Archives for category: Ignorance

BOYCOTTS

In these hyper-partisan times it’s a chore to keep track of all the personalities, shows and businesses I have to boycott. There’s Papa John’s mediocre pizza due to its owner’s odious positions against raising the minimum wage and universal health insurance. There’s Fox News, the inventor of “we deceive and you believe,” and my related disinclination to watch anything on a Fox station that might incidentally benefit the Murdoch family, the owners. There is, of course, anything owned or supported by any Trump. Ivanka’s products don’t interest me nor do the con man’s golf courses or ugly ties, garish hotels and failing casinos. Thus, while I boycott the foregoing businesses, these are not painful sacrifices. It’s like skipping cigarettes or broccoli rabe, products I skip in the absence of moral or political motivations. I simply don’t like them.

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A dilemma is presented by Chick-fil-A. Here’s the problem: Several years ago, when taking cheap shots didn’t appear to have negative consequences, Chick-fil-A’s bible-thumping owners expressed their feelings against marriage equality and gay rights, in general. They helped fund a referendum their preferred political party used in a cynical (and successful) effort to prod their old and hateful core to vote.

After a backlash, the owners retreated behind a semi-sincere effort to “not offend anyone” and have been circumspect and non-controversial in a corporate way ever since. But I’m confident the owners of the company continue to harbor views I would consider hurtful and would express them openly if it didn’t cost them money. In addition, I’m certain whom they supported for president. I tend to wish for nothing but failure for such people. Accordingly, I know I should continue to boycott their restaurants.

Unfortunately, my new home is only one minute from a Chick-fil-A. I pass the building nearly every day, often more than once. When I returned late from a long tennis match hungry for lunch, and didn’t wish to drive out of my way, I recently offered myself an indulgence. “Just once,” I rationalized, “you can go to Chick-fil-A. Maybe they’ve changed. It’s proper to forgive and forget, at least occasionally.” (Even as I thought that last thought, I knew it didn’t sound like me; I didn’t really believe it, and I knew I was simply justifying an indefensible moral position).

As I entered the restaurant, I felt a tinge of embarrassment as though every person there sensed my hypocrisy. I wished I were wearing my “Bernie for President” tee shirt so I wouldn’t be assumed to be among the 71% of Caucasian males who voted for the con man.

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But no one looked at me. I approached the counter. An impossibly cheerful and scrubbed young man wearing a tie asked: “Good afternoon, sir. What would you like?”

Taken aback by his pleasantness, I stumbled, but eventually uttered: “Um, ah, the basic chicken sandwich and fries, please?”

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“Will you be dining in?” he asked.

“Hunh?” I said.

“Will you eat in or take out?” he asked, smiling patiently.

“Oh, I’ll stay, ah, sit, ah, dine here,” I stuttered, hoping my use of “dine” didn’t sound mocking since he really, really seemed sincerely interested in my choice and he really, really seemed to consider what I would be doing with my chicken sandwich and fries to be “dining.”

“And your choice of beverage?” he asked.

“My drink?” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

“Iced tea. Can you mix unsweetened and sweet fifty-fifty?”

“Of course, sir,” he said. “That will be my pleasure. Thank you so much for your order. We’ll bring your meal to your table.”

 

*****

 

My earliest boycott performances were spotty. In middle school, around 1970, I became aware of Cesar Chavez and the campaign to boycott grapes on behalf of the United Farm Workers. Gifted at rationalization, I avoided seeded grapes and red grapes for several years. But I really liked green grapes, and convinced myself they were picked by fairly treated workers.

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Later, when car shopping became relevant to me, I joined many of my co-religionists in not considering a Mercedes or Volkswagen due to their Second World War complicity in the Nazi cause. When my eye caught a cherry red BMW circa 1983, however, I rationalized its purchase on my childhood misunderstanding that BMW was a British company. I knew better by then, but…the car was really beautiful.

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Subsequent boycott efforts lacked political motives. Like most people, I avoid restaurants known to be dirty, stores known to have unpleasant salespersons, etc. But what to do about a restaurant displaying sanitation scores of 100%, friendly workers, and unsalted waffle fries made just the way I like them? This brings me back to Chick-fil-A.

 

*****

 

I take my seat and observe the cheerful and bustling scene around me. Customers run the gamut from toddlers to senior citizens, from every ethnicity, and, I imagine, every gender preference. After only a minute, a young woman with a broad smile brings my meal to my table and sets it before me. “Would you like ketchup, mayonnaise or barbecue sauce?” she asks.

“Just ketchup,” I say.

“Here it is,” she says, as she retrieves several packets from her pocket. “Y’all just let me know if you need anything else.”

“Thank you,” I say.

I behold the food before me. In a neat cellophane package is my chicken sandwich. It is hot and juicy, the chicken tender, the pickles zesty, the bread fresh. I’m not claiming this to be a healthy or gourmet choice, but for a fast food sandwich that costs less than $6, it’s good. And the fries? They are plentiful, soft and hot. The table and tray are immaculate. The iced tea is cold and tasty.

“What,” I ask myself as I eat, “am I going to do about my boycott?” Finally, I have an idea. After I eat, I seek out the “Suggestion Box” and write the following to the manager: “I enjoyed my meal today. I would enjoy it even more and, probably more often, if Chick-fil-A would issue a statement in support of all people, no matter their preferences in gender, color or political persuasion. Such a statement should be issued on rainbow paper.” I drop my suggestion in the box.

I’m not going to eat at Chick-fil-A often, but each time I do, I will leave a similar note. If my suggestion is ever followed, I will declare an end to my leaky boycott and urge everyone else to do the same.

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FUNGUS AMONG US

 

To accrue knowledge is generally a positive thing. But in certain circumstances ignorance is definitely bliss. For instance, twenty years ago, thanks to a herniated disk in my lower back, I mastered a whole new vocabulary. I could hold forth on extrusions, nerve endings, and all types of spasms. I didn’t seek this knowledge, but it washed over me like a tsunami. More recently, I learned all there is to know about another unwanted affliction. On the theory that misery loves company I share my knowledge below.

 

*****

 

My wife, Katie, and I were invited to attend a wedding in Knoxville, Tennessee in October 2015. As the weekend approached, we were particularly excited to get away because it had rained every day the preceding week. Knowing the Blue Ridge Mountains are beautiful we planned to extend our trip for several days to see the scenery.

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Unfortunately, it continued to rain from the moment we left Chapel Hill until just moments before we returned five days later. The bride and groom were admirably flexible in shifting outdoor events inside, and the wedding proceeded triumphantly.

Our anticipated sightseeing, however, was less successful, unless one considers windshield wipers beautiful. We enjoyed approximately ten minutes of magical vistas along the Blue Ridge Parkway, then four or five hours of fog, drizzle and torrential downpours. I suspect holding the steering wheel in a death grip doesn’t make the tires grip the road more firmly. Still, just in case, I squeezed as if our lives depended on it

 

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Upon our return home in late afternoon twilight, we noticed something odd on the square columns supporting our front porch; there appeared to be small, circular black dots, hundreds of them, about five times the size of the period at the end of this sentence. We didn’t think too much of it at that moment and went inside to recover from the ride. Overdue to power-wash the exterior of the house, we credited the dots with reminding us to call a contractor the next day.

 

*****

 

In the morning, curious about the nature of the dots, Katie and I went to the front porch and scraped one with a fingernail. To our surprise, it didn’t come off. The black material held onto the light beige paint more strenuously than a politician holds on to publicity. I noticed the dots also covered the cedar siding, which was also beige, though slightly darker than the trim. A few dots came off the comparatively rough surface of the siding with a fingernail but there were HUNDREDS of them, maybe thousands. Each one represented not only a stain but also a tiny bump.

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“Power-washing won’t get this off,” I said.

“What could it be?” said Katie.

“It had better not be mold,” I said, mindful of the health risks and extreme expense of mold removal.

Perplexed, we inspected the entire exterior of our home. The north and west sides were covered with stains from ground level up to about fifteen feet. The south and east sides were relatively unscathed with just a single dot every few feet. Inside to the computer we went.

Searching “black dots on house” it took only a moment to find our condition.

“That’s it!” we said at once.

We had “Artillery Fungus.” The photograph referred us to a Penn State University website that wrestles with the entire issue of artillery fungus. Under FAQ’s were the following: 1. Is it dangerous to house and/or humans? 2. How does it develop? And 3. How is it removed?

Fortunately, as to the first question, the University’s findings assure that artillery fungus is NOT dangerous to human health. It also does no permanent damage to a home. It doesn’t destroy or penetrate wood. Basically, it is a dormant stain, an aesthetic problem. It can be permanently covered with oil-based paint, AFTER the bumps are removed.

As to questions two and three, beyond the assurance that the fungus is not dangerous, the website provides less an explanation than a plea for assistance from readers. Penn State knows that artillery fungus spawns in specific conditions: dampness, the presence of cedar or other soft, permeable mulch and the presence of light-colored surfaces.

“We hit the trifecta!” I said, or words to that effect, spoken with extreme sarcasm bordering on despair and self-pity.

For reasons unclear, it also prefers the north and west sides of a home. As to removal, Penn State indicates there is NO KNOWN treatment. They ask readers to comment on their experiences. Apparently, everyone initially thinks, “power-wash,” as we did, the simple and inexpensive solution. Reality then intrudes and people try a variety of solutions only to learn that no fungicide, herbicide or pesticide affects the fungus.

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Also, no particular method has proven effective at dot removal. With varying degrees of success, readers have used razor blades, sand paper or paint thinner. Like us, after failing with those methods, victims resort to their fingernails, one dot at a time.

 

*****

 

We battled our fungus for a month. First, we paid our landscaper $500 to remove the mulch we had just paid him to spread two months earlier. Next, we raked our soil repeatedly, placing the top layers in plastic bags and delivering them to the dump. Each day, we also took time, after much trial and error, to use sandpaper on our wooden surfaces, steel wool on the stone foundation, and carefully, razor blades on the glass surfaces of our windows.

No strategy proved totally effective. Eventually, however, the vast majority of bumps were removed, though some left a flat, brown residue on wooden surfaces. In accordance with Penn State’s speculative suggestion, we bought bales of pine straw and spread them around the entire house to discourage future “explosions,” and, for the price of a European vacation, we hired a painter to paint the entire exterior.

 

*****

 

If there is a happy ending to this tale of woe, the house looks beautiful with its new, darker paint and fresh pine straw. But we are scarred mentally, never having suspected our garden beds harbored potential enemies. We’ve learned to avoid this problem in the future. First, no shredded cedar mulch. Second, no light paint colors near the ground on the northern side of the home. Finally, we will never allow it to rain for twelve consecutive days.

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FOREIGN LANGUAGES

“Hola,” I say.

“Hola,” says the short man with what appears to be a genuine, warm smile. He wears a baseball cap and holds a leaf blower.

I’m taking my daily walk around the neighborhood. I feel it’s appropriate and respectful to greet landscapers in their own language when I can. Often, the response I get appears to me to be a combination of surprise and delight. But some disagree. My wife, Katie, for instance, thinks the workers may feel insulted when I speak to them in Spanish. Readers are welcome to share their opinions. My children cringe whenever I utter a word of Spanish in ANY context. Granted, I’m not a linguist.

*****

When I was little, I had an excellent opportunity to learn other languages. My father’s clothing store was in a section of North Philadelphia that contained a mixture of Puerto Rican and eastern European immigrants. Though I didn’t spend a huge amount of time there, whenever I was in the store, I witnessed my father navigate fluently between English, Spanish, Russian, Ukrainian and Yiddish. He could also speak passable Polish and German.

My father passionately wanted his children to learn Russian. Only one of his four children inherited his gift and interest, however. My sister not only learned Russian but she achieved college-level proficiency at Spanish and chose to take graduate-level courses in French, Italian and Romanian! The extent of my knowledge of Romanian begins and ends with “blintz.”

I remained oblivious to the babble around me at the store. And my father was not the sort of parent to impose his linguistic hopes on me. My first exposure to foreign language study did not occur until seventh grade when I entered a private school, Friends’ Academy. Most of the students there had commenced studying French in third grade.

To my continuing regret, Friends’ Academy did not offer Spanish at any level because it was deemed “too easy.” Before I could commence French or German or Russian, however, they felt it necessary for me to obtain a foundational understanding of western languages, and it doesn’t get any more foundational than Beginning Latin. For an entire school year such terms as “dative” and “ablative” bounced off me like hail hitting a metal roof. All that stuck with me were: “puer spectat puela,” meaning “boy looks at girl;” and “stultus asinus,” meaning “stupid ass.” The latter characterizes my level of my accomplishment in the subject.

Despite my evident lack of aptitude, Friends’ Academy required continued foreign language study. Recognizing I was too far behind my classmates in French, and that Russian would be impossible (a different alphabet!) they placed me in Beginning German in eighth grade.

To my shock and dismay, I learned a language could have ten or twelve or fifteen ways of saying “the.” Also, nouns can be feminine or masculine.

“Why?” I asked in despair, “is it necessary to complicate simple things?”

Frau Herta Springer was not sympathetic. At the time, I thought of her as an elderly woman though I now realize she was only around fifty. Peering at me through thick glasses, she said, in a clipped Austrian accent: “Deutsch is a precise language. It is not sloppy. And it is not supposed to be easy.”

*****

Frau Springer and I had an awkward relationship for the next five years. She couldn’t understand why I found grammar impenetrable. I couldn’t understand why she thought it was so important. But what she really didn’t understand is why the weakest of her eleven students crushed her in Scrabble when we played in class every other Friday. (It had only taken a couple of weeks for me to graduate from playing my fellow students to taking on Frau Springer).

My secret weapon was a lifetime of play with my mother and aunt. I found words easily, so long as I didn’t have to know what they meant or how to place them in a sentence. Scrabble in German is the same as in English, except that the letter distribution features more S’s, C’s and H’s. She simply could not reconcile my relative genius at the game with my non-comprehension of everything else.

“Was ist los mit dir?” (What is wrong with you?) she asked each time she returned a quiz.

“Ich weis nicht,” (I don’t know) I answered, not quite sure if the ending of “weis” was missing a letter or two.

I never explained to Frau Springer how I came to dominate her. My proficiency at Scrabble was critical when it came to the subjective part of her grading and I didn’t want to risk that by resolving her confusion. At the end of each semester, with my average hovering in the low C’s or worse, she gave me a B.

*****

On the home front, my father found an alternate route to Russian language enthusiasm. This came about through Robert, a classmate of mine who had taken an interest in all things Russian. Starting in ninth grade, he made it known that he read Tolstoy for fun. (Private schools have kids like that. Our German exchange student spent his lunch hours memorizing train schedules). Robert also wore a Russian hat to school each day, its fur flaps protecting his ears even when the temperature topped eighty.

When Robert found out that my father had been born in Russia (Kiev then, as Putin would have it, considered to be part of Russia) he requested the chance to visit our house on Sunday afternoons to engage in Russian conversation. My father was ecstatic. Over the course of about eighteen months, I recall sitting upstairs awkwardly watching football or baseball on television while my father laughed and soaked up the company of Robert in the breakfast room below.

Whatever psychological damage this did to me was rectified, or at least evened out, when we learned that Robert’s father was an ice hockey fanatic with front row tickets to the Flyers’ games. Robert had no interest in sharing his father’s passion for something he thought so ridiculous as sports, so I attended eight or ten hockey games with his delighted dad over the same period.

When Robert’s interest in Russian petered out in favor of a new passion for painting Victorian train stations, (what can I say?) my father was clearly disappointed. Still, I couldn’t work up any interest in learning Russian. And I didn’t foresee how useful and valuable Spanish might be. In the early 1970’s, no one had yet calculated that it could be the majority language in the country by 2030.

*****

As an adult, I’ve had more opportunities to learn Spanish than I ever imagined. First, the kids played soccer under a series of Latin American trainers. Then we bought property in Costa Rica and began to visit there regularly. In addition, my children studied Spanish in school. They tell me they are proficient though I’ve rarely heard them speak.

Accordingly,taking a scattershot approach, I’ve obtained several books and tapes and I sometimes watch Spanish television with English subtitles. Once again or, perhaps, still, my ability to memorize vocabulary words outstrips my limited capacity to place the words in proper order and tense.

Like German, Spanish features a host of ways to say “the” and divides its nouns into masculine and feminine, with all the same grammatical booby-traps. But Spanish has two things going for it: there are tons of cognates. In other words, hospital in Spanish equals hospital in English. Doctor is doctor. Goal is gol, etc.; and, Spanish-speaking people, at least those I’ve encountered through soccer or visiting Costa Rica, are not hung up on precision. When I try to express myself in Spanish, if they can understand from my vocabulary and body language what I’m trying to say, they smile and say: “Su espanol es muy bueno.” (Your Spanish is very good).

I know they are exaggerating. I also know I’d benefit if they were less kind and more rigorous in teaching me. But, at least on some basic level, I’m able to converse in a foreign language. And that’s more than Frau Springer, my father, or I would ever have expected.


Collusion Course

Is a “eureka moment” always a good thing? Is it always instantaneous? I had one that took several months to evolve and, when the light finally turned on, when the moment of clarity shown, when the flower finally bloomed, I felt like an idiot.

In 1983, only weeks into my career as a real estate lawyer in New Jersey, my boss (henceforth referred to as “F”) called me into his smoke-filled office and handed me a file.
“Go to the planning board hearing in Midland Park tonight,” he said, as though that meant anything to me.
“Ummmmm,” I said.
“Just be there at seven o’clock,” he continued, “and when they call the case, get up and introduce yourself, like, ‘I’m the Chen’s lawyer’ and y’know, take it from there.”
“Who are the Chens?” I asked.
“Our clients,” said F. “They bought a house a few months ago, and they applied to the planning board to open a restaurant there, that’s all. Should be a piece of cake. Just read the file.”
With that, F, who was always bustling, looked longingly at the lights blinking on his phone console and took a quick drag from his always-lit cigarette; I realized he wanted me to leave.

Working for F was an eye-opening experience. I’d spent my first year as a lawyer at a buttoned-down, conservative law firm in a neighboring town. There, I arrived early, researched banking regulations in the library, and stayed until the last partner went home in the evening. I was promised the opportunity to meet clients “within several years;” meanwhile, I worked exclusively with thick and tedious books, a pen and a pad of paper.
At the end of that year, I expressed an overwhelming sense of hopelessness and boredom to a friend who put me in touch with her uncle, who hired me without even an interview, to assist with his rough-and-tumble divorce practice. I immediately went from zero “client contact” to a soul-sucking abundance of client contact from which I began to believe the following: basically, everyone lies: the opposing party; the opposing lawyer; and, especially, your own client. Still single at the time, I couldn’t go on a date during my brief “family lawyer” phase, since I trusted no one.
Though my pay improved from my previous position, and boredom was no longer an issue, I perceived that being a “divorce lawyer” wouldn’t suit me. Excessive honesty on my part hurt several clients’ cases, and my boss also recognized my personality was unsuited to the task. He sought to hire a real SOB as his new associate, and offered my services to his brother, F, whose real estate closing practice was overwhelmingly busy. In our first meeting, F made clear his desire that I handle enough of his workload to free his afternoons for his true passion, golf.
My first few weeks as a “closing attorney” were delightful. I liked talking on the phone to generally happy clients, who were buying or selling their homes. Even cheerier were people refinancing their mortgages, since nothing makes a client happier than saving four or five hundred dollars a month. The work seemed clean, positive, and easy.
Several other aspects of real estate law were preferable, too. There were no court appearances, no crying clients and no need to keep a gun in the desk drawer, as F’s brother did. In addition, we didn’t keep track of time for billing purposes. Each transaction had a set fee and, as F often said: “If they don’t pay, they don’t close.”
Finally, real estate agents were overwhelmingly middle-aged women. They were usually pleasant to my mid-twenties self, even those who didn’t have a daughter at home they hoped to introduce to the “bright young lawyer in town.” F’s wisdom on real estate agents was, as follows: “Most lawyers treat them like dirt. Just return their calls and they’ll love you.” He was right.
Gifted at memorizing phone numbers of agents, mortgage lenders and the like, I also learned to negotiate on the fly. Most days, F went golfing by noon and I departed promptly at five. I felt HAPPY as a practicing lawyer for the first time, until….

Arriving thirty minutes early at the town hall “hearing room” to relax and read the Chen file, I sat in the front row of four wooden benches like pews in a church, except lacking bibles.
I learned F had represented Mr. and Mrs. Chen in the purchase of a small house several months earlier, for $120,000, which they intended to convert to a Chinese restaurant. F had charged them a legal fee of $3,500, 400% more than our usual residential closing fee at the time. A note on the file indicated, by way of explanation: “Commercial closing fee.”
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “F charges a ton extra when it’s not just a house.” Yet, I couldn’t figure out how this file differed from any other closing, at least up to where I found myself at that moment: at my first-ever planning board hearing. I felt a little queasy about my lack of preparation. Despite F’s assurance, how could it be that all I had to do was introduce myself, receive permission to open a restaurant on behalf of my clients, say “thank you,” and go home?
Right on time, seven individuals, six men and one woman, entered from a side door and sat behind a long table in front of the room. American and Midland Park flags stood on poles at both ends of their table. Cardboard nametags in front of each seat identified the board members. A stenographer followed them into the room and sat at a small desk between the table and a lectern. During the half hour I’d waited, several other lawyers or applicants had arrived and taken seats in the visitors’ benches, either silently, or whispering among themselves in hushed tones.
After intoning the pledge of allegiance and discussing several preliminary remarks about the previous month’s agenda, the chairman, sitting in the middle of the seven board members, scanned the room, and asked if anyone represented the Chen application.
“Yes, me,” I jumped up, dropping the file to the floor in my excitement.
“And you are?” said the chairman.
“Stuart Sanders, of the F law firm,” I said, as I retrieved the file and moved to the lectern in front of the board.
“Mr. F is not favoring us with his presence this evening?” he said.
Several of the board members and several people in the audience seemed to exchange knowing glances. I thought one man even snickered.
“Ummmm, no,” I said. “I’ve come to get approval to open the restaurant.”
More chuckles arose from around the room. I felt my face, already warm, become bright red.
“Well,” said the chairman. “Do you happen to have a magical explanation of where the parking spaces are supposed to go?”
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
“Mr. Chairman,” said the female member. “Clearly, Mr. F has chosen to dodge this meeting. He has not provided this board, or his associate, apparently, any basis to believe the property in question can support the eight parking spaces necessary for a restaurant under our ordinance.”
Another board member asked: “Should we allow the applicant one more month? Clearly, this young man is not prepared to address our concerns this evening.”
“I don’t think so,” said the chairman. “We were perfectly clear with Mr. F last month. I don’t understand how he let his clients buy this property with the expectation of opening a restaurant.
“Son,” he said, addressing me, “Do you think eight parking spaces can fit onto the footprint of this property?”
My mind was spinning. I didn’t know what sort of “footprint” he meant. All that came to mind was a footprint of a bear walking in snow. I had no idea how to respond. I shook my head.
“Motion to dismiss the application,” said one board member.
“Second,” said several simultaneously.
“All in favor of dismissal, raise your hand,” said the chairman.
Six board members raised their hands immediately. The one who had suggested a delay caught my eye, mouthed “sorry,” and raised his hand, too.

It ended so soon I hardly comprehended what had happened. With my file in one hand and my briefcase in another, I hurried out of the building and drove home.
I laid awake most of the night trying to figure out how I had failed. Should I have known from the file that there was an issue with parking? How could my first board hearing end in humiliation? Though I had no idea on what basis, I was certain F would be angry with me. Upon arrival at work, I gingerly approached his office .
As usual, he was hurriedly plowing through the previous afternoon’s phone messages so he could make his tee-time.
“How’d it go last night?” he asked, pausing with the phone in one hand and his cigarette in another.
“Terribly,” I said. “The application was dismissed. They said….” I started to explain, but he waved me off: “It’s not a problem,” he said.
“It’s not?” I said.
“I’ll talk to the Chen’s,” he said. “Don’t give it another worry.”

I went back to my own office relieved, but mystified. Why wasn’t F upset? Why didn’t he want to know what had happened? I dug into my own pile of phone messages, performed a closing and, gradually, managed to recover from the previous evening’s disaster.
The next day, when I went to lunch, I saw F in line at the sandwich shop across from our office, in an animated discussion with Alex Milano, a litigation attorney and golf buddy. When I entered to place my order, they glanced in my direction and I had the distinct impression they ceased talking because of me. I wondered if F had been telling him about the planning board. I nodded in greeting, and departed as soon as I received my food.
Several days later, I saw F usher an Asian couple into his office and shut the door. This was unusual, since he almost never shut his door.
“It’s probably the Chens,” I thought to myself. As soon as they left, I went down the hall and asked F: “Was that who I think?”
“Those were the Chens,” said F. “I told them how sorry I was.”
“What happens next?” I asked.
“We’ll see,” said F. “It’s not your problem.”
“It’s not?” I said.
He just shook his head and changed the subject: “You’ll do the Moran closing this afternoon. I’ll take care of the Worley’s tomorrow morning before golf.”
“Okay,” I said. But I was still anxious.

Approximately a month later, during a relatively quiet afternoon, while F was out, a middle-aged man appeared at our office and asked our receptionist, Cheryl, if I were available. Before she even finished gesturing in my direction, the man handed me a pile of papers and bounded back out the door. I looked down at a “Summons and Complaint.” On behalf of Mr. and Mrs. Chen, Alex Milano had filed a lawsuit against me for malpractice.
I trembled. I blanched. I felt a terrible combination of rage and humiliation.
“Are you okay,” asked Cheryl.
“Not really,” I said. I sat down glumly at my desk.
Throughout the remainder of the afternoon and evening, I was miserable. I had never been sued before. I had no idea what lay ahead. I couldn’t imagine how I was responsible for what happened. And why had F told me “not to worry?”
The next morning, I showed the documents to F. Again, he said: “Don’t worry.” He added: “I’ll handle it.”
“It says I committed malpractice,” I said. “Was I supposed to know about the parking spaces?”
“There was a mistake, but you had nothing to do with it,” he said. “Don’t even think about it again. Here, do you have time to return these calls? I gotta go.”
He handed me a sheaf of messages. It wasn’t easy, but over the next several weeks, the lawsuit receded from my mind. Yet, my attitude had changed; I couldn’t identify it yet, but something was amiss.

The next time I saw F with Alex Milano at lunch, they seemed happy like two men who’d won a small lottery. Indeed, I’d learned from F’s secretary that our firm’s insurance company had settled with the Chens by paying them back their entire purchase price, plus damages. A third of that, nearly $50,000, would have gone to Alex and the balance to the Chens who still owned the house, even though they couldn’t operate a restaurant.
Gradually, I realized how “the law” had worked in this instance: Alex Milano would have paid a “referral fee” of one-third of his fee to whoever referred him the clients. Thus, in addition to the $3,500 closing fee, F received $16,000 from Alex. I never learned whether F had bungled the transaction intentionally, or merely hatched this solution to salvage the situation, after he realized the Chens’ purchase should have been conditioned on the existence of sufficient parking spaces.
Yet, the experience was not worthless. Besides humiliation, I received several valuable lessons for the remainder of my twenty-five year career, namely:

1. If you specialize in residential real estate, don’t take a commercial client;
2. If you are not familiar with a file, don’t accept someone else’s client without asking a lot of questions;
3. Be wary of dealing with anyone who says “Don’t worry about it,” particularly F, forevermore; and
4. If all else fails, be mindful of human nature, and be certain the malpractice insurance is paid up-to-date.


WALK-THROUGH SURPRISE

“Jeff Sherman’s calling from the walk-through,” said my assistant, transferring the call into my office.
“Great,” I said, rolling my eyes, “that’s just what I needed this morning.”
During my career as a real estate closing attorney, receiving calls from clients at their final inspections was among my least favorite tasks. No one ever called to say: “The house is beautiful; the seller did a wonderful job cleaning up.” Rather, I expected a recitation of some or all of the following common complaints:
1. The seller is not finished moving;
2. There’s a carpet/floor/wall stain we never saw before;
3. The seller took the washer/dryer/chandelier that was supposed to be included;
4. The leaves have not been cleared;
5. The toilet doesn’t flush/sink doesn’t drain.
I could continue the list of humdrum defects for several pages but no one would keep reading. The meaning to me of each such item was that I would spend time and bile arguing with the seller’s lawyer at the closing for no additional pay. Sometimes, the problems were resolved relatively amicably and sometimes not. In either case, I had to rouse a degree of righteous indignation on behalf of my clients, regardless of my personal feelings.
Jeff Sherman and his wife, Wendy, were first-time buyers of a modest home in Waldwick, NJ. They were moving to the suburbs from an apartment in the Bronx and presented themselves enigmatically. When I met with them six weeks earlier to review the contract, they made no effort to ingratiate themselves. They offered identical limp handshakes.
“This meeting isn’t adding to our fee, is it?” was Jeff’s first question.
“We only owe seven-fifty, right?” added Wendy. “There won’t be add-ons, will there?”
“Just $750 to me,” I said, feeling like I was holding back a tsunami of suspicion. “I’ll also use your funds to pay the surveyor, title company, county clerk, etc. It’s all detailed in writing.”
I handed each of them a letter I’d prepared for all my clients explaining the procedures and likely costs of a closing.
Jeff, a paunchy red-head of medium height, peered at the paper through thick glasses. Like many a husband in this circumstance, he felt compelled to ask several questions. I answered as cheerily as possible, hoping to put the young couple at ease, but was unable to elicit a smile from the Sherman’s. Nonetheless, after our meeting, the transaction proceeded routinely. Wendy, a freckled-faced blonde, called with occasional inquiries. They obtained their mortgage commitment, and the closing was scheduled without notable hiccups. Thus, although the Sherman’s were not among my favorite clients, neither were they exceptionally difficult. They simply were no “fun,” and I could live with that. From representing several hundred clients a year, if nothing else, I knew “everyone is different.”
“Good morning, Jeff,” I said into the receiver, with as much hearty good cheer as I could muster. I had a pen and notebook ready to jot down what I assumed would be details of defects. First-time home-buyers were particularly picky, in my experience. The slightest thing could make them angry. I was only half-heartedly listening while standing and gazing out my second floor office window.
Without any pleasantries, Jeff said: “There’s a body in the bathtub.”
“What do you mean?” I asked, coming abruptly to full attention.
“The seller, Mr. Brown. He stabbed himself in the main bathtub. I think he’s dead,” said Jeff.
My brain reacted like the finale of a fireworks display. “Is he joking?” I wondered for an instant. “No way, not Jeff Sherman,” I proceeded to: “This is a disaster. Who is there with Jeff? The police? The seller’s wife? Will the Sherman’s cancel the deal? Is this the basis for cancellation? Who can I ask? They need a lawyer. Wait a minute, I’m their lawyer.”
All I could think to say aloud, however, was: “Uhhhhhhhh.”
Thankfully, Jeff filled in several of the blanks: “We arrived ten minutes ago and were walking through the house with Mrs. Brown, but when we got to the main bathroom, she gasped and shut the shower curtain. I asked her what was wrong, and she told me not to look.”
“So, like, this just happened?” I asked.
“Yeah, she said he didn’t want to sell the house,” said Jeff.
“Okay,” I said slowly. “So he killed himself during your walk-through?”
“Appears that way,” said Jeff. “I think the police and an ambulance are on the way.”
“Um, is Mrs. Brown able to function?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Jeff. “She seems sort of okay about it, actually.”
I was trying to process this situation. For sure, I imagined, Jeff and Wendy would want their money back, or a credit for the trauma, or a new bathroom, at a minimum. I considered my schedule and sourly concluded my entire day would be dominated by this one situation. Perhaps my entire week. Also, I thought, even though Mrs. Brown may be calm right now, she’s going to be overcome by shock at some point. Perhaps, she won’t be willing or able to complete the transaction. She’ll be too bereft to function.
“What do you want to do?” I ventured, tentatively. I cringed from the anticipated response.
“We want to close today,” said Jeff.
“You do?” I said, feeling a mixture of bewilderment and relief. “What about the body? What about Mrs. Brown?”
“She said she’d have the body taken away as soon as the police check it out,” said Jeff, sounding as calm as though a lamp or a couch had to be removed.
“And that’s okay with you?” I asked.
“Wendy just wants to make sure there are no stains,” said Jeff.
“That’s certainly reasonable,” I heard myself say, then shook my head in amazement.
Two hours later, Jeff and Wendy arrived at my office to close, as scheduled. In the meantime, the police had arrived at the house, concluded Mr. Brown had, indeed, stabbed himself in the chest with a hunting knife, and committed suicide. The body had been removed by the coroner and the bathroom scrubbed.
“Is everything else okay at the house?” I asked Jeff.
“Yeah,” he shrugged, as though he experienced something like this every day.
“And Mrs. Brown is coming to sign her paperwork?” I asked.
“She said she’d follow in about ten minutes,” said Wendy. “She just had to gather a couple of things.”
“You know, nothing like this has ever happened before,” I said.
“Pretty unusual, I guess,” said Jeff. He turned his attention to the pile of mortgage-related papers in front of us on the conference table and indicated they were ready to sign.
While we were reviewing documents the new widow arrived. She was a thin, athletic-looking woman of about forty. She wore a sweatshirt over jeans, standard moving attire, and acted as though she were under no stress at all.
“Sorry I didn’t dress up,” she said. “It’s been a busy morning, and I have a long ride this afternoon.”
“I’m so sorry about your loss,” I said.
“Thanks,” she said. “It’s for the best.”
I’m not sure what I expected Mrs. Brown to say, but “it’s for the best” was not among the choices. I nodded as though I fully understood what she was thinking, but I was actually completely flummoxed.
She continued: “I told my husband last night I would not live with him anymore, and I wanted a divorce. I’m moving back near my family in Canada. He obviously didn’t take it too well,” she added.
We sat in awkward silence for a moment, taking in the truth of her last comment. She broke into a smile, and added: “But this way, I’ll save a ton of time, not to mention the legal fees and stuff.”
There was nothing to do but nod again in agreement. Before this transaction, I considered myself nearly infallible at predicting human behavior and reactions in the realm of real estate closings. Wow, was I ever wrong!


CLIMATE OF DISBELIEF

I have a dear friend who I know is more politically conservative than I. However, I respect his intelligence and have always been impressed by his sharp humor, his professional success and his love of family. In short, he is a “mensch” and, accordingly, I try not to allow honest disagreements over things like tax policy and foreign affairs to interfere with our friendship.
My friend often forwards e-mail attachments containing jokes or links to interesting or touching stories. Rarely does he venture into politics and, when he does, the subjects are largely non-controversial. In face-to-face discussions, we have found common ground on such subjects as crime, American intervention in foreign wars and baseball (both our preferred teams stink). I was surprised, therefore, when he recently sent me a link to a purported “finding” that global warming is a hoax.
Several earlier posts touting solar power reveal my lack of objectivity on this subject. I am a believer that there is no more important issue in the world than the environment. Polls show me to be among only 2% of respondents who feel that way. I understand that most of the other 98% feel there are other priorities, but I’d never thought I would encounter a person in my milieu, who is an actual “denier.” Those people are lumped in my mind with the lunatic fringe, along with folks who deny the Holocaust, evolution, the dangers of smoking, and who agree with Sarah Palin on any subject.
“You’re kidding, right?” I wrote back.
“No, I’m really interested to see how you would debate this,” he responded.
“I won’t waste my time ‘debating’ something that is beyond debate,” I wrote. “This is settled science.”
I hoped the subject was forgotten when another e-mail arrived the next day attaching an alleged study conducted by three PhD’s. “You’ve gotta admit it’s just possible you’re wrong.” he tweaked. “This paper is convincing. The planet is actually cooling.”
Unhappily, I spent an hour wading through the turgid prose of the three professors. Most of their arguments consisted of picking apart the methodology of various climate studies, the format of their statistics, and offering alternative interpretations of data. For instance, if one examines several particular five year periods in the last century, one can find what appears to be a cooling trend. Most of what I felt, however, was confusion. It was as though a shotgun of arguments was being indiscriminately fired at the solid wall of climate research in the expectation that several pellets would find an opening. As intended by the authors, I imagined, when I finished reading, I felt confused.
“If real PhD’s see so many holes in the argument,” I thought to myself, “perhaps it has been a little hyped. Heaven knows, Al Gore is not above self-promotion.”
I decided to check out the three professors on the internet. The first turned out to be a marketing professor at a college in Australia. Her research was funded by the mining industry. The second was a business professor in Pennsylvania. He was a paid spokesperson for the coal industry and supplemented his income by lobbying in favor of the construction of coal-powered electricity plants. The third author was a medical doctor, also unrelated in any way to climate science, who has been reliant upon Exxon and/or the Petroleum Institute since at least 1994. Whenever there was a conference or debate regarding climate science, he was paid to appear on behalf of industry and present their talking points.
“The authors are charlatans,” I wrote to my friend. “You should check their credentials before sending me this garbage. They are not even remotely scientists. One must ‘consider the source’ when viewing papers that happen to support the interests of rich and powerful industries.”
I was certain my friend would regret having misled me. I expected him to thank me for setting him straight, for introducing to him a minimal level of skepticism. I could not imagine he would lend credence to Donald Trump with regards to someone’s birthplace, for instance.
“Okay,” he responded. “Check out this one.”
A link was attached to a 2009 study indicating that thousands of scientists have been organized to oppose the ‘consensus’ on global warming by a “noted physicist, Frederick Seitz, a recipient of the National Science Award.”
With no small degree of trepidation, I researched Dr. Seitz. On the face of it, he was a significant thinker. For forty years, starting in 1939, Dr. Seitz was a brilliant innovator and academician. Late in his career as a physicist, however, he became aligned with cigarette manufacturers and used his status as a noted “scientist” for their benefit. It is not clear what, but something happened in his life that made him go over to “the dark side.” Some have speculated he needed money. Others suggest he felt marginalized in mainstream science by the 1970’s and was looking for a way to “fight back.”
Dr. Seitz was not merely a skeptic that nicotine was addictive and harmful; he was the leader of the pack. He organized a campaign that churned out a blizzard of “pseudo-scientific” doubt about nicotine addiction. He reaped massive monetary rewards for his efforts. Partially as a result, it took over twenty years from the time of the Surgeon General’s 1964 report on its dangers for meaningful efforts to curb smoking to be implemented. In the meantime, how many additional millions of people suffered the effects of addiction? How many billions of dollars were earned by the cigarette industry?
As older readers may recall, and younger readers may be surprised to learn, Richard Nixon was the president who established the EPA and signed the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of 1969. Protection of the environment was a bipartisan concern. After all, Democrats and Republicans breathe the same air and drink the same water. How did Fred Seitz come to be connected to the climate issue? To make a story that is the subject of entire books extremely short, (See “Merchants of Doubt” by Oreskes and Conway, 2010, if you want the LONG version) it happened like this:
Led by Exxon, the oil industry perceived their long-term profitability could be threatened if carbon-based industries were limited. In the early 1980’s, they turned to the same “scientists” who obfuscated the tobacco issue for so long – not just FIGURATIVELY the same, but LITERALLY. Fred Seitz had done so well on behalf of cigarette manufacturers he was enlisted to plant seeds of doubt regarding climate change, to contest the uncontestable, to poison the well, so to speak. He reassembled his “dream team” of obfuscators, once again, to run roughshod over consensus scientific conclusions and plant their writings in sympathetic journals. In a stroke of evil genius, he recognized that the issue could be couched as part of “The Liberal Agenda.” Thus, news outlets (everyone knows which ones) that reflexively make light of issues supported by progressives became free, twenty-four hour-a-day doubt-sowing machines. The urgency to combat the problem of carbon-fuels addiction has been effectively muted by the resistance of half our political representatives in the thrall of industry contributions.
“How could I make my friend see the light?” I wondered. He seems disinclined to read even the simplest background material on the authors he recommends. He would dismiss such information, apparently, as products of the “lame-stream media.” I was feeling despair when I recalled something about my friend: one of the coolest things about him, and one of the things that made me admire him originally, was that the chain of pharmacies he owned did not sell cigarettes. He sacrificed profit for principle.
“I’ll remind him,” I thought, and dutifully asked him if he recalled taking such a position. For good measure, I mentioned once again Dr. Seitz’s more-than-coincidental connection to both tobacco and climate change, thinking my friend’s having pierced one veil of denial would lead to his piercing of another.
He wrote back almost immediately: “My idea was very simple, how could we sell cigs in the front of the store and meds in the back? Seemed very hypocritical to me. Nothing to do with the environment or green movement.”
I was dumbstruck. Again. Where I see clarity, rationality and obvious connection, this man, whose IQ I know to be significantly higher than average, (not only is he great at business, he’s a tough out in Words with Friends) sees only a left-wing conspiracy. My only hope is his revulsion at hypocrisy. I’m sure I could point out instances of hypocrisy on his side of the argument but, realistically, he’ll just tout the glacier in Norway that’s gotten bigger or the ninety-five-year-old smoker who didn’t get cancer. There’s an anecdote for everything!
Life is too short. When I perceive a “man of science” to have blind faith in the gospel according to Palin and Trump, I’m afraid he is irretrievable. The famous motto of the United Negro College Fund seems apt: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.” I lack the energy to continue fighting this battle; maybe I’ll look for a good cartoon to send him, or a kitten video.