Saturday, June 20, 2009
In one of the stranger moments of the American presidential election campaign, a reporter from the Las Vegas Sun asked Barack Obama to name his favourite television programme. Without hesitation, he mentioned The Wire, which was understandable because, a) David Simon’s drama is almost monotonously described as the best television show ever and, b) it shows life in the blue-collar city of Baltimore in all its tough reality. But Obama went further, suggesting also that his favourite character was Omar Little. “He’s not my favourite person,” Obama said, prompting some nervous chuckling from his interviewer, “but he’s a fascinating character. He’s this gay gangster who only robs drug dealers, and then gives back.” Omar, said the future President, was “sort of a Robin Hood. And he’s the toughest, baddest guy on this show.”
It says something about The Wire, and something more about Barack Obama, that this remark was not considered a gaffe. But Omar is an interesting character, not least because Simon is a journalist who bases his dramas in reality. And Omar is modelled on Donnie Andrews, a Baltimore stick-up man whose real-life story of redemption made the court pages of the New York Times in August 2007, when he married Fran Boyd, a former heroin addict, whose life had been the basis of an earlier David Simon HBO drama, The Corner, the book of which has just been published by Canongate.
Knowing all of this, meeting Fran and Donnie in the bar of the Groucho Club in London is a slightly disconcerting experience, not least because Lenny Henry is seated in another corner of the club, looking conspicuous. The couple are quite wary at first, and apparently shy, offering small-talk about their weekend activities: trips to see Buckingham Palace, photos of Big Ben, and on to Leicester Square to watch Drag Me To Hell. (“It had me jumping,” Donnie confesses. Fran kept her eyes shut.)
“The first Omar was in NYPD Blue,” Donnie explains in a low drawl, flashing a gold-toothed smile. “Giancarlo Esposito played him, in an episode called Hollie and the Goldfish. He did a thing where I had robbed some Cubans.”
“Did you rob some Cubans?” Fran asks. Her smile is also punctuated by gold.
“Yeah,” says Donnie. “And I told David. That was an episode he wrote. But he killed off Esposito. He had AIDS, but he got shot.”
Omar was reborn as one of The Wire’s core characters; a robber armed with an almost supernatural survival instinct. “The first time I knew it was Donnie,” says Fran, “I was watching an episode; there were three drug dealers in a house. They had trash bags full of money and drugs, and Omar walks up to the house with a shotgun, knocking on the door. And the guy peeps out, whispering, ‘Hey man, Omar’s here.’ And they’re sitting in there, wondering what they’re gonna do. And Omar turns his back and says ‘I’m giving you all 10 seconds’. These people in the house have guns, all they have to do is come through the window and blow his brains out; the next thing you know, these bags come flying out the window. It clicked, because I remembered Donnie telling me that story. I said: ‘David, the motherfucker!’ And I jumped on the phone and I said, ‘David, is Omar really Donnie?’ He said ‘No, that’s not Donnie, what you talking about?’ I said; ‘You’re a damn liar.’ He finally broke down and told me it was Donnie.”
The curious fairytale of Fran Boyd, Donnie Andrews, and the amoral Robin Hood called Omar, begins in Baltimore, sometime in 1993, when reporter David Simon pitches up with former homicide cop Ed Burns to tell the story of the junction between the city’s West Fayette Street and Monroe Street, which operated as a drug market in a dying neighbourhood.
Simon and Burns’s style is a novelistic brand of journalism. When they make television, it feels like cinema, infused with the manners of documentary. Their stories are a kind of truth, and a sort of art. Before The Corner, there was Homicide, a book which became the naturalistic television drama Homicide: Life on the Street, which made Hill Street Blues look Hamish Macbeth. In their joint projects, Burns uses the instincts he gained during a 20-year career as a detective, while Simon employs his journalistic training. For The Corner, they studied the neighbourhood for a year, with the intention of depicting the failure, and the consequences, of the US War on Drugs.
“When they started writing The Corner,” Fran recalls, “David and Ed had met my son’s father, then they met my son. They put the connection together, and they wanted a story based around one family. They knew they had to find the mother. Which I didn’t want nothing to do with. Every time they’d come around, I’d cuss ’em out: ‘Get away from my door!’, you know? I just knew they were the po-lice. Then one day David came around he brought me a paperback of Homicide, and it still wasn’t convincing enough to me. I said, ‘OK, so you wrote a book. I still think you’re police.’”
Some time later, Fran began to notice that, although Simon and Burns had been in the neighbourhood for a while, nobody had been arrested. “My game plan was: all right, so these white people want my story, well they’re gonna pay me. Ed wasn’t all that happy. So what I had to try to do was get David by himself. David didn’t have a clue what was going on. But Ed was always there to snatch David back: ‘No you can’t go down there by yourself.’ But if I could get David by hisself, I could get anything I wanted.”
Fran’s descent into heroin addiction had been slow and tragic. “Oh man,” she says, laughing sardonically, “it’s a family tradition. My mother didn’t use [drugs], but my father was an abusive alcoholic. I can remember hitting the drink as early as five years old. Back then, parents used to give children beer. ‘Look at ’em acting crazy, ain’t they cute?’ Keeping me and my three sisters up, giving us beer, making us dance all night. And we had to go to school the next day. We were so afraid of them that we did it. So I think that was the beginning of my addiction.
“Then as I became a teenager the marijuana came in, and taking acid and sniffing glue, pills, stuff like that. It wasn’t until I was 23 that I first tried heroin. It was the night that we buried my older sister. She got burnt up in a fire that was started by my brother, who was high off of heroin. He dropped a cigarette, which burned the house down, and on the night of her funeral one of my brother’s friends gave me some heroin. First time I’d tried it, and I didn’t know that what he was doing was making me a customer. I thought he was just being nice.
“So he came past three days in a row, and it was good. As a matter of fact, the first time I had heroin, everything else I was doing, I automatically stopped doing. It seemed that this was something I had been looking for a long time. It took everything away. I forgot about my sister’s funeral. That’s how good I felt. But after the third day he didn’t come around anymore, so I went looking for him. That’s when I realised he was making me just another customer.”
Donnie, meanwhile was in prison, serving three life sentences. His recollection of the whys and the wherefores of his past life is blurrier. If Fran has the clarity of a reformed addict, Donnie’s stories are shaped like parables. The most brutal fact in his story is that on September 23, 1986, he was ordered by one drug dealer to kill another. At the time, he was able to reason that it was part of the job. The story has subsequently been reinterpreted in the soft light of redemption, and he finds himself focusing on the moment when his gun jammed, and the target, a man called Zach Roach, looked up at him and asked ‘Why?’”
There is, of course, a whole life of tragedy before that moment. To explain how it started, Donnie tells me a story from when he was nine or 10 years old, and was sent with his younger brother to the Laundromat at 2am.
“They used to have a wino watching the machines. Me and my brother go in there, and we’re washing clothes. Three guys come in, and they ask the wino for 15 cents so they can catch the bus. He was drunk, he had his Wild Irish Rover bottle in his hand, and he said ‘15 cents? I ain’t got no goddamn 15 cents! You punks better get the fuck outta my face, I give you 15 seconds to get the fuck outta here.’
“He got to cussin’ ’em off. He reached in his pocket, and said ‘I got 15 cents, but I wouldn’t give you the sweat off my balls.’ Next thing you know, I hear something go boom, and all the change flies everywhere, and they beat this guy. They beat him with the bottle, the chairs, the trash can. They killed him. And me and my brother was trapped, cos the back door had a big padlock on it. So once they finished beating him, they looked up and they walked back towards us, and they said ‘Shorty, gimme 15 cents.’ I said, ‘I ain’t got no 15 cents. This is my mother’s money. Back then, people respected the mother. Once you said it was your mother’s money, they were like, ‘All right, but if you had 15 cents., you’d give me it?’
“They left, and we had to crawl over the top of the washing machines and jump down on the fence to keep from jumping in the blood. And as I was going out the door, the guy let out a deep breath and one of those starting-gun farts. I looked down, and laying right by his head was a nickel and a dime. Fifteen cents. I made a vow to myself, that night, that that would never happen to me. I would never be a victim. So even after I did some stuff I shouldn’t have done, I’d go back and sit down and think about it, and go ‘fuck it’.”
Donnie laughs long enough for me to remember Omar’s saying, “You come at the king, you better not miss.” Or, as the character also put it, “Omar don’t scare.” Those, though, are Simon’s words. Donnie is more prosaic, suggesting he was merely looking after himself. “But then again, I just liked the excitement.”
Donnie was some way towards rehabilitation – if not freedom – when Simon and Burns decided to put him in touch with Fran. “Once I did start talking to David and Ed, I still wasn’t given them the information that they wanted,” says Fran. “They thought I was too hard, and they said, ‘OK, we got somebody that can calm you down.’ I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ So they gave Donnie my phone number, and when Donnie called, I’m like, ‘Hell, who is this? What you calling me for?’ I was still trying to put on this hard image.
“The thing that got me was he wouldn’t give in to my arguments. It was like Donnie found good in anything that I did. Even though what I was doing was wrong, he would tell me how I could turn it around.”
Fran talked to Donnie for four or five months before she found out why he was in prison. She assumed he was serving time for drug-related offences. Eventually, Simon showed her a newspaper article he had written about Donnie. “I was crying, thinking, ‘No this can’t be the same man.’ It just didn’t seem like this was the same person. That’s when I really wanted to change. Because I saw where he came from, and I was like, ‘Shit, what I’m doing ain’t nothing.’”
Fran’s heroin use went on for 17 years. She says she took the drug for ten years before admitting she had a habit. At first, her tolerance was high, and she didn’t use every day. She never got sick. She had enough money. “I used to look at the things that women were doing to get drugs; I didn’t do that. I looked at how they were dressed; I wasn’t dressed like that.
“Somewhere in the back of your mind you know you have a problem, but you don’t want to put yourself in that category. To me, that was ‘those people’.”
There was, she says, a moment when everything became clear. “I found myself with a little TV sitting on a milk crate, a mattress on the floor, and my two children; all of us in this one little room. Coming from owning a cathedral home, driving a Mercedes-Benz, wearing business suits; this was how far down I went.
“It’s like you get to a point where you just don’t care anymore. But I can remember one day sitting in the middle of the floor, wondering, ‘How in the hell did I get here?”
Donnie called Fran on the phone every day, 365 days a year, at 4pm. Over time, her feelings grew stronger, “which is what I didn’t want. This man had triple-life, and I didn’t want to sit at home waiting for him.”
“When Ed told me he had somebody he wanted me to talk to, it was a challenge,” says Donnie. “And I’m always up for a challenge. Even back in the day when I was out there sticking up and a guy come boosting, and tries to stick me up, boom boom, I’m looking at him going, ‘Well, just give it to me then.’
“And when I called her there was something in her voice that was crying out for help. I heard it and I just couldn’t turn my back to her. We talked for four or five hours and it was like we knew each other for all our lives. The more I talked to her, the more I felt like I could help her.
“I never judged her, because of my past. To this day I judge nobody. Because of what I done, I can’t judge nobody.”
Donnie won Fran’s trust by asking Simon to help out: delivering a Playstation for her son after Christmas, and sending groceries when she had no food, so Fran began to accept that Donnie wasn’t going to be a burden. They talked for four years before meeting face-to-face, and then struggled through three disappointments with the parole board before his eventual release in 2004, after 18 years inside.
Looking at them now, they seem well-matched. Fran is the more talkative, but as she speaks, Donnie looks on with obvious affection. When he speaks, he has a habit of separating his life into then and now, sometimes referring to his previous self as “Omar”.
“It worries me when I see his mind wandering back,” Fran says. “I don’t know what he’s thinking, but to me it’s like he’s always back there. I’m like, ‘Where you at? Come back – wherever you going I’m going with you.’ And he’ll get mad, but it takes him out of where he’s at. The things that Donnie’s been through, it takes a lot of time to just try to have a normal day. So I try my best to just keep him in the now.
“Then there’s the part of him gettin’ mad and thinking it’s funny. Donnie told me this story when he was in jail, and I always said when he comes home I’m gonna watch out for his smile. I’m gonna see if I can separate the happy smile from the bad smile. Because he would always say that the smile he gave you could be the same smile that he’d kill you with. He was telling me that he could be mad at you, but he’d still smile. I promised myself I don’t want to see that smile.”
“Where I come from, you never show your emotions,” says Donnie. “You always got to hide that part of you. I will get mad, and I cannot do anything mad. I can’t think - I’ll make mistakes.” He says that just as Omar whistles to cool himself down, he used to sing songs. “I still do – when I get upset about something I just start singing.”
“I might stop sometimes and look at him,” says Fran, “and try to picture him in the Seventies or the Eighties, and I can’t see it. I can see him maybe fighting somebody, but to get to that space, of what he went to prison for, or that lifestyle, I still can’t see it.
“It just don’t seem like that was his character. But it was, and I just try to keep it resting.”
These days, Fran and Donnie work in Baltimore trying to help in the community. Donnie works with gang members, trying to dissuade them from a life of violence, and Fran has plans to establish Fran’s House Of Joy, to care for women with HIV. But funds are scarce, and Fran wistfully suggests that they may not be able to achieve their aims until they have made money of their own. Whoever got rich from The Wire, it wasn’t them, but Donnie is working on a memoir, and David Simon is working on the film of his life story.
“Omar is Donnie’s past life,” Fran says. “It’s probably easier for him to accept it now, and know that it’s not him anymore. It’s like a different person. I think if Donnie was still Omar and David came up with that, David would probably have hell on his hands.”
“It’s like he’s buried,” Donnie says. “And I keep him there.”