'The Wire': Young Adults See Bits of Their Past

Baltimore youths living difficult lives are among the characters in
Baltimore youths living difficult lives are among the characters in "The Wire," whose season finale was last night. (By Paul Schiraldi -- Hbo)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 11, 2006

When eighth-grader Namond Brice's mom seethingly orders him to "be a man" and run the family's ruthless drug-dealing business, Julian Quander is reminded of an old friend from Silver Spring.

Namond is just a character, one of the west Baltimore middle-schoolers this season on HBO's "The Wire." But like many of the characters on this no-stereotypes-allowed series, which had its season finale last night, Namond is too real. Young people in the Washington area feel they know the show's characters all too well: children who could be saved -- who want to be saved -- from the powerful forces that jettison them onto the wrong path in life.

"I have some friends who are like Namond, who are forced into living a life they don't want to live," said Quander, 22, who grew up in middle-class Silver Spring and studies music at Towson University.

He recalled one old friend who quit Blake High School to sell drugs: "He's probably still doing the same thing now -- hustling."

The show's mirror to real life has drawn a cult following, particularly among African American college students. The fourth season has piercingly showcased an ongoing failure of schools, police and government agencies to protect vulnerable kids -- four friends in particular from a neighborhood that's low on income and education and loaded with drug-dealing violence and addicted parents.

Fans locally, and across the country, post gut-wrenching reactions and analyze the show's unorthodox solutions on "Wire" Web sites and blogs. Fans say that when character Michael Lee chooses to work as a ruthless dealer's enforcer to protect himself, or when character Randy Wagstaff learns the hard way that even the well-intentioned police can't protect him from dealers who think he's a snitch, they've seen it before in real neighborhoods ruled by drug corners.

In a posting to "Wire" fans on MySpace last week, an anonymous writer described how much the show reminded her of growing up in Washington.

"I spent most of my youth in 'the projects' -- 11th & O Streets NW, in what's known as the Shaw area in DC," she wrote. "This area, not to be confused with a neighborhood, was defined by drugs, violence, and prostitution. Because of the ease with which suburban buyers from Virginia could access 11th Street from the 14th Street Bridge, this was the place to cop -- and was one of the first and largest open-air drug markets in D.C."

Duane Hatten, 22, who grew up in northeast Baltimore and is studying at Baltimore City Community College, said in an interview: "One thing that stands out is when we watch the stories of the four boys, we all get so attached because we know kids just like them in that situation," he said.

Sometimes it feels to Hatten that series creator David Simon secretly filmed this season at the public school Hatten attended. "The schools are the realest to me," he said.

Hatten called it "a great solution" when Edward J. Tilghman Middle School, one of the epicenters of the action this season, experimented with separating the "corner" kids who refused to learn into one class and putting those who wanted to learn in another. The culled kids worked with an ex-police officer, two counselors and an educator to see how teamwork and school skills could help them in their lives.

"That was a problem that I had in school," Hatten said. "The teachers spent so much time trying to discipline the misbehaved kids that it would take a lot of time away from teaching the ones that wanted to learn."

Simon has complained about the show's inability to reach a mass audience despite critical acclaim, and he said he fears that is because white viewers turn it off when they see the large emphasis on black characters. The show certainly has hooked many fans, including many white viewers. In online chats, fans call it "the best television ever." But it might say something more personal to young black viewers, judging from the active Web-based "Wire" fan clubs and chat rooms started by African American college students and young professionals.

"Even if an individual hasn't grown up in a low-income environment, they still can find some relation to 'The Wire' and its characters, whether it's the office, school or street," said Abeni Edwards, 20, a student at Hampton University in Hampton, Va. "Especially in the African American community, I think it's a hit because unlike other prime-time shows, 'The Wire' doesn't sugarcoat anything, and sometimes there are no happy endings."

The realism, in which the mayor, the police, the teachers and the kids all make brutal choices to get by, is part of what hooked Ricky Quander, 21, Julian's cousin and also a student at Towson. They watched the show together with two other housemates. Ricky said he was disturbed by several elements of the show, including when the character Michael tries to figure out who can help him with his abusive stepfather and ultimately reaches out to arch-dealer Marlo Stanfield rather than a teacher or social worker. Marlo's henchman executes the stepfather, and Michael is beholden to Marlo's gang.

"I guess Michael went to the drug dealer because he knew it was going to get done," Ricky said. "If he went to the counselor, they'd call somebody, have some conversations. But it wasn't guaranteed that it would get taken care of."

Julian said he sees hope in the show and is rooting for Namond in Season 5 to choose a life different than the one of his old friend.

"I hope Namond ends up being successful and turning his life around, learning in school and not looking back at his old life," Julian said. "He needs to know . . . there're better roads for him."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company