Thursday, 28 May 2009

The Corner

Just finished reading ‘The Corner’. The 600-odd page documentary of a year in the life of a neighborhood in West Baltimore that was the inspiration for ‘The Wire’ is not a light read.

But it should be compulsory reading for anyone who has a say in public policy on drugs. Including the new generation of “I didn’t inhale’ politicians. It paints a picture of a broken society. Not the kind that Cameron and the Tories talk about when they mean the decline of rural post offices, the vandalisation of bus stops or a general lack of respect for our elders and betters. This is really broken – as in completely fucking grim and (almost) entirely hopeless with the whole social and economic structure collapsed.

There’s no equivalent to it here in the UK – even where I live in the inner city. There maybe the odd street (in fact there is - just a couple of blocks from my house) that at certain times of night has aspects of it. In other places there may be certain estates that come close. But despite having one of the highest rates of unemployment – and crime - in the country, in general we are not there. Yet.

But there are some familiar echoes:

In particular, The Corner identifies the plight of the working poor – those people who desperately manage to keep from drowning in West Baltimore - a small and fragile minority who uneasily co-exist with the dope-fiends, the slingers, the dealers and the stick-up artists.

The other day I went to the local health centre for a blood test and witnessed a small taste of this phenomenon:

Needless to say the health centre is over-subscribed and under-resourced. At 8:30am, before it opens there are over 60 people in the waiting area – we take tickets from a machine to give us a number. There's a fair cross section of every social (and medical) problem imaginable gathered together in one room. In the background, staff are continually yelling at patients. And patients yelling at staff: The records have been lost. They have brought the wrong form. The nurse is not in today. They need to go back to another clinic to get a referral. They don’t have proof of residence. And always the same outcome – come back another day – make another appointment – or wait here but we can’t tell you when you’ll be seen.

In response, the anger is ritualized. Most people protest then stoically accept what they are told and settle down to wait. They seem used to it – it may not be fair or logical but they know that's just how it works - and time takes on a different meaning when you're up tp your neck in the system. But the ones who suffer most are those that are not in the system.

Like the bloke waiting next to me; He was there for tests, but there was some mix up and then they couldn’t tell him when he would be seen. From the phone-calls that I overheard, he was some sort of maintenance man for a small firm. His boss was calling him every ten minutes to check up on him – when could he get back to work ? – why wasn’t he able to say? – how was he going to make up his lost time ? what was really the matter with him ? was he going to be signed-off sick ? By the time it was my turn it was pretty clear that the guy was well down the road to being sacked.

A small undramatic episode but it shows the fragility of the narrow gap between being in work and being another welfare statistic, with everything that goes with it.

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