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.

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.

Mr. Letterman disappears

 

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.

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.

Nächtlicher Brief an einen fernen Freund, zum Glück…

  … Ich nehme dieses ” Sich in die Welt erzählen” sehr ernst. Das Wort, das mit einem Buchstaben beginnt, der Buchstabe, der in einer Linie beginnt. Die Linie, die tanzt, deren Ausdehnung Zeit bedeutet und die sich mit anderen Linien … Continue reading

Ice fishing on Lake Willoughby, Sunday’s draft  

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So grandfather went out again in the morning and – coming back in from the cold -declared grimly that they should try and get some sleep

 as the ice was sound enough now, and they would go ice-fishing at nightfall and stay out in the bitter cold until almost midnight. Burbot mainly feed at night and that is when they had to set their lines.
Grandfather in the meantime put on single hooks with a gap between point and shank larger than ¾ of an inch. He stored them carefully in two 5 gallon buckets, each large enough to carry many sets of lines made from dowels. For each line they had about 8-ounce sinkers. Because together these were too heavy for the buckets, they were packed separately in rough hemp sacks. He packed two sleds with supplies, one for himself and Joe and one for Will who was old enough now to do his own fishing at a hole about 70 ft, away from theirs. He packed rope, ice picks and augers, a spud bar, two horse blankets for each of them and extra mittens.

As fishing burbot is done with hooks flat on the ground so they did not walk too far from the shore because the reef at the shore of the lake, as you know, falls off steeply into the main lake basin, deeper than any line is long that has ever been cast down the lake. 300 ft. maybe more. Nobody knows what creatures might be living down there, in the abyss of darkness but I guess they would not be a welcome sight in our world.

Burbot spawn on the rocks and boulders in 2 to 20 feet of water, and that is fairly close to shore, on the reef and the first drop-off at the base of the reef. But staying close to the shore was dangerous, as the edges of the ice can be much thinner and shallow water in general changes temperature more readily and the ice is unstable. And even when the ice had formed to grandfather’s satisfaction, we were aware that sometimes, not too often, the ice somewhere out on the lake from the depth of the basin, could shatter with the sound of a whip or a scream and rip through the ice all the way to shore with deadly speed. If you heard the whip you were to make for shore, leave everything behind, not care for catch nor supplies, just run. That’s why you would never put a good knife down on the ice, while fishing, and why you kept the ice pick in your belt as well. These things were hard to come by – alas not as hard as two healthy sons. So even if, by any chance, you had left your tools where you were not to leave them, you were still expected to run.

It was dangerous to go out there, and both, grandfather and grandmother, were weary to let Joe and Will join in, but they needed the extra hands to make enough catch or else they would starve to death.

Will and Joe did not mind the danger, far from it, they could not wait to get out onto the ice. They were boys, locked in a cabin for many weeks, safe some small outings, and they were missing summer and their freedom. They even enjoyed the idea of danger as much as any boy would, and they trusted above all that grandfather, who could walk on ice as fine as a sheet of parchment, knew when the right time had come for them to go out.

And the adults in their own way also were impatient and found it hard to wait for the ice to get sound enough, for the best time to catch burbot is their spawning season, a time when there was not only burbot but also plenty of whitefish and pike to be caught, while after the season passed the lake could look like a desert and you wouldn’t spot another burbot until next winter for they lived in the depth.

The lake had glazed over and the ice had hardened and grown without any snow, making the safest ice you could hope for.

And the most beautiful, too, though it does get very dark at night at your fishing hole, the ice becomes like a window into the lake. And if you are patient , just before nightfall, and despite the cold hold your position on the ice without moving, you can watch the burbot trough the ice as about a dozen males and females form a writhing ball several feet in diameter and dance what looks like an agonizing devil’s dance under water, rolling over the bottom of the shallows and muddying the waters under the black ice. 

Don’t forget, they are creatures of the deep. They have sharp teeth and they are mighty strong predators, skimming the shallows for crayfish, perch, minnows and even creatures almost their own size when it’s time to feed. Fearless they are. And they will fight back when they have fallen prey to your bait and hooks.