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"My Name Is My Name"

a saga of the Wire's Real Players

The Wire Chess Scene

Ed Burns and David Simon encountered many names in their day. The writing pair came up in different trades of their own. Simon made his bones in journalism on the crime beat for the Baltimore Sun, while Burns was a Baltimore homicide detective- turned middle school teacher. But with them was a shared perspective despite their different careers, a symbiosis between their experience that yearned to tell the real stories of Charm City.

The Wire was not the pair's first collaboration. In 1997 they co-authored The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood. For three years they planted themselves deep into their research, recording the lives and stories of West Fayette and Monroe street. In it they capture the hard blues of a neighborhood entrenched in heroin and violence, and display it with humanity and sincerity to the people they grew to know. The Corner reads like an urban tragedy, or what the shameless Pulitzer-thirsty Sun editors in season 5 would refer to as "the Dickensian aspect."

As would become a major theme of The Wire, Ed Burns grew disillusioned with the bureaucracy of Baltimore law enforcement and the incompetent war on drugs. After retiring and co-writing The Corner, he found work teaching middle school math in a gravely underfunded and understaffed public school system. He reflects in a 2006 interview with HBO,

"I'm just a natural loser, so I decided it would be fun to teach in an inner-city school, because that's the kind of world I like...In a place like Baltimore, most schools start the school year short of teachers. So, if you've got two arms, two legs and two eyes, they're begging for you."

The abuse these children endured in their lives and the traumatic behavior they brought with them into the classroom reminded Burns of his time in Vietnam. But through the chaos and conflicts of authority he found a deep love for teaching these lost youths, figuring ways to guide them through learning in a manner that translates to their experiences.

"...when they see the adult who's consistent, who's always there, who always comes through with what he said, then that's a new world for them...I used to stay at the school for chess club in a computer room, and some of the kids would come up for lunch. When they're really close, when you can really interact with them, they're wonderful, vibrant human beings. But collectively they're a pain in the ass."

Now you can clearly see how much of himself that Ed Burns put into Roland Pryzbylewski, the meager detective who grows into a compassionate educator with a Good Will Hunting beard, and endures one of the most thorough character arcs in the whole series. So too does Jimmy McNulty represent Burns' disillusion with the politics and culture of racism and apathy of law enforcement, and forms candid relationships with his informants.

The Wire Real Story

David Simon spent fifteen years married to the homicide desk of the Baltimore Sun. In 1987 while covering that beat he penned "Easy Money: Anatomy of a Drug Empire", a five-part story documenting "Little" Melvin Williams and his vast heroin organization (more on him in a bit). Before writing The Corner with Burns he first published Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets which was adapted for NBC, showcasing his rich embedded journalism with a novel's prose. In the years he spent alongside Baltimore's murder police he slowly gained their acceptance, sharing drinks, quotes of the trade, and endeavoring to "seem like furniture". With his novelistic voice he captured a nihilistic system faced with a year that saw north of 200 murders. Simon spoke in an illuminating 1999 piece with Seattle Times writer Cynthia Rose,

"There was none of that `murder matters' ethos from detective fiction. A body wasn't about the victim's identity. It was purely and simply a problem to be solved."

After publishing Homicide, Simon returned to the Baltimore Sun changed by experience. He came up idolizing the Woodward and Burnsteins of the world, with journalism as a crusading pursuit, but as buyouts and consolidation of reporters began to take hold he grew more disillusioned with the state of news media.

"I thought journalism was, `You write, you expose, you change the terrain.' Now, all I want is to bring the best story to the campfire. To make it something people want to hear, and not to cheat it." - David Simon, Seattle Times

Season 5 is David Simon indulging in commentary on his past career, with Augustus Haynes (Clark Johnson of Homicide and director of The Wire's series finale) representing the voice of reason in an increasingly shallow and sensational newsroom. Gus even throws a few real names of disgraced journalist when sharing his suspicions on Templeton and his fabricated stories, names like Jack Kelley, Jayson Blair, and Stephen Glass.

the Little Melvin years

The Wire Little Melvin Williams
"Little" Melvin Williams

Avon Barksdale and his organization draw much inspiration from an infamous forefather of the city's drug trade. The name Melvin Williams still rings out among the streets of Baltimore. The historians of the city remember the infamy of his legend, like Stringer Bell in one scene, dropping his name when attempting to educate Marlo on the gangsters that came before him.

Pennsylvania Ave., "The Avenue" as it was called, was the de facto gambling strip of B'more's Westside. Astutely charming, it was hustling bets in pool halls and backroom craps games that gave Little Melvin his young start. David Simon captures "the conflicting images of the same man" in his piece Easy Money. From the late 60s until his conviction in 1985, the kid who was good in school but better with a pair of dice moved on to meticulously consolidate his heroin empire. He established ties to the legendary plug Frank Mathews, the East coast drug trafficking pioneer who, like Proposition Joe educates us on our mafia history, "got in bed with them Italians" and "got himself a piece of that French Connection dope." (S2E10)

At his peak, there were approximately 200 soldiers underneath him and were responsible for about a quarter of the city's annual homicide rate. That same man was simultaneously a legitimate figure in his community, investing in real estate throughout Baltimore and in one instance, quelling mob violence during the 1968 MLK Assassination riots. But Jekyll could turn back to Hyde, for instance allegedly waiving a Thompson machine gun in a bar and hurling death threats "like Cagney on the screen" in the original Scarface.

The iconic "fuck" scene with Bunk and McNulty putting together the "tap tap tap" murder was pulled straight from a 1983 case that Burns investigated and Simon reported on. And the same as it was for Avon Barksdale, the revelation of a young women's murder through her kitchen window would break the first cracks into Little Melvin's empire.

In his nearly twenty years in and out of prison Melvin Williams studied law and provided council to his fellow inmates. In a fitting tribute to the reformed kingpin and complicated son of Baltimore, he would cameo as the Deacon in The Wire, a community organizer always good for sage advice in times of moral strife.

The Deacon and Bunny Colvin The Wire
Melvin as the Deacon (right)

The two barksdales

Nathan Bodie Barksdale The Wire

Being that the characters of The Wire are not based solely on one person but rather a composite of Baltimore figures, Avon Barksdale is also derived from Nathan "Bodie" Barksdale. Bodie claims his middle name is Avon but dropped it after childhood ridicule about the cosmetics, however this could not be confirmed by City Paper during a feature on his representation in the show. He started out in amateur boxing which inspired the fictional Avon's background in Golden Gloves. In the aftermath of the Little Melvin years, his crew controlled the heroin trade in the Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace Projects of Baltimore's Westside.

Although swearing against the use of drugs, not wanting to dull his boxing reflexes, a botched robbery in his youth led him into opiate addiction. His victim managed to escape and run over his leg, later needing it amputated from the knee down and leaving him with a limp and cane in hand. Property was a family investment for the Barksdales, washing his money through real estate investments in family names.

Despite its frequent citing in this piece, there are a few parts of David Simon's Easy Money that Bodie felt did the truth a disservice. He mentions being inaccurately penned as warring rivals with half brothers Timmirror Stanfield and Marlow Bates (more on them in a sec), which inspires the Marlow/Barksdale war of season three. Speaking in an interview with City Paper, "Marlow Bates is one of my closest friends. His family and ours are intertwined."

Passing away incarcerated in 2016 at just 54, Nathan Barksdale's years were weathered with harsh circumstance and constant survival. Before his death he reckoned with his past, attempting to put behind him his days of banditry. He worked with Baltimore's Safe Streets program, hoping to guide kids away from a violent path that may have already been chosen for them.

"You lived in the projects, opportunities came, and you took 'em." - Nathan Barksdale, City Paper

for whom the bell tolls

Stringer Bell The Wire Idris Elba

The Wire's Stringer Bell fascinated viewers with his dichotomy of ambitions. Pulled between two worlds, his business acumen meshed together with the violence of the Barksdale crew. Moving with cold and calculated efficiency, he urged his yougens in the Barksdale organization to approach the game as a Fortune 500 company. The Idris Elba masterclass draws its name from Stringer Reed and Roland Bell. The two players from Lexington Terrace were associates with Nathan Barksdale, but that's about where the relation ends. However the arc of Stringer Bell is more in line with that of Kenneth A. Jackson.

Jackson, known sometimes by "Kenny Bird", also a name shouted out on The Wire, was a man who left one game for another. Coming up on the Eastside in the heroin trade and dodging a few murder raps, he was named a lieutenant under Little Melvin's organization in 1985 federal-court affidavits, although he denies any connection. Jackson parlayed his wealth into legitimate business. At just 27, he already owned small ventures in a mini market and shoe store, along with being the true operator behind his mother's company, KAJ Enterprises. As proprietor of the El Dorado Lounge he fashioned that his HQ and held court there.

Akin to Stringer Bell, Kenneth Jackson also dabbled in Baltimore city politics. In 1996 his campaign contributions to Senator Larry Young and City Council President Lawrence Bell helped grease some wheels in obtaining a liquor license behind a front applicant. He had minor dealings with Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who too cameos in The Wire. Later in 2000 he engaged in a real estate deal with then-City Council President and future Mayor Sheila Dixon, which would be played upon on The Wire with Nerese Campbell taking heat in the press for business with alleged drug dealers.

The Stringer Bell parallels continue with Kenneth Jackson earning a business degree from American InterContinental University in 2007, although that institution has seen some shady chapters in its day. Like Melvin and Barksdale, Jackson too hoped to reconcile with the actions of his youth.

"I'm not looking to run from my past, but I'm not looking to dwell on it either." - Kenneth A. Jackson, City Paper

Marlo and stanfield

Marlo Stanfield The Wire

The gang's genesis lies within the mind of a unique criminal type: A young, manipulative sociopath, i.e., an aggressively antisocial individual, with a talent for leadership and organization, motivated by an egotistical will to power." - Ed Burns

Jamie Hector's Machiavellian portrayal of Marlo Stanfield is pure ice to watch. His sadistic totalitarianism on the street is etched into the minds of all The Wire buffs out there. The infamous villain's name is a cross between Baltimore figures Timmirror Stanfield and Marlow Bates.

By their mid 20s, the two half-brothers from Westport had a firm hold on the heroin trade in the Murphy Homes and Lexington Terrace projects. David Simon's reporting in Easy Money tells the story of bloody rivalry with the Barksdale organization, but that fact was challenged by Barksdale in his aforementioned interview. As more bodies began to pile in their wake, an assigned detective called the Stanfield organization "specialists in terror". They would even flex their power by denying postal workers entrance to Westport and seizing checks for their own distribution.

Marlow Bates managed to see his release in 2023. His son, Marlow Bates Jr., however followed in his footsteps.

A Proposition

Proposition Joe The Wire

The brilliant Robert F. Chew brought Proposition Joe to life on our screens. And as with many, the slick Eastsider owes his name to a Baltimore original. Oliver Joseph Johnson, known to the streets as Proposition Joe, built his footing in gambling in the 1960s. He was a fixture of the pool halls and backroom craps games on Pennsylvania Avenue, even mentoring a young Little Melv in the art of finessing dice.

He dabbled in methadone trafficking and manufacturing, catching an indictment in 1969. But fate caught up to Prop Joe in 1984. While working the door one night at Club Chandelier he was gunned down along with the owner. The hitter, Marando Warthen, was an enforcer in the Barksdale Crew. And to throw a cherry atop the smallest of namesake references, Warthen turns up in a 1992 Baltimore Sun article with a familiar name for The Wire buffs, Clarence W. Mouzone. That being said, David Simon stated on a podcast that Brother Mouzone was inspired by a Nation of Islam convert by the name of Vernon Collins.

Omar's comin

For The Wire fiends, Omar Little may be dearest of all to people's hearts. With there being many stick-up artists inspiring David Simon and Ed Burns, the cavalier urban cowboy presents the largest collage of Baltimore figures. Folks like Anthony Hollie, Ferdinand Harvin, Shorty Boyd (name dropped by Avon and Slim Charles), the openly gay Billy Outlaw, and Donnie Andrews, "all of you live on a bit in Omar", Simon stated.

In a very small nod to the streets, before The Wire David Simon co-wrote a 1996 episode of NYPD Blue which guest stars a young Giancarlo Esposito as a stick-up man with a combination of two names, Ferdinand Hollie.

For being a stick-up artists moving by a code, Omar is very much in line with Donnie Andrews. An abusive mother sends her 9 year-old son with his younger brother to the laundromat with fifteen cents, it's 2 A.M. He sits locked in place in fear for his brother as three men beat a vagrant to death for bus change. Donnie Andrews recalls every morbid detail of how the life was released of a man, and in that moment he vowed to not become a victim.

"If you playing in the grass with snakes you got to make sure you're a King Cobra." - Donnie Andrews, Vice

Like Omar, Donnie Andrews had a taste for the high caliber. He was known for terrorizing dealers and robbing stash houses with his .44 piece, not quite Omar's .45 but close. The classic scene of Omar escaping Chris and Snoop's ambush out of a balcony window was said to be taken from his experiences, in fact he claims it was actually six stories.

Although his environment cultivated a darkness within him, his mind always had a sense of justice and empathy towards those weakest. He turned himself in as an informant after committing his one and only murder, leading to the start of his close relationship with Detective Ed Burns. While Andrews served his eighteen years and directed himself towards good, Burns introduced him to Fran Boyd, a struggling heroin addict and a poignant subject of The Corner. Upon his release in 2007 things were looking bright, him and Fran married after the two worked in overcoming her addiction and Andrews became a consultant to the writing staff of The Wire.

Donnie Andrews passed in 2012, but on screen he is cemented into television history. Playing a bit role on the show as one of Butchie's enforcers, he's Omar's saving grace after being sent to protect him behind bars. And poetically, him and Omar ride as brothers in arms in that famous balcony scene.

The real Omar The Wire
Donnie (right) sent as Omar's backup

Charm City

"We don't worry about if the viewer is gonna get all of those references. If we make a show in Baltimore, we're making it for Baltimoreans. " - George Pelecanos, writer/producer of The Wire

The Wire, The Corner, Homicidethey were always about Baltimore, the true protagonist of these works. Beyond the focused lens on the crumbling institutions that plague any American rustbelt city, the eye is always drawn to the human touch. From the neglected faces of those surviving the ills of a place they call their home, to those who play the game and take advantage of those ills, the old and the young, the players and the saints— all are given a voice.

But I'm askin', you know who Young Leek be?


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