“I’m a police.”

Since February the Guardian‘s TV blog, Organ Grinder, has been hosting a nerd-out about The Wire—FX is airing it there, and hopefully they’ve found a way to show it without bleeping out Clay Davis. (Or, perhaps more precisely, bleeeeeeeeeeeping.) The latest entry covers series creator David Simon‘s appearance at the Hay literary festival last weekend. Much of the ground Simon covers is familiar to anybody who’s heard him speak, but I hadn’t heard the anecdote he broke out about a squabble between Martin Amis and John Updike over some Wire-y language:

He also recalled the time Martin Amis was criticised by John Updike for using the phrase “I’m a police” in his 1997 novel Night Train. Amis told National Public Radio that Updike “should get a copy of David Simon’s Homicide”. Simon, who was listening to the interview in his car, thought: “Here are these actual literary lions arguing over some small part of a police procedural; it was the most exciting day of my life.”

(Street slang definitely isn’t Updike’s thing; Roger’s Version has plenty of acute observations of the projects in its Boston-like city, but practically no dialogue between people who live there.)

Most authors have a way of disappointing Simon, even the ones in the realist tradition. He told the Hay crowd, “I like Dreiser, but the guy couldn’t write a human being to save his life.” I’m curious what books by Theodore Dreiser he’s read; I can see his complaint applying to An American Tragedy, which hasn’t aged well and makes clear how much its characters are part of the book’s plot mechanics, but I’ve always admired the portrait of George Hurstwood in Sister Carrie, which is one of the more effective descriptions of a slow mental breakdown in fiction.

2 responses to ““I’m a police.”

  1. The Wire was the first time I’d ever heard this expression. Also common on the Wire was this slight variation: “I’m a murder police,” which I believe Bunk uttered on occasion.

  2. There are two different questions here, and I’m interested in both since I’m working on a novel that concerns black dialect.

    The first concerns actual use of AAVE in a particular urban setting, which is to say: Do black people in a certain place use a certain construction?

    The second concerns the written representation of black dialect.

    Of course, those lines are blurred when you consider The Wire and Martin Amos, since they come in different mediums… though I would argue the issue is actually the same.

    Years ago, in her short story “Mines,” which was in Best New American, Susan Straight has a character say, “I’m a get mines…” (She is, of course, white, though she writes in black dialect– but that’s another issue entirely). Dialect in fiction, and (I’d imagine) on television, needs to offer the impression of authenticity, not be absolutely faithful to the actual grammar. Being understandable, and so understood, is as important as being ‘correct’.

    “I’m a murder police,” then, makes sense… the verb ‘murder’ tells us what will happen. “I’m a police” is a bit harder to comprehend.

    In the rural black public schools of the Mississippi Delta, blacks didn’t use that construction, which would replace ‘gone’ (going to). “I gone get mines,”or “I’m gone get mines,” is what a kid would have said there– I think. I can’t hear which is correct; if I was writing that line of dialogue, the question would be deciding which representation, on the page, will be clearest, and then being consistent with that choice elsewhere in the text (or show).

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