My Pittsburgh Problem

From young Wallace’s bewilderment when venturing outside of the city and hearing crickets for the first time to Chris informing Snoop that people from outside of the Baltimore/D.C. area probably wouldn’t be very familiar with go-go music, a constant theme from the HBO series The Wire was how isolated inner city Baltimore’s inhabitants were from the rest of the world. Although — if the atlas application on my phone is correct — they’re neighbors with Towson, Essex, Silver Spring, and others, they might as well have been stuck on the island from Lost, aware of their star-crossed fate but completely unequipped, unable, and ultimately unwilling to change it.

No character embodied this mindset more than Old Face Andre — a mid-level dealer who happened to fall out of favor with the ruthless and reptilian drug kingpin Marlo Stanfield. In a subplot so sad and predictable that it’s actually funny, instead of just packing up and leaving town, Andre thinks that moving from West Baltimore to East Baltimore will save him from Marlo’s wrath.

He was wrong.

I’ve watched the full series (at least) three times. (I watched it “live,” and I’ve also re-watched the entire series with each of my last two girlfriends; at times even delaying sex to continue debates about Bodie Broadus’ motivations and Bill Rawls closet homosexuality.) I also developed an appetite for any and all things The Wire, engulfing and devouring every message board post, interview, article, profile, and conversation I could. At this point, I’d confidently bet a day’s pay that unless David Simon happens to be your cousin, you don’t know anyone who knows more about The Wire than I do.

I always assumed that my infatuation with The Wire was somewhat due to my unique personal background. While the show may have been a bit too real for some who grew up in similar circumstances and too foreign for those who lived galaxies away from that world, I grew up in a gang-infested East Liberty but was shielded from most real adversity by my (married) parents, my private school education, and my basketball. This combination of familiarity and distance allowed me to recognize some of the characters and themes while staying (relatively) emotionally detached from it. I had friends who grew up in households as toxic as the teenage characters on the show, but the fact that none of that stuff went on in my house made it easier for me to adopt a bit of a sober, deconstructionist view when watching and speaking about it.

But, as I’ve come to learn, this was all bullshit. It’s definitely still true that my upbringing protected me from harm and implanted a certain appreciation for many of the themes present in the series, but the connection I had with the show had nothing to do that. It came down to one hard to swallow fact: I am Old Face Andre.

While every single one of my closest childhood friends have left Pittsburgh for “greener” pastures, I’m still here; leaving only for college and returning as soon as my degree and my basketball eligibility had been completed. I wish I could say that I made the decision to come back because I had a plan, a promising job opportunity, or even a girl I was smitten with, but I’d be lying. In reality, I always considered it to be an inevitability; a concretized step on a pre-destined path. I came back because I just couldn’t fathom being anywhere else.

I imagine you think I’m being hyperbolic, that comparing myself to a drug dealer so short-sighted and ignorant that he basically chose certain death over leaving Baltimore is a stretch, and you’re probably be right. With a limited education and an extensive rap sheet, Old Face Andre’s options were limited by a series of decisions — decisions either made by him or completely out of his control. Maybe he wasn’t actually in prison, but he was far from free, and considering his circumstances, moving to East Baltimore may have actually been his most feasible choice.

But while my situation is far from as dire as Andre’s, I can’t help but note the similarities between us. My choice to blog/write/edit full-time gives me real incentive to leave Pittsburgh, as most of the career-making new media opportunities that would best suit the type of work I do are found in New York City and Washington, D.C. Yes, it’s true that I don’t necessarily have to leave the Burgh to build the career I want to build, but staying would be like to deciding to walk to Cincinnati the next time I visit my family there. Sure, it can be done, but driving or flying (or, well, not going to Cincinnati at all) would probably be a better plan.

Mind you, this is no anti-Pittsburgh rant. While the tone of the last couple paragraphs may have implied that I think I’m somehow “better” than the Burgh, this couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, the city is undoubtedly better than me — talented, unpretentious, unflappable, and blessed with understated beauty. If the Burgh was a random babe at The Shadow Lounge or Savoy, she’d be out of my league, and I’d probably have a better chance with one of her less attractive cousins (Cleveland) or her extremely glamorous and extremely self-esteem deficient co-worker (Atlanta).

It’s just that…I don’t know. I don’t know what’s keeping me here. I don’t know why I didn’t even consider staying in Buffalo when done with school. I don’t know why I feel like I need to somehow be validated by Pittsburgh, like being successful somewhere else just wouldn’t matter the same way. I don’t know why this city means so gotdamn much to me, and I don’t even know if I want this feeling to change.

Despite my love for “The Wire,” I’ve always been ambivalent about Old Face Andre’s last appearance on screen. Captured by Marlo’s henchman and destined for certain death, he asks his soon to be murderers not to shoot him in the face so that he can have an open casket funeral. The request itself isn’t what stirs the ambivalence, though, as much as the tone he used when asking. He pleas the same merry familiarity that a person would adopt when asking the kid working the register at Giant Eagle to double bag his groceries. Not only is he completely resigned to his fate, it seems like he’s almost welcoming it; like he knows he doesn’t matter enough to even attempt to fight for his life.

I never quite felt that this particular scene worked as well as the rest of the show. I just couldn’t buy that a man in that situation would still be so casual, so jocular. But, perhaps he was just tired. Tired of living in fear. Tired of being haunted by Baltimore. Tired of the pathos. Tired of the self-imposed shackles. Tired of allowing himself to be manipulated by nostalgia. And perhaps his subconscious recognized that he was just ready for a change; something…anything not Baltimore.

If this is true, I understand.

—Damon Young (aka “The Champ”)