WEBEXCLUSIVE

Character and Fitness: Chapters 7 and 8

Character and Fitness is a semi-autobiographical novel about an unemployed social justice lawyer and his nurse girlfriend living in a shitty apartment complex behind a strip mall in suburban Philadelphia, the birthplace of our democracy. The novel explores the alienation and estrangement that working class, thinking people feel in America. The characters inhabiting this novel are trying to make their lives about something more than simply making money, which makes them strangers in a strange land. Tune in every month for another installment.

7.

I’m not really supposed to like DC, same as I’m not supposed to like Wall Street, Madison Avenue or Hollywood, but concentrations of power are exciting. You could be an anarchist whose main thought is to blow it all up, but you’re still going to feel a tingle the first time you step into Manhattan or see the White House. There are reasons why most of the people who write books and make movies critical of power and capitalism spend their lives in or around power centers. I lived here once for four months, first place I came after I left Albuquerque. I slept on a friend’s couch and worked as a bus boy at the American café. I blew one whole paycheck on a sport coat. I wanted to be seen as the kind of guy who attends conferences. I wanted people to pass by me and think that I work at an Institute, go to cocktail parties and play squash at a racket club. I wanted people to think of me as an intelligent and successful young man. I get out of the metro and cross the street over to a Starbucks, one of three on the same block. I took the Philly city bus to the Greyhound bus and the Greyhound bus to here, so need a few minutes to regroup, get centered, put on my tie. I go in and get in line behind a tall woman that everyone seems to be buzzing around. I catch a glimpse of her profile. I can’t remember her name, but she’s the token liberal on Fox News—the one that gets paid to create the illusion of debate. I’m not supposed to really like her, either, but she’s the exact sort of thing that you want to see in DC.
I get my coffee and ask for the bathroom key. It’s not a young cool city, but it’s easy to picture yourself as an adult here. I get out the blue tie that we bought at Nordstrom’s and put it on in front of the mirror. I look good and sharp, an attorney with an edge. The last few months have been tough, but I’ve come through and am primed to get back on track. I’m not a failure, just a guy who’s been through a hard stretch. I can do this. I can nail this interview and bring home this job. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and doggone it, people like me! I splash some cold water on my face, dry off, check myself one last time, then hit the street and get into a cab. The inside is new and clean. I feel like I’m in my own town car. I don’t look outside at the scenery, but sit in the back and focus on my notes. The First Amendment is one of those areas that I thought I knew because everyone is always talking about it, but then I started studying it and realized that I didn’t know anything. At first it seemed just like a bunch of vague legal principles, but underlying everything are these very exact tests. It’s complicated and I can’t bullshit it, especially considering that I’m going head-to-head with one of the top First Amendment lawyers in the country.

I get out of the cab and shield my eyes from the sun. The streetscape’s changed from strip mall asphalt to upscale marble. The white building feels historical and European, valuable as both tradition and as real estate. A slight wave of nervousness comes over me, but I’ve earned the right be here, the chance to prove myself. I go inside and sign in at the front desk. The security is heavy, but the guards smile. Perfectly liberal. This is it. I can’t pretend like this is small. I can’t pretend like it doesn’t matter. I get my pass and take elevator up to the 5th floor. This is about having a role to play versus remaining on the outside. An invitation to take part in things. A stake in the fight. As I walk down the hall, I pass by several paintings and works of contemporary art I read about on their website. The Civil Rights Guild has an art auction and fundraiser every year. It’s supposed to be one of the hottest events in DC. A civil rights nonprofit that throws cool art parties, pretty much the dream. You only begin to understand what it is you’ve been missing, when you see exactly what it is you want.

“Mr. de la Vega?”

“Yes.”           

“How are you?”

“Fine, thanks.”            

She’s a stylish college girl, probably around 20.

“Welcome!”

“Thank you.”

“Ms. Harr is ready for you,” she smiles. “The office at the end of the hall.”

“Thank you.”

“Should you need to be validated, I’ll be here when you get out.”

“I’m sorry?”

“If you need your parking validated….”

“Oh, no, thank you, I took a cab.”

“Well, best of luck to you.”

“Thanks again.”

The hallway is lined with law books and artfully done with woodcut quotes from various figures in the law. This is a place of thinking and the life of the mind, but even better because in these halls, thought gets put into action. This is a place that brings results. This is a place that changes lives. Millions of people can vote because of places like this. Millions of people have equal access to education because of places like this. Millions of people are treated with respect, or at least not discriminated against because of places this…And while there will always be that overly modern voice in my head looking for angles and seeing the varying degrees of bullshit that underlies everything because varying degrees of bullshit does underlie everything, the bottom line is that this is the side that I am on. This is the fight that I believe in: constitutional rights, democracy, equality and social justice. And while that may seem pretentious, it is, in effect, humbling: because the moment you say this is what I believe in, is the moment that you own it. There are no more excuses. No more smart-ass quips. Only tiny little you, doing the absolute best you can. I read a quote by Brandeis as I walk down the hall: We can have democracy in this country, or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the very few–but we cannot have both.

I recognize her from photos that I’ve seen in legal journals. She’s tall and dark-haired in her 50’s with dangling silver earrings and a confidence that I can feel from ten feet away. I am keenly aware of her many achievements, so have to guard against being intimidated, while remaining natural, yet also showing the right amount of respect. “Neal, so good to meet you.”

“Nice meeting you, Ms. Harr.”

I can see the round dome of The National Gallery through the window behind her desk. Her office itself is like an art gallery with a collection of indigenous crafts lining several shelves: Mexican folk art, handmade dolls, woven paintings and colored masks along with photos of her clients.

“That’s a beautiful view,” I say as she closes the door.

“It absolutely saves me,” she says.

There’s a black-and-white striped Kachina doll on the shelf next to her diploma from Harvard. I look back at her dangling silver earrings and wonder if there’s a connection with where I’m from. “Are you from New Mexico?”

“No,” she says, looking through her notes. “Connecticut. How was your trip? You’re currently in Philadelphia? My husband is from Chestnut Hill and we go back once a year…Absolutely love it there during the holidays.”

“The trip was good.”

“People will forever complain,” she says, “But I still love the train. And your hotel?”

“Good. Great.”

She puts her notes down and looks up at me. “And you’ve done impressive work…”

There’s a lilting quality to her voice. I can’t help but feel like I’m in the presence of a person with a good life. “Not like the work you’ve done here.”

“Ah,” she reflects. “The work I did in the South was some of the very most meaningful of my career. So many memories…”

“In Alabama?”

“Yes, and Mississippi.”

“I’d love to hear about it.”

“Ah, too many stories to tell,” she says. “But I want to focus on the experience that you’ll bring to the CRG….”

“Okay.” Don’t say okay. “I understand.”

“You’re licensed in Louisiana,” she says, becoming more serious and business-like. The small talk is over. The interview has begun. “Not an undemanding bar to sit for, no less pass on the first attempt, if one hasn’t attended law school there.”

The Louisiana bar is the longest in the country, all essay and part of it still based on the Napoleonic code. I think about telling her about how on the last hour of the 5th day of the exam the proctor came in and told us all to exit to the right of the building because the Louisiana Gun and Knife show was setting up next door, but decide to play it straight. “I certainly had to study for it.”

“Our state affiliate is going to trial there next month—could we send you to second-chair?”

“Which Parish?”

“Catahoula.”

 I think of Zola, my Catahoula dog. I think of Rachel, my love and partner. I think of them back there together on the couch in that shitty apartment, rooting for me right now. I have to get this done for us. “Yes, I believe I could.”

“Good, Neal, wonderful…We don’t discuss our cases—hypothetical or otherwise—outside the office.”

“I understand.”

“Good, Neal, wonderful…Our client was taking part in a demonstration outside a school board meeting,” she says, leaning forward on her desk. “He was arrested and is now being charged with assault and disorderly conduct. Peaceful, but the state wants to introduce evidence that there was at one time a restraining order issued against him and that he’s been convicted of a DUI,” she makes a motion with her hand, like brushing them away as morons beneath her contempt. “Their intent is to make it look as though he were just troublemaking, not engaged in legitimate protest, thereby cutting out the First Amendment issue altogether. Is this permissible, Neal; can the State get away with it?”

Not sexy, but quietly beautiful stuff. American law is truthful enough to recognize that people are irrational, easily biased and not good at critical thinking. If an average person hears that a defendant got a DUI five years ago, then they’re much more likely to assume that that person also stole a watch, though they have nothing to do with each another. Sort of like why we invaded Iraq.

“Only if we opened the door first,” I say. “Rule 405 allows the defendant to call witnesses to testify to his good character, but if he does, then the prosecution can rebut by putting on witnesses to testify to his bad character.”

“And the prosecution’s witness would be allowed to attack defendant’s character by testifying as to his prior convictions?”

“No, not unless defendant’s convictions are relevant to the current case,” a black bird floats outside her window. “Or unless the prior convictions go to motive, identity or one of those other five or six exceptions…The general rule, Ms. Harr, is that extrinsic evidence of other crimes isn’t permitted, whether we’ve placed our client’s character at issue or not.”

“So how would the police officer rebut?”

“By reputation,” I say. “The cop would testify that our guy is, as they say, a known troublemaker.”

I was worried about being too self-conscious, but feel natural and professional, which isn’t always easy when you’ve been sitting in your own pajamas and watching Dr. Phil for the last eight months. We go back and forth on the rules of evidence for ten minutes or so, but then she turns to the heart of the matter: the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. “So,” she says, playing with her pen. “Our client was engaged in protest because his kid’s school, a public school,” she says with intense stress on the word public—the difference between public and private being huge for constitutional lawyers, as the public domain is where the Constitution remains in effect. “Is using Christian Sunday school teachers to teach music and art, classes that have been dropped due to state budget cuts,” she says. “And make note, Neal, that the Sunday school teachers aren’t doing this for free, but the school system ispaying them a stipend.”

Now, this is both beautiful AND sexy—nothing less than the Jeffersonian separation of church and state. The fact about the stipend is important. It means that the government is paying Christian Sunday school teachers to teach kids in public schools.

 “The arrangement wasn’t an issue,” she continues. “Until our client’s son came to him and said that his music teacher was having a moment of silence before every class, so that the children could say prayers, if they wanted… Now is this constitutional? What’s the law here, Neal?”

I know my feelings on the matter, but my feelings aren’t what matters. Rationality matters. Critical thinking matters. The people on the other side of the argument can try and pass off their irrationality as thinking, but that’s not what we do on this side of the argument. “My first impulse is to say that the relationship between the Sunday school teachers and the public schools IS constitutional…If there is no religion being taught or advanced, then that’s just the state getting a good deal on teachers who happen to be Christian. That said, the moment of silence concerns me in light of the Establishment Clause.”

“And what is the test for the Establishment Clause?”

This is it: the constitutional legal test that determines whether the government is promoting religion and therefore violating the separation between church and state. Along with the Fourth Amendment, it’s why we fought a revolution. If I can’t answer this, then I shouldn’t even be in the room with her. “The test for the Establishment Clause is three-pronged…” I say, thinking back to the cab ride. “First, the law or action must be secular in its purpose, second, it must not advance religion, and third: there must NOT be excessive entanglement with religion….As I said, it doesn’t seem like there’s an issue here as these conditions aren’t met.”

“But do all three conditions have to be met, or just one?”

“For the action to NOT violate the Establishment clause?”

“Yes.”

“All three. It has to be secular, must not advance, and no excessive entanglement.”

“So you would argue that the relationship between the Sunday school teachers and the public schools is constitutional?”

I go about balancing the issues in my head: on one hand, there’s the real world of state budget cuts and under-funded schools doing what they need to do to educate their children—we don’t want to step on that. On the other hand, there’s Thomas Jefferson saying keep it out of my face, go down the street and speak in tongues for all I care, but don’t try to make me—or worse, my children— live by your religious beliefs. This principle can not be violated, or chipped away at, just because the state cuts funding in education. But what does the law say….what does the law say. “No…The public school funds could be used for this arrangement, if these teachers were coming into public school and ONLY teaching music and language. That would be fine. We don’t care what they do with their lives outside of school. The problem here, however, is that this music teacher is having the class participate in a moment of silence that could be used for prayer. Under what I think is an Alabama case, Wallace v. Jaffree.”

“We love our Alabama cases.”

“A moment of silence that does not have an overt secular purpose in a public school or setting, violates the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment…” Maybe 29 of those kids come from Christian families and are happy to go along with the plan, but that 30th kid who doesn’t believe in those things, shouldn’t be made to sit there feeling like there’s something wrong with him.

I can see it in her eyes: I’m a real lawyer to her now. There’s a change in tone and body language, more relaxed and casual. I allow myself to think about the phone call to Rachel saying that I got the job, but quickly remove the thought out of my mind. You don’t count your money when you’re sitting at the table…I make sure to maintain a professional posture.

 “So,” she says, leaning back again, National Gallery dome behind her. “Your cover letter really stood out for me…The story about your father, my goodness, that must have been difficult growing up…”

I have to be careful here. It’s one thing to say that it was hard growing up with a parent in jail, but another entirely to talk about what that was really like. “Yes, it was difficult, but like so many other people, we found a way to get through it…And, as an attorney, it woke me up to certain realities of our system…At this point, what do we have…Something like 7 million people on parole, probation, in jail or in prison—close to 3.5 percent of our population...We have 5 percent of the world’s population, but more than 25 percent of its prisoners…”

“But growing up in that situation… How has that affected your objectivity as an attorney?”

“Well, coming from the same circumstances as our clients has helped me to understand their concerns, which I think has made me into a better attorney,” I say. “What I’ve always tried to do is look at the facts of the case along with all the other variables, then do what’s in the best interest of the client.”

“But I would imagine that it’s sometimes difficult…”

I don’t know why she’s pushing this point. “Yes, but no more difficult than for any lawyer from any background...”

“I see.”

I don’t think that was a bad answer, but I’m sensing something…I need to get back to the law. The law…“I have to say, Ms. Harr, that the briefs coming out of this office are outstanding. I’ve studied them, used them as templates for the appeals that I’ve written.” That sounded forced, like I’m trying to move us along. “I want to become a much better legal writer,” I say, more calmly. “And that’s one of the reasons I want to work here, to learn from some of the best lawyers in the country.”

This seems to get us back on track, if we were off track. I focus on messaging: how much I have to learn, the importance of being a team player, etc. We move forward, talking about the office set up, the hours she expects from her attorneys, the travel that’s required and even a joke about the coffee machine. I take this as a good sign. We wouldn’t be discussing these things if I weren’t seriously being considered for the position. Every so often another doubt creeps in, but I push it away. I maintain a calm, professional demeanor—try and project myself as a competent and professional man. I sense the interview winding down and read in Job Interviews For Dummies that it’s good to bring it to a close yourself.

“All I can say, Ms. Harr, is that it would be honor to be a part of the mission of the Civil Rights Guild…”

“Thank you, Neal.”

I get down the hallway into the elevator and immediately begin obsessing about the perceived slip. Did I read something into it? Was there an edge in my voice? Should I have gone into it deeper? Should I have explored the question longer? Should I have used it as an opportunity to talk about something else? I go through the lobby, get out of the building and start walking toward the Metro. The sun reminds me of the fluorescent lights in Target. I shouldn’t have brought it up in my cover, but then I probably wouldn’t have even got the interview. I don’t know, I’m probably just freaking out. It went great. It couldn’t have gone better. I don’t know. Did it?

The one thing I know for sure is that I would give anything not to have to go to Rachel’s asshole brother’s house right now. Just to have my own hotel room where I could decompress for a while, order up some dumb movie, take off my shoes, lie in bed, masturbate…I get to the station and go down the escalator to the train. It wasa good interview. I did a solid job. I was prepared. I knew the law. Next week there’s going to be a phone call with good news. I know it. I take out my cell to call Rachel, but there’s no signal. The train pulls up and I get on. It’s fairly packed, people trying not to make eye contact with each other. No one seems happy. No one is free. A train full of people going to a place they don’t want to go, coming from a place where they didn’t want to be. We pass by a digital ad for a new Hollywood movie. An exciting, sexy and intelligent thriller. Of all six billion people in the world, only George Clooney is free.

Her brother Daniel’s neighborhood is one of the wealthiest in DC: sweeping trees, pretty parks, expensive cars and wrought-iron gates protecting private gardens. Another place that I’m not supposed to like, but would love to live in. I peer into a townhouse that’s like a Town and Country centerfold come to life: good-looking couple cooking dinner, little center-of-the-universe-kid sitting on the hardwood counter, cute dog running around making everyone laugh. It’s how I always thought it would end up for me. As I get to her brother’s townhouse, which is spectacular in ways that I don’t even want to describe, I think about the things that I’ve given up for something like ideals. Not the material things themselves, but the things that come from material things. A sense of place, home, connectedness. Ideals can make you feel rooted to yourself, but then you yourself have got to be rooted to the world. And it’s in that step, the one from you to the world—not self to self—that determines whether you’re comfortable in the regular minutes, mundane days and average years. There is a difference between a meaningful life and a happy one.

“Daniel, what’s going on, man?”

 He is standing in the door in his Brooks Brothers suit. He has dark curly hair, but had the nose job, so looks less Jewish than Rachel. “I wasn’t expecting you yet.”

“They let me out early,” I say, extending my hand with a dumb smile on my face. “It’s good to see you, man.”

We shake hands without really making eye contact.

“So you made it down to DC?” he asks.

“Yeah, how you been doing, man?”

“Good. How was your interview?”

“I think it went pretty well.”

“Did they give you any indication?”

“She said soon.”

“So, no indication?”

“No, she said soon, like probably next week.”

“And you think it went well?”

“Yeah, I really do.”

“Did you talk salary?” he asks.

“No, not yet.”

“Ah.”

“But I think it went really well.”

“But you didn’t talk salary?”

“No, no salary talk.”

“What’s the range?”

“I think it’s around seventy,” I say, making up a number.

“Seventy?”

“Yeah.”

“What’s that, about 43 per hour?” he says.

“Yeah. Around there.”

“Ah.”

“Yeah.”

“Okay, I guess we need to go to dinner,” he says. “There’s Chinese around the corner.”

“Sounds great.”

And closes the door behind him without ever inviting me in…I would say something about it, but I’m as happy as he is to keep this short and sweet, while still satisfying the minimum requirements of family. On this, we are one. He comes back down after about 45 seconds—just enough time to text a few of his friends about having to go out to dinner with his sister’s loser boyfriend.

“So how are you two doing?” he asks.

“We’re good,” I say.

“I’ve been meaning to call Rachel more,” he says. “I need to do a better job of keeping in touch.”

“I know she’d like that.”

“What other interviews do you have?”

“Two in New York next week,” I lie. “So I heard the Skins got a new coach?”

“Yeah, I like him.”

“You guys should make the playoffs this year.”

“I doubt it.”

“You still do the fantasy league?” I ask.

“Don’t have time,” he says. “Been working too much. That’s the car that I’m lending Rachel,” he says, pointing to a red Jetta across the street.

“It’s really generous of you, Daniel.”

“So, look,” he says. “I’m not one to give advice.”

“Of course not.”

“But if they do make you an offer…What is it, The Guild, or something?”

“Civil Rights Guild.”

“Yeah, anyway, if they do make you an offer…”

“Uh huh.”

“At least ask for 100k a year, because then at least you’re making $50 an hour,” he says. “For whatever it’s worth, I pay my attorney $450 an hour.”

“Wow. Thanks.”

He takes out his phone and checks his messages as we walk toward the restaurant. It’s a rude thing do, but in my mind I spin it out into an almost homicidal-type affront, which I know enough to know is just jealousy. I’m just jealous of this guy. I’m jealous of all his messages. I’m jealous of his success. I’m jealous of his money. I’m jealous of his neighborhood. I’m jealous of his Brooks Brothers suit. If all I wanted was to fight the good fight, then there are so many cheaper and even smarter ways to do it then going $80 thousand dollars in the hole to go to law school. The sad truth is that I wanted some of what Daniel has, except without Daniel. If only the people who knew how to make money would just give it to the people who know how to live, then everything would be perfect.

“We’re having issues with one of our properties,” he says. “It never ends.”

“Oh, yeah…”

“Dumb investment,” he says. “Should have gone to cash.”

“I hear you.”

 “And then there’s a legal issue pending on another of our units across town,” he says. “Did a record search, due diligence, thought we were BFP’s…”

I get a hazy flashback to sitting in property class and hearing something about a Bona Fide Purchaser or a BFP, but then I went back to stabbing myself in the stomach with my pen. “Oh, yeah…”

“And now they come back and are trying to tell us that there’s an unrecorded covenant on the property.”

 “Oh, I see…”

“Any covenant lowers the value.”

“Oh, okay…”

“Plus it keeps us from upgrading the property.”

“Oh, alright…”

“We’re trying to go green with all our rentals.”

“Really?”

“Sure, it’s better for the environment, reduces waste, saves us money…”

“Well, if there’s a legal issue,” I say. “I can always send some emails around, try and get some answers for you.”

“That’s alright,” he sort of laughs to himself. “My attorney’s taking care of it.”

As I internalize the condescension on that one, I notice a young, well-dressed crowd standing out in front of the restaurant and immediately begin making vitriolic judgments about them, too. From here all that’s left for me are the major leagues of resentment: blaming illegals for ruining the economy, accusing the blacks of all being on welfare, and then finally the grand poobah, saying that the Jews control the world financial markets. And they do. I’ve seen Rachel make secret phone calls and then the Dow mysteriously drops. We go into the restaurant and are seated next to a large gold Buddha.

“So, Neal?”

“Yeah…”

“There’s something I feel bad about.”

I put my menu down…

“I’ve had the car sitting outside for a few weeks, could have gotten it to her earlier. Pass on my apologies to Rachel about that.”

“I’ll definitely let her know.”

“I’ve been all over the place…Crazy with business lately.”

The waitress comes and it seems like it’s an important thing to him to be in control of the situation. He asks me what I want, recommends something else, then confidently orders for us both. Sometimes it feels like all of male behavior comes out of a cheap book that you buy at the airport, written by a millionaire stockbroker in conjunction with a college football coach. A Winner Is A Winner, Even At Dinner! “So what else is going on?” I ask him.

 “Looking at some properties in Virginia.”

“Oh, yeah. Any good ones?” I have no idea what else to say.

“Lot of good ones,” he says. “But it’s a clusterfuck.”

“In what way?”

“The foreclosure situation…”

“Yeah, that’s terrible.”

“People are so funny,” he says, as the waitress brings us our soups.

“How so?”

“I read my mortgage contracts; how come they can’t read their mortgage contracts?” He carefully places his napkin on his lap. “Most important commitment of their lives and they don’t take time to read the contracts. I just don’t get it.”

“Yeah, but I think a lot of people got taken in.”

“All they had to do was read their contracts,” he says. “Now they want me to pay their mortgage? I wouldn’t ask anyone to pay my mortgage.”

“Well, I think a lot of people had the American Dream of owning a home and having a nice place to raise their kids,” I say. “It made it easier to sell them things that they couldn’t afford.”

“Uh huh.”

“They thought they were promised it,” I say. “And then you have Wall Street betting against them, shifting trillions around, just gaming the entire system…”

“Uh huh.”

I’ve been making the same mistake for years. We get to an issue, I start to open up on it a little bit, then he shuts down. I used to think it was about politics and that he couldn’t handle a different world-view, but what it really comes down to is just not caring all that much about what a guy like me has to say. By his standards, I have never even been close to being successful. So how much could my opinion really matter?

“So,” he says after a few minutes. “This has been going on a while?” He makes no eye contact, but stares forward, sipping at his soup.

I knew that he would eventually get here, but pretend like I don’t know what he’s talking about. “What?”

“The job search.”

“Oh, yeah.”           

“It’s been going on a while.”

“Yeah, we’ll I’m sending out resumes every day, so hopefully something will crack soon.”

 “Which law firms have you applied to?”

Goddamn, man. “There aren’t very many private social justice firms,” I say. “And the few that there are, aren’t hiring.”

“Why not send resumes out to every firm on the East Coast?”

“Those firms don’t do the kind of work that I do.”

“But you’re not doing any work right now.”

And on that one I feel true anger, but choose to let it go. Rachel can make jokes about us hanging out, but I know deep down that she would prefer to think of us as getting along. I can do this for her. “Yeah, ah ha.”

“Maybe you should intern with a bankruptcy specialist, that’s where all the work is now.”

“I explored that.”

“And?”

“It’s not the right fit.”

“But then why not take whatever you can get now, then find what you want later?”

“I’ve thought of that.”

“So why not do it?”

“It has to do with trying not be a part of certain things.”

“I don’t want to be an asshole,” he says. “But you’re not a part of anything.”

“Okay.”

“I can have concerns,” he says. “People have concerns.”

“Who has concerns?”

“Lots of people.”

“Like who?” I think of that Jetta just sitting there for three months while Rachel had to take the bus to work and how we still wouldn’t even have it if not for their grandmother—that was when the left was the left—giving him shit about it. “Like who? Your grandmother? Have you talked to her lately?”

A brutally awkward silence that’s only saved by the arrival of our entrees. The one time that I’m grateful for the fact that Chinese restaurants seem to think that you only need 68 seconds to finish your appetizer.

“I’m doing the best I can with the situation, Daniel.” I feel bad about taking the shot at him. What’s the point? Where’s it going to get us? “I really am…And I think there’s a good chance that I could get this position at the Civil Rights Guild. The interview went really well today.”

“I guess I just don’t get it,” he says.

“What don’t you get?”

“What you’re doing in Philadelphia.”

“It was the best place for us to land after New Orleans,” I say. “The nurse travel agency hooked us up with an apartment there and it enables me to look for jobs in DC and New York. That’s why I’m sitting here with you.”

“I meant the work situation.”

“Okay, what is it exactly about the work situation that you don’t get?”

“Why you aren’t taking whatever you can get until something better comes along?”

 I’m not going bite on this one.

“It’s what everyone else would do,” he says.

“I don’t know about that,” I say.

 “Most people anyway.”

“It’s just about how we’re trying to live, that’s all.”

“What’s that mean?”

“I don’t want to get into it...Okay, look, Rachel and I believe that if we don’t absolutely have to take part in things that hurt other people or the planet,” I say. “Then we shouldn’t do it...”

“Uh huh.”

We eat in silence. Moments like this, I realize that I’ve spent my entire life feeling like the away-team on somebody else’s home turf. The guest who can never relax and kick his feet up because it’s not his house. The drifter who has to clear it with the sheriff, even though this is where I’m from. “How’s your dinner?” I ask him. If I don’t say anything, then we’ll just stay in an awkward kind of hell.

“Serviceable.”

“Great.”

 “So, do you still get out to Chesapeake Bay?”

“No, I haven’t had time during the last several years…Busy with work.”

Good one. “Anything I should know about the car?”

“Just that I intend to sell it…”

“I promise that you’ll get it back in better shape than you gave it to us,” I say. “Thanks again, Daniel. Most generous of you.”

“By the way,” he says. “I took out the Satellite radio, didn’t think you’d need it.”

“Oh, okay.”

“And you can tell Rachel that I’ll keep up the insurance and registration for the next two months,” he says with a sort of disdain. “Hopefully, by then you’ll have found some work that you can do, and are helping my sister financially.”

And I would say that I would feel the same about me if I were him, but I really wouldn’t. Sure, I’m a loser and he’s a winner, and we don’t have a house, a car, security, 401K, triple tax free mutual funds and all the other things you’re supposed to have when you’re 40—but so what? I love her with all my heart, she loves me with all her heart, we treat each other with respect and on some level I make her happy. I wish that she weren’t financially supporting me right now, too. I wish that I had a job right now, too. This is not where I wanted us to be right now. This was not the plan for my life. When I lived here 20 years ago, I can sure as hell tell you that I didn’t set out to be the broke loser sitting at the table with his head hanging down while the American Dream over here spends five minutes going over a thirty dollar check...

“Thank you, Daniel.”

“Uh huh.”

 

 

 

 

 

8.

The mere act of pulling away from his house makes me feel like life is worth living again. Hard times behind and ahead, but these next couple hours on the road are mine. I pull a cigarette out of my jacket pocket and light it. I feel loose and free, like a man on the right side of history. There are battles to be fought, new myths to be made. The resistance is not dead! We haven’t been to India yet, Lebanon or Russia. I still want to drink vodka in that ice hotel in Scandinavia. These are goals that must be reached. Our best days are yet to…A cop blows by with sirens blaring and red lights ruining the darkness, pulling the car up ahead of me over to the side of the road…I feel the tension in my neck, rub my eyes and slow down… Seems like every time I start thinking that my life is my own these days, some force of control shows up to remind me that I’m not running the show. It’s bigger than my own little failure; there’s been a clampdown in this country. They got the whole thing wired tight. The rise of the mega-conglomerates that rule everything around me, the rise of computers that track you from the cradle to the grave, the rise of religion so that I’m always supposed to feel bad about myself, the corporate takeover of culture so that all new ideas are lame and this strange need to always want to give power and authority the benefit of the doubt. Every cop is the messiah now, every soldier an unassailable hero of perfection. Questioning: bad. Establishment: good. I’m tired of trying to make it in a country that really isn’t even that cool anymore. If the deal for people like us is love or leave it: maybe we should just leave it. Let them ensconce themselves in wars, flags, money and Jesus and let’s just get the hell out of here. Bag the whole thing and go. Pick up work where we can, sleep on roofs, stare up at the stars and make up new names for constellations. Like Jimbo the Social Justice Warrior and Sarah The Interesting Performance Artist. Go find some place where it’s okay to be broke and weird, where everything isn’t about cash and what you’re going to buy next week. Get a trailer and start a commune for all the other Americans who don’t really fit here anymore. All the other away-teamers who are constantly having to suck it up. But if we ever had to come back, they’d have us by the balls. My student loans would be in default and I wouldn’t be able to practice law until I paid them off. We wouldn’t be able to get an apartment because we wouldn’t have enough money for first and last month’s rent. I’d still be jobless and there’d be this gap on my resume that I couldn’t explain. The credit cards would’ve gone into collection and we’d be crushed by penalties and fees for the next 10 years. We’d be buried and have to spend the rest of our lives digging ourselves out a hole. And more than that, 40-year olds with no security aren’t supposed to just take off and wander the earth in search of the existential fireworks. In the eyes of our families and friends, we would have finally crossed the line from cool to irresponsible, semi-mature to stupidly childish. We would be seen as people who couldn’t handle reality, not as people who CHOSE to live in a different way. People who couldn’t deal, so had to drop out. The line between dreamer and fraud is so paper thin. Once you cross, you can never come back. And while we could always dig ourselves out of the financial hole, I don’t know if we could dig ourselves out of that.
There’s a travel center up ahead with a Starbucks. I slow down, pull in and find a parking space. It’s eerily dark outside despite the blur of headlights blasting by on the highway. As I walk through the doors, I come into the bittersweet longings of Dave Brubeck’s, Take Five. Right when you’re ready to write off America, she pulls you back in with jazz. Push and pull. Tug of war. I walk past a Burger King where a morbidly obese teenager is wiping down the counter, then by a cluster of video games where two rail-thin speeded-out truckers are playing Galaga. Nation of extremes. I can see their jaws grinding in slow motion, hear them chomping their gum and bugging out from 20 feet away. A batch of fluorescent lights flicker on and off making me feel like I’m in the twilight zone. Travel Centers always do this to me. Like your inside a spaceship where the rules of physics no longer apply. An in-between place that’s outside of space and time, except with souvenirs and Taco Bell.

I get to the junior Starbucks like they have at the airport—minimal array of products, no seats—go up to the cash register and ask for a medium. The ghost-like guy behind the counter gets the coffee and rings it up without even looking at me. No words. No eye contact. Nothing. Not rude, but totally detached, like I’m one of the cars passing by out there on the highway. I take my coffee over to a faraway table and sit where the fluorescent lights have dimmed. I feel fractured off: stopped at a weigh station on the way to nowhere. The only thing that’s keeping from me floating off into the atmosphere and disappearing like I was never even on the planet, is the person on the other end of the phone.

“And thank you for calling.”

“It’s been emotional,” I say.

“How’d it go? Tell me!”

“I think it went great. There was this one thing…”

“There was nothing.”

“No, I think there was something.”

“What?”

“She asked me if I was objective when it came to being an attorney.”

“You’re not objective,” she says. “You’re a zealous advocate.”

“I know,” I say. “But I think there might have been some other meaning going on there.”

“There was no other meaning, it’s a perfectly normal question to ask and I’m sure she asks everyone….”

“No, I don’t want to sound paranoid,” I say. “But I think there might have been some kind of class consciousness at work.”

“Oh yeah, Neal,” she says. “A woman who has spent her entire life fighting for civil rights is going to pull a class consciousness trip on you.”

“I know, but….”

“What?”

“Why is it only when you come from the bottom up that they ask you if you can be objective?”

“I’m not sure,” she whispers. “But did you quote Marx to her and tell her that you were going to overthrow the capitalist system—because I’ve read that’s a good way to get a job.”

“Totally. I took hostages, made the 20-year old intern watch The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner……Hey, how is that a 20 year old already has a foot in the door at a prestigious nonprofit? When I was 20, my big power move was to land a part-time gig over at Bennigan’s on 59th and Lexington.”

“There was a Bennigan’s on 59th and Lexington?”

“Yeah, we had good lunch specials.”

“And specialty drinks?”

“Totally, the manager was from Alsace-Lorraine in France and would give me shots of B-52s to tell him about The West. He had this whole fascination with the whole Route 66 thing. Geet your keeks, so cool…”

“So what happened to him?”

“I don’t know. I think he got deported or lost his green card, I’m not sure…” I take a sip of my coffee. “But back to that, how does a 20 year old get a gig like that at the Civil Rights Guild? How does that happen?”

 “She could be an incredibly motivated and mature young woman who knows exactly what she wants to do with her life,” she says. “Or her dad could give them lots of money, or both. Either way, who cares. Tell me about how it went!”

 “I think I rocked it.”

“Did you like the office?”

“The office was great. Beautiful building. It would be like going into work at an art gallery every day. And Ms. Harr, of course, is wonderful and it would just be amazing. It’s the dream job. I would love, LOVE, to work there.”

“I bet you got it.”

“Yeah, I mean, I don’t know who else they’re interviewing, but I think I have a really good shot.”

“Where are you right now?”

“A travel center.”

“Oh, those are so weird,” she says. “They have a souvenir shop?”

“Yeah, but everything has an American flag on it. I can see it from here.”

“We used to have the best souvenirs…”

“Hands down…Big foam cowboy hats, horseshoes, snow globes.”

“Everything now has to be patriotic,” she says. “Proud To be An American.”

“It’s true,” I say. “Souvenir shops these days are like mini-pep rallies for the Fatherland.”

“Homeland,” she says.

“What?”

“They call it the homeland now,” she says. “America used to be feminine, but has changed to neutral, on the way to masculine. She’ll be the Fatherland, or some other masculine name, in about 30 or 40 years.”

“Have you really thought about this or something?”

 “We Jews are extremely sensitive to these things,” she says. “So how was it with my brother?”

“It was good.”

“Thank you for saying that, but how was it really?”

“It really wasn’t bad. He took me to dinner, said he wished that he kept in touch with you more and even told me to tell you that he felt bad about having the car sit in front of his place when you could have been using it.”

“And that was it?”

“The expected questions about where we’re at,” I say. “I can’t say that I really blame him. It would be better if we could have talked about it in a cooler way, but nothing that I haven’t thought of myself.”

“What do you mean?’

“As far as taking whatever work I can get, carrying my own weight, making money…It would be nice to make some real money. It gets old working for peanuts while some of these guys are off making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. I figured out one time that after student loans and taxes, I make less than I did when I was a waiter.”

“But that’s not what it’s about.”

“I know, but it kind of is…When you get to be 50 or 60, the amount of money you have in the bank and what kind of place you’re living in can be the difference between being happy and being miserable. I look at my mom…A 64-year old woman with a bad knees who still has to get up at six every morning and drag herself to work, then doesn’t get home again till it’s dark at night. Saturdays she has to run all the errands that she couldn’t do during the week, so she’s lucky if she gets one day to herself. That’s what lack of money does…And I’m not even in a position to help her.”

“Yeah, I know. It’s true….”

“Don’t you worry about it?

”All the time,” she says. “I don’t want to be a nurse when I’m 70. It’s a really physical job.”

“I know. I know.”

“Of course I want to have something when I’m older,” she says. “A little house somewhere. An A-frame in the mountains or just a place where I can have a garden. I don’t want to still be in full-time, struggling work mode when I’m 70…. I want to go to India. I want to be able to go volunteer in places. I have this fantasy about us ending up in Mexico where I’m a running a maternity clinic and you’re helping people with the law. And no matter how I look at it, you’re right, the reality is that it takes money. No matter how you cut it, money is important…Maybe not at 28, but at 58, yeah…And we’re getting closer to 58 than we are to 28...”

“Why Mexico?”

“They have the right attitude about death, seems like a good place to die,” she says. “I want to be buried in one of those pretty masks… And then every Day of the Dead you come sit with me, drink tequila and tell me about all the bullies that you’re beating up out there.”

“Don’t talk like that.”

“We’re only here for a little bit, baby. We have to make it count.”

“But how do you know that you’re going to die before I do?”

 “Just a feeling…You have more to work out here than I do, Nealy boy. But not for a long time yet. Not for a long time. And now this job, right?”

“It could make it all work out. The money, everything.”

“I know you kicked ass in the interview.”

“I think I did.”

“Drive safe on the way home, baby. We’ll be up waiting for you.”

“Promise?”

“Promise.”

“I love you.”

“I love you, too.”

 

Contributor

Jason Flores-Williams

JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.

ADVERTISEMENTS