Sully was on a Boy Scout camping trip in New Hampshire the first time he heard Rhapsody in Blue. It was after lights out, although the boys continued to giggle and pass a rubber rat from bag to bag. As they dropped off one by one into sleep, music floated in the rustic window from a counselor’s cabin, faint, mysterious, and overwhelming. Sully poked himself with his Boy Scout knife to stay awake for fifteen minutes after the performance, so he could learn the name of the piece.
Sully’s mother swore she’d played Gershwin for him in her womb and that he was born singing but that’s a mother for you. Sully worshipped Gershwin above all others.
Being the only son of a single mother whose husband died of a heart attack while delivering the mail, Sully stayed on well past the point when most young people flee the nest. His mother needed him. She’d gone to pieces since Stan died and couldn’t put together a grocery list much less drive to the store.
Sully got a job straight out of high school driving trucks for Schroeder Mobile Meals. This proved a benefit in more ways than one. Schroeder’s breakfast menu included “Sausage patties and apple/cinnamon French toast sticks, serves 8.” The lunch menu featured “the light Italian lunch (serves 2,)” and “drumsticks, veggies, and whole strawberries for 9.” Dinner was Schroeder’s specialty. Sully and his mom often dined on the “marinated salmon and asparagus spears,” even when they didn’t have to. Schroeder’s had a Kosher menu, and were working feverishly on their Moslem menu.
Sully took night classes at the Berklee Institute in Boston, commuting each day from his home in Somerville, sometimes in the company truck. He studied piano. He wanted to play Gershwin.
With proceeds from his job as a driver for Schroeder Mobile Meals, Sully purchased an old Yamaha upright which took over the front parlor in their three-decker. A boarder occupied the basement apartment. Sully had seen the pious young man praying through the window.
Sully never wanted to become a professional musician. He only wanted to play Rhapsody in Blue. It was an ambitious target. Halfway through his second year his instructor said, “Son, you’re wasting your money.”
Sully turned his enthusiasm toward collecting. He had over 2000 CDs devoted to Gershwin and his music. One day while cataloging, he heard Rhapsody in Blue from his mother’s bedroom. Rushing in, he stopped cold in the doorway, eyes falling on the never silent television.
As Rhapsody in Blue played, cartoon businessmen boarded cartoon airplanes and flew to cartoon capitals.
“What the fuck is this?” he demanded.
“Sully,” his mother said from the bed where she was swaddled like an Inuit embarking on a seal hunt. “There’s no need to use that kind of language.”
“I’m sorry, Mother. I just can’t believe these bastards have hijacked Gershwin!”
“Oh grow up. They’ve been doing it for years.”
Sully researched the problem on his computer. The vampires acquired the song in 1987. They’d been whoring Gershwin out for over thirty years! Could the culture have become so debased that people didn’t even know the song? Did they think it was the “United Jingle?”
Tumblers fell into place. Complex mechanisms clicked and joined in perfect harmony. Sully hummed like a generator. Life had purpose.
1439 Eich St.
Mr. Randall Iverson
President and CEO of United Airlines
Dear Mr. Iverson:
I am writing to request you stop using George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue as your commercial jingle. Mr. Gershwin never intended his masterpiece for use as an advertisement. It is not as if you purchased the rights to a Rolling Stones, or even a Bare Naked Ladies song. Mr. Gershwin is part of our cultural patrimony. I consider him to be the greatest of American composers.
If United were to voluntarily stop using Rhapsody, you would be the recipient of overwhelming goodwill from music lovers around the world. Artists and musicians will make a point of booking on your airline. You can pick up something modern for a song, if you’ll forgive the pun.
I personally would be willing to write you a new jingle, perhaps not as brilliant as Mr. Gershwin’s, but fully capable of drawing people’s attention in a pleasant way toward your service. I am a life-long musician and recent graduate of the Berklee School of Music.
I remain, your obedient servant,
Sully mailed the letter registered with a confirmation card. Five days later he received the confirmation card in the mail. It was only a matter of time before United contacted him! Sully spent hours noodling away on the Yamaha playing with lyrics.
Two 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.
“BRRRRPPLL!” he replied trying to approximate the sound of a Bronx cheer.
“I’m sorry,” the robotic voice said. “I didn’t catch that last part. Would you repeat that please?”
“I’m sorry. “I didn’t catch that last part. Would you repeat that please?”
“Would you like to speak to a United agent?”
“One moment please.”
Within a half hour he had made considerable progress.
“This is Gretchen. How can I help you?”
“I need to speak with Mr. Iverson. It’s important.”
“To whom am I speaking?”
“Sully Mackie. I sent the letter about Gershwin.”
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mackie. Mr. Iverson is presently occupied. I’m Mr. Iverson’s executive secretary. Why don’t you tell me your problem.”
He told her.
“Yes, 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 doubt that.”
“Well I assure you, Mr. Mackie, that United is doing everything in its power to honor and respect Gershwin.”
“I’ll bring this to Mr. Iverson’s attention. Thank you for calling.”
He 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.
A terrible crime called for a terrible remedy.
At six-fifteen the bloodshot sun dipped below the crepuscular net of television antennae, power, and phone lines that crisscrossed 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 stoop.
Silence. Perhaps 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.
He 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.
“Yes? Oh it is you, my friend. And how are you tonight?”
“Very good, Faoud. And you can call me Sully.”
“Very well, Sully. And how are you tonight?”
“Very good, Faoud. I wonder if I could speak to you for a minute.”
“Uh, could we go inside?”
Faoud looked around furtively; up, down, side to side. No one was watching. He stepped back and motioned Sully nervously into his domain.
The 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.
On 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.”
Faoud swept up the bricks and map. “Let me just make some room for you my friend. Would you like tea?”
“That would be nice.”
“I 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 teapot, 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.
“Now then, my friend, how can Faoud be of service to you?”
“Faoud, United Airlines has perpetrated a grotesque fraud and great injustice on the American people.”
Faoud’s single brow, which rambled from temple to temple, formed twin peaks. “What injustice?”
“You are familiar with the American composer George Gershwin?”
“Of course.” Faoud cleared his throat and began to sing in a surprising baritone. “Bessss, you is my woman nowwww…”
“Wow,” Sully said. “You can sing.”
“Thank you. I was in Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade Harmony Cats when I lived in Lebanon. But where is the injustice?”
“Gershwin 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?”
Anger, understanding, sympathy flashed across the tar pits of Faoud’s eyes. “The arrogance of these American executives is astonishing, is it not?”
“Would you, that is, do you have any experience extracting concessions from airlines?”
Faoud 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 with 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.
“Not now, thanks.”
Faoud 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?”
“Nothing dangerous. I just want United to understand the seriousness of their transgression.”
Faoud 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.”
Soon 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.
“So your cousin’s a hash dealer?” Sully said, trying to be polite.
“We call him Chemically-Dependent Ali.”
C.D. 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.
“Come 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.
“Are you a tailor?” Sully said.
Chemically-dependent 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.”
While Faoud made tea in the tiny kitchen Ali listened intently, chin in hand, elbow on his Formica-topped breakfast table.
“Yes 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 flight?”
“You want me to fly.”
“Certainly. Right 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 you.”
“Ahhh,” 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 shareholder.”
“I 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 nosedive.”
“Well aside from buying a ticket, what else?”
“You need a special pen,” Ali said.
Sully eyed the kaffiyehs and white cotton robes hanging from the coat rack. “Should I wear one of those?”
Faoud 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.”
“What about the pen?” Sully asked.
Ali smiled and rose. “One minute,” he said, heading for the back bedroom.
Sully 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.”
Faoud bolted for the door. He returned a minute later stymied. “She must have gone into one of these buildings. Was she hot?”
“Hot? She melted concrete!”
Ali returned with an elegant box that said Dunhill. “For you, my friend. To insure your success.”
Sully 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?”
“The ink is made with holy water from Ramala. It is certain to convince the pilot, and through him, the CEO.”
“Ah,” Sully said, handling the box reverently. “It’s a magic pen.”
“Exactly,” Faoud said. “Wait until you are on the plane before you write the note. Do not use it for any lesser purpose.”
Sully rose. “Got to get back. They’re showing An American in Paris on A&E.”
Ali kissed Sully on both cheeks. “God be with you, my friend. Allah akbar!”
Sully raised his fist in power salute. “Word.” He looked at Fauoud. “You coming?”
“Ah, no, my cousin and I are going to catch up. I will see you when I see you.”
Sully was relieved. The solution had come to him in a blinding satori. By the time he reached Somerville he had come to a decision.
Security 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.”
Sully made a sign, grouped fingers to the forehead. “Peace be unto you.”
His 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.
“You’re gonna have to drop the pants,” one of the screeners said.
“Drop my pants?” the old man asked querulously. “What is this, the Spanish Inquisition? Look!” He pointed at Sully. “There’s your suicide bomber!”
The two security personnel gripped the old man by his upper arms and whisked him away to be interrogated.
Sully 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.”
Sully 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 flight.”
Sully 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.
Sully 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, “Mommy, mommy!”
The mother grabbed the child by the hand and yanked him forward. “Don’t look at him.”
The 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.
Sully was first off the plane at O’Hare and wasted no time in getting a taxi.
“Allah Akbar!” the driver greeted him.
Sully did the thing with the forehead. “Peace be upon you.” He squinted at the hack license. The driver was Ahmed Fusil from Pakistan.
“Where to?” Ahmed sang.
“United Airlines, 77 West Wacker.”
The taxi dove into Chicago’s concrete intestines like a pachinko ball. “Where are you from, my brother?” Ahmed sang.
“Somerville, Massachusetts. And you?”
“A 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.”
“I’ll check it out.”
They pulled up in front of Sully’s destination. “Do you want me to wait for you?” Ahmed asked.
“No thank you, brother.” Sully gave him a twenty-five percent tip.
United 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.
Sully headed straight for him The guard rested his immense arms on the counter and smiled. His teeth were perfect.
“How may I help you, sir?”
“Would you please to inform Mr. Iverson that Sheik Hassan Ben Jaild is here, from the American Arab League to Promote Peace and Understanding.”
“Do you have an appointment, Sheik Hassan?”
“No, but I’m certain Mr. Iverson will see me.”
“Why is that, sir?”
“Because 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 discrimination.”
“Mmm-HM,” the guard said, rubbing his chin. “One minute, Sheik. Do you have a card?”
Sully 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.
“Security 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.
Shortly, 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.
“This 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.
“We apologize for the precautions, sir, but these are parlous times. If you’ll step through the metal detector.”
“No need to apologize,” Sully said in a patently fake Mideast accent. “The camel does not always lie with the horse.”
The 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 waiting.
“Sheik? Hi, 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.”
They 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 skies.”
A dazzling blond flashed her chiclets. “Welcome, Sheik. Please go right in. Mr. Iverson is expecting you.”
Iverson’s 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 Fairbanks Jr.
“Sheik 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!”
Grambling made a desperate throat-slicing motion with his hand. “Ix-nay on the og-day!” he hissed.
“Of 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.
Iverson sat opposite Sully in an overstuffed burgundy chair and picked up the pitcher. “How do you like it, sheik?”
“Cream and sugar, please,” Sully said in his patently fake accent. “Two spoonfuls.”
Iverson did as Sully said and placed the mug in front of the visitor. “Now how can we help you, Sheik?”
“It is the theme song.”
“Excuse me?” The chairman blinked.
“Rhapsody in Blue.”
“What about it? It’s been our theme song for thirty years.”
“I am sure you are not aware of this but it is deeply offensive to people of my faith.”
Iverson seemed flummoxed. “How can that be? It’s a great song. Gershwin’s one of America’s greatest composers.”
“He was a Jew, did you know that?”
Iverson shook his head in disbelief. “I didn’t realize… Is that why the theme song is offensive?”
“Of 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.”
“Did Dweezil send you?”
“I am here on behalf of the American Arab League to Promote Peace and Understanding.”
“Well, I want to thank you for bringing this to our attention, Mr. Ben Jaild.”
Iverson 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.”
“Of 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 the United Kingdom. We’ll be in touch.”
Sheik Hassan Ben Jaild rose to his feet, touched his forehead, solar plexus and genitals with his right hand, and bid Iverson salaam.
He 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.”