No matter how late I left the offices Mr. Letterman never once left before me. The door to his offices remained closed throughout the day and throughout the night. I never saw him coming, I never saw him leaving. I never saw him at all. That might have had something to do with the amount of time I spent in the file closet that was the intern´s work space, basically only leaving for brief meetings with Mr. O´Leary and during office lunch time. I spent a lot of time, really a lot of time, figuring out how to do the most basic things like legal research or how to write a memorandum, more like a first year law student than a graduate preparing for a professional career. In the evening I did a lot of reading. I was never in a hurry to go home. As I had studied in Europe I knew next to nothing about the American legal system when I started my internship. I did not participate in any academic program or training as I was lacking the funds to pay for that kind of education. So I spent hours studying, mostly reading up on cases. Mr. O´Leary must have had his own reasons to offer me the internship during which – strictly speaking – I received more of a general education concerning the legal history of the US than a preparation for any kind of specific legal work. Mr. O´Leary corrected my assignements but he never commented on how long it took me to come up with results. Sometimes a painfully long time. The truth was that I was not qualified at all to fill out the position even as an intern, but Mr O´Leary must have had his own reasons to extend his offer to me. On my first day he had given me a copy of a handwritten list of chronologically ordered cases decided by the United States Supreme Court . The list concentrated on cases decided during the Rehnquist Court, the tenure of Chief Justice William Rehnquist from September 26, 1986 through September 3, 2005. But there were also cases decided during the Warren Court, the tenure of Chief Justice Earl Warren from October 5, 1953 through June 23, 1969, like Watkins v. United States 354 U.S. 178 (1957) , on the rights of a witness in refusing to answer questions before the House Un-American Activities Committee, or Brandenburg v. Ohio 395 U.S. 444 (1969) on the freedom of speech, incitement to riot, or the during the Burger Court, the tenure of Chief Justice Warren Earl Burger from June 23, 1969 through September 26, 1986, like the New York Times Co. v. United States 403 U.S. 713 (1971) on the Freedom of the press, national security and the Pentagon Papers. And so, I had started reading up on these cases at night, eating take-out at my desk and acting out my very own American dream. At around 6.30 pm most of the staff had left the offices. Mr. O´Leary was gone by 9 pm the latest, having a reservation at his favorite restaurant shortly after each night. Mr. Letterman and I stayed on. Every moment I was aware that my time in the closet was a transient state, to the point of being surreal. And this transient state was somehow counteracted by the reliance of the invisible presence of Mr. Letterman in his office. Sometimes I thought that this balance was the true reason why Mr. O´Leary had offered the internship to me, a transient lawyer who reasoned with the legal avatars who had escaped from the files chosen and who definitely had too much of an imagination to be a lawyer.
If I had theories about Mr. O´Leary, it was really Mr. Letterman who – being invisible – intrigued me. Like all things unknown or unknowable his existence behind the pale glowing door made me curious and inspired me to make up stories. The human mind is wired to fill the gaps with some kind of narrative. And so I invented and then reinvented Mr. Letterman on my nightly walks through the city that never sleeps.My legal avatars kept me company for a while and often I did not know who was real and who was invented by me or by someone else, who might be equally subjected to insomnia and trying to people the landscapes of his restless mind. with late night company. One night it suddenly started raining so hard I took a cab from Bank Street back uptown because I was so tired I was afraid I´d fall asleep on the subway. The rain on the windows of the cab washed down like tears and blurred my night vision of traffic lights and movement on the street resembling a Gerhard Richter painting in progress. When the cab passed 34th street on Fifth avenue I looked down the street and thought I saw a lonely man with an old fashioned macintosh step out from our office building and unhurriedly opening an umbrella.I recognized him instantly because he was exactly how I had invented him. I thought about how the act of unhurriedly opening an umbrella could tell you all about a man that you needed to in order to know what to expect of him, what kind if man he was. The moment passed quickly. There was little traffic on Fifth and the cab kept moving. I asked the driver to stop and let me out. By the time I had paid the fare and hurried back to 34th Mr. Letterman was nowhere to be seen. I continued to walk east and kept looking for him without any real plan as to what I would do should I find him again. It felt very urgent to find him but I did not see him or any other man in a macintosh. I carried no umbrella and got soaking wet within minutes. I ended up walking home. That was the only time I ever saw Mr. Letterman.
Many nights, after leaving O´Leary and Letterman, I aimlessly wandered the streets. When I started walking my head was still full of the life of others, the immeasurable distillates of everyday lives that were contained in the files that I had read in the broom closet during the day, producing even more condensed excerpts for Mr. O´Leary until they were transparent like glass. Bits and pieces of everyday lives, some mundane, some extraordinary, had to be integrated into the kind of language that the legal system could process. My work as an intern mainly consisted of writing a good enough draft of a legal memorandum for each of the files I found on my desk in the morning. A legal memorandum presents research and analysis and applies these to the particular facts aiming at conveying the technical and legal content of the file in a precise and comprehensible manner. I had to try and succinctly identify the correct legal issues, within the context of the facts of your case. Yet some untechnical aspect, an idea of what made the case tangible and human had to be preserved. There is no real algorithm to a good legal memorandum. But even producing just a fairly sufficient memorandum meant to be able to recognize which parts had to be eliminated from the narrative because they had no legal relevance and thus were misleading. The more narrow and descriptive the issue statement is, the more effective it will be. It was my aim to only include legal elements that were essential to resolution of the issues. The better I got at this, the more transparent the client became. But in my head there remained a part of the client that was not part of the memorandum and seemed to stay with me instead. Shaping the legal structure of the narrative produced legal ghosts – avatars to the clients. I was walking with avatars at night until they got tired and disoriented. Only after I had outtalked the last of the ghosts did I walk home, often talking a late night subway. During daytime while sitting in my closet drafting I had become once again become remarkably versed at entertaining a parallel train of thought in my head while producing avatars. Once I had found a way to draft a reasonably memorandum the days my legal internship were a lot like school.
It was in school still, when I had first discovered the places “where the seams come undone”. Every classroom in my school had a clock over the door, and all the clocks had the same simple clock face, and every one of them showed a slightly different time. I don’t know whether clocks in classrooms today are all connected to one central, totalitarian time piece as I suspect might be the case, though I hope it is not so. I always loved the way time oscillated between classes, obstinately refusing to be tamed. Officially, students had three minutes to walk to the next classroom after a period ended. But for the way from science to math, for example, you’d better made do with 1 minute and 29 seconds – the clock in Ms. Kirsch’s class was as fast as our teacher’s ability to conjure numbers out of the back entrance to Hilbert’s Hotel and as inexorable as her refusal to admit to time measured outside her class room.
On the other hand, you could afford to leisurely stroll to French after that, using not only the 1 minute and 31 seconds from Math but also the 40 seconds the French clock was late, giving you an ample 5 minutes and 11 seconds (not counted the additional minute or two Mme. Petite rustled with her papers ignoring our ongoing conversation). The clock in Language Arts had the peculiar and infamous habit of stopping at exactly 12.01 pm every couple of weeks and being only be persuaded back into service by Superintendent Reginald Smith who, for that very reason, was particularly fond of it, and year after year insisted on repairing rather than replacing it.
Every day for a few moments just before noon instruction in language arts paused and everyone’s eyes followed the unhurried second hand making its way from 11.59.59 am to 12.01.03 pm. It was almost like a pagan ritual, these four seconds of silence, as if we were paying our respects to the spirit of the clock, Time. Time, sputtering, fleeing, stopping, resuming its course, divided itself up over the 79 clocks in our school according to its own preference. With other words, it seemed to be on our side and refused to be institutionalized.
I felt the same way about the legal avatars. They willed themselves into being through the margins of the files. They escaped the system by nesting in my hair. They insisted on being human despite my best efforts.
During my internship at O´Larry and Letterman I lived in the city like millions of other people. I was richer than many, poorer than most and still privileged. I was a post-grad. student from Europe trying to get in touch with life in a way I had thought or judged not attainable back home, but really engaged in make-believe like so many European kids at that time.
In my well ordered home country, even in Berlin, where I had graduated from law school people did not easily get lost. I don´t doubt that, if one really tried, one could manage to loose oneself some way of other, but it would have cost a measurable effort and willpower to not be found and catalogued like any other specimen starting to drift in a welfare state.
New York was different. The city was not going to cut me slack and neither did I expect it to. And yet, at any given time I felt that it was possible to just gently drift out into that good night without giving it much thought. It was quite the opposite: you had to remind yourself to keep swimming, to unfold some kind of will to stay afloat.
Especially at night, emerging from my file cabinet, really broom closet, and dusting off, I walked down the narrow hallway, briefly pausing in front of Mr. Letterman´s office with its gentle light behind the milk glass pane. Sometimes I thought I heard papers rustling. Sometimes there was a stillness as if Mr. Letterman – behind the door with the milk glass window – was listening to me listening to him. The stillness was gentle. I waited a moment and then continued on my way to the elevator.
The lobby at 10 pm was quiet, too. There were two doormen behind a mahagony reception desk. They would briefly say good night but they were not up for a chat with the European legal intern leaving late at night. There was a television set behind the desk running. I could recognize bits and pieces of the channels turned low in volume as CNN or ESPN without seeing the screen. I had no one to share this accomplishment with so I just quickly crossed the lobby. Stepping into the revolving door I was already anticipating the smells and sounds of 34th street.
There was a moment of absolute freedom of stepping out of that door. I knew it to be an illusion. But it was also real because it would have only depended on a change of heart, on a simple act of letting go to make it real.
That moment of freedom lasted until I crossed the street and looked up at the Empire State building beyond the next crossing of 5th Ave. Then I turned back and looked up the fassade of the building I had just left. I did this every night. And every night one light in the row of darkened windows of the sixth floor, like a shard of glass on the beach reflecting the sun, responded to the sparkling of its grand and beautiful neighbor, the Empire State building, and seemed to bid me a kind of good night that reconciled me with the idea of a common life and prevented me from drifting off into the night and set me back on track to my apartment though sometimes not for some hours. One light was all that was needed to break the spell.