For an Airplane, a Tragedy; For a Writer, an Opportunity

That Reporter–or, as he called himself, T.R.–sat at his desk and thought about words. It was a Wednesday in New York, and an airplane had hit an apartment building. Had what? Hit it? A building? Yes, it had. Debris had fallen from the sky. Debris lay scattered in the street. Debris and facts.

Who would gather the facts? Other reporters would gather the facts. They were out there, in the rain, the other reporters. Rain was falling, like the debris had fallen. Rain was falling on the other reporters.

But T.R. was thinking about words. Words were his tools, because he was a writer. Perhaps he should start calling himself “T.W.” He was not some grunt-working fact-gatherer. T.R. was an interpreter. Other people could gather the bricks and mix the mortar and lay the bricks and plaster the walls and make sure the building stood up and install the plumbing. T.R. was the architect. That was a metaphor. T.R. knew that was a metaphor; that was the sort of thing that a writer would know.

T.R. looked at his screen.

What was there? A crash. A fire. A dead man. A dead body. Two dead bodies. One and a half, anyway–that’s what the Post would write. They were sensationalists over at the Post. They would take a fact like half a body lying there and print it, the fact, in the paper. Sensation and vulgarity, with all those facts.

T.R. had a higher calling. He looked at the keyboard. He looked at his hands. He looked at the screen, with his byline there. Why did his byline look like that? The puny single L in the first name, the soupy string of vowels in the last. Sometimes, in his heart, T.R. wished for a tougher byline.

Like Michael Brick. There was a byline. You could throw a byline like that at a person’s head, the hard fricatives cracking the skull. If that were T.R.’s name, he might go all the way with it, make it “Mike Brick.” Maybe that would be too much.

T.R. thought about Brick a lot. Brick was the guy on the paper who did what he did, the writing thing, the way he did it. Bastard. What had Brick written about 9/11 this year, about the 9/11 anniversary? T.R. knew it by heart:

Five years ago, on Sept. 11, 2001, terrorists crashed two airliners into the World Trade Center. Downtown smelled like Coke cans and hair on fire. It was televised live.

That was the stuff. Coke cans. Not Pepsi cans. Were the Coke cans and hair both on fire, or was it just the smell of burning hair and the regular smell of un-burnt Coke cans? Who cared? What mattered was the impression, and the impression was this: A writer is on the job. There is writing going on.

But Brick was stuck with courthouse work today. He had a murder trial to cover, an acquittal, ho-hum. This afternoon, T.R. was the one who’d be doing the writing, if there was writing to be done.

And there was.

Around him, people were pulling facts. Someone had come up with the plans for the entire building the plane had hit, to be converted into a full news graphic–the point of impact, the floor plan of the apartments. That would go inside the metro section. Other people were putting together the news story, for page one: names, facts, numbers, background, context.

None of that was T.R.’s concern. Not now.

Words. There were helicopters. What were they doing, the helicopters? Ah, yes, they were whipping. Whipping the sky. The sky was big and mythic; it would provide scale. The witnesses, what did they do? They bent their way beneath police tape. Bent, beneath. That was where the art came in.

It was a rainy day. Rain was sad. If T.R. mentioned the rain, it would make the piece sadder.

Still, the worker-ant reporters had brought only facts. T.R. needed more than a plane hitting a building, people dying, the building getting burnt. Burnt! That was it. The burned patch on the building looked as if some child had used a piece of coal to scrawl a jagged S. Now the scene had something extra: a gargantuan imaginary child. Much better than a couple of dead guys and a smashed plane.

Do children draw things in coal anymore? Even better: a gargantuan imaginary time-traveling child, from the age of Abraham Lincoln. T.R. was writing for real, now. Open the valves: lights and sirens and a flood of police and fire trucks so large and sprawling it seemed the entire neighborhood was blue and white and red. Now cut it short: School was dismissed.

School was dismissed. Jesus wept. Take that, Brick.

It was still raining, and the rain was still sad. It was time to put more rain in. The rain gave the neighborhood a runny, bleary look. More, more. The yellow headlights and crimson flashers of the fire trucks seemed smeared like condiments across the street. Were headlights yellow? Yellow like mustard? They were to T.R. He put some rain on reporters and officials. Reporters. Almost done. It’s sad, but boring, especially if you’re out in it. Sad plus boring is something like poignant, a manly, rueful, Hemingway kind of poignant. Cigarettes were smoked. Firefighters talked shop.



And! And a strange black S peered into the night, 30 stories in the sky. Again, the sky. In the last sentence, like the first. With a letter of the alphabet–a strange letter of the alphabet–peering at it. Can you peer without eyes? To that one, T.R. knew the answer.