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Oct. 3, 2008

The outlaw George Pelecanos

by Nellie Beckett, Print Editor-in-Chief
As a native of Silver Spring, George Pelecanos knows how to hold a grudge. "I am a Northwood graduate, and it pains me to help Blair in any way," quips the local author.

Dressed casually in jeans, a motorcycle T-shirt and canvas high tops, Pelecanos sits in a chair on the deck of his east Silver Spring home. Exuding a charming tough-guy air, Pelecanos doesnít fit the famous author stereotype - that of a snobbish, highly intellectual recluse. Rather, Pelecanos has tried to stay true to his Washington, D.C. roots despite growing fame as an author, screenwriter and television producer for the critically acclaimed HBO series "The Wire." While watching his beloved city transform across half a century, George Pelecanos has strengthened connections to the D.C. community, acting not only as author but as a historian of the ever-changing city.

Home Turf
Born in D.C. in 1957, George Pelecanos spent his early childhood in Mount Pleasant. When he started school, the Pelecanos family - like many other D.C. families of the 1960s - moved to Montgomery County, settling in the Forest Knolls neighborhood of Silver Spring. Pelecanos recalls the Silver Spring of his childhood, when a vacant lot at Four Corners occupied Blairís current location. He also remembers the exploits of local youth in the 1970s. "A typical night was drag racing on University Boulevard, from Wheaton to Four Corners. We would drive around and drink beer, look for parties," he says.

The Downtown Silver Spring of Pelecanosís youth was also a much different place, one where students could buy shoes just as easily as drug paraphernalia. "Ellsworth used to have head shops, like The Daily Planet, where you could get pretty hip stuff," he says. The Silver Theatre - now the AFI Silver - was also a local hotspot, where Pelecanos saw the iconic Sergio Leone "spaghetti westerns." The classic films dealt with dueling themes of good and evil, outlaws versus law enforcement and other issues that later influenced his writing.

Though Pelecanos says he draws inspiration from many sources of popular culture, local people and places also shape his writing. Allusions to businesses in the area are scattered throughout Pelecanosís 15 books, especially places that are popular with the locals. Silver Spring favorite Kefa Cafe earns a nod in 2002 novel Hell to Pay, when fictional ex-cop Terry Quinn praises Kefa for its great coffee and service. "These people here, they take pride in their business," says Quinn, referring to real-life owners Lene and Abeba Tsegaye.

The sisters appreciate the acknowledgement, which was profitable for the cafe. "People noticed it - itís real good," says Lene Tsegaye, who keeps a signed copy of Hell to Pay behind the counter. Pelecanos, she says, still drops in to Kefa from time to time.

Pelecanos also mentions businesses like Silver Spring Books, a used bookstore across the street from Kefa Cafe. In Hell to Pay, character Terry Quinn holds a part time job in the store. Readers and patrons noticed, and Silver Spring books reaped the benefits of the publicity. "Weíre very pleased that his stories brought us a flurry of activity," says owner Cynthia Parker.

Silver Spring restaurants Quarry House, My-Le and Vicinoís also merit mentions in Pelecanosís books. Pelecanos says he tries to give recognition to notable businesses and sometimes specific proprietors like John Eshun, the owner of Vicinoís. "Iím giving a shout out to someone who deserves it," he says. ďI give him his propers, and I hope people will go check out the place."

Though several characters in Pelecanosí books pay tribute to small-time local businesses, some neighborhoods - including Downtown Silver Spring, Takoma Park and Georgetown - are openly criticized. In Hell to Pay, recently developed Silver Spring is described as "a virtual canyon of growing congestion," while Georgetown is labeled a "charmless tourist trap." Takoma Park - a frequent target of Pelecanosí work - is criticized in The Night Gardener as a place where stated commitment to multiculturalism is insincere. Takoma Park residents are portrayed as racist hypocrites who fear the presence of young black men in their neighborhood. "'Celebrate Diversity' - unless diversity is walking down your street on a Saturday night," says protagonist Gus Ramone, mocking a popular Takoma Park bumper sticker. But Pelecanos is careful to note that the ideas expressed in his books arenít necessarily his own. "Itís supposed to be the characters, not me. Iím honest about what my characters are thinking," he says.

Regardless, Pelecanos and his family donít conceal their preference for their own neighborhood. "We like Silver Spring because of the diversity, and with mixed race kids, we wanted to be in a community they were comfortable in" says his wife Emily Pelecanos, mentioning the coupleís children Nick and Peter, adopted from Brazil, and Rosa, from Guatemala. "This is a real neighborhood, with different colors, financial situations and partner situations." And unlike some of his characters, the author says he accepts the new developments in Downtown Silver Spring. "I liked the way it was, but youíd have to be a curmudgeon to hate change," he admits. "Now I see people who have jobs there, so I canít be negative."

Drama city
Despite taking inspiration from Silver Spring, Pelecanosís passion lies in the city, a setting through which he examines the intersection of race, class, and crime. As a lifelong resident of the D.C. area, he is intimately familiar with the nationís capital. Growing up, he played sports in Southeast D.C. and worked at his fatherís diner in Dupont Circle. Pelecanos started working at the age of 11, during the turbulent spring of 1968. Violence swept throughout the city as racial tension and the news of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.ís assassination sparked the infamous D.C. riots.

In the aftermath of the clash, Pelecanos recalls, the segregated atmosphere among black Washingtonians had changed, from public transportation to his fatherís lunch counter. "There was less subservience and louder clothes. The counter wasnít just a physical divide, but psychological as well." Ultimately, the violent riots made an impression on young Pelecanos and inspired him to write. "All those things that summer got me interested in the division of race and class," he says.

This separation, embodied by black rioters who looted and burned down parts of Georgia Avenue in 1968, stayed with Pelecanos, who chronicles the events in his 2004 novel Hard Revolution. Especially in his historical novels, the issue of racial tension is a recurrent theme, though the more recent problems of gang warfare, inept local government and the troubled D.C. school system are also closely examined.

As Pelecanos writes about D.C.ís issues, he also works with people in the community to solve them. At the request of Cardozo High School English teacher Frazier OíLeary, Pelecanos occasionally teaches Advanced Placement English classes to students at Cardozo. "They donít have what kids at Blair have ó stability at home, income ó thatís why Iím reaching out," he says.

In his role as a teacher and mentor, Pelecanos has followed the progress of many students - some to college, others to prison.

As a former teen troublemaker, the author empathizes with the students. Pelecanosís own teen years were greatly affected by an unforgettable mistake. When Pelecanos was a senior in high school, he accidentally shot his best friend Frank Carchedi in the face.

Carchedi survived, but the incident was life-changing, and deeply sobering. Pelecanos regrets the mistake, but feels he has moved on. "It was a major screw-up, but here I am," he says. He often reassures many of the Cardozo students that their own mistakes arenít life-defining. "Iím trying to tell people that 'it's a long life,'" he says. "You're going to stumble, but it's not the end.Ē

Between teaching at-risk students, producing television programs and working on his new novel, Pelecanos manages a delicate balancing act. Spanning a variety of time periods, his books aim to capture the shifting nature of the nation's capital, examining the complex range of humanity that the city encompasses. From dishonest police officers to western music-loving private investigators, Pelecanosís characters paint a tapestry of a changing city.

In his books, Pelecanos explains, he is careful to record the exact details of cultural and social history that can't be found in history textbooks, from characters' slang, clothing, and hair styles to the movies that were playing at the time. "I'm writing for Washingtonians, the straight dope on what the city was like," he says. "In a hundred years, Iíll be gone, but the books will be there."

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  • Richard (View Email) on March 25, 2010 at 11:28 AM
    Despite his tough-guy image (he has the deep voice to match, by the way), there's a basic goodness in his writing and in his actions.

    I'm a fellow Northwood alum (and we shared at least one professor at the U of MD), so there's a certain camaraderie, but when I asked for a favor as a struggling writer needing a hand, he did everything I asked of him. He's a very nice guy.

    And as a successful author, he could live anywhere; he lives in downtown Silver Spring on a street where most of the homes are set close together and the homeowners are typical folk like you and me.
  • Bob Chorba (View Email) on February 8, 2012 at 3:32 PM
    In his latest Novel "The way it was", there is a character named "Red Fury". There was an incident in DC involving a "Red", His Friend "Baby", and a street cop nick namned "Mickey Mouse" who Red killed. Red was killed on the day of "Mickey Mouse's" Funeral. Any one remember the incident. Anyone rememeber the actual names and when it occurred. The locale was 14Th St NW near R.
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