Archives for category: Coming of Age

IRONING

Preparing to go out to dinner with our daughter, Sarah, her boyfriend, Matt, and his parents for the first time, I am more careful than usual in selecting my outfit. Though assured the restaurant is “extremely casual,” I garner my wife, Katie’s approval by selecting long pants instead of shorts, shoes instead of tennis shoes, and a brand-new polo shirt instead of a golden oldie.
“This is nerve-wracking,” I say. “It’s like going out on a first date.”
“That’s silly,” says Katie. “It’s just dinner.”
“This is a rite of passage,” I say. “We’re now old enough to meet our kids’ romantic partners’ parents with all kinds of freight attached. We might know these people for the rest of our lives.”
“I hate to tell you, but we’ve been old enough for a long time,” she says.
Fresh out of the package, my purple (Sarah’s favorite color) shirt is
creased.
“This needs ironing,” I say, hoping Katie will volunteer.
She doesn’t bite. “Make sure you use steam,” she says.
lroning is a rare activity in my life. Several times a year, I enter the laundry room, open the ironing board, and semi-competently run the hot appliance over a shirt or two. I’ve never mastered the liquid, however. I’m always wondering about technique: “Do I pour water on the shirt? What button do I press to get steam?” lf only I’d paid attention as a child, I would be an expert.

Throughout my early-mid 1960’s childhood, on Tuesdays, Naomi presided over our basement rec room. She was what was called “an ironing lady.” Though she was probably in her forties, I always thought she was elderly, since she stood on solid, black “old-lady shoes” and wore compression stockings that bunched up around her shins. Heavyset and dark-skinned, Naomi also apparently wore a variety of wigs. I would never have noticed such a detail if her style, color and length didn’t change nearly every week.
We’d had a succession of “cleaning ladies” when I grew up. We weren’t wealthy to the extent that we had full-time help, but it was typical in our middle class neighborhood to have a once-a-week cleaner. Among the several I remember were toothless Essie, who could not be understood; beautiful-accented Pearl from Trinidad who was incredibly kind; and, Corinne, black as night, who always came to work in a meticulous uniform of white stockings and black top fringed with white lace, and who proudly told us she’d once worked at a Dupont estate in Delaware.
Each of these women, and numerous others whose names I cannot recall, moved in and out of our lives within a year or two. The one constant was Naomi. She held dominion over the basement; at least, that’s how I viewed it.

When I came home from school on Tuesdays, I opened the basement door and went down to say “hello.” Once, when I was six or seven, I forgot to do so, and Naomi came upstairs, found me in the kitchen, and asked: “What, you’re too busy to say ‘hello’? You’re too important?” I never forgot again.
Visible at the bottom of the stairs was a green and white-checkered linoleum floor, a low, seven-foot ceiling, knotted-wood paneling, several old couches, and a black-and-white television with rabbit ears, that often failed to hold the picture horizontal. In the middle of the room, presiding over the ironing board, with a pile of clothing nearby, stood Naomi. While she worked, the iron hissed and sighed, like an old, asthmatic man struggling to reach the top of a flight of stairs.
I don’t recall many specifics from our conversations. Naomi asked me about school. I probably volunteered information about my little league baseball team. But I do recall she had opinions. Though she watched soap operas on the old television much of the time, she also watched news programs.
“That Nixon, he’s a nasty one,” she said.
Another time, she declared: “Vietnam is a waste of our young men.”
I’d never heard a cleaning lady offer an opinion on a subject not related to grease removal or vacuuming. I respected Naomi for her outspokenness.

The only gripe I had with Naomi concerned coffee ice cream, a staple of my diet. My favorite brand was Breyer’s, and we usually had a container in the freezer. Every Tuesday, I noticed, the half-gallon took a significant hit. When I was about eight, one Tuesday morning before I left for school, I built a barricade in the freezer around a brand-new ice cream carton. It was the first thing I checked when I returned home that afternoon. As I’d feared, Naomi had managed to remove the ice cube trays, packages of chicken and other food I’d placed in its way, found the ice cream, and made a monstrous gouge in the block.
Since I was always at school or camp when Naomi had lunch, I didn’t know if my mother had told her to help herself to the contents of the refrigerator, or just dessert. All I knew is I was angry Naomi felt entitled to systematically root through our freezer to get at “my” ice cream. I knew she knew that I had tried to hide the ice cream. Yet, she’d intentionally defied me. I recall our conversation that day was short and strained.

When I was ten or eleven, a transit strike hobbled Philadelphia’s buses. The first week, Naomi didn’t come to work. But the second week, with a pile of dirty clothing growing unmanageable, I overheard my mother arrange a taxi to pick up Naomi. At the end of the day, when it was time for my father to take Naomi home, I asked to go along. From the back seat, I watched wide-eyed as we traveled to a neighborhood I’d never seen before. The row houses were tiny and the side streets so thin only one car at a time could fit.
“Make sure your door is locked,” said my father, at one point, his words hanging in the air like a dark cloud.
There were bars on every corner and men hanging around, smoking and drinking out of bottles barely concealed by paper bags. I recall being petrified we would suffer a flat tire from the pot-holes and trolley tracks that blighted the streets.
Naomi stared straight ahead. The ride might only have taken twenty minutes, but it felt like hours in the silence. Finally, pointing to the right, she said, “That’s it. Turn there.”
My father carefully swung into a dimly-lit street. Midway to the other end, Naomi said: “That’s good. Thank you.” She got out, and we watched Naomi slowly climb a flight of stairs and disappear behind a small, wooden door. Several of the neighboring houses were boarded-up.
“Do you want to move to the front seat?” asked my father.
“No, thanks,” I said. “I don’t mind it back here.”
What I really meant was: “I’m afraid to step out of the car.

Naomi continued to work for my parents until I went to college, though her visits were less frequent. My mother said she drifted out of our lives due to health issues. I’d looked at her more sympathetically after that ride to her home. It’s not that I wasn’t aware her circumstances were difficult, it’s just hard to picture for a youngster without actually witnessing it. Nothing really changed in our conversations as I matured; but I never attempted to hide the ice cream again.


LARGER THAN LIFE

I was born in 1956 to a household devoid of hero worship. We enjoyed movies and shows, but it wasn’t in our make-up to fawn over actors or entertainers; though my siblings and I were sports-minded, we didn’t collect autographs or have posters on the walls. There were baseball players we rooted for, but no one we loved. Perhaps, the futility of the Phillies in the early 1960’s had something to do with that. Still, even if they’d won more, I doubt I would have declared a personal “favorite.”
My father neither participated in nor was interested in sports. He may have had athletic genes, but they weren’t developed in a childhood spent selling cigarettes to the White and Red Russian soldiers who alternately took control of his neighborhood in Kiev. It fell upon my older brothers to teach me the rudiments of ball-playing and my mother to take me to such landmark events as “my first major league baseball game.” She also was the rare mother on the sidelines of my little league games.

The “athlete” in our extended family was my Uncle, Lou Fox, who’d married my mother’s sister and lived in Chicago. With prematurely white hair, he was called “The Silver Fox.” His sports were bowling and golf, and I grew up with the impression he was a professional. I avidly followed news of his tournament wins and looked forward to basking in his glow at some point.
With my father tethered to his clothing store seven-days-a-week, our family rarely traveled. Uncle Lou’s wife, Aunt Fran, returned to visit the family in Philadelphia fairly regularly. I don’t have any recollection of Uncle Lou visiting in my earliest years, though I’m sure he did.
What I recall with an odd mixture of vividness and haziness is my now-almost-fifty-years-ago visit to Chicago, in 1965, with my mother. As the trip approached, Uncle Lou had promised over the telephone to play ball with me, take me to a Cubs game at Wrigley Field and also take me to his bowling alley. So excited was I at the prospect of all three activities, my first lifetime plane flight barely registered.
Upon arrival at my aunt and uncle’s low-slung brick bungalow, I made two observations: my aunt had plastic on all the sofas, so indoor ball-playing was unlikely, and there wasn’t much outdoor space, either. Still, Uncle Lou appeared immediately in the living room with a ball and two gloves and took me to the tiny rear yard to play catch. There he informed me that due to tragically bad timing, the Cubs were out-of-town the entire duration of our visit, so a visit to the iconic stadium would be impossible.
“Can we go to a White Sox game?” I asked.
“No,” he said. “No one goes to the White Sox games. The neighborhood is too dangerous.”
I couldn’t imagine anywhere more dangerous than the area near Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia, where I’d seen my mother pay a dollar to local street urchins to “watch our car.” I must have looked crestfallen.
“But there is a solution,” announced my uncle. “This weekend, we’ll drive to Milwaukee and see the Braves.”
Though the Braves lacked the magical aura of the Cubs, the notion that we would drive one hundred miles to a baseball game was immensely exciting. My family would never have considered such an adventure.
Though not the sort of kid to jump up and down and yell, “Yippee!” I’m certain I expressed excitement, since my uncle was showing me a whole different way of approaching life.

During the several days leading up to the trip to Milwaukee, Uncle Lou took me to “his” bowling alley. At the time, I thought he had an ownership interest, though I eventually learned he was just a very accomplished, regular bowler, who was acquainted with all the men behind the counter. He arranged for me to play “as long as I wanted” while he went off to work at his real job at a ceramics factory.
I recall the initial thrill of having a whole bowling alley practically to myself, since it was mid-morning on a weekday. I played game after game until I couldn’t lift my arm. When Uncle Lou returned to bring me home, he asked if I wanted to play again the next day. Considering the blisters on several fingers, I declined.
We drove home in my uncle’s brand-new Buick Electra 225. The car was massive, and it was the first time I’d ever seen power windows and air conditioning.
“This smells new,” I said admiringly.
“I get a new car every year,” said Uncle Lou.
“You do?” I said, trying to imagine such extravagance.
“Yep,” he said.
I gazed out the window awestruck.

When the day finally arrived for the trip to Milwaukee, my mother, Aunt Fran and I piled into the Buick.
“We’re eating at Frenchie’s before the game,” declared Uncle Lou.
“Will they have hamburgers?” I asked.
Everyone laughed. Hamburgers were all I ever ordered. That phase ended sometime in my twenties.
“You’ll like it,” he said. “It’s not a typical restaurant.”
Sure enough, Frenchie’s was a first for me. Apparently, in Milwaukee, it was an institution, “THE” downtown steakhouse with massive portions delivered by scantily-clad waitresses in fishnet stockings and high heels. I couldn’t find hamburgers on the menu, but Uncle Lou declared: “Don’t worry about it. You’ll like the food.”
He proceeded to order a Delmonico steak for me. In the re-telling over the years, the size of the steak has grown from ten to twelve to sixteen to, perhaps, twenty-four or thirty-two ounces. All I remember is that it was ENORMOUS and I ate the whole thing.
I also recall that Uncle Lou sat at the head of the table and commanded the room. With a sparkle in his eye, he was handsome and elegant. He joked boisterously with the waitresses and the other patrons. My mother, aunt and perhaps my cousins were present, too, but I only noticed my uncle. He was a force of nature, magnetic and charming.

The ballgame proved memorable, primarily for what was lacking. The Braves had declared their intention to move to Atlanta before the 1965 season, but the move was delayed by legal wrangling. With the impending move confirmed by the time of our visit, Milwaukee fans boycotted the games, so we found ourselves in a 50,000 seat stadium with fewer than 500 other people. It was dreary to watch a game amidst such emptiness, but if ever an eight-year-old had a good chance to retrieve a foul ball, this was it. Unfortunately, no luck. I recall the Cincinnati Reds, with a young player named Pete Rose, beat the Braves.
The drive home proved more memorable. A mid-western thunderstorm of epic proportions rolled in and multiple lightning strikes were visible simultaneously across the flat landscape. At first, I was scared of the noisy storm, but Uncle Lou approached driving through it like another exciting adventure, shouting “boom” with each burst of thunder. Eventually, I curled up on the vast, boat-like backseat of the Buick, and fell asleep amidst nature’s fireworks which were matched only by the dazzling good cheer of my uncle.
When we returned to Philadelphia, I suffered pangs of conscience because I wished my father were more like Uncle Lou. Though dependable and doting, my father lacked bravado and sportiness. He’d apparently used up all his sense of adventure finding his way to this country, via Poland and Cuba, back in the 1920’s. But time and attention shift quickly in the life of a child; after several weeks, I didn’t ponder Uncle Lou’s qualities again, and I appreciated my father’s unceasing, unquestionable devotion.

Just a few years after our visit, my Aunt Fran was diagnosed with cancer. She fought a hard and bitter fight and deserved every bit of sympathy for her misfortune and her struggle. However, she was not one of those cancer sufferers who appear on the last segment of the evening news for inspiring those around them with an amazing attitude. She was angry and she was depressed.
From a distance, it was my understanding Uncle Lou proved a steadfast partner. But after several years, his wife’s fight against the disease sapped his energy, too. When they visited Philadelphia together, he golfed one day with my brother, David, and me. By now, I was aware he was not a professional golfer. Probably, the eight-year-old me thought being a “club champion” conferred professional status that my twelve-year-old self understood did not. Still, he was an excellent player. The buoyancy in his personality was diminished, however.
At the risk of stereotyping, perhaps men in that era did not keep in touch as much as women. After Aunt Fran died, we rarely heard from Uncle Lou, and my only source of news about my uncle came from overhearing my mother’s discussions with my father. I learned he re-married fairly quickly to a long-time family friend whose husband had also died. He played lots of golf in Florida. As far as I could tell, no one in our family begrudged him his remarriage; he’d suffered enough.

I’m not sure my Uncle Lou was a “hero” to me. I didn’t know him well enough, or spend enough time with him to form a meaningful relationship. But for that one week in the summer of ’65, I couldn’t help but think the earth and sky crackled around him. And it wasn’t just because of the lightning.


AGING

Thursday is senior citizens day at our local supermarket, Harris Teeter, where shoppers over sixty receive a 5% discount. Fully aware that I am approaching that age in several years, I still make some smug calculations when I encounter discount day. For instance, I steer clear of the self-checkout lines, since the “seniors” are even less technologically able than I, and always seem to get stuck. I also avoid crowded aisles where the carts move more slowly than molasses. And I park in a far-off corner of the lot, since the ding potential from those beige Buick’s is tremendous. Imagine my surprise and dismay, therefore, when the checkout girl deducted 5% from my total last Thursday, without even the decency to ASK if I qualified.
“Do I look that old?” I nearly blurted, but then thought: “If they’re going to insult me by saying I look old, I’m keeping the $2.59.” Still, another milestone on the journey of life was passed.
“What other indignities are ahead?” I asked my wife, Katie, when I arrived home.
“Be happy you’re alive and healthy,” she said.
“You’re right,” I agreed, reluctantly. But I still didn’t like this small intimation of death, like a leaf falling from a tree in late-September.

I’m not certain when I first recognized my own mortality. I was probably around forty when I calculated I was at, or close to, the “back-nine” of life, actuarially-speaking. Yet, at that time, I was still intensely busy at work and ably performing in tennis, softball and soccer. At home, my children were young, and life was simply too busy to pause for reflection, especially on a topic that had no solution, no upside, and no negotiation.
Life is different now. All three children are finished with college and established in their own lives. I retired from real estate law five years ago. If I don’t make an effort to keep busy writing or exercising, reading, or traveling, thoughts of aging creep in, like the grey hair now surrounding my temples.
The realm of athletics is a microcosm, I think, for the issue of aging. There is an inexorable trajectory, from youthful obliviousness, to full-throttle power, to coasting “at the top of your game,” to reluctant recognition that maintenance is all you can hope for before, finally, slowing down.
At fifty, in recognition of the arrival of the “maintenance” period, in the form of creaky joints, I performed triage on my roster of activities. I gave up competitive soccer, softball and racquetball in the hope of competently continuing high-level tennis.
The challenge of remaining competitive against opponents half my age is not to play “their” game. Rather, I adapt to blunting their power with guile, their speed with spin. The task is made increasingly difficult due to my inability to play as frequently as before. Basically, I play “whack-a-mole” with my body. If my elbow quits aching, my shoulder stiffens. When my heels feel solid, the shrunken cartilage in my knees becomes apparent. If, one day, I think everything feels perfect, a twinge in the neck appears.

Sports have always been important to me. My earliest memories involve ping-pong in the basement of our home. When I was four or five, I begged my older brothers to play. Well before I was able to compete with them on the table, I tried to be helpful retrieving balls from murky corners behind furniture and spider webs.
I progressed at five or six to throwing rubber balls incessantly against the outside wall of our house and, as soon as possible, commenced playing little league baseball.
Soccer was added to baseball in seventh grade when I was informed at my new school the other choice was football. While I enjoyed playing catch, being tackled by people intent upon my destruction didn’t appeal. When I was ten, my sister introduced me to tennis and I have played, with varying intensity, ever since. During college, I added squash and racquetball to the agenda. As late as my mid-thirties, I was still adding, as platform tennis, a cold-weather fusion of tennis and racquetball, became a passion.
When I began the winnowing process, it wasn’t because I enjoyed playing less; it’s that my body was not able to play as much as before. I also suspected a subtle lessening of my abilities. “I may be a pretty good shortstop, but I’m no Derek Jeter; I don’t have to do this for a living,” I noted.

Derek Jeter presently is playing out his final season of a long and distinguished career with the Yankees. While his professionalism is admired, it’s impossible to deny the decline in his performance. His defense is slowed, his power hitting non-existent, and his durability is suspect. Several fans have confided they suffer cognitive dissonance when “The Captain” takes the field. They don’t begrudge him his accolades. However, they wish he would surrender his position at shortstop to a younger, more able teammate.
I’d hate for my tennis teammates to experience such thoughts when I come to play. I don’t want to out-stay my welcome. For this fall season, I’ve forsaken the “all-ages” league for the first time, in order to play against “Over-40” competition. I’m not yet psychologically able to sign up for the “Over-55’s,” though I qualify.
If the aches and pains overwhelm, I already have a plan to return to where it all began — the ping pong table. Great sport, no running, no body contact, weightless ball, and no age limits. Every day can be senior day.


Don’t Assume

Making assumptions is problematic. A prime example was our next door neighbor where I was raised in West Philadelphia, Villy Leudig. He moved in with his wife, Aily when I was around seven in the early-1960’s; he still lived in the corner house, separated from my parents’ home by only a thin median of grass, when my parents moved away thirty years later.
My first awareness of the then-thirty-something couple was overhearing my father return from greeting them to tell my mother that our new neighbors were Stonians, and probably D.P.’s.
I didn’t know what either of those things were, but I had heard the latter term used by my father to describe occasional customers at his clothing store, and it didn’t seem to be a good thing.
“What’s a Stonian?” I asked my father at dinner that evening.
“Estonian,” he said, emphasizing the ‘E.’ “Our neighbors are from Estonia, a small country north of Germany,” he said.
“Is that a good country?” I asked.
“Well,” he hedged.
My father was usually straightforward in answering my questions, particularly if I showed interest in a business or political sort of subject. His hesitation was intriguing.
“Is it a bad country?” I asked.
“They were not helpful during World War II. The Nazi’s used Estonians as concentration camp guards; they looked perfectly blond, just the way they wanted people to be,” he explained.
I was wide-eyed with alarm.
“Are the new neighbors Nazi’s?” I asked.
“No, no, I’m sure they’re not,” he said. “They seem like nice people. But I think they’re D.P.’s.”
“What’s a D.P.?” I asked.
“A displaced person,” he said. “It means they didn’t have anywhere to go after the war.”
I was still confused, not sure what ‘displaced’ meant. If they had nowhere to go, maybe our new neighbors were bad people.
“Well, how do we know they didn’t work as guards?” I asked.
My father shrugged. “Those murderers melted back into Germany or Poland or went to South America. I don’t think they came to Philadelphia. You’ll be safe.”
He smiled.

I was not entirely satisfied with my father’s assurance. Not an outgoing child, I was reluctant to encounter our new neighbor, but I followed his movements from the safety of my second floor bedroom window. Sure enough, I observed, Villy looked exactly like a concentration camp guard from every World War II movie I’d seen. He was thin and of medium height, with light skin, a blond crew-cut and blue eyes. Aily, too, was a platinum blonde, with hair braided as though she were auditioning for a part in “The Sound of Music.”
During their first week next door, the couple were busy as bees reshaping their yard. While Aily created gardens and planted flowers, Villy undertook a large project to chop down brush and weeds from an area between our houses. He began to build a sitting area, with paving stones, an ornamental wood fence, and a barbecue pit.
Next, he re-tarred his detached garage roof and painted the trim around his house. Never had I seen such a blur of home-improvement activity, especially by a homeowner. Though our neighborhood was not wealthy, it was comfortable, and landscaping and repairs were rarely performed by anyone who wasn’t hired. Villy was the first neighbor I’d seen who cut his own grass.
I finally met Villy after several weeks, because my father said he was going next door on a hot Sunday afternoon (the only day he didn’t work at his store) to examine the on-going projects and offer Villy a cold beer.
“Why don’t you come along?” he said to me.
I didn’t question why my father chose to be sociable but I followed behind him to be introduced.
“Thanks, Lou,” Villy said, accepting the beer, with a vaguely European accent. “Is this, aaaaaaaaahhh, your son?”
“Yes,” said my father, and told him my name. “Say hello to Mr. Leudig,” he said to me.
“You can call me aaaaaaaahhh, Villy,” he said.
I’d never heard someone speak like that, with such a long hesitation. I looked carefully at him, trying to see if any evil lurked behind his kind smile. My father and Villy spoke for several more minutes while Villy showed us his improvements. I couldn’t ignore the speech impediment, but I detected nothing else amiss; Villy seemed like one of the nicest adults I’d met. My father had a new friend unlike any other friend he’d ever had — significantly younger, not Jewish, and not related to the men’s clothing business in any way.
In the next several years, most of what I knew about Villy came from overhearing my parents. I learned Villy and Aily spent most weekends at a home in New Jersey, where my parents assumed they had a large community of Estonian friends and relatives. I learned Villy was a traffic engineer for the City of Philadelphia and Aily was a pharmacist. I didn’t know what a “traffic” engineer was, but any sort of engineer sounded impressive to me. I assumed Villy designed bridges or roads; I assumed his household projects indicated a person of incredible technical know-how.

My childhood fear that Villy might have had something to do with concentration camps disappeared. By the time I went to college, Villy was an important, positive part of our lives. After my father retired in his late-70’s, he waited for Villy to come home from work like a pet waiting for his owner, so that he had a companion to share a drink and conversation. When I came home on school breaks, Villy and I played spirited ping-pong matches in our basement.
Villy offered advice and assistance on home-repair projects, like replacing toilet innards or repairing leaky faucets. Even though these tasks were basic, they were easily beyond the ability of my father or myself. Villy’s early burst of energy on his own house gave way to several curious attributes, namely: he never actually finished a project. Patio paving stones remained stacked up near the barbecue for decades, though the job could probably have been finished in a day; a porch he commenced screening-in within weeks of arrival remained mostly unscreened twenty years later; the garage that Villy had roofed and painted upon arrival became filled not with a car but with stacks of newspapers and boxes, from floor to ceiling. Villy, it turned out, was a hoarder.
We accepted Villy’s quirks in a friendly way because he was otherwise so decent and sympathetic. We learned that a traffic engineer was actually someone who did not construct things, but counted how many cars went past an intersection. Sometimes, Villy sat alone in his city-owned car for eight hours and monitored traffic flow at a stop sign, to determine if the sign needed to be moved a few feet in one direction or another. Still, the lack of professional status we’d assumed for Villy was no impediment to our affection for him.
The problem: when I came home from college or, later, visited my parents from the town where I worked, Villy’s frequent presence puttering in his yard presented a dilemma. Talking with him was torture. He rarely completed a sentence without an “aaaaaaahhh” and any effort to provide the missing word was counter-productive. For instance, if he said: “I’m going to get gas in the aaaaaaahhhh…” and you offered “car” he would begin again as though you hadn’t spoken: “I’m going, aaaaaaahhhh, to get gas in the aaaaaaaahhhh, car.”
I learned not to “assist” him, but there was still a significant disincentive to speak with Villy. He simply couldn’t converse “normally” and, if I had to be somewhere quickly, or just wanted to get inside the house, it was impossible to hasten the conversation. Every time I snuck into my house without saying hello and/or formulated the thought that I had to avoid Villy, I felt like a horrible person.
“How do you talk with Villy?” I asked my father once, when I was in my twenties.
“I’m used to it,” he said. “Plus, I’m never in a hurry.”
That was true. Since his retirement, my father viewed his leisurely conversations with Villy to be enjoyable, the longer the better. Little did my father suspect he was about to have more time with Villy. Late one evening, when I was visiting my parents, our doorbell rang, an extraordinary event. I was upstairs, and heard my mother rush to the door and greet Aily, who was crying hysterically. I couldn’t hear distinctly what they were saying but eventually understood that Villy, in his mid-fifties, had suffered a heart attack. The ambulance had just taken him to the hospital and Aily feared he wouldn’t survive. My mother comforted her at the kitchen table for an hour that seemed endless.

The next morning, my parents visited the hospital with Aily. Villy was stable despite a massive attack, but my parents returned home saddened not just by his physical condition. The vast Estonian community they assumed for the Leudig’s simply did not exist. They learned that Villy’s house in New Jersey was just a small cottage in the woods and, in fact, they knew almost no one there. Without suspecting it, my parents had become the Leudigs’ closest friends.
When Villy was discharged from a rehabilitation center after several weeks, he retired from his job on disability. He was home all day long, which was perfectly okay with my father. Villy, too, seemed satisfied to be finished with the traffic department and, other than his pledge, finally, to quit smoking, he seemed unaffected by his near-calamity.
I asked my father once: “Did you ever find out what Villy did during the war?”
“No,” he said. “I’ve never asked. And he’s never told me.”
Though hard to fathom, this sort of non-communication is not unheard of among men. In any event, I was pleased to know Villy was around. As my father approached eighty, his old friends from the clothing business dwindled due to deteriorating health, their inability to drive or, in many cases, death. Villy was available to talk or walk slowly around the block, or go out to get a sandwich.

When I married, at thirty, Villy and Aily were among the few non-relatives on my parents’ guest list. They drove two hours to the rehearsal dinner and I was happy to see them, though careful not to be cornered one-on-one by Villy. There were simply too many people to greet and details to attend to.
During the course of the meal, various of the sixty or so guests stood to offer toasts. Some were funny, some were sweet, and a couple were a little edgy. But the evening flowed without anxiety for me until, to my amazement, Villy rose from his seat across the room and tapped his glass.
“Oh, my,” I thought. I tapped Katie’s arm beside me and pointed: “Uh-oh,” I said.
For a long moment, after he had the attention of the entire room, Villy was silent. I feared he was frozen in some way that would become more memorable than any other aspect of the delightful event. The room fell completely silent. Another moment passed. Someone dropped a spoon. I heard a cough. Everyone waited expectantly. Only a few knew of his impediment. Several guests shifted in their seats. My heart pounded. Finally, Villy began to speak.
“I’m thrilled to be here this weekend to celebrate the wedding of two wonderful people,” he said, sounding like a professional public speaker. He held up his glass to us. “I’ve known Stuart and his family for over twenty years and consider them to be dear friends. I’ve battled Stuart in ping-pong and suffered with him over the Phillies. I’ve seen him grow up and go to college and become a lawyer and a man and I have just this to say: when Stuart and Katie slide down the bannister of life, may all the splinters be pointed in the right direction.”
With that, Villy concluded his toast amidst boisterous laughter and waved to us with a broad smile. All my fears were for naught. My negative assumption was wrong. I’m not sure who was more relieved and appreciative, me or him, but Villy had absolutely NAILED his toast.


INSTRUMENT OF TORTURE

That Sam would play the oboe seemed inevitable. Someone had to.  He was the youngest of three children, after all, and his two older sisters had both failed at the piano and refused to play the oboe, respectively. With my wife, Katie’s professional-quality, hand-crafted instrument consigned to the back of a closet for decades, he represented the last chance one of our children would carry on her legacy as the one-time second chair of the Connecticut State Youth Orchestra.
“You can take piano lessons, if you prefer,” we offered, knowing he had long-refused to consider the beautiful instrument anchoring our living room, by then reduced to a silent piece of furniture.
“Why do I have to take anything?” Sam protested.
“Because musical training is important, your sisters suffered through it, and it will be good for you,” we answered, more or less. We probably also suggested: “it will enhance your college applications, provide an extracurricular activity in high school, and develop whichever side of the brain might otherwise be neglected.” We figured if we threw enough half-baked rationales against the wall, one might stick.
Sam was in fifth grade when this ambush took place. He had just entered middle school where there was an extensive music program. Each participant received a weekly lesson from the band director. Some students took private lessons, too, but the instrumental program at the school was renowned for developing beginners. Eventually, the talented and/or devoted would feed the award-winning high school band, an institution in our town whose fervent following rivaled that of the sports program. In fact, at Ramsey High School, the home football crowd was known to swell just before halftime and diminish precipitously after the band finished performing.
Nearly all the boys who began lessons in fifth grade chose to play the drums or something brass. We’d bought Sam a drum, at his insistence, when he was five. But he abandoned it after just a few days of sporadic pounding. Nearly all the girls chose the flute or clarinet. Not since the eighteenth century, perhaps, had a ten-year-old clamored to play the oboe. When the band director learned that our household held a prospective oboist, she nearly leapt with excitement.
“Does he already play?” asked Ms. Latronica (“rhymes with harmonica,” she always told the students on the first day of school).
“No,” we explained, “but Katie can teach him the basics, and he’s agreed to practice at least fifteen minutes a day.” We didn’t think it necessary to reveal the arguments and bribes involved in gaining the latter assurance. Suffice it to say, Sam’s ice cream and video games were secure for the balance of fifth grade.
“This is so exciting!” enthused the twenty-something Ms. Latronica. “We’ve never had an oboe before. Sousa wrote some great oboe parts!”
We nodded and smiled, but thought back to our daughters’ failed musical careers.
“I fear,” I whispered to Katie afterwards, “that she is headed for some disappointment.”

*****

Fortunately for me, I was at work when Sam commenced his initial oboe practices after school. One day, I arrived home earlier than usual and heard a braying sound emanating from the living room piano bench, where he sat.
“Do we have geese?” I asked.
“That’s Sam practicing,” said Katie.
“Wow,” I said. “Does it always sound like that?”
“Sometimes worse,” she said. “But he’ll get better, eventually.”
“What if he doesn’t?” I asked.
“He’s already made a lot of progress,” Katie assured me. “He can play a scale.”
“In three weeks, that’s all he’s learned?” I said.
“If he took the French horn, he might not be able to hit a note for a year,” she pointed out.
I nodded in agreement, recalling the unfortunate French horn player in my high school orchestra.
“But, at least a French horn sounds mellow. This sound is irritating; it’s hard to take,” I said quietly, cringing, as several additional honks bounced off the walls.

Over the next several months, Sam did make progress. “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” for instance, became recognizable. But he clearly lacked a gift. Since Katie had been an excellent oboist decades earlier and I’m one of those people blessed/plagued with music running through my head at all times, I couldn’t understand our progeny’s lack of musicality.
“They’re all good students,” I said. “And they’re great at soccer. Why do they lack musical talent? We’ve provided nature AND nurture, and received nothing in return,” I continued sourly.
Katie shrugged. “Let’s hope he’ll be happy he tried, someday. There won’t be much pressure. He’s playing third-oboe in the holiday concert.”
I didn’t know whether to be relieved or insulted. “How can he play ‘third’ when there’s no first or second?” I asked.
“Actually,” said Katie, “the third part is what Ms. Latronica thinks Sam can handle. Remember, he’s just a beginner.”
“Fair enough,” I said, apprehensive.
On the night of the concert, we were stunned and impressed to see the middle school band file into the gymnasium before us. Over eighty players made it larger than all but the most august of professional orchestras. Several of the hundreds of parents and grandparents rushed forward to hand flowers to their children. Others stood brandishing video cameras. We remained quietly in our seats, heeding Sam’s request that we “not do anything embarrassing.” Still, we were proud to see Sam amidst the ensemble, though his sheepish posture revealed his desire to be somewhere, anywhere else.
Ms. Latronica, glowing with excitement, took the podium in a form-fitting outfit guaranteed to command the attention of students and audience alike. The band performed a selection of Christmas carols with a Thanksgiving-themed song and a Hannukkah piece mixed in. The skill level was impressive; many of the students played with enthusiasm.
“I can’t hear the oboe at all,” I whispered at one point, though Sam appeared to be blowing.
“That’s probably a good thing,” whispered Katie. “The third part shouldn’t stand out.”
After the concert, while waiting in a long line at Baskin-Robbins (we weren’t the only bribers in town, apparently) we congratulated Sam for his efforts.
“I didn’t play a single wrong note,” he said, smiling suspiciously broadly.
“That’s wonderful,” I said, warily.
“I was just blowing,” he said, “but not hard enough to make sound.”
“Sam,” said Katie. “Why would you do that?”
“I didn’t want to mess up,” he said.
I considered expressing anger or, at least, canceling ice cream. But the latter was difficult because I wanted ice cream, too, and the former would have been hypocritical because I’d done the same thing decades earlier at a high school holiday concert. In fact, what I’d done was worse, since I was the first trumpet, and responsible to carry the melody!

We didn’t let Sam quit the oboe mid-year, despite his requests, but we did move his practice location to the basement. Several closed doors would insulate the rest of the house from the noise.
“He’ll probably be watching television while he practices,” I said.
“Probably,” said Katie.
“Do we care?” I asked.
“Probably not,” she said.
I pondered the situation for a moment. “What kind of parents practically invite their son to goof off when he practices?”
“Realistic,” said Katie. “He’s not gifted and he’s not excited to play. We can’t force it.”
The school year ended with a spring concert. We attended and applauded and didn’t even ask Sam if his instrument was contributing to the sound. And he didn’t volunteer the information. When we arrived home, the oboe reassumed its place in the closet.
As the years proceeded, Sam developed a healthy enjoyment of music. Now that he is in graduate school, on the rare occasions the subject of playing musical instruments arises, I note that my son expertly plays the I-pod and Pandora, and he’s perfectly satisfied with that. Therefore, I suppose, so am I.


RELATED BY DIVORCE
“You can’t do that,” said my boss, angry, looking up from his desk upon my return to the office. I was shocked, so excited I was with my first, improbable triumph in my two-week-old career as a divorce lawyer. Somehow, he viewed my victory as a failure.
I’d commenced working for Ralph DiPierro when he rescued me, solely on the basis of one telephone conversation, from a tedious position as a junior attorney at a classy, old money law firm. The fundamental problem was the firm’s disinclination to transfer a livable amount of that money to me in exchange for my time-consuming efforts. Also, the opportunity for client contact, which young lawyers crave, until they actually experience it, was non-existent from my permanent position in the firm’s law library.
Ralph, in contrast, offered client contact in abundance. He foisted my totally inexperienced self upon an unsuspecting client the first morning on the job, the likelihood of malpractice be damned.
“Here, take this file,” he said, in his direct, unadorned way. “Nina Brown’s husband left her. They don’t have any money, so you can handle it.”
“Well, um,” I stammered, accepting a thin, manila folder from gaunt, salt-and-pepper-haired Ralph, a possible winner of an Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest.
“Just show up at calendar call next Monday. They may not start the trial; it depends if there’s a judge available.” He added. “If they do, just settle it. Frankie Terranova’s the husband’s lawyer. He’ll go easy on you. I’ve known him a long time.”
“But what should I do to prepare?” I asked.
Ralph appeared stumped, as though the concept of preparation were totally foreign to him.
“Well, you know,” he finally said, “read through the file, give Nina a call so she knows you’re handling her case, and guide her through the process. She’s very young. I talked to her a couple months ago; I got stuck with her ‘cause she’s a waitress at MacMurphy’s.”
I must have looked surprised at Ralph’s explanation, since I knew clients to be almost sacred at my former firm; no one spoke disparagingly of them.
Ralph continued, in a tone suggesting wisdom gleaned from thirty years as a suburban divorce attorney: “You never want to represent a wife. Generally, the money is with the husband. But, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Anyway, in this case, the husband’s broke, too.”
Ralph told me MacMurphy’s was the bar where he usually ate lunch and played in weekend poker games. The owner was his best buddy. Still, I felt uneasy as I sat down with the file in my office, formerly the storage closet, adjacent to Ralph’s office. I’d spent much of the morning fussing over hanging my diplomas on the wall. Now, I actually had a client to worry about. What if the case did come to trial? What if Frankie wasn’t “easy on me” as Ralph had promised? What did I actually know about divorce law or trials or clients or anything?
Law school had prepared me to read voluminous amounts of material relevant only to someone intent upon being a Federal Appellate judge. For readers who are unfamiliar, law school is largely an exercise in reading judge’s opinions. These dry writings are selected in order to illustrate important concepts, I assume, but they rarely resonated with me. And my year at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman only taught me to hide in the corner of the law library and appear intensely busy, no matter what.
I took a deep breath and opened Nina’s thin file. Notes on her intake sheet indicated she was twenty-seven, a year older than I, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment her husband had “deserted,” and she had a three-year-old son who may or may not have been the child of her husband, if I was properly interpreting the question mark Ralph had scribbled. A 3” X 5” card stapled to the folder indicated the trial date.
I wasn’t sure what I would say to Nina when I called, but I decided to “take the plunge.” A tiny voice, childlike and vulnerable, said “Hello?”
My stomach fluttered as I realized this person’s future was somehow tied to my minimal professional abilities. “Hello, I’m Stuart at Ralph DiPierro’s office,” I said.
“Who?” she said.
“Your lawyer’s office. Ralph is your lawyer and I’m his associate,” I said, trying to deepen my voice a level of experience or two. I felt “associate” conveyed gravity beyond that of a mere “assistant.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Nina. “I was wondering when I might hear something.”
“The trial is scheduled for next Monday,” I said. “There may be a delay, but we have to be ready, just in case.”
I wasn’t sure what constituted “ready,” but I felt it was a mature thing to say and I hoped Ralph would fill me in as the date approached. I didn’t know what else to say, and an awkward silence ensued, until Nina said: “Should we get together and talk or something? Maybe I can tell you what I’m hoping to get?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, relieved. Her suggestion totally made sense.
“Can you meet me this evening at the Empire Diner?” she asked. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to meet a client for the first time at a restaurant.
“Can’t you come to the office?” I asked.
“No, I have to work at MacMurphy’s ‘til four and then take care of my son. But I can leave him with a friend from seven to eight this evening. So, is 7:15 okay?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “See you there.”
Now what? Ralph had already left for court, so I called an acquaintance who I knew had “put through” several uncontested divorces at another firm. I explained my predicament.
“It won’t be hard,” said Joe. “Complete the CIS with your client. Then, when you get to court, review the husband’s CIS, see where they disagree, and try to narrow the disagreements.”
“What’s a CIS?” I asked.
Joe laughed. “I forgot you’ve spent an entire year in the library. A CIS is the ‘case information statement.’ You fill in your client’s budget, and how much she is asking for in support. The husband will have filled in how much he’s prepared to pay. When you get to the courtroom, either the judge or his clerk will bring you and the opposing lawyer into the judge’s office, adjust a couple of the numbers, and make you settle without a trial.
“What if we can’t settle?” I asked.
“Settle,” said Joe. “Don’t rock the boat. Judges hate to waste time on trials.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved to understand the likely order of events. It all sounded manageable. “I’m meeting my client tonight at a diner.”
“You’re meeting her outside the office?” said Joe, surprised.
“It’s the only time she’s available,” I said.
“Whoa, be careful,” said Joe. “There’s nothing more ‘available’ than a young divorce client.”
“Very funny,” I said, though the ramifications of Joe’s remark refilled my slightly diminished well of anxiety.
I arrived at the diner several minutes early and took a seat in a booth near the entrance. Right at the appointed moment, a woman who looked no older than a college student, but who could only be Nina, strode in wearing jeans and a notably tight tee shirt. She was thin, with big brown eyes, freckles and curly, permed hair in the style of the mid-1980’s. She virtually flounced into the booth across from me and offered a smile. I noticed she chewed gum with the avidity of a lion consuming a zebra.
“Nina?” I said, feeling self-conscious in my three-piece suit.
“Yes,” she said, taking me in with a smile that made me feel like I was eight-years-old and playing lawyer.
We ordered coffee and Nina explained her situation: “Robert left me almost a year ago. It really hurt. He doesn’t even bother to see our son, Charley. He’s living with a receptionist from the factory where he works. I hate him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Can we really nail him?” she asked. “He left us alone. I can hardly pay the bills.”
I felt a tug of sympathy for this lithe young woman across from me. Who could leave her like that? After she explained what Robert earned, however, I was certain I could do little for her; Robert earned less than she did.
We filled out a blank CIS I’d found in the office. Nina’s rent and car payments consumed nearly all her income. Charley’s baby-sitting and nursery school used up the rest, and Robert could not be counted upon for alimony. The only hope was to obtain reasonable child support.
“He offered fifty bucks a week,” said Nina. “I’ve gotta get at least a hundred. If I got that, I could get by.”
I nodded sympathetically, as though I were familiar with the costs of child rearing. The numbers sounded small, even to my uninformed mind.
“There’s one awkward question I have to ask,” I said. “Robert is Charley’s father, right?”
“Of course he is,” she replied, then added: “I’m nearly certain.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s good enough.”
I actually had no idea if it would be. When we finished our coffees and reached the bottom of the form, Nina stood and flashed me a luminous smile.
“Can I have your home number?” she asked, “just in case something comes up?”
I didn’t know if this was appropriate or not, but how could I refuse? I scribbled my number on a napkin and stood to say “good-bye.” Nina put the napkin into her large, leather bag and shocked me by leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“You’re sweet,” she said, as though she were twice my age. “I know you’re gonna take care of me and Charley.”
I was enveloped by perfume as she turned and strode out. The shape of her rear left an impression I knew was inappropriate. “This is your first client,” I reminded myself.
The week flew by as my first, possible trial approached. At his suggestion, I studied some of Ralph’s complex files, and he offered occasional tidbits of advice, though they rarely concerned our clients or law. From Ralph, I learned which casinos in Atlantic City had the best buffets, which local bars had happy hours on which days, and which health club had the best racquetball courts. I felt totally unprepared. I went to bed early on Friday evening, and drifted into an unsettled sleep. I dreamed numerous scenarios at court, all disastrous.
What if Nina were ordered to pay alimony to Robert? What if the judge declared I was incompetent?” What if Nina shouted: “He promised to help me and he didn’t!” My dreams were so dire I was almost relieved to be awakened at two a.m. by the telephone.
“Hello,” I said, groggily. I heard crying on the other end of the line.
“It’s Nina,” said a high-pitched voice, sniffling. “The bastard. He’s ruined my life.”
“What?” I said, coming to attention. I immediately thought the worst, wondering if Charley had been kidnapped or the apartment set on fire. “What happened?”
“He, he,” she started, almost unable to speak. “He took the pots and pans.”
“Hunh?” I said. “What else?”
“They were really nice,” said Nina, distressed. “I bought them with my birthday money last year.”
“You’ve called me in the middle of the night because he took your pots and pans?” I said, amazed to have been called for something that struck me as so trivial, but also relieved the situation was not worse. I began to laugh.
“I was afraid it was something really bad.”
Silence from the other end of the line was deafening. I knew I’d made a mistake. What is considered important to a client, I realized, especially a divorce client, is not something for the lawyer to judge. That was the first self-learned nugget of knowledge I would remember for the rest of my career.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “I just thought… it might be something worse.”
Gradually, Nina composed herself. and we agreed I would bring up the matter with Robert’s attorney on Monday. I assured her I would call from the courthouse if we were able to settle, or in the unlikely event we were actually going to trial. Nina finally hung up after saying somewhat half-heartedly: “Sorry I called so late. I just didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m so lonely.”
It took me several hours to fall asleep again. I tried not to obsess about it, but anxiety over my courthouse debut ruined the entire weekend. Calendar call in northern New Jersey was a social phenomenon. About fifty men and a handful of women sat in a cavernous courtroom in Hackensack. Every other lawyer seemed to be named Ralph or Frankie or Dominic and the few women all seemed to be Teresa or Annemarie; it was not unlike a barbershop.
The assignment judge, a triple-chinned mountain of a man named Anthony Polito, stood at a lectern on a raised platform in front of the room and called pending cases in a mysterious order that I didn’t understand, then “assigned” them to particular judges and courtrooms. As he worked his way down his list, the room gradually emptied, and I found myself one of the few stragglers.
“Hey, Frankie,” said the judge, peering down from his perch and addressing a short, bald man in a plaid, three-piece suit that resembled curtain material. “Where’s DiPierro?”
My heart fluttered as I realized Frankie Terranova, my “adversary,” was speaking: “Ralphie said he was sending his associate.”
“Wow,” said Judge Polito. “Ralphie’s got an associate now. Impressive.”
I slowly raised my arm. “I’m, I’m Ralph DiPierro’s associate, um, Sanders is my name, um Stuart.”
Judge Polito gazed down at me. I felt even younger than I’d felt when I’d met Nina. Frankie Terranova took me in with a barely-concealed smirk.
“So, counselor,” he said, “you ready to rock-and-roll?”
“Easy, Frankie,” said Judge Polito. “What have you guys got?”
“Just a simple uncontested,” said Frankie.
“Alright, I’ve got some time to settle that myself,” said the judge, glancing at his watch.
“Come into my chambers.” Frankie and I followed the judge through a doorway at the front of the courtroom and into his office, a dark-paneled cave decorated with photographs showing Judge Polito with various local politicians.
“Were you at Knights of Columbus Sunday?” the judge asked Frankie.
“Couldn’t make it. Had Angie’s christening,” said Frankie.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Frankie. For just a second, my mind drifted to the specter of being known around the courthouse as “Stuie.”
The two bantered like brothers while I stood awkwardly to the side. Judge Polito hung his black robe on a rack behind his desk, sat down in a massive leather chair, and indicated that Frankie and I should sit down on two wooden chairs facing him. “So,” the judge said. “All settled?”
“Sure thing,” said Frankie.
“Um, I need to see his CIS, don’t I?” I asked, my voice rising involuntarily from my intended assertion into a question.
“Sure, George,” said Frankie, reaching for his briefcase.
“Stuart,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Frankie. “Here’s the CIS. My client’s got no money. Plus, he thinks the kid might not be his, so we gotta go easy on the support.”
Judge Polito addressed Frankie: “Does he wanna do a paternity test?”
“No, Judge,” said Frankie. “He doesn’t think it that much.”
Both men laughed.
Judge Polito awaited my response as I skimmed the CIS. As Nina had indicated, Robert proposed to pay $50 a week in child support. Much of the rest of his income went towards his rent and car. But one item jumped out at me; Robert budgeted $100 a week for “alcohol and tobacco.”
Trying my best to sound like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I declared: “Your honor, this man is suggesting that he pay $100 a week for drinking and smoking, and only $50 for his child.”
Both men looked at me as if to say: “So, what’s the point?”
I added, with indignation: “That doesn’t seem right.”
Judge Polito turned to Frankie. “What do you say to that?” he asked.
“It’s, it’s,” Frankie sputtered. “You know, a guy’s gotta live.”
“I don’t know,” said the judge, a smile seeping slowly through his substantial jowls. “But that’s a hard thing to justify, you know, a hundred for booze and fifty for the kid.”
I felt a burning look of hatred directed at me by Frankie, but I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the judge.
“I think,” continued Judge Polito, “you should modify the CIS and then we can call this ‘settled.’”
Frankie crossed out $50 at “child support” and wrote in $100.
“You’re breakin’ my balls,” he said to me.
Judge Polito laughed. He took the modified CIS and signed it. “Here, kid,” he said to me, like I was his employee. “Take this out to the court clerk and enter it as settled. Me and Frankie are gonna chat a little longer.”

After almost floating with elation to the bank of telephones in the hallway, I called Nina with the news. I’d won her what she wanted. I’d rescued a damsel in distress. I allowed myself to picture a celebratory hug, perhaps another kiss. Perhaps, we would be friends. After all, she was lonely and I was new in town.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, when I reached her.
“Me and my boyfriend can go away for the weekend to celebrate.”
“Boyfriend?” I thought, disappointed, recalling her saying: “I’m so lonely.”
But then I thought about it a few minutes longer. I was naïve. Upon reflection, at least, I realized someone like Nina could not be expected to live like a nun for a year after her husband left. Back at the office, at least, I would receive acclaim.
When I arrived, however, that’s when Ralph glared up from his desk and declared: “You can’t do that. Frankie called and he was really pissed.”
When I appeared totally crestfallen, he explained: “A satisfied client is good for one divorce, maybe two over a thirty year career. A friendly adversary like Frankie is good for easy settlements in five or ten cases every year. You gotta just go along. This is real life, not a television show.”
My career as a divorce lawyer only lasted two more months. As soon as an experienced former judge’s clerk became available, Ralph suggested I work for his brother, Alan, who did real estate closings.
“Excellent,” I thought to myself, “a relatively non-emotional area of the law, without judges, lying clients, flirtations or moral compromises. It’s all black-and-white; we’re only dealing with money. My priorities will be clear.”
Not only did I eventually prove to be wrong about whether emotions and lying were part of real estate transactions, but Alan had apparently been tipped off about my zeal for representing clients’ interests.
“Listen,” he said on my first day, “in real estate law, a happy client is worth a deal every five or ten years. A happy real estate agent is good for five or ten deals a year. And a happy mortgage broker is even more important. Don’t ever forget that.”


BULLY

My high school was the farthest thing from “The Hood.” A Quaker-sponsored bastion of liberal sensitivity and pre-Ivy-league curriculum, it tailored its philosophy to a student body presumed unified in the pursuit of excellence, knowledge and tradition. Most of the fifty students in my graduating class of 1974 attended Friends’ Academy from kindergarten. My addition at the beginning of seventh grade, as a rare public elementary school product who lived “in the city,” was a nod towards diversity. Nearly everyone else lived in some degree of splendor on “the Main Line,” Philadelphia’s western suburbs of legendary opulence and distinction.
Our class was divided into three “sections.” Pre-selected before my arrival, the top group were kids most likely to gain scholarships to the likes of Yale, Princeton or Swarthmore, Not all of these students could walk and chew gum at the same time, but they were perfectly capable of memorizing Shakespearean sonnets or the Big Bang Theory or the time table of Munich, Germany’s subway system. I was placed in the middle group, the capable students who had not tested at Einsteinian levels, and were destined to end up at Muhlenberg, F & M or Dickinson. The third group contained the economic scholarship students on either the low end (Friends’ Academy was doing a good deed) or the high end (some really rich kids are not very bright). These students would eventually be inserted by the school’s high-powered placement office into state universities or other institutions known more for Heisman winners than Nobel winners.
The top group contained some personality or behavioral outliers, what might have been called “weird kids” by the politically insensitive, but I never questioned why they were there. Their out-sized intellects smoothed the way. The second and third groups also had students who did not fit in with the Friends’ Academy zeitgeist of earnest learning and social consciousness. Several students had prickly personalities; several others had gone “hippie” in a big way, to the extent that attending school in sandals had to be specifically forbidden by an otherwise tolerant administration. One out-of-the-mainstream student may even have come from a family of Republicans. But the oddest member of the Class of 1974 was its bully.
Donald Worley was known as “The Donald” before the tabloid media was blessed with Trump. Physically impressive, an unnaturally solid 170 pounds or so, he towered over my average 120. A mop of brown hair topped a broad, freckled face, broad shoulders, massive hands and thick thighs. If only we’d had a football team, our two-way lineman was already in place.
The Donald snarled with a deep, raspy voice, enhanced by the cigarettes he smoked at every opportunity from the first day he intruded into my consciousness. He flaunted the school’s prohibition on smoking by keeping his pack, with half-an-inch protruding, ostentatiously displayed in his shirt pocket. He treated every classmate with equal contempt. He called soccer players “sissies,” basketball players “dorks,” the artistically-minded “A-holes,” and punctuated every sentence with the “F” word and the “S” word when those words were still not generally spoken aloud (unlike today, when movies strive to include them).
The Donald kicked seats, farted aloud, talked back to teachers and entered classes late. Basically, he checked off every requirement of anti-social behavior and made me wonder, to myself and to others, “Why is he here?”
I never received a satisfactory answer to my question. To the students who’d been classmates of The Donald since they were five, he was simply part of their lives. He was a one-man catalogue of unacceptable behavior. He represented the prized category of “variety,” yet displayed not a single positive characteristic. Repulsed by him from my first awareness, I think he was able to sense my discomfort like a dog.
I managed to make it to the spring semester before I had my first one-on-one encounter with The Donald. All the members of my science class had to maintain small garden plots on the opposite side of the playing fields, about three hundred yards from the classroom buildings. We each planted whatever we chose and then charted its progress. I recall my plant was a gardenia bush. The class usually tended to the gardens as a group with the teacher but, one day, like a young wildebeest separated from the herd, I found myself walking back across the open field trailed only by The Donald.
“Hey, faggot,” he called from behind, using the all-purpose epithet of the 1970’s.
My heart raced with adrenaline as I considered my options. I could ignore The Donald and possibly infuriate him; after all, unless I was deaf, there was no way I did not hear him. I could turn towards The Donald and respond pleasantly, hoping to ingratiate myself in spite of the distaste that would have emanated from my expression. I could turn and confront The Donald, with as much likelihood of success as the average lamb has against the average lion.
“Hey, pussy,” he added, while I remained paralyzed in indecision. I heard his footsteps closing behind me at a jogging pace.
“You like your little garden?” he said, as he fell in beside me. Somehow, his tone alone conveyed a “garden” to be some combination of perverted, effeminate and useless. At the irresistible recognition that The Donald could insinuate so much with just one word, I imagined for just a moment that he could be a great actor. I smiled.
“You should be in the spring play,” I blurted, my tendency to sarcasm disastrously overruling my caution.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, warily.
“You are able to say a lot with just a little,” I said. “You have a way with words.”
The Donald regarded me for a moment, probably trying to decide if I were making fun of him or sincerely offering a compliment. Apparently, he decided, even if I meant a compliment, suggesting that he be in the spring play was not a desirable outcome.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” he said, finally. “But I think you’re an ass-hole.”
By now, I knew not to respond. I tried to quicken my pace, but we were still a hundred yards from a building. Everyone else had disappeared, alone as though we were in a remote desert.
“I hear you like baseball,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said, not certain about this turn of the conversation.
“You probably couldn’t play with a broken hand, could you?” he asked.
I tried to keep walking but felt him grab my right just below the elbow. I tried to run but The Donald held tight to my wrist. He started to squeeze my fingers.
“What do you want!?” I shouted.
He continued to twist until I went down to my knees and, essentially, wordlessly begged him to stop. We looked into each other’s eyes. He certainly saw fear and helplessness. I saw triumph and evil. He let go of my hand.
“Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he said, and departed, leaving me to get up, wipe some dirt off my pants, and flex my fingers, sore but still intact.

I managed to survive the next five years without again being one-on-one with The Donald, not an easy feat in a school so small. He tallied up a predictable set of depredations during his high school career. He was suspended for fighting several times; he was caught drinking in class; he ostentatiously drove a beaten-up truck onto campus as a sophomore, when only seniors were allowed to drive to school; his favorite smoking bathroom was referred to as “Donald’s house” by students and faculty alike; and, he was caught in several cheating incidents.
As the years went by, I was amazed to find my classmates idolizing The Donald for his nonconformity, his boldness. They thought he was “cool.” When our yearbook was intended to capture the essence of our class, no one appeared more prominently than The Donald. His grinning face adorned a two-page centerfold in the middle of the book, a cigarette jaunting from his lips as he sat, James Dean-style, on the hood of his truck, wearing a leather jacket. By that time, I was no longer surprised, just resigned. The messy, violent Donald had become a folk hero to kids otherwise disposed to sensitivity and order.

Nearly twenty years after graduation, I received an “In Memoriam” card from Friends’ Academy. The Donald had died in a car crash on his way home from work. The only member of our class who had not attended college, the notice described him as a prized member of the staff at the local A & P where he was assistant produce manager. It invited me to a “Celebration of Donald Worley,” and asked, if I could not attend, if I would send a written “remembrance,” to capture the “beauty” of Donald’s life.
I was ambivalent about The Donald’s demise. Though I’d wished some sort of misfortune upon him for a quarter century, death seemed out of proportion to what he had done to me. I pondered for a moment what had made The Donald the way he was. Were his parents abusive? Was his economic or social background difficult? Did he suffer from a mental deficit that caused a lack of impulse control or compassion? I concluded all those things were possible, but even if he was afflicted with any or all of them, they were rationales, not excuses. The nicest thing I could do for The Donald was to NOT express my remembrance of him. I threw the card away.


KNOW WHEN TO FOLD THEM

It is not politically correct to say: “When at first you don’t succeed, quit,” and I certainly experienced approbation whenever I suggested such a thing to my children. However, I intend to tell a story illustrating how valuable, even enjoyable, such an act can be.
In March of 1982, my first job as a lawyer was everything I feared it would be. I was hired as an “associate” at a small, but exclusive law firm in a wealthy New Jersey town where the term “old money” might have been invented. All nine of the lawyers at the firm boasted Ivy League degrees. Notwithstanding the carefully crafted gloss I showed on my resume, it was clear to the discerning eye my law school career was undistinguished. The closest I came to the honored Law Review at George Washington University was when I played shortstop, as a ringer, on their softball team. But for reasons he never articulated –-perhaps he felt a kinship as the only other non-WASP — Josh Berman was a senior partner who championed me through the interview process and, after convincing his skeptical partners to hire me, served as my mentor.
Josh was a bushy-bearded former member of the counter-culture who, by 1982, was fully signed on to the life of the bourgeoisie – except for that beard, of course. He had a big house, a big mortgage, a wife who enjoyed expensive furnishings and the expertise to advise the firm’s largest client, Apex Bank. Though an institution of utmost conservatism in our prosperous town, the powers-that-be at Apex accepted Josh’s subversive appearance in exchange for his keen insights. It was unusual, apparently, for a “big-city” lawyer like Josh to have forsaken the bright lights and stunning salaries of Manhattan to labor in suburbia.
My job was to conduct legal research and write memos. My days passed in the library where I prospected for nuggets of legal gold from the veins of dusty tomes. From movies and a Broadway show I knew the low man on a nine-man totem pole had to arrive at the office first everyday and stay until everyone else departed. If nothing else, if it is true that nine-tenths of life is “being there,” I fulfilled the vast majority of my requirements.
Any of the five senior lawyers at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman could assign me a research topic, but only if I was available. Josh dominated my time to the exclusion of everyone else and, considering how unapproachable the other lawyers seemed to me, I considered this to be a good thing.
“What have you got for me?” Josh would ask on a typical morning, when I poked my head into his wood-paneled office.
“I’ve nearly finished the Glass-Steagall memo,” I might have said, referring to a prominent banking regulation that held near-sacred importance in the field.
“And?” Josh would persist.
“I think Apex can market the product,” I might have ventured.
“You think, or you know?” Josh would prod, peering through his horn-rimmed glasses.
Scrunching my face and with my voice rising involuntarily, I might have said: “I think I know?”
Josh would then patiently explain how I needed to nail down the definite answer. Essentially, he was rewarding my dogged, if uninspired, persistence with compassion. This sort of relationship had an unspoken quid-pro-quo; if I kept myself almost exclusively available for Josh’s research needs, he would save me from what he hinted were the merciless projects and mercurial critiques of the other partners.
The catch at a small-town firm was the starting salary, only $20,000. The senior secretaries made more than I did, and none of them had student loans to re-pay.
“Don’t worry about the money,” Josh said, on numerous occasions. “We’ll make it up to you with the year-end bonus.”
The “BONUS” sustained me throughout the spring and summer as I dressed dutifully in three-piece suits and spent eight to ten “billable hours” each day reading and writing on subjects with the intellectual nutritional value of sawdust.
“How does the bonus get calculated?” I asked once.
“It all depends on how valuable you make yourself,” said Josh. “We bill your time out at fifty dollars an hour and we pay you around ten, so it’s a good deal for us. At the end of the year, you will be rewarded.”
“More like eight dollars an hour, so far,” I thought to myself.
“Given your persistence, which I will make abundantly clear to the other partners,” continued Josh, “you stand to make a bundle.”
Work proceeded apace throughout the fall. I learned from Josh how to write a point-by-point letter with all creative impulses scrubbed. I learned to proofread the products of my secretary, Cyndi Buffuno, whose spelling creativity made her name seem appropriate. I learned to laugh at certain partners’ jokes and not to speak in front of others. Basically, Josh was my guide in a world I did not really choose, but agreed to inhabit, so long as the pot of bonus gold was waiting at the end of the year.
As the holiday party at the Beacon Ridge Club loomed, where the checks were distributed, bonus anticipation began to build. I pictured opening an envelope like a star at the Oscar’s: “And the winner is, Stuart, with a check in the amount of $3,000.” Once, when I calculated I’d worked over sixty hours in a particular week, I allowed myself to imagine a check for $5,000.
“Almost at the finish line,” said Josh, a week before the party. “I think you’ll be pleased.”
I smiled and hunkered down at my desk with even greater determination to parse the fine print for a new Apex checking account promotion. The work almost seemed meaningful to me. I was part of the world economy, soon to be a bigger part.
Finally, the day of the event arrived, the Friday before Christmas. Yes, it was nice to share holiday cheer with co-workers, and nice to be a guest at another wood-paneled establishment with deep green carpet and pictures of hunting scenes on the walls. One of the partners who rarely spoke to me offered a slap on the back and a handshake: “Excellent start, young man,” he said. Another, who never seemed certain of my name, interrupted a conversation to speak to me like a family member: “Son, Josh tells me you are invaluable. Good work.”
Could it be $7,000?” I asked myself. I was almost giddy amidst the mistletoe and holly wreaths, eggnog and punch, when Josh emerged from a crowd brandishing an envelope.
“Congratulations!” he said, handing it to me. Always my teacher, he added, in a whisper, before walking away: “Open it in private.”
The thin envelope was finally in hand. Nearly a year of mind-numbing labor was to be rewarded. After a few more minutes of meaningless banter with co-workers, I stole into a vestibule. Surrounded only by an over-laden coat rack and several wreaths, I carefully revealed the check. I could not believe my eyes: “$250.” I looked again. Perhaps, I thought, the written number was a typo and the written part of the check read “Two thousand five hundred.” No, it did not.
I was crestfallen; I was crushed. The holiday week was ruined. Too ashamed to tell my family, I confided only in a law school classmate who also happened to work in North Jersey.
“What should I do?” I asked Gina on the telephone.
“I know someone who might help,” she said.
“Who?” I asked.
“My uncle was just saying at Christmas dinner he’s overwhelmed and could use an associate in his divorce practice in Fort Lee. It’s not classy like Yardley, Grinnell & Berman, but it’s not boring, either,” she said.
“Divorce law?” I said, frowning.
“Well, he calls it ‘family law,’” she said.
“Oh, that’s MUCH better,” I said.
“The money’s still green,” she said.
“Good point,” I said. “I’ll call him.”

Ralph DiPierro answered the phone himself. When I explained who I was and why I was calling, he said: “Can you start next week?”
“Don’t you want to interview me?” I asked.
“Nah, if you’re a friend of Gina’s you’re probably okay. It’s not rocket science, you know,” said Ralph.
“Can I get back to you after I talk to my boss?” I asked.
“Sure,” he said. “Oh, and I can pay you $30,000 to start. Is that enough?” Ralph asked.
I was stunned. Without even an interview, I had a job offer with a fifty percent raise. I thanked Ralph and prepared to talk to Josh.
On the first workday following the holiday, I hovered outside Josh’s office as though preparing an ambush. While he was still taking off his coat, I entered and asked: “Do you have a moment?”
“Sure,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Did you have a chance to speak to the other partners about me before the party last week?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said, sitting down behind his desk. “They know you’ve been doing good work.”
“Is there any chance I will, maybe, be getting a raise?” I asked, trembling inside, but trying to sound composed.
“Absolutely,” said Josh. “I think that by the end of this coming year we should be able to move you up several thousand dollars.”
I paused for a moment while his words reverberated in my head: “at the END of this coming year… the END…SEVERAL…COMING…END.” I felt a surprising surge of relief, not anger. My way forward was clear. No doubt.
“Please consider this my two weeks notice,” I said, as measured as possible. “I have a more favorable job offer.”
Josh looked shocked. He stared at me, unspeaking, and appeared to shake his head involuntarily, like he was doing a double take. His beard appeared to twitch. “You’re quitting?” he asked.
“Yes,” I said, feeling more control of my life than I’d felt in months.
I expected Josh to ask me about my new position and try to convince me family law was undignified. I thought he would, at least, ask me where I was going. Instead, he said: “Okay, then. Finish up whatever you were working on and then you can go. Two weeks won’t be necessary.” He looked down at his desk, indicating our discussion was over.
Walking out of Yardley, Grinnell & Berman several days later was a joyous event for me. Two secretaries took me out for lunch on the last day and one of the younger attorneys wished me well. Divorce law proved to be a short and bizarre detour in my career (probably worth a story or two in the future) but working for Ralph opened up other opportunities that proved even more valuable.
I called Josh several times over the next couple of years, thinking he might be interested in how I was doing. But he asked no questions and he never reciprocated. Finally, I quit doing that, too.


FEAR OF FLYING – G-RATED VERSION

“My parents are taking me out to dinner. You wanna join us?” asked Chris.
“Sure,” I said.
Since I considered Chris barely more than an acquaintance, his invitation surprised me. Still, to a hungry college freshman, a treat to a restaurant was preferable under almost any circumstances to another cafeteria meal.
Chris Bettiker (not his real name) was a fellow freshman at Dickinson College. He was of medium height and build and wore glasses below a startlingly shorter-than-average-for-the-1970’s light-brown haircut. He worked as an assistant trainer in the athletics department. In other words, he was skilled in the arts of taping ankles and handing out and retrieving towels. Doubtless, I assumed, his position was work/study, whereby the College subsidized his tuition in exchange for menial employment, like the kids who ladled breakfast. Though my family was not extraordinarily wealthy, my parents were willing and able to pay all my college expenses and, for that, I was deeply thankful.
I met Chris in my capacity as goalie for the soccer team; at practices, I idled significant chunks of time standing in front of the goal nearest the locker room. Though my inactivity was occasionally interrupted by a shot, I had ample time to chat with the folks who hung out on the bleachers behind the goal, namely: the Spanish professor who volunteered advice to the team that merited credence solely due to his accent; the ten-year-old neighborhood boy who I was sure worshipped me, until the day he declared “If you really were any good at sports, you’d play football;” and, Chris.
Chris and I never discussed anything substantial. I didn’t even know where he was from or what he studied. We just prattled away without making a personal connection, I suppose, like only males, stereotypically, can do.
“Be outside your dorm at six,” said Chris, when I handed him my towel that day.

I expected his parents to arrive, so I was surprised when a bright yellow Mustang roared to a stop with Chris in the driver’s seat.
“Hop in,” he said.
I glanced to see if his parents were following behind, but there were no other cars on the street.
“Wow,” I said. “Is this yours?”
“Yep,” said Chris.
I was surprised he had a car. Few of my friends had cars and those who did tended to have vehicles nearly as old as themselves. As for me, I’d turned down my uncle’s gracious offer of a twelve-year-old Pinto; our campus was small and I saw no need.
Chris, who I knew only as the mild-mannered guy at the locker room, shocked me by being outfitted in driving gloves, a soft brown leather jacket and dark glasses even though it was already dusk. As soon as I wedged my body into the tiny front seat, and before I could locate a seatbelt, he floored the gas.
“Here we go!” he said, his expression like a madman’s.
“Where?” I said, alarmed. “Are your parents meeting us?”
“Sort of,” he said.
I didn’t focus on his vague reply. I was too busy cringing as we careened with screeching tires through the quiet streets of Carlisle, PA with little regard for posted speed limits.
“Um,” I ventured with relief, once we reached a straightaway just outside town. “What restaurant are we going to?”
“Our club,” said Chris. “It’s good.”
“Nice,” I said, hoping my clothes were adequate.

Chris barely braked before jerking the car into a side road with a final squeal of the tires. A sign flashed through my peripheral vision: “Cumberland County Airport.”
“Is there a club at the airport?” I asked.
“No,” said Chris. “We’re FLYING to dinner.”
“We are?” I essentially gasped.
“Yes,” said Chris. “I keep my plane here. It’s a pretty short flight, only 160 miles.”
“We’re flying?” I said, still processing that basic fact before concerning myself with the duration of the flight.
“Um, I’m not so good at flying,” I said. “I’ve never been in a small plane.”
“Don’t worry,” said Chris. “I’ll make it as smooth as driving.”
I was not comforted in the least.
Chris parked adjacent to the terminal that consisted of a single-story cinderblock building, about thirty feet long. He led me through the small building and nodded to an older man seated at a card table with a newspaper.
“All gassed up and ready to go, Mr. Bettiker,” he said to Chris.
“Thanks, Bob,” said Chris.
“Where are you headed this evening?” Bob asked.
“We’re going to dinner,” I volunteered, anxious to gauge the reaction of another human being.
“Oh, out to Latrobe,” said the man, as though this happened all the time.
“Yeah,” said Chris.
“Little windy out to the west,” said the man, before he added, looking at me: “but nothing Mr. Bettiker can’t handle.”
Latrobe, I knew, was near Pittsburgh, several hundred miles away.
We passed through a door and stepped onto the tarmac. Six or seven small planes were present. I followed Chris as he strode purposefully to the nearest one. I was still trying to comprehend what was happening.
“You sure get a lot of respect here,” I said, thinking of Bob calling him “Mr. Bettiker.”
“Yes,” Chris said, “my plane’s the best they’ve ever seen here.”
He went on to explain with enthusiasm some of the plane’s characteristics. I comprehended the parts about speed and altitude but once he moved on to lift and thrust I only recognized he was speaking English; the content was totally Greek to me.
Chris helped to install me in the passenger-side seat in a tiny cabin. I had a little steering wheel of my own like in a child’s toy car, but I definitely had no more desire to operate it than to use the flotation device that served as my seat.
Among my dissonant collection of thoughts were that I did not appreciate having this “experience” foisted upon me as a surprise. But I also realized if it were not a surprise I would surely have begged off, and then missed what I correctly recognized as a likely life-long memory.
An instrument panel spread before us with gauges and knobs worthy of a spaceship, I imagined. “I hope you aren’t expecting any help,” I said.
“No problem,” said Chris. “The route via Johnstown and Altoona is pretty dark, but I’ve handled it plenty of times. You can just sit back and relax.”
“Haha.” I veritably tittered. “I’ll be as relaxed as a goalie facing a penalty kick at the World Cup.”
“You’re funny,” said Chris.
Of course, I did not think I was being funny at all. In my mind, I recall wondering: “How high can human blood pressure go?”

Chris pressed several buttons and flipped several switches while I squeezed my tiny armrests. A propeller sprung to life in front of us, and Chris steered the plane slowly towards the lone runway. For a moment, I was comforted with the thought that he piloted the plane more cautiously than his car. But then he thrust a shifter forward and we lurched ahead with a roar. Before I fully comprehended we were aloft, I saw treetops, houses and twinkling lights receding like props in a toy train set.
“Wow,” I said, shouting to be heard. “This is amazing!”
“Glad you like it,” shouted Chris, pleased. “Hold tight!”
With a renewed maniacal glint in his eye, he shifted his steering column from side to side causing the plane to shutter.
“That’s okay, Chris. You can just, kind of, like, go straight,” I said, alarmed.
“Oh, you’re no fun,” he said, but he mercifully straightened us out.
“So,” I asked, relieved, “do you do this often?”
I was hoping the posing of inane questions would take my mind off of what I feared was a precarious hold on life.
“I go home most weekends,” said Chris. “But you’re the first friend I’ve brought.”
This information shocked me since I’d assumed Chris had friends closer than I. In fact, I’d never thought of us as “friends” before that day, or even thought of Chris at all when outside his presence. It occurred to me all at once I’d never seen Chris on campus except at the soccer field and once or twice at a classroom building. In what dorm did he live? At what table did he eat at the College’s single cafeteria? As if reading my mind, Chris shouted:
“I get pizza most nights, or I just boil something in my kitchen.”
“You have a kitchen?” I asked, not having known anyone but seniors who lived off-campus.
“Yep,” he said. “I don’t like dorms, and I don’t like cafeteria food, so I rented an apartment.”
I wondered how this apparent extravagance – car, plane, apartment, squared with Chris’s laundry-related duties at the locker room. Perhaps, I supposed, he is not “work/study.” But why would anyone voluntarily handle smelly feet and sweaty towels?
We’re at cruising altitude,” said Chris, after a moment. He pointed to a dial indicating 6,000 feet. At that moment, excruciating pain afflicted my right eye. It was like my eyeball was being squeezed in a vice.
“My eye!” I shouted in anguish.
“Oh, that’s just ‘cause of the pressure. Most people are okay up to 8,000 feet,” said Chris, apparently unconcerned.
“It feels like it’s breaking,” I said, trying not to sound pathetic but also hoping to convey that corrective action needed to be taken, if any were possible. I was sure I was being blinded.
“Hang in there,” he said. “Your sinuses will most likely adjust.”
After several additional minutes of agony the grip on my eyeball relaxed. It continued to grab intermittently, to a lesser extent, for the remainder of our fifty-minute journey. When we landed at Latrobe, an airport only slightly more elaborate than Carlisle’s, I craved escape from the plane forever. Of course, I was painfully aware we would be flying back several hours later. I tried to forget, at least for the duration of dinner.
Perhaps taking pity on me because of my eye, Chris landed and parked without any further hijinks. We entered the terminal and were greeted first by Chris’s handsome, silver-haired father, who shook my hand and hugged me like a dear friend. His mother, dressed in a full-length fur coat, looked like Sophia Loren.
“We’re so glad to meet Chris’s best friend,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a pleasure to finally meet you,” added Mr. Bettiker “Chris has told us so much about you.”
I glanced at Chris, who averted his eyes.
“We’ve been telling him to bring his friends to dinner,” he continued, “but he says there’s too many to choose from. So you must be really special.”
Mr. Bettiker drove us in a Bentley to the local country club that was festooned as a virtual shrine to Latrobe’s most famous citizen, Arnold Palmer.
“Do you golf?” he asked me when we were seated.
“Not really,” I said, as true then as now. “I play soccer. That’s how I met Chris.”
“Chris plays soccer?” asked his mother.
“No, he works…”
Chris interrupted me: “I met Stuart in economics class. Um, what are the specials tonight?” he asked, turning the conversation to food.
I realized his parents did not know about his job. Perhaps he was ashamed for some reason.
Mr. and Mrs. Bettiker treated me like a visiting dignitary. I recall dinner was delicious. During the course of it, I learned Mr. Bettiker owned a steel company in Pittsburgh, and several other businesses. Besides the plane, they had homes in Florida and at the Jersey Shore and had multiple boats in both places.
“You’ll have to come to the beach with us next summer,” said Mrs. Bettiker at one point.
After dinner, we drove back to the airport with a short stop at the Bettiker’s home. It was a mansion. Mr. Bettiker proudly showed me one particular room, a wood-paneled library, which contained more equestrian trophies than books.
“Chris’s sister is a candidate for the Olympic team,” he explained. “We tried to interest Chris in riding, too, but he prefers faster transport.”
“I’ll say,” I agreed.

The return flight to Carlisle was, happily, not as memorable as the first. Apparently, my sinuses had cleared. My mind was adrift with the entire evening, from Chris’s driving, to the flight, to the Bentley, to the luxurious dinner, to Chris’s lie. I didn’t even take economics. I momentarily considered asking Chris about it, but reverted to my habitual reluctance to discuss anything meaningful. Chris certainly agreed, except to volunteer, at one point, by way of explanation: “My parents don’t know much about me, and that’s how I like to keep it.”
“Just one question,” I ventured. “Since it doesn’t appear you ‘re short of money, why do you work at the trainer’s?”
“Well,” began Chris, looking stricken, “I spend a lot of time all by myself and volunteering there makes me leave the apartment and do something each day. It sort of keeps me connected.”
“Amazing,” I thought to myself, “If I’m his best friend in the world, Chris is the most isolated person I’ve ever met.” All I said to him, however, was: “That makes sense. Anyway, your parents were really nice.”
“They can be,” he said, hinting of another side, but not sharing additional information.
I was shocked by Chris’s situation. How could a person with so much material wealth appear so unhappy? My assumptions about what full-time fun it might be to have extreme wealth were not always correct. Certainly, I’d encountered characters in books and movies that were miserable or lonely despite every advantage. But I hadn’t personally met someone who embodied that contradiction so starkly as Chris.
After the soccer season ended, several weeks later, I never spoke to Chris again, though I saw him striding across campus once or twice from a distance. While I was no whale in the world of social life, I had plenty of other minnows with whom to share a meal or a ballgame or a walk to classes. In the rush of college life, I didn’t give additional thought to Chris’s situation. It was not until the following fall, when soccer resumed, and the trainer told me Chris had transferred, that I realized he was gone.
My recognition that money and happiness are not always equated was neither profound nor unique. Most people come to understand that obvious truth, on some level, and many encounter it before the age of eighteen when Chris served as my catalyst. But I do maintain my understanding was derived more dramatically than most. And certainly, it was on a higher plane. (Pun intended).

EPILOGUE

Out of curiosity, I recently searched Chris’s (real) name. An unadorned page, posted by the Florida Civil Air Patrol, described a retired commercial pilot, single, living in a fly-in, fly-out community. His time was spent, said the posting, in restoring his collection of vintage airplanes. He’d recently received an award from the Civil Air Patrol for “Volunteering his time on a daily basis.”


A LAMENTATION FOR ROCKY

I awoke to a riot of squawking birds outside my vacation condo in Costa Rica. The morning sun was barely peaking above the trees and into my window and I wondered who was making such a racket. Groggily, I climbed out of bed, slid the screen door aside and walked onto the patio. I squinted up at a massive fig tree that was the source of the chatter and beheld a roiling mass of green, blue and yellow. A flock of parrots was working themselves into a frenzy, like a football team psyching up before a game.
Suddenly, as though a starting gun had been fired, one bird leapt from the leaves and the others soared behind; the flock swept to and fro, and continued to squawk and swoop and fill the air with sights and sounds and finally, after one last pass directly above my head, turned towards the ocean and gradually disappeared, their calls becoming fainter until the morning was again overtaken by silence.
I recalled an earlier experience with colorful birds in a setting considerably less exotic. When I was six or seven, in a period after our last family dog died, before we embarked upon a series of family cats, we had a parakeet. My mother bought the green and yellow bird for me in a moment of weakness, I imagine, after my pleading at a local Woolworth’s proved effective. The pet only cost about a dollar; the store made money selling the cage, toys and bird food.
“I’ll teach him to talk,” I said, full of enthusiasm.
We installed the still unnamed bird in a standard wire cage placed upon a broad windowsill in our breakfast room. Each morning, I dutifully stared into the cage and suggested such original statements as “Polly want a cracker?” and “Hello, I am a parrot.” The bird completely ignored me and focused on eating seeds and pecking at a tiny mirror hung in the cage. When I despaired of teaching the bird to talk, I tried to convince it to step onto my out-stretched index finger. But each time I placed my hand into the cage, the parakeet pecked at it as though I were an enemy. It had clearly never heard the expression: “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
“He has a chippy personality,” my mother noted. Thus was the bird named.
“Why won’t Chippy talk?” I asked repeatedly during the ensuing weeks, like the frustrated seven-year-old I was.
“We’ll stop at Woolworth’s,” said my mother. “Maybe the salesman will have some suggestions.”
When we arrived and explained the problem, the clerk was happy to share his knowledge. “Does your parakeet look like those?” he asked, pointing at a cage filled with green and yellow specimens.
“Yes, exactly,” said my mother.
“Those are all females,” he said. “Only the males can learn to talk.”
“I thought Chippy was a boy,” I said. “How can you tell the difference?”
“On a male, the area at the top of the beak is blue,” said the man.
I must have looked crestfallen since my next memory is arriving at home with a large, blue parakeet with a brilliant blue crest above its beak. He was a substantial bird, with a square jaw-line. Decades before the movies made the name synonomous with fearless strength, we named our new parakeet Rocky. How could Chippy fail to be impressed? Rocky was so handsome I was sure we were about to embark on a journey worthy of a television nature show.
“Chippy and Rocky can have babies!” I said. “And I’ll teach him to talk, for sure!”
Each morning, when I came down for breakfast, I looked for signs of affection between Chippy and Rocky, and each day I became more discouraged. Not only did Chippy show no romantic interest in Rocky, she was as mean to him as she was to me. Whenever he moved close, she pecked at him. Sometimes, when he was eating from the trough in the corner of the cage, she swooped from her perch and attacked him. Rocky cowered defenselessly in the corner, a blue feather occasionally detaching from his plumage and drifting down to the floor of the cage, like a paper airplane making its last, futile landing.
Rocky also failed to learn to speak, in spite of our high-tech efforts. Not only did I tutor him, but my mother bought a record of bird expressions and played it for him on a small turntable. “Pretty bird, pretty bird,” repeated a solemn male voice somehow deemed scientifically effective in the world of parakeet learning.
After several months of this routine, it became apparent that Rocky was not going to learn to speak. And his romantic prospects with Chippy appeared even worse.
“We will have to get him his own cage,” said my mother, one day, after observing Chippy attack.
“Yes,” I agreed, deciding finally that I would just have to appreciate Rocky for his beauty and placid personality. It appeared he was only large and handsome, not brilliant or virile.
When we brought home the second cage, I was determined to affect Rocky’s transfer. Following the suggestion of the man at Woolworth’s, I wrapped my hand in a soft cloth and entered it into the enclosure. Chippy attacked with characteristic ferocity.
“Haha,” I said. “I can’t even feel you through this towel, you stinker.” For a moment, I wondered why we had a pet so unloving, so unsatisfying. But then I re-focused on my mission, to gently capture the more sympathetic Rocky, for his own good. I was able to gather him and bring him out the door without much difficulty. I recall being shocked at how weightless he was, even while he appeared so relatively large. I was scared to squeeze too hard and, due to my extreme delicacy, he escaped my hand with a surprising flutter of the wings.
“Oh, no!” I shouted, alarmed. “Rocky!”
My mother, who had been watching, also looked upset. At first, Rocky fell towards the floor, but then he gathered his balance and soared towards the ceiling. He landed on a curtain rod. He appeared to survey the room calmly, then swept into the air as though he were a hawk soaring in the high heavens. Back and forth across the room he flew.
“Look at him go!” I said, in wonderment.
“He’s incredible,” said my mother, also surprised.

I was so proud I couldn’t stop grinning. My bird appeared to be an expert flyer. I’d never felt such satisfaction, such exhilaration, from watching a pet.
“This is great,” I said, glancing at Chippy in her cage, hoping she was impressed, and jealous, too.
“We have to capture him,” said my mother.
“Just a few more minutes,” I said, thrilled with the show.
Rocky landed on a windowsill. It was probably my imagination, but I thought he had a happy expression on his face. He deposited a pile of poop there, as though he were the master of the house and then swept back into the air. With a flutter and a whoosh, he picked up speed again and, before we realized what might happen, he smashed full-speed into a wall and fell to the floor with a thud.
“Oh, no,” I said.
“Maybe he’s just stunned,” said my mother.
I approached the unmoving body. My mother touched his head. She stroked his chest. There was no heartbeat, no response. Rocky was dead. We placed Rocky’s beautiful, blue-clad body into a shoebox and surrounded it with a shroud of tissue. Solemnly, we carried Rocky to the garden behind the garage where I dug a shallow hole. I placed Rocky’s casket gently into its grave.
“I guess I should say something,” I said.
“That would be nice,” agreed my mother.
I thought about Rocky’s life for a moment, his slim list of accomplishments, his failures. Finally, I intoned, as adult-sounding as I could:
Rocky,
He failed at fatherhood,
He couldn’t talk at all,
But he sure could fly,
Until he hit that wall.