CONCERT-GOING

I found myself at Memorial Hall on the UNC campus last night for a concert by the Israel Philharmonic. They are touring the United States this spring and fit in a date at our local university on their way from NY to Miami. What a thrill it turned out to be!
First, the people. Though I was born when Eisenhower was president, a symphony concert is still a place where I am, relatively-speaking, in the flush of youth. Much of the crowd appeared to have been bused in from retirement and assisted living facilities. Only a tiny contingent, perhaps three percent, were college students. And, judging by the amount of time they spent furtively playing video games and checking e-mail and Facebook during the concert, I suspect most of them were in attendance in order to score bonus points from their Music 101 professors.
My first glance at the program was concerning. There was a piece by Faure, followed by two by Ravel, and finally, Berlioz. While I like classical music, I admit to being somewhat of a meat and potatoes fan, with large doses of the big guys, Beethoven, Brahms and Bach. I prefer discernible melodies and rhythms. I know Ravel, in particular, to be full of atmospherics; his is the sort of music where you aren’t sure when to applaud.
My concern was somewhat confirmed when I noted the orchestra to contain not one, but two harps. More than one harp is rarely a good sign for fans of un-subtle symphonic music.
This being the Israel Philharmonic, in order to access the hall, I had to walk through a gauntlet of demonstrators. These misguided souls are under the impression, apparently, that violinists have a role in setting government policy. They are aggrieved that cultural exchanges are occurring between our country and Israel and feel that Muslim culture is short-changed.
Two things came to mind. First, a troupe of Muslim performers were at UNC last fall, called the Manganyar Seduction. I found their performance to be fabulous and interesting and none of the demonstrators outside were even aware that performance had taken place, much less attended it. Second, as I assured them, if Palestine or Iraq or even Abu Dhabi sent over a world class orchestra, I would be delighted to hear them. In fact, if the Gazans could manage a first-rate string quartet, I’d be willing to listen. In my opinion, to demonstrate against the appearance of the IPO was simply lunatic.
Back to the music: The Faure piece, Pelleas et Melisande, turned out to be familiar. The performance was splendid, subtle but beautiful. It was not dynamic enough to turn the students away from their mobile devices, however. The Ravel selections proved as atmospheric as feared, but still had lovely moments and some surprising risings and swellings of sound. Unfortunately, both pieces were divided into six or seven portions. After each section there was a pause. And during each pause, the audience felt compelled to let loose with a spasm of coughing, sneezing and throat-clearing that made me think I was at a nineteenth-century tuberculosis sanitarium, or in my usual situation on an airplane.
Listening to Ravel afforded me the chance to contemplate. I thought about the experience of attending a concert in Chapel Hill versus my previous home in the suburbs of New York. There, world class performances were always available. Unfortunately, accessing Lincoln Center from Ramsey, NJ sometimes required the logistics of the Normandy invasion, particularly if it was on a weeknight evening. Also, the cost was astronomical, and the crowd seemed jaded and unimpressed.
In Chapel Hill, we attend concerts for twenty percent of the cost, five percent of the hassle, and everyone is excited to be there, except for some of the students. When we go to hear the sixty-piece North Carolina Symphony we never fail to conclude: “Wow, they are really, really good. They are only 90-95 percent as polished as the New York Philharmonic, but for the price and convenience, it’s a worthwhile trade-off.”
But “really, really good” is not the same as phenomenal. Once in a while, it is necessary to be reminded of true greatness, of a full-throated ensemble of 105 off-the-charts-amazing musicians, working together as one to deliver a timeless performance. The second half of last night’s concert, featuring Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique” was such an event.
From the first notes, the performance held the hall in rapt attention. The coughers were suddenly cured, the few students who had not escaped at intermission looked up from their smartphones. The music rolled, like waves, from section to section of the orchestra. Bells tolled, drums boomed, strings flowed in unison.
The familiar piece, so well-known as to seem dull to me on the radio, was thrilling to see in person. Who knew there was a timpani quartet in the middle of the final movement or that an improbably bearded, yalmulke-wearing orthodox percussionist could play a snare drum with such aplomb? When the last blasts from the brass section sounded like cannons it was as though we were transported to another dimension, where sound-waves vibrated every wall, every seat, right through to the bones.
When the final chords subsided, there was a pause before the audience realized they were still on this earth, at a concert, and it was time to applaud. The sound welled up quickly, with people shouting “bravo” and rising as one to provide the deserved standing ovation. The crowd refused to stop cheering until the conductor returned and led an encore.
“Wow, these people are starved for culture,” I imagine some of the musicians were thinking. But, no, Chapel Hill has a laudable amount of culture. We have many very, very good performances to enjoy. We just don’t often have a world class orchestra in front of us. And we didn’t want to let them go.


MUSING ON LOSING

A business theory called the Peter Principle holds that workers rise in a hierarchy until they reach their level of incompetence. Beyond that, they no longer rise, thus, a mature organization is filled with employees who are incompetent. I fear this principle applies to my current tennis team.
Over the last several years, I played on teams at the USTA 4.0 level and enjoyed significant success. I have been part of two state championship winners and five league championship winners. My teams have only narrowly missed an additional state championship and a regional championship. Yes, to win is not supposed to be the most important thing but, I cannot deny I find it significantly preferable than to lose. All of this success created a problem — along with half of my teammates from last season’s 4.0 state championship team, I was moved up to the USTA 4.5 level. Only one step removed from the classification of club professionals and current or recent D-1 players, the dudes on the other side of the net are now pretty uniformly awesome. Oy vey.
Last week, in our team’s fourth consecutive loss, I found myself assigned to the premier court to play “First Singles.” While such an assignment should have been deemed an honor to my well-past-fifty self, I found it hard to enthuse about playing the anticipated twenty-five to thirty-year-old stud. I figured he would be so recently out of college he would arrive with his still-intact university-issued equipment. I assumed he would hit serves I could not return consistently and that he could run with ease to retrieve my assortment of chips and slices.
I was overly optimistic. My opponent, all six-foot-six of him, was STILL in college. He doesn’t graduate for another month and plays for the Club team at UNC. My failure to return his serves can only be called “inconsistent” in my happiest dreams; I could barely see the ball before it bounded repeatedly, barely touched, over my backhand side. It was also unnerving to have the young assassin constantly calling me “sir.”
Adjusting to losing requires mental gymnastics. One has to revive all the cliches about defeat one once told one’s children without necessarily always (ever?) believing them: “lessons in humility are valuable;” “setbacks are opportunities for growth;” “so long as you try hard, that’s what really matters.” Unfortunately, such palaver falls flat for me. I’m inclined towards Martina Navratilova’s cynical but concise conclusion: “Whoever said ‘It’s not whether you win or lose that counts,’ probably lost.”
There are still six weeks left in the season and I will have opportunities to “right the sinking ship.” I hope I can, because, as much as I hate losing, I have no desire to return to the 4.0 level. My reach may have exceeded my grasp and deposited me in rarified atmosphere. But, now that I am there, I want to stay there. Is this what they call cognitive dissonance?


“TEARS OF A CLOWN WHEN THERE’S NO ONE AROUND”

Can that phrase apply to a place? If so, I believe I’ve been there, a city surprisingly festive in appearance, yet deeply tragic underneath. Phnom Penh, Cambodia is not on the beaten path for most travelers. That is understandable, considering how remote it is, and how awful its recent history. In fact, Cambodia was once a rollicking success, possibly the world’s leading civilization. But that was a thousand years ago, and not much good has happened since.
I found myself in Phnom Penh on the fourth and final leg of an educational consulting trip taken by my wife, Katie, that included stops in Hong Kong, Borneo, Vietnam and Cambodia. Initially only contracted to speak at a conference in Borneo, I suggested, semi-facetiously, that she correspond with international schools in some other Asian countries. “After all, you’ll be in the neighborhood.” Faster than I could say “there’s no way I can sit on an airplane for eighteen hours,” she filled our three-week itinerary, and informed me my attendance was mandatory.
Not being an enthusiastic world traveler, I didn’t conduct research into our destinations. Admittedly, such ignorance prevented me from developing a sense of positive excitement and anticipation. But it also preserved the element of surprise. While our first three stops largely confirmed my uninformed pre-conceptions, namely: Hong Kong is BUSY; Borneo is TROPICAL; and Hanoi is GRIM; Phnom Penh was a shocker.
First, I thought Hanoi and Phnom Penh would have similar weather. After five days of grey drizzle in Hanoi, which I learned is the norm in November, I was delighted to land in brilliant sunshine and warmth in Cambodia. It turns out Phnom Penh is 660 miles south of Hanoi, roughly as far apart as Chapel Hill is from Chicago. So, yes, the weather can be much better.
Next, in further contrast with Hanoi, riding in a hotel van from the airport, I saw that Phnom Penh is a city of wide boulevards, tree-filled medians, and stunning, golden temples. Flashy flower gardens and statues surround public buildings like some cross between Caesars Palace and the Getty Museum. If you never drove more than a block off the main roads you would think you were in a highly prosperous country.
Our hotel was a gracious, French-run oasis with tropical plants around a courtyard swimming pool. Just outside its gate was an entrance to a Buddhist Temple, the golden spires of which soared into sight from the poolside tiki bar. Where was the Cambodia of Pol Pot, of war, of genocide?
Katie’s consulting took place on the day after our arrival. Since I was nursing the inevitable souvenir of Hanoi, a sinus infection, I chose not to venture out alone but to stay poolside. There, at the breakfast buffet, my UNC tee-shirt garnered attention. Not equating the initials with basketball, as would most Americans, an older gentleman with a European accent asked: “What agency are you with?”
“I’m just visiting with my wife,” I said.
“Oh, you’re not with the U.N. for Cambodia?” he said, indicating my shirt.
“No, no, that’s University of North Carolina,” I said.
He looked surprised. “In the States?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Don’t see many of you folks over here,” he said. “I’m from Denmark. My colleagues are from Sweden, Germany, Holland and Austria,” he added, indicating a table full of earnestly chatting men and women.
“What are you doing here?” I asked.
“The genocide tribunal,” he said, as though it were common knowledge that one existed.
After I gathered a plate of fruit and toast, my friend invited me to sit at the end of their long table. “This gent’s an American,” he said, by way of introduction.
The people all looked at me with interest. Anticipating their curiosity, he explained: “He’s not with the U.N. He’s touring with his wife, from North Carolina, the basketball place.”
Thus introduced, I learned from the group that the European Union had funded a tribunal to examine the Cambodian genocide that took place in the 1970’s. Lawyers and judges had been rotating through Phnom Penh for several years, sifting evidence and, finally, bringing to trial several old colleagues of Pol Pot. His murderous regime had swept to power at the end of the Vietnam War, taking advantage of the chaos created partially by our bombing, and he had killed three to four million people, a quarter of the population, before being driven off, ironically, by the sworn enemy of Cambodians, the Vietnamese. They installed a puppet government in the early 1980’s that continues to rule to this day as a dictatorship, though Cambodia is, nominally, a democracy. (The foregoing is a VAST over-simplification; the subject commands volumes of books and treatises for those interested in learning more. Opponents of the regime have recently earned publicity, though Syria, Ukraine, winter weather and a disappearing airplane have kept coverage to a minimum).
“You must all be so depressed, studying such an awful subject,” I said to the assembly.
“Oh, no,” said a woman. “This is a wonderful posting.”
“It’s got the best cuisine,” said a man.
“Much better than Rwanda,” said another.
“I’ll say,” agreed the woman. “That place was brutal.”
It occurred to me that she did not mean “brutal” in the sense of murderous, but “brutal” in the sense that there was nowhere decent to eat.
Further discussion revealed that genocide study and “bringing to justice” is a growth industry, and a wonderful way to top off a career, with various tribunals having been established by the United Nations, the European Union, and the Hague for recent history’s worst depredations. In addition to Cambodia, these include Bosnia, Darfur, Rwanda and Kurdistan. Doubtless, European lawyers and judges will be packing for Syria in several years. I am NOT suggesting these horrors should be ignored or efforts to hold perpetrators accountable are not worthwhile; however, some participants clearly view the assignments as plum career opportunities and speak as expertly on the hospitality prospects of the various holocausts as on the legal responsibilities involved.
Back to sightseeing: We had an additional day to spend in Phnom Penh before traveling to see the ancient temples at Angkor Wat. “What are the best things in town to visit?” I asked the concierge.
“The most popular tourist site is the ‘killing fields,’” said the young Frenchman. “You can see thousands of skulls and skeletons.”
Not sure how to respond to that, I asked: “How long a trip is that?”
“Just in the suburbs, about an hour by tuk-tuk,” he said, referring to the local transportation mode, a sort of taxi with two seats attached to the rear of a soot and noise-belching motorbike.
I knew the “killing fields” were a critical part of Cambodian history, and I didn’t want to be disrespectful, but we had just spent several days in Hanoi, where we dutifully visited the POW prison and several war museums, and I was hoping for something less horrifying. “Is there anything else?” I asked.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “You can take a tuk-tuk tour around the royal section of town and the museums.”
“That sounds great,” I said, relieved to have a non-genocidal option.
The next morning, we hopped on one of the many tuk-tuks waiting outside the hotel. For the equivalent of $10, we could travel for the whole day with a driver who would double as a guide, language-skills allowing. Once we adjusted or, more accurately, capitulated to the quirks of tuk-tuk travel, we were struck again by the beauty of Phnom Penh’s avenues. Green and beautiful, and relatively free of traffic, the city is built alongside the massive Mekong River. The strikingly broad (picture the width of the Hudson times three) artery rolls along languidly, supporting colorful boats and several optimistically low-slung bridges. The river is doubtless a hazard during storms but posed no threat during our visit.
“There, palace,” said our driver, in halting English, pointing towards a complex of massive buildings looming ahead. “There silver pagoda.”
Indeed, around 1906, with French assistance, Cambodia’s king constructed a palace covered in jewels and an adjoining pagoda covered in solid silver, including the floor! Both the palace and pagoda have survived the various wars; even the most depraved of Cambodia’s despots have deemed it useful to keep the king in place, usually as a puppet, though sometimes as a prisoner.
Our driver dropped us off at the entrance. We strolled the beautiful gardens and hallways of the palace and were allowed to look into the pagoda, though walking on the silver floor is forbidden. I urge readers to google the stunning palace complex; it would take infinite verbiage to describe, whereas pictures are instantaneous for your benefit and mine. Though the sky was sparkling, there were few other visitors and virtually no locals.
When we emerged, it was lunchtime. Several vendors offered roasted snacks that consisted of something between “you don’t want to know” and “you wouldn’t believe it if I told you.”
“Those aren’t birds, are they?” I asked one vendor sitting behind a pyramid of bite-sized morsels that appeared to have beaks.
“Sparrows very good,” he said.
Noting another vender turning a large rotisserie over a flame, I whispered to Katie: “That looks like a dog.”
“That is a dog,” she confirmed.
Though we had managed to try street food in Hong Kong and even Borneo, this was beyond our level of ambition. We chose to eat the nuts and crackers we had in our pockets and wait for a real meal at dinner at a French restaurant near our hotel.
After our snack, we asked the driver what else we might see. I noted that he, like most Cambodians, was extremely short of stature. At six-feet, I could have been a candidate for center of the national basketball team, if there were one. Nutrition or genetics, or a combination, have made for a diminutive population. I censored a speculation about the food.
“What about a neighborhood, where people live?” I asked. “We haven’t seen anything but the main streets.”
He shook his head slowly. “Not nice to see.”
“We won’t mind,” said Katie. “We’d like to see something interesting.”
Our driver shrugged. “I will drive you through apartment streets on the way to Central School. That will be interesting for you.”
“That sounds good,” I said, thinking we would see the local high school.
The driver was correct about the residential areas. The several blocks we saw were not “nice” but they were “interesting.” Within one block of the main boulevard we encountered rows of four-five story, deteriorating tenements, moldy and laundry-covered. A riot of wires hung between buildings. Sewage and garbage filled the gutters and there was a cacophony of screaming babies, squealing generators and shouting adults. Riding in our tuk-tuk like colonial pashas, we received mostly blank stares and some hostile ones. It was as though we were looking at animals caged in a zoo. Our driver sped up. “Not safe here,” he said. “Let’s go to the school.”
Katie and I nodded immediate agreement, and we found ourselves back to clean, leafy peace after just a few hundred yards. Not too far from the palace area we arrived at the Central School. What our driver had not made clear was that the Central High School of Phnom Penh had become the central PRISON during Pol Pot’s regime, and was now a tourist site. (“attraction” seems an inappropriate word to describe it). Behind walls and a high, green fence was a two-story plaster building central to the recent history of Phnom Penh — basically, the local version of the “killing fields.” In fact, as we learned during our tour of the building, the Central Prison was, for thousands of victims, a final, miserable stop on the way to the killing fields.
Information boards at the school explained that during Pol Pot’s reign of terror from 1975-1979, educated people were killed, people who wore glasses were killed, and even merely literate people were killed as being, presumably, able to read. People who spoke back to Pol Pot’s troops, the Khmer Rouge, were killed and people who even established eye contact were killed. Not to favorably compare Hitler to anyone, but he definitely had a plan — Pol Pot and his followers never articulated any purpose or rationale for their indiscriminate slaughter.
Our guide at the school/prison was an older woman who spoke excellent English. She explained that Pol Pot, like Hitler, recognized that such bare essentials as clothing were necessary for his soldiers. Therefore, people with sewing and related skills were able to delay their slaughter for weeks or months at the former school facility. They spent their days working as slaves amidst terror and murder where even uttering a word was the basis for torture or death.
There is no furniture at the school, just classrooms filled with black and white, numbered photographs of those who were imprisoned there, taped to the walls from floor to ceiling. Again, in eerie similarity to Nazi practices, the Khmer Rouge kept close count of their victims. When the Vietnamese liberated the facility, a stunning total of seven survivors were present from 25,000 who had come through the gates. One of those survivors was still alive when we visited in 2011 and came to the school each day to lead tours.
We were speechless during our sun-splashed ride back to the hotel. Dinner was at an elegant restaurant a block from our hotel, professionally served amidst French-inspired opulence. We were still numb from the afternoon sights, I recall. But we were able to look forward to the next day’s journey out-of-town to the temples at Angkor Wat, at least until our waiter told us to make certain we returned to our hotel before ten.
“What happens at ten?” I asked.
“That’s when the shooting begins,” he said.
“What shooting?” skeptical of this new twist.
“Gangs, government thugs, criminals, all sorts of stuff happens here after ten. Tourists should not be out,” he said.
“You’re serious?” I said.
“Yes, unfortunately. Phnom Penh may look quiet,” he said, “but all is not as it seems.”
That, I think, is a tremendous understatement.


MARATHON MAN

I ran the Philadelphia Marathon in 1983. In honesty, that stark statement is somewhat sanitized. There was some running involved, but also jogging, walking and some trudging. A lot of trudging.
How did this misadventure come about? Sex. I was motivated by sex. Why else does a young man do anything?
I was reminded of my marathon by a call this morning from my daughter, Kelly. She had just completed a half-marathon in New York, one of several she has participated in in recent years, along with assorted triathlons, 5k runs, walkathons, and other races “for” such causes as “human rights,” “hunger,” and “literacy.” It seems a whole industry has developed to sponsor and organize such runs throughout the country. Well-intentioned persons such as she sign up to participate and enlist friends and relatives to contribute money in support of their efforts. After costs are taken out to support the event and, doubtless, support the organizers of the event, remaining funds are contributed to the designated cause.
In 1983, things were simpler. The well-known marathons consisted of Boston, New York and the Olympics. Other cities were just beginning to recognize the tourism and publicity potential of such events, and so the schedule of marathons proliferated, pushed along by a tsunami of interest in “fitness” activities. Athletic gear companies such as New Balance and Nike, naturally, sponsored these events, as did the emerging industries of sports drinks and energy bars. I do not recall there being “half” marathons in those days. A marathon meant an unforgiving 26.2 miles.
Before the summer of 1983, I’d never considered running a marathon. In fact, I would have found the idea laughable if someone had proposed it to me. But my circumstances were the following: a twenty-six-year-old male, recently arrived to live and work in a small suburban town where I had not grown up, and where I knew no one close to my own age. As an almost non-drinker and a fervent non-smoker, I could not “do” the local bar scene. Internet dating (or the internet) had not yet been invented. I saw my only source of social life as “The Big Apple,” geographically close, but an awful train-subway schlepp away. And, considering my levels of experience and competence in striking up relationships (both very low) I perceived my chances of finding a girlfriend in New York like finding a needle in a haystack, if the searcher were blind. Thus, the surprise appearance of a trim, fresh-faced young woman one morning sitting at the desk just outside my law office seemed almost providential.
“Hi,” I said, trying to act casual, as though a female not describable as married, middle-aged and/or frumpy appeared there every day.
“Hello,” said a girl who identified herself as Kathleen. She looked up from her desk and smiled warmly.
“Do you work here?” I asked, aware the desk had been empty during my first two weeks at the firm.
“Yes, I’m working until the fall as Tom’s typist,” she said, indicating my boss’s brother.
I felt my face redden as I took in her green eyes, perfect teeth and cute freckles that evoked an Irish Spring soap commercial. If a jig had played in the background, I would hardly have been surprised.
“Um, that’s great, um, see you around, sometime,” I said, nonsensically, before retreating into my office. After all, I could not emerge without seeing her and being seen by her.
Over the next several days, I tried to concentrate on my new job representing home buyers and sellers, but my thoughts were constantly distracted by Kathleen. I acknowledge that Kathleen did not have “movie-star” looks, nor was she built like a beauty pageant winner, but for me, she was definitely the “only game in town.” Perhaps, I hoped, she felt the same about me. Gradually, I was able to converse with her without blushing and, one day, we arranged to share lunch.
Our conversation went as follows:
I: “Where did you go to college?”
She: “St. Mary’s.”
I: “Where’s that?”
She: “It’s the girls’ part of Notre Dame.”
I: “Oh, I didn’t know there was a girls’ part. I only knew about the football team.”
She: “I love football. Where did you go?”
I: “Dickinson.”
She: “Fairleigh Dickinson?”
I: “No, the real Dickinson, in Pennsylvania.”
She: “Oh, I never heard of it. Do they have a football team?”
I: “Barely.”
She: “Did you play football?”
I: (recoiling) “I played soccer.”
She: “I don’t really like soccer. It’s so boring. What did you study?”
I: “English literature. And you?”
She: “Business. My dad would never let me study something like literature, that wasn’t useful. He’s career FBI.”
I: “Haha. My dad’s career socialist. Your dad might have a file on my dad.”
She: “Hunh? What do you mean?”

I learned Kathleen had returned to her parents’ home only temporarily to await the anticipated start of a job late in the fall. I could see I mystified her when I described how I lived alone in a tiny bungalow surrounded by elderly neighbors. As I listened to her describe with too much enthusiasm the beer bashes she’d enjoyed on football (and most other) weekends at Notre Dame, I recognized we clearly had little in common besides the celibacy-inducing isolation of suburbia. Though I thought she was adorable, I couldn’t imagine how our relationship could progress beyond the office, until I heard her say:
“I really want to use this summer to train for a marathon.”
“Why in the world?” I said incredulously before recovering to say, respectfully, “that’s really ambitious.”
“But I don’t know if I can do it alone,” she said. “It’s so much work.”
“Really?” I said, my mouth moved ahead by a force stronger than rationality. “I might be interested.”
Kathleen’s face lit up. “It’d be a dream-come-true! According to the article I saw, you have to run six days a week, for four months, to get ready,” she said. “It’s like a ladder. You do one mile one day, two the next, one the third, three the next, then two, then four. After two months, you can run fifteen miles without being out-of-breath and then you just practice extending on up to 26.2.”
The concept of all that running sounded positively horrendous to me, but Kathleen was almost leaping out of her seat with excitement.
“So, like you do all that running together?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said, smiling graciously at me as though I were holding the key to her happiness. “We would go for a run each day after work, then stretch, then grab something to eat. It would be so much fun! Maybe we could use your house as the base, since it’s so close to work.”
My mind was formulating how this would work. Since it was mid-July, there would be a lot of sweating, so a lot of showering, and a lot of physical exertion, huffing and puffing, and mutual encouragement, and all that. Eventually, this could only lead to one thing….
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Really?” she said, delighted.

Training with Kathleen proceeded just as she had described and, in some ways, better than I had pictured. We actually enjoyed each other’s company, so long as we didn’t discuss politics, religion, books, the news, or basically, anything except sports, running and the weather. The hoped-for benefits of all the physicality indeed accrued; for a couple of months, I enjoyed the sort of mindless, meaningless relationship that had eluded me throughout college and law school. In addition, by September, I really could run fifteen miles without being winded, though I experienced occasional protests from such body parts as the ankles, knees and back.
During September, we sent entry forms to the newly established Philadelphia Marathon which was scheduled for the weekend before Thanksgiving. Our goal was to finish in less than four hours, an excellent result for first-time runners. And, since we were nearly below nine-minute miles in our training, the goal appeared reachable. Around this time, Kathleen finished working for Tom and departed for three weeks of training for her new job in Washington, though she was still not expected to start it full-time until months later. Curiously vague about the exact nature of the job, Kathleen assured me she would not have to transfer.
Kathleen promised to continue her training while she was away, and I pledged to do the same though, frankly, I looked forward to a break from the punishing, everyday pace of both the relationship and training. Without her there to prod me, however, it was exceedingly difficult to come home from work, lace up the running shoes, and pound the pavement alone for ten or twelve or sixteen miles. One day off became two, then three, then four. A weekend effort resulted in blisters as my tissues had relaxed, apparently, and then several more days off were necessary.
Our relationship (it had never quite been a “love affair”) also lost its momentum. Kathleen called once after several days, but we didn’t have much to say.
“How’s it going?” I asked.
“Okay,” she said.
“What kind of job are you training for again?” I asked.
“You know I can’t answer that,” she said.
Awkward silence.
“How’s running?” she asked.
“I skipped today,” I said. “It’s hard without you.”
“I can’t get out of activities here,” she said. “We’re scheduled every minute, so I’m losing my edge, too.”
She only called twice more over the remaining weeks. When Kathleen returned in early October, we were unable to reestablish our regular routine. We took several long runs together, but they were labored, as was our communication. Physically, we reverted to “just friends” status without even discussing it. I could still run fifteen or eighteen miles at a time, but it was tedious — early training sessions had taken less than an hour followed by fun activities with my new friend. Now, workouts required three-four hours followed by exhaustion with an increasingly distant and distracted acquaintance.
More blows arrived with November. The end of daylight savings time combined with chillier temperatures to make training runs positively torturous. We met two or three times each week but rarely completed the proscribed fifteen or twenty mile distance. Our pace was back over ten-minutes per mile.
We drove to Philadelphia the day before the race. Luckily, the weather was sparkly and clear, and not too cold. We enjoyed a pasta dinner sponsored downtown by race organizers and, when we arrived the next morning at the starting line, optimism prevailed.
“Good luck,” we wished each other, clasping hands.
We set off with a thousand others from a spot in Germantown. We proceeded towards Chestnut Hill, feeling strong and accompanied both by a crowd of runners and cheering crowds on the sidewalks. A steep hill stripped away some of our initial adrenaline and peeled us from the pack. Along with some other stragglers, we barely kept the main group in sight. After eight or ten miles, we were running largely alone along scenic Wissahickon Creek when Kathleen slowed to a walk with a stomach cramp. I stopped running also, and we fell farther behind the pack.
“Do you want to stop?” I asked.
“No, it’ll go away,” she said, looking agonized.
An arm appeared from a group of on-lookers and thrust a Coca-Cola into her hand. Kathleen sipped it slowly and the sugar or carbonation or both relieved her distress and we resumed running, but slowly.
Several miles later, with only a few other runners still in our vicinity, we reached Kelly Drive along the Schuylkill River. The sun-splashed scenery salved the pain we were both feeling. If the day were not so spectacular, I’m not sure we would have found the necessary determination to continue. We passed sculpture gardens and monuments along the road, the Victorian-era boathouses and, finally, the Art Museum. Thinking of Rocky, I noted the top of the steps would be a perfectly appropriate place to end the race. But, alas, the finish line was still five miles away at Independence Hall.
Police had held traffic throughout the course of the race but, as we entered Philadelphia’s flag-festooned Parkway, designed to match Paris’ Champs-Elysees, I could tell they were preparing to re-open the streets for traffic.
“We’d better speed it up,” I said, not wanting to be surrounded by cars.
“I can’t,” said Kathleen, as we raggedly walked and jogged. “You can go ahead.”
“I can’t either,” I admitted. “We’ll finish together.”
We saw just a few other marathoners, and I babbled cheerfully to Kathleen:
“We are like participants in a depression-era dance marathon.”
“What are you talking about?” she said, near tears. “Are you crazy?”
I realized it would be better to just plod on silently, to get it finished. When we finally stumbled into Independence Square, the organizers were disassembling their tables. Cars were already crossing the course. The clock at the finish line read 5:05. It should have been a moment of triumph and satisfaction, but I felt only a combination of relief and embarrassment as we finished ahead of only several significantly older participants. Our race, and our relationship, were over.
In the ensuing decades, though I have become an avid walker, I have never run more than a half-mile at one time. The marathon, and memories of the next day’s achy hamstrings, ankles, feet, knees and back, definitely cured me of that itch, an itch I’d never actually had. ONLY with the benefit of decades of hindsight, can I suggest the following pearls of wisdom:
1. Do not sign up for a daily, four-month activity with someone you barely know;
2. Do not join someone else’s dream with less than the purest of motives;
3. Recognize when you might be biting off more than you can chew;
4. When running a marathon, pack plenty of snacks, band-aids, and Advil; and
5. Train sufficiently to allow you to finish the race BEFORE the police remove the traffic barricades.


RELATED BY DIVORCE

“You can’t do that,” said my boss, angry, looking up from his desk upon my return to the office.
I was shocked, so excited I was with my first, improbable triumph in my two-week-old career as a divorce lawyer. Somehow, he viewed my victory as a failure. Here’s what happened:
I’d commenced working for Ralph DiPierro when he rescued me, solely on the basis of one telephone conversation, from a tedious position as a junior attorney at a classy, old money law firm. The fundamental problem was the firm’s disinclination to transfer a livable amount of that money to me in exchange for my time-consuming efforts. Also, the opportunity for client contact, which young lawyers crave, until they actually experience it, was non-existent from my permanent position in the firm’s law library.
Ralph, in contrast, offered client contact in abundance. He foisted my totally inexperienced self upon an unsuspecting client the first morning on the job, the likelihood of malpractice be damned.
“Here, take this file,” he said, in his direct, unadorned way. “Nina Brown’s husband left her. They don’t have any money, so you can handle it.”
“Well, um,” I stammered, accepting a thin, manila folder from gaunt, salt-and-pepper-haired Ralph, a possible winner of any Abraham Lincoln lookalike contest.
“Just show up at calendar call next Monday. They may not start the trial; it depends if there’s a judge available.” He added. “If they do, just settle it. Frankie Terranova’s the husband’s lawyer. He’ll go easy on you. I’ve known him a long time.”
“But what should I do to prepare?” I asked.
Ralph appeared stumped, as though the concept of preparation were totally foreign to him.
“Well, you know,” he finally said, “read through the file, give Nina a call so she knows you’re handling her case, and guide her through the process. She’s very young. I talked to her a couple months ago; I got stuck with her ‘cause she’s a waitress at MacMurphy’s.”
I must have looked surprised at Ralph’s explanation, since I knew clients to be almost sacred at my former firm; no one spoke disparagingly of them. Ralph continued, in a tone suggesting wisdom gleaned from thirty years as a suburban divorce attorney: “You never want to represent a wife. Generally, the money is with the husband. But, sometimes, you don’t have a choice. Anyway, in this case, the husband’s broke, too.”
Ralph told me MacMurphy’s was the bar in town where he usually ate lunch and played in weekend poker games. The owner was his best buddy. Still, I felt uneasy as I sat down with the file in my office, formerly the storage closet, adjacent to Ralph’s office. I’d spent much of the morning fussing over hanging my diplomas on the wall. Now, I actually had a client to worry about. What if the case did come to trial? What if Frankie wasn’t “easy on me” as Ralph had promised? What did I actually know about divorce law or trials or clients or anything? Law school had prepared me to read voluminous amounts of material relevant only to someone intent upon being a Federal Appellate judge. For readers who are unfamiliar, law school is largely an exercise in reading judge’s opinions. These dry writings are selected in order to illustrate important concepts, I assume, but they rarely resonated with me. And my year at Yardley, Grinnell & Berman had prepared me to hide in the corner of the law library and appear intensely busy, no matter what.
I took a deep breath and opened Nina’s thin file. Notes on her intake sheet indicated she was twenty-seven, a year older than I, she lived in a one-bedroom apartment her husband had “deserted,” and she had a three-year-old son who may or may not have been the child of her husband, if I was properly interpreting the question mark Ralph had scribbled.
There was no other information except for the 3” X 5” trial notice stapled to the folder, subject to a judge being available the following Monday morning. I wasn’t sure what I would say to Nina when I called, but I decided to “take the plunge” and punched in the number on the telephone. A tiny voice picked up, childlike and vulnerable. My stomach flipped as I realized this person’s future was somehow tied to my minimal professional abilities.
“Hello, I’m Stuart at Ralph DiPierro’s office,” I said.
“Who?” she said.
“Your lawyer’s office. Ralph is your lawyer and I’m his associate,” I said, trying to deepen my voice a level of experience or two. I felt “associate” conveyed gravity beyond that of a mere “assistant.”
“Oh, oh yeah,” said Nina. “I was wondering when I might hear something.”
“The trial is scheduled for next Monday,” I said. “There may be a delay, but we have to be ready, just in case.”
I wasn’t sure what constituted “ready,” but I felt it was a mature thing to say and I hoped Ralph would fill me in as the date approached. I didn’t know what else to say, and an awkward silence ensued, until Nina said:
“Should we get together and talk or something? Maybe I can tell you what I’m hoping to get?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” I said, relieved. Her suggestion totally made sense.
“Can you meet me this evening at the Empire Diner?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea to meet a client for the first time at a restaurant. “Can’t you come to the office?” I asked.
“No, I have to work at MacMurphy’s ‘til four and then take care of my son. But I can leave him with a friend from seven to eight this evening. So, is 7:15 okay?”
“Um, sure, I guess,” I said. “See you there.”
Now what? Ralph had already left for court, so I called an acquaintance who I knew had “put through” several uncontested divorces at another firm. I explained my predicament.
“It won’t be hard,” said Joe. “Complete the CIS with your client. Then, when you get to court, review the husband’s CIS, see where they disagree, and try to narrow the disagreements. “
“What’s a CIS?” I asked.
Joe laughed. “I forgot you’ve spent an entire year in the library. A CIS is the ‘case information statement.’ You fill in your client’s budget, and how much she is asking for in support. The husband will have filled in how much he’s prepared to pay. When you get to the courtroom, either the judge or his clerk will bring you and the opposing lawyer into the judge’s office, adjust a couple of the numbers, and make you settle without a trial.
“What if we can’t settle?” I asked.
“Settle,” said Joe. “Don’t rock the boat. Judges hate to waste time on trials.”
“Thanks,” I said, relieved to be able to picture the likely order of events. It all sounded manageable. “I’m meeting my client tonight at a diner.”
“You’re meeting her outside the office?” said Joe, surprised.
“It’s the only time she’s available,” I said.
“Whoa, be careful,” said Joe. “There’s nothing more ‘available’ than a young divorce client.”
“Very funny,” I said, though the ramifications of Joe’s remark refilled my slightly diminished well of anxiety.

I arrived at the diner several minutes early and took a seat in a booth near the entrance. Right at the appointed moment, a woman who looked no older than a college student, but who could only be Nina, strode in wearing jeans and a notably tight tee shirt. She was thin, with big brown eyes, freckles and curly, permed hair in the style of the mid-1980’s. She virtually flounced into the booth across from me and offered a smile. I noticed she chewed gum with the avidity of a lion consuming a zebra.
“Nina?” I said, feeling self-conscious in my three-piece suit.
“Yes,” she said, taking me in with a smile that made me feel like I was an eight-year-old dressed up as a lawyer.
We ordered coffee and Nina explained her situation: “Robert left me almost a year ago. It really hurt. He doesn’t even bother to see our son, Charley. He’s living with a receptionist from the factory where he works. I hate him.”
“That’s terrible,” I said.
“Can we really nail him?” she asked. “He left us alone. I can hardly pay the bills.”
I felt a tug of sympathy for this lithe young woman across from me. Who could leave her like that? After she explained what Robert earned, however, I was certain I could do little for her besides put through her paperwork. Robert earned less than she did.
We filled out a blank CIS I’d found in the office. Nina’s rent and car payments consumed nearly all her income. Charley’s baby-sitting and nursery school used up the rest, and Robert could not be counted upon for alimony. The only hope was to obtain reasonable child support.
“He offered fifty bucks a week,” said Nina. “I’ve gotta get at least a hundred. If I got that, I could get by.”
I nodded sympathetically, as though I were familiar with the costs of child rearing. The numbers did sound small, even to my uninformed mind.
“There’s one awkward question I have to ask,” I said. “Robert is Charley’s father, right?”
“Of course he is,” she replied, then added: “I’m nearly certain.”
“Okay,” I said. “I guess that’s good enough.” I actually had no idea if it would be. When we finished our coffees and reached the bottom of the form, Nina stood and flashed me a luminous smile.
“Can I have your home number,” she asked, “just in case something comes up?”
I didn’t know if this was appropriate or not, but how could I refuse? I scribbled my number on a napkin and stood to say “good-bye.”
Nina put the napkin into her large, leather bag and shocked me by leaning forward to kiss my cheek.
“You’re sweet,” she said, as though she were twice my age. “I know you’re gonna take care of me and Charley.” I was enveloped by cheap perfume as she turned and strode out. The shape of her rear left an impression I knew was inappropriate. “This is your first client,” I reminded myself, and shuttered.

The week flew by as my first, possible trial approached. At his suggestion, I studied some of Ralph’s complex files, and he offered occasional tidbits of advice, though they rarely concerned our clients or law. From Ralph, I learned which casinos in Atlantic City had the best buffets, which local bars had happy hours on which days, and which health club had the best racquetball courts. I felt totally unprepared.
I went to bed early on Friday evening, and drifted into an unsettled sleep. I dreamed numerous scenarios at court, all disastrous. What if Nina were ordered to pay alimony to Robert? What if the judge declared I was incompetent in front of “everyone?” What if Nina shouted: “He promised to help me and he didn’t!”
My dreams were so dire I was almost relieved to be awakened at two a.m. by the telephone.
“Hello,” I said, groggily. I heard crying on the other end of the line.
“It’s Nina,” said a high-pitched voice, sniffling. “The bastard. He’s ruined my life.”
“What?” I said, coming to attention. I immediately thought the worst, wondering if Charley had been kidnapped or the apartment set on fire. “What happened?”
“He, he,” she started, almost unable to speak. “He took the pots and pans.”
“Hunh?” I said. “What else?”
“They were really nice,” said Nina, distressed. “I bought them with my birthday money last year.”
“You’ve called me in the middle of the night because he took your pots and pans?” I said, angry to have been called for something that struck me as so trivial, but also relieved the situation was not worse. I began to laugh. “I was afraid it was something really bad.”
Silence from the other end of the line was deafening. I knew I’d made a mistake. What is considered important to a client, I realized, especially a divorce client, is not something for the lawyer to judge. That was the first self-learned nugget of knowledge I would remember for the rest of my career.
“I’m sorry,” I added. “I just thought… it might be something worse.”
Gradually, Nina composed herself. and we agreed I would bring up the matter with Robert’s attorney on Monday. I assured her I would call from the courthouse if we were able to settle, or if she had to appear, in the unlikely event we were actually going to trial. Nina finally hung up after saying somewhat half-heartedly: “Sorry I called so late. I just didn’t have anyone else to call. I’m so lonely.”
It took me several hours to fall asleep again. I tried not to obsess about it, but anxiety over my courthouse debut ruined the entire weekend.

Calendar call in northern New Jersey was a social phenomenon. About fifty men and a handful of women sat in a cavernous courtroom in Hackensack. Every other lawyer seemed to be named Ralph or Frankie or Dominic and the few women all seemed to be Teresa or Annemarie; it was not unlike a barbershop. The assignment judge, a triple-chinned mountain of a man named Anthony Polito, stood at a lectern on a raised platform in front of the room and called pending cases in a mysterious order that I never came to understand, and then “assigned” them to particular judges and courtrooms. As he worked his way down his list, the room gradually emptied, and I found myself one of the few stragglers.
“Hey, Frankie,” said the judge, peering down from his perch and addressing a short, bald man in a plaid, three-piece suit that resembled curtain material. “Where’s DiPierro?”
My heart fluttered as I realized Frankie Terranova, my “adversary,” was speaking: “Ralphie said he was sending his associate.”
“Wow,” said Judge Polito. “Ralphie’s got an associate now. Impressive.”
I slowly raised my arm. “I’m, I’m Ralph DiPierro’s associate, um, Sanders is my name, um Stuart.”
Judge Polito gazed down at me. I felt even younger than I’d felt the first time I’d met Nina. Frankie Terranova took me in with a barely-concealed smirk.
“So, counselor,” he said, “you ready to rock-and-roll?”
“Easy, Frankie,” said Judge Polito. “What have you guys got?”
“Just a simple uncontested,” said Frankie.
“Alright, I’ve got some time to put that through myself,” said the judge, glancing at his watch. “Come into my chambers.”
Frankie and I followed the judge through a doorway at the front of the courtroom and into his office, a dark-paneled cave of a room decorated with photographs showing Judge Polito with various local politicians.
“Were you at Knights of Columbus Sunday?” the judge asked Frankie.
“Couldn’t make it. Had Angie’s christening,” said Frankie.
“Congratulations,” said the judge.
“Thanks, Tony,” said Frankie.
For just a second, my mind drifted to the specter of being known around the courthouse as “Stuie.” The two bantered like brothers while I stood awkwardly to the side. Judge Polito hung his black robe on a rack behind his desk, sat down in a massive leather chair, and indicated that Frankie and I should sit down on two wooden chairs facing him.
“So,” the judge said. “All settled?”
“Sure thing,” said Frankie.
“Um, I need to see his CIS, don’t I?” I asked, my voice rising involuntarily from my intended assertion into a question.
“Sure, George,” said Frankie, reaching for his briefcase.
“Stuart,” I corrected him.
“Yeah, whatever,” said Frankie. “Here’s the CIS. My client’s got no money. Plus, he thinks the kid might not be his, so we gotta go easy on the support.”
Judge Polito said to Frankie: “Does he wanna do a paternity test?”
“No, Judge,” said Frankie. “He doesn’t think it that much.” Both men laughed.
Judge Polito awaited my response as I skimmed the CIS. As Nina had indicated, Robert proposed to pay $50 a week in child support. Much of the rest of his income went towards his rent and car. But one item jumped out at me; Robert budgeted $100 a week for “alcohol and tobacco.”
Trying my best to sound like Gregory Peck in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” I declared: “Your honor, this man is suggesting that he pay $100 a week for drinking and smoking, and only $50 for his child.”
Both men looked at me as if to say: “So, what’s the point?”
I added, with indignation: “That doesn’t seem right.”
Judge Polito turned to Frankie. “What do you say to that?” he asked.
“It’s, it’s,” Frankie sputtered. “You know, a guy’s gotta live.”
“I don’t know,” said the judge, a smile seeping slowly through his substantial jowls. “But that’s a hard thing to justify, you know, a hundred for booze and fifty for the kid.”
I felt a burning look of hatred directed at me by Frankie, but I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the judge. “I think,” continued Judge Polito, “you should modify the CIS and then we can call this ‘settled.’”
Frankie crossed out $50 at “child support” and wrote in $100. “You’re breakin’ my balls,” he said to me.
Judge Polito laughed. He took the modified CIS and signed it. “Here, kid,” he said to me, like I was his employee. “Take this out to the court clerk and enter it as settled. Me and Frankie are gonna chat a little longer.”
After almost floating with elation to the bank of telephones in the hallway, I called Nina with the news. I’d won her what she wanted. I’d rescued a damsel in distress. I allowed myself to picture a celebratory hug, perhaps another kiss. Perhaps, we would be friends. After all, she was lonely and I was new in town.
“Oh, that’s good,” she said, when I reached her. “Me and my boyfriend can go away for the weekend to celebrate.”
“Boyfriend?” I thought, disappointed. “What happened to “I’m so lonely?” But then I thought about it a few minutes longer. I was naïve. Upon reflection, at least, I realized someone like Nina could not be expected to live like a nun for a year after her husband left. Back at the office, at least, I would receive some acclaim. When I arrived, however, that’s when Ralph glared up from his desk and declared: “You can’t do that. Frankie called and he was really pissed.”
When I appeared totally crestfallen, he explained: “A satisfied client is good for one divorce, maybe two over a thirty year career. A friendly adversary like Frankie is good for easy settlements in five or ten cases every year. You gotta just go along. This is real life, not a television show.”
My career as a divorce lawyer only lasted two more months. As soon as an experienced former judge’s clerk became available, Ralph suggested I work for his brother, Alan, who did real estate closings.
“Excellent,” I thought to myself, “a relatively non-emotional area of the law, without judges, lying clients, flirtations or moral compromises. It’s all black-and-white; we’re only dealing with money, and I can try to do the best for my clients. My priorities will be clear.”
Not only did I eventually prove to be wrong about whether emotions and lying were part of real estate transactions, but Alan had apparently been tipped off about my weakness for justice.
“Listen,” he said on my first day, “in real estate law, a happy client is worth a deal every five or ten years. A happy real estate agent is good for five or ten deals a year. And a happy mortgage broker is even more important. Don’t ever forget that.”


IT’S IN THE JEANS

“Blue jeans are for farmers,” said my father.
I heard that pronouncement throughout childhood, first directed to my older brothers and, eventually, to me.
Lou Sanders’ Menswear in Philadelphia stocked Wranglers and Levi’s for customers but never for home consumption. There were few things my father, who had been born to a poor family in Ukraine, felt so strongly. He had no objection to selling work clothes to laborers, but his children were not to appear like proletarians. This belief was ironic, given that my father was far more sympathetic to the politics of the Red Army than to the White Army when the two alternately over-ran his childhood neighborhood.
I never managed to understand my father’s fickle political philosophy. I recall him reading the Socialist Workers’ newspaper when I was little. He was so sympathetic to Communist ideals I wondered, sometimes, why he ever left Russia in the first place. I understood, on some level, that it was a matter of economic opportunity and freedom from religious persecution, but he would not express distaste for the Soviet Union even in the face of Stalin’s obvious depredations. Perhaps, he held an idealized memory of his childhood there. But considering his family chose to flee the country, how ideal could it have been?
On the domestic front, my father disliked Johnson and despised Nixon, but he complained bitterly about those who demonstrated against them, too. He was equally dismissive of politicians on the liberal side, such as Humphrey or McGovern.
The picture painted above is more negative than I mean to depict. When my father skewered someone or something, it was, fortunately, usually leavened with wit and insight. A listener might wince at first, but a nod or smile often followed.
In race relations, he appeared colorblind in his dealings with customers. He found something negative to say about whites, blacks and hispanics, without discrimination. He derided members of all the world’s religions, including his own, without distinction. In fact, the more devout a person, the more harshly they would be criticized for their presumed hypocrisy. Somewhere, in his rarely-discussed formative years, my father developed deep skepticism of human motivations.
None of my father’s commentary prevented him from being an effective salesman, however. Anyone who shopped at his store was treated like a prince, at least until they were out of ear-shot. Thus, it was difficult to know exactly where he was coming from. His positions were strongly-held, even if they were completely contradictory. “Consistency? Ech, who needs it?” he would say, if confronted.
The subject of blue jeans bridged the gap between my father’s two realms, the store and home. Of course, he supplied his sons’ clothes. When he was young, my oldest brother, Barry, was indifferent to his wardrobe. Whatever my father brought home was okay with him. But David, two years younger, fashioned himself a rebel, relatively-speaking. In most families, he probably would have been “normal.” If my father would not bring home jeans, David earned his own money to buy them. This teenage flashpoint presaged subsequent battles over car choices (my father preferred a staid Buick; David a red Camaro), facial hair (David grew a full beard during a college-era camping trip which my father made him shave as a condition to re-entering our home), and girls. My father conveyed his disapproval wordlessly in that area, with just a withering stare. But that’s a different story.
I observed the fashion and other disputes from the advantageous position of being ten years younger. Some suspected and others declared my conception had been a “mistake.” Nowadays, the euphemism is “unplanned.” According to family lore, my father, who was fifty at the time, fretted during my mother’s pregnancy that I would be born with grey hair. Once I was born, however, he was dutifully positive and loving towards me, if rarely home. He worked, after all, seven days-a-week.
I grew up lacking rebellious impulses. I figured if my father worked everyday to feed, educate and clothe me, why should I aggravate him? Thus, my warm-weather pants were khaki and my cold-weather pants were corduroy. This wardrobe never struck me odd as a child but, as I reached my teen years and, especially during college, I realized I was unique. This fact appealed to me — initially self-conscious about my “squareness,” it gradually occurred to me I was the true non-conformist among my classmates, thanks to my over-arching conformity. (If the reader is confused, I understand. Any psychologists out there are welcome to weigh in).
In my twenties, several female friends took note of my lack of “style.” They bought me “designer jeans,” as gifts, with elaborate stitching and buttons. Depending on what I judged my prospects with a particular girl, these were either returned immediately to the store or placed in an obscure corner of my closet, just in case a desire for continued romance in the future made my stubbornness expendable. But the necessity of wearing jeans never became clear and, by the time I reached thirty, it appeared I would lead a jean-less life.
My father sold the store a few years before he died. Many things had bothered him, including: politicians; stale rye bread; cold coffee; and, rock-and-roll. Several things about me had also bothered him, such as: my lack of interest in the store; my lack of enthusiasm about practicing law; my choice to attend a college other than Penn, which he called “The Greatest University in the World.” But my wearing blue jeans was never one of them.


BULLY

My high school was the farthest thing from “The Hood.” A Quaker-sponsored bastion of liberal sensitivity and pre-Ivy-league curriculum, it tailored its philosophy to a student body presumed unified in the pursuit of excellence, knowledge and tradition. Most of the fifty students in my graduating class of 1974 attended Friends’ Academy from kindergarten. My addition at the beginning of seventh grade, as a rare public elementary school product who lived “in the city,” was a nod towards diversity. Nearly everyone else lived in some degree of splendor on “the Main Line,” Philadelphia’s western suburbs of legendary opulence and distinction.
Our class was divided into three “sections.” Pre-selected before my arrival, the top group were kids most likely to gain scholarships to the likes of Yale, Princeton or Swarthmore, Not all of these students could walk and chew gum at the same time, but they were perfectly capable of memorizing Shakespearean sonnets or the Big Bang Theory or the time table of Munich, Germany’s subway system. I was placed in the middle group, the capable students who had not tested at Einsteinian levels, and were destined to end up at Muhlenberg, F & M or Dickinson. The third group contained the economic scholarship students on either the low end (Friends’ Academy was doing a good deed) or the high end (some really rich kids are not very bright). These students would eventually be inserted by the school’s high-powered placement office into state universities or other institutions known more for Heisman winners than Nobel winners.
The top group contained some personality or behavioral outliers, what might have been called “weird kids” by the politically insensitive, but I never questioned why they were there. Their out-sized intellects smoothed the way. The second and third groups also had students who did not fit in with the Friends’ Academy zeitgeist of earnest learning and social consciousness. Several students had prickly personalities; several others had gone “hippie” in a big way, to the extent that attending school in sandals had to be specifically forbidden by an otherwise tolerant administration. One out-of-the-mainstream student may even have come from a family of Republicans. But the oddest member of the Class of 1974 was its bully.
Donald Worley was known as “The Donald” before the tabloid media was blessed with Trump. Physically impressive, an unnaturally solid 170 pounds or so, he towered over my average 120. A mop of brown hair topped a broad, freckled face, broad shoulders, massive hands and thick thighs. If only we’d had a football team, our two-way lineman was already in place.
The Donald snarled with a deep, raspy voice, enhanced by the cigarettes he smoked at every opportunity from the first day he intruded into my consciousness. He flaunted the school’s prohibition on smoking by keeping his pack, with half-an-inch protruding, ostentatiously displayed in his shirt pocket. He treated every classmate with equal contempt. He called soccer players “sissies,” basketball players “dorks,” the artistically-minded “A-holes,” and punctuated every sentence with the “F” word and the “S” word when those words were still not generally spoken aloud (unlike today, when movies strive to include them).
The Donald kicked seats, farted aloud, talked back to teachers and entered classes late. Basically, he checked off every requirement of anti-social behavior and made me wonder, to myself and to others, “Why is he here?”
I never received a satisfactory answer to my question. To the students who’d been classmates of The Donald since they were five, he was simply part of their lives. He was a one-man catalogue of unacceptable behavior. He represented the prized category of “variety,” yet displayed not a single positive characteristic. Repulsed by him from my first awareness, I think he was able to sense my discomfort like a dog.
I managed to make it to the spring semester before I had my first one-on-one encounter with The Donald. All the members of my science class had to maintain small garden plots on the opposite side of the playing fields, about three hundred yards from the classroom buildings. We each planted whatever we chose and then charted its progress. I recall my plant was a gardenia bush. The class usually tended to the gardens as a group with the teacher but, one day, like a young wildebeest separated from the herd, I found myself walking back across the open field trailed only by The Donald.
“Hey, faggot,” he called from behind, using the all-purpose epithet of the 1970’s.
My heart raced with adrenaline as I considered my options. I could ignore The Donald and possibly infuriate him; after all, unless I was deaf, there was no way I did not hear him. I could turn towards The Donald and respond pleasantly, hoping to ingratiate myself in spite of the distaste that would have emanated from my expression. I could turn and confront The Donald, with as much likelihood of success as the average lamb has against the average lion.
“Hey, pussy,” he added, while I remained paralyzed in indecision. I heard his footsteps closing behind me at a jogging pace.
“You like your little garden?” he said, as he fell in beside me. Somehow, his tone alone conveyed a “garden” to be some combination of perverted, effeminate and useless. At the irresistible recognition that The Donald could insinuate so much with just one word, I imagined for just a moment that he could be a great actor. I smiled.
“You should be in the spring play,” I blurted, my tendency to sarcasm disastrously overruling my caution.
“What are you talking about?” he asked, warily.
“You are able to say a lot with just a little,” I said. “You have a way with words.”
The Donald regarded me for a moment, probably trying to decide if I were making fun of him or sincerely offering a compliment. Apparently, he decided, even if I meant a compliment, suggesting that he be in the spring play was not a desirable outcome.
“You think you’re pretty smart,” he said, finally. “But I think you’re an ass-hole.”
By now, I knew not to respond. I tried to quicken my pace, but we were still a hundred yards from a building. Everyone else had disappeared, alone as though we were in a remote desert.
“I hear you like baseball,” he said.
“Yes, I do,” I said, not certain about this turn of the conversation.
“You probably couldn’t play with a broken hand, could you?” he asked.
I tried to keep walking but felt him grab my right just below the elbow. I tried to run but The Donald held tight to my wrist. He started to squeeze my fingers.
“What do you want!?” I shouted.
He continued to twist until I went down to my knees and, essentially, wordlessly begged him to stop. We looked into each other’s eyes. He certainly saw fear and helplessness. I saw triumph and evil. He let go of my hand.
“Keep your fucking mouth shut,” he said, and departed, leaving me to get up, wipe some dirt off my pants, and flex my fingers, sore but still intact.

I managed to survive the next five years without again being one-on-one with The Donald, not an easy feat in a school so small. He tallied up a predictable set of depredations during his high school career. He was suspended for fighting several times; he was caught drinking in class; he ostentatiously drove a beaten-up truck onto campus as a sophomore, when only seniors were allowed to drive to school; his favorite smoking bathroom was referred to as “Donald’s house” by students and faculty alike; and, he was caught in several cheating incidents.
As the years went by, I was amazed to find my classmates idolizing The Donald for his nonconformity, his boldness. They thought he was “cool.” When our yearbook was intended to capture the essence of our class, no one appeared more prominently than The Donald. His grinning face adorned a two-page centerfold in the middle of the book, a cigarette jaunting from his lips as he sat, James Dean-style, on the hood of his truck, wearing a leather jacket. By that time, I was no longer surprised, just resigned. The messy, violent Donald had become a folk hero to kids otherwise disposed to sensitivity and order.

Nearly twenty years after graduation, I received an “In Memoriam” card from Friends’ Academy. The Donald had died in a car crash on his way home from work. The only member of our class who had not attended college, the notice described him as a prized member of the staff at the local A & P where he was assistant produce manager. It invited me to a “Celebration of Donald Worley,” and asked, if I could not attend, if I would send a written “remembrance,” to capture the “beauty” of Donald’s life.
I was ambivalent about The Donald’s demise. Though I’d wished some sort of misfortune upon him for a quarter century, death seemed out of proportion to what he had done to me. I pondered for a moment what had made The Donald the way he was. Were his parents abusive? Was his economic or social background difficult? Did he suffer from a mental deficit that caused a lack of impulse control or compassion? I concluded all those things were possible, but even if he was afflicted with any or all of them, they were rationales, not excuses. The nicest thing I could do for The Donald was to NOT express my remembrance of him. I threw the card away.

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