Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11

The Cultural Memory of Apollo 11

How the Moon landing continues to influence popular culture 50 years later

By Zach Powers

Buzz Aldrin Apollo 11

NASA Image.

According to NASA, approximately 650 million people watched the Apollo 11 Moon landing on TV. That was fifty years ago this month. Half a century. But the images and narratives of the event remain with us today, at least in indirect form. Apollo lasts because cultural memory is at play, by which I mean the type of unspecific memory that makes an event part of a culture without necessarily preserving the details. I suspect that there are many current high schoolers who wouldn’t be able to recall Neil Armstrong or Buzz Aldrin’s names. However, the imagery and influence of the space race continues to thrive, even among people with no firsthand memory of the events. On the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, this cultural memory bears examining, as well as how cultural memory works in general.

Last month, D-Day was remembered on its 75th anniversary. The number of living people who were adults, or near-adults, during WWII dwindles daily, but the big events of the war continue to inform Americans’ view of their place in the world order.

Alongside celebrations of the D-Day anniversary, however, I also heard a repeated complaint: D-Day is being forgotten. Kids in school today—not to mention many adults—may know little of the bloody battle being commemorated, if they know it at all. What was one of the most important events of the 20th century is turning into a footnote in an ever-shrinking chapter on WWII.

I don’t consider this type of forgetting to be a problem, though. Time always serves to diminish the importance of historical events. For example, I couldn’t tell you much of anything about the Wars of the Roses, and hardly anyone would fault me for that. Most people don’t deem a very old war to be worthy of detailed remembrance. We can’t remember everything, so we focus on more recent and pressing concerns.

Whether we like it or not, this is where the history of WWII is heading. A child born today could conceivably never meet someone old enough to remember the events of 1945.

What interests me, though, is not this act of forgetting. Instead, I’m fascinated by the way cultural memory persists even when specifics of the history being remembered are lost. I suspect far more people would recognize the photo of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima than would remember the name of that particular island or details of the Pacific campaign.

These images and narratives were so prominent for so long, they continue to influence people who have no direct connection to them. This indirect, possibly unnoticed influence is what I mean by cultural memory. Even if a child born today might never know D-Day or the names of Allied generals, they’ll have some gut-level understanding of “storming the beach,” or they’ll grapple with America’s self-image, which evolved in the aftermath of WWII.

I first noticed the phenomenon of cultural memory in anime and manga, Japanese animation and comic books. The influence of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings regularly turns up in storylines about cities, towns, and villages being obliterated.

In Naruto, a popular and long-running manga/anime about a young ninja, the titular character’s home village faces repeated threats of destruction. This culminates with the villain Pain completely wiping out the village from above, a clear parallel to the detonation of the bomb Little Boy over Hiroshima.

In the classic 1995 anime Neon Genesis Evangelion, re-released on Netflix last month, a series of “angels” arrive, each threatening to destroy the city of Tokyo-3.

Not only is the repeated theme of city-wide destruction striking, so too are the visuals. Mushroom clouds abound. Renderings of utter devastation clearly borrow from the nuclear aftermath, as well.

I’ve traced this nuclear narrative in Japanese popular culture back to the original Godzilla (1954), in which a radioactive monster rises from the sea and destroys Tokyo. The monster is the physical incarnation of the nuclear threat. The memory of the tragedy is given a reptilian face to make it more understandable.

Godzilla was created by filmmakers grappling with first-hand memories of nuclear destruction. Naruto’s creator Masashi Kishimoto, however, wasn’t born until 1974, almost 30 years after the bombings. Had he seen Godzilla and had the idea of a city under threat made familiar to him? Did he watch Evangelion when it first aired in the mid-nineties? Was he even aware that his work referred to a vernacular cultural memory of the bombings?

Looking back at the Moon landing, cultural memory has been at play since the moment Eagle landed. Even before. How many astronaut Halloween costumes were there in the 1960s?

In 1981, MTV launched its first broadcast with doctored video from a moon mission (the American flag was replaced with the MTV logo). This video played at the top of every hour on the channel for five years. MTV still gives out “moonman” trophies at the annual Video Music Awards.

If I ask ten people to imagine an astronaut walking on another planet, I suspect all ten would share similar details. Stiff movements, almost as if in slow-motion. Big, bounding steps. That’s how the video from the moon made the astronauts look. But more importantly, that’s how most fictional representation of astronauts in film and TV have depicted astronauts for decades. Even someone who’s never watched a second of video taken on the actual moon would imagine an astronaut’s movement this way.

Recently, I’ve seen NASA-branded t-shirts for sale in H&M and Target and American Eagle. On the t-shirt website Threadless alone, I found over forty space-themed designs. There are NASA backpacks and hats and a line of shoes. It seems many of us still dream of being astronauts when we grow up. At the very least, the memory of that dream persists.

Humanity forgets many things, but cultural memory preserves the largest events, not by sharing the specifics, but by passing on general impressions and broad implications. The Moon landing was one of these large events, and it seems poised to remain part of our active culture through another fifty years.

By then, we’ll have hopefully been to Mars, and it’s anyone’s guess which first step will be better remembered.

Some Books I Liked in 2017

I read a lot of books in 2017. These are some of the ones that are still sticking with me.

Isadora by Amelia Gray

Amelia Gray has built her literary reputation on endless inventiveness. Her stories are explorations of the weird, and her first novel, Threats, continued that tradition in long-form. So while Isadora is something of a departure from Gray’s established style, it should in no way be surprising that she has found a new way to surprise readers. The titular Isadora is Isaroda Duncan, the woman who pioneered modern dance in the early 20th century. The novel begins with the tragic death of her two young children. This event might have been the climax of the story in the hands of another author. As Gray’s starting point, though, it initiates a series of character studies—of Isadora, her lover and father of one of the children, plus several others—a sort of downward spiral through grief, at least grief as experienced by the iconoclastic Duncan. The novel rewards not through a rigid plot progression, but through a cumulative experience. The petty alongside the profound. Experience as synonymous with mess. I could call the novel existentialist, but that’s not quite right. As always, Gray has created a work that’s going to defy our easy classifications. Throughout, I was struck by the depth of imagination behind the novel. These characters and their worlds are richly researched, yes, but it’s the elements that Gray has created, if not from scratch then from only the barest of recipes, that linger with me even weeks and months after I finished reading.

Hunger by Roxane Gay

I’ve always admired Roxane Gay’s ability to get to the heart of a subject. She distills her essays down to concise, efficient arguments. She makes her points as clearly as any other writer I know. So I was interested to read Hunger, if only to see how she would treat her nonfiction in long form. While this book is still recognizably in her style, it also differs from most of her other nonfiction works in a few striking ways. Gay is never an absolutist, but I think her opinions are always stated with the confidence. She’s only going to write about a subject when she feels she understands its nuances. I turn to her when I hope to clarify my own thinking on a subject. There are many moments of this in Hunger, but I also found that she was willing to be more vulnerable as a thinker, willing to cede her authority, to a degree, in order to illustrate her experiences. This might be a simple byproduct of memoir-writing, but it also seems to be a rhetorical tactic, one that works very well in Hunger. I also noted that the memoir tended to be more recursive than Gay’s essays. I find her essays to be streamlined, moving from the introduction of a subject to a conclusion in a more or less straight line. In her memoir, however, she returns to previous subjects frequently. Instead of reading a summary of Gay’s thoughts, we’re experience the thought process along with her. This is perhaps the most intimate part of the memoir, a peek into the inner workings of her mind. Lastly, for a writer who has written so many personal essays, Gay offers another degree of personalness in Hunger. It’s not just that she’s sharing these incredibly intimate details of her life, though. It’s that she’s sharing her story specifically with the hopes that it will reach someone who needs to hear it. Hunger is a sacrifice and Hunger is a gift. And, as always, Roxane Gay’s writing helped me learn new things that I needed to know.

Rabbit Cake by Annie Hartnett

You’d be forgiven if after looking at the yellow and pink cover of Rabbit Cake you failed to assume the novel was all about grief. But grief, in its many permutations, is the main theme running throughout. The cover works, though, because if ever grief could be treated playfully, it is here. The charming child narrator is as concerned with the processes of grief as she is with actual grieving. She copes not in a state of traditional despair but through questioning, searching for an explanation for the inexplicable death of her sleepwalking mother. The titular rabbit cakes, literally rabbit-shaped confections, become the obsession of the narrator’s troubled sister, troubled even before the death of their mother. Their father takes to wearing his deceased wife’s lipstick, and adopts a parrot that somehow speaks in her voice. Dysfunction abounds, to be sure, but it never descends into slapstick. The narrator, and through her the author, is seldom critical. Hartnett seems to love her grieving characters and offers them empathy. The refined prose and off-kilter premise reminded me of Aimee Bender. Hartnett, like Bender, writes in a style that manages to be both breezy and complex, big ideas rendered perfectly with just a few swift strokes of the pen. It’s been a few days since I finished, and the novel is still sticking with me. More than anything else, it’s this memorable quality that makes Rabbit Cake so successful.

At Danceteria by Philip Dean Walker

The stories in Walker’s debut collection center on the gay club scene of the early 80s, focusing in particular on various celebrities who either frequented or happened upon the scene’s clubs and parties. Instead of focusing on the grandeur of celebrity life, however, Walker imagines small moments and paints portraits of intimate friendships. These are warming stories, even as the specter of the AIDS crisis looms in the background. Walker’s celebrities are always people first, as knowable as next door neighbors, and their struggles should be entirely familiar to anyone who’s ever endured the warring forces of fitting in and being oneself. At the book’s end, you don’t feel as if you’ve read celebrity gossip so much as you have been introduced to a group of new friends.

Every state ranked by its shape’s usefulness as a cutting board



This is just a picture of a generic cutting board because Colorado is exactly shaped like one.



As is Wyoming.



Distinctive yet practical. The epitome of state-themed cutting boards.



Handy handle. Bonus points for having the word “cut” in the state name.



Striking minimalist design.



Practical, but anyone who sees it will think it’s just a normal cutting board with a damaged corner.



Cape Cod forms a natural hook for easy storage.


South Carolina

By far the best of the non-rectilinear states.


North Dakota

For that modern rustic look.


New Mexico

Good cutting board on sale “as is.”



Extreme practicality. Pleasantly abstract borders.



93% plank-like.



Excessive handlage.



Clever interplay between curvy northeast inlet and squared southwest inlet, each useful for different pouring/funneling actions.



Excellent balance between straight and wiggly lines. Probably won’t remember which side is north.



The only cutting board upon which you can identify to others the location of a specific food by pointing to a spot on your upheld hand. Upper Peninsula sold separately.



A bit too long and narrow to be practical for all cutting applications, but instantly recognizable.



I never noticed before that Iowa has a prominent nose. State-shaped cutting board of choice for chopping aromatics.



Easy to saw off the bottom of the state and turn Indiana into a practical cutting surface.



I’m docking Montana points for stealing its entire western third from Idaho, thereby forcing the creation two asymmetrical cutting boards instead of a pair of perfect rectangles.



Rectangularish enough for regular use.



More like Mincesota.



The farther south you go, the less useful it becomes.


New York

Get a version with Long Island attached for a nifty grip.



Perfect for slicing those curvy-style sausages for a stew or something, I guess.



This 8-bit rendering of Georgia (see below) actually leads to a more practical cutting surface than the original.



Parallel lines. Wildly unpredictable lines. Itty bitty nub. Good luck ever cutting straight on this thing.



The Georgia of the Midwest.


South Dakota

The boringest of the plank states.



Sure, yeah, whatever.



Take any random chunk of a flat material and there is a 95% chance that it will be Maine-shaped.



Unwieldy, but offers two distinct cutting areas. Bonus points for being home to the best food in America.



Takes its cues from Louisiana, but offers a vastly inferior northern mass.



As cumbersome as the state itself.



Fine, but dangly bits quite distracting.



Awkward handle. Maybe as a specialty cutting board for baguettes and salamis and such?



This is actually a cheeseboard because Wisconsin.


New Hampshire

Only useful if you glue it to a Vermont cutting board.



See above.



Puget (structurally un)Sound.


Rhode Island

Great cutting area, but the fragilest of peninsulas.



Solid primary cutting surface, but isthmusy part is super breakable.



This is cheating, Hawaii. You cannot be more than one cutting board. Though the island of Niʻihau is the only cutting board designed specifically for single cashews.


North Carolina

This is the cutting board you would get if you smushed all of Hawaii’s islands into a single mass.



And this is the cutting board you would get if you flipped North Carolina over its X-axis.



Lumpy state #3.



It’s like you weren’t even trying to be a cutting board, Delaware.



I’ll see your crappy Delaware cutting board, and I’ll raise you Maryland.


West Virginia

This one has too many poky bits.


New Jersey

While not the least useful cutting board, the shape of New Jersey is wholly unappetizing.

Talking Goats and the Persistence of Influence

From 2006 through 2008, I worked on close to a thousand local television commercials, hastily produced ads for lawyers, gift shops, restaurants, politicians, radio stations, nonprofits, and furniture stores. During that period, I edited probably two-thirds of the commercials broadcast in Savannah, Georgia.

The most infamous of these were for a Ford dealership. The frumpy owner would stand between two cars on his lot, accompanied by his young son, and explain, in monotone, the latest deal on a Mustang or F-150. Following a hurried “thank you very much,” his son chirped out a prepubescent “and may God bless America.” But that wasn’t the end. One final element remained, and it was this tag that made the commercials’ badness legendary. So legendary, in fact, that they were once voted as the best commercials in Savannah by the readers of the local alt weekly magazine. The commercials crossed the threshold where bad becomes, if not good, then at least memorable.

This car dealer insisted that at the end of every commercial we include a brief video clip of a goat over which was superimposed a comics-style speech bubble. He provided the monthly messages contained therein, ranging from the absurd to the unintelligible, produced, as best we could tell, by whim or by Ouija board. Just the mention of this dealer’s name provokes a headshake, part shameful pride, part straight shame, from anyone who was ever associated with producing his commercials.

Years later, that same video clip of a goat remains, stubbornly standard definition in an HD world. The son, though, disappeared from the public eye as soon as his voice turned, leaving to his father the iconic line: “and may God bless America.”

In newer editions, at the hands of other video producers, the commercials are filmed at the dealer’s desk, upon which sits miniature stuffed goat. Not a toy, but some sort of taxidermied pigmy animal. A cast-off from a carnival sideshow. Why, where even a son’s love for his father could not, did the goat endure? What is the source of this man’s hircine fascination? Wherefore, goat?

The rumor is—and this is the story I share whenever I’m asked, which happens in a city the size of Savannah more often than you might think—that it has something to do with the phrase “I got your goat,” a jibe directed at the owner of another Ford dealership, who claimed that the hero of our commercials would never succeed in an admittedly less prime location. Is this apocryphal? More than likely. But we’ll never know for sure. Unlike the goat, the dealer isn’t talking.

The goat interests me because of how it has taken position in Savannah’s cultural memory. Everyone knows the goat without knowing why the goat exists, and I doubt even that first poor sap—the original video editor who had to look the dealer in the eye and ask “You want what?”—knew the truth behind the baaaa. The cultural memory of this goat, then, has grown well beyond any meaning the goat might have had for the parties originally involved.

I’m not currently working on anything about the goat in particular, but I am working on two projects that have a lot to do with cultural memory. I’ve recently completed the final draft of a novel set in a highly fictionalized version of the Soviet space program, and I’ve started taking notes for another novel in which the bombed-out portion of Hiroshima appears in the middle of present-day Ohio.

In many ways, I’ve moved on from my days of editing goat videos, but in some ways I never will. It’s that phenomenon, the persistence of influence, that’s behind my two big writing projects at the moment. I wonder in what ways cultural memories linger long after the eyewitnesses of events have left us. What am I remembering on their behalf?

Thanks for your time, “and may God bless America.”

Some Books I Read in 2016

The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

The book from 2016 that I can't stop talking about.

I can offer no higher compliment than saying that if Manuel Gonzales wrote Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan fiction, I would read all of it. This book borrows from a number of pop cultural sources, Buffy included, and turns that material into high art. Gonzales writes movie-style action that reads like ballet. He writes robotic arms that rival in beauty the best memoirist's recollection of Paris at night. He writes superpowered women who, even while locked in life-or-death battle, struggle even more with their pasts, their humanity, and the prospect of their futures. For all the cleverness of the novel's conceit, for all the fun Gonzales obviously has in crafting his scenes, the Regional Office is a stage he uses to explore our fundamental humanness in a way that wouldn't have been possible without magic and a sense of adventure. This book belongs with the best of fantastical literature.

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

A striking first novel about identity and belonging set in Japan.

Read my interview with Kelly Luce at the Tin House blog...

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

Every Anxious Wave by Mo Daviau

Time travel. Rock shows. Time traveling to rock shows. Two They Might Be Giants references in the first 50 pages. Love. Things like love that probably aren't. Things like love that might just be love. Every Anxious Wave seems to form out of author Mo Daviau's pet passions, including science fiction and the music of the 80s and 90s, all tied together with a literary bow. It's Dr. Who meets Murakami meets Aimee Bender, with a firmly feminist message hidden beneath our male narrator's sometimes cluelessness. In a novel that upends preconceptions from the very first word, perhaps Daviau's greatest feat is that she managed to surprise me with her take on that oldest of topics, love. So often love is presented as the universe's most powerful force, de facto, but here love makes allowances, and the novel's initial love, damaged and beautiful in its own way, is not celebrated as the ultimate triumph. Instead, it's a cleaner, fixed version of this love, still imperfect but less traumatized, that wins in the end. Love here and now, or in the post-apocalyptic future (oh yeah, did I not mention that part yet?), isn't the absolute. The absolute form of love is actually the flawed form, the one that fosters pining and allows abuse. Instead, a tempered love, one that knows the possibility of improvement, that doesn't tolerate the tragedies inflicted in its name, is the real human goal, a goal that we maybe have to go a couple decades into the future to find.

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

Four girls named Guinevere abandoned by their parents to The Sisters of the Supreme Adoration. Four comatose soldiers returned from the War and cared for by the Sisters. These two conceits drive the plot of The Guineveres, as the titular girls discover—and lose—themselves within the cloistered life of the orphanage. Narrated by the Guinevere who goes by Vere, but usually in the plural "we," each girl's story starts with loss and seems to be compounded at every turn by further losses. But the core message is one of faith. Not necessarily religious faith. For the Guineveres, faith is the expectation of a better future, one that isn't constrained by the Sisters' rules or boxed in by the orphanage walls. It is faith sprung from hope, and in the end I don't know if that's a good thing or a bad one. No rapturous moment awaits them, no divine passion. Patience is they key virtue, at least for Vere, and its opposite might be the flaw that undoes the close-braided group of Guineveres. Tragic and touching and most importantly a story that rings true.

Bandit: A Daughter's Memoir by Molly Brodak

Molly Brodak’s exceptional new memoir, Bandit, is framed by the story of her father, whose many mistakes culminate with an infamous bank robbing spree in Michigan. While her father’s story could easily take up a book of its own, the real reason Bandit succeeds is because Brodak keeps the story close to herself. It’s a memoir, after all. Still, her father takes up his fair share of the text. He’s an outsized figure in almost every way. I would argue, however, that the memoir is Brodak’s attempt to make the man life-sized. It’s this quest for understanding, the attempt to make sense of what was a senseless past, that makes the memoir unique. She has researched not just her childhood and her father and her family, but also the psychology behind gambling addiction and the history of the now-derelict Detroit neighborhood where her father first lived when he came to America as a small child. She confesses her own phase of shoplifting. She visits her father, and writes him, and maintains some small connection to him even while all the rest of their family has necessarily cut him off. This memoir is a search, and the reward for the reader comes from being invited to take part in it. Brodak won’t offer you any solid answers, except to illustrate that when it comes to her father’s life—and his is an extreme example of life in general—no answer will ever be satisfactory. And that, in the end, is OK.

What Savannah Means to Me

December 20, 2015

In December 2015, I was one of several local writers asked to give a short reading on what Savannah means to me. Thanks to Emergent Savannah for the invitation!


Tonight, I’m going to talk about my dead best friend. He fell off a cliff. There is, of course, more to that story, but that’s all I’m going to tell for now. We were friends long before he fell. It would have been hard to become friends after.

I’ve never written about Mullins before. That’s his name: Jeremy Mullins. He drew comics and taught at SCAD. He wore a three-piece suit whenever he taught. He wasn’t my first friend in Savannah, but he was my first Savannah friend.

Savannah Skyline

Photo © by Joshua A. Powers

In 2003, I was both a native of Savannah and a transplant. It had been more than a decade since I last lived here full-time, and while my extended family was still around, I had no connections to any of my former peers. If the word “peers” can be used to describe eleven-year-olds. So while I had been baptized here and played tee-ball here and had my first crush on a girl name Kristen in the sixth grade at St. James Catholic School, I was a local by blood only. Savannah was my heritage, not my present.

After college, after a failed search for work in my adopted hometown of Atlanta, after it became clear that a degree in jazz studies prepared you for exactly no forms of employment, I started a part-time, minimum wage job at WTOC-TV. I started going to Gallery Espresso to read and write every evening on the break between newscasts. This was the old Gallery location on Liberty Street, now The Book Lady Bookstore. I’m writing this right now in the new Gallery, where I’ve written almost every morning for years. Still, I miss the old space. I miss the feeling of descent, of taking the two steps down into a space somehow alternative to the street-level just outside. I’d vie there every evening with the other regulars for the one well-lit table in the back left corner.

Mullins was one of the other regulars. I don’t remember how we met. I don’t know who spoke to who first, though I’m pretty sure at that point in my life it wasn’t me. Loneliness is a thing that can starve you, weakening you too much to make a friend even when the opportunity presents itself.

Gallery Espresso moved to its current location. Mullins and I spent so much time there together that I’m sure not a few people thought we were a couple. We’d sit at the counter overlooking the rest of the coffee shop. We’d talk about ideas we had for creative projects, what I was writing and what he was drawing. He introduced me to comic books. “Funny books,” he called them. When a woman came in who met the very particular prerequisites of Mullins’ fancy, he’d make a noise like “ooohhhhnnnnnhhh.” We were knuckleheads, for sure. That was Mullins’ word. I like to think I’m not so much of a knucklehead now, but I think I’m better off for having been one.

I can see that old counter across the room right now. It was actually part of the counter at the previous Gallery location. I still sit there sometimes in the evenings. I still think of the stool on the left as “Mullins’ seat.”

I wouldn’t still be in Savannah if Mullins hadn’t reached out to me a decade ago. I tried for years to move away. Fortunately, those were the years when I was basically unemployable. I realize now that Mullins, a south Florida transplant, was more of a Savannahian than me, a native. We call ourselves the hostess city, but that’s just for tourists. For the locals, Savannah is one big public space. It’s this right here. It’s gathering at coffee shops or bars or art galleries or book readings. It’s a good party. And a good party is more than just fun. A good part means something.

I wonder what Mullins thought when he first saw me, a kid hogging the table with the good light in the corner. Now that I’m on the other side of the table, so to speak, I remember what Mullins did for me. How typical of Savannah it was. To say a simple hello. To make a new friend. I wonder what Mullins would think if he saw me on this stage right now.

What I learned from Mullins, though, is that while it’s simple, it also needs to be deliberate. Effort needs be made. When you see someone worth knowing, goddammit get to know them. This isn’t some suburb. This is Savannah. And we’re all friends here.

The Great Savannah Tire Fire

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.