Ghost girl and Senegalese food

When Jawara arrived at the apartment the girl was home, greeting him with a melodious if distant „Hi, Jawara“, pronouncing his name with a slight American slur though she was European, actually German. It was unusual for her to be … Continue reading

Literary avatars,Jawara´s story, excerpt

IMG_5726Where do you live when you live in a mattress under a dining table as a roommate to a legal intern? What is your legal address? Do you even have one? You are not freezing at night. You do not go hungry by day. You are alive to the world, breathing, thinking, feeling, and you have a history that walks by your side as you walk past the store fronts on Madison on your way to the subway on 96th Street after your boss has taken off with the food truck towards Queens. His day is not over yet. He still has to drive the truck out, clean and unload it in order to comply with food regulation rules, to keep the truck running that provides both of you with a livelihood but in your case just so.

From the window displays on Fifth and Madison distant galaxies of human existence are reflecting. The entry to these worlds is being jealously guarded by slim young men in well cut suits with cold stares. You don´t even desire the kinds of goods that are hiding behind those faraway windows though you are also not ignorant of them, there is simply no meaning in the acquisition of things that furbish and decorate for events that are not even on your far horizon.

You do desire books though and a place to sit and work quietly. At this moment all you need is a few minutes for yourself, to be a free man and a free agent of your fortune, maybe pretending there was indeed a place for you to go to, not here in the Upper East side, maybe somewhere in Queens like your boss, a place with friends and family waiting for you like back at home. You correct yourself: like it used to be at home.

You stop in front of the book store on Madison Avenue, Crawford & Doyle. You have never once been here during opening hours but you love the window display and the old-world storefront. Your time is ticking, and you are incredibly tired, but you take a few minutes to let your eyes rest on the new arrangement of books. You love book design. Your mother was born in in Saint-Louis, Senegal, where she grew up before moving to Dakar to finish her secondary schooling and becoming a book designer. You know book design because she loves it. You miss her, but you know she approves of you being here and giving it your best shot. And so you feel ashamed that your best shot does not go so very far as you are exhausting yourself working at the food truck so you don´t have to live in the street. Any other city you might be having your own place but here it is all but impossible, all you can afford here is the mattress under a dining room table of a legal intern who is too poor to afford that place on her own.

The studio apartment you share is really small like a doll´s house, which explains why the only place for your mattress is under the table. The intern herself owns next to nothing – but she does own this table that is like a small hut. A table like a boat, like the Arche Noah she once said. New York could drown and all she´d have to do is turn the table over and float out of there. The both of you share the upper part of that table and the kitchen and the bathroom. She has made her own bedroom in a walk-in-closet which accommodates her own mattress underneath the clothes hangers. The arrangement works remarkably well. You are rarely at home when she is, time´s maybe overlapping a few hours at night. She comes in late, often after midnight, you have to get up at 3.30 am to meet your boss set up the food truck in time for the morning crowd of office workers. Both of you try to be mindful of the other´s sleep. Neither one of you brings a lover home though you have once seen her with this tall guy on Bank Street, artist looking type. He would not have fit in that closet. Such a strange thing though to know there is a girl in the closet while you are brushing your teeth. Sometimes she´s talking in her sleep from deep within that closet. New York is a strange place.

All of this you think as you let your eyes travel unseeing over the books displayed in the windows at Crawford & Doyle. You should be writing a book and have it displayed in this book store´s window for people to see and buy, you are a good narrator and a good writer, and you have a story to tell. But even in real life no one here seems to care about your story, you are all but invisible. People ask you for a bottle of Peach Snapple or Newman´s Lemon Ice Tea, they ask for coffee to go, they ask you for a donut with cream cheese or a pretzel with salt which you carefully wrap in a napkin and hand out to your customer, but not before you have carefully counted the change. People don´t care for you touching the pretzel with your hands, they are afraid of touch and life and smell, though the city is full of touch and life and smell, but it is like a playground to them with their own set of rules, it is their playground but your jungle, and they know close to nothing about you and they don´t want to either. You are not their problem, you hand out snacks and food and sugared drinks and coffee in a sanitary, non-threatening, polite way so they can forget about you the moment they bite into their pretzel, you are like an extra to their own, legitimate story while you keep invisible, keep in your place. Your head is so full of life and stories that all you want to do is sit down and start writing, tell a story, only you can´t because you are so tired and lonely and tired again,  so tired you almost hear your thoughts and they are so loud that they are almost painful and the blood rushes to your face, and what you really have to do is to go home and wash the dust off and crawl on to your mattress under the table in order to be able to get up in a few hours to start working again, so you will still have that mattress under the table and water and enough food to survive, and so this will be another night when you don´t start your book. Maybe tomorrow night. Try again. You have not given up quite yet. And you slowly start walking toward the subway station on 96th and your life´s avatars drag behind a bit, still clinging to that beautiful window display.

Si a jure discedas vagus eris, et erunt omnia omnibus incerta

or: If you depart from the law, you will go astray …

Legal avatars were walking with me every night right up until dawn. Most of them were missing something, something that was living and breathing in the legal clients who had come to the law office and had told their story of need and desire to the attorney but that somehow had got lost when the client´s life subsequently had been translated to fit in a file. Every day for about 15 minutes after lunch time Mr. O´Leary gave me a short introduction to the new cases he had Ms. Cavendish put on my desk in the morning. He was a very good narrator, mentioning details about clients that a less practiced observer would have overlooked or found insignificant. He was incredibly generous with me, 15 minutes is a long time for a lawyer whether he gets paid by the hour or contingency fees, that I knew even back then. And yet, the gap between his narrative and the legal brief I was supposed to write was so wide. Not unbridgeable but wide enough to truly humble me.

I still remember seeing the avatars slipping out of the files and silently pacing the room waiting for me to finish up. It started one night at about the time when I had been practicing my hand at writing briefs for about three months, practicing day after day with the many different cases that appeared in sets of three or four on my desk in the morning.
In the beginning it me had taken me a really, really long time to come up even with a just-so acceptable brief. By the time I brought the file back to Ms. Cavendish, Mr. O´Leary´s formidable secretary, I had read and reread the case close to a hundred times until I felt that I had either identified all the relevant information that I needed to actually write the brief, including the issue, the facts, the holding, and the relevant parts of the analysis, or, more often, that I had arrived at that kind of sinking, sick feeling that you have when it´s still not good enough but you just cannot do any better. Perversely, I had liked studying law for just that reason: it had made me small and humble and human insofar as it made me fail over and over again and that was perfectly in sync with my Puritan upbringing. I had been raised an atheist Puritan who had the severe character fault of having a creative streak. So if there ever was a law student who should have studied something instead it was me. And yet I continued in a distracted, untechnical, unstructured but seemingly still just-so good enough manner, because „not quitting“ had been ingrained into my personal code since my terrible-twos, and it continued to be my great weakness well into grown-up life. I was too stubborn to quit law school even as I was painting and dreaming and visiting museum after museum, I just couldn´t quit, it was as simple as that.
Generally speaking, before I had decided to go to law school I had been seriously suffering from delusions about what I could do in life, like: really anything. I had been convinced that I could do just about anything that I would set my mind to, you name it, math, sciences, language arts, and I´d be brilliant at it, and yet here I was, a few years later and not even being a quite good enough lawyer.

I simply had no clue what people were like and why they acted the way they did. I had no clue what other people actually wanted from life. No clue whatsoever. And you just can´t be a good lawyer if you don´t get people – on both sides of the law. You need to understand what drives a person and you need to understand what makes the law want to rule that very person in or entitle it to do as desired, you need , with other words, to have a good grasp of societal goals and values. Or, in the absence of such an abstract understanding, you at least need to believe that there is an order to things, a somewhat natural state of being that you will recognize when you see it.
If, on the other side, you are a multifaceted, spacey kid who lets the winds that blow through the city grid take a hold of you and push and pull you into any which direction it pleases, if you are but a drifter, if you live in books and if you cry while reading Sylvia Plath and if you are stricken by a certain Yellow in a Miró painting as if your life´s meaning depends on it, Miró, of all painters, if you are completely content with the universe for the view of the tar beach on the roof of your rental building on a freezing but fiercely clear morning, still barefoot and in your PJs and with a mug of coffee hot enough to burn the skin between your thumb and index finger (your stereotypical European intern kid), if you are happy with cheap Asian food from the corner store for weeks on end, if you are content with sharing your cramped studio apartment with a guy who works crazy hours at a food truck  and crashes on a mattress underneath your dining table, if you get a kick just out of running around Central Park in worn-out-no-brand sneakers trying to keep up with the Mexican runners for a few minutes before collapsing on to the Great Lawn, if you feel insanely alive for a split-second just because the light over Manhattan illuminates the Avenues looking south with toxic quick silver, and if on top of being this incarnation of a European nerd you think that your kicks are what makes all people around you stop dead in their tracks for excitement, then you might be on to something great for life, but as a lawyer you know next to nothing. If you don´t get what actually makes people fight for their very own piece of Lexington Avenue, small or majestic as it may be, you will be but a pathetic excuse for a lawyer.
So night after night, after I had closed the last book, feeling exhausted and ready to loose myself in the city, the avatars were quietly slipping out of the files and following me down the long hallway, past the pale light of Mr. Letterman´s office, into the creaky elevator and down, through the marble tiled lobby and out into the night. As we left the building, the avatars and I, and I was walking out into the night, they were following me and I was to them like the one eyed king amongst the blind. Si a jure discedas vagus eris, et erunt omnia omnibus incerta.

The invisible Mr. Letterman opens an umbrella on 34th street

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.

 

 

 

Mr. O´Leary encounters an act of kindness

 

Mr. O´Leary was highly suspicious of acts of kindness. He had been working in a field – contract law – where nothing ever was what it first seemed to be. As a lawyer he had had to train himself to question not just every contract presented to him, but to question even the expressed will of every client who came to him to have a contract drafted.

This was kind of the connecting negative puzzle piece to the legal plain-meaning rule, a principle used by courts in interpreting contracts that provide that the objective definitions of contractual terms are controlling, irrespective of whether the language comports with the actual intention of either party.

Mr. O´Leary was a specialist in creating contracts that satisfied plain-meaning-interpretation, eliminating inconsistencies and double-meaning phrases, extracting the literal content of the contract from the hidden intention of his clients without making it plain that other than purely legal and contractual reasons were actually motivating his clients to sign a contract that was written thus.

His guiding principle in understanding the lawyer-client relationship was that clients expected him to know about them and their intentions without telling him, in fact, for him to know what they could have known about themselves but preferred not to know and thus would not relate to him in plain terms. He considered it his job to shield them from this kind of painful, self-reflecting knowledge and he was supremely certain that his clients expected him to not ever let them know what they preferred not to know about themselves but to keep it disguised from them while at the same time adjusting the contracts to their hidden goals thus allowing them to continue to feel – reasonably – good about themselves and at the same time satisfy – and justify – their true goals.

When he was a young lawyer still – and green with it – he executed – to the letter and in an irreproachable manner – what clients told him to do and wondered when they paid their bills without complaint and still carried their business elsewhere afterwards. But he was quick on the uptake and soon adjusted his business conduct. There were certainly things they did not teach you at law school. Ever since he´d adjusted his guiding principles , clients, high paying clients, knew how to find him even though he was literally hiding amidst his file boxes like the Minotaur at the heart of the labyrinth Daedalus designed.

A graduate and scholarship student of the University of Chicago Law school Mr. O´Leary in his day had had his choice of law firms who´d have been glad to consider his application. He was extremely smart and had an impeccable work ethic. He´d also been subject to the same prep-talk (he called it propaganda) of „success“ as his class mates. Judged by how their alma mater described her alumni they all were but a group of friends who would pick up the phone anytime one of them called with a question and sat down with him to walk through issues. According to their law school they all were extremely fun, thoughtful, smart, and FUN students, and would continue to bring the same energy to their work as lawyers.

It was not that he did not appreciate the excellent education and rigorous academic training he had received.He also knew that the average salary for newly minted law graduates was nearly about $180,000 per year by now and that the graduates were worth it. It meant that as a lawyer with no experience he could have immediately be in the top 5% of U.S. earners. But for some unfathomable reason he also knew that students graduating from a top tier law school were the same as people on average with the only – significant – difference that they were subject to more diversion and temptation.

He did not graduate top of his class to be diverted from life. He could have taken three or four top performing associates from any top law firm and founded his own big law firm as a naming partner. It was all within his reach. But it was not what he had wanted.

If it seemed strange to others that he had accepted Mr. Letterman´s offer to become a partner on 35th street rather than to join one of the top ten law firms in New York and get worn down as an associate there before being hired by an excellent law firm and becoming partner eventually it was because they did not know some of the things about him, he thought he had realized early on.

It was not a sign of humility that he had chosen Mr. Letterman sen. instead. It was not exceptional that he did not get drunk on the prep talk of success. He had not been a recluse in law school. He had actually differed from the other highly motivated graduates and future pilars of society in a degree up, not down, by a notch. He had wanted more. It had been an extreme act of arrogance and late-puberty idealism (the same) and the result of careful research. He had been very clear to himself about what he thought he wanted and what he thought he did not want.

He was convinced back then – and was convinced still – that life mostly just happened to people, even or especially people who graduated from top tier law schools. Even early on in law school, he was convinced that people wasted about 15 – 20 years of their lives and took another ten to rectify their initial mistakes, if they were so lucky to live as long as that. He was not going to be cheated by life in this manner.

Mr. Letterman had an excellent reputation. You did have to know  how to find him. The office address was not sufficient to get in touch with him. But Mr. O`Leary was a good observer. Mr. O´Leary had also been told that Mr. Letterman sen. was legend and did not accept any applications. He had been told that even if Mr. Letterman would accept an application, he´d be likely not to pay the kind of salary that a University of Chicago Law school graduate legitimately could expect as a starting salary. This was concluded by the state of Mr. Letterman´s cramped office and filing system.

But what mattered to Mr. O´Leary was something fairly abstract and elusive: he was convinced that Mr. Letterman was one of the few lawyers he´d ever encountered who was in charge of his own life. His research showed that nobody took Mr. Letterman sen. along for a ride. As Mr. O´Leary saw it, Mr. Letterman owed nobody a kindness. He certainly did not owe him, a recent graduate, an opportunity to reach out for the kind of life he thought Mr. Letterman had found. He knew though he was depending on an act of kindness for Mr. Letterman to accept his application.

Not that he believed in it. In kindness. He had been practicing law for many years now and he had lived in NYC for as many years and he was sure, absolutely sure, that he had never encountered a genuine act of kindness apart from Mr. Letterman´s willingness – as many years ago – to accept his application.

Schrödinger’s cat – or: On the art of being in multiple locations simultaneously

  After a couple of years working  part time as a lawyer I just started working in a full time position. The first week brought me to about 50 hours and an additional 13 hours commuting time. My brain – … Continue reading