1.3: Customer Service in the Pit

By Peter Honig

What, the customer is always right?”—Bodie

The Pit is the nucleus in the atomic structure of The Wire’s first season. It is the world around which all other worlds revolve: the junkies come here to cop, the cops come here to take that first step up the investigative ladder, and the crew bosses come here to oversee their domain. Most importantly, the four central members of the Pit crew–conflicted leader D’Angelo, Bodie the “smart-ass pawn,” childlike Wallace and sex-crazed Poot–serve as the Greek chorus, commenting on the events that swirl around them. In the middle of the the low-rise courtyard, they sit on milk crates, utility boxes, and that immortal orange couch and debate the ethics and hierarchy of the drug game. These are some of the funniest and smartest scenes in Season One, most notably the chicken nugget scene from Episode Two and the chess scene that comes later on in Episode Three. So it is appropriate that the one opening scene with all four of the Pit Boys serves to highlight the connectivity of The Wire’s many worlds.

Episode Three, “The Buys,” begins with a sense of watching and waiting that links the dealers to the dope fiends they serve (or prey on, depending on perspective). The scene takes place just before nine in the morning with the hoppers impatiently waiting for their daily re-up and the addicts waiting even more impatiently for their first high of the day. The camera creates an ambiguous perspective by panning, turning, and circling in a single meandering shot. At first, we seem to be watching with the dealers, perhaps from D’Angelo’s perspective, but then the camera turns and approaches D’Angelo (who plays with a tennis ball that may well be Fuzzy Dunlop) right as a junkie shuffles up to ask for testers and then follows the unsatisfied fiend as he moves on to a surly Bodie with the same question. This gives the scene the restless feel of early-stage withdrawal. No matter the perspective, the emotion is the same—we are waiting for the new supply to come so we can start our day’s business, whether that business be selling drugs or using them.

The scene’s central conversation begins when D’Angelo takes Bodie to task for verbally abusing the junkie. Bodie defends himself, triggering a debate about the relationship between user and dealer. The conversation follows the template of many of the Pit Boy scenes: D’Angelo, the leader (in name, at least), sits elevated on his utility box, holding court with his underlings. But these underlings are not blindly-obedient. In this scene, as in many others, there is a just-beneath-the-surface tension between D’Angelo, who questions the game, and loyal soldier Bodie, who questions his boss’s toughness. “Why you act like that, yo?” D’Angelo scolds, initiating the confrontation. Bodie sarcastically spits back “What, for these junkie motherfuckers?” As the conversation proceeds, the low camera angle gives us the perspective of a Pit Boy, looking up at a superior we’re not quite sure we should respect.

The debate seems to be about the junkies’ worth: do they deserve respect as human beings, or are they merely animals to be kicked around (D’Angelo twice accuses Bodie of treating them like dogs). But it soon becomes clear that they are talking about more than just the nature of the drug addict. When D says “you ain’t gotta punk him like that,” and Poot chimes in with “he punked hisself. He’s a goddamn drug addict,” D fires back: “and you a goddamn drug dealer.” He suggests that it is impossible to condemn the behavior of the fiends without first looking at the behavior of those who prey on that addiction. This is the moment of greatest tension in the conversation (and also the first cut of the scene, over 45 seconds in)—both Bodie and Poot defensively retort “so?” and then Bodie introduces the key metaphor: “What, the customer is always right?”

Behind his sarcasm, Bodie poses a question that will shape the rest of the series: How does the business of drug dealing compare to the legal businesses in America? It seems laughable to call drug fiends customers, but that is exactly what they are. The fact that the crews call the drugs “product” and the corners “shops” shows how closely the drug game models itself after retail. D’Angelo argues this very point when he says “Everything else in the world gets sold without people taking advantage, scamming, lying, doing each other dirty. Why it got to be that way with this?” He recognizes that the Barksdales don’t function like a legal retail chain, but he also imagines an idealistic world where hoppers sell drugs with the courtesy and professionalism of, say, a Starbucks.

The other Pit Boys aren’t buying it, though. Poot argues that, as addicts, the fiends don’t deserve this type of respect, and even the sensitive Wallace believes that the rules don’t apply in the pit when he says “the customer be fucked up.” D’Angelo continues to defend his perspective, saying that there is better way to sell drugs, one that is humane to the junkies and would spare the dealers the hassle of a strong police presence, but it seems unconvincing to the hoppers.

While D’Angelo may be right in a conceptual sense, the reality of the street reduces his words to pure fantasy. First of all, there is the need to defend territory. There is always somebody waiting to step in and take over in what Stringer refers to as an “aggressive marketplace,” whether it is Prop Joe’s East Siders, some “off-brand” crew like the one that tries to step in at the end of the season, or a lurking stickup boy like Omar the Terror.

And just as we can’t judge the junkies without judging the dealers, we also can’t judge the actions of the dealers without considering the actions of the fiends. As illustrated by Bubbles and Johnny, our guides through the junkie world, a dopefiend will do anything to get high, but seldom has money. The result is that they are always running some sort of con. As the holders of the precious vials, the dealers are constant targets of scams that range from photocopied money and fishing lines to bargaining and manipulative sob stories. The dopefiend will turn any courtesy from the dealers into a weakness to be exploited. That is the game.

Just on cue, another junkie interrupts D’Angelo’s speech. The boys groan, knowing that some other game is about to be run on them, and the camera pulls back to reveal a familiar figure, Snitchin’ Bubbs, with his hefty bag of tricks. Bubbles’ salesmanlike greeting of “young squires!” is both a comic mockery of the distorted chivalry of these low-level dealers and a foreshadowing of the chess lesson that comes later in the episode.

The scene, which began with an ambiguous point of view, ends with a dramatic shift in perspective as we find ourselves on the roof with McNulty and Kima, who photograph the targets of their investigation (“Him, we know,” McNulty says matter-of-factly, reflecting his recent encounter with D’Angelo, and the insight he now has into the young hopper’s psyche). The transition emphasizes the connectivity of the worlds that orbit the pit through two surprising revelations—first, that the momentarily unseen junkie who interrupts the conversation is in fact Bubbles and second, that the detectives were watching this whole scene from their perch atop one of the lowrise buildings. This shows just how invisible and sneaky connectivity can be.

There are links between the different worlds that are unseen even to the people living in them.
These hidden links are so powerful that they go both ways. Just as the Pit Boys are unaware of the Five-O taking their pictures, so McNulty is unaware of his impact on his targets. In fact, he is present in the scene right from the beginning in the form of D’Angelo’s progressive views on the possibility of a more humane drug trade. Taken in context, the young Barksdale’s sentiments seem to stem from the guilt he still feels over Gant’s death. In fact, his passionate plea for a non-violent trade is practically plagiarized from what McNulty said during the interrogation from the previous episode. “Everything else in this country gets sold without people shooting each other behind it,” Jimmy says. In D’Angelo’s mouth, it becomes “Shit, everything else in the world gets sold without people taking advantage, scamming, lying, doing each other dirty. Why it got to be that way with this?” D’Angelo expands the legal markets from the nationwide to worldwide, and he changes the homicide-detective-focused “people shooting each other” to a list of smaller, but possibly more ruinous types of inhumanity that are rampant in the game. Clearly McNulty’s words had an impact on D’Angelo.

But it doesn’t stop there. Just as one atom links to another to form a molecule, the conceptual connection between Jimmy and D’Angelo branches out to reach other people in other times. In fact, the person most heavily affected by this conversation is the one who has the least to say: Wallace. On the surface, he seems to take the side of Bodie and Poot when he says (as part of his only full line in the scene) “You can’t give these niggers shit, man.” Three episodes later, however, we learn that D’Angelo’s words made a deep impression on him. In the immediate aftermath of a horrific murder, he tells D’Angelo “I like what you said about all that killing, you know? Especially that part about how it ain’t gotta be like that. Just sell the shit and move on.” “Yeah, I remember that, but it ain’t like that, is it?” D’Angelo replies, now far enough removed from Gant’s murder to be able to see his sentiments for the unrealistic fantasies that they are. “Yeah, I know. I know it ain’t.” Wallace says in despair. In fact, it is very possible that this belief, passed on by D’Angelo before he himself stopped believing it, is the very thing that motivates Wallace’s decisions later on in the season.

In a show where connectivity is a major motif, this scene illustrates two types of causality. We go cinematically from fiend to dealer to cop, and back down conceptually from cop to dealer to fiend. Sure, there is the Newtonian chain of events, where one action leads to another which leads to another, and so on. But there is the equally important chain of ideas, a system of beliefs and values that can spread from person to person and have just as dramatic an impact on the story. By giving equal attention to multiple worlds (dealers, drug lords, detectives, police administers, and later city hall, unions, schools and newspapers) The Wire is able to show how much impact a cause can have in a deeply-interconnected world, even when those causes have the invisibility of ideas.

Now let me hear your interpretations, connections and comments…

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One thought on “1.3: Customer Service in the Pit

  1. One of the greatest pleasures for me in The Wire is watching D’Angelo’s development from a callow privileged role player in the socially destructive drug trade, to a more thoughtful mature person. His struggles to process the conflicting messages he receives from the different influences on his environment is brilliantly portrayed in the writing, the filming, and most of all the acting. The Wire’s ability to portray such complex character develpment organically is what, to me, sets it apart from most of the other high quality serial TV shows.

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