sisters who work in agencies related to mental and physical health. The heroes are also friends and family members who have beat the odds and live lives of recovery. We have lost some folks to the life, as we call it, and we miss them, but we struggle on in a city that is more beautiful and precious than most people know.
Milton Avenue is a few blocks from my family home. As kids, we took the long walk - or so it seemed to us -up the five blocks along Federal street to the corner of Milton Avenue, where Lucky’s liquor store still stands, although it is no longer open. From there we walked up Milton Avenue past the rowhomes decorated for the Afro-American Clean Block, a competition run by the newspaper. The winners were acknowledged in the newspaper and had an insignia to hang on their door to let the world know their house had the aesthetic taste, the manner of presentation that fit the community and the race.
Once we got to the store, we usually bought guppies, as my cousin Roy was raising them in a small aquarium at home where he, his sister, and their parents lived in the second floor apartment of our two family home. Once when one of the females was expecting, Roy thought she was too long in delivering, so her performed a Caesarian. The babies all survived, but they were motherless. Life was dangerous in my cousin’s aquarium, more dangerous than it was outside, as long as we stayed within the borders of our segregated black world.
Walking the streets we had to look out for the big boys, and in those days the worst they did was take your money and leave you feeling embarrassed. Walking to the barber shop alone was a trial for me, as the big boys were everywhere, and it was all about giving them the respect they wanted. That has changed, but barber shops and looking good has not changed, As a matter of fact, the young boys today are getting haircuts in the style we used to get in the early 1960’s, before the Afro hairstyles came in to our world. Looking good was about putting old stocking caps on your head at night to make waves.
Production for The Corner, the series directed by Charles Dutton and which preceded The Wire began in East Baltimore. It showed the tragedy of the drug trade as it came to be after the collapse of the steel mill and other industrial jobs for black folk. We all lived in the same communities in those days, teachers and professionals alongside my parents. Dutton set the cameras rolling in the block where Ms. Geraldine had her barber shop, a shop I enjoyed going to because she actually cut your hair the way you asked. Her uncle Arthur would listen to you as you took your time to explain on which side you wanted him to place your part and how you wanted your hair brushed. Then he did it his way in his barber shop. Ms. Geraldine was different. She actually listened to us.
There was a movie house around the corner where the movies where only 35 cents in those days, and next to the movie house there was a Five & Dime that seemed to have every necessity and every lovely little trite thing a ten year old boy could imagine. We could not shop downtown because of the segregation laws, so I don’t remember going into the large department stores until I was a young adult, but I knew the Five & Dime. I knew it, and I knew the 10 cent hot dogs in the movie house.
East Baltimore was also the setting of a scene from Romeo and Juliet, the Black American version. It was a spring night in 1970, warm but chilly enough for a jacket. I stood there beneath the second story window. My girlfriend and her sister were in the window as it was past their curfew. They couldn’t sit on the steps after a certain hour. Their parents were Apostolic church folk and quite strict that way. My wife to be and her sister were giggling.
“What do you want,” they said.
“I want to ask Ellie a question.”
“Ellie, will you marry me?”
There was no theme music, but there should have been, maybe the Yoruba talking drums, a little blues, some jazz, and certainly some old spirituals and gospels. But the only music was the excitement of being alive at that time. It was the late 1960’s.
The Wire shows the rowhouses with the marble steps, and it shows rowhouses with front lawns like the houses in the block where I lived, four blocks away from the young lady who would be my first wife and the mother of my children. It’s all East Baltimore.
The place we called home had been many things in the sixties, not the least of which was a battlefield. I looked out of my grandmother’s bedroom window at army jeeps and dogs the size of dinosaurs while the city burned and smoke filled the sky. Dr. King had been killed. That summer and those before and after were anxious times as we watched television to see the body count from Vietnam and the news of another American city exploding in what some of us called the black rebellion.
Something strange and tragic and historic happened. Some of the big boys became warriors. Our models for manhood had to battle a world that was new and strange, a world of freedom, and in that world came new attacks, the spread of drugs and the loss of the jobs the big boys had been raised on by their fathers and mothers.
In the 1970’s, taking each other’s money gradually gave way to less innocent ways of preying on each other. As the jobs disappeared and businesses fled to the suburbs, we became the prey of international drug merchants. The inner cities were a ready labor force and market for the drug lords of the world, and we began to make money by feeding death to each other. For many people this was the only way to survive. For others it was turning our souls over to the Adversary, as church folk put it, surrendering when we had all the reasons to claim our gifts and go on living so as to generate life.
The model for being a man fell over to the negative swell of criminality. So teaching young men by challenging them in the street became a war of dominance where guns replaced the more benign thing of being roughed up a little. Roughing up became murder.
So it was with the world in which we lived. It came under siege with changes brought in with Civil Rights, and we had to learn new ways to be. One of those things that helped us adjust was martial arts.