Archives for category: mentors

NOT MY FATHER’S VACATION

On our vacation in Costa Rica I feel my father’s presence. Since it’s twenty years since his death, his entry into my consciousness surprises me. In general, I’m not what one would call a “deeply spiritual” person. In fact, I’m pretty far to the other end of the spectrum. Yet, in separate reveries, there he was at the pool this morning, chatting amiably with the pool man. There he was last night at the restaurant, laughing with the waiters. There he was at a clothing store, turning over “the goods,” assessing the quality, checking the prices.
*****
My knowledge of my parents’ vacations is mostly secondhand or from photographs since I didn’t exist until my father was in his fifties. But to get him out of his beloved store, Lou Sanders Men’s Shop, required extreme patience on the part of my mother. Not only did my father protest how much “critical business” he would miss at the store and how much it would cost, but he also manifested his discomfort physically.
In anticipation of departing, his sciatic nerve often plagued his leg until he could barely walk. One time, arriving at the airport distressed, preoccupied with missing the action at the store , he slammed a car door on his own fingers. A nerves-induced case of Bell’s palsy collapsed half his face just before another trip, rendering my mother’s companion similar in appearance to “The Elephant Man.”
From my childhood years, I recall almost no loud disputes between my parents. This is not to say they didn’t disagree. It’s just that my father worked seven-days-a-week, and I rarely saw them interact except during dinner and an hour or two in front of the television in the evenings. In addition, my father’s argument style, which I’m told I’ve inherited, was not to engage verbally. He chose a more infuriating, passive-aggressive technique involving glances and grunts, subtle shifts of facial expressions, and seeming disinterest.
My impression is that my parents resolved things quietly, or not at all. The only exception in my memory is when my mother couldn’t get him to respond when she pressed for his availability for a long-overdue week away. While the ten-year-old me sat tensely on a couch in the living room, pretending to read, my mother raged louder and louder in the breakfast room until a slammed kitchen door, followed by silence and a quickly departing car, indicated she’d walked out.
Moments later, my father arrived in the room where I sat, picked up the newspaper, sat in the chair opposite me, and read. I don’t know what he was thinking, but I was concerned I might never see my mother again. After several hours, she returned, and their trip was planned the next day as though nothing had happened.
Always, when my parents returned from their travels, whether to California, or Mexico, or Spain, my mother produced photographs and stories showing what a good time they had had. A picture of my smiling father, sitting in his buttoned–down white shirt atop a camel in Egypt, still highlights a wall in my mother’s home.
*****
Besides one or two day trips to Atlantic City that emerge without detail from the earliest fog of my memory, I traveled only twice with my father. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say he traveled only twice with me. The first trip, when I was about eight, was ninety minutes away to a Pocono resort called the Union House for a weekend. Upon reflection, “resort” may overstate the case. Little more than a rustic camp, the lodgings were more log cabin than hotel.
Still, at my age, I thought we were really “on vacation.” Though my father hated to GO on vacation, that’s different from BEING on vacation. Once there, he had fun. He shocked me by interacting with the strangers at our table during meals. He smiled. He flirted with young waitresses. He told jokes. Why, I wondered, had my mother had to plead so hard to make him come?
The Union House, now long defunct, grew out of a liberal political movement. I think most of the other guests were members of humble, low-wage labor unions. My mother had doubtless convinced my father to go due to its low room rates. The main hall, where all meals were taken, featured murals on the walls by Diego Rivera. Even as a child, I was aware of the “heroic working man” vibe. I’ve never forgotten the vibrant, larger-than-life depression-era art.
One evening at the Union House, after dinner, my father took me to see the food-related staff play basketball against the room cleaning-related staff. Though it was only a friendly game between summer-job employees, my young self viewed the players like NBA all-stars. I delighted to find myself beside my smiling father who’d never previously watched a minute of an athletic event with me without complaint.
*****
My second and final vacation with both my parents was in commemoration of my Bar Mitzvah in 1970. By definition, I had just turned thirteen. Not from a religious family, I broke my tutor’s heart when I said we were taking a trip after the ceremony.
“To the Holy Land?” asked Rabbi Schichtman, with anticipation.
“No, Puerto Rico,” I said.
From that trip, I recall that the flight was delayed on the tarmac in Philadelphia for an hour before take-off. Indicative of a long-ago era of air travel, the stewardesses (as they were then called) bestowed free drinks on adult passengers to make up for the disappointment. My father was in a jovial mood, polishing off two tiny bottles of vodka in front of my disbelieving eyes before noon.
Once we arrived in San Juan, my father was our hero. Having lived in Cuba for several years in the 1920’s, he spoke fluent Spanish. He handled every interaction with taxis, waiters, the hotel, vendors, and tour-guides. My mother and I didn’t always know what the conversations were about, but we saw a man in his element, glowing with bonhomie, relaxed.
Our last meal as a trio in Puerto Rico took place at a restaurant called “Sword and Sirloin.” I remember this otherwise tiny detail because its decor was medieval knights, a fascination of mine at the time. In each corner stood a suit of armor, emptily glowering at the seated patrons. We had a young waitress, incongruously dressed as a fourteenth-century wench in spite of her Puerto Rican heritage. My father, then in his mid-sixties, MY FATHER, had her laughing in stitches. It was unbelievable. When did he become so funny? When he interacted with strangers at the store, amusement rarely rose to the fore.
The only sad thing about that trip is that that dinner, on our fourth day, marked the end of the vacation “week” for my father. He just “had” to be back at the store for the upcoming weekend, even though a slower, bleaker time of year for a retail business than late January couldn’t be imagined. My mother and I completed the last three days of the vacation alone. We had a great time, and I have distinct memories of the time with her, but it wasn’t the same without our charming, Spanish-speaking expert and fixer.
*****
I can’t help but feel badly for what I perceived as my father’s excessive devotion to his store. Yes, he provided for us, but in his single-mindedness, he also deprived himself of joy and deprived his family of the chance to see him at his best.
Meanwhile, he’s a spirit hovering over the proceedings in Coco Beach. I’d love to have him here to talk to the taxi drivers. I’d love to have him here to haggle when we visit a souvenir shop. I’d love to have him walk outside with me and greet the pool men and landscapers. They are friendly, but our conversations don’t progress much beyond “Com estas?” (How are you?”) “Bien, gracias.” (Fine, thanks.) My father would have shocked and delighted them – no ordinary visitor, he’d be an easygoing man of the people – a role he played too rarely.

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EARLY MIDLIFE CRISIS CAR

In September of 1986 I steered my powerless car onto the shoulder of the New Jersey Turnpike. My heart’s pounding sounded noisier than my automobile. Now what? I sat for a moment and pondered my predicament. Nearly midnight, the only light shone from a streetlight one hundred feet away. Well, there was also a faint sliver of moonlight that peaked through skittering clouds. It barely penetrated the gritty, stale-tasting air. In the midst of a scene dominated by oil refineries and smokestacks, the irony in the motto “Garden State” shrieked with each passing truck.

*****

My previous car, a red Toyota Corolla, had performed flawlessly for three years. I had hoped to keep it for at least two more, when ice, combined with a steep hill and a telephone pole, made that impossible. I survived the crash unhurt but shaken with the reality that life is short. A single lawyer on the cusp of turning thirty, I decided to upgrade my wheels in terms of style, sportiness and fun.
With insurance money in hand I researched my choices in the Sunday newspaper. A BMW cost too much. “Muscle cars” like the Camaro or Grand Prix were below the dignity I deemed required by my career. Then I saw an advertisement for Pontiac’s new two-seat model, the Fiero. It boasted of a modern marvel, sheathed in plastic instead of aluminum, an automobile that growled like a racecar, looked like a Ferrari, and cost like a Pinto.
I resolved to check one out during a weekend visit to Philadelphia. There, I would see my parents as well as my brother, Barry, twelve years my senior, who was visiting from Los Angeles. Perhaps, I thought, Barry will assist me. After all, world renowned in his career as a corporate attorney, he had just fashioned the multi-million-dollar financial wizardry behind the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Surely, he could negotiate a deal on a car for me.

*****

I was ten when Barry arrived home with his first car. A law student at the time, he needed basic transportation from his rental house on the outskirts of New Haven to Yale. He chose a used, light-green Dodge Comet that he dubbed “the vomit.”
By 1986, Barry had long-since forsaken such humble transportation for a Mercedes two-seat convertible. When I showed Barry the photograph of a Fiero, his enthusiasm for the sleek-looking automobile nearly overcame his aversion to anything produced in Detroit.
“It looks sharp,” he said. “Pontiacs aren’t terrible, on the outside, at least.”
“The suggested retail price is $12,000,” I told him.
“Ha, we’ll see about that,” he said.
Barry and I piled into my parents’ car to drive to an auto mall in Bryn Mawr. At the Pontiac lot I stood transfixed by my first sight of a Fiero in person. As promised, it looked like a miniature Ferrari, low, sleek and powerful. Pontiac offered no subtle shades with this baby. The only models available were black or fire engine red.
“What do you think?” asked Barry.
“Wow,” I said, wide-eyed. “How can it be so inexpensive?”
“Don’t talk like that in front of the salesman,” he said. “Dad would be upset.”
I laughed. Indeed, our father had enjoyed dueling with car salesmen like a cat enjoyed playing with mice. How many times could he get them to “go back to the manager?” How many free oil changes could he get them to “throw in?”

*****

Expecting to encounter the usual middle-aged man, we were surprised when an attractive college-aged woman dressed a mini-skirt welcomed us.
“My name’s Gina,” she said. “Can I help you?
Barry and I glanced at each other with expressions that conveyed “unusual, but why not?”
“Okay, sure,” we said.
We explained I might be interested in a Fiero but needed to take a test drive first.
“That’s great,” said Gina. While she went to retrieve a key, we whispered to each other.
“She doesn’t look like a person who sells cars,” said Barry.
“She barely looks old enough to drive,” I said.
“Should be an easy negotiation,” said Barry.
I nodded.
“The car’s only got two seats,” said Barry. “You go with her, but don’t reveal anything, got it?”
“Yes sir,” I said, happy to have a supreme strategist on my side.
Moments later, I settled my lanky body deep into the low-slung driver’s seat. I felt as if I were taking charge of a rocket ship. Gina sat on the other side of a massive center console that contained temperature and radio controls worthy of a jet, as well as a gear shifter covered in walnut veneer. I pictured myself wearing a leather jacket and driving gloves; a person outside the car would never think the transmission was automatic. They’d never guess I didn’t know how to drive a stick-shift.
Confined to a small space with Gina, I became conscious of her perfume, her layers of make-up and the fact that she was chewing gum. Much of what I saw over the console was her bare knees and a substantial amount of thigh. It was hard to concentrate on the performance of the car.
“How long have you been selling cars?” I asked.
“This is my first day. Am I doing okay?” Her tone was so hesitant and vulnerable I felt sorry for her.
“Of course,” I said.
Actually, I had a rush of thoughts in that moment. First, I couldn’t believe my car salesperson was younger, less experienced and more insecure than I. Next, I pictured Barry talking her into selling the car practically for free. Finally, I knew I should listen to the engine, feel the steering, and consider the car’s responsiveness. But my first and second considerations dominated the third.
After we returned from the test drive, I felt I had to buy the car just for Gina’s sake, so her career would start off successfully. I gestured a thumbs-up to Barry. Without the benefit of the ride, of course, Barry had no such inclination.
“The price of $12,000, you realize, is out of the question,” he said, as we settled into a cubicle containing Gina’s small desk. She sat on one side, and we sat opposite her on metal chairs.
“Really?” she said, sounding hurt. “I’ll try my best.”
“Aren’t there other colors?” asked Barry though he knew black was fine with me.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “There are only two.”
“And plastic panels don’t seem very safe,” he said. “The car shouldn’t be priced higher than ten thousand dollars.”
Gina looked dismayed, as though she were about to cry.
“You know,” continued Barry, as he started to stand up. “I think we’ll keep looking.”
“Wait, wait,” said Gina. “Let me talk to the manager.”

*****

As Gina departed, Barry settled back into his seat like a lawyer who’d just summarized a winning case to the jury.
“You want the car, right?” he asked me. “She’s gonna give it to you for under eleven.”
“Sure,” I said, impressed. I knew that without Barry, I probably would have offered to pay $11,800.
Gina returned and showed a slip of paper with the number $11,750.
“Gina,” said Barry. “You’ll have to do a lot better than that. Go ask the manager for the real price.”
Gina departed again. When she returned, she looked shaken.
“My manager’s really angry,” she said. “I’m not supposed to ask him again without a counter-offer.”
“He’ll get over it,” said Barry. “What’s the price now?”
“He said I can do $11,500, but not a penny less,” she said.
“Okay, here’s a counter-offer,” said Barry. “$10,500.”
Gina looked stricken. She walked towards the manager’s office like a prisoner to the gallows.
“I’d pay $11,500,” I whispered to Barry.
“I know,” he said. “But let’s see how low she’ll go.”

*****

Unable to form a single cogent thought about how to proceed during ten minutes on the shoulder of the Turnpike, the arrival of a State Policeman was a great relief to me. Someone must have notified him of the disabled car. The officer parked behind my car, his lights flashing, and approached as though I were a criminal. Once he saw I was merely a likely lemon-law victim, he relaxed.
“Sure is a pretty little car,” he said.
“Can’t judge a book by its cover,” I said.
“I’ll call a tow-truck,” he said.
“I have Triple A,” I said. “I think they provide free towing.”
“Not on the Turnpike they don’t,” said the officer. “You have to use our contract tower.”
He handed me a business card for “Elite Towing Services.”
“Uh-oh,” I said. “Sounds expensive.”
“Yep,” said the officer. “Call them in the morning and tell them where to deliver the car. I’ll drive you to a payphone now so someone can pick you up.”
“Thanks,” I said.

*****

Gina appeared to be trembling when she returned. She held out a piece of paper on which was scrawled in angry, male handwriting: “$11,250. Take it or leave.”
“Is that how to address a customer?” asked Barry.
“My boss is really angry,” said Gina, not looking up.
“We’ll leave,” said Barry.
I would have been delighted to pay $11,250, but I remembered my father’s scorched earth strategy when he had negotiated for my Corolla. Although unpleasant, we had ended up with the car and several hundred additional dollars in savings.
“Don’t worry,” said Barry, when we reached the parking lot. “Walk slowly. You’ll see. She’ll chase after us in a minute.”
We dawdled. We stalled. No Gina.
“I’m impressed,” said Barry. “I guess we’ll have to actually drive home and make the deal over the phone. They’ll need a couple hours to prepare the car, anyway.”
Barry’s confidence buoyed me. He had a feel for the process. I pictured myself in the Fiero by that evening, driving around the neighborhood like the Grand Prix, people looking and pointing in admiration.
When we arrived home after a twenty-minute ride, Barry handed me the phone.
“You seal the deal, counselor,” he said. “She’ll take eleven.”
I dialed the number and asked for Gina.
“Who’s calling?” asked the receptionist.
“Stuart Sanders,” I said.
“I’m sorry,” said the receptionist. “She can’t come to the phone. She’s busy.”
“Will you have her call me back?” I asked.
“Um, no,” said the receptionist. “She’s not allowed to talk to you or your brother.”
I hung up and related the conversation to Barry.
“This is outrageous,” he said. Not one to miss a battle, he said: “Let’s go!”
Barry and I headed back to the dealership.
“We won’t be treated this way,” Barry said, as he drove.
I don’t recall the rest of our conversation, but it consisted of an odd mix of disbelief, anger and respect for the toughness of the negotiations. When we arrived at the entrance a large, middle-aged man blocked our way.
“You’re not welcome here,” he said.
Shocked, Barry asked: “You are telling me you won’t sell us a car?”
“That’s correct,” said the man. “And if you don’t leave right now, I’ll call the police and tell them you’re trespassing.”
“I’ve never experienced anything like this at a car dealer,” said Barry.
“There’s a first for everything,” said the man.
Shaken, we retreated to our car.
“You might have to check out a dealership in North Jersey,” said Barry to me. “They’ll probably have better prices anyway.”
“Yes,” I said. “That was weird.”
“The weirdest,” said Barry.
*****
We speculated for the rest of the weekend about what had happened. Was that particular dealership the only one in the world where customers paid list price? Was Gina the owner’s daughter or in some other way intimately connected? I didn’t think Barry had said anything offensive or abusive. I knew I hadn’t. What transpired at that dealership still remains a mystery.
As soon as I returned home I went to the bustling, local Pontiac dealership. I struck a deal with a disinterested, toupee-topped salesman for $11,200 without theatrics. When I told him what had happened in suburban Philadelphia, he just shrugged. “They probably don’t do much volume,” he said. “We got lots of cars.”
Even as I drove my new car off the lot, I realized I’d made a mistake. Throughout the year of my ownership, I experienced soreness because my neck never adjusted to the forty-five degree angle necessary for me to climb into the Fiero. The slightest miscalculation often resulted in bashing my head against the roof frame. After two months, the door locks malfunctioned. After four, one headlight failed to open. I began to notice that the one-headlight-up, one-headlight-down status typified other Fiero’s I saw on the street.
To the uninformed public, the Fiero looked as sharp as advertised.
“Hey buddy, wanna race?” said a teenager at a stoplight, while he revved the engine of his Camaro. I just smiled and stared ahead.
By that time, several months after my purchase, I understood the Fiero wouldn’t stand a chance in a drag race. Its power rivaled a low-level Buick’s more than a sports car. On occasion, a sound signaled the loosening of some essential component under the hood. Prior to owning a Fiero, I knew nothing about the various wires, pipes and belts that represented the guts of an engine. To my dismay and amazement, I could now distinguish the squeal of a loose fan belt from the grinding of a transmission. As I suspected, the complete detachment of the fan belt is what landed me on the shoulder that evening.

*****

While I waited to be picked up by a friend from a motel just off the exit in Ridgefield, NJ, I resolved to dump the Fiero as soon as possible. I realized the outward appearance of the car didn’t make up for its debilitating lack of dependability. Like a woman wearing flats because stiletto heels killed her feet, I craved a car that would just take me where I needed to go. Having decided to embrace dullness over what I now knew to be false pizzazz, I traded with little negotiation for a four-door, navy blue Ford. No one would crane a neck when I drove by. No longer the envy of teenagers and other uninformed car enthusiasts, I resumed total anonymity on the roads.

*****
Postscript: Two months after I said good riddance to my Fiero, a drunk driver plowed into the rear of my Ford at forty miles per hour while I waited at a red light. My car was totaled but I survived with just a minor bruise and a cut from flying glass. Had I been in my tiny two-seater, it’s fair to say this story would not have been written.


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.


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.”


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.