weeks later he came to the grim conclusion that he’d been blown
off. He phoned United, was put on hold for forty-five minutes but
when his moment came he made the most of it. A robotic female instructed
him to make his selections from the following menu.
he replied trying to approximate the sound of a Bronx cheer.
sorry,” the robotic voice said. “I didn’t catch that last
part. Would you repeat that please?”
sorry. “I didn’t catch that last part. Would you repeat
you like to speak to a United agent?”
a half hour he had made considerable progress.
is Gretchen. How can I help you?”
need to speak with Mr. Iverson. It’s important.”
whom am I speaking?”
Mackie. I sent the letter about Gershwin.”
sorry, Mr. Mackie. Mr. Iverson is presently occupied. I’m
Mr. Iverson’s executive secretary. Why don’t you tell me your
Mr. Mackie, I can understand your concern, but it might help you to better
understand our position if you know that United gives generously to several
major symphony orchestras including the New York Philharmonic. We
support Gershwin. I’m sure most of our customers are aware that
Gershwin wrote our theme song.”
I assure you, Mr. Mackie, that United is doing everything in its power to honor
and respect Gershwin.”
bring this to Mr. Iverson’s attention. Thank you for calling.”
waited a week before acknowledging they’d blown him off again. It
was time to get serious. It was time to get scientific. Sully
knew that if he simply paraded in front of United’s corporate headquarters with
a sandwich board he would be regarded as a harmless kook.
terrible crime called for a terrible remedy.
six-fifteen the bloodshot sun dipped below the crepuscular net of television
antennae, power, and phone lines that criss-crossed the sky. Sully
steeled himself and rapped on one of six square glass panes in Faoud Ouama’s
front door. The entrance to Faoud’s apartment lay off a tiny alley
running between the Sully manse and their neighbors, the
Vitriolas. Four listing concrete steps led down to Faoud’s tiny
Faoud was praying. Sully felt a flush of shame, that he should
interrupt a holy man at prayers. Then he realized that his own
mission was at least as important, and that God smiled upon him.
was about to rap again when the door opened suddenly revealing Faoud in all his
Mideast intensity. The man wore a fluffy white shirt beneath a black
leather vest. He stood five five with a proboscis suitable for an
A-10 Warthog. He had olive skin, limpid, close-set black eyes, and a
black whisk brush on his upper lip.
it is you, my friend. And how are you
good, Faoud. And you can call me Sully.”
well, Sully. And how are you tonight?”
good, Faoud. I wonder if I could speak to you for a minute.”
could we go inside?”
looked around furtively; up, down, side to side. No one was
watching. He stepped back and motioned Sully nervously into his
dark interior was redolent of sesame oil, gun oil, patchouli, and
hash. Sully stood uncertainly waiting for his vision to
adjust. The small living room was sparsely furnished with an old
overstuffed sofa, a telephone company cable spool table, and a free-standing
goose-neck lamp casting its spot on a map of Boston on the table.
the wall Faoud had mounted the Saudi flag and a map of the Middle East that was
not entirely accurate. An AK-47 leaned in the corner next to a small
stack of banana clips. The map of Boston was held down at each corner
by a red plastic brick labeled “C-4.”
swept up the bricks and map. “Let me just make some room for you my
friend. Would you like tea?”
would be nice.”
shall put on a little music.” Faoud studied his abbreviated
collection, withdrew a CD and inserted it into a portable SONY boom
box. The Rolling Stones softly sang “Street Fighting Man” while
Faoud fussed in the kitchen. He returned with a tin platter
containing a tea pot, two small ceramic mugs, and a selection of Pepperidge
Farm cookies. He set the tray down on the table and sat on the sofa
next to Sully.
then, my friend, how can Faoud be of service to you?”
United Airlines has perpetrated a grotesque fraud and great injustice on the
single brow, which rambled from temple to temple, formed twin
peaks. “What injustice?”
are familiar with the American composer George Gershwin?”
course.” Faoud cleared his throat and began to sing in a surprising
baritone. “Bessss, you is my woman nowwww…”
Sully said. “You can sing.”
you. I was in Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade Harmony Cats when I lived in
Lebanon. But where is the injustice?”
died before anyone had any idea that someday some sleazy commercial enterprise
would get their meathooks into his greatest work and use it to hawk airline
tickets. It’s as if someone used the Prophet Mohammed to hawk used cars,
you see what I mean?”
understanding, sympathy flashed across the tar pits of Faoud’s
eyes. “The arrogance of these American executives is astounding, is
you, that is, do you have any experience extracting concessions from airlines?”
reached for a ceramic hookah by the side of the sofa and set it on the
table He reached beneath the sofa and drew out a small wood
box inlaid with mother of pearl. Opening the box, he withdrew an
aluminum-foil wrapped nugget of stucco-colored Lebanese hash which he crumbled
between thumb and forefinger into the hookah’s brass bowl. He
withdrew a wooden cooking match from a ceramic bowl and scraped it along his
thumbnail, igniting same. He held the match over the bowl and
inhaled until the hookah emitted a disturbing gurgling
sound. Holding his breath, he offered the mouthpiece to Sully.
exhaled a stream of gray smoke. “As to your question, not me but my
cousin Ali knows about such things. I suppose we could ask
him. What do you have in mind?”
dangerous. I just want United to understand the seriousness of their
gripped Sully’s wrist with surprising strength. “I understand, my
friend. Let’s go visit Ali. I’m almost out of hash
anyway. One minute while I phone.”
they were jouncing along in Sully’s ’88 Taurus headed toward the bad part of
Cambridge, the pendulous peninsula that dipped south where the Charles bent.
your cousin’s a hash dealer?” Sully said, trying to be polite.
call him Chemically-Dependent Ali.”
Ali lived in a ramshackle triple decker next to a floundering
church. Ali also lived in the basement. Faoud knocked on
the door. Ali opened it and greeted his cousin with a bear hug and
kisses on both cheeks. Ali was tall and thin with Buddy Holly
glasses and a bushy black mustache.
in, my friend, come in,” he said, extending a hand. Sully entered
the cramped apartment. A garment dummy occupied the center of the
room wearing a khaki-colored vest with narrow pockets all the way around and in
back. The room smelled of creosote.
you a tailor?” Sully said.
Ali grinned like a split coconut. “Yes yes, my father was a tailor
and his father before him. Now then my cousin Faoud says that you
are having a problem with the airline.”
Faoud made tea in the tiny kitchen Ali listened intently, chin in hand, elbow
on his formica-topped breakfast table.
yes I can see that you have a very serious problem,” Ali said, accepting a
small porcelain cup from his cousin. “But I think I see a way for
you to get your point across. Are you adverse to taking a short
want me to fly.”
now you are just a grain of sand in the Vaseline to them. But if you
buy a ticket, you become a customer. Then they have to listen to
said Sully, grateful that he had such friends. “What if I bought
some of their stock? Then they’d have to listen to me as a
wouldn’t do that, my friend,” Ali said, looking Sully in the eye. “I
have it on excellent authority that their stock is about to take a
aside from buying a ticket, what else?”
need a special pen,” Ali said.
eyed the kafiyehs and white cotton robes hanging from the coat
rack. “Should I wear one of those?”
held his hands up, palms out. “Oh no no no! You only
cause trouble wearing that. This is America. Wear what
you usually wear. Once the flight is underway, write a note to the
pilot regarding the abuse of Gershwin. He will immediately notify
the home office. That’s the law.”
about the pen?” Sully asked.
smiled and rose. “One minute,” he said, heading for the back
craned his neck toward the smallish front window. “Holy shit!” he
said. “I’m sorry. But a girl just passed wearing nothing but a
tiny black bikini.”
bolted for the door. He returned a minute later
stymied. “She must have gone into one of these
buildings. Was she hot?”
returned with an elegant box that said Dunhill. “For you, my
friend. To insure your success.”
opened the box and looked at the pen. He closed the box and slipped
it into his jacket pocket. “Why do I need a special pen?”
ink is made with holy water from Ramala. It is certain to convince the
pilot, and through him, the CEO.”
Sully said, handling the box reverently. “It’s a magic pen.”
Faoud said. “Wait until you are on the plane before you write the
note. Do not use it for any lesser purpose.”
rose. “Got to get back. They’re showing An American in Paris on
kissed Sully on both cheeks. “God be with you, my
friend. Allah akbar!”
raised his fist in power salute. “Word.” He looked at
Fauoud. “You coming?”
no, my cousin and I are going to catch up. I will see you when I see
was relieved The solution had come to him in a blinding satori
. By the time he reached Somerville he had come to a decision.
was tight at Logan. The white robes Sully had “borrowed” from Ali
acted as a magical incantation. Impenetrable Ray-Bans completed the
outfit. With his fake beard and mustache, only his nose tasted fresh
air. The "magic pen" was at the bottom of the Charles
River. Federal personnel whisked Sully through the security
gates. “Go right through, sir. No need for you to take
off your shoes, either.”
made a sign, grouped fingers to the forehead. “Peace be unto
chin itched, but such was the price of wearing a very realistic fake
beard. Sully passed an elderly Jew in a yarmulke and wheelchair who
was forced to stand with the assistance of a federal screener.
gonna have to drop the pants,” one of the screeners said.
my pants?” the old man asked querulously. “What is this, the Spanish
Inquisition? Look!” He pointed at Sully. “There’s
your suicide bomber!”
two security personnel gripped the old man by his upper arms and whisked him
away to be interrogated.
moved on to his gate. At ten minutes to eleven, the United agent
announced preliminary boarding for Flight #227, non-stop to
Chicago. “Anyone flying first class, with small children, or who
needs a little extra time please board now.”
swept to the front of the line, cutting off a pregnant woman bearing twins: one
in front, one in back, like a well-balanced pack animal. The flight
agent greeted Sully with a frozen smile. “Thank you and enjoy your
went no further than the last row of the First Class cabin, secreting his
boarding pass to seat 22D deep within his robe. The woman with the
twins waddled past on her way to steerage. A middle-aged man in an
Armani suit stopped at Sully’s elbow, staring at his ticket.
stared straight ahead and began to chant nonsense words softly under his
breath. The man swallowed and sat down across the
aisle. Gradually the plane filled. Some people gave Sully
the stink eye. A young lad grabbed his mother’s sleeve and said,
mother grabbed the child by the hand and yanked him forward. “Don’t
look at him.”
attendants recited their memes and the plane took off. There were
only two other people in the first class cabin so no one was stressed that
Sully had taken the wrong seat. He declined the free champagne so as
not to inspire terror.
was first off the plane at O’Hare and wasted no time in getting a taxi.
Akbar!” the driver greeted him.
did the thing with the forehead. “Peace be upon you.” He
squinted at the hack license. The driver was Ahmed Fusil from
to?” Ahmed sang.
Airlines, 77 West Wacker.”
taxi dove into Chicago’s concrete intestines like a pachinko
ball. “Where are you from, my brother?” Ahmed sang.
Massachusetts. And you?”
little town in Pakistan. I’m sure you’ve never heard of
it. If you are in town for any length of time I invite you to our
mosque, the Grand Mosque of Medina, at 1717 South Dorchester
Street! Our Grand Imam, when he speaks, let me just
say…” Ahmed waggled his fingers in the rear-view
mirror. “Whoo! He really socks it to the infidels.”
check it out.”
pulled up in front of Sully’s destination. “Do you want me to wait
for you?” Ahmed asked.
thank you, brother.” Sully gave him a twenty-five per cent tip.
HQ was housed in a fifty-story building with white granite pilasters and
stainless steel mullions. He entered the foyer through a revolving
door. There were banks of elevators to the right and left, and in
between them a large marble security desk behind which sat a well-armed black
man with a shaved head and a gold hoop in one ear.
headed straight for him. The guard rested his immense arms on the
counter and smiled. His teeth were perfect.
may I help you, sir?”
you please to inform Mr. Iverson that Sheik Hassan Ben Jaild is here, from the
American Arab League to Promote Peace and Understanding.”
you have an appointment, Sheik Hassan?”
but I’m certain Mr. Iverson will see me.”
is that, sir?”
if he does not, I will have five hundred people marching in front of this
building in time for the morning news rush charging United with
the guard said, rubbing his chin. “One minute, Sheik. Do
you have a card?”
proffered a thick white card with embossed gold Arabic
lettering. The only English was Sully’s made-up name. The
guard took it, looked at both sides and picked up the phone. He
spoke for several minutes, waving at familiar faces as they passed. He
put the phone down and faced Sully.
will be down shortly, but first you need a pass.” The guard sat at a
computer and typed in Sully’s name, reading off the card. A machine
that looked like a postage meter whirred, popping out a small green
laminate. The guard punched a hole in the laminate with a paper
punch and hooked it to a lanyard with the United Logo, white on blue.
two men in navy blue trousers, crisp white short-sleeved shirts, black ties,
security badges and utility belts appeared. The guard spoke with one
of the men, handing him Sully’s card.
way, sir,” the guard said. He had a gray mustache and looked like a
retired police officer. The other, younger man followed Sully toward
the rear of the vast lobby, through a steel door, down a short corridor into a
brightly lit room equipped with a metal detector, a linoleum-topped table, and
several plastic chairs.
apologize for the precautions, sir, but these are parlous times. If
you’ll step through the metal detector.”
need to apologize,” Sully said in a patently fake Mideast
accent. “The camel does not always lie with the horse.”
guards nodded sagely. One of them opened the door to the
corridor. “If you’ll follow me sir, this elevator will take you
directly to the thirty-fifth floor.” The guard walked toward the
rear of the building, around a corner, where a freight elevator was
waiting. A man in a gray suit and four hundred dollar haircut was
how are ya? I’m Roger Grambling, personal assistant to Mr.
Iverson.” He offered his hand. Sully stared at
it. Coloring slightly, Grambling hid the hand behind his
back. “Normally you couldn’t get in to see him without an
appointment. But you’re in luck. Another appointment
canceled. We’re very concerned with whatever you want to tell us.”
rode the elevator in eerie silence. Sully’s ears popped just before
the elevator slowed. The doors glided silently open on a reception
area that bore an uncanny resemblance to the boarding gate of an
airport. Several rows of plastic chairs were arranged back to back
with enormous canister wastebaskets, some with slots labeled “for paper
only.” There was a reception type desk with an electronic billboard
which said, “Welcome to United Headquarters! Fly the friendly
dazzling blond flashed her chiclets. “Welcome,
Sheik. Please go right in. Mr. Iverson is expecting
office was larger than Sully’s house. Parts of the floor were
covered with a deep blue plush, the rest with teak. The floor to
ceiling windows gave a panoramic view of the Loop and Lake Michigan in the
background. An archipelago of furniture groupings led to the massive
granite free-form desk. Iverson rose and came around the desk, hand
outstretched. He was a small dynamo of a man, a former jet fighter
pilot with a rakish mustache and his dyed-hair parted in the middle like Doug
Hassan!” They shook hands. Iverson had a powerful grip
and no desire to release Sully’s hand. He turned to Grambling, who
had followed Sully in. “Shake Sheik! Get
it? Like my dog Otto!”
made a desperate throat-slicing motion with his hand. “Ix-nay on the
og-day!” he hissed.
course,” Iverson said, grabbing Sully by the arm and steering him to a large
sofa finished in burgundy Italian leather. Copies of Fly the Friendly Skies were
neatly stacked on the free-form zebrawood table. A door opened
silently and a secretary came in with a tray. Coffee and baklava.
sat opposite Sully in an overstuffed burgundy chair and picked up the
pitcher. “How do you like it, sheik?”
and sugar, please,” Sully said in his patently fake accent. “Two
did as Sully said and placed the mug in front of the visitor. “Now
how can we help you, Sheik?”
is the theme song.”
me?” The chairman blinked.
about it? It’s been our theme song for thirty years.”
am sure you are not aware of this but it is deeply offensive to people of my
seemed flummoxed. “How can that be? It’s a great
song. Gershwin’s one of America’s greatest composers.”
was a Jew, did you know that?”
shook his head in disbelief. “I didn’t realize… Is that
why the theme song is offensive?”
course. That is the reason more Muslims don’t fly the Friendly
Skies. I am proposing you look at the work of Frank
Zappa. There is music worthy of your great
corporation. Also, my cousin Eltaeb sings and plays the piano.”
Dweezil send you?”
am here on behalf of the American Arab League to Promote Peace and
I want to thank you for bringing this to our attention, Mr. Ben Jaild.”
extended his hand. Sully gave him a dead fish
handshake. “No, I mean the proper term of address for you to use is
Sheik Ben Jaild.”
course.” Iverson reached inside his jacket pocket and withdrew a
large blue envelope. “Here’s a voucher for a round-trip first class
ticket anywhere within the United States and United Kingdom. We’ll
be in touch.”
Hassan Ben Jaild rose to his feet, touched his forehead, solar plexus and
genitals with his right hand, and bid Iverson salaam.
was seated on the tarmac aboard the return flight to Boston when Gershwin’s
mood music abruptly ceased. Shortly thereafter a muzak version of
“Hey Jude” began to play. Sully smiled, pulled out his iPod, and
cued up the Leonard Bernstein version of “Rhapsody in Blue.”