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.

LIFE ON THE FRINGE

September 03, 1997|By KEN FUSON | KEN FUSON,SUN STAFF

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

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