Summer 2002 vol 2.1
Two Clouds and a Shadow
Ben Miller
Five months after EgyptAir Flight 990 plunges into the Atlantic with 217 people on board, I stand in my Midtown office, gazing at the gray facade of the Penn Hotel—perpendicular stone ledges joining to form the head of a roaring lion, rows of windows curtained with late afternoon shadows.

    The Penn is where EgyptAir crew members stayed the night before the crash, and one of these men, fifty-seven year old co-pilot Gamil al-Batouti, is suspected of steering the 767 into the ocean for a personal or political reason.

    Advocates of the theory point to corroborated accounts of an inebriated Batouti wandering the hotel, harassing female employees, and also to an Arabic phrase uttered soon after he disengaged the auto-pilot—translation: God.

    The quickness with which some in the American media seized on this common prayer as proof of criminal behavior rankled Muslims here and abroad. Again, they claimed, our arrogance and ignorance were on display. A man convicted merely for adhering to a religion other than Christianity.

    The recovery of the data black box, rather than resolving the mystery, only raised more questions.

    On November 12, James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, admitted he could not "explain the circumstances" that would prompt a plane cruising at 30,000 feet to descend rapidly to 16,000 feet, climb quickly back to 24,000 feet and then plunge a final time into the water south of Nantucket.

    On November 19 Hall held another press conference and announced that further study of radar data and wreckage had led investigators "to feel this crash might, and I emphasize might, be the result of a deliberate act."

    And that's still where things stand. Not one more significant clue has surfaced. Two-hundred seventeen lives lost, and it seems likely no one will ever know for certain why Batouti asked the captain if he could fly the plane early in the flight, rather than later, as the normal crew rotation dictated.

    The majority of victims were Egyptian nationals on the way home after visiting relatives or conducting business in the New York area.

    I imagine a hotel memorial ceremony: 217 curtains pulled at the same moment.

    I wonder again if I might have seen Batouti on my way to the subway the day before the crash or some other afternoon because I often pass foreign flight crews arriving or departing from the hotel in black vans emblazoned GOLDEN TOUCH LIMO SERVICE. India Air stewardesses in colorful saris. Korean Air attendants wearing rib-tight blue vests. And pilots, no matter what airline, wearing silver wings, angular black-brimmed caps, blazers with yellow spangles on the shoulder.

    Say Batouti isn't culpable—that he wanted to get his turn over with so he could spend the rest of the flight sleeping off a hangover or playing cards. Then, a computer malfunction. A wild, heroic wrestle with the controls....

    Our justice system derives its estimable power from such assumptions—that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

    The concept is a beautiful one when applied with rigor. Giving each suspect the benefit of the doubt places trust, rather than fear, at the center of the judicial equation. And this faith in the hard facts, rather than the vagaries of mob fever, firmly aligns the process with the best in human nature, rather than the worst.

    But the mind is no courtroom—emotion commingles dynamically with fact and imagination leaps, exploring all possibilities.

    Say Batouti is guilty.

    Why did he do it? And what makes him capable of mid-air mutiny, mass murder of his fellow beings? A chemical in the brain? Hatred long burrowing into the heart? Or the lack of feeling so commented upon by those who study serial killers?

    An hour before boarding the Golden Touch limo, what is he doing in that tiny room with the fireproof wallpaper and the hard carpet?

    Calmly going over a minute-by-minute choreography of the crime? Failing to write a suicide note, one pencil snapping, then another, the pressure to expel the words so great the tool for expression can't bear the weight? Or is the spangled jacket on the floor and the co-pilot sprawled across the bed, waiting for a knock on the door or a phone call, a voice of reason to deter the voices in his head?

    One thing for certain, across the hall is a bustling couple from Pennsylvania or Texas, in town to see a Broadway show.

    Because that's the Penn Hotel, a gilded barn of tourist activity—busses and cabs double parked at the curb, door men in cartoonish outfits slouching between the cream-colored pillars facing Seventh Avenue, middle class matrons nesting on luggage in the lobby, foreign students waiting for the next ESL class to begin in banquet room A, a chess tournament or a FEEL BETTER NOW seminar underway in banquet room B, guards dragging homeless men out of the restroom, lines at the reservation desk, lines for the elevators, lines to sit on the couches, lines to buy the plastic replicas of the Statue of Liberty, the Empire State Building and Bill Clinton's zipper.

    So as Batouti plots or scribbles or drinks bourbon or stares out the window at my office window, there is giggling in the hallway, the uncrinkling of a Subway map, the garlicky stink of take-out Chinese and maybe even a guest making her own bed out of habit, white sheet rising and then settling slowly on the mattress.

    Such conjecture should never be allowed in a court of law.

    But if hundreds of innocent people have perished in a terrible incident and there exists strong suspicion of foul play but insufficient physical evidence, why not alter rather than close the investigation? Hand the case over to a Federal Bureau of Introspection whose agents do not dust for fingerprints or interrogate witnesses but instead probe the ephemeral roots of violence, sit in a dim room with the thin file and reel in the shadows, one by one?

    A conviction won't result but a greater understanding of evil might, and that's no small thing.

    Because our need to know is only increased by the inability to know.

    That's why films about psychopaths play to packed houses.

    That's why books about the Nazis number in the hundreds.

    That's why I come to the window two or three times a week and grab at straws—I mean anything.

    Fact: Glen Miller's swing era hit "Pennsylvania Six-Five Thousand" took its title from the phone number of the Penn—a number still in use.

    Fact: Not long after the song became a hit, Miller's plane plunged into the Irish Sea for a reason mysterious to this day.

    The Batouti-Glen Miller connection. One of those improbable historical convergences that quicken the breath for a few seconds, hinting of a wacky world order beyond the grip of even the most paranoiac tabloid.

    Then I shake my head, call it a day.


September 11, 2001

I arrive at 8:15, the first into the office. Hallways illuminate at the flick of a switch. Water for the pink lily in the blue vase atop the file cabinet. Strong black coffee for me, an earthy aroma rising as the lid lifts. Then attention to the computer, hard drive gargling data, screen blooming blue. Log in, check e-mail. Slide on earphones and tune radio dial to 89.9, "Bird Flight," a daily hour-long program devoted entirely to the music of Charlie Parker. Today the host lets the jazz speak for itself. Bird playing The Onyx on Fifty-Second Street, alto solos soaring over clinking plates. Bird sizzling with Machito, the Latin tang of congas and timbales. Bird caught at Carnegie Hall, surrounded by too many strings, no place to fly....

    A knock and I pull out the earphones.

    An editor at the door, jeans jacket, paisley scarf, a quavering voice asking if I've heard anything about a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Someone said so in the elevator. We walk to a south-facing window. The blind is down but neither of us pulls it up, needing a gauzy filter between our eyes and the black smoke billowing from the cake-wedge cut in the north tower by the impact of American flight 11.

    Another co-worker arrives and raises the blind.

    Then the second plane hits.

    Though two miles from the site of the explosion, our view—down Seventh Avenue—is unimpeded. Both towers disappear behind a fireball that moves outward and upward at once—an orange expanding eye.

    On rooftops people are massing: t-shirts, suits, hard hats, skirt hems fluttering, hands clutching coffee mugs—video cameras—cell phones—other hands.

    The sun is out and shining, flashing on watch bands and filling an empty office in a nearby building—no furniture, just a phone cord trailing across a gleaming hardwood floor.

    God, someone behind me whispers.

    There are twenty of us now, executives and editorial assistants elbow-to-elbow, watching smoke thumbprint the blue sky.

    I think of Batouti. All the hours looking the other direction, the dark direction, North at the Penn Hotel, speculating endlessly, as if the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 were my crime to solve—a decal on the window reading: WITH EVERY VIEW COMES A RESPONSIBILITY.

    My gaze returns to the vacant office across the street.

    Walls recently painted, given the white glow. A room the size of the small railroad stations I visited while growing up in Iowa. Between trains there was no quieter place in town. And even when full of travelers, there was a church-like hush—the only sound that of a crumpling newspaper or a squeaking rubber-soled shoe.

    After the first tower collapses I wait for the room to receive the thousands of released souls, brighten to blinding.

    The room gets no brighter.

    Again I try to call my wife in Brooklyn and this time get through.

    I tell her I'm either going to Central Park or the Hudson.

    The park because no terrorist will bother with trees and grass as long as there are people to kill.

    The river because there are no tall buildings on the shore and I'll have the option of jumping in the water if a nuclear bomb goes off, water which will protect me from the effects of radiation, as I know from all the late night Cold War movies I watched in the 1970s.

    My wife suggests I come home.

    The thought hadn't occurred to me.

    I gather up my things, the small scatter of the self—notebook and pen, leather address book and the radio, earphones spitting static, WKCR knocked off the air.

    Three co-workers are also heading to Brooklyn on foot, the subways being shut down, and I join them.

    Memories of that walk are scattered but vivid:

    A man on the corner of Fifth and Thirty-Sixth tells woman: My friends are dead. Office workers streaming up Second Avenue—white ash on pin-striped suits and red blouses, pale blue masks hanging loosely around necks, cell phones pressed to mouths and those mouths moving as if chewing tough meat. I think: Simple thing like a cotton blanket could have saved those trapped on the roof—an enormous cotton blanket between two helicopters lowering and secretaries climbing on.... A homeless man pushes a shopping cart containing returnables and a blaring radio, the muddy tongue of a talk show host extolling the idea of nuclear retaliation. Fire trucks and squad cars and empty busses speeding south. Televisions in store windows. Police Academy cadets with baby duck butches directing traffic unsurely. Crumb-bearded drunk stumbling out of Jack Dempsey's and meeting the sun for the first time in week, blinking, spitting, sitting be no longer safe—action be called for—but what? Thirty gurneys on the sidewalk in front of Bellevue and an equal number of surgeons in green scrubs gathered at the emergency room entrance, looking skyward, wondering where the patients are. I think: Somewhere in the hospital is a baby born on or very near the moment the attack began, child of thunder, child of blight... Two lanes of the Manhattan Bridge open to pedestrians, men and women shuffling across the jointed-roadway, a retreating sea of backpacks briefcases bobbing heads I can't join, not yet—too tired, go on, I tell the others and they do and I detour to Chinatown where glistening slabs of roasted pork hang in windows and language shifts deeper into the throat—thick clucks and clicks that sound like the trouble that is being described. Communal seating at circular tables. Smell of ammonia and frying shrimp. Green tea served in a yellow water glass, almost too hot to hold. Man in flowered shirt points at my uneaten plate of white rice and black mushrooms, eagerly asks the name of the dish. I think: It is not inconceivable that three or four self-involved New Yorkers will never know the Towers went down because they never knew they went up. College student at my table giggles and says: It's like a movie but it's not. A last sip of tea and I tuck a dollar under the plate. Why under? Saw adults do that at Ponderosa when I was ten and still I copy them, even in the midst of an apocalypse. Why under? Under because to lay out the money is unsavory—a nightclub gesture—to put the waitress on a par with a dancer or worse. Then I'm on the bridge. Looking over my shoulder every few seconds at the stained sky, thinking: what about a world where any lost object or person can be found if only one searches long and hard enough—hope an element like Bohrium or Xenon, gaining mass with the passage of time and eventually forming the shape of the desired object or person. A woman wearing a turquoise blouse and a silver cross stands on the bridge off-ramp holding a plate on which sits a single sandwich. White bread, butter, American cheese. And nobody will take it. Because Midwesterners aren't the only ones with manners. Hundreds pass by the offering, leaving it for someone hungrier. A block away policemen are forming ranks. In Cadman Park leaves rustle. On side streets cars are covered with dust from the explosion, as if they'd come all the way to Brooklyn via dirt road.


September 15, 2001

I linger in the kitchen, unable to leave the window with the best view of downtown Manhattan. This room, and all the others in the apartment, are filled with an electrical stench from the fire across the river. The walls shake as another convoy of dump trucks approaches on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Drop one load of rubble, go back for another, all day, all night. The smoke over the wreckage resembles dense haze or fog, a veil lifting every now and then to reveal the hole in the skyline, an absence that throws the eye off-balance—the visual equivalent of missing a step on a staircase in the middle of the night.

    Yet the sun is out and shining intensely.

    There is no let-up in the good weather.

    Clear in all directions—a blue slab on which the injured cityscape is splayed.

    Yesterday I walked as far South as possible—to the yellow police line in Greenwich Village.

    The sidewalk did not feel solid, as if the concrete were missing a binding molecule. Eggshell Avenue. With the World Trade Center went the impalpable sense of possibility that has always pervaded the city since I arrived in 1986. And gone, as well, is the grand anonymity of Manhattan—the "gift of privacy" so treasured by E.B. White. Strangers clutch each other and weep. Smiling faces of the missing—many under thirty—cover the walls of book stores and pizza parlors and train stations—age, height, weight, tattoo, an itemization of jewelry, all there for anybody to read.

    It's bad, man, when you wake up and you can't see the twin towers, said a young Pakistani who sold me the Post.

    He repeated the phrase, rubbing blood-shot eyes.

    It's bad, man, when you wake up and you can't see the twin towers.

    How long has he been in the country? Two, three years?

    Yet only takes a second for impressionable eyes to fully invest in a view—wrap the present in a past and future which extend infinitely in opposite directions.

    Think of the unforgettable panoramas of your own childhood—the orange arc of the Ferris wheel against the night sky and its counterpart: the pale August yellows that betoken fall and the beginning of school.

    One glimpse and a lifetime of aspiration and trepidation are moored to those images.

    Photos and videos taken later, at weddings and on vacations, are stale in comparison—flailing, flat attempts to create memories that do not need creating because they already exist, have existed—in purer form—for decades.

    Film captures a moment but does not preserve the personal essence of an image like the dark room of the mind does.

    And so the footage of the September 11th attack seems oddly ungraphic to me, an incoherent visual echo of what actually happened, a cheap rip-off of reality—an error compounded by constant repetition.

    The suggestion is terror on top of terror: that Time has collapsed and disintegrated. That a new continuum exists—a Horrorian calendar based not on the movements of the sun and the moon but the movement of terrorist missiles.

    Yet it is a fact that a precedent for smoke and fire existed in the lives of all those who saw the second plane hit the south tower—that black cloud did not float free in the consciousness but was quickly tethered to preexisting phobias—fear of elevators, heights, flying—and, as well, to previous brushes with oblivion.

    This is part of the reason why so many are compelled to tell their story—calling or e-mailing details to friends and relatives they haven't contacted in years.

    Each person feels as if he or she possesses vital data concerning the disaster and, in a sense, he or she does.

    For if terrorization of the masses was the ultimate end of the attack, then there were as many different attacks as there were witnesses and victims on that Tuesday morning, each person experiencing a level of terror unique to him or her—a smoke trail beginning at the twin towers and leading deep into the past.

    In my case, to an afternoon in Davenport, Iowa, in 1974.

    I am twelve years old and home for lunch, stack of saltines and a bowl of chicken noodle soup on a TV tray, Bozo the Clown all over the screen—pointy blue lapels, flame red hair, size eighteen shoes.

    Now it's time for the Grand...Prize...Game! A blinking arrow is projected onto the bleacher full of screaming kids. A contestant is chosen and led down to Bozo. Five buckets in a row. If the boy can toss a ping-pong ball into each one, confetti falls, toys and candy appear, a U. S. savings bond, impossible riches. It makes me sweat to see the kid toeing up to the line with so much at stake. The first ball drops in and trumpets blare. The second ball also hits the target. Those two are gimmes, however. Everyone gets this far, even the four-year-olds. It's the next bucket that separates the little men from the boys, and once more the ball falls, Bozo dancing and laughing that hoarse, cigarette laugh.

    Then I hear the explosion.

    The screen quivers, the windows rattle.

    I run onto the front porch, down the stairs.

    A mushroom cloud is rising over the Mississippi River Valley—downtown Davenport, the muddy water, the government munitions facility known as Arsenal Island.

    A bomb. A-Bomb. The bomb. It's been dropped.

    A Russian plane got through like Uncle Bob said.

    I rush inside, grab a pen and rip a sheet of paper out of a spiral notebook.

    I need a will. So my comic book collection ends up in the right hands and not in the paw of a cousin.

    To my brother....

    What comics? What brother?

    That stuff would get all of us...what was the word?


    Father melting in his office and mother dead at whatever discount store she was wandering—her face sliding off, a pile of skin in an aisle.

    All my teacher's dead—Mrs. Savory, Mrs. Nichols, Ms. Davis. All the neighbors dead and also all the players on the minor league Quad City Angels and the mayor—Mayor Duax dead. Along with fat Major who owns the hobby shop and Mrs. Murray the children's librarian who runs the summer reading program.

    Why is Bozo still laughing?

    I turn on a radio, no rock and roll, a low slow voice repeating: ...methane build up at the Robin Hood flour factory...main silo exploded...four feared dead....

    I walk back outside.

    The cloud is shapeless now, a spreading gray canopy.

    A little thing like flour. In the cupboard of every kitchen, a white bag covered with recipes. What makes cookies and bread? What coats chicken and fish? Add water and get paste. Add a spark and you get this. A city of smoke above roofs and steeples, swallowing the birds.