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The Moments Between

Your Shotgun is My Subway, or Looking for the Truth in Montgomery, Alabama

Helen Zelon

Previous installment: Awakening

You know 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 know. Why?"

"It was seee-yun," she pronounced with authority.


"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 tray.

"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…"

Her 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. I did.

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. We ordered.

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 tea…" 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 evidence enough.

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 free.


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 bus.

"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 peers.

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, after dinner.


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 me."

"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 herself?"

"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 me safe."

"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 risks."

"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 the reservation."

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 charge that?"

"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 the flight."

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.