By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010; C01
David Simon bristled as he listened to the voice mail. A lawyer in Washington wanted to talk about a "personal matter." Expecting a lawsuit or subpoena or worse, Simon dialed her back after a lunch in Baltimore two weeks ago.
"When I reached her, she said, 'Are you alone?' and I said, 'Yes,' and I was quite sure I was about to be given extremely bad news," says Simon, the writer-producer of hour-long TV dramas "Homicide," "The Wire" and "Treme." "I was wondering, was it something about any book or show I'd written? Or had I run over someone's dog and didn't know it?"
Not quite. Simon had been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, also known as a "genius grant," also known as a $500,000 jackpot with no strings attached. He's one of 23 fellows announced today by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, which every year showers millions of dollars on a handful of creative and innovative people around the country, just so they can continue being creative and innovative without having to fret about funding or loans or paying their electric bills.
Simon felt honored and grateful. Then came the guilt.
"I confess to a feeling that I can only describe as a vague sense of shame," says Simon on the phone from New Orleans, where he's in story meetings for the second season of "Treme," a post-Katrina HBO drama. "It was exacerbated when I went online and looked at the people who'd gotten fellowships in the past. The majority of them are involved in endeavors which are very tangible -- efforts to combat poverty or economic disparities, or to improve the environment. And while I think storytelling is a meaningful way to spend your life . . . it does feel a little bit secondary or off-point. I definitely felt a little sheepish after looking at the list."
This year's list of fellows includes three physicists, three denizens of Cambridge, a sculptor and a type designer, a jazz pianist and a violinist, an entomologist from Minnesota and an indigenous language preservationist from Mashpee, Mass. Simon is one of a few "geniuses" whose names may be recognizable to people outside their fields; others include Annette Gordon-Reed, Harvard historian and author of the Pulitzer-winning "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," and theater director David Cromer, who will mount a Broadway revival of "Sweet Bird of Youth" with Nicole Kidman next year.
Simon, 50, was born in the District and has lived in Baltimore since his reporting days at the Sun, where he covered crime in the '80s. His television work, which exhumes drama from urban decay, has worked its way into academia and onto op-ed pages -- the tuberati routinely laud "The Wire" as the best TV show in the history of the universe -- but has not been showered by Emmys or massive ratings. His first reaction was to deflect the money (paid quarterly for five years) to charity, but the foundation urged him to take time to absorb the news.
"I was just like, 'Holy cow, holy cow,' " says his wife, the novelist and fellow Sun veteran Laura Lippman, with whom he celebrates four years of marriage this week. "He was knocked off his feet, he was so surprised. I think it would be great if -- just psychologically -- [the grant] allowed David to think about writing another book, but he has so much work. It is astonishing. Sometimes just being around him makes me tired because I've never known anyone who works as much as he does."
Simon isn't the only fellow with a capital connection. Carol Padden, a sign-language linguist, was born at Sibley Hospital and grew up in Hyattsville in a deaf family. Her parents, Donald and Agnes, taught at Gallaudet University and retired to Frederick. Padden, 55, attended Kendall Demonstration Elementary School at Gallaudet until third grade, when she transferred to a deaf program at a public school in Bladensburg.
"I had come from a small, intimate community to, essentially, a neighborhood I didn't know and classmates I had never met before," Padden says, in her own voice during a phone call assisted by an interpreter on her end. "I think the experience of changing -- and traveling back and forth between the world of my parents and the larger public school -- has always been a part of the work I do: crossing boundaries, crossing borders."
Padden studied linguistics at Georgetown University and the University of California at San Diego, where she is an associate dean for the Division of Social Sciences. She studies the social context of signed languages, and her most recent research found that Al-Sayyid Bedouin Sign Language, a language in Israel that's distinct from the country's national sign language and relies more on body movement than hand motions to show the subject of a verb. She hasn't decided how to use the grant money, but says it emboldens her to keep searching for unlikely, "really wild" research topics.
The man who is carving quotations on the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial was also awarded a grant. Nicholas Benson, a third-generation stone carver from Newport, R.I., recently moved into a Dupont Circle apartment to work on the memorial, near the Tidal Basin, through the autumn. He personally hand-carved about 1,000 letters on the World War II memorial, and his type design and chiseling are also visible in the National Gallery of Art and on the facade of the National Museum of American History.
His work is prominent, permanent and -- when it's not winning $500,000 grants -- relatively anonymous.
"There's an aspect of it that's entirely overlooked and taken for granted, but oftentimes that's the point," says Benson, 46, who works with a team from the Newport-based John Stevens Shop, which his family has owned since the 1920s. "Then some people do take the time to actually run their hands over the characters. . . . It's an incredibly emotional interaction, when people realize something is incised into stone, that they're partaking of the physical structure itself."
Since 1981, the foundation has named 827 fellows through a secretive process that begins with 100 anonymous nominators, moves through a selection committee of 12, and ends with the foundation's board of directors, which reviews dossiers and recommendations to settle on a final list. The latest crop of fellows will have a chance to meet at an informal gathering this spring at location to be announced.
"There's a great diversity of values" on this year's list, says Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation. "It's not all physicists, or people who are going to cure cancer. The key word for the program is 'creativity.' "