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That motherfuckin’ money

April 19, 2010
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The Wire has always been a great show for going back and rewatching the archives, catching nuances you’d missed before, finding small scenes or bits of conversation that in retrospect are miniature foreshadowings of entire story arcs, or small statements of what would later turn out to be major themes.

The Wire, Season 1, Episode 1, Scene 1: Baltimore. McNulty interviews a witness to the fatal shooting of one Omar Elijah “Snot Boogie” Davis.  The boys all shoot craps in the alley every Friday night, and every night Snot joins the game, waits til the pot gets fat, and then does a grab-and-dash with the money.  Most weeks they catch him and beat his ass.  This week somebody finally put a cap in him.  When McNulty asks the obvious question, “If Snot always stole the money, why did you let him play?”

The non-obvious response: “You got to. This is America, man.”

Cue theme music.

A great story, yeah. Funny punch line. True story as well, which you’d know if you’ve ever read Homicide.  But as we found out after a few seasons of The Wire, Simon rarely tells a story just because it makes an amusing anecdote.  Every scene, almost every line, if you look at it right, has larger meaning.

The game, as we were to learn, is not just a dice game on a Friday night.  It’s life in post-industrial America.  The crime, the drugs, the bad schools, the disappearing jobs, the decaying cities, the corrupt, uncaring, or even malevolent government, the self-aggrandizing media, the societal inertia…it’s all in the game, a game where every person must constantly maneuver for personal gain just to survive, where the money in the pot is the golden prize, but where survival is determined largely by a roll of the dice.  This is America, man, and you got to play the game, and even if you think outside the game and show some initiative, you stand more of a chance of getting beat even further down than you do of getting ahead.

Treme, Season 1, Episode 1, Scene 1: New Orleans. The first big second line since the Federal Flood of ’05 is forming up, and Keith Frazier of Rebirth is haggling over payment for the band.  Seems having a full band would get them $1200, but they’re short a couple of horns, they ain’t got but one bone out there and no Trombone Shorty as promised, so they don’t get more than $1000 to split up between the seven of them.  “Money hard to come by, at least that’s what I hear,” is all Frazier can tell the band.

Antoine Batiste shows up mid-parade, short on cab fare, and tells the cabbie, “When I catch up with them and play that parade, I’m gonna have it!”  He catches up, warms up his horn, and spurs the band on to “play for that money, boys, play for that motherfuckin’ money!”

Yeah, OK, so we need to establish character.  We learn pretty quickly and thoroughly that Antoine is constantly hard up for cash, constantly trying to scrape up gigs to cover rent money, utility money, cab fare, food money… Always finding the gigs but always coming up a little short anyway.

I’ve heard a few people say that the line, “play for that motherfuckin’ money” doesn’t ring true.  That musicians don’t talk like that.  They’re missing the point.  That wasn’t just some dialog thrown in to give the scene some color.  No fucking ad-libbing going on with that.  In the small sense, that was precision dramatic irony: Antoine is happy to finally be playing for that money, but the audience knows what he doesn’t…that since he was late, the band was underpaid, so even a full one-eighth share is gonna net him only $125 instead of the $200 per musician that the band usually expects.  And so he plays for that money, but the money isn’t gonna be what he thought.

And being Scene 1 of Season 1, it’s all a setup for some multi-season-long dramatic motherfucking irony around The Money.  Because if there’s one thing that New Orleans and New Orleanians have been doing a lot of for the past five years, it’s counting on The Money, waiting on The Money, desperately trying to hold on by their fingernails until The Money, wondering where the fuck is The Money, what the fuck happened to The Money.

“If I can get these gigs, I can pay you for the Entergy bill,” says Antoine.  “Wait til the insurance settles,” says Lambreaux.  As soon as the insurance settles, everything will be right.  As soon as I get my FEMA check.  As soon as I get my SBA loan.  As soon as I get my Road Home money.  As soon as I get my Road Home appeal heard.  As soon as Road Home calls me back.  As soon as somebody answers the goddamn phone at Road Home.

As soon as they get some public housing back open.  As soon as rents come back down.  As soon as we get these houses gutted and can start rebuilding.  As soon as they get the schools back open.  As soon as the conventions come back.  As soon as they get Charity reopened.  As soon as we get some real flood protection.

As soon as Bush does what he said he was gonna do, what he swore on the steps of a church that he was gonna do.

As soon as we get That Money, we’ll be all right.

But Antoine and Lambreaux and Chef Janette and Davis and the bands and the restaurants and the schools and the neighborhoods and the city, in Season 1, don’t know what we do: that The Money won’t save them, because the Mother. Fucking. Money. Ain’t. Coming.

And you’re on your own.

8 Comments
  1. April 19, 2010 11:12 pm

    I really related to Janette in the opening. I’ve cried over my burnt eggs, honey, let me tell you. So when she had to break it to her folks that she needed to borrow some money, my stomach just sank, because I think she really thought that SBA loan and the insurance money were right around the corner. Oh, no, I thought, she’s waiting on the insurance money?

  2. ferngrrl permalink
    April 20, 2010 8:16 am

    A minor point: That was no church. That was the St. Louis Cathedral.

    A major point: Right on the mark about the “as soon as” hopes, esp the insurance money. Here in NOLA, my co-viewers and I moan loudly everytime a character says “insurance money.”

    Do note, though, that all levels of “authority” are and have been jugging up the “recovery” money, including the state not tracking whether people who accepted Road Home $ (and signed a covenant to rebuild within 3 years) have done that. Many of the empty houses and blighted properties here are a result of people taking the $ and leaving. Sometimes the $ wasn’t enough to rebuild, sometimes it was, and so on–lots of parameters. And that’s regularly a topic in the local news, along with the mismanagement of recovery funding at the city level.

    There are still FEMA trailers in the city,some empty, some not, in front of homes (some being worked on, some not, some finished).

  3. virgotex permalink*
    April 20, 2010 8:45 am

    Brilliant.

    A great story, yeah. Funny punch line. True story as well, which you’d know if you’ve ever read Homicide. But as we found out after a few seasons of The Wire, Simon rarely tells a story just because it makes an amusing anecdote. Every scene, almost every line, if you look at it right, has larger meaning.

    This is not just a story about New Orleans, by itself in a vacuum. It’s about America. As has been said before many times by many people, what happened after Katrina – at the very least, wouldn’t have been as disastrous had it happened in another country, or in another part of this country. Likely, much of it wouldn’t have happened at all.

  4. April 20, 2010 9:19 am

    Fuuuuuuuck. Still waiting on that money. Whaddaya mean it’s not coming?

  5. April 20, 2010 4:50 pm

    Same thing with 9/11 and the small businesses ruined. The money never came. Those businesses never came back. All the same stories. The money run-around. Eventually times boomed again, but it was different and what it was is still gone, gone forever.

  6. Wankirby permalink
    April 21, 2010 10:53 pm

    Nail hit on head

  7. April 21, 2010 11:16 pm

    This was a great post. Simon loves doing stuff like this, and I love the comparison to 1.1 of The Wire.

  8. April 24, 2010 12:20 am

    Ray, writing like that is why you’re getting stuff published.

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