what made them towers fall down?" Marie asked, leaning in close,
across the Naugahyde banquette. Her frosted, blown-dry 'do fringed
a shadow above her penciled brows.
"I'm sorry?" I said, faltering in
the clatter and din of an Outback Steak House, thronged with patrons
tucking in or waiting for tables.
"You know why them towers fell down?"
she repeated, enunciating clearly now, eyeball to eyeball, her blue
to my brown.
"No," I said, astonished. "I don't
"It was seee-yun," she pronounced
"Seee-yun," she said again, bangs
bobbing as she nodded her head for emphasis. A blooming onion,
deep-fried to resemble a crispy sunflower, wafted past on a server's
"It was seee-yun brought them buildings
down, that's what it was. All the bad things up there, all the people,
all the crime and the sex and the wickedness
meaning clicked in my brain: Context, at last. Sin brought down
the World Trade Center towers; not airplanes, or people, or a crazed
vision of a different, Shariah world. Sin, pure and simple. The
city brought it on itself, deserved it, in its indulgences and hedonisms
and appetites and throbbing vitality. It was 'seee-yun,' after all.
I didn't know what to say, but knew
enough to not say anything, right then. I was a guest of this family
a guest who'd invited herself to the conversation, invited
herself more than a thousand miles south, far from that familiar,
comforting den of iniquity that is New York, to Montgomery, Alabama,
well below the Mason-Dixon, home of the Confederate White House,
seat of the nascent civil rights movement, scene of Rosa Parks'
famous refusal to give up her seat and the bus boycott that launched
a cultural seismic shift. I was a liberal Jew in Dixie, a gefilte
fish out of water, that was clear. Best to keep my lips zipped.
The bottle-blonde restaurant hostess,
a post-modern vision of Farrah Fawcett in her shag-headed heyday,
said our table was ready. Together, Donnie, Marie, their pubescent
daughter and their three sons, trailing various wives and girlfriends,
trouped to the large round wooden table. I followed the group, was
the last to take my seat. Utterly gracious, they insisted on treating.
Steaks all round, big and rare for
the men, chicken-fried for Marie. I ordered salmon. Drinks? All
around the table, "sweet tea, sweet tea, sweet tea, sweet tea, sweet
" I decided to forego my usual seltzer or club soda and
went with the house brew: sweet tea, with ice water on the side.
I was in Montgomery on a story, chasing
a set of assertions and a gaggle of personalities, some alive, some
not, to see whether a book might be in the offing. It was September,
and I was on the hunt. What happened? Who's involved? What's the
motivation? What's the story, where's the truth?
I'd had a big disappointment some
months earlier, having sold a book project close to my heart, only
to see it falter and fail in the voracious, fearful greed of its
central subject. Profound loss, deep doubt, real crisis ensued.
An editor I knew, a kind of well-intentioned matchmaker, felt for
me. He put me in touch with an agent who had come to him with an
idea for a book.
I met the agent in the dim lounge
of a W hotel in midtown. He was British, well-heeled to the brink
of oily, his aggressiveness tempered by a charming smile and ready
quip. His Polo button-down was boarding-school rumpled, his accent,
plummy and wry. He didn't buy me a drink, which I thought odd, but
brought me two books to read that he'd helped to bring out. Apparently
the editor's rec was enough to prove me in his eyes; he didn't want
to read my clips, didn't want to see samples. He had an idea, and
it could be mine, too.
The bones of the story: Decades earlier,
a man who was the Chief of Police in Montgomery, Alabama, came into
possession of an old Ford bus. This in itself was unremarkable,
save that said bus was said to be the Very Bus of Rosa Parks' famous
protest. The affidavits and testaments came decades later, and many
of the principals had long since died. At the time he took possession
of the bus, the Chief had the Head Dispatcher's word, and that was
The bus was one of a small fleet purchased
used from Chicago and, after a decade-plus of service in Montgomery,
slated to be sold to a smaller Southern city. The Dispatcher told
the Chief, in a trope I was to hear again and again, that state
officials had told him to "sell the fleet, but not that bus. Burn
it, sink it in the river, make sure it disappears." The Chief took
the bus and parked it far out of town, in a field. He used the bus
as a storage shed, to shelter farm tools and machinery, for more
than 30 years. The interior rotted out; weeds and grasses grew up
around the wheel wells. Time passed.
Not only time the Chief passed,
too. Now, his daughter and son-in-law had sold the Rosa Parks bus
(complete with detailed authentications) to the highest bidder,
the Ford Museum in Detroit, for a cool half-million dollars. Anywhere,
a half-million is a lot of money. In Montgomery, it is a life-altering
fortune. The Smithsonian and the State Capitol had wanted it, too,
but couldn't match the museum's offer. The bus was being trucked
to Detroit Rosa Parks' adopted hometown since the 1960s
and restored for a December exhibit opening.
"Isn't this incredible?" said the
agent, vowels ripe. "It's a forgotten piece of Americana, a relic,
a talisman, really, of a hallowed time."
I wasn't sure.
"This family held onto it, don't you
see, as a testament to the struggle of another time. They knew it
was important. Now the world can learn about their sacrifice
and learn the story of the famous bus as well."
I wasn't convinced. There were more
holes here than I could fill: What was the family's motivation?
Why had the bus lain derelict for so long? Had these good Southerners
experienced an awakening of conscience, back in the 60s, or was
it dumb luck? I talked to the editor; the agent pushed. I decided
to go to Montgomery and check things out.
The afternoon I landed, I rented a little
white car and checked into my room at the AmeriSuites Inn. I drove
over to Donnie's toward 4 o'clock, as we'd arranged, through what
seemed like acres of shoe stores, on every corner, at every turn,
and miles of red-clay lined highway. My directions led me from the
highway to a country road; from the road to a subdivision; and onto
a cul-de-sac of young homes, trees just gaining their height. I
pulled up to the curb three cars stood in the carport
and organized myself: Notebook, pens, phone. I walked up the flagstone
path and rang the bell. Many chimes sounded, more manor than suburban
tract, and subsided into quiet. I waited.
I waited a while. The street was dead
still; no kids playing outside, no neighbors loading groceries or
doing yard work. I checked the address again, checked the time.
Finally, Donnie opened the door.
Donnie owns a meat store in town,
and looked like he'd done his fair share of sampling his products.
Broad and barrel-waisted, he looked like a Botero figure, tiny feet
and thimble head dwarfed by a rotund midsection. He stood in the
carpeted hallway and shook my hand, invited me in. I am not a small
person, but I suddenly felt puny, child-like. I sat down where directed,
in a large armchair in the living room.
The same kind of quiet that pervaded
the street ruled the house as well. Vague music emanated from hidden
speakers in a wall-sized entertainment center. The carpet was soft
and sand-colored; I thought for a moment that I should take off
my shoes. The sofa was upholstered in a broad plaid, like a giant
hunting blanket, and oriented squarely toward the TV screen that
centered the wall, a video altar. Across the dim room and above
a doorway, a stuffed stag's glass eyes gazed into the middle distance,
fixed and mournful. I couldn't help staring at the stag. Nine-point
antlers crowned the dead animal's head, and a wide ribbon of Christmas
tartan swagged and looped around its thick, furred neck. The ribbon
was tied in a careful, package-ready bow.
Meeting someone for the first time
is always a little awkward, but meeting Donnie took ordinary social
awkwardness to new levels of excruciation. It's the dance of the
chase, the first steps of the hunt, the opening seduction that can
lead to a story. This time, it felt like a kind of dual audition
would Donnie like and trust me enough to share the real story?
And would I like and trust him enough to invest my time and certainly
months of work? We'd had a few polite conversations on the phone,
but this was showtime. He sized me up and decided to talk pork butts.
The meat store was the family's lifeblood,
and every weekend, Donnie said, they smoked up hundreds of pork
butts; took all night, and as many as they made, every one was sold
by Saturday afternoon. "Come Saturday night, there's no butts to
be had," he said. Sunday morning was for church; the store didn't
open 'til afternoon, and then, there were no butts at all.
We talked pork butts and hunting,
and I learned how he spent cold hours in a tree stand, stock still
with his rifle, waiting for the deer that now decorated his living
room wall. I have to confess, my attention drifted, and I made out
strains of lilting, organ-rich Jesus music in the background. Give
your life to Jesus, the muzak choir sang, set your spirit
Eventually, I turned our conversation
to the story of the bus, and of how the bus came into Donnie and
Marie's hands. And here's how Donnie told it: "Marie's daddy was
the Chief of Police in Montgomery, the one who bought the bus."
(It later became clear that he was the Chief during the bus boycott
and subsequent race riots, a coincidence Donnie wished to dismiss.)
"He bought that bus 'cause it was a piece of history, and he told
us to never, ever give it up. Right when he was dyin' he made us
promise to keep on with it, that it'd be worth a lot one day after
he was gone."
So much for a cherished treasure of
Americana: now we were on to what I saw as the real story, the opportunism
of a family who saw a civil-rights relic as a potential cash cow.
I thought better of making this statement aloud, and kept listening.
Maybe the agent saw something I didn't in the story, or maybe he
was just an easy dupe, too Brit to smell a home-grown con. Donnie
read dumb, it's true, but he was a canny, smart man. The country-rube
face was only one part of him; he was a successful businessman,
he knew how to make and manage money, and he could smell opportunity
no matter how faint the scent. He kept telling me about the bus.
"So Marie's daddy had that bus, and
he drove it clear out of town, to hide it, see, 'cause he didn't
want anybody knowin' he had that colored lady's bus." What was to
hide? Why did the Chief of Police have anything to fear? Again,
I was still, against my instincts, but in line with my better judgment.
"He took it out to a field where he
liked to work on cars. He could fix anything, that man, nothing
broke stayed broke for long. He'd figure it out and get it hummin'.
So he used that bus as a shed, stored his tools in it, just set
it out in that field and there it was." Field mice nested in the
sprung seats; in spring, 'critters' had babies in the cool shade
beneath the chassis.
Time passed. Times changed. The South
evolved; the cities integrated, or made some feeble semblance at
blending the races. The bus stayed out in the field; the Chief retired,
got sick, and eventually died. Donnie loved him truly there
was no doubting his attachment and awe of his father-in-law. He
got up to get himself a tumbler of tea, once he'd finished the story,
and about that time, Donnie's daughter drifted into the living room
to say hello. I talked a bit with her about Parks and about the
"Did you learn about Rosa Parks in
school?" I asked. She had just started the seventh grade.
"No, ma'am," she said. "They don't
teach us any of that. I learned from my momma and daddy about the
bus." Ok, another set of questions to ignore: How, in the cradle
of the civil rights movement, can local schools ignore the history
on the ground? Where are parents' demands? What about black families,
why don't they speak up? File under "save for later," I thought
to myself. Don't stir up this particular pot of stew until and unless
you decide to do the story. I kept to smallish talk.
"What about your friends? Do they
know about the bus, and the boycott, and all?" Martin Luther King
had risen to prominence at the time of the boycott; his famous Letter
from Prison had been written during an incarceration in Montgomery.
The boycott spanned more than a year and practically shut down Montgomery's
transportation industry. And the girl's grandfather had been Chief
of Police; he'd ordered the riot dogs and water cannon. And worse.
"Well, they know about the bus because
we was on the TV," said the girl, recalling the local news station's
coverage of the auction and sale. "But we don't talk none about
that other stuff." Donnie came back to his spot on the sofa, and
she turned her round face to his. "Daddy, when we goin' to eat?"
"We'll go around 6, honey. Tell your
momma to get ready." Donnie answered, leaning to me, "and we hope
you'll join us, too."
"Thank you, that would be lovely,"
I answered, on courtesy autopilot. It was an effort to keep a gracious
face; I was full of questions, confused, but anxious not to reveal
too much (a souvenir, I think now, of my recent disappointments).
But I couldn't stop thinking about the child's ignorance. Was it
a kind of willful amnesia? A cultural denial of things too painful,
or shameful, to recall? My third-grader at home in Brooklyn knew
more about Dr King and Rosa Parks and the civil rights struggle
than she did; and she, obviously, was far better versed than her
We kept going, Donnie and I, on how
to tell the story. Donnie wanted to see a book about himself, of
course, and about how he and Marie spruced up the bus and arranged
its authentication and sale. (The bus had been used as a location
in a Hollywood movie, and had been written up in the Wall Street
Journal.) I was more interested in the dead father-in-law
he was charismatic, he was complicated, he was a man with a past.
The trouble was, though, that he was dead. No chance of an interview
there. And little hope for a less-than-reverential treatment by
the son-in-law. To find his story, I'd have to dig deep and
probably, make some people angry. I didn't know if the story was
worth the cost, emotionally speaking, or if I was girded for the
fray. I just didn't know.
Donnie eventually gave me a soda-carton
stacked with spiral notebooks, each filled with his script. He'd
carefully chronicled the bus's sale and all that surrounded it.
He also had transcripts of the trial of Martin Luther King, Jr.,
in the last days of the boycott, which he'd put into the carton
with his notes. It was all for me. I set the carton in the trunk
of my rented car and set my mind on sifting through it that night,
While we waited for our steaks and sides,
the conversation turned to New York.
"I never been up there," said the
oldest son, a married man of 23, "and I never wanna go."
"I do!" said his brother, whose pretty
blonde girlfriend said she'd go with him.
"I'd never go there ever," announced
Marie, "never ever. It's too dangerous. Ridin' them subways, all
kinds of people, you don't know what might happen. It's not for
"My daughter rides the train to school,"
I said, trying for that mother-to-mother connection, hoping to build
a little something with Marie. Maybe she had something more substantial
to say about her father than Donnie's loving whitewash.
"She does? You allow her there, by
"It's how people get places, Marie."
"Well, I'd never, never ever," she
said, a chorus of nay-saying. "No child of mine would ever ride
a subway train."
"I'd take my gun with me if I rode
that train!" said the second son, "take it right with me and keep
"Do you have it now?" I asked. He
had to say 'no'; we were at an Outback, for god's sake, in a strip
mall in Montgomery. Why would he pack heat?
"Right here," he said, lifting the
cuff of his jeans, "and my rifle out in the truck."
His girlfriend then proceeded to tell
a story of how she scared that museum fellow from Detroit, when
he came out to see the bus and visit with the family. "We took him
to the airport for his flight home, and the sign said, unload your
weapons here, so we went ahead and did that. We had two rifles and
a little gun in the cab of the truck, plus the one other I keep
in my bag, and them bullets was rattling around the floor like bb's.
He didn't know what to make of it!"
I didn't either.
In the parking lot, we said good night.
Marie, suddenly cozy, asked me again, "You really do let your girl
ride that train? All alone?"
"She rides it, Marie, every day. Your
kids have guns; mine take the subway. We all gamble; we all take
"We sure do, darlin'" she said to
me, bussing me on the cheek and streaking her foundation, "but I'd
never, ever choose to do that
I drove back to the AmeriSuites, parked
in the lot, and climbed the breezeway stairs to my room. I flipped
on the TV; nothing but car commercials, sports, and CNN. Nothing
that took me away from Montgomery and the gnawing sense of duplicity
I'd suddenly recognized as my own hypocrisy. I didn't want to tell
the stars-and-stripes version of this story. The story I saw was
petty, mean, and bitter. I wanted to reveal them all for the manipulators
they were. Uncomfortable with this hardening realization, I couldn't
sit, couldn't watch the box, couldn't hop on line to check mail
or chat. I decided to get the hell out of town. I'd book an earlier
flight and bail back to Brooklyn, where I belonged.
I called the airline's 800 number
and spent some time on hold, country music twanging in one ear,
Law & Order rerun on low. The operator came on.
"Thank you for calling Delta Airlines,
how may I help you?"
"I'd like to change my flight, please,"
I said, and gave her the particulars.
"I don't think that's possible, ma'am,
but I'll check," came her response. "May I put you on hold?"
Again, canned twangs and yearning.
I thought about the story, the measure of trust it took for Donnie
to send me off into the night with his carton of papers and notebooks,
about Marie's joking tenderness in the parking lot. How could I
characterize them as driven by greed and self-interest and not hurt
them? How could I show Donnie as the calculating lunk he was, or
paint Marie as a dimwit slattern, and not hurt her, too? And in
the end, why would I do it? What would it mean to hurt these people,
to tell a story that in its own way exploited their confidence and
good-will? How could I be critical of their opportunism, if I took
advantage, too, and exercised my own opportunistic spin?
"Hello, ma'am, I've got a flight for
you." The reservations clerk came back on the line. "It leaves early
tomorrow morning, direct to New York, but there's a charge to change
I'd come to Montgomery on my own nickel
and after flights, hotel, car, and meals, had run up a tab of about
$300. A lot to absorb on a flyer, but I've invested more in other
stories, before knowing if they'd pan out. Part of the deal, I guess.
So when I heard there was a fee, I thought, It's worth $25 to get
home early. I said to the clerk, "Ok, let's go ahead and rebook."
"Yes, ma'am," she said, "that's fine.
The extra charge is $200 to change the ticket; how do you want to
"How much?" Two hundred was too much,
even to escape Montgomery. "I have to tell you, I paid less than
that for the round-trip fare." I felt myself torquing up in frustration.
"It just seems incredible to me that the fee's that high." I wanted
to go home, see my family, get away from the questions this story
provoked. There had to be a way.
"If I can set you on hold again, ma'am,
I'll confirm that fare surcharge."
"You do that," I said, as I heard
the pushy New York tone creep into my voice. "You do that and get
back to me."
I fought back tears; why was I so
upset? I didn't know. I was mad and I was alone and I didn't want
to be there any more, not at all. I wanted to click my heels, like
Dorothy, and be home again, or discover myself, like Alice, suddenly
back in my familiar world. It wasn't working.
"Ma'am, I'm sorry to tell you this,
but that's the surcharge. It doesn't matter what you paid for the
ticket, you're wanting to make a change less than 12 hours before
Somehow, this news struck me as if
she'd said "you can't go home for a month."
I began to beg, to plead, to whine. Nothing
worked. She offered to get her supervisor. I ran out of steam, hung
up the phone, and sat on the bed and wept. What kind of writer was
I, anyway? And what was I doing in Montgomery? I didn't want to
chase this story any more. I felt I'd lost my way. How had the sorting-out
of a story idea become an existential crisis?
This is the rabbit-hole we all peer
into, from time to time: Is getting the story any story
worth betraying a person's confidence? If interviews are about seduction,
writing is about revelation, and sometimes, about betrayal. Was
the effort worth it, for a mean-spirited story? Did I want to pour
myself into a year of work, of deception and vitriol, for a book
deal? I wanted to make my name, yes, I'll admit it. The editor's
house was prestigious, the agent was aggressive. He felt it was
worth six figures if it was worth a penny, but then again, he and
I saw two vastly different stories. I didn't know how to write the
book he wanted; didn't know how write the one I saw here, either,
or how to reconcile my naked ambition with conning, and then smearing,
these people plain folk, living their lives, exploiting history,
eating smoked pork butts, drinking sweet tea. I didn't think I'd
like myself much if I took it on.
The next morning, it was raining, and
the air outside smelled of bacon frying.
I called Donnie before I checked out
of the hotel, to thank him for the carton of papers and transcripts.
I said I'd read through them and let him know what I thought. I
didn't have the heart to tell him I'd decided against the project;
just didn't want to bear the weight of his disappointment. So I
created a little distance, bided my time. Donnie said, let's meet
again. He wanted to talk more about how he managed to save (and
sell) that bus. I declined, and decided to visit the Rosa Parks
museum in the hours that lay before my flight.
I was the first visitor that day and
had to wait while the staff went behind the exhibits to switch on
the animation, lights, and film strips. The true story of
the struggle, of the emerging movement, of the grass-roots fight
that sustained the boycott and eventually changed the social landscape
of the nation was brilliant, inspiring, epic, and deeply
moving. But it wasn't mine to tell. I felt I had no authentic right
to the subject, with so many historians, participants, and witnesses
alive and able to recount what happened.
The story I could tell was smaller
and meaner, the story of a family who'd cashed in on Rosa Parks'
sacrifice for their own gain. It was dark, it was cynical, yes,
but things like this actually happened, and white people of means
capitalized on the struggles of poor blacks. The agent, who I called
from the parking lot, didn't want that kind of story at all. "I
want inspiration!" he crowed, "something to make the heartland weep."
I didn't have that story to tell. We decided to talk again when
I was back in New York.
I met with the editor, who wasn't game
for an expose. I formally declined to continue on the project. I
wrote to Donnie, thanking him for his hospitality and for the papers,
which I returned. (He didn't realize that one notebook held a long,
guilty confessional, in which he whipped himself furious for a marital
infidelity, and I didn't mention it to him.) Donnie was unhappy
with my choice; he felt the truth, as he saw it, deserved to be
told. The truth, as I saw it, deserved telling, too, but there was
no way to tell what I saw as the truth without hurting him deeply.
(This I neglected to detail as well.) The dilemma, of course,
is in knowing what's really true, and whose version of the truth
is the real thing. We each felt what we felt. That night at the
Outback, Marie said she'd never let her kids ride the subways. I
countered that I'd never let my kids carry guns. Game, set, match.
No one was right; no one, wrong, and the real story the truth,
whatever it is has gone the way of the dead father-in-law
and the grasses that grew up in the field. No one will ever know.
But still, I do wonder. I see a commercial
for Outback on TV and I can smell the blooming onion. I think of
Donnie in the meat store, slicing cold cuts, and listening to Jesus
music on the living room stereo. Neither villain nor hero, fully
good or fully bad, he's getting by, working at a troubled marriage,
raising up his family, waiting for grandchildren and surely
counting the dollars he earned on Rosa Parks' back, all the way
to the bank.