Atta's Fork

Mrs. Tailpipe flung open the front door and walked in with quick, short steps, as if she were carrying something heavy. Tailpipe turned to see her rumble into the kitchen, one hand pushed into the pocket of her jacket, clutching something through the material.

"This," she said, dropping the object on the counter, without letting it touch her skin, "is Mohamed Atta's fork."

There it lay, an ordinary metal table fork, its handle engraved with vines and curlicues — an unimpressive-looking utensil if Tail ever saw one. But the name gave it a special heft. Tailpipe looked at it warily, as reluctant to actually touch the thing as Mrs. T., half expecting it to start glowing red.

"Lynn gave it to me," Mrs. T. said.

Tailpipe had, of course, heard the stories about the World Trade Center terrorist's connection with South Florida: How Atta and two or three others had lived locally while taking lessons at a Venice flying school and a Miami-Dade computer simulation center, how Atta had posed as a prince from a royal Arab family with an interest in aeronautics, how three of the terrorists had gone to Shuckums Bar & Grill in Hollywood four nights before the hijacking and got into a spat with the manager.

But who knew there were remnants of al Qaeda's Broward County pass-through still floating around?

Tailpipe's neighbor, Lynn DeLano, it turns out, had been the terrorists' landlady when the diabolical Atta and one or two others lived at 1818 Jackson St. "She's got a bunch of stuff from Atta's apartment in Hollywood," Mrs. T. said.

This car part's grasping metal heart leaped. Judging by Internet sources, al Qaeda memorabilia is a growing international market: everything from tacky Osama bin Laden cigarette lighters (with a diode lighting up a bomb explosion on one of the embossed Twin Towers, as the al Qaeda mastermind's bearded, glowering face looks on) to bits of building rubble from Ground Zero to scorched Korans from Iraq to Osama sock puppets. The wave has apparently not yet reached our shores, except for a burgeoning kitsch market in things like Osama toilet paper ("Wipe out Osama") and tacky T-shirts. But the valuable stuff — that's still mostly in the hands of Third World street vendors.

This, though, is America, where most big flea markets have a stall or two with a pile of Lugers, flags, swastika armbands, and Nazi helmets. Tailpipe assumes that, when it comes to making money, old-fashioned capitalism always trumps distaste. Anything once handled by the 9/11 master terrorist, he figured, would eventually be worth beaucoup bucks.

DeLano, an intense, good-looking, 37-year-old businesswoman and single mother who's always in a hurry, told the 'Pipe that her dealings with Atta had been brief and businesslike, though she had developed an instant dislike for the man. The glancing contact with him, DeLano says, has brought her little more than a kettle full of trouble.

At the time, she had no inkling of Atta's connections, of course. The widely distributed mug shot of Atta shows a man so full of lemon-sucking sourness that his face looks like it's about to implode. But DeLano says that, though he looked foreign when she first set eyes on him, he wasn't nearly so "freaky," and he spoke unaccented English.

"He still reminds me of the Lebanese cabdriver in the television show Wings," she says. "You know, the guy who's the monk." Tony Shalhoub, star of Monk?

"Yeah," DeLano says. "I owned another building, on Dewey Street. He came to me and said he wanted to rent an apartment there. But he only wanted it for four months. He said he'd give me four months' rent up-front in cash. My greed started to kick in. But then he said he needed it furnished."

Something told DeLano that the guy was more trouble than he was worth, and she turned down the offer.

A few months later, she bought the building on Jackson, and who should be a tenant on the second floor of the run-down, 13-unit boarding house but Atta? After that, DeLano saw little of Atta and his roommate, Marwan al-Shehhi, supposedly his cousin, as she proceeded to renovate the building, apartment by apartment. By September 11, she says, "their apartment was next."

The night of September 11, she got a call from the Hollywood police asking her to come immediately to her building. It was after dark, and like the rest of America, DeLano was upset. She had been trying all day to reach her mother in Poughkeepsie (who, it turned out, had actually seen one of the attack planes flying low over her house).

"It was late, and I said, 'Look, whatever altercation my tenants have had, you're going to have to handle it,'" she recalls. "Then they put the FBI on the phone."  

Jackson Street was jammed with unmarked black Suburbans, she says. "They said, 'Sit in the car so we don't attract too much attention.' Like nobody could tell something was going on." They told her that her tenants had been among the World Trade Center terrorists, and they handed her a search warrant. "And they shut me down for six weeks."

The FBI stripped the place of documents and letters and took anything else that interested them. There was a straight chair from which they sawed a piece off the back, where apparently Atta had rested his hand. They burrowed into the walls and took down the window dressings. ("They had Venetian blinds, pulldown blinds, and drapes," DeLano says. "That was one dark apartment.") They told DeLano she'd have to take an anthrax antidote, just in case the place was infected.

By the time the FBI left, weeks later, there was just an assortment of banged-up furniture and some odds and ends scattered around the apartment. Not thinking of their potential value, DeLano gave much of the stuff away and packed the rest in boxes to store in her garage in Fort Lauderdale. "There was one of those novelty Coke bottles, with the neck stretched out," she says. "I gave it to one of the tenants, and I heard later that he sold it for a lot of money on eBay."

She gave a glasstop coffee table to a friend. "It's like a drug dealer's table, with the glass surface to cut the cocaine on," she says. In fact, FBI agents told DeLano that there was evidence of drug use in the apartment, with empty cocaine baggies under the furniture and jammed between couch cushions. The new owner of the table, she says, likes to boast that it's his "terrorist coffee table."

So what other Atta memorabilia does she have? DeLano sorts through the junk in her garage, and all she can come up with is a pair of bedroom table lamps. They have plaster bases in the shape of Grecian urns, and they're painted gold. "I used to use them in my guest room," she says. But the dark weight of Atta finally caused her to move them to the garage.

Tailpipe picks one up and looks at the bottom, which is covered with a felt pad. He taps it.

"It's hollow," he says. "I wonder if there's anything in there."

DeLano's eyes grow wide. "I never thought of that," she says. "Let's look."

As she works to peel away the felt, Tailpipe envisions a microfiche with stored information or maybe a letter of authorization from Osama himself. Tailpipe has seen all the old spy movies.

"If we find something," DeLano says, "we'll be in headlines all over the world tomorrow."

But there's nothing. Not in the lamp DeLano works on nor in the one Tailpipe holds. Just empty spaces where the form of the mold had stood while the plaster dried.

Back in Tailpipe's kitchen, Atta's fork still sits on the counter, encased in a clear plastic bag now, as appealing to the 'Pipe as a dead mouse or a cat's hairball. "Let's get rid of this thing," he says. Tailpipe considers dropping it into the trash.

But then he gets a better idea. If there's really a market for stuff like this, he thinks, he'll auction the fork on eBay and donate the proceeds to a worthy charity. How about the World Trade Center Memorial Foundation, which is raising money to rebuild Ground Zero?

Want Atta's fork?

Real Estate Hail Mary

The Super Bowl has a lot in common with the South Florida housing market. Like being overhyped and oversold maybe? So it seemed only natural to apply the football theme to a sensaaaaational real estate auction at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino in Hollywood a few weeks ago.

The real estate agents at the "Florida Super Auction" came dressed in red football jerseys. Two young women were the cheerleaders — complete with sweaters, miniskirts, and pompoms, which they shook energetically during the auctioneer's marble-mouthed delivery. The auction's "spotters," whose job was to locate bidders among the crowd, were dressed like referees. To keep all those big-buck buyers from piling on like a bunch of rude defensive linemen, that is.

When the auction started, the referees — auction dealers call them "ring men" — dashed around the banquet room, pointing their hands, coaxing the spectators. "Is that a bid?" one demanded of some unsuspecting schmoe who had scratched his neck a little too vigorously. "Is that a bid? No? You sure?"  

Yeah, we're sure. Like the Super Bowl itself, the auction turned out not nearly as competitive as its boosters would have hoped. Said auction organizer Nicole Hollander: "I would have loved to have had a fire marshal in there telling me there were too many people. But that didn't happen."

"I seem to be counting down a lot today," deadpanned one auctioneer. "Did you notice that?"

Tailpipe noticed. Bidding for most of the homes started around $300,000 — and in most of the cases, it either finished around $100,000 or failed to get a bid even at the suggested rate. An oceanfront condo in Naples couldn't find a taker at $75,000. A three-bedroom house in Punta Gorda went for just $125,000, as did a three-bedroom in Palm Coast (the seller reportedly said afterward, "No way at that price.")

The Super Bowl is just a fading memory now. Can you say the same for our state's ever-buoyant housing market?

— As told to Edmund Newton

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