March 23, 2008

The connection between The Wire and On the Road

I just finished the final season of what will go down as the greatest standard-definition TV series in history, HBO's "The Wire." And while someday I'd like to write a eulogy for my now-concluded favorite show, at this point it's easiest to react to the reactors: I've been following along with Slate's episode diary. In one entry, Slate's columnists discuss the pronunciation of the word "shit"--drawn out to comical duration, so that it sounds like "sheeeee-it"--by the character of Clay Davis (Isaiah Whitlock), as if it were something heretofore unheard, as if Whitlock invented it. Their final entry attributes it to Whitlock's uncle. But as I was reading their entries I was wondering where these people were from that they hadn't heard it before.

Still, I didn't want to respond with "I'm from Durham, North Carolina, a predominantly black southern city and y'all are white fools for thinking "sheeeee-it" is something new," as I'm in fact from the suburbs of Durham and am myself half white(/Asian), but as I was reading Jack Kerouac's On The Road last night, I stumbled across the word and its particular pronunciation three times in the space of a page (200):

Yah, what's good's a ball, life's too sad to be ballin all the time, said the tenorman, lowering his eye to the street. "Shh-eee-it!" he said. "I ain't got no money and I don't care tonight."

...

We saw a horrible sight in the bar: a white hipster fairy had come in wearing a Hawaiian shirt and was asking the big drummer if he could sit in. The musicians looked at him suspiciously. "Do you blow?" He said he did, mincing. They looked at one another and said, "Yeah, yeah, that's what the man does, shhh-ee-it!

...

The big Negro bullneck drummer sat waiting for his turn. "What that man doing?" he said. "Play the music!" he said. "What in the hell!" he said. "Shh-ee-eeet!" and looked away disgusted.

Not to suggest that On the Road premiered the term, but it does offer proof beyond the anecdotal that the elocution is (at least) fifty years old. So there you go, Slate folks: it ain't nothin' new. Sheeee-it.

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If you love the wire, try "Homicide: Life on the Street."

The Wire was great, but I gather that you aren't old enough to remember Robert Townsend's movie, "Hollywood Shuffle." "Hollywood Shuffle" was the story of Bobby, a young Black actor (African American wasn't as popular then) who wanted to get roles that were not just , pimps, drug dealers, junkies, rapists, or slaves. It was almost impossible.

So in the almost thirty years since his film, "The Wire" employed forty to fifty remarkable minority actors who may not ever work as frequently again. But I'm glad they got the chance.

March 28, 2008 at 5:46PM, Edited September 4, 10:17AM

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