On Tuesday evening, Salon published a piece by Baltimore writer D. Watkins in which the author details poverty emblematic of East Baltimore, setting a scene where he and three of his friends eke out a living and can only afford simple pleasures like cheap vodka and cards instead of iPhones for taking selfies and keeping up with the latest pop culture headlines. The story quickly went viral, especially locally, with many people sharing it on Facebook as an eye-opening look at a part of Baltimore many rub up against but few are familiar with.While feedback was mostly positive, two commenters who said they knew Watkins, whose first name is Dwight, called into question the author's portrayal of his own financial situation. In the piece, Watkins says: "I have a little more than my friends but still feel their pain. My equation for survival is teaching at three colleges, substituting, freelance Web designing, freelance graphic designing, rap video director, wedding photographer and tutor — the proceeds from all of these are swallowed by my mortgage, cigarettes, rail vodka and Ramen noodles. I used to eat only free-range organic shit, I used to live in Whole Foods, I used to drink top shelf — I used to be able to afford pop culture." He also defines a selfie as, "[w]hen a stupid person with a smartphone flicks themselves and looks at it."Both commenters referred to Watkins' Lexuses and penchant for Grey Goose gimlets at Mount Vernon bars. One of the commenters said they knew someone who unfollowed Watkins on Instagram because of all the selfies he took. Both posts have since been deleted, but we copied and pasted one from "Sean C. Wilson" while it was still up:
In this story, he is disingenuously including himself among an apparent group of actually disenfranchised black people. As he has used aliases for the people in this story, I do not know if they are people he has told me about before. I do know, however, Dwight does not need to "scrape" for rail-vodka money–not when he sits in Turp's and XS talking about his month-long trips to Europe and Africa. I remember sitting in XS with Dwight in 2013. He had two iPhones at the time. I do not know how many he has now. I can tell you, however, that he is a frequent participator in the "selfie" phenomenon. I have a great friend who had to unfollow him on Instagram because she was annoyed with how many pictures of himself he took. Yet, in this story, he has defined a "selfie" as something "a stupid person with a smartphone [does]," right.Comments on articles, even ones with names attached, are not typically something that should be taken at face value. But a scan of Watkins' Instagram account revealed pictures of a swanky hotel room, a Rolex watch, trips overseas, an event with boxer Mike Tyson, and yes, several selfies.Reached for comment on how the pictures square with how he presented himself in the Salon piece, Watkins, who grew up in East Baltimore but now lives in Ednor Gardens, said: "I don't want handouts, and I don't want people to feel sorry for me. I'm just talking about the area where I'm from and where I frequent and what we're thinking about. I'm not eating out of a trash can, but at the same time it's not pretty. But I'm here and I'm happy, so it's all good."He says the trips came as part of book events for his friend and mentor MK Asante, a professor at Morgan State University whose 2013 memoir, Buck, has drawn national acclaim (CP's review), including a nomination for an NAACP Image Award. He says the hotel room in Miami, the shots with ancient ruins, and the like all stem from that.In an email, Asante confirmed he brought Watkins along for video and photography work, adding, "I think Dwight is a super talented artist and writer with a unique, raw, and important perspective that the world needs to hear. His writing brims with a sense of urgency and undeniable relevance. He's an example of the power of education to transform and empower. His new article about America's underclass is giving voice to the voiceless … akin to WEB DuBois' Philadelphia Negro or a more recent example, Michelle Alexander's New Jim Crow."As for the cars, Watkins says he used to have Lexuses years ago -- though never two at the same time -- from his days as a crack dealer in East Baltimore, which are referenced in the piece, but he's "been driving a Honda with a dent in the front for the last three years."Watkins admits he knows the commenter Wilson. "I had a class with him before, I know he's a writer," he says. "I would love to sit down and show him my bank statements and my W-2's and have him live with me for a week to see some of the bullshit that I go through."The Rolex? Given to him years ago by a dead friend, he says. Tyson? A chance meeting set up by the father of Nathan Corbett, an actor from season four of The Wire and Watkins' protégé, who was working an event in New York. The drinks? He has friends at those bars who will hook him up."Who gets around a crowd of people and brags about not having anything?" he asks. "You just wanna drink that shit away."Though he has left the East Side, Watkins says he scrambles to make a living between working adjunct professor jobs for less than $2,000 per class per semester, freelance writing, web and video work, and taking whatever is leftover from the student loan money he is using to finish his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Baltimore.
After the prodding of teachers and writers like Asante, whom he met playing basketball around the city, and years working on graduate degrees, writing seems to be paying off. In addition to the Salon piece, Watkins signed a deal with the Irene Goodman Agency to sell his memoir, which he says will focus on how writing and the arts inspired him to leave the drug game.
Of his days as a drug dealer, he now says: "It's the worst thing I've ever done in my life. I wish I could erase it. There's no valuable lessons. I was a terrible person with no redeeming qualities and I hate what I did and I hate what I was around. And during that course in my life, I wished I was dead every day."
As for pop culture, though his situation is marginally better than his friends in the Douglass Homes, Watkins says, "It's entertaining, but I don't care. I care about having $300-$400 and not getting paid, or not having anything to make money, for the next week and a half or so. I can't embrace it and listen to the lyrics and understand the art and dance to it on a regular basis. I mean, not me anyway. Maybe someone else in my situation can, but I can't."