“I always wrote about me when I could … ” — John Lennon, 1970
I’ve been fighting this fight a long time, from my earliest days as an unpaid rookie on Russell Smith’s fledgling City Paper in 1977 to a recent impasse with a Wall Street Journal editor.
If it happens to me, I think you should read about it. That’s how I make sense of the world.
Smith wasn’t keen on an encounter I had on a city transit bus with a guy who drew comics. In 1993, the managing editor of the Baltimore Sun loathed a cross-country tale about making novenas for the piano player Richard Manuel [1943-to-1986.]
And most recently, the WSJ editor passed on a story he’d requested about the way my memories of the Crabtown waterfront became scripts for television.
Sometimes I win that argument (the Manuel memorial, now anthologized, prompted a kind and unexpected note from the then-retired and now deceased Sunday Sun editor Hal Williams) and sometimes I lose.
But I never stop trying. Editors come and editors go. And once a story makes it into the world, it is there forever.
This is the most recent story – commissioned for the Journal’s “Word Craft” column – to be rejected for being too much about me.
Going to work with my father in the 1960s meant tugboat rides on the Baltimore harbor.
This is how a Hollywood script would depict the sun rising over grain ships, canneries and derelict railroad trestles.
EXT. ROTTING PIER/BALTIMORE WATERFRONT– MAGIC HOUR.
Years later, with the added freight of smuggling, prostitution, graft and violence, I would write that script.
My work on the second season of the HBO drama “The Wire” benefited from childhood memories of deckhands named Ronnie Rotten Crotch and stolen hams blessed by the neighborhood priest before the meat was sold and eaten at saloons across from the harbor.
The second season of “The Wire” dramatized the slow, steady death of organized labor in the port of Baltimore, which my father experienced in 1984 when a new company bought the tugs and illegally fired union crews.
I got a glimpse of it half-a-dozen years before as a rookie reporter covering a longshoremen’s strike as containerization transformed the industry.
Union boss Gilbert Lukowski, whose passion became the heart of his on-screen counterpart Frank Sobotka, said of attrition through technology: “You can’t just take a man in the middle of his working life and throw him on the junk pile.”
Sobotka spoke for the deceased Lukowski after watching the future of his industry in a video from the uber-mechanized port of Rotterdam.
“ROBOTS!” screamed Sobotka at a lobbyist he hired to represent his interests. “Piers full of robots!”
The only difference between the real-life Lukowski and the fictional Sobotka is that Gilbert died a natural death.
Along with tales of unloading grain ships with wooden shovels (metal might spark an explosion), I folded as much of the vanished world of industrialized Baltimore as possible into the episode “Backwash.”
Casting was crucial. Charley Scalies, who played the longshoreman Horseface Pakusa, often joked that he and his headshot had waited years for the role.
Scalies would have fit in easily with the guys my father worked, drank and went crabbing with, men whose lives informed Horseface and Sobotka and Little Big Roy. Writing their dialogue was as simple as playing a beat-up cassette tape. When they spoke, my old man’s cronies were alive again.
Before the first outline, the writers sat down with members of the International Longshoremen’s Association Local No. 953 at their rowhouse office in Locust Point – a former seafaring village glimpsed in the Hitchcock movie “Marnie” – and took down yarns going back almost to the days of sails.
Many of the eccentricities of Sobotka’s goofy son Ziggy, including his propensity to expose himself after a few beers, were taken from stories told about a waterfront legend named Pinkie Bannon.
But oral histories and the City of Baltimore in a starring role alone do not make compelling drama. It was putting more than a dozen streetwise, if tunnel-visioned longshoremen in play with homicide detectives, the white slave trade and lobbyists as ruthless as drug kingpins that made “The Wire” move in season two.
Countless shows have dramatized the inner-city drug trade. Not many have shown the day-to-day lives of dockworkers. None that I know of have put the two worlds in conflict.
And then there was Frank Zappa.
Born in Baltimore in 1940, the guitarist contributed a significant moment to “The Wire” in a way one would not fathom no matter how many times they watched. In 1986, I interviewed Zappa at length about his Maryland childhood. One of the composer’s earliest memories was watching an Italian knife grinder push down the alley with his sharpening stone. I later found descendents of one of the city’s celebrated grinders – Nilo Vidi – and learned how an expert sharpener could “make a meat cleaver sing.”
When the Polish-American Sobotka and the Italian-American lobbyist DiBiagio are in a shouting match over a future that is bleak for one and rosy for the other, DiBiagio allows that his great-grandfather was a knife-grinder.
“And since he didn’t want his sons to push the [grinding wheel], he made sure my grandfather finished high school and my old man went to any college that would take him.”
DiBiagio was the voice of my father, who never wanted his sons to follow him down to the piers.
Sobotka personified some of the other guys, gamblers who splurged on new cars instead of tuition because no matter how bad the economy, there was always work on the waterfront.
But as Horseface said in the first scene of the first episode of a season devoted to the working class: “Them days is gone.”
This second draft was built on what the editor said was salvageable from the first.
Politely pulling the plug, the editor repeated his initial instructions, which I’d tried my best to fulfill.
“What I wanted was how you transformed reality into drama, in technical terms.”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that I wasn’t sure what those terms were when I wrote for television and I’m still not certain.