1.3: Introduction to Drug Trade Capitalism

“This shit right here, Dee, it’s forever.”  Stringer

We get our first look at the Barksdale office in Orlando’s through the eyes of D’Angelo, who comes bearing a brown paper bag filled with a day’s worth of drug sales from the Pit. He walks up a flight of neon-lit stairs (where Stinkum stands guard and calls “Dee coming up”) and passes through the strippers’ dressing room into the heart of the Barksdale crew’s operations.

Here, he is confronted with a drug trade stripped of all of its glamor. There is no concern for violence or reputation, territory and toughness. Instead, we see the fully-processed product of the trade: money. The small room is occupied by three men, two of them sitting at desks on the right working through an obscenely-large pile of money with the efficiency of sweatshop workers. The one on the left sorts the money and drops it into a bin at his feet. The other one takes the money out, stacks it, binds it, weighs it, and marks down the tally on a yellow legal pad. Over their heads, you can see the monitor that shows the image of the four security cameras that protect the club, and a dusty mirror. The workers don’t speak. They don’t even pause long enough to look up when D’Angelo enters. Nothing distracts them from their mechanical packaging of a day’s worth of wealth and energy culled from throughout the Westside.

Presiding over this miniature assembly line is Stringer, the ultimate capitalist, and this scene gives a glimpse into the essence of all capitalist systems, with all of their powers and flaws.

While the two men sort, Stringer, the CFO, sits at his desk working on some higher-level calculations. He wears glasses and a shirt and tie. He sips from a mug like the prototypical corporate boss. D’Angelo, stunned by the sheer quantity of cash, asks Stringer the question we are all thinking, a question that will only slowly get answered through the course of Season 1: “Where’s it all go.” Stringer doesn’t answer.

What we do get is an understanding of where it all comes from. D’Angelo hands his day’s take to Stringer, a paltry anthill compared to the mountain being sorted behind him. $22,000–$24000, give or take, he reports. But Stringer is impressed. He knows exactly what is normal for the Pit, and he says that this is better than usual. It may not be the bulk of their profits, but Stringer, like any good businessman, knows that every little bit is important.

He compliments D’Angelo, who boasts “wasn’t even check day.” Here we start to get a sense of what this money is and where it really comes from. It comes from the collective labor of all of the fiends of the city. This work can take many forms, from grueling manual labor and mindless, menial minimum-wage work to the more unofficial jobs filled by the hordes of professional fiends like Bubbles and Johnny. These jobs take the form of scams, theft, heists and hustles. And because of this, the money also comes at the expense of the city itself, through the devastating effects of crime, as well as all of the real estate, property, and possessions getting slowly stripped away and pawned off, one copper pipe and one family heirloom at a time.

If money is energy, then this room is the collection point of a massive draining that happens day after day, year after year. It is like the midpoint of an hourglass, with the marking of time’s slow, cruel progression. It is the point where the sand drains away, never to return. There is an even more disturbing metaphor in the scene, which is suggested when a satisfied Stringer says that D’Angelo must have his crew “humming.” Here, I think of a bee hive, gathering pollen from the wildlife around them, and bringing it back to be processed into their sweet gold.

But this is really an incomplete metaphor, because when bees collect pollen, they do so to service their own needs, but in the process, consciously or not, they also serve the needs of the flowers. While taking life, they spread the pollen and thus bring new life. This is a beautiful dance of nature, one that is perfectly illustrated in the “find your flower” scene from Spike Jonze’s Adaptation.

But in Baltimore, the opposite process plays out. As the crew drains the financial life force out of the inner city, they leave only addiction, death, and despair in their wake. What makes things worse is that Stringer is not only aware of this, he even brags about it. He lays out the mechanics of this profitable business plan with the repeated phrase “no matter what.” “No matter what we call he-ron, it’s gonna get sold,” he says. “Shit is strong, we’re gonna sell it. Shit is weak, we’re gonna sell twice as much. You know why…a fiend, he gonna chase that shit no matter what.” What they are selling is the ultimate inevitability, the fuel of an insatiable machine of human desire.

He sums his sermon up with the ultimate capitalist credo: “We do worse and we get paid more.” This is the world that Huxley envisioned when he wrote Brave New World, a world dominated by consumerism and waste. This is also the world we live in, with unfixable digital devices that break down just in time for the next new model to come out and the policy of planned obsolescence (just dig through those VHS cassettes or your old stack of CDs—if you were born before 1990).

This is a perversion of the natural world, a place where money keeps coming out of one system, and only to get packaged and shipped off to some other unknown place. And there is no apparent way to stop it. “This shit right here, Dee, it’s forever.”

As D’Angelo walks out of this lesson in capitalism, Stringer’s two worker bees continue counting without missing a beat, as if he never came in to begin with. There is no time to look up. The hive has to keep on humming.

Now let me hear your interpretations, connections and comments…

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3 thoughts on “1.3: Introduction to Drug Trade Capitalism

  1. Pingback: The Wire, "Lessons": Stringer Goes to School | The Wire Blog

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  3. I thought the humming was more the sound of a well oiled machine. I don’t think the bee idea works at all — for the reasons you identify.

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