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
Where 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.
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.
Mr. Letterman was the kind of man who found find intrinsic value in reflection and contemplation and had allowed this inclination to become the building structure of his life. This was why as an undergraduate student even with law school in mind he had chosen to study philosophy rather than economics and had concentrated on 17th-century philosophy which he found particularly intriguing because it answered to his own temperament. He had studied Descartes, Locke, and Newton, and had read Kant as well as Goethe, Voltaire, Rousseau, and Adam Smith. He cherished reason and individualism as the core values of enlightenment.
He knew quite well how difficult it was to actually live an individual life as he understood it, starting with an education that gave a student time to acquire the ability to distinguish individual choices from prefabricated ideas. He had been a keen observer all of his life, and since the late Eighties had noticed the changes imparted by a growing globalized market on American cultural habits which had been in fluid transformation of very different heterogene cultural movements since the late Sixties but now were anastomosing into more or less one all-emcompassing stream of consumer culture. Since then, or so he was convinced, increasingly suggestive marketing strategies had been skillfully reducing individual freedom more or less to the act of choosing between different consumer goods. According to the logic of the market commercial success was the gate to freedom as it allowed access to consumer products, and striving for the possession of consumer goods had been accepted as the ultimate meaningful pursuit in life. People now spend most of their time working and earning money to spend on such consumer goods and if their work in itself happened not be meaningful, there was little time left to construct meaning from whatever was left over to their private discretion. Consumer goods as carriers of a lifestyle that few could integrate into their everyday routines were tailored to fill the void of the un-lived life while at the same time creating the desire to acquire even more goods, more things to throw into the abyss of time.
Mr. Letterman knew that poverty enslaves families, condemning generation after generation to a living on low wages and social security, that people as intelligent as he considered himself to be had to forego higher education and work hard, repetitive jobs, wasting their potential, that he himself, due to fortuitous social circumstances, had been allowed to develop. He knew that in low incomehouseholds – among other things – there was indeed also a lack of needed consumer goods from food to clothing to furniture to kitchen appliances to books. But he also knew that it was not the lack of consumer products that was most painful consequence of low incomes but the lack of education and access to the many sources of meaning that were reserved for those who knew how to decipher the code. Higher education was an expensive privilege. He was not fighting for social justice per se even though he was representing a fair share of pro bono cases. But he kept aware that he did not earn the privilege of an education that was denied to others and he kept a special kind of contempt for people with access to this kind of privilege who nonetheless proved incapable of making individual and intelligent choices.
For him, prerequisite to a mindful life was reading. And the prerequisite to reading well was education. He visited the New York Public Library during late lunch, sometimes just to sit down in the reading room for a while. Since childhood he had loved the gigantic stone lions who guarded the entrance to the Library, Patience and Fortitude. He loved the many different book stores of New York´s neighborhoods.He chose his books with care following his established interests and toyed with the idea to write a book himself if he should ever find the time, a book about the many stories that clients brought to him daily and which were a kaleidoscope of the many brilliant pieces of NYC of but like any passionate reader he was also curious about books and authors yet unknown to him. He loved to rediscover new as well as almost forgotten authors and frequently visited used book stores. He was a regular at Strand´s.
Saturday mornings he liked to stop by at Crawford & Doyle booksellers, a small old-fashioned independent bookstore on Madison Avenue between 81st and 82nd street close to the MetMuseum. After his visit to the book store he walked straight over to the Met where he spend whatever was left of Saturday afternoon, sitting in one of the courts and reading a new book while tourists and New Yorkers walked past him.
Crawford & Doyle booksellers catered to a eclectic reading tastes, offering a selection of the New York Times bestseller list and the annually published most notable book list yet always keeping the discriminating reader in mind, and offering a plethora of topics including fiction, history, philosophy, biography, religion, politics, lyrics, social studies, art, children´s books and a fine selection of crime novels on the first floor of a space hardly larger than a spacious living room. The store was beautifully stacked with old dark wooden shelves and lower showcases and booktables stacked with books, leaving only small alleyways to pass through and two very narrow benches to sit down.
There was a gallery on the second floor which was, in fact, a book store within a book store, with collectible and rare books, concentrating on first editions of primarily American and British fiction. Mr. Letterman had found first editions of Frost and Yeats upstairs and a small volume of the Dubliners which he treasured and always carried with him as it fit perfectly in the pocket of his overcoat.
Crawford & Doyle was dependable and friendly like an old acquaintance. Customers were entering and leaving the store on Saturday mornings in a lively flow without interrupting the reader in the corner; they politely accommodated one another in the narrow passageways between the displays and conducted short, quiet conversations among themselves or livelier ones with the knowledgeable staff at the register. It was a store dedicated to the art of reading and thus to an enlightened public, readers like himself, in search of the path that was as individual as the reader, leading from one book to the next, choosing one, leaving out another equally deserving one, following an instinct that had formed over a lifetime of reading.
As many customers were regulars Mr. Letterman would see familiar faces on Saturday mornings and got to know the taste and habits of people who remained strangers to him yet at the same time were like family to him, serious readers like himself. A Saturday morning regular for example was the small lady whose features were so delicate and who moved so lightly that she reminded him of a small bird. She had a special taste for all kinds of political fiction and quite obviously a voracious reading appetite. She would assemble sizable stacks of books to take home, carrying The Reader by Bernard Schlink on top of The History of the Siege of Lisbon by Jose Saramago, followed by Anthony Burgess last novel Byrne, postwar German author Heinrich Böll with a short story collection titled The Mad dog, and on top of this formidable stack The Three-Arched Bridge by Ismail Kadare who had just recently become a lifetime member of the Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of France.
Mr. Letterman loved to cast a sideway glance at the birdlady´s finds and sometimes he let himself be inspired by her choices. It was through her that he discovered his love for Kadare. He read Ura me tri harqe, The Three-arched Bridge, first published in 1978 because he had spied it on top of her stack, and had continued with Përbindëshi, The Monster, an even earlier work from 1965, which took him some time to find and that he finally discovered in the used-book section of Crawford-Doyle´s just like before the reasure of an author-signed version of Nata me hënë, Moonlight, first published in 1985.
And then there was the girl mainly lingering in the art book section but sometimes straying to children´s books. She was mostly dressed in faded Jeans and an NYU-sweatshirt, wearing her straight dark blonde hair open and pushed back on just one side behind her ears. He had never paid too much attention to her because he did read little on the visual arts, and had no interest in children´s books but he had indeed noticed the girls just as he did notice the other regulars and had inscribed her on his inner map of a particular Saturday morning.
Then one Saturday, something strange had happened. Instead of in her usual spot in the arts he had encountered her in the non-fiction area between philosophy and history. She had taken a somewhat awkward turn to let him pass, misjudging the space between their passing bodies and with an abrupt countermovement had just so prevented herself from running the art volume into his rips . The abrupt movement almost made her drop both of her books, the art book on top of which she had opened another book, using the larger book like a small reading desk. This other book he recognized at once because he owned an earlier edition of it and was familiar with the new one she had been studying before he had interrupted her. After he had passed her unharmed, answering her apologies with a polite apology of his own, she went right back to reading. The book was „The Hedgehog and the Fox“ by Isaiah Berlin. Mr. Letterman considered this an unexpected choice for a girl who would spend most of her time in the arts and children´s book section. Isaiah Berlin had commented on this collection of essays, bearing the title of a fragment from the archaic Greek poet Archilochus. Berlin has said: „I never meant it very seriously. I meant it as a kind of enjoyable intellectual game, but it was taken seriously.“ which struck Mr. Letterman as an appropriate motto for his own well intentioned life that was meant to be light and unattached to convention but that had also turned out a bit different than he had foreseen. A little lonelier than anticipated for example.
The girl looked like the serious kind of girl who preferred reading to going out, maybe a bit too serious for young men´s taste, he thought. She was pale and almost pretty and she squinted her eyed as if she was in need of glasses while reading.
He liked the The Hedgehog and the Fox . It too was an intellectual game in which Berlin divided writers into two categories: hedgehogs, who – like Plato – view the world through the lens of a single defining idea, and foxes – like Shakespeare – who draw on a wide variety of experiences and who pursue multiple ideas simultaneously that were all but incompatible with each other but coherent in themselves, representing Berlin´s irreducibly pluralist ethical ontology. Mr. Letterman suspected that he himself – unfortunately and despite his curiosity – was more of a hedgehog really, not least due to a certain shyness and his need to keep a steady view of life while the value pluralism that Berlin was able to embrace gave his own ethical system a spinning sensation.
He had been curious if the girl would actually purchase the book or had just been attracted by the whimsical title. It was a hardcover edition though and bound to be expensive, probably around sixty Dollars, and so, even if she decided against it, it might not necessarily tell him much about her intellectual preferences. Still, his curiosity was aroused, also she seemed vaguely familiar, and so he gave her a sidewards glance every once in a while.
After a while she closed the Hedgehog and the Fox carefully, but did not put it back. Instead she pulled out yet another book from the shelf, this one slender with a marbled green-greyish paper cover over a frayed soft cardboard binding and a light green title tag glued to the front like an old fashioned school notebook. There was no dust cover.
The first thing he thought as he looked at the small book was that he must have overlooked it (because he knew all the books in that shelf and noticed new books right away when he got to it), the second thought was that it must have been displaced because quite obviously it belonged in the used book section. The girl put the art book and the Hedgehog and the Fox down on top of the fairly low shelf and gently opened the marbled book in order to spare the book spine from damage. By the way she handed the book he could tell that she was used to handling books.
He stepped a bit closer, randomly pulling out a book of his own and looking over to her again, smiling in case she should meet his gaze but she didn´t. She was fully concentrated on her book and did not look up or showed any other sign of awareness of his presence. He therefore dared to move a little closer still in order to identify the book and saw that the volume did indeed not belong in this shelf. The gilt letters on the title, partly obscured by her hands he deciphered as Ri- – o-nn- – Orph – -s and concluded that she had found a treasure, Rilke´s Sonnets to Orpheus. He knew the publishing house´s signature marble cover, a German Publisher called INSEL, the Island.
The girl became even more interesting to him now as she seemed transfixed by this new book, caressing the paper while turning the pages. Quite suddenly she looked up as if she had grown aware of his observing look. She looked directly at him and smiled. For a moment he was startled by her sudden awareness, but then he returned her smile. I am German, she said, it´s strange to read Rilke in English translation. She said this as if they had been meeting before and this was just one out of many remarks that had already passed between them. Well, he answered, I envy you, my German is very limited and I would not be able to read Rilke if his work hadn´t been translated. That is a nice edition you found. Someone must have placed it in the wrong shelf.
She smiled again, lowered her voice and then continued the conversation with an even more personal tone. -Will you keep a secret if I recited some lines from my favorite Rilke poem in German to you? Her English was excellent with only a slightly rough edge that gave away the German native speaker. He considered the question. He was curious and so he nodded. She briefly closed her eyes and, reopening them, looked straight at him again and started with a clear if still quiet voice, not at all like a schoolchild reciting a poem by heart, as he had half expected. Though clearly in verse it did not sound like a recitation of a poem at all, more like an intimate confession. He could make out single words, colors like Grün and Blau and simple words like Sommer and Sonne und Frau, and names of places places like Venice and Kasan, Rome and Florence, Kiev and Moscow, but the rest to him was like a strange music, beautiful and raw.
Und du erbst das Grün vergangner Gärten und das stille Blau
tau aus tausend Tagen
die vielen Sommer, die die Sonnen sagen
und lauter Frühlinge mit Glanz und Klagen
wie viele Briefe einer jungen Frau
Du erbst die Herbste, die wie Prunkgewänder
in der Erinnerung von Dichtern liegen,
und alle Winter, wie verwaiste Länder,
scheinen sich leise an dich anzuschmiegen.
Du erbst Venedig und Kasan und Rom,
Florenz wird dein sein, der Pisaner Dom,
die Troïtzka Lawra und das Monastir,
das unter Kiews Gärten ein Gewirr
von Gängen bildet, dunkel und verschlungen, –
Moskau mit Glocken wie Erinnerungen, –
und Klang wird dein sein Geigen, Hörner, Zungen,
und jedes Lied, das tief genug erklungen,
wird an dir glänzen wie ein Edelstein.
Es geht noch weiter, she said, after a pause, then realized that she had spoken German, repeated: – This is not where it ends, but I think this is good for now. He smiled warmly and bowed to her. She gave a small laugh and answered: – Now for my secret. He replied: – But that would be two gifts then, implying that the poem had been a gift and he had appreciated it, but she did not pay attention to him as if she was in need of depositing her secret whatever it might be with someone, just anyone, maybe the first person she met who liked Rilke.
He felt a bit uneasy, because the encounter had become personal and he did not know whether he wanted to be burdened with a private detail. – You see, she commented as if she had been following his thoughts, – the second one is not a gift, it is a fair and square deal. But don´t be afraid, it´s just an insignificant small thing I am going to tell you, quite childish really, and he felt ashamed that he had been nervous.
She continued with a hushed voice and in a slightly pedantic tone, her German accent now more apparent that she had recited the Rilke poem, – I cannot afford to buy this book, it´s really quite expensive. It´s a first edition, published in 1923, and it is absolutely beautiful. I do spend money on books as you can see, but this one´s out of my reach. So I took it from the rare book section down here and placed it in social studies because I figured chances are that most people interested in social theories and politics and history would not much care for poetry and so it would be awhile until it either found a buyer or the clerks put it back where it belongs and until then I can look at it. These editions normally go very fast. Now, there it is, my secret, and I am going to put the book back on the shelf right next to Isaiah Berlin because he was fluent in German and would be good company to Rilke. I hope you will keep my secret because then I will be able to enjoy this a little longer and all the more now because it is a shared secret now.
Mr. Letterman watched her shelving the book neatly, holding on to his own books tightly to steady himself. He was feeling troubled. He did not know whether he felt disapproval or interest in the girl or both he was at the same time curious and uncertain as to how the situation would continue, asking himself whether she would expect him to answer to her confession and what to say, and whether he was to be her accomplice in the crime or give her some fatherly advice. Surely this was not a grave violation of ethics, not as bad even as hiding a book at the law library to prevent other students from finding specific titles that were relevant for a semester assignment as was a bad habit of some of his fellow students at law school. Surely, there was something intriguing about a girl her age who knew Rilke by heart and seemed to know a bit about Isaiah Berlin as well, already knew this before she opened The Hedgehog and the Fox. Surely, he did not normally seek out young girls for literary conversations and confessions, and he felt at insufficient and uneasy and overall insufficiently prepared for such a situation, which in turn made him feel irritated and at a loss for words. But she just turned around, smiled at him once more, but now in a polite and distant way that betrayed nothing of the intimacy they had shared just a moment ago and with a small nod of the head, walked over to the register to pay for her two books. He looked at the shelf where the small grey-green volume nestled up to its neighbor, like an ordinary, out of the ordinary secret, a secret quite different than the ones he was entrusted with every day save Saturday and Sunday as a lawyer. When he looked up again the girl had left the store leaving him behind with their shared secret. Should he take the book out of the shelf like a good schoolboy and carry it back to the rare book section? But nobody had made him the guardian of the books after all and the clerks, as she had said, were bound to find it sooner or later, so there was no harm done, really. After giving this some consideration he still didn´t feel right about it, and he still felt angry with her for leaving him with choices that would put him in the wrong no matter whether he decided it one way or the other. Finally he turned his back on Rilke and Berlin and started browsing in the opposite shelf, in History. He pulled out Herodotus who was shelved properly and leafed through the pages until he found his favorite part, the story of Candaules and Gyges. When he had finished reading it and Candaules had been killed and succeeded by Gyges, he had successfully willed himself to forget about Rilke, and about the secret and about the girl. Or so he thought. Thus he kept the secret. Thus the trouble began.
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.
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.
Mr. Letterman loved New York City, and he loved his profession. He had graduated from Brooklyn Law School in 1966 and had worked for a year for the New York City Corporation Council’s office. He was a shy and friendly person and a very good lawyer. He certainly did not not have a reputation for aggressiveness, appearing almost apologetical as he was presenting his cases with a polite old-school manner. He did meticulous research and was a sharp analyst. Rudeness aggrieved him. He distinguished himself by winning his cases in an inexorably kind manner.
His parents had been doctors in Brooklyn. He had a sister who was almost 14 years his senior and who had taken over their parents medical practice as they both retired towards the end of his law school time. It had seemed a natural choice that he would do medical malpractice litigation but it had been too obvious a choice for him. Instead he had set up his offices in a small place near the Empire State building and had started to defend New York property owners in claims involving the wide range of problems the city dealt out to them on a daily basis: property damage, negligent hiring, inadequate security, lead poisoning, bodily injury on the premises, intentional assault, arson, and fraud. He was well known in his area of expertise, and he had seen every kind of human misery conceivable. He was a New York lawyer.
He rarely met clients in his offices. Instead he preferred to sit by the window in a small coffeeshop until well after lunch time, taking notes while clients sat opposite him in the booth that was reserved for him on weekdays. After lunch he quietly slipped out of his booth, payed his bill, left a generous tip and crossed the street. On court days his booth remained empty. Afternoons and evenings he spent at the office working on legal briefs.
He led a typical New York life. If he made a lot of money he certainly did not show off or took a lot of time to spend it. In some ways his taste was very simple. He loved his coffee black, no sugar. He knew who he was and what he liked, but he did not need to talk about it.
He would never tire of his corner of the city. He thought the Empire State building was the world second most beautiful manmade sight. First was the Brooklyn bridge. He considered himself a man born at the right time in the right place.
In 1996, when I started as an intern at O´Leary and Letterman LLP I did not know any of this. In fact, I only knew Mr. Letterman by name, and I never met a staff member of an associate who seemed to have either met him or who had the willingness to share their knowledge if they were in possession of it. Over time I wondered if he even existed or if Mr. O´Leary had simply invented him for the sake of a better company name.
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.