What David Simon does, most notably in The Wire, is take people and rip them out of our context and, in so doing, out of our pre-conceived notions, be these notions sentimental, racist, romantic. The result is often a brilliant portrait of things as they really are, of a sense of having gotten at the truth of things.
In a recent Talk of the Town piece in The New Yorker, Simon sort of one-ups Dylan. William Zantzinger – the young Maryland man responsible for the death of Hattie Carroll – has died. Like an ancient beast trapped in arctic ice, Dylan took William Zantzinger and preserved him for the ages. Dylan, riding a train from DC to New York, saw an article in a Baltimore evening daily about a wealthy young man from Maryland’s rural eastern shore who was at a fancy Baltimore dinner and, to a black waitress, yelled racist slurs and tapped on the shoulder with a cane. She died. Was this murder? No. Was it a nasty son-of-a-bitch who probably did manslaughter? Son-of-a-bitch part anyway seems true. But at the end of the day Zantzinger got his famous six month sentence. And Dylan, back in New York, got to writing.
Dylan wrote The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll at his kitchen table. Should we consider this? Should we discuss how, at the kitchen table, he came up with this perfect encapsulation of all the racist horrors in early 1960’s America, how when describing Carroll (what a name for Dylan to be given!), the constants are soft and become so harsh when Zantzinger (Cane, Twirled, Diamond) is described. The sounds of the words themselves become violent when the two meet (Zantzinger’s cane, “doomed and determined to destroy all the gentle). Consider the “levels” of the song, using that table as a metaphor for describing the hierarchies (“all’s equal” and “ladder of law” and “courts are on the level”), the “tops” and “bottoms” of the racial and moneyed in which justice is an illusion. Consider the masking involved at the end of each verse, first with the instruction to “take the rag away from your face,” until the end, when you are instructed to, “bury the rag most deep in your face” and how this same masking is used to describe the judge (who “spoke through his cloak most deep and distinguished”), which implicates all of us masqueraders (a favorite Dylan trick, you will note). Consider that Dylan put this together over lunch at the kitchen table.
But see, Dylan used Zantzinger to romanticize something, he used him to brilliantly tell a story and to bring home the contemporary horrors and very real injustices in America. And when Simon comes along, Zantzinger is allowed to speak, is allowed to become something less than a total monster. Dylan is one-uped in a sense in that Zantzinger is again used as a tool to teach a broader lesson, this lesson being: be skeptical of what you hear and read, question everything, don’t follow leaders and watch the parking meters. Something like that.
What Zantzinger thought or believed, who knows, but we do know he was something of a pawn, that he did have a role to play in exposing the nastiness of racist injustice, and, as Simon points out, he played his role to the end. As Simon ends it:
Zantzinger lived long enough to see Martin Luther King, Jr., honored with a national holiday and to know that this week Barack Obama would be inaugurated as President. We can imagine him galled at this outcome, a small-minded racist rightly defined by his ugliest moment. Perhaps that’s him, or perhaps he was more than that. At any rate, he knew his part and he played it to the end.