LIFE ON THE FRINGE For the story of lost souls and slivers of hope on a dark, drug-infested corner of Baltimore, by-the-book journalism wouldn't work. Former Sun reporter David Simon made human contact.


David Simon knows the rules. He has been a journalist a long time. You do what it takes, you get the story, and then you walk away.

Otherwise you get too close. Otherwise you're bailing sources out of jail, or finding jobs for people, or listening as some card-carrying member of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters chews on you:

"You're going to have to do something about DeAndre."

"What'd he do?"

"He's been mouthing off to Kenny. He'd better watch it. Kenny'll let him have it."

"I'll talk to him."

DeAndre McCullough started work recently with the caterer for "Homicide," the television show set in Baltimore. Simon, one of the show's producers and writers, helped get him the job. He tries to help DeAndre as much as he can; he figures it's the least he can do.

But mouthing off to a Teamster? Simon doesn't need this. It's after midnight at the MTA subway stop on Broadway, near Johns Hopkins Hospital. The "Homicide" crew is filming here all night. It's Simon's job to help supervise the filming.

He looks tired, but the pace only promises to quicken. In a few days Simon's new book -- "The Corner, A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood" -- will arrive in bookstores, followed by an exhausting promotion schedule. National Public Radio wants him; "Nightline," too; maybe Oprah. This is the kind of book that reviewers will describe as important and disturbing. Attention will be paid.

Co-written with Edward Burns, a retired Baltimore police detective, "The Corner" describes what happened in 1993 at the corner of West Fayette and Monroe streets, one of 100 open-air drug markets in the city that the authors compare to a watering hole in the natural world.

"Twenty-four, seven they come, lured by coke and dope, ignoring the risks and dangers as any animal in need of a life force must. Wildebeests and zebras, no; the predominant herds on this veld are the hollow-eyed gunners and pipers, driven to the water's edge by a thirst that cries out from every last cell, each doper or coke fiend reassured against risk by the anonymity of the crowd, by the comfort that greater numbers allow."

This is a bleak portrait of Baltimore, home to stickup-boys and stash stealers, touts and lookouts, snitches and burn artists, a city, the book says, with an estimated 50,000 drug addicts, 18,000 arrests a year for drug violations and one of the country's highest teen-pregnancy rates.

Reading "The Corner," "you'd think Baltimore has all the fundamental problems of the American city," Simon says. "Guess what? It does."

The war on drugs

In the same way that Simon's popular first book, "Homicide," shined a light on the city's murder investigators, "The Corner" depicts life on the front line of the drug war. It is a riveting, tragic and relentlessly grim tour, the narrative interrupted with passionate essays that label the country's 30-year anti-drug policy a colossal failure.

"Thirty years gone and now the drug corner is the center of its own culture," the book says. "On Fayette Street, the drugs are no longer what they sell or use, but who they are. We may have begun by fighting a war on drugs, but now we're beating down those who use them."

On this corner, mothers steal their children's drug stashes; copper pipe is ripped out of vacant (and occupied) homes for ready cash; and the only thing that matters is begging, borrowing or stealing enough money to get a good-morning blast of heroin or cocaine.

It's a neighborhood filled with vivid characters. There's Fat Curt, the old tout who stands at the corner, his arms and legs hideously bloated from years of drug use. There's Gary McCullough, the smart and sweet-tempered addict who couldn't hurt anyone but himself. There's the saintly Ella Thompson -- the children call her Miss Ella -- who runs the recreation center, watching the lives of teen-agers disintegrate but refusing to give up on anyone. There's Fran Boyd, whose struggle to beat her addiction and raise her sons right weaves throughout the book.

And then there's DeAndre, the young man working for the "Homicide" caterer.

DeAndre McCullough -- the son of Gary McCullough and Fran Boyd -- was 15 years old when Simon and Burns first met him. The book follows DeAndre through one year as he hovers between high school and the street, between shooting hoops at the rec center and slinging dope on the corner, between hanging out with his boyhood pals and watching his son being born.

If this were any other story, Simon would have shaken DeAndre's hand when 1993 ended, wished him well and moved on.

But this is different.

"I am now paying what I regard as a debt," Simon says. "It's not merely a matter of guilt. I like DeAndre. I care about him. He's also infuriating at times. You see him start to do well, and then something will go awry and he's back down on the corner."

DeAndre is 20 now. He says he is neither selling nor using drugs. He says he's trying to turn his life around.

DeAndre at work

That's why Simon's walking down Broadway, toward another building, where "Homicide" 's caterer prepares dinner for the crew and extras. This is DeAndre's first week on the job.

His head shaved, DeAndre wears a white apron and carries two clean cooking sheets. Simon tells him that there are wiser things to do than to pick a fight with a beefy Teamster.

"Aw, man, we were jokin'" DeAndre protests.

"They don't think you were jokin,'" Simon replies. "You can't mess around with them."

DeAndre scowls.

"He was the one who said he was going to wrestle me."

Simon leaves. DeAndre returns to work. If he wants to mouth off with the Teamsters, he'll have to suffer the consequences.

DeAndre knows Simon means well.

"Dave's my best friend, my father, my cousin," he says. "He's everything to me. The man saved my life. I mean, he's trying to help me save my life. He was there for me and my family. He bailed me out of jail.

"He's not going anywhere. If he was going to go somewhere, it'd be after he finished the book. He didn't go. He's a good man."

To Simon, the sentiment has the whiff of revisionist history.

"Our relationship is different in 1997 than it was in 1993," he says. "I'm not sure he would have been quite as gracious if you would have talked to him then."

This is important to Simon. He wants people to know that he and Burns tried hard to witness the events on the corner without interfering in them. His gestures to DeAndre -- bailing him out of jail, helping get him a job -- occurred after 1993.

"I'm not using DeAndre for any more journalism," he says.

But Simon and Burns acknowledge in the book that drawing the line between reporter and human being is difficult. As they write in the epilogue:

"We were reporters, yet we did not avoid the chance to encourage those who wanted to change, to give some measure of emotional support to people when they talked about getting straight or looking into detox and recovery."

The first time DeAndre met Simon, he figured he was a cop. The whole neighborhood did. Here he was, a white man in a mostly black neighborhood, running around with Burns, another white man who truly was a former cop, claiming to be researching a book about the corner. Sure they were.

Fran Boyd, DeAndre's mother, remembers the first time he brought the two authors home. She pulled DeAndre aside: "Don't you know what they're doing? They're staking us out."

They were, in a way, but not how she suspected. Practicing what they call "stand-around-and-watch journalism," Simon and Burns eventually gained the neighborhood's trust (and the suspicion of several police officers). They bought ice tea for the touts on hot days. They helped a drug addict get help for an aching tooth. They passed out copies of "Homicide."

One of the characters, a man known as Eggy Daddy, approached Burns on the street.

"Remember me? You locked me up."

"Was it a fair arrest?" Burns asked.

"Oh, yeah."

In time they were accepted as part of the scene. Simon was robbed once, but by someone from outside the neighborhood.

"Those people in that neighborhood, once they figured out what we were doing, they were as gracious in hosting us as the cops were in that first book," he says.

The partners

Simon and Burns form an odd partnership. Simon, 37, is a former police reporter for The Sun who favors jeans and loose shirts and wears what's left of his hair in a mini-ponytail. Burns, 50, spent 20 years in the Baltimore Police Department, most of it investigating the city's drug traffic, and now teaches seventh-graders at Hamilton Middle School. Simon is loud and Burns is soft-spoken, but both have strong opinions about the nation's drug problem and the police response to it.

They met in 1985, when Simon was writing a series about a notorious Baltimore drug dealer.

"He was very direct, he was very honest," Burns says. "Those are two qualities I admire a lot. I felt comfortable with him. We were both concerned with the direction the police department was going."

In 1988, Simon took a year's leave from The Sun to follow homicide detectives. "I hoped to sell enough books to write another one," he says. He succeeded: "Homicide" sold 400,000 copies, captured several writing awards and inspired the television series.

He took another leave from The Sun to work on "The Corner." When he returned, he felt his work wasn't as appreciated as it once had been. When the paper offered a buyout to reporters, he accepted it, but he remains bitter about leaving (an episode on TV's "Homicide" last year contained a couple of insider digs at his former bosses).

Two books

In newspaper terms, "The Corner" is really two books -- the narrative story, which is gripping, and the editorials, which hammer, sometimes repetitiously, the country's drug policies.

"You can't write about the drug culture without writing about drug policy," Simon says. "You have to explore the culture of urban violence and what the city has become.

"I'm also saying we've reached the end of the drug game in America, whether we like it or not."

Simon's unsure how the book will sell. Although the publisher, Broadway Books, plans a $50,000 promotional campaign, "I don't think the country is particularly interested with what's going on with the underclass."

His hopes are modest. "It'll be a miracle if people see them as human beings. If I can convince them of that, I'll take it."

To Simon and Burns, Gary McCullough was more than a dope fiend and petty thief. He was a former workaholic who had it all, lost it and knew that he had lost it. He was a gentle, inquisitive man who understood why the book needed to be written, who tried to defeat his addiction -- Simon paid $500 to get him into treatment -- but eventually died of an overdose in March of last year. Another notch in the corner's belt. There were many more.

"I loved this guy," Simon says.

That's why Simon helps DeAndre, Gary's son, why he helps find him a job and checks in from time to time.

"I think DeAndre and I are going to be on a journey together for a long time," he says. "If he's trying, then I'm going to help him try. That's the price for doing this book."

The View from 'The Corner'

The corner: "The men and women who live the corner life are redefining themselves at incredible cost, cultivating meaning in a world that has declared them irrelevant. At Monroe and Fayette, and in drug markets in cities across the nation, lives without any obvious justification are given definition through a simple, self-sustaining capitalism. The corner has a place for them, every last soul."

Teen pregnancy: "In Baltimore, a city with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the nation, the epidemic is, at its root, about human expectation, or more precisely, the absence of expectation. On Fayette Street, the babies are born simply because they can be born, because life in this place cannot and will not be lived in the future tense. Given that fact, there is no reason to wait."

The drug war: "War or no, 20,000 heroin addicts and 30,000 pipers are going to go down to the corner in Baltimore tomorrow. Save for the ten or twenty that get tossed in a jail wagon, not one is going to miss his blast. Against that fact, the drug war stands as a useless and unnecessary brutalization, an unyielding policy that requires our government to occupy our ghettos in much the same way that others have occupied Belfast, or Soweto, or Gaza."

Schools: "Our educational theories no longer matter within the all-consuming universe of the corner. Those that escaped from the heart of West Baltimore did so in a different time and a different way, with union-scale factory jobs or government work in a nation-state that seemed to have some use for them. ... Down on Fayette Street, they know how many finished products of the city school system are standing with them at the next register over in the Kentucky Fried. Or in the intake area of the Rosemont social services."

Drug treatment: "This is part of the journey that no one mentions when they theorize about drug treatment or recovery or rehabilitation: You weren't really running to the vials, least not in the beginning. You were running away from the very same life that you are now challenged to discover and examine. After years in the fog, you are back where you started: older, perhaps wiser, but still tangled up in the remnants of what had been an unfulfilled life."

Addiction: "We want it to be about nothing more complicated than cash money and human greed, when at bottom, it's about a reason to believe. We want to think that it's chemical, that it's all about the addictive mind, when instead it has become about validation, about lost souls assuring themselves that a daily relevance can be found at the fine point of a disposable syringe."

David Simon and Edward Burns

Pub Date: 9/03/97

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