Congratulations to SHH’s newest contributor, Brian. Aside from being an avid reader, he’s also a local scholar of HBO’s The Wire. Enjoy!
“Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire” is a series of five articles written by David Simon that ran in The Baltimore Sun from January 11, 1985 to January 15, 1985. Simon is best known as the creator of the HBO series The Wire, but he started his professional career as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. He joined The Sun out of college in 1982 and left in 1995, disillusioned by the corporate culture that invaded his newspaper. While reading Simon’s first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets, I found that “Easy Money” was referenced more than once by Simon and so I made a casual attempt to find and read the articles. That casual attempt soon stalled when Google and The Baltimore Sun archives failed to produce even a segment of the articles. With little luck or advance and my interest further piquing, I broke down and contacted The Baltimore Sun; they snail-mailed me photocopies of the articles. These articles became like a Bodhi tree for my Wire enlightenment. That’ll be the end of my sorry attempt at poetry for the rest of the review.
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In the first three articles Simon fleshes out the major players in the Baltimore drug scene from the leader, Melvin Williams, down to his beastly lieutenant Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale. In the fourth article Simon writes about what brought the organization down, and in the fifth Simon wrestles with the state of the city in a sort-of post-Williams Baltimore. I will focus on the first four articles.
The first three articles elaborate upon the people in the Baltimore perpetuating the drug scene and making stupid amounts of money doing it. The three most interesting characters that Simon covered were Melvin Wiliams, Lamont “Chin” Farmer, and Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale.
Melvin Williams was a community advocate, a strict vegan on a regimented exercise schedule and yet despite his hippie characteristics, he was a feared man. He ran a million-dollar-a-day drug business while becoming a phantom proprietor of other businesses fueled by the drug trade. Williams gained an absurd amount of wealth and means in a sector of the city, West Baltimore, that was flush with poverty.
Lamont “Chin” Farmer “represented a new generation of drug dealers in the city” and was thought of as a scholar in Baltimore’s drug scene. Farmer took and did well in business courses at a local community college, subscribed to legal journals to “keep up-to-date on recent court decisions” and, in a wiretapped conservation, was heard dazing his older brother Elwood on “such heady concepts as free-market forces and maximized profits.” Reminiscent of The Wire’s Stringer Bell?
And then there’s Nathan “Bodie” Barksdale, who today advocates his middle name is Avon, yet with his many court records, not once do you see the name Avon associated with Nathan. A lieutenant in Williams’ organization, this ruthless gimp (lost one of his legs below the knee) had a medieval business sense. Beyond being shot six times, murdering a person or two, ordering the kidnapping and attempted murder of a thought-to-be snitch, Nathan is notorious for the prolonged torture of three people, the details of which you can read in the article. The prosecutor in the case brought against Nathan, Brian J. Murphy, said “it was an incredible scene. Barksdale was sitting there like some sort of Mengele, asking his buddies to hand him the curling iron or the steak knife while he tortured them.”
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The fourth article of the series struck a very familiar chord; it feels like a loose outline for the police investigation of Avon Barksdale in the first season of The Wire. In the article we get the details of the Baltimore Police Department’s investigation of Melvin Williams, how the Williams organization operated and what eventually caused their down fall. A kitchen murder scene, beepers, skipping-the-five, cocaine connection, it’s all in the pudding of fourth article. I thought the use of beepers in the first season of The Wire was smart and original, yet perfectly obsolete for the 2000’s, but this article made me rethink the utilization of beepers in the show. In both settings and times, Melvin Williams’ and Avon Barksdale’s, real life and television respectively, beepers work, but for different reasons. Skipping-the-five, need I say more? I felt like Clay Davis I was saying “shit” so much, although without his killer pronunciation. For any and all who love and appreciate The Wire you don’t necessarily have to read all the articles, but please read the fourth installment; trust me, you will be incredibly satisfied.
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One can sort of tell that this review was geared toward diehard fans of The Wire; “Easy Money” feels like an essential footnote in its bibliography. Isolated from The Wire the articles are lucid, entertaining and informative in their own right. David Simon has clean and clear writing style that avoids ambiguity which is a key weapon in any reporter’s arsenal. Yet Simon didn’t overwrite the story; he allowed the intensity of the investigation and the complexity of the characters drive the articles and he conveniently stepped away from the expository 18-wheeler. David Simon is an excellent writer beyond the television screen because he doesn’t over write. I read Homicide and his writing style was the same as that in the “Easy Money” articles: smart and direct.
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Back to The Wire and “Easy Money’s” impact on the show; David Simon’s work as a reporter and his books, The Corner and Homicide, were key to his research for the show. For those that feel like each season of The Wire is so well-plotted, “Easy Money” will shed some light on a few choices on the structure of the first season as well as providing a bit of insight into the motives of some of the show’s essential characters. I highly recommend these articles, and all those Googling for them, I wish you more than luck.