'The Wire' Season Two: The invisible role of the ports and the shadow economy laid bare

City Paper

The Port of Baltimore employs more than 14,000 people directly and generates more than $3 billion per year in wages, according to a widely cited estimate by state officials. That works out to about $205,000 annually per job, an amount hardly anyone over there (or anywhere else) makes.

This little financial puzzle is real. But no one dwells on it. Estimates are estimates, and the city’s port—an economic engine verging on the magical—probably functions best if its specifics are left undocumented outside of expert circles.

And so too, the fictional finances in David Simon’s masterpiece are fuzzy. In season two, Frank Sobotka is a leader of the International Brotherhood of Stevedores Union local whose membership is declining as the port sees fewer ships. But he never says exactly how many members he has or how many he used to have. Sobotka eases into business with a mysterious figure known as The Greek, who pays him to sneak cargo containers through the port. How much Sobotka is paid, we are never told. After 13 girls suffocate in one, it doubles. Just before that happens, Sobotka has a large stained-glass window made to donate to the Catholic church. When Southeastern District Police Commander Stan Valchek finds out Sobotka’s window is slated for the place of honor that Valchek had envisioned for his own surprise gift window, he finagles a “detail” of police to investigate Sobotka.

“He has too much money,” Valchek complains.

How much is too much? Whatever amount would be politically effective. Whatever amount might act to slow progress, to keep things the way they used to be, when a guy with a high school diploma could get a decent job paying a homeowner’s wage. That is too much.

Sobotka is an altruistic crook: He wants to build a future at the port for his son, for his relatives, and for the kids of all his brothers in the union. He passes shoe boxes filled with money to a crooked—i.e. highly respected, highly effective—lobbyist named Bruce DiBiago, who is obviously modeled on Bruce Bereano, the real life lobbyist once convicted of mail fraud in a bizarre case involving billing his clients for ostensibly illegal campaign contributions.

That cash in shoe boxes are what moves policy in Maryland is taken for granted in “The Wire.” In real life such cases are exceptionally rare—at least if one judges by the federal prosecutions. The U.S. Attorney’s public-corruption section has lately focused its fearsome power on a group of public works employees who allegedly misappropriated scrap metal from the city dump. This is presumably because the state’s and city’s politicians are not on the take, and so two years spent investigating people augmenting their $35,000 salary is the best use of an FBI agent’s approximate salary of $85,000 a year.

On season two—which aired in 2003 but seems to be set in an earlier time when everyone smoked indoors, cellphones could not text, and digital cameras were exotic—terrorism is the feds’ main concern, and taking down the union is secondary. The drugs are important too—but just for the publicity.

It is so true to life it hurts. In the 1990s they would seize tons of cocaine from the containers, while in more recent years they occasionally seized hundreds of pounds, sometimes even arresting the mule and announcing sternly that they were into a deeper investigation. But the fruits of those deeper investigations, if any, have seldom been publicized.

Meanwhile, Baltimore continues to enjoy some of the purest heroin and cocaine available on the eastern seaboard, even as police and public officials (occasionally, when pressed) tell the fairy tale that local dealers import their stuff through New York middlemen and that Baltimore, now, historically, and forevermore, does not have any “organized crime.” These days, Customs routinely busts people smuggling condoms full of heroin in their large intestines. The amounts are measured in grams. The major cases focus on people working 5- and 10-kilo packages. Meanwhile, tons of stuff is getting in somehow; it is all over the street. Just this week, the commissioner of the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol told the Baltimore Business Journal that the port is not a significant transshipment point for heroin.

It is an amazing statement in its sweep and precision. Baltimore uses more heroin per capita than any other city in the nation, and the governor has assembled a special task force to deal with the growing problem statewide. But officials don’t have any idea how many people use. There are no good estimates about how much comes through town. Or who makes the real money on it. About all we know for sure, apparently, is that it does not enter through the seaport. And there is no organized crime in Baltimore.

“The Wire’s” fictional port capers were beautifully transitional, and perfectly cynical. The Greek turns out to be an informant for the FBI—an “asset,” as they say. So his handler funnels him everything he needs. In the end, The Greek and his aid de camp fly away, never to be heard from again. But in the montage we see the same crimes and smuggling continuing, including the trafficking of prostitutes from eastern Europe.

Trafficking for prostitution has lately gotten more public attention than it did in the early 2000s, even if prosecutions of the leaders of syndicates who control this business have not. The Maryland Human Trafficking Task Force was formed in 2007 but Baltimore has never seen a girls-in-cans scenario in real life. Just the usual brothels and strip clubs augmenting the desperate street girls who turn tricks for drugs. Among the people recently accused of pimping them? A Baltimore cop, a Baltimore firefighter, and the son of a prominent defense attorney.

The port is an important part of the local economy, and seldom covered in the news. The docks are integrated into the city’s shadow economy. To the degree Baltimore depends on its shadow economy—and it does—it depends also on the port. This is a never-discussed feature of the city. It was not overtly discussed in “The Wire,” either, though the allusions to it are constant, as are the allusions about the overheating real estate market sweeping away the entire culture of the docks.

That the real estate bubble destroyed the middle and working class is not an indisputable fact. Some blue-collar guys made out quite well with their hustle. But it was not an unalloyed good, even as it masked the lack of honest jobs for a few years. Everything is connected, and usually in ways that are not obvious. Season two showed this as really as can be on TV.

Circa 2003, as Baltimore’s Mayor Martin O’Malley ramped up his brand, the city’s building boom was featured in speeches and appearances, a sure sign of revitalization; a sign that his ass-backward crime policies (sweep the streets, follow the drugs, ignore the money) were having their desired effect. And the fact that many the players in the real estate business were the same people who controlled and/or bankrolled the city’s drug market was never mentioned—outside the fictional precincts of “The Wire.”

The connection between Baltimore’s billion-dollar (my estimate) drug industry and its broken real estate market should be clear: Houses are money laundries; crappy houses are as good as nice ones. They can be staked for loans (or as collateral in bails). They can be renovated and sold for a profit, they can be rented (ironically, “drug recovery” houses are the most profitable), or they can be held speculatively. And so they are, in 2003 and in 2015.

But that stuff doesn’t come in “The Wire” until season three, when Stringer Bell starts buying up downtown.

In season two, Sobotka wants the Panama Canal widened, and he needs the shipping channel dredged deeper. He also wants the old grain pier reopened, something that can’t happen because the grain site is being redeveloped—in an obvious nod to Pat Turner’s Silo Point—as “The Granary” luxury condominium project.

Today the condo is up and running. But so is the port. The Panama Canal project is slated to be finished this year.

Ports America put $250 million in the Seagirt terminal and the channel to accommodate bigger ships. Baltimore’s is one of only two ports on the East Coast with a 50-foot channel and a 50-foot berth for big ships.

Last year the port handled a record number of containers: 9.7 million tons shipped through Baltimore in 2014. The total cargo value is more than $52 billion a year.

Yet the stevedores union—ILA local 333, on which Simon’s IBS is modeled—is a mess. Reeling after the revelation (in City Paper) that some of Baltimore’s most notorious gangsters held union cards, ILA 333 went into a period of turmoil. Riker “Rocky” McKenzie, its former president (and an ex-felon), has fought to retain a leadership role.

The union local was placed in trusteeship last fall after an audit discovered finance irregularities, which were not publicly detailed. The trustee got rid of some 500 new (mostly African-American) members brought in by McKenzie. The remaining members voted in a new contract two months ago after going without for 18 months—including a three-day strike in the fall of 2013.

And so, even though the city is hobbled by its inability to double-stack containers on westbound trains, things are looking up at the Port of Baltimore, with more ships and more jobs even as more condos are built. This, according to the news.

“World just keeps turning, right?” says Beatrice “Beadie” Russell, the Port Police officer who discovers the dead women in the can and then gets detailed to the main investigation, as the season winds up. “You guys move on to something new. No one looks back.”

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