That motherfuckin’ money
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.