A great moment in The Wire: Omar Little, testifying for the prosecution, tells State’s Attorney Ilene Nathan how he makes a living. From “All Prologue” (July 6, 2003):
“What is your occupation?”This exchange has led some viewers to conclude that rip and run and rob drug dealers are synonymous. Urban Dictionary’s top-rated definition for rip and run has the phrase meaning just that. Ripping and running can indeed suggest criminal activity: the phrase turns up in the title of a book on addiction and crime, Michael Agar’s Ripping and Running: A Formal Ethnography of Urban Heroin Addicts (1973). And “Ripping and Running: Heroin and Crime” is a chapter title in Tom Carnwath and Ian Smith’s Heroin Century (2002). But UD’s top-rated definition for ripping and running suggests a much broader meaning: “Maintaining a busy, frantic pace; hyper tasking.”
“What exactly do do you for a living, Mr. Little?”
“I rip and run.”
“You . . . ?”
“I robs drug dealers.”
The OED and Webster’s Third are of no help with rip and run, but both offer definitions of rip that suggest this broader meaning. From the OED: “To rush along vigorously; to move at great speed” (1858). From W3: “to move unchecked : proceed without restraint : rush headlong.” We might say that one who is ripping and running is on a tear.
A sampling of references that suggest a much broader meaning:
I lets you rip and run, baby, just as long asGaddy’s lyric suggests painting the town red — doing, as people now say, “whatever.” Every other use suggests an unspecified movement, energetic and hectic (and with children, unsupervised). Rip and run appears in this broader sense at least twice in The Wire. In “Port in a Storm” (August 24, 2003), Detective “Herc” Hauk, who’s been relegated to surveilliance duties, says, “The job had a little more rip-and-run to it, the way I remember it.” And in “Refugees” (October 1, 2006), Lieutenant Charles Marimow says, “That’s what we do here now. We get on the street and we rip and run.”
Lets you rip and run, baby, just as long as you
You might meets another man who will set my
heart at ease
Bob Gaddy, “Rip and Run” (1958)
Children play nearby and among the men. They rip and run up and down the street and occasionally stop a man, apparently unmindful of how he looks, to say, “Got a quarter, mister?”
Elijah Anderson, A Place on the Corner (1976)
“I’m always ripping and running and ripping and running,” she likes to say. “Here and there, to the church and back, all day, every day. But that’s what it takes to do it right.”
Susan Orlean, Saturday Night (1990)
Children from these generally permissive homes have a great deal of latitude and are allowed to “rip and run” up and down the streets. They often come home from school, put their books down, and go right back out the door.
Elijah Anderson, “The Social Ecology of Youth Violence” (1998)
Seeing the kids ripping and running through the mega Toys “R” Us was a sight for sore eyes. Jordan was terrorizing the store employees. He was pulling down everything in sight that his two-and-a-half-year-old stature could reach.
Danielle Santiago, Grindin’: A Harlem Story (2006)
The tempo of life increased significantly upon the return to work. The EAADM mother described the tempo of their days as “ripping,” “running,” “hurrying,” “constantly moving,” and “racing.”
Mary Podmolik King, The Lived Experience of Becoming a First-Time, Enlisted, Army, Active-Duty, Military Mother (2006)
Ripping and running the streets
Perrie Gibson, A Tribute to Mama (2008)
Ripping and running to and fro,
Not really knowing which way to go.
A. D. Lawrence, When the Lioness Roars (2009)
So, yes, Omar robs drug dealers, but rip and run has a much broader meaning. It’s even possible to hear his “rip and run” as a vague response that doesn't mean rob drug dealers: I‘m on the streets, I get around, I’m doing one thing or another. Certainly Omar would understand the theatrical value in following up a deliberately vague response with the blunt “I robs drug dealers.”
My acquaintance with rip and run goes back to my days doing literacy tutoring. I’d pick up my student to go to the library and ask, “How’s it goin’, [name redacted ]?
And his reply, often: “Rippin’ and runnin’, tryin’ to get things done.”
He was caring for his wife and, often, for their granddaughter. He was not out robbing drug dealers.