February 24, 2014
In a city without skyscrapers, the tallest structure is made of smoke. Maybe that was the source of the fascination, why everyone looked to the west and held up cell phones for photos. Usually it’s just the tourists with cameras, but here was a monument that was new to tourist and local alike.
I walked to Gallery Espresso that morning, planning to finish Wiley Cash’s This Dark Road to Mercy. I’d interviewed Cash a few days before about his upcoming appearance at the Savannah Book Festival, but there were still a few pages of the novel left to go. Speaking of smoke, the novel is structured around the 1998 home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.
I may have smelled something, a faint scent like roasting marshmallows—it makes me wonder what exactly makes up a marshmallow. But I didn’t see the column of smoke, and the dark clouds overhead seemed to threaten rain, not fire. I remember thinking that I should have brought an umbrella.
Erika and B.J. came into the coffee shop. Franklin, their little black and white, flat-faced dog, was tucked under Erika’s arm. Dogs are not allowed in Gallery Espresso. Erika and B.J. asked me if I’d seen the fire. I followed them outside and around the corner, where the buildings and trees weren’t so close.
Black smoke shot fast and high from someplace just past the Talmadge Bridge, roiling into low clouds that caught the wind and fanned out over downtown. The bridge’s gray concrete and white suspension cables looked like something nacred and heavenly next to the darkness of the smoke. The flames stayed low. I’d never see them except in photos.
Back in my sixth-floor apartment, Franklin scurried around, claws clattering on the hardwood. Erika, B.J., and I took turns leaning out the bathroom window to see the column of smoke almost to its base. It came from the direction of the port, Ocean Terminal, if my depth perception could be trusted, where they unloaded foreign cars. I stretched far out the window and snapped several photos on my phone.
B.J. and Erika left. I made lunch, watched an old episode of Naruto on Hulu. I leaned back out the window. The column looked the same. I snapped a couple more photos.
On the way to my car, I thought I could detect the scent more readily. I took photos of the column of smoke from different angles. Here it is with the Hilton in the foreground. Here it is framed by the steeples of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist. Here the sky is dark, backlit by a wrong-colored sun. Here is the sky like a portent of the apocalypse.
As I crossed the Talmadge Bridge on my way to Beaufort, South Carolina, I passed within a few hundred yards of the column. I shot a video with my phone, glancing from road to phone to road, trying to keep my car centered in the lane and the camera centered on the smoke. The smoke filled the phone’s whole screen at the closest point. I made sure the AC in my car was set to recirculated.
The column, thick like something solid, receded in my mirrors, keeping its shape until well above the bridge, like it didn’t want to break apart. The motion of the smoke implied sentience, turning into itself, eddies of thought, self-reflection, until exhausted, with a reluctant sigh, at some height both mathematically predictable and unknown, it spread as a dark stain on the air.
I merged onto SC-170. The column of smoke was replaced by the trunks of trees.
* * *
On another day, staring off into the distance would have made me the curiosity. Stopping at odd corners and holding one’s phone aloft requires a reason. But that day, most people in Savannah were brought together by the mysterious darkness that claimed a portion of the skyline. If someone saw me and followed my gaze, they would have understood without explanation what held my attention. They would know why I held up my phone and snapped pictures.
But why this cult of the unusual? What about an unexpected column of smoke makes us understand one another when we’re otherwise so often a culture divided along party lines? Why does “holy shit, look at that” overwhelm our usual biases? Why did the video of this fire in which no one was hurt make national news?
Certainly, at least for the last of these questions, the answer is spectacle. But for a person in Albuquerque, their moment of “holy shit, look at that” dissolves as soon as the news plays the next similarly startling scene (when I worked in local television, the portion of the broadcast that featured national news of this sort was referred to, at least internally, as “the death and destruction block”).
The local newspaper printed photos the next day, many of them submitted by random readers. My Facebook timeline filled with pictures of the plume from dozens of friends. In several of the photos, framed wide by a cell phone’s zoomless lens, it seems that the people in the foreground, all with phones held high, are the subject, not the smoke in the background.
We’re all reduced to innocence in our curiosity. But instead of remaining curious in our everyday interactions, we learn to have conviction and belief. We’re taught that certitude is a virtue. We’re taught that to doubt oneself is weakness.
Granted, consumed by doubt is no way to live, but as the column of smoke showed, we live better together when we give in to wonder. Curiosity lowered our cultural shields. In the moment when the whole city looked up, I was no different than the tourist with her expensive camera, no different than the homeless guy on the park bench.
What would happen if we treated other people like we did the smoke? If we approached them as something worthy of inquiry? Is it possible to search for the fire that burns at the base of a person? I suspect that at the base there are more similarities than differences. Most of us, at least, share the impulse to gaze at something unusual in the sky.
I’d found the dark, mottled clouds to be ominous, but maybe I was wrong. Looking back at all of us looking up, the smoke was just a curiosity. It allowed us to be disarmed. If that’s still possible, if our divides can be crossed on a bridge fragile as air, then that dark smoke was a symbol of our potential to overcome petty differences.