Pandemic: An Interview with The Wire creator David Simon

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Danny Greenwald (@glassineasleep) is a Baltimore-based producer, sound designer, and composer. His work has been featured in such publications as The Washington Post, Pitchfork, and Vice. He makes music under the name Glassine. In this interview with The Wire creator David Simon, he asked Simon about how The Wire relates to the pandemic, The Plot Against America's critique on the current political moment, and his mother's matzo ball soup, among other things.

Glassine · Pandemic: An Interview with David Simon

Danny: Good Morning, Mr. Simon. How are you?

David: Hi, how are you?

Danny: First I want to tell you that back when this interview was going to take place in person my mom was dead set on making you matzo ball soup.

David: [laughs] Okay, well that is very kind of her. Thank you. Although it cannot compete with my mom's matzo ball soup. It's empirical.

Danny: So there are a few things I want to talk to you about. Obviously, there is COVID-19, there's your latest project, The Plot Against America, which I loved -- but I'd like to first start with a question that has to do with The Wire.

David: Sure.

Danny: When I first started hearing the word "pandemic" every day, I would invariably think of The Wire because of the brand name of heroin in the show. What led you to choose the name Pandemic?

David: Uhh, I don’t remember [laughs]. We called it a lot of different things, we kept changing it, and so I think we probably called it 10 or 20 different things. They were usually [based on] stuff that was in the headlines.

At some point, somebody reminded me that we had called it Trump Tower because I think he had been christening that at the time or it had become sort of a major development in New York at the time. It wasn’t after any particular love or contempt for Donald Trump at the time.

We called it—I think there might have been an Ebola outbreak or something like that. It had nothing to do with anything other than a continually rotating branding of heroin and cocaine. That actually happens on the corner. There will be some phrase in the news—WMD—I mean, I remember when WMD was a catchphrase because of the Iraq war and people started stamping bags of heroin over in West Baltimore as "WMD."

Danny: So does that imply that if you had to make the same decision today as to what you would call the brand of heroin in The Wire, you would still choose "Pandemic"?

David: Sure. It wouldn't have changed at all. You know, this stuff follows the headlines. The dystopic nature of addiction and the way in which products are marketed towards addiction in that economy are such that if there are a series of overdoses on a package, meaning, you know, some package has been laced with something bad or it hasn’t been cut properly and people are falling out over it, there is a cadre, a significant plurality of addicts that will actually seek that package on the premise that the people who were shooting it didn’t know what the fuck they were doing. And if they were given the opportunity to shoot something so profoundly lethal, they would be able to not only handle it but get very high. So you’ll have a situation where a package will actually drop people, and other addicts would be going towards it.

So the idea that they wouldn’t name something after the most disturbing headline is less probable than that they would. I wouldn’t be surprised if there was something out there now called Pandemic or Corona. This stuff follows the headlines.

Danny: There is a sad irony to that. So there are obviously many characters in The Wire who struggle with addiction and are homeless, live on the streets, etc., and I was wondering if you could tell me how you feel this pandemic affects them.

David: I don't know that it does. I don’t think anyone who is chasing heroin is thinking in the slightest degree about coronavirus or about the health implications or about anything. I think they’re thinking about heroin. That’s the nature of the addiction.

When someone would get endocarditis because they were shooting with dirty needles, which is a very common thing, they would often go into the hospital and they would have to—the addicts called it a direct deposit, to get the antibiotics directly into the heart—they would have an IV that went not just into your arm, but into your chest somewhere. Not directly into the heart, but into some major artery or vein going into the heart so that they could really pump it. And you would see addicts walk out of the hospital 'cause they’d be like, "Great, now I have a direct deposit line, now I don’t have to chase a vein."

Addiction is profound on that level and I don’t think anybody is actually free-associating the reality of coronavirus to the reality of heroin addiction if they are involved in heroin addiction.

Danny: It feels like we were living in another universe when you were creating The Wire. I was wondering if you could tell me what your creative process looks like now during this time of quarantine and social distancing?

David: It depends on the day, it depends on what I'm doing. Television production is a very long process. It begins with story meetings—it begins with finding ideas, discussing ideas with colleagues, into formalized writers' rooms where we work over projects and we sort of universe-build. And then writing is writing. And then once you have scripts, then you're trying to sell. Then once you sell, you're trying to structure a production and cast and look for location. So it depends on what day.

Danny: Your work generally revolves around complex social issues that are seemingly insurmountable. Has the pandemic sparked your imagination in any way? In other words, have you been feeling creative at all? Have you been producing anything? Have you felt compelled to start thinking about another project based on what we're going through now?

David: No. I just came off of a project that was basically a critique of what happened in America in the election of 2016. It usually takes you a few years to digest what you’ve lived through in some way that you can say something meaningful about it. So I'm usually looking at something and beginning to think about it, but right now I have other stuff on the boards that I am trying to get out of the way. So I am paying attention like everybody else now to what’s going on with corona.

Danny: Well, tell me some of your initial thoughts about this crisis.

David: I think everyone should try to minimize social interaction. I think the same things everyone else is saying. Trying to reduce everybody’s social connections right now in order to flatten out the curve and make sure that a limited amount of medical time and gear and resources can be spread over the population is a better way to save more lives.

My older brother is the head of the department of infectious diseases at GW hospital and so he’s integrally involved in responding to this new dynamic. And so I'm certainly versed in what the worries are. I hear about it from him and I know it's serious.

Danny: Are you in good health these days?

David: Yeah. I know somebody who lost his life to this is in New Orleans. It's very tragic, but—Ron Lewis, somebody who helped us on Treme, passed away last week.

Danny: That's terrible. I’m sorry for your loss.

David: Yeah, well other people knew him better and we did work with him. And he was a fine man.

Danny: I know that you have been weary about the press labeling The Plot Against America as solely a critique of antisemitism.

David: Yeah, I found that disappointing.

Danny: Do you look at antisemitism or racism against any group as a pandemic? And how has that changed over the last ten years?

David: I thought this stuff was on the wane. I thought the mere fact that we had elected an African American president twice indicated that a significant plurality—possibly a majority of the country—had become post-racial. And that while there was certainly a residual racial resentment and racial animus, I thought we were in a far different place. I thought the generation that really was holding on to white supremacy was aging out. And that what was coming forward was more of the American future and it was a much more pluralistic, multicultural sensibility.

And I think I was misled by the fact that I traverse Baltimore, New York, New Orleans, and a little bit of LA, Chicago. I don’t think I'm in the places where multiculturalism has yet to be successfully tested. If you’re in and out of New York, you’re looking at a city that is so decidedly multicultural and so pluralistic and so affluent because of it. These are the places where the gross domestic product of the country is made.

You see the great success stories that are inherent in America being a racial [unintelligible] — I think I was grossly misled by my own logistics. The other thing is, 2016 taught us all something about just how deep some of that stuff runs.

I think the only reason to do Plot Against America is not to re-adjudicate [Charles] Lindbergh or isolationism or Nazism in the 1940s. I think the historical verdict is in on all of that. The reason to do it is that it is allegorical to this present political moment, and the misuse of people with black and brown skin or immigrants or Muslims in the same way that Lindbergh was in Roth's fictional account othering Jewish Americans. The idea that—particularly I've seen it in the Jewish press—this is a critique of antisemitism, and almost blissfully irrelevant to the actual current political moment unless we are just talking about antisemitism, I think that it's an incredible misapprehension of the piece.

Danny: So you were expecting a different reaction?

David: Sure. I'm always writing to people who I think are going to be smart. And I think a lot of the audience is smart—I think a lot of people did get it. Most critics did get it. I think in some respects, if you’re writing for the Jewish press, you think you’re writing for a specific audience and you are unable or unwilling to achieve the transformational metaphor. But it's there, whether or not you want to do it. But, by and large, I've read most of the reviews and most of them got it. Some did not.

Danny: I've read that you refer to your dad as a "professional Jew."

David: Yeah, he was.

Danny: What do you think he would have said about The Plot Against America?

David: Well, he’d have gotten to the Friday night dinner in the first moments and he’d have laughed out loud at the line about the soup: “If you went downtown to Katz’s for that soup, how much would you pay for a spoonful?” 'Cause that was his line. If I heard him say it once, then I heard him say it 200 times. And my mother's reply was always the same. So that was actually an homage to my father.

But I think he’d be fine with it. My father was a New Deal Democrat. He would be appalled at what has happened to the country since 2016. And he would understand the misuse of other cohorts, other people, to instigate fear and acquire political power. He would understand that implicitly and I think he would be opposed to it. In fact, I know he would be opposed to it.

Danny: Do you identify more with the term Jewish-American or American-Jew?

David: I don’t think it matters. Is there a difference in your mind between the semantics?

Danny: I live with a Kenyan woman who makes it very clear that she is a Kenyan-American. It’s a matter of pride for her. So I started thinking about it for myself and, given the complicated issues of identity in The Plot Against America, I thought maybe you would have some thoughts about this.

David: I actually haven’t compared the two phrases until this moment. I'm not sure that I care one way or the other. I certainly think I'm an American first. I would resent anyone questioning my loyalty based on my religious affiliation. Or, even if you consider Jews to be racial in some way—and I don’t really—Even if you look at the Sephardic/Ashkenazi split, and the degree of wide variation in genetics across the Jewish diaspora. But even if you do, I think my affiliation in my head is just that of an American.

Danny: Would you say that you're proud to be an American?

David: At times. And for certain things, and probably not for the same things that other people are. But yeah. At times I am very proud to be an American. At times, I'm ashamed. It depends on what we're up to.

Danny: Well listen Mr. Simon, it has been great chatting with you and I look forward to your next project and I hope you stay safe.

David: Sure, thank you. Thanks for your interest.