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Dinner with McNulty

ILLUSTRATION: Hippo Embarrasses Bunny at Dinner… Again • ink • 3×5″

I recently finished my sixth or seventh viewing of the 2002-2008 HBO series The Wire—that might seem like a lot (~400 hours), but they say TV reruns reduce stress. After a number of crappy startups and countless breakups, it’s The Wire—of all potential sources of comfort—that is my fix.

The Wire explores class, race, money, business, bureaucracy, among other themes—in other words, modern America. I think the show stands along with the documentary Hoop Dreams as the most accessible and valuable criticism of our society in the last twenty years. It’s one of the best pieces of fiction I’ve ever consumed across all formats. If you haven’t seen it yet, just stop reading this and come back in a few weeks. Maybe take some sick days.

Ready now? Great.

The Wire uses recurring dialogue, motifs, and parallelism to hammer home its themes, and one construct that stood out on this watching is the consistent use of meals to critique class mobility. In the first season, D’Angelo Barksdale and his girlfriend Donette visit a stuffy, upscale restaurant in Baltimore—waiters in suits, dessert carts, middlebrow, couples in their balding and short perm years respectively, tonally if not actually white.

Underdressed and arriving without a reservation, D’Angelo is markedly uncomfortable, asking Donette whether the folks around him suspect that he’s involved in drugs, that he’s a gangster. Donette argues, “Your money’s good right? We ain’t the only black people in here.” But D’Angelo is unable to fully explain his discomfort, just that there are things that stay with you, that “as hard as you try, you still can’t go nowhere.”

Donette has none of it. “Boy, don’t nobody give a damn about you and your story. You got money, you get to be whoever you say you are. That’s the way it is.” Her argument takes an immediate hit when D’Angelo picks up a sample dessert from the cart—the way you would at a cafeteria—before being admonished by an effeminate waiter. The action says more about class than any of the perhaps-too-on-the-nose dialogue that precedes it. D’Angelo is painfully aware of the gap between him and the “other” world around him while Donette is unaware of her own similar distance to the other world.

“For another pit sandwich and some tater salad, I’ll go a few more.” –Wee Bey

D’Angelo and Donette’s dinner scene is not the only mealtime exploration of the intransigence of class in the show. In Season Three, a leather-jacketed Detective Jimmy McNulty tries to bridge his blue collar world with the white collar one of a political operative on a date at an upscale southern restaurant in DC, only to find something similar to D’Angelo, that the woman looks through him, that his world doesn’t exist. In Season Two, parallel meals between Detective Kima Greggs, Lieutenant Cedric Daniels, and their respective partners in complete silence highlight a struggle over ambition and social climbing. Their partners want them to choose law over order, money over love, white collar over blue collar.

For Stringer Bell, his suit-and-glasses-lunch with Clay Davis and real estate developers in Season Three gives us yet another depiction of the truism, “if you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, it’s you.” Or more directly from Avon Barksdale when he encapsulates the concept of social distance for Stringer: “I look at you these days, String, you know what I see? I see a man without a country. Not hard enough for this right here and maybe, just maybe, not smart enough for them out there.” (More on Barksdale versus Bell another time)

But the most obvious redux of D’Angelo’s scene comes in Season Four when former police major Bunny Colvin takes “corner kids” to a Ruth’s Chris at the harbor as a socialization experiment where we get another depiction of how foreign the customs and mechanics of a restaurant can be to someone who’s never been somewhere other than McDonald’s. Being waited on. Handing over your coat. Choosing a temperature for your steak. When to use a straw. What a special is. The fact that no one else in that restaurant would spend three hours on their hair, but of course Zenobia would—this is special to her in a way that it might not be to regular patrons.

Unlike some of the other meals, however, I’d argue that this dinner says something positive about overcoming social distance, that perhaps it’s not intractable over generations. Bunny’s taking Namond on as a ward and his flourishing gives weight to that argument.

That’s something positive for a change, right?

In the context of the show, if not life, both D’Angelo and Donette are probably right about money and class in their own way.

As with any good tragic flaw, it’s D’Angelo’s self-awareness that prevents him from overcoming the gap in class he so clearly sees. For D’Angelo, he will always be betwixt and between two different worlds. His story ends in the second season after fittingly discussing The Great Gatsby in a prison book club when he explicates what he tried so hard to do at that dinner with Donette.

He tells his fellow inmates, “It’s like, you can change up. You can say you somebody new. You can give yourself a whole new story. But what came first is who you really are, and what happened before is what really happened. And it don’t matter that some fool say he different, ’cause the only thing that make you different is what you really do, or what you really go through.”

As for Donette, she can be who she wants because it’s unlikely she’ll ever see the gap; there’s no harbor to cross to reach that green light. It’s right there to be grasped.

P.S. There’s a webcomic coming soon from Bryan Keefer and me, but it means that I may be even more sporadic in my posts over the next couple of weeks. More soon.

Riding The Bench

ILLUSTRATION: Crop of Solla Sollew Marshmallowy Pillows • watercolor on paper • 22×30″

Today, I’m finally revisiting the theme of escape, of fight vs. flight, of running to responsibility versus running from it. It’s a theme I’ve wanted to think more deeply about in consideration of what I do next with my work and my life. Since leaving my job in 2013, I’ve tried to define what that path might be in theory…

I knew I wanted to make something myself again (and “something of myself”). If I started a business to do it, I thought it could be a small partnership with a few people I know and trust. If I couldn’t avoid building a company with a larger team, we would most definitely create art / media / content rather than technology to replace it. Ideally consumers, not advertisers, would pay for it. And regardless I would begin by paying my dues creatively—even if it meant working part-time and not grasping out at handholds from the discomfort and discomfiture of being on unsolid ground.

Last night, I attended the Fortune 40 Under 40 party where I was reminded just how unsolid that ground is. Now, I always feel uncomfortable at this party (see FB post in 2012) and know only a handful of people. The crowd seems very pretty and very moneyed and very driven—and very earnest and not conflicted about all three qualities. Looking for friendly faces, I found myself meeting journalists who befitting their profession were also content to observe the scene anthropologically: “As a lion stalks a gazelle, the recruiter deftly touches the arm of her prey and tosses her head back in laughter at an inane joke. Someone will lose a VP to their competitor tonight.”

In a setting like this, it doesn’t help to have an amorphous personal elevator pitch. I’m not exactly on the beach which is the only short break that SF techies give themselves between crushing it at their current company or starting up another one. It feels disingenuous for me to say so. I think I might be riding the bench, playing a little utility infielder for the league minimum. And I’m not looking for a starting gig on another team as much as I am looking to play a different sport altogether.

During cocktail party chattering, my superego tells me it can see one question in any conversation partner’s eyes, never quite voiced: why would anyone ride the bench on purpose? In other words, why would anyone miss out on the greatest period of wealth creation in Silicon Valley since the last bubble? This magazine’s called Fortune after all.

In defense, I’ve come up with a somewhat rational argument for my avoidance, an argument that can be met with more approving nods because I use the words valuation and equity and venture capital:

  1. With valuations so high and bubblicious, it doesn’t make sense to commit one’s soul to working a hundred hours per week only to spend the next four years vesting through down rounds. I took my at-bat with Rhythm, and we reached on a wild pitch. Done and done.
  2. Plus everyone seems like kind of a jerk right now. A bubble is the perfect spot to pick up bad behaviors and learn how to make bad decisions. Blergh.
  3. And if I decided to raise venture capital myself, an economically rational move, I would have to compete in a market full of jerks behaving badly and making bad decisions. I’d also need an idea, I guess.

“And so that’s why I’m waiting things out.” It’s the sort of argument that’s sufficient before clinking glasses to wish each other well. Because it’s important to have manners at a cocktail party and not make anyone too uncomfortable.

I always have this blog for that.

In I Had Trouble In Getting to Solla Sollew, the eponymous Vent No. 5 of this blog is a messy chute leading the unnamed hero accidentally to Solla Sollew (where they never have troubles, at least very few). In traditional mythology, Vent No. 5 might be described as the hero’s descent into the underworld, a last step before rebirth—very much an Act III sequence when this hero’s goal is reconsidered: survival. With the goal reconsidered, the hero can choose a different path altogether in the end.

It strikes me that one important difference between running from and running to is a difference in attitude. Describing why I’m not taking part in the, well, icky Silicon Valley scene is easy, but negative. I’m only running from this place, running from my responsibilities as an individual.

Describing what I want to do, no matter how amorphous and difficult, is positive—running to something new. As a friend said wisely last week: the act of leaving a bad situation and finding a good one are two separate events, as much as we like to conflate them. It’s good advice.

So now I leave this post strangely thinking not of the underworld journeys in Vent No. 5 in Solla Sollew or Rome in Catch-22, but of a friend’s work on Dante’s Divine Comedy. From my limited knowledge, Dante starts by settling scores with his political enemies in the Inferno before the pilgrim ventures to understand how individuals make amends for their lives or how to attend to some higher purpose (while still settling some political scores, of course—it’s Italy!). It seems appropriate that the pilgrim makes his journey at 35.

It certainly has to be an easier read than Godel Escher Bach.


From FB Post, 2012

Had to leave a party early in SF tonight after apparently using up all of my non-awkward interactions for the week. It was a cocktail party to celebrate Fortune’s 40 under 40 article, and one conversation I struck up went something like this…

Ben: If you can’t see, the Giants are up 2-0.
VC mktg girl: Thanks!
Ben: I’m Ben. Nice to meet you.
VC mktg girl: I’m —–. Good to meet you. Were you on the list?
Ben: Yeah, I mean I checked in upstairs and everything.
VC mktg girl: Congratulations! That’s great.
Ben: Um, yeah… well I only see two people I know here which is really odd. Maybe I travel too much. I don’t know anyone in SF anymore.
VC mktg girl: Did you travel from New York for the honor?
Ben: Oh God, you meant the 40 under 40 list?!? No, no, of course I’m not on that list. I just mean that I didn’t sneak in. I checked in on the list upstairs. I thought you were accusing me of sneaking in.
[awkward silence]

Escape, Part One

During my travels and time off, I’ve read a great deal. Reading (and well, rummy) fill much more of the day when trekking in Nepal than hiking or sleep. Discussing novels is a downhill activity; when your step is light, you find your thoughts substantive and erudite. Uphill you only bray pop songs or curse or wheeze like a dumb pack animal carrying real, not imaginary, weight. These days my apartment looks like a library, and the kindle does too, as it either mocks or encourages with percentages left to read. Despite all this reading, both “great” and not-so-great books alike, my “escape” has instead engendered a reassessment of that very theme–fight vs. flight, perseverance vs. surrender, martyrdom vs. whatever the opposite of martyrdom is–in two books from my past.

The first book is from my childhood, this site’s eponymous I Had Trouble in Getting to Solla Sollew by Dr. Seuss, a surprisingly trenchant look at growing up and searching for false utopias. The other–Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s absurdist WWII dark comedy–I read in my late adolescence identifying a little too much with the “cynical idealism” of the main character Captain John Yossarian. I venture not to imbue these books with unmerited wisdom nostalgically. Instead, I intend to approach them with fresh eyes to see whether I can reconcile each author’s perspective on escape with the important decisions of, well, life. (Yes. Dr. Seuss and Joseph Heller. Deal with it.) Because while poor mopey Hamlet may have been most concerned with his famous existential quandary, his question could be seen as just an unnecessarily emo version of a more vexing and vital one that we all confront in the business of living. Solla Sollew and Catch-22 deal with THAT vital question posed 378 years later by a different London punk: “Should I stay, or should I go now?”

At some point soon, I will dive into this, and then you can decide if I’m crazy. In the meantime, I will continue to stretch my hips since my yoga teacher tells me that’s where my all of my fight versus flight emotions are stored.