Herc: What if Little Man ain’t working in the 221 today? What if this Day guy don’t come? What if he came already and we just missed the pickup?
Sydnor: Yo, Herc, what if your mother and father never met?
The Wire does a great job of showing the funny challenge detectives face when fighting the maddening boredom of a stakeout. During Season 1, these stakeouts usually involve a lot of time sitting on rooftops holding cameras or binoculars and watching handoffs and payphones. Sometimes they watch hats, too. They look at pictures, rub their eyes, and eat a lot. Then, in a flash, it is there: the person, the transaction, the phone call that they have been waiting for. But in between the occasional, sudden bursts of recognition, the sightings that promise to contribute (even minutely) to the slowly-building case, there are long hours where nothing happens.
It’s a little like tournament poker, or baseball. Things move slowly, and most of what happens feels like a non-event. Hands are folded on the first raise. Pitchers throw to first to keep a runner on the bag. Cards get shuffled. There is a visit to the mound. It’s not that these moments are insignificant. In fact, if The Wire has anything to teach us about games, it is that even the most boring, seemingly-trivial details create a ripple that impacts the final outcome. A folded hand could save a poker player from elimination. An attempted pickoff can prevent the go-ahead run from advancing a base. It all matters, even if it seems so damn boring.
In fact, the ability to endure this boredom is one of the most important skills in poker and baseball, and certainly in detectives as well. Boredom brings out some of the worst in people, as restless minds and bodies search for something to occupy them. In the stakeout scene at the start of “Lessons,” we see Herc struggle with just that as he sits on the rooftop waiting for a handout that may not actually happen. He hasn’t been there long, but already, his mind is wandering. He has been reduced to a three-year-old’s inquisitiveness. He spits out a string of “what if” situations, all involving circumstances where their vigil is useless. It is the detective’s version of “are we there yet?” Finally, Sydnor snaps, stunning Herc with the ultimate head-busting hypothetical: “What if your mother and father never met?”
This is not the most original observation, (it’s about one step up from “If the queen had balls, she’d be the king.”) but it stops Herc in his tracks. He looks almost crushed by the possibility of his non-existence. The question obviously requires a higher level of abstraction than Herc is comfortable with. It shuts him up, stopping his wandering mind dead in its tracks. Sydnor enjoys his well-earned silence.
But it is also an important reminder of the need to stay focused on the present, even when the present is unbearably boring. The detective must deal in facts, the “what” of the crime, not the “why,” and certainly not the “what if.” They need to build cases with concrete documentation and provable circumstances, and in such a world, hypotheticals, be they mundane or profound, are nothing more than idle distractions.