With all the talk coming out of City Hall these days about Baltimore’s image, I have been champing at the bit to share this take on the city from Andre Royo, aka Bubbles, one of the most richly drawn characters on “The Wire.”
The HBO series created by former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon has been blamed by successive mayors for the city’s troubled image.
A series as powerful and globally embraced as “The Wire” surely contributes to a visual sense, at least, of its setting. But blaming the show for Baltimore’s image woes is mostly a sorry bit of scapegoating by public officials trying to divert attention from their own failures in office.
Royo’s words comes from an oral history of the series titled “All the Pieces Matter” by Jonathan Abrams, who writes for Bleacher Report and is also the author of “Boys Among Men.” The book goes on sale today, which is why I had to wait to share this. (For an excerpt from J.D. Williams, aka Bodie, click here.)
Royo offers keen insight into what he saw coming here to film the series from the Bronx in 2001. His voice is the kind that absolutely needs to be heard amid all the political talk of “changing the narrative.”
One thing to keep in mind as you read his words: This is what Baltimore looked like to one outsider before an episode of “The Wire” ever aired.
ANDRE ROYO (REGINALD “BUBBLES” COUSINS): People ask me what was the best character on the show. I always say Baltimore. It helped us all stay really tuned into what we were doing and what we were talking about. It can be any city. What we were talking about happens everywhere. Right now, we’re in Baltimore and we’re talking about it. The first time I got to Baltimore, coming from the Bronx, I had an idea. In my mind, I’m not scared to go in any hood. I know what a hood looks like. I ask my boys about what Baltimore’s like. They were like, “Baltimore is a place where you sell drugs, and you get more bang for your buck if you go to Baltimore.” When I went there, it f---ed me up. When I got to Baltimore, I took the Amtrak. I got to the neighborhood. I started seeing where we were shooting. I started looking around.
With the passion fans still voice for characters from HBO’s “The Wire,” there is undoubtedly a huge audience for a sequel. But Norris Davis, who played Vinson in the series, is learning you run into serious problems when you use names of characters associated with a property someone else created.
The feeling of Baltimore at that time was so despaired, so, We’re not trying no more. It is what it is. This is where we live and who gives a f---? People just drive through, people on their way to DC or New York. We’re forgotten. At that time, I don’t know what the mayor was doing, but at this point, when we got there in 2001, there was these big billboards that said, “Believe. Keep Trying,” weird subliminal messages saying, “Don’t Give Up.” It looked like something out of “A Clockwork Orange” or some s---. I was like, “What’s happening?” I saw this half a building torn up and somebody coming out the building locking the front door. I’m like, “What the f--- are they locking the front door for if the other half of the building is rubble?” In my junkie garb, I would walk by some kids, and they would look at me with a look on their face. I’m talking about nine-year-old and seven-year-old kids looked at me like I was their uncle. Wasn’t scared of me, just giving me a dirty look like, “Move on, junkie.”
I was like, This place, they don’t care. It is what it is. That just broke my heart. That just made us feel like you don’t want your world to end up like this, where nobody gives a f--- anymore. That’s what Baltimore felt like. As we got on telling the stories and when the show started airing, you start feeling different. People start feeling like, They’re talking about Baltimore. We matter. This is our show. They started taking a little sense of pride. People was like, “I saw the front of my house on your screen. On one of your episodes, I saw the front of my house. S---, I got to clean it up.” We started seeing and feeling that. Even people that didn’t like the show. People were complaining about it, but they were talking about it. “We don’t like your show because you’re showing the bad parts of Baltimore.” At least they were talking. Before, they were just not giving a f---. Now they’re fighting for it.
You felt the energy coming back to the city somewhat. It’s one of those cities where the architecture is beautiful. It looks different at different angles. It has so many different looks to it. The people are the most honest people. There’s no lying in the people. It’s just that, at one point or at some time, it was a forgotten city. They got John Waters. You had rich characters coming from Baltimore, Tupac [Shakur], you got one of the greatest performing arts schools there. It didn’t feel like it was being talked about. Nobody was giving it a look. Now, all of a sudden, it’s starting to get a look because “The Wire” was giving it so much attention that we felt the city was starting to care more. They enriched us with us being a part of that. We would walk around; we became these little heroes of Baltimore. We got mad love. It was awesome. It was awesome to feel like you were a part of some sort of rejuvenation or some sort of pride about a place.
Excerpted from “All the Pieces Matter: The Inside Story of ‘The Wire.’ ” Copyright 2018 by Jonathan Abrams. Published by Crown Archetype, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.