Reading Wallace as a legal intern, or: Being half as smart as a moose makes you a muffin

 

So, it turns out that reading David Foster Wallace kind of inflicted permanent damage to my brain. What I mean to say is that writing German is an elusive task for me since reading Wallace. Writing German I sound, well, I guess, cultured. Professional. Well phrased. Boring. Writing German is something I do every day, as I do it for a living, but which I do not half as well as I would could I use my other language for my legal briefs. I´d be brillant. If I could only write my briefs in English.

I write: „my“ other language, because though I feel I am represented extremely well by what I write in English, I also realize that I am not even close to being a fluent writer in English, and thus being extremely well represented by what I write in English also means that I am extremely well represented by a halting, hacking use of a foreign language riddled with mistakes, misconceptions and yearning. Which as far, as I know, are the signs of true love.

So strong is my rejection of my native language in representing who I am, that I feel better represented by a language that constantly demonstrates my limited ability to use it than my own that I master to the typical bourgeois degree your average lawyer is bound to. It is as if writing in English is a personal code my brain is using; hence the possessive pronoun, „my“ other language.

I am stuck, with other words, in the rejection of my mother tongue like a dutiful wife in a sensible marriage. I am also stuck between two languages, two ages, two cultures. Somewhere along the way I lost myself. It´s been years since I have been me. Thank god. Being me was scary as hell. I read a lot of David Foster Wallace when I was me. I heard the vermin stirring in the walls of the closet I called my New York apartment. I actually heard my hair growing when I turned off the light at night. You may conclude how scary being me was, when I tell you that I took that for a hopeful sign.

At daytime I worked in a crappy small place of a law office of 35th street and Lex. My German fellow interns were on the L.L.M. track, lived in trendy lofts they presumably leased for token rents from some distant American cousin and got accepted into prestigious law firms with company names that were longer than the hallway of my apartment. I worked in a place with boxes full of files stacked along the walls everywhere.

Some days it took me an hour to find my boss who was curiously enough named Mr. O´Leary (as if all my German knowledge of American subculture had convened in one place) because the labyrinth created by the file boxes changed every day as new documents had to be filed or old ones to be found.

I don´t know whether Mr. O´Leary, Esq. ,ever left the premises. Or his office for that matter. He was wearing the same crumpled, dark blue suit every day. Judged by the amount of bento take-out sushi boxes and Chinese fortune cookies that assembled in the margins of his desk like shells and sea weed left by a receding tide line he lived right there. Sometimes, in order to find Mr. O´Leary, in the morning to receive my assignments from him, I simply followed the Pizza guy who never had trouble finding Mr. O´Leary´s office. Mr. O-Leary liked pizza and coffee for breakfast. I never met Mr. Letterman sen.

The firm did real estate law exclusively. This being the age of the internet my boss advertised his services ONLINE with a company website that a client had put together lieu of a legal fee for Mr. OO´Leary and the invisible Mr. Letterman sen. whose existence had never been proven to me or any other employee I had talked to during my three-and-a-half years at O´Leary and Letterman sen. LLP. T

he website looked like a ripped out yellow page ad and said that O-Leary & Letterman sen. LLP did commercial and residential real estate transactions, presented „Comprehensive Legal Strategies for Real Estate Investors“, and excelled in the representation of sellers and purchasers in the sale, financing or leasing of multifamily and single family residential properties and a wide range of commercial properties. My job was mainly to draft office and retail leases somewhere in yet another closet that was 3/4 filled with file boxes, a copy machine and a small desk. The place smelled like cardboard and ozone. The whole firm was a nightmare of a fire hazard.

Once a month the cleaning lady removed the debris of take-out left overs (she never touched the file boxes, of course). When Mr. O´Leary´s desk was clean, there was enough place to write pay cheques. Minimum wages were a dream for me. I knew the cleaning lady was paid royally in comparison. I also knew all of our survival depended on her. She was worth it. I was replaceable. At best.

And yet I felt like I was on fire. No. Delete that. I was on fire. And reading David Foster Wallace confirmed it. That I was smart enough to read David Foster Wallace in English confirmed it. I was on fire and I was so super smart. Smarter than the German interns in the big law firms who for all I knew had no idea who David Foster Wallace was. Nor cared to know. Nor would have been able to read Wallace if they had cared. Or so I wanted to think.

Living in New York in a closet working in between a labyrinth of file boxes doing legal research on LexisNexis. I felt like living in a Coen brothers movie. Just without the action. When I read Wallace I didn´t care that we had a roach infestation in our prewar building or that I was only able to make rent by renting out the space under my dining table to a guy from Senegal who worked in a food truck till four in the morning and came home at 8.00 am to crash for a couple of hours. His name was Jawara. He kept his mattress and his few belongings in such neat order as only very poor people know how. I was rich in comparison to Jawara. We barely saw each other because I left for work when he came back home – which was why the arrangement worked – but I always felt kind of shy around the place that should have been my own but that due to my own kind of poverty I shared with an almost stranger who had set up camp underneath my dining table.

I felt so smart when I read David Foster Wallace (and only then) and I know, I KNOW, you are going to say that this – by statistical probability – could not have been but your typical college kid delusion. A bad case, too. Except that I was past college age. I was on fire and delusional, that much is true. Two things scared me while reading Wallace. 1. I got him (correct that: I was convinced I was the only person in the universe who got him) 2. I realized I was not half as smart as Wallace. Smarter than your average lawyer intern. Not half as smart as Wallace. And being half as smart as Wallace was just not that flattering a thought to me. Being half as smart as a moose makes you a muffin.

At least, I knew a few people who could well have been as smart as Wallace. I had no way to truly prove that, of course, prove that they were almost as smart as my guru Wallace. It was more of an educated guess. But judged by the rate they have died on me since I left the law firm on 35th and Lex. they probably had been. I have learned a few things just by being a muffin in the vicinity of very, very smart people. They tend to hide behind file boxes. And despite the fact that still no big name law firm would hire me, neither would they hire any of the very, very smart people I knew, some of which had law degrees. Not statistically speaking, just deducing by the kind of very, VERY, smart people I knew, I do have something in common with them. Being truly smart makes for a lonely life. As does being a muffin. But so does poverty. Illness. Old age. Alkohol. The wrong nationality. The wrong color of skin. As well as a few other suspects. Being any of the latter and being smart, really smart, is almost sure to be a killer.

But I should start from the beginning. How it happened that a German intern who was green with it, got to work for O´Leary and Letterman sen. LLP. on 35th Street.

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Denn die Gesellschaft, die ihre Kindern keine Freiheit lehrt, wird keine Freiheit kennen.

Art. 12 der UN-Kinderrechte

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