When I was in high school, I spent my summers working in a kitchen at a summer camp. It was grueling work, long hours making three meals a day for several hundred hungry campers and counselors, but the worst days were the ones where we got inspected by the Department of Health.
It only happened once or twice a summer, but it always set the entire kitchen into a frenzy. We usually got a call from the front office, where they could stall the inspector for as much as a half hour. In that time, we would race around, cleaning and polishing everything that we could, making sure all of the food was properly marked and wrapped and stored. We were terrified of what would happen if we failed.
Well, one summer, we did fail. The inspector found too many issues, so he gave us a week to fix them. What is funny is that none of the violations had anything to do with cleanliness or anything else we could have fixed in the half hour between warning and arrival. No, the problems were all structural, flaws built into the fabric of the kitchen, things like the wood shelving in the walk-in freezer or the height of the pallets in the storage rooms. With all of our scurrying, there was nothing we could have done to fix this. We didn’t even see them as problems to begin with.
I always think back to those frantic moments when I watch the scene from “One Arrest” where Stringer and Wee-Bey pay a visit to the pit to try to figure out why there have been so many problems there lately. I especially connect to the part where D’Angelo, Bodie and Poot stand around, nervously waiting for the arrival of the inspectors. They look at the orange couch and debate its positioning. “We should leave the couch right there, right?” “Yeah, leave that shit right there.” “That’s nice, that’s straight.”
There is a humorous note of pride in their voices as they get the Pit into its most presentable shape (a type of obsessive concern for image that mirrors the earlier scene where D’Angelo gets dressed). But while the boys worry about the appearance of the couch, Stringer is here to look into some far more serious issues.
The need for this inspection arose from these issues, specifically the three raids that happen in a short span. The first two were the one-two punch of Omar’s rip and the police’s raid. They prompted the Barksdales’ first closer look into the workings of the pit, which may have resulted in Sterling and Cass thieving, but did nothing to indicate a cause for the problems.
And then, just as things seem to have settled down, Stinkum gets popped with a reup, four G-packs that get taken from the bagman Kevin Johnston while Stinkum gets away. We see the crew’s leadership grapple with the significance of this chain of events in the strip club office. Avon summons D’Angelo to answer for all of the problems they have been having.
“Who’s snitching” Wee-Bey asks as soon as D’Angelo walks through the door, but D’Angelo is quick to defend his crew. “My crew, we tight, allright? Now ain’t nobody holding no extra money. I checked all that.” Once again, he dispels the suspicion that somebody is feeding information either to Omar or to the Police (or both).
And while he may be able to eliminate the possibility of a snitch, it doesn’t make the problem go away. Avon remains unsatisfied. “Well, something is up,” he says. “So go on down there today, tell them hoppers you got working for you down there that this shit is about to change. Stringer gonna come down there, he gonna run through the changes. Until shit is straight, the Pit is dead.” Here, we have the very core of inspection. It starts with a sense of a flaw, something that doesn’t work the way it should. Avon is disturbed by the inexplicable behavior of the cops, who took the drugs but left Stinkum alone. “What’s all this shit?” a clearly troubled Avon asks. “Something’s definitely up,” Stringer confirms. This disturbance necessitates a closer look and a need to change up.
Of course, this type of change is the very thing the detail has feared since the beginning. Their surveillance depends on a degree of predictability in the workings and communications of the crew. This is why Rawls’ attempt to put a warrant out on D’Angelo was such a threat to the investigation, and it is also why they chose not to arrest Stinkum (the information they would have to put in the charging papers would tip Avon off to the existence of the wiretap). But as careful as the detectives are, the disruptions caused by the investigation end up having the same effect, if not as strong. Avon doesn’t know that he is being specifically monitored, but he is unsettled enough to make some changes.
This is an interesting social parallel to one of the most important concepts in modern physics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Werner Heisenberg developed an equation to explain how the act of observation actually changes what is being observed. As Tony Shalhoub says in The Coen Brothers’ (highly underrated) The Man who Wasn’t There, “Sometimes, the more you look, the less you really know.” This is a real dilemma for anybody undertaking an investigation, be they an atomic physicist, a detective running a wiretap, a drug lord trying to plug leaks, or a Department of Health inspector. The thing they inspect is changed by the very act of inspection.
The danger of this, as presented by Shalhoub, is that this concept can easily be read as a sort of nihilist view of knowledge and understanding. But that is not what Heisenberg says. For him, the awareness of uncertainty doesn’t mean that we can’t know anything. It means that we can only know probabilities. If you can’t state where an electron is in relation to the nucleus of the atom, you can at least guess where it is statistically likely to be, even if it is always moving.
This is what happened in the camp’s kitchen. Inspectors always see kitchens at their shiniest, their most presentable, with everything placed just right, like the orange couch. But that one inspector knew to look past the surface and examine the underlying flaws of the kitchen’s structure.
When Stringer and Wee-Bey come to the courtyard, they do the same thing. They don’t even notice the couch, but they ask about many things: how often the stash moves, whether anybody is getting high, whether they are searching the vacants for police, whether there are any cell phones being used. For each question, D’Angelo and his assistants have a satisfactory answer.
It is only when Stringer starts asking about their communications that he touches on a possible culprit: the pay phones. “All right, tear them motherfuckers out,” he says. Bodie’s response speaks for everybody. “What,” he says instinctively, with a stunned look on his face. Those phones have been so essential to the way they did business in the pit that the idea of removing them is unthinkable. Stringer may not be certain that the phones are the cause of the problems, but he is sees them as the most consistent, predictable, and therefore most vulnerable part of the pit’s operations. And so that is exactly where they need to change.
The result is instantaneous. The moment Poot and Bodie tear out the phones, we cut to the detail’s office, where the computer beeps, and Freamon looks up, dismayed, at an ominous “service interrupt” message. Here is the moment they feared. The Pit’s lazy, predictable system of communications was bound to go away, and now, as we hear Stringer command, they will be using different pay phones, at random distances, every day.
Even though this is a setback to the investigation, it is far from fatal. The benefit of any type of observation is that, while it changes that which is being observed, there will always be a new system, which can give off new patterns and probabilities, which can once again be monitored. Of course, this will lead to further changing up on the part of the Barksdales, and so the cat and mouse chase will go on forever.