Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Poker diary: Love them snowmen!

I’ve been playing poker a lot the past three years. It began with friendly home games… pizzas-‘n’-beer, hip music, the occasional ice-cold tequila shot, and such wacky variations on the Great Game as “Pass the Trash” and “Black Mariah.”

When I finally got up the nerve to sit amongst the hard-eyed gamblers in the Mandalay Bay poker room, I was hooked for real. From then on, I’d be in a home game thinking, “To hell with all this yakkin’… I didn’t come to hear about your fucking mortgage. Deal cards!”

The focus of mind required to compete with strangers who wish to take your money and humiliate you while doing it… it’s like an altered state of consciousness, and very addictive.

Then there’s the coolness factor. At L.A.’s Commerce Casino, where I’ve spent many hours, I’ve seen big movie stars like James Woods and Don Cheadle, mid-career talents like Paul Rudd and Morris Chestnut, and old-timers like Bill Macy and Robert Costanzo, all mixing it up with a veritable United Nations of nameless poker degenerates. And the sound of clattering chips fills the air like castanets.

I’m not a winning player. I lack what fine poker players possess – a head for numbers and a will to study the game like a Talmudic scholar. But I do have my moments.

The key, for a non-gifted player such as myself, is to stay out of most pots. Think about it: If there are nine players at a table, the laws of chance dictate that you’ll have the best hand only 11 percent of the time. So why in hell would you play half the hands you’re dealt? (Thankfully, some do.)

Patience. Discipline. It’s about waiting for a solid starting hand. In no-limit Texas Hold ‘Em, that means either a pocket pair, two high cards, or possibly suited connectors. Of course, you can go hours without catching cards of that quality.

Such was the case this past weekend. I came to Vegas to check out Prince at his new nightclub, and to get a little poker in. Alas, I got dealt more than my share of crap cards, so I spent most of my table time as a mere spectator.

In no-limit, though, one hand is all it takes.

For those of you unfamiliar with the game, I realize that telling a poker story is like scratching you where you don’t itch. Hell, most poker players don’t want to hear a blow-by-blow account of somebody else’s huge win (or, worse yet, somebody’s bum-luck “bad beat”).

Yet the urge to tell such stories is part of the addiction. So I’ll try and make this quick.

Yesterday afternoon at the Mandalay Bay, the game was 1-2 No-Limit (meaning the “blinds” – the obligatory bets – were $1 and $2 for the first two bettors). An easy-going low-stakes game. I bought in for the minimum: $100. When I lost that, I re-bought for another $100, most of which was still in front of me when the magic happened.

For 90 minutes, I’d been getting nothing but garbage. So when I looked down at a pocket pair of 8s, I was happy to stick around and see a flop.

I was the big blind, meaning I was already in this pot for a forced bet of $2. As the big blind, I’d be the last player to act prior to the flop, so I had the option of raising before seeing any more cards.

With four other players limping in, I decided not to raise. You gotta figure, with five people in the hand, somebody’s holding a J, Q, K or A. If any of those cards came on the flop, my wired 8s would be worthless.

So the flop comes 8-6-6. Holy mama! Can’t ask for better than flopping a full house! Now, what do I do with it? How do I get the most out of it? As the big blind, I was in “early position” for the rest of this hand; I’d be the second player to act.

The woman in first position bets $20. Thank you, Jesus.

I call that $20 bet. Why not raise it, you wonder? Well, that’s a no-brainer. With three players still to act, why should I reveal my strength? Hopefully one of them’s got a 6 and will raise the pot for me, thinking his three-of-a-kind is golden.

Sure enough, the third player bumps it up big-time: $50 on top of the initial bet. Allahu akbar! It’ll cost the fourth player $70 to continue. He has about $250 in front of him. He ponders. And then…

He goes all in! All of his money, into the pot. Hail Satan!!

Fifth player folds like Superman on laundry day. Ms. First Position, who got this party started with her $20 bet, throws her cards away.

Of course, I push my remaining $70 across the betting line without saying a word. All in, baby! Only wish I had more chips. Then I was puzzled, in a good way, to see Mr. Third Position move all in too.

Now, if I had a head for numbers, I would’ve realized right there that I was unbeatable. But due to my previous lucklessness, I started thinking the unthinkable: Could one of these bastards be holding pocket 6s? Did one of ’em flop the stone-cold nuts, four-of-a-kind?

The smarter spectators at the table knew the truth before I did: the other two players each held a 6. (How else could they go all in? Even if you were holding pocket aces, you'd have to get rid of them once the pot has been raised and re-raised.) This meant that my 8s full of 6s was the nuts.

With no more betting to do, we showed our hands. The other two guys held identical cards: 6-7.

The turn was a 3, the river a 7. I raked in a $300 main pot. (I can’t remember how big the side pot was. I wasn’t getting any of it, so who gives a shit? But with both my adversaries holding 6s full of 7s, they got some of their money back.)

Wah-lah! In just one hand, I went from $110 behind to $100 ahead. By the time I walked away, I had all of that in my pocket and then some. A decent day at the races for ol’ Davey Boy, regardless of all the crap hands. And I had reason to feel good about my play.

Sure, I was hugely lucky to flop a boat while two other players – two! – flopped trips. But I also made every correct decision along the way. Didn’t raise pre-flop (which would’ve chased away those 6-7s). Didn’t raise in early position after the flop (which might’ve inhibited the subsequent action). Instead, I totally flew in under the radar and took down a monster.

Moments like that are why card-players play cards.

Articulating further…

It blows my mind how some people are addicted to grievance.

A version of my post about the Barack Obama “articulate” meme is up on the Huffington Post. One peevish commenter says my citations of John Edwards (a white man) being described as “articulate” do not disprove the word’s condescending import. In fact, they confirm it!

“ ‘Articulate’ almost always is the label given to an individual who isn’t expected to be – and John Edwards was a great example of that,” wrote this Pouting Thomas. “This adjective is most often reserved for people of color, southerners, poor people and foreigners.”

Another HuffPost commenter echoed that analysis: “Sen. Edwards gets called ‘articulate’ because our reporters can't imagine that anybody with a ‘Tobacco Road’ accent can be intelligent.”

Ahh. So Obama is the target of anti-black condescension, and Edwards is the target of anti-Southern condescension. Got it.

“Whenever white people describe an individual who is not a mainstream WASP as articulate,” the Pouting Thomas insists, it’s meant to be patronizing.

Of course, it took me two minutes to think of a “mainstream WASP” who is often described as articulate. In fact, it’s yet another Democratic candidate for president.

I speak of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Check it out:

Liza Mundy, Washington Post Magazine: “It's the ideal that permits her supporters to accept her dual role as one of the world's most articulate advocates of women's rights, and, at the same time, a wife who has endured months – years, decades – of emotional mistreatment.” – March 21, 1999

Doris Kearns Goodwin, PBS’s “NewsHour”: “Some of her instincts are great. I think she's incredibly articulate, intelligent.” – July 7, 1999

William Douglas, Newsday: “Marcel Weber, chairman of the Orthodox Union’s board, said Clinton was ‘articulate and well-prepared. Overall it was a positive impression.’ ” – December 15, 1999

Rupert Cornwell, the Independent on Sunday: “[M]entally they [the Clintons] were – and remain – a perfect match. Each respected the other's intellect. She was the decisive one, articulate, business-like and determined. He was charming, disorganised and irresistibly persuasive.” – June 8, 2003

Leslie Heuer, Iowa State Daily: “Barbara Walters… plowed through the tough questions to a poised, articulate and elegantly dressed Clinton Sunday evening.” – June 12, 2003

Blogger Wayne Besen: “I would like to see Hillary Clinton as the first woman president. She is bright, articulate and I think would have a successful administration.” – December 12, 2005

Forbes.com: “She is direct, methodical, thoughtful and articulate.” – September 6, 2006

Kathy Sullivan, New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman: "Senator Clinton is a dynamic, articulate leader who will be welcomed to the Granite State stage with tremendous excitement." – December 23, 2006

And on the website votehillary.org, a Marlene Gargan of Lake Villa, Ill., writes: “I have been a strong supporter of Hillary Clinton since she was the First Lady. She is so intelligent, thoughtful & articulate.”

Now, I could be all wrong about this. Perhaps Hillary Clinton is the victim of sexist condescension whenever she’s described as “articulate.” Or maybe, just maybe, Clinton and Edwards and Obama are often called “articulate” because, simply, they’re much better speakers than the average politician.

Alas, it’s a mystery that may never be solved.

UPDATE (01/31/07): The Drudge Report this morning linked to a New York Observer article that quotes Sen. Joe Biden as making this genuinely condescending, offensive remark about Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man."

Well, hell... kinda blows my original premise out of the water, doesn't it?

Monday, January 29, 2007

A self-hating Jew and a self-hating Negro walk into a bar… (pt. 1)

Old books are cool. I’m not talking about the classics. (Who has time to read all of those?) I’m talking about weird, obscure books that most people have never heard of.

Like Samuel Roth’s “Jews Must Live” (self-published in 1934) and William Hannibal Thomas’s “The American Negro” (published in 1901).

Those two books share something in common: a seething – and shocking – racial self-hatred at their core.

“The American Negro” and its author were the subject of a fascinating book in 2000, “Black Judas,” by historian John David Smith. Prof. Smith set out to understand “why a Negro would write one of the most racist books ever published.” (Would you believe… chronic pain?)

“Jews Must Live” hasn’t received a book-length analysis, though it’s surely one of the most anti-Semitic texts ever published, and it’s much easier to get your hands on these days than “The American Negro.” Such neo-Nazi outfits as National Vanguard and Stormfront are selling reprints of “Jews Must Live” online.

So let’s start there, with a most peculiar American character named Samuel Roth.

Back in journalism school, I learned of Roth v. United States, a landmark 1957 obscenity case in which the Supreme Court established its “prurient interest” and “community standards” criteria for defining illegal smut. Scholars refer to this as “the Roth decision.”

Samuel Roth was that Roth. On First Amendment grounds, he had challenged his federal conviction for selling obscene materials through the mail. The Supreme Court upheld that conviction, and Roth served five years. (It wasn’t his first time in prison; he got locked up for smut-peddling as far back as the 1920s.)

Prior to his Supreme Court moment, Roth was called to testify before the famed Senate Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency (led by Estes Kefauver) because of a nudie magazine he published. This prompted one scandal sheet to describe Samuel Roth as “the dirtiest pig in the world.”

Obscenity wasn’t his only claim to notoriety. Among James Joyce scholars, Roth is remembered as a shameless literary bootlegger. He published Joyce’s “Ulysses” in the United States without the author’s permission (leading to an early obscenity conviction). He took similar liberties with “Lady Chatterley’s Lover” and other European books.

Roth never apologized for this, telling one interviewer toward the end of his life: “I’ve never published anything that wasn’t good. I’ve put the classics into every American home.”

Nor did Roth ever apologize for “Jews Must Live,” in which he wrote:

“I am not prepared to speak for any religion but the religion I was born into, and which has followed me about for forty years like an evil shadow. I have no hesitation in declaring that if the Jew’s sole chance of survival lies in the preservation of his religion, it is time for him to throw his cards on the table and call quits. …

“Every synagogue we Jews build in Christian countries is a finger of scorn we point at our hosts, a sore finger we stick into their eyes, like the leering of a senile old woman who does all sorts of foul mischief before you, and feels safe in the knowledge that you will not lay hands on her to remove her, for fear of contamination.”

Judaism “must go,” Roth wrote. It “has been the cause of untold evil both to the Jew and the world about him.”

This he published in 1934, with Adolph Hitler newly risen to power in Germany. The infamous propagandist Julius Streicher quoted “Jews Must Live” at Nazi rallies, according to an unpublished essay by Jewish scholar Milton Hindus, cited in historian Jay A. Gertzman’s “Bookleggers and Smuthounds.”

Samuel Roth was born into an Orthodox family in central Europe in 1894. He emigrated to Manhattan’s Lower East Side in 1903.

As a young man, Roth owned the Poetry Shop, a Greenwich Village bookstore purportedly patronized by the likes of John Barrymore, Sholem Asch, Edna St. Vincent Millay and legendary Bohemian poet Maxwell Bodenheim.

Sam Roth, for decades thereafter, boasted of having revived the poetry career of Edwin Arlington Robinson, who ultimately won three Pulitzer Prizes. In a new biography of Robinson, however, author Scott Donaldson makes just one mention of Roth in 500 pages, calling him a “bumptious litterateur” who had sponsored a poetry contest.

Roth, above all else, fancied himself a serious writer. He wrote a lot of books, and published almost all of them himself.

As a young Zionist, he penned a book of poetry called “Europe: A Book for America,” published in 1919 by Boni and Liveright (which would later publish a couple of young novelists named Hemingway and Faulkner). “Europe” begins, in part:

Europe, let me be your doctor!
With a hammer let me break open those iron jaws and pour a pail of your bitterest spleen down you throat.
O, I know a way to make eunuchs of the most terrible men;
For twelve months I would like to feed you on a diet of dung.

Samuel Roth was a lousy writer. But he persisted throughout his life as if unaware of this fact. The merits of his 1947 picaresque novel “Bumarap” can be measured by this obviously self-penned jacket note:

“It strikes us – but, of course, we are prejudiced – that the reading and re-reading of BUMARAP should become, in time, one of the steadiest and most reliable of American industries.”

Then there’s “My Friend Yeshea” (1961), in which Roth is visited in federal prison by Jesus Christ, who takes Roth back through time to witness the Crucifixion and Resurrection so Roth can deliver a message of hope to the world. (There’ll be more to say about “My Friend Yeshea” later.)

I’ll say this for “Jews Must Live”: it’s the most compellingly readable thing Sam Roth ever wrote. If you’ve got a strong stomach.

Here’s Roth on predatory Jewish business practices:

“The Jew better than anyone else in the world knows how to dispossess the poor and the members of the middle classes. To fit this case, the old P.T. Barnum adage needs only a little changing. A gentile enters business every minute, with two Jews waiting to take him out of it.”

Roth on Jews in the legal profession:

“The old-world lawyer regards himself as an officer of the court. If the American lawyer realizes that he is an officer of the court, he certainly does not take this phase of his function seriously. This callousness is the result of the practice of the Jewish lawyer who swarms the American courts in such numbers that the average lawyer’s office has become about as safe, for the poor layman, as a nest of rattlesnakes. …

“Has anyone reckoned out what financial havoc is caused yearly in our society by the letting loose of this swarm of vultures on a defenseless people?”

Roth on the Jew-as-pimp in show business:

“Equipment for entering the theater the Jew had very little of. No sense of form or even the capacity to enjoy its expression in others. Ditto traditions. No spiritual experiences to explore and set into a fine mold. No reverence for dramatic performances of the past or even hope of the future. The Jew had only one thing – a secret. He knew what the people would pay to see. Had he not been running brothels for Europe ever since anyone could remember?”

Roth on Jewish crime:

“What becomes of the young Jews who cannot attain to one of the professions, have not the money with which to buy a newsstand or the mental resourcefulness to create a selling line? Most of them remain on the street corners of their neighborhoods and become the petty thieves, hold-up men, strikebreakers, back-store crapshooters, street-corner mashers, dope-peddlers and dope-smugglers, white-slave traffickers, kidnappers and petty racketeers of every peaceful community in America. …

“The Jewish gangster imbeds himself deeply in the flesh of society. He becomes a permanent if not a fatal tumor.”

So… why on earth did Samuel Roth write such things about his fellow Jews?


Friday, January 26, 2007

Buuullshit: The Barack Obama ‘articulate’ meme

Every now and then, I intend to call "bullshit" on some mainstream-media meme or blogospheric bunkum that happens to rattle my cage.

Let’s begin with the fact that some thoughtful folks are offended by the use of the word “articulate” to describe Sen. Barack Obama. It’s condescending, they say, to call an articulate black man “articulate.” You don’t hear people going around calling white men “articulate,” do you? Because they're expected to be!

To paraphrase the old Chris Rock joke, you call somebody “articulate” when you expected him to be stupid.

Racialicious, a liberal, anti-racist blog, put up a post yesterday titled “Barack Obama is AWB: Articulate While Black.” Guest poster Philip Arthur Moore cited references to Obama as “articulate” in the Christian Science Monitor, India’s Financial Express, Townhall.com and on KCCI, an Iowa TV station – all within the space of a couple of days.

Paul Butler over at Blackprof.com only needed to quote the first six words of a recent CNN profile of Obama: “Intelligent, articulate, who is Barack Obama?” A commenter named “Bennie” responded: “The patronizing racism from the media and pundits will only get worse from here on.”

To which I must say, with all due respect:

Buuullshit!! It’s not true that the media don't use the word “articulate” to describe white guys.

We have the handy example of another well-spoken Democratic candidate in this very same presidential race… another boyishly handsome lawyer who, in 2003, figured that two years in the U.S. Senate might entitle him to the keys to the White House. I’m talking about John Edwards.

Check out what people were saying – and still say – about that glib-tongued mother-huncher:

Candy Crowley, CNN: “He is a sort of, is a very articulate man. … He was front and center during the Monica Lewinsky impeachment trial of Bill Clinton and was considered very articulate during that time.” – January 1, 2003

Elwin Sherman, quoted on New Hampshire Public Radio: “He speaks well. He’s articulate. He’s a very sincere man.” – August 26, 2003

David Greenberg, Legal Affairs: “Fresh-faced and articulate, he possessed a warmth that his rivals lacked.” – January 2004

Slate partial headline: “… John Edwards is bright and articulate and really, really youthful. …” – February 6, 2004

Charles Paul Freund, Reason Online: “[A]lmost all the coverage was founded on the theme of Edwards as an articulate, appealing, and energetic political force.” – July 7, 2004

Rob McManamy, University of Chicago Chronicle: “The charismatic, passionate and articulate former U.S. Sen. John Edwards is speaking out about the need to lift more Americans out of poverty and into the middle class.” – March 2, 2006

David Hampton, clarionledger.com (Jackson, Miss.): “Edwards is young, smart, articulate and a good Southerner with moderate tendencies and a heart for traditional Democratic issues.” – December 28, 2006

wikiDemocrats.com: “He’s charming, he’s smart and he’s articulate.” – as of January 26, 2007

You know what? I don’t think John Edwards or his sympathizers consider it a freakin’ insult that he keeps being called “articulate.”

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Umgawa! Blog power!

Here is some of what’s being discussed on the black side of the blogosphere:

With all the media hubbub surrounding Isaiah Washington and his use of the word “faggot,” I tip my apple cap to Jasmyne Cannick, a black lesbian who resolved any potential crisis of identity politics for herself by standing tall for Isaiah… and against the “gay mafia.”

She circulated the online petition for saving Isaiah’s job, and she declared: “[S]omething about this whole thing reeks of white privilege, gay power, and what I commonly refer to as the hypocrisy of white gay America.”

Cannick highlighted a drag queen known as “Shirley Q. Liquor.” This is a white Southern comedian (name of Charles Knipp) who performs – in blackface! – as an Ebonics-spouting welfare queen with 19 "chirrens." Apparently, Shirley Q. Liquor is popular on the gay cabaret circuit.

“So let me get this straight, no pun intended,” Cannick wrote last Friday, “it’s not ok for the Black person to use the f-word, but it is ok for the white gay person to dress up in blackface and perform parodies that mock Blacks.”

Shirley Q. Liquor was scheduled to perform next month in a West Hollywood nightclub. But after days of agitating on her blog, Jasmyne Cannick announced a few days ago that this show has been canceled.

Ms. Cannick ain’t through yet. She reports that Charles Knipp/Shirley Q. Liquor is scheduled to perform on February 17 in New Orleans, and she has provided the addresses and phone numbers of black media outlets and city officials in New Orleans, so her readers can make their feelings known.

As Cannick blogged last week:

I learned a long time ago that as a Black lesbian, my place was with Blacks. The same racism and classism issue that exists between Blacks and whites in general, applies to the gay community as well. I may have issues with the occasional homophobic Black pastor or rapper, but at the end of the day, we as Blacks know what discrimination and racism is because we’ve dealt with it all of our lives. … Unfortunately, when it comes to the gay community, if it’s not affecting their rosy white lives, then they couldn’t give a damn. But hey, isn’t that what white privilege is all about?

Of course, this stimulated lots of vigorous commentary amongst her readers. Such as this from “akaison”:

I see – so if I think Mr. Washington is a homophobe, and that this is wrong, that makes me white. I am black and gay, and think he’s wrong. Am I still white? Oh, I know, being gay makes me white. Or maybe it just makes you a bigot. Thanks for playing.

Me, I couldn’t care less about the Isaiah Washington affair. But I’m curious as hell about this Shirley Q. Liquor. I fancy myself a student of comedy (and of blackface as well, actually). I am not easily offended. So I went to Shirley Q. Liquor’s website and ordered three of his CDs. I’ll report my thoughts here after I’ve checked ‘em out.

Moving on…

Richard Prince, in his journalism blog for the Maynard Institute, reported last Friday that 88-year-old Simeon Booker is retiring. Anyone who ever read Jet magazine knows the name Simeon Booker; he ran Johnson Publishing’s Washington bureau for decades. His coverage in Jet of the Emmett Till murder in 1955 was legendary in its impact.

(Black reporter James L. Hicks, a contemporary of Booker’s, wrote in 1955 about covering the trial of Emmett Till’s accused killers in Mississippi: “A deputy threatened to knock Simeon Booker’s ‘head off’ because Booker held up [his] press card and asked the deputy to help him get through the crowd. A man who walked up to the press table and called all of us ‘niggers’ was sworn in five minutes later as the bailiff.” The two accused white men were acquitted by the proverbial “all-white jury.”)

What I never knew was that Simeon Booker had been the first black full-time reporter at the Washington Post, from 1952 to 1954. I worked at the Post during the early ‘90s, and it was a world apart from the place Booker experienced. Dick Prince quoted from Howard Bray’s 1980 book “The Pillars of the Post”:

"One men's room was open to [Booker] in the Post building… He avoided the inhospitable company cafeteria; many other eating places were closed to him. Booker's editors kept him in the office for a long spell, but when they finally sent him out to cover a robbery the police nearly arrested him as a suspect. He had trouble getting white cabbies to take him back to his office in time to write his stories before the deadline. Booker's copy was sometimes scrawled with racial epithets."

Finally, black conservative Casey Lartigue (cited Monday on Shay Riley’s Booker Rising blog) had a nicely contrarian take on the news that two African-American head coaches will square off in the upcoming Super Bowl. Lartigue blogged thusly:

I was listening to black talk radio this morning. There was a lot of emotion. One caller said it was a "dream come true." Another said he had "tears in his eyes." Yet another caller said he was "thankful to be alive" to see it happen. The music played was "I'm black and I'm proud" and "Ain't No Stopping Us Now!"

Was the emotion about seeing a black person on the Supreme Court? Or that blacks have held the highest ever positions in a presidential administration? Or some other significant historical event?

Nope! They were talking about two black coaches getting ready to play in the Super Bowl! It seems that many would be more offended about an attack on Tony Dungy or Lovie Smith than about attacks on Clarence Thomas or Condi Rice.

I can see why blacks were so excited about Jackie Robinson back in the day. But in 2007, so much enthusiasm about football coaches?

Unfortunately for some, a black coach won't have a chance to defeat a white coach--meaning that black NFL coaches will only be 1-1 after the game...

Will it be racism if the game has low ratings?

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Q&A: David Simon (pt. 2)

Before excelling as a TV drama writer, David Simon stood out as a newspaperman and a book author. He changed the course of his destiny (and mine) in 1992, after Barry Levinson acquired “Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets” to make into a television series.

Levinson and Tom Fontana, almost as a courtesy, offered Simon a first-season “Homicide” script to write. As a lark, he accepted. And because Simon knew I loved TV, he brought me on as a co-writer. Our episode, “Bop Gun,” ended up launching the second season in January of ‘94. They got Robin Williams to guest-star in it. Simon and I won a Writers Guild Award for the first script either of us had ever written.

I quit my job at the Washington Post to follow my dreams to Hollywood, while Simon stayed with the Baltimore Sun and undertook the reporting and writing of his second book, “The Corner.” Cut to 1999; he brought me on as a scriptwriting partner again when HBO turned “The Corner” into a miniseries. Simon and I copped two Emmys apiece.

I owe that man a blowjob.

When we spoke last week, I took Simon down memory lane.
DAVID MILLS: It was 20 years ago that you conceived the idea for the “Homicide” book. How did that idea hit you?

DAVID SIMON: Nineteen-eighty-five, I believe it was, Christmas Eve, I went up to the homicide unit and I brought a bottle as a gift, to basically say thanks for all the hassles. You hassle these guys all year long on five dozen murders, you’re always dependent on them to take your calls and give you the facts they can.

I was thinking of writing a little column about Christmas Eve in the homicide unit. It seemed like an amusing little irony. At least it did to me as a police reporter. I went up there and I hung around for the whole evening. …

While I was up there, Bill Lansey, a detective who later died of a heart attack, actually said at 4 in the morning – It was back when there was no cable [TV] up there. So the Christmas choir that’s always on at, like, 3 in the morning, the Yule log – there’s this choir singing. And everyone’s sitting around. When they got done with all the work, everyone was taking a nip off the bottle. And Bill Lansey said, “Man, the shit that goes on up here, you could write a book.” He actually said it. And it was the first moment where the idea clicked.

But I sat on it. I didn’t feel secure enough or capable enough to do it. I was 25 at the time. And I sat on it until we had a strike in ’87 for less than a week. I was so mad at management because [of] givebacks – at a time when the newspaper was making a lot of money – that I didn’t want to go back to the paper right away. I was looking for a leave of absence. They had to give you leave if you could think of a book idea and sell it. So those two things came together.

MILLS: The cop beat, in newsrooms, is considered a beginner’s beat, it’s not a prestige beat. Did you always see the value in it? You weren’t looking past it?

SIMON: When I was given it, I did not see the value in it. I had to acquire the value from doing it. But yes, at the Baltimore Sun you covered cops, and if you showed yourself to be clean and accurate, they would maybe send you to a county for a couple of years. If you could write your way out of a county bureau, you might become the third guy covering the state legislature, then you might work your way up to the second guy. … At some point you might go to Washington or overseas; those were the big prizes. So the idea that somebody would try to stay on cops seemed almost hilarious.

When “Homicide” came out as a book, there was, on the part of a lot of the older reporters who had come up under that hierarchical Sun system, there was almost a bemused moment of what-the-fuck? Like, “Who’s Simon and what did he write?” “Imagine that. The police reporter wrote a book.”

MILLS: I’m fascinated by pivot points in history. Before Barry Levinson ever contacted you, William Friedkin called you about the book. Tell the William Friedkin story.

SIMON: It wasn’t pivotal because Friedkin wasn’t gonna buy it. As I recall, there was somebody who offered me, like, $10,000 to make a movie out of “Homicide.” That was the only nibble that CAA got when they were trying to sell the book. It was not a book that had a lot of weight behind it, or a lot of talk. And the literary agent at CAA, they were ready to sell it off for peanuts.

So one day I’m on the metro desk. I’m back at the paper, I’m working rewrite. The phone rings. Dave Ettlin says, “Simon, for you.” I say, “Who is it?” He says, “Somebody named Friedkin.” And I think, you know, it’s probably some dentist from Pikesville.

I say, “Yeah. Simon.” And he says, “This is Bill Friedkin. I just want to say I think your book’s really great. I just read it. It’s a wonderful read.” “Well thank you, sir. Appreciate it. Can I do anything else for you?” I wasn’t getting it.

So finally, he said something like, “This is Bill Friedkin. I did ‘The French Connection’ and ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’ I directed those.” And I said, “Alvarez, stop fucking with me.” I didn’t believe it. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” And he goes, “No, no…” Then there was this pregnant pause where I wanted him to say: “And I’m gonna buy your book and I’m gonna make it into a movie!”

Very kindly, he said: “I just wanted you to know, you did a great job. It’s a wonderful read.” “Well, thank you.” “All my best.” And he hung up.

MILLS: (laughs) Okay.

SIMON: But that did get me thinking about one thing. “Why don’t they send this to Barry Levinson?” [CAA] hadn’t sent it to him yet. I said, “Send it to Levinson, because, uhh… he’s from Baltimore.” (laughs) It was that pathetic of a moment of clarity. And Barry at the time had this deal with NBC to start doing television. So then it happened.

MILLS: Even when that show jumped off, you didn’t abandon journalism. You weren’t looking to abandon journalism. Was it that you thought so highly of journalism or you thought so little of TV or –

SIMON: Both. I just didn’t take it seriously. I remember you even calling me, after you were working on “Picket Fences,” and saying, “You should come out here. You will not starve if you do this.”

I thought the Sun at that moment was getting more vibrant, not less, and that this is what I always thought of myself as doing. I was a reporter. So writing that script with you was an amusing sidelight, it was a nice distraction, but I was not looking at it as a career choice.

MILLS: Now, having done TV, is there still a part of you that thinks: “Well, when I write a novel, then I’ll be a real writer”?

SIMON: Absolutely.

MILLS: In your mind, is there a hierarchy of writing? And where does television fit into it?

SIMON: I was proud of a lot of the work I did on “Homicide,” once I went to work for that show. I felt like it was at the higher rungs of episodic television. But I did feel as if it was a very imprecise storytelling device. It was a show that was trying to sustain itself as an entertainment, in an entertainment model. My impulse is not to provide entertainment.

That doesn’t mean that I don’t require, in my own mind, that anything I write needs to be entertaining. It does. But I felt that way about the books. If you pick up “Homicide” or “The Corner,” you will be, I hope, engrossed in the story just as an entertainment. At the same time, the impulse behind it is journalistic. And the journalism is what mattered and what I was devoted to. … I regard “The Wire” as rooted in a journalistic impulse even though it’s fiction.

I feel like there’s a place right now for me to stand in TV and respect my original intent when I walked into the Sun’s newsroom. … Primarily because of the HBO model. They’re an entertainment company just like any other. But their model is such that it gives me enough room, right now – the window is open just wide enough for me to crawl in, with all my history and impulses and desires, and be able to stand there making television. If at some point I can’t do that, then I gotta go back to books.

The entertainment industry is moving so fast in so many directions, I can’t anticipate when the floor is gonna fall out from under me, or when the window’s gonna snap shut.

MILLS: I think you’re unique because – Nobody knows what’s gonna happen in the television industry, but almost everybody else is ready to dig their claws into the concrete, once it tilts, so they don’t slide out of this business.

SIMON: I feel like it’s an accident that I’m in this business. It’s been a series of accidents. If you look at the construct of how I got to be running a show for HBO –

I go to these seminars, right? And there’s all these hungry screenwriters – “How do I get into television?” They ask these questions, and I look at them with all the honest empathy I have, and I say, “Well, first, go be a police reporter at a metropolitan newspaper for 10 years. Then write a book about something. Then sell it to a director who happens to be making films about the same city. And then have him and his cohorts teach you how to do television production…”

I start saying this, and it almost sounds like there’s something abusive to it. But I’m really saying to them, “I have no plan for you, as I had no plan for myself.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Obligatory Oscar ostinato

Weird. Last year felt like a strong year for movies. But this morning’s Academy Award noms seem like a weak pot of coffee.

I wouldn’t begrudge Martin Scorsese his overdue Oscar, but be real; “The Departed” was an overblown B-movie and a waste of a lot of people’s great talent.

Terrific to see Ryan Gosling nominated for “Half Nelson”; this kid is shaping up to be the next Edward Norton.

Also good to see Forest Whitaker nominated for “The Last King of Scotland”; hope he doesn’t show up wearing that blackface makeup from the movie!

Will Smith? “The Pursuit of Happyness”? No way in hell that was an Oscar-worthy performance. Clive Owen is much more deserving for “Children of Men.”

But hey, with two black head coaches going to the Super Bowl, and two black men up for Best Actor, this could turn out to be the best year for black people since 1984.

Ahhh, 1984… Bill Cosby resurrected the sitcom by playing a doctor married to a lawyer (when NBC wanted him to be blue-collar)… Eddie Murphy showed Hollywood that a black star could single-handedly carry a blockbuster action picture, without having to be a white star’s “buddy”… (Can you imagine if Sylvester Stallone had made “Beverly Hills Cop,” as originally planned?)… Jesse Jackson ran for president, and pulled 3.5 million votes in the Democratic primaries… And who was the toast of Broadway? A sister calling herself “Whoopi Goldberg”… Wynton Marsalis emerged as the “Young Lion” of jazz, while the priapic Prince popped his load on movie screens from sea to shining sea, rewriting pop-culture history with “Purple Rain”…

Yeah, ’84 was the bomb…

Wait, what was I talking about?… Oh, right. Fuck a Will Smith!

As for Best Actress, well, dangit… I haven’t seen any of them flicks. But the first one I intend to is “Notes on a Scandal.” The trailer's great.

Best Supporting Actor… hey, what the… two more Negroes? Has the world gone topsy-turvy? I think Eddie Murphy is being overpraised for his performance in “Dreamgirls.” (His last number had me thinking of “James Brown’s Celebrity Hot Tub Party.”) Djimon Hounsou in “Blood Diamond” I didn’t see.

And sorry, Marky Mark… if anybody deserves an acting nomination for “The Departed,” it’s Alec Baldwin.

For Supporting Actress, I’ll be rooting for Jennifer Hudson, because she did rock that showstopper, didn’t she? But Abigail Breslin might cop for “Little Miss Sunshine.” Hollywood lurvs that movie; I kinda like it too.

For Adapted Screenplay, here’s a chance for “Children of Men” to win something (along with Cinematography), though Alfonso Cuaron was straight-up robbed in the Director category.

Original Screenplay? I need to see some more movies, but “Little Miss Sunshine” sounds like a safe bet.

Animated Feature Film? “Happy Feet” all the way, babe… those cute little penguins… they were singin’! Except for that one… remember, the tap-dancing one? Wasn't that a trip when he started tap-dancing?… Boy, I was laughin’ and grinnin'… penguins…

What was I saying?… Oh, right. Mother-FUCK a Marky Mark!!

Monday, January 22, 2007

Q&A: David Simon (pt. 1)

I’ve known David Simon for 26 years, going back to our college newspaper days at the University of Maryland. Now he’s one of the best writers in television.

Simon was just in Los Angeles, where he collected an AFI Award for “The Wire.” He’s gearing up for the fifth and farewell season of that HBO hit, and more awards will surely rain down on him before all is said and done.

I’ve never had a deep discussion with Simon about politics, though he’s always been on the Left and I’ve lately slid towards the Right. Being that “The Wire” is as much political treatise as urban drama, I figured it’d be cool to hang with Simon in his Santa Monica hotel room with my tape recorder running.
DAVID MILLS: I heard your HBO podcast, where you pretty much say you believe in class warfare and soaking the rich. Are you a socialist?

DAVID SIMON: No, I’m a social democrat. I believe in capitalism as the only viable motivating force to create wealth. But I believe that there have to be certain social frameworks that allow for a distribution of a share of that wealth throughout the classes. …

That is not to say that I think they should get an equal share. Or “to each according to his needs.” The impulse towards Marxism is not there. But I do believe that raw, unencumbered capitalism, absent any social framework, absent any sense of community, without regard to the weakest and most vulnerable classes in society – it’s a recipe for needless pain, needless human waste, needless tragedy, and ultimately a coarsening of our society.

MILLS: Okay. Let’s apply that to the fourth season of “The Wire.” You might have seen, I mixed it up on the discussion boards at Slate –

SIMON: I did.

MILLS: And there’s a hip-hop blogger named Byron Crawford, and at the end of the season he wrote a piece. Listen to what he said: “Kids like Namond and his peers can’t cut it education-wise because their ignorant-ass parents could care less whether or not they do well in school. Not because they’re naturally dumb or because the school needs new computers or whatever.” He put it on the parents. He got 217 comments.

SIMON: He did his job, didn’t he? (laughs)

MILLS: Yeah. And one black teacher said, “Racism isn’t the reason Tyrone can’t read. The achievement gap exists because black parents don’t support/reinforce learning in the household.”

Some people, when I commented on Slate, resented the introduction of the concept of personal responsibility into a discussion of “The Wire.”

SIMON: That’s as fucked up as accepting capitalism as the ultimate arbiter of morality. Listen, I always use this quote – it might be Churchill but I can’t remember: “The sign of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two seemingly opposing ideas at the same time.” “The Wire” Season Four presented both elements.

It presented a city and a society that really had no use for the class of African Americans in West Baltimore that they were pretending to educate. They were pretending to educate them for the society, and the kids on some level were pretending to be educated, but ultimately they were being trained to be cannon fodder for the corner. So we depicted a society that was quite cynical in its pretensions to equality of opportunity. I think that’s fair.

If you look at the themes of “The Wire” going back through all seasons, there’s been an argument that the triumph of capitalism is the creation of wealth and the diminution of labor. The corner boys are more and more expendable; the cops who know their business are more and more expendable; the longshoremen are more and more expendable; the East European and Russian prostitutes who are coming in in boxes – Every day, human beings are worth less. That is the triumph of capital. … The more we become post-industrial, the fewer we need. Every minute, human beings are worth less.

However, that people are often complicit in degrading themselves is also in “The Wire” at points. And in this very key season where we were looking at these kids, we were very careful to include the parenting. With the exception of Randy’s foster mom – and telling you it’s a foster mom – and ultimately Colvin and his wife, taking their empty nest and making a place for Namond, the parenting is abysmal.

We were issuing a challenge on the other side. All of these societal hypocrisies may be true, and all of their reduced expectations and reduced need for these kids from West Baltimore in terms of the greater economy, the greater society, may be true. And we may be marginalizing them from birth. That does not absolve you, in the sense of being parents with personal responsibility, personal choice, from exercising your own demand for dignity and existential purpose and relevance for you and your kids. We were saying both simultaneously.

There’s a lot to indict the school system in Baltimore for. But the other thing that has to be acknowledged is, they’re not inheriting kids who are coming in in the same situation as in the counties, black or white. These county educators that want to apply county solutions – and also lay people who want to comment on the Internet about how, “If the kids would just do this” or “If the school system would just do that” – it’s really ignoring a fundamental thing that I think Season Four did say, which is that a lot of damage has already been done, even in these kids’ earliest years, clearly. And the expectations can’t be that high. It’s not fair.

Conversely, if the expectations aren’t that high, then what are we doing there? What I thought was very true was Colvin saying, “We’re pretending.” We’re pretending to have solutions, we’re pretending that we can resolve this, and it’s more profound. Ultimately what he does is to literally seize one kid and say, “I’m gonna take responsibility for you,” in a world where nobody’s taking responsibility for anything. Not the school system, not the parents, not anybody.

The other thing that I’m amazed at with “The Wire,” and I have to say – because “The Wire” has been embraced by the hip-hop world as their show – I have nothing but contempt for the more-gangster-than-thou attitudes of hip-hop. It’s just horseshit. It’s just self-destructive horseshit. “I’ve been wounded so many times so I have something to say about how people should be.” Well, they shouldn’t be out on a corner getting shot. …

MILLS: People, particularly those who comment on the HBO boards, are reading the show as if it’s just a soap opera of their daily lives, and they’re applying their own morals –

SIMON: When I started reading that shit about how Namond was a punk, and Namond deserves to get got, I’d be reading this shit and going: “He’s 14 fucking years old! He deserves a childhood! He deserves to be 14 years old somewhere in America and be worried about whether or not he’s gonna get with some girl that he’s got a crush on, and whether or not his fucking social studies paper is gonna come back with a C or better.

“We’ve created a character that’s basically at the precipice of being hurled into the drug culture, and you people are pissed off because he’s not jumping in with both feet? You are fucked up! You are culturally destructive and self-destructive.”

MILLS: But here’s the thing. Isn’t that a danger of even telling a story about gangsters? This applies to earlier seasons too, when there was this love affair that people had with Stringer Bell.

SIMON: It’s the same problem with “The Sopranos.” Point-of-view is a powerful thing. Point-of-view grants a character a lot of humanity if you do it right. I think all the cues have been there for why Tony Soprano is an asshole and a hypocrite and an elementally destructive force in his family and in his community. And I don’t think David Chase has been equivocal. But he’s also given the primary point-of-view in that narrative to Tony Soprano. So if the audience isn’t careful – and a lot of viewers of television are not careful – the audience acquires a point-of-view that is corruptive and corrosive.

MILLS: But it couldn’t be any other way. Because who wants to tune in every week and see a show about a guy they don’t like or respect?

SIMON: And the truth is, I really do reject the idea of good and evil. I’m not particularly interested in that. “The Wire” is really more interested in social determinism. Not to say that people on “The Wire” don’t do bad things. … Some characters, because of the place they occupy in the life of this simulated city, their capacity for doing things that society would recognize as being good is greater than their capacity for doing bad.

“I’m a cop and I’m trying to do this wire-tap case against a guy who’s doing illegal things.” The chance that he’s going to be societally as destructive as a gangster is pretty minimal, though he may have incredibly cynical and destructive moments, personally and professionally. And vice versa. If he’s a gangster, his chance for doing damage is considerably more, although he may have moments of extraordinary humanity. But I don’t approach writing any of these characters as if, “Well, he’s a bad guy.”

Even Marlo. I look upon Marlo as the ultimate social-determinist outcome of gangster culture taken to its natural extreme. Eventually somebody decides, in a purely Machiavellian sense, “I’ll get to the point of being Hitler. I’ll get to the point of being utterly draconian in my pursuit of power.” But I don’t even regard Marlo as being necessarily good or evil. He just is. And I think that way about all the characters.

MILLS: Based on what you just said, you’re making a comment about Marlo that goes over the heads of a lot of viewers who just think Marlo’s the shit –

SIMON: Absolutely.

MILLS: “Marlo’s the man.”

SIMON: “You gotta be like Marlo.” And you know what? I’m not sure you can do anything with somebody thinking that way before you show them “The Wire” or after you show them “The Wire.” If that’s their state of mind going into any cultural experience, what are you gonna do?

If you look at the outcomes for these gangsters – We devoured the Barksdales. They’re either all in jail or dead. Basically what we’ve said was, “If it seemed like they were controlling events, look again. This is a Greek tragedy. All their hubris, all of their vanity, all their sound and fury, it amounted to death and marginalization.” Much like the longshoremen, much like the cops who buck the system. The thing is a Greek tragedy.

So much of American drama – Look at “The Shield.” Not to get into “The Shield” specifically, but nothing is more the quintessential American dramatic impulse than to make the individual bigger than the institutions which he serves. Vic Mackey, he is the id that rages well beyond the L.A.P.D. It’s “What is he capable of? What is he not capable of?”

“The Wire” has not only gone the opposite way, it’s resisted the idea that, in this post-modern America, individuals triumph over institutions. The institution is always bigger. It doesn’t tolerate that degree of individuality on any level for any length of time. These moments of epic characterization are inherently false. They’re all rooted in, like, old Westerns or something. Guy rides into town, cleans up the town, rides out of town.

There’s no cleaning it up anymore. There’s no riding in, there’s no riding out. The town is what it is.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Ain’t that a bitch?

I hate when I embarrass myself, but it tends to happen frequently. Like on Tuesday, when I accused a black woman of being a white drag queen.

Yeah. Oops.

As I wrote here a couple of weeks ago, I’m a fan of “AngryBlackBitch,” an anonymous blogger in St. Louis who kicks it with style and wit and an edge, whether the topic is President Bush (a.k.a. “Scooter B.”), sexual mores or the tao of “bitchitude.”

She goes by the name “Shark-Fu.” And in lieu of a photo (because a bitch seems to value her privacy), her blogger profile has an illustrated logo – a silhoutte of a hugely afroed soul sister with the blog title superimposed; color scheme is red, black, green and gold.

All cool.

So the other night, I’m Googling to see who all has written about this bitch. And I come across an October 2005 piece in the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alternative weekly. It hailed AngryBlackBitch as the “local blog o’ the week.” But then, check this out:

Author: Shark-Fu and Rob Thurman

About the bloggers: Shark-Fu is the title character. Rob Thurman is also angry, but white and male.”

Now, doesn’t that make it sound like “Shark-Fu” is a fictional character, and Rob Thurman is the actual author of this blog?

My head started to spin. Had I been suckered by some white guy?

I recognized the name “Rob Thurman” because he’s mentioned occasionally in AngryBlackBitch, as Shark-Fu’s close friend, former co-worker and “blogfather.” I figured: If Rob Thurman is actually AngryBlackBitch, it would make sense for him to mention himself as a separate person. Maybe it was all part of the joke.

It so happens that Rob Thurman has his own blog, so I checked that out for more clues. I found out he’s gay. A drag queen, in fact. And among his other personal revelations is this:

Growing up in the 70's, I was amazed by afros, platform shoes and women's lib.

My southern upbringing had a somewhat liberal twist to it..and I would spend some summers with my sister in Ohio.

Her friends were Black Panthers and Drag Queens.

When I saw Foxy Brown for the first time, my youth became alive again.

Oh shit. It all fits together. The huge afro, the red, black, green and gold. If any white guy would go through the trouble of creating an elaborate alter ego as an angry black bitch, it’s Rob Thurman.

In retrospect, a couple of AngryBlackBitch’s posts did make me scratch my chin. Like when she saluted Dolly Parton. (“[T]his bitch adores Dolly Parton. … Shit, she’s fabulous!”) And when she wrote that she longs to be in a John Waters movie.

Well slap my ass and call me Martha! I like to think of myself as someone who’s not easily fooled. Now, I felt like the one dumb straight guy who wasn’t in on the joke.

So I emailed “Shark-Fu” and asked flat out: “Is ‘Angry Black Bitch’ a fictional persona? … Are you Rob Thurman? If so, do most of your readers know? Or, like, do half know the truth, and the other half think you're a real black woman? And is that part of the fun for you, part of your blog's reason for being?”

Her reply came the next morning. “Oh my!” she began. “Rob Thurman and this bitch are not the same person, though we are great friends.” During the week that the Riverfront Times singled out AngryBlackBitch for praise, she explained, Rob Thurman happened to be guest-posting (under his own name) while Shark-Fu was on vacation. (I checked out the archives; it’s true.)

“I am as I have always been,” she continued, “a black woman who enjoys some Dolly, Funk music and soul food.” And she promised to post a picture of herself on her blog, “just for you.”

Sure enough, in yesterday's post titled “Clearing shit up once more…,” Shark-Fu dealt with my inquiry. Quite politely, too. Rather than use her dagger-like wit to carve me an auxiliary rectum, a bitch took mercy and didn’t even identify me by name. She blogged thusly:

A bitch is black… well, actually I’m more of a warm Hershey brown color (wink)… and has been since birth.

I am a woman.

I’m not
always angry, but something pisses me off at least once a day which is a good thing since a bitch doesn’t have time to fret about content for this blog space.


No, Brother Rob Thurman is not playing the part of an AngryBlackBitch on-line. Lawd, y’all think that man is clever as hell… which he is… but St. Louis is a rather small town and even Brother Rob couldn’t have pulled that shit off for more than a month… two months max.

And she did post that photo: a kiddie shot of her with Spider-Man. She’s rocking the afro puffs, cute as a button.

Good to know a bitch can be taken at her word.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Remembering Leon Forrest (pt. 2)

Here’s more of my 1993 interview with novelist Leon Forrest. We pick up after I sat in on one of his classes at Northwestern, during which he discussed Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.”
LEON FORREST: Literature, I must say, saved my life. I’d be over there on skid row if it wasn’t for literature. (laughs)

DAVID MILLS: Golly. How do you mean?

FORREST: Literature, in teaching it and also trying to write it, gave me something extraordinary to live for. Because generally, and ‘bout nearly every other way, I’m an enormously mediocre to even less-than-average person. I was never good at anything particularly. In a crowd of people I never was able to assert my voice. But seemingly this was the one thing that gave me something to live for.

Also, I think, too, life has always to me been filled with chaos. And it’s in literature that I find some pattern, some order, in the misery and the heartbreak and the folly of life. The one place where I can find some leverage.

Concerning something like Dostoevsky, who goes to chaos – he’s drawn to it, and sees this as the way life is – then, out of that, to find a pattern, or to create a pattern. Well, this can be very instructive, I think, for people generally. …

I’ve got to, I feel, sort of awaken these students to the power and lyricism of things.

MILLS: Now that’s a job, right there.

FORREST: That’s a job. It’s hard to get people willing to surrender their attention and mind and soul to what is obviously very passionate literature. So that’s a problem.

MILLS: They made me read “Crime and Punishment” in high school. And I haven’t read a novel since high school. It is not a part of my living. I can remember nothing about the book, having had to read it, and having had to read “Wuthering Heights” and “Jude the Obscure” and stuff like that. I’ve become a writer, yet I don’t have a passion for reading. Because it just seems very demanding. I don’t read very fast –

FORREST: I don’t read very fast either.

MILLS: It takes a great commitment of time. I just don’t find myself with the discipline –

FORREST: This is a problem in the modern world. That everything is given to us through these images. Even the J-schools teach you to write in short sentences and short paragraphs. But it’s an unfortunate thing that’s happened in society. We’ve moved away from this reverence for literature. That if it takes, say, two or three weeks to read a novel of this length, that the rewards will be life-sustaining. And that it will be something that you can return to all of your life.

There are books like this that I’ve been reading since I was a young man, or sometimes even when I was in high school, and I’m still reading and learning from. Well, that’s what I’d like to do as a novelist about the black experience. To offer something that could be enriching the way “Invisible Man” has been for me. I’ve been reading it since I was about 18.

MILLS: When did it happen for you, your love for it?

FORREST: I was sort of in love with writing, in the way that a young man is passionate about a woman or something, when I was in my teens. But the thing that attracted me to literature then was the emotion of language, the romance of it. It was much later that I began to realize, if I was going to be a writer – and a good serious reader – that I would have to develop intellectually.

That’s quite different from music, for instance. I can appreciate a lot of music without expending a lot of intellectual energy for it. Music, in that sense, seems to be more native, I guess. Even when you’re talking about some classical music and certain difficult jazz musicians.

But literature is primarily the life of the mind and the spirit. It’s a much more intellectual enterprise, and it demands a much more sustained memory, sustained reflection and sustained commitment to time. Writing is a kind of priesthood, in a sense. I didn’t feel this way when I was a young man. I wanted to write very much, but I didn’t know of the extraordinary commitment that it takes. I mean, writing demands everything.

MILLS: When did you come to know this?

FORREST: When I got out of the Army in 1962, I had dropped out of college, and I was getting over several things – a big romance I had been involved in, and perhaps even more importantly the death of my mother. So I went to a professor I had at the University of Chicago I was very fond of, and learned quite a bit from him in the classes I had taken with him. And I showed him something I had been writing, the beginning of a novel. Maybe about 100 pages of it.

He was rather surprised at some of the progress in there, but he wasn’t overly encouraging. So I said, “Do you think I ought to go on and commit myself?” Not to the madhouse, but to writing. He was also a short-story writer…

MILLS: What’s his name?

FORREST: His name was Perrin Lowrey. He was an interesting Southern white man. He knew Ellison, and he was also interested in jazz. But he said, “Why don’t you go on and try?” He says, “One thing for sure: If you don’t, you’ll always be miserable.”

I suppose I was ready to make a break for it anyway. But that was a turning point in my life. It was late; I was in my late 20s then. I had been sort of fumbling around with writing. Dropping in and out, moving from wanting to be a poet to a fiction writer.

So what I did for a long time was to work for newspapers, where I would only work maybe 30 hours a week, and I could write in the morning or in the evening when I came home. Since I was single, it was enough money to support myself. As the journalism career began to develop more and more, I finally did work full-time when I went to Muhammad Speaks. By then I was in my early 30s. I got married when I was 34. So I was doing both; I would write at work, and then come home in the evenings and pursue the novel.

My first novel was accepted for publication in 1971. It was published in ’73, with Toni Morrison [as editor] there at Random House.

MILLS: As critics have noted since “Divine Days” came out, you have not received your due. With so much of yourself invested in the writing, how important is it to you that, in your lifetime, you be recognized?

FORREST: I think I worry more about the books being recognized. Because when I’m gone, the books’ll be here.

All the time we were talking today about Dostoevsky, we weren’t really talking about him, we were talking about “Crime and Punishment.” I can’t be here years from now and say, “Listen, readers, didn’t you see this and that in the book?” The books will have to live or die on their own power and merit.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Remembering Leon Forrest (pt. 1)

Last Monday marked the 70th anniversary of the birth of Leon Forrest, the Chicago novelist who died of cancer in 1997. Forrest completed only four novels in his lifetime, but he left his mark on American letters.

Forrest’s novels are “among the major works of his generation,” according to Prof. John G. Cawelti of the University of Kentucky. Forrest “wrote beautiful fiction that contributed to the sustenance and the growth of black culture and black life,” writes Howard University’s Dana A. Williams.

That Leon Forrest never gained popular acclaim is due, no doubt, to the “difficulty” of his modernist prose. His magnum opus, “Divine Days,” weighing in at more than 1,100 pages, strove to do for Chicago what Joyce’s “Ulysses” did for Dublin. (“Divine Days,” upon its release in 1992, was championed by Sven Birkerts, Stanley Crouch and Arnold Rampersad. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., calls it the “War and Peace” of African-American literature.)

Forrest was a “race man” in the old-fashioned sense, a proud portraitist of the black American “folk.” But in an era when the ideology of Afrocentrism – and the Black Arts Movement before it – rejected white aesthetic standards, Leon Forrest looked to Faulkner and Shakespeare and the Russian masters as primary influences. And was unashamed to say so.

I interviewed Leon Forrest in 1993, during his tenure as chairman of African-American studies at Northwestern University. Here is some of our conversation:
DAVID MILLS: Is there a conflict between honoring the particularity of the black American experience – and black American art – and its universality also? In terms of “Divine Days,” you’re up-front about wanting it to be considered a great novel per se –

LEON FORREST: Sure. I was out to write the great American novel. Not the great black American novel.

MILLS: But is built into that a desire or a need to appeal to a literary establishment that is overwhelmingly white? In other words, this isn’t a book for the folk.

FORREST: Well, no, but it’s about the folk all over the place. I write, I must say, for serious readers. And those serious readers might be in black Baptist churches, they might be in synagogues. I don’t have any problem, because I’m a black American, so I would expect that I would appeal to a broad range of people. I certainly never have been Afrocentric in that sense.

I am always searching for ways in which I can take the richness of the black experience, the folk material, and project it to the highest levels of thought, of sensibility and creativity. I like to think that I try to do more with the ranges of black voices – as much as any writer.

But I also must remind myself that I’m a novelist. So I go and hear a sermon by a black preacher, I don’t wanna simply turn on the tape recorder and imitate what he’s doing. I wanna take it to another level. And it’s in taking this to another level that we are enriched by literature, by art.

Don’t forget, the slaves and the blacks after slavery mingled their experiences with the stories of the Jews and their struggle in the Old Testament, and the story of the New Testament. This is how we got Negro spirituals. Nobody ever puts down Negro spirituals because they’re talkin’ ‘bout “Go down, Moses… Let my people go.”

MILLS: What was your literary awakening as a reader? Did you read as a kid? Was it part of the family?

FORREST: Very much so. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. Both parents went to about two or three years of high school. But my parents had this ethos of the lower middle class. My father was a bartender on the Santa Fe Railroad, and he travelled a lot, and Daddy wrote lyrics to songs. My mother used to try to write, had sent some stories off to magazines. Never were published or anything.

My father would read to us when he was home from the railroad. My father had a very nice reading voice, and he used to like to read a lot. I used to read to my mother, my mother would read to me. … My great-grandmother lived with us until I was 9, and I would read the Old Testament with her. She only had gone to about fourth grade and had trained herself to read. So there was a lot of reading going on in the household.

And then, of course, I was born in 1937, so the radio was still popular when I was growing up. We didn’t get a television till I was about 14, so I was saved from that, you know. There were all these wonderful dramatic voices to listen to on the radio. …

The creation of literature may be a miracle, but the processes which you must go through are not miraculous at all. The whole business is that there’s a library underneath the letters. And the writer must find this library, by one means or another, or he or she will never develop as a serious writer. I know [Ralph] Ellison quite well, and his library in his home is probably as large as many community libraries in the city.

MILLS: So when did you start to conceive of yourself as a writer?

FORREST: I would say that I began to want to write long before I knew it consciously. And the writers who were very influential would’ve been Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Wright, Emily Dickinson.

I went to a very good black grade school, and one of the chores we had was to create a Negro history notebook, a scrapbook. And our English teacher had taught us some of the works of Langston Hughes; we became aware of Wright, we became aware of Sterling Brown.

I went to a predominately white, Jewish high school, but I had this background by then in black letters to a degree, and I was on the creative writing magazine. And the first story I wrote was a story on Dr. George Washington Carver. Even though I went to a predominately white high school, I still lived in a black neighborhood, so I had this kind of back-and-forth.

That’s in some ways been the story of my life, being involved in the white world and at the same time based in a certain Negro setting. Even here, I’m teaching at a predominately white university, [but] I teach out of a black American context basically. Then I try to enlarge it by seeing how African-American letters are influenced by other writers. Let’s see how our work stands up. I’m very interested in seeing how “Invisible Man” stands up to Dostoevsky. Or how Wright, who was influenced by Dostoevsky quite a bit, stands up.

And I don’t see any dilemma here. I don’t see a schizophrenia here. I see a possibility for continual advancement of the race.

MILLS: Here again, I’m not an Afrocentrist, I’ve just been thinking a lot about that line of thought. If we talk about Shakespeare, whom you allude to often, definitely with love – Does Shakespeare belong to you?

FORREST: Oh sure. All those people belong to me. That’s our Western library. I would say that it’s in Shakespeare where you find the greatest, probably, psychological and spiritual development of characters. Therefore I must read him. That certainly would be true with the great Russian writers.

Also, with the Russian writers, you have so many of the problems we face. The whole idea of the relationship of Europe to the Russian sensibility. Russians were fighting like hell in the 19th century about “How much are we Westernized?” and “How much are we Slavicized?” Certainly the idea of an oppressed people, the idea of a Russian soul struggle, which was an argument over “Who am I spiritually, intellectually and emotionally?” That’s very much like our battle.

Young people are very much caught up with Malcolm X. My God, that’s his story – a soul struggle, who he was spiritually, intellectually, racially. This was thought out not only in this country but in the Slavic countries. So you can be enriched by the experience of other people’s battles, and you can find the techniques to help you with your own struggle.

Obviously the issue of racism is a particular one for we of African descent. So I may not look to European letters for that; I know about that. (laughs) But I wanna know about other things. …

And the whites don’t have any problem [with this]. I mean, they’re expropriating our stuff all over the place. Some of my white friends that have a large jazz collection, larger than many blacks, I can’t say, “That’s not your music, that’s mine.” It came out of a culture that I came out of, but jazz now belongs to everybody.

And as we’re seeing now, blues belongs to everybody. And that’s black as you can get. But you go in these clubs in Chicago, 75 percent or more of the people in there are whites, young whites.

MILLS: And there are people who resent that, too.

FORREST: Yeah. A lot of people say, “Well, do they appreciate it?” Well, I don’t know, but they’re paying their money, they’re sitting there listening to it. And I’m sure the black blues musicians are glad to have anybody.

MILLS: I think it took some courage for you to satirize the Nation of Islam the way you do in “Divine Days.” And you served as editor of Muhammad Speaks, even though you weren’t a Muslim. Why was it important for you to critique them?

FORREST: Let me say, first of all, there are a lot of things I admire about the Muslims. Mom-and-pop stores, and the fact that they’ve done a lot of things that built up a certain amount of courage within black people. The way they dealt with the underclass; nobody else wanted to.

But like any movement, it has much in it that needs to be satirized. I look at satire as a cleansing, and as a way of never taking oneself too seriously. Also, satire is a way of cutting back on this dangerous sentimentality that we are developing. No matter what level of refinement or bullshit is involved, we tend to say, “Oh well, you know, I don’t wanna criticize a brother, I don’t wanna criticize a sister.” … We need that. And I feel that way about the Muslims. I admire certain things about ‘em; some of it needs to be satirized. Certainly the whole racist thing about whites being devils and so on.

Now, I was also aware that to awaken this man at the bottom, he needs something almost like an electric shock to the backbone. And that shock is very much a force of nationalism. That was very important in the early stages of awakening consciousness. Where it becomes dangerous is when it veers over into racism.

It’s one thing for me to say, “Our people are a helluva people, we have a destiny,” and so on. But it’s another thing for me to say, “And your people are inferior.” That does just great damage, because it means that I cut myself off from exposing myself to other groups and their enrichment and their development and their technology.

In terms of the nationalism, that was very successful. You can do. You can have these stores, you can have a newspaper, you can protect your women. This is very healthy. But then, after nationalism, you’ve got to reach out. “Now I’m up again as a man, I’m a very proud man.” Next thing you do is venture out into the world. Not to withdraw and say, “These people are inherently inferior. And I’m a God.” That’s very dangerous.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

T&A Q&A: Vanessa Del Rio

'Twas nearly 20 years ago that I met legendary porn star Vanessa Del Rio and interviewed her for the Washington Times. She’d quit the adult-film business to do another kind of pumping – pumping iron, as in bodybuilding. Duly remembered for her on-screen gusto, Del Rio turned out to be a cool, down-to-earth person with a brain and a sense of humor.

Cut to 1995. I'm on the writing staff of “NYPD Blue.” I decide to pitch a story about a porn star being stalked by an obsessed fan. I wanted to cast Vanessa Del Rio as Vanessa Del Rio. Amazingly, boss David Milch allowed this. (Actually, she had to do a screen test. Kid you not.)

I figured it’d be fun if Detective Martinez (Nick Turturro) happened to be a fan of hers. (Yo, policemen dig Vanessa Del Rio. Years ago, some on-duty cops in D.C. got caught waiting in line for her to sign autographs.) Alas, David Milch said it would damage Martinez as a character if we portrayed him as a porno hound, so I came up with a “buddy” who could express the requisite excitement about Martinez’s XXX encounter.

Coincidentally, there was an odd little Vanessa Del Rio revival happening in the pop culture during the mid-‘90s. She appeared in a Junior M.A.F.I.A. rap video; Vibe magazine did a write-up on her. To this day, Vanessa remains one of the living legends of porn. (Note to self: Persuade Eva Mendes to make “The Vanessa Del Rio Story.” It’s the role she was born to play!)

Between the filming of that “NYPD Blue” episode and its February ’96 airdate, I rang up Vanessa Del Rio at her Brooklyn home and interviewed her for a now-defunct website. Here’s that interview:
DAVID MILLS: I never got a chance to ask you how you enjoyed doing the "NYPD Blue" episode. Was it a good experience?

VANESSA DEL RIO: It was nerve-wracking because I was so nervous. (laughs) I was overwhelmed by it. My mouth felt like it was full of marbles, my tongue was all tied up. But then after a while I got loose.

MILLS: The fact that you'd perfomed in more than a hundred movies, that didn’t make you comfortable being in front of the camera this time?

DEL RIO: Basically, being in front of a camera I have done before. I have even said in my interviews that what I was worried about most, even when I did the X films, was being able to say my lines right. So that's the most nerve-wracking thing. Just watching everybody work, how many takes they do, because we never did that [in porn]. It was just two takes, three takes, then hope for the best, you know. And this was like fifteen rehearsals and fifteen takes.

MILLS: Did you get to talk with any of the main actors?

DEL RIO: I keep telling everybody: My one big line with Jimmy Smits is "Excuse me." (laughs) They're all asking me, "How is everybody?" I say, "They're all so sweet." Everybody was really nice. I got everybody to sign my script.

MILLS: Could this lead to more acting work for you? Would you want that?

DEL RIO: Yeah. I mean, I wasn't looking for it. Everybody's kind of shocked that I wasn't going to stay out there [in California] and look for more work. I didn't even have my SAG card, this is the first thing I've done. I hadn't been in front of a camera in like ten years.

If something comes of it, sure, I'd love it. They work so hard that I say: Gee, what's the motivating factor in wanting to be a movie star? It cannot be money, because there could be a million people and maybe two make it, right? It's definitely a drive of the ego. Because you can go into real estate and start making money, so that's not the motivating factor, to become rich and famous. I think it's famous, then rich.

MILLS: I hear Vibe magazine got a ton of feedback from that article they did on you. How many letters did they get? Did they let you know?

DEL RIO: I got about two thousand letters.

MILLS: Wow. When did you realize you're now kind of a hip-hop icon, getting mentioned in rap songs?

DEL RIO: I never really get full of myself or anything like that. I just hear about it and I think it's neat. I've met a few of the groups, as way back as Digital Underground. I've been mentioned in a lot of stuff. Who else? Chubb Rock, just a whole bunch of them.

MILLS: And the video you did – ?

DEL RIO: "Get Money," the Junior M.A.F.I.A. thing? That just crossed over onto MTV. I ran into the editor, oddly enough, at my bank here in my neighborhood. He says, "Oh I edited the video. Do you know that it's like really popular?" The other day I was watching MTV late. What is it, "Rap MTV"?

MILLS: "Yo MTV Raps"?

DEL RIO: Right, right. And I was clicking to see if I was on there. And sure enough, there I was.

Somebody called me about doing another rap video. But I kinda have to sift through and see which ones, because I don't want to just do it for the sake of doing it. I want to know who they are.

MILLS: When we talked almost ten years ago, when you quit porn, you were into bodybuilding and you wanted to do self-help and self-esteem lectures for women. What became of that?

DEL RIO: I was trying to investigate about doing stuff in the prisons. But there was a lot of red tape; it wasn't going to be as easy as I thought. I actually went to an NA [Narcotics Anonymous] meeting, because somebody was trying to help me figure out how to get into the system that way. Still, it was kind of hard to get in there.

I still work out. I'm not into bodybuilding the way I used to be, because that was an obsession, and how long can you keep an obsession up? I was supposed to compete. I had a competition all set up, but then I also got an offer to go to Italy to do a signing and some conventions. And their seven-course meals blew my diet. (laughs) And there's no way you're gonna refuse an Italian a meal, you know.

MILLS: How do you make a living now?

DEL RIO: I still dance a little. I do autograph signings at video stores. And I do a magazine or two to keep my name out there. And that's it. No movies or anything like that.

MILLS: Had you ever been tempted to go back into X-rated films?

DEL RIO: No. Just recently though I was made an offer, and I turned it down. It's just not worth it to me. I've found other ways, like the dancing and the autograph signings. The movies have never tempted me. For one, they're all in California and I live here in New York, so I don't know anybody in the business anymore, it's completely changed. Just recently I went to a Consumer Electronics Show where everybody was there, so I was made a few offers. And I'm like, nope, nope, nope. I'm not interested in going back to making those movies.

MILLS: Some people might say, if you're doing topless dancing, what's the difference between that and the movies?

DEL RIO: Well, it's the difference between stage and film, I suppose. The moment is yours on stage. Doing the movies, you're having sex, and it's not safe these days. Stage is safe, you know. It's just you up there.

MILLS: Last question. You say you don't get full of yourself, but you've got to face the fact, particularly now with the videos and the Vibe magazine and the two thousand letters – Out of all the women who've ever made X-rated movies, what is it about you, do you think, that ten years after you stopped making them, people are still talking about you, and are interested in Vanessa?

DEL RIO: I'm still trying to figure that out. I'm like: What'd I do? There's gotta be something. So I don't know. I guess it was an abandon that I did it with? I can't really pinpoint that. I'm just grateful that it's happening.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Unseen scene: 'Mayor of Baltimore'

For the past nine years, I’ve been in the TV pilot game. That means every summer, I conceive an idea for a new drama series, then go pitch that idea to various network executives. If the pitch gets bought, I then write the pilot script… and hope and pray that it gets produced.

That’s usually where I fall off the merry-go-round. I’ve got a lot of unproduced pilots laying around.

Just so all that work doesn’t go to waste, I’ll be sharing some scenes here on the blog, and I’ll talk about the art and the business of television writing. First up, a scene from “Mayor of Baltimore,” which almost got made.

In 2000, director-producer Dan Sackheim approached me with an idea. He wanted to do a city-hall show. “The West Wing” was hot, so Dan imagined a cross between “West Wing” and “Hill Street Blues.” Sounded good to me. (Still does.) Dan and I developed the idea together, and CBS bought our pitch.

Having just produced “The Corner” for HBO with David Simon, I figured Baltimore would be a good setting for a gritty show about urban politics. And with Jesse Ventura in office as governor of Minnesota, I figured our mayor could be an ex-athlete. An ex-Baltimore Oriole. Get a nice manly white actor in his 40s, like a Chris Noth… hey, who wouldn’t watch it?

My first two drafts of “Mayor of Baltimore” didn’t rock CBS’s world. But boss Nina Tassler liked the concept enough to carry the project over into the 2001 development season. My third draft really rang her chimes, and CBS gave us a “cast-contingent” pick-up. Which meant they would pay to produce the pilot if we found the right star to play MAYOR TOMMY OSINSKI. (Our character was a Polish working-class salt-of-the-earth type.)

Well, we never did find the right star, and the pilot never got shot.

There’s a scene I like early in the script, where Tommy goes to lead a group of Catholic-school teenagers on a personal tour of City Hall. With him is his right-hand man, BOB CHANG. (I made him Asian because I patterned him after “Homicide” writer-producer Jim Yoshimura.)

Series television is all about the characters. Viewers tune in every week because they like spending time with these make-believe people. And my greatest fun professionally is figuring out how to make a character come alive on the page. I think this scene demonstrates that:


Twenty EIGHTH-GRADERS -- male and female, black and white, all low-income -- from Mother Seton Academy. And the principal, SISTER MARY BADER. Tommy hugs her; Chang smiles.
Sister Mary, I'm sorry I kept you waiting.

It's good to see you. Everyone, say hello to Mayor Osinski.
The Eighth-Graders greet him with mild enthusiasm.
This is Bob Chang, my Press Secretary. We're both big fans of Mother Seton Academy. So, any questions before I start the tour?

You really played for the Orioles?

Yes, I sure did. But that's ancient history.

My dad said you rode the bench a lot. He said you couldn't hit right-handers.

Your dad said that? No, the Orioles had a 'platoon' system...

He said you couldn't throw either. He said you had a rag arm.

I was no superstar, we'll leave it at that. Now let's talk about this cool building, it's almost a hundered years old. Look overhead, this beautiful rotunda...
(then, to WHITE KID)
Tell me one thing, though. Does your dad have a World Series ring?
Tommy shows off his HUGE RING; the Students gather around. Chang's cell phone BLEEPS, he moves aside to answer it.
You only got one hit.

One hit, right. Why don't you tell everybody what that hit was. A two-run double. Off who? Off who, you smart-ass? Steve Carlton! Go home and ask your daddy who Steve Carlton is...
Chang moves to pull Tommy aside. At first, Tommy thinks it's about his outburst. But Chang has a look of deep anguish.
Tommy... Wozniak got shot.
On Tommy, shocked speechless,