A couple of years ago I started writing a memoir called Hauled to the Bar: A Life in Law and Letters, in Spite of Myself. I haven’t worked on it much, partly because of the uncomfortable memories, such as the one below, that is meant to serve as the prologue. To make for easier reading online, I have divided it into two posts.
Before I went to law school in 1979, at the age of twenty-eight, the only lawyer in my family was my third cousin, Herbie Galchinksy. During my childhood in Denver, I saw him maybe a couple of times, at a wedding or a bar mitzvah. But suddenly, when I was twenty-two, nasty coincidence threw us into an intense lawyer-client relationship. Within the month, I was scheduled to fly to Canada to begin my studies in the Graduate English Department at the University of Toronto. But now those plans were looking sickly. A day-care centre whose employ I’d recently left, to take up selling blue jeans and dashikis at a trendy clothing shop nearer my home, had been burglarized. I was the prime suspect.
Cousin Herb would later become a Denver County judge, and notorious as “Herbie the Love Judge” for augmenting his $141,156 government pay with about $63,000 in fees (at least in the year reported by the Denver Post) by moonlighting as an officiant at weddings. But his unromantic job of the moment, in August, 1973, was to accompany me to police headquarters in Littleton, a suburb of Denver now notorious as the site of the Columbine High School shootings. While I was at a movie matinee in Denver proper, two Littleton detectives had visited my parents’ home looking for me, and left a message requesting that I book an appointment to meet them at their station. My only connection with Littleton was the daycare centre. Mystified – panicked – I called my former boss, the director of the centre, to ask if she might know what the police wanted. She had no idea, she said.
Which of course was a lie. When the police first questioned me, it became clear that someone had broken into the place and stolen some equipment during a weekend, and what my former colleagues had told them put me in the frame. I had, after all, left the centre once the atmosphere had soured, never mind that I naively had imagined that this had blown over. In any event, it was probably obvious – particularly once I broke down sobbing and shouting at the detectives in an incredulous rage that I had no idea about any break-in or missing typewriter (What typewriter? I have my own typewriter! We have three at home! My grandmother is a stenographer for the state!) – that I was the sort of soft, bookish, please-and-thank-you nebbish who made a particularly unconvincing hard case, unsuited, as I blatantly was, to the historic craft of housebreaking by night. As a criminal, I made a great Woody Allen in one of my favourite films of the day, Take the Money and Run, except that I was even more ill-suited to crime. I think even Herb was unsettled by how viscerally, reflexively, not to say mucous-productively wounded I proved to be. But then he was unaware that I was still recovering from two years of a clinical depression (not at all trendy, or understood, in the way of today) that had meant I rarely left my room, books, and music, let alone loitered with intent at daycare centres outside the city. Landing a job and working at the centre had been a giant step. To begin with, it required a forty-five minute drive in my father’s rattling old Oldsmobile (once, in a flash flood that rendered the brake drums slitheringly useless, so that I had to stop the old tank by running it into a curb), which fact I vaguely recall I tendered, or, more precisely, bellow-choked out in semi-coherent outrage, as further evidence of why I couldn’t and wouldn’t have been the burglar.
But the cops had “evidence.” To begin with, there was that day I mentioned to a colleague at the daycare centre, a tall, prim, angularly attractive middle-aged “teacher,” that I thought the staff were unjustly, relentlessly hard on one of the boys in our care, an older kid who clearly had a rough-and-tumble home life. I was the only male staff member, bearded, young, Jewish, pedantic, which I now think seemed odd enough to my very conservative and not very sophisticated suburban colleagues to provoke distrust or resentment – never mind that I was probably hired as a “male influence.” I suppose that as a contextual (and otherwise lifetime) misfit I was moved to speak up for the boy, or at least that was why I empathized with him. The “teacher” reacted in highest dudgeon, shouting at me in my not altogether invisible fragility (I now think she sensed it and pretty well jumped on it), with the staff all around us, which – to my shame even now – so rattled me that I collapsed into a chair before breathlessly apologizing and trying to explain myself. As we shall see, although I am uncommonly good on paper and its oral cognate, prepared speechifying, I never did become much of a viva voce advocate, even for myself.
Anyway, that argument had been weeks in the past, and in the interim I seem to have joked with another staff member, in aid of something by-the-way and unmemorable, even back then, until the detectives reminded me of it. Trying to make small talk, I replied to some passing gripe of this second colleague’s, a crabbed young woman around my age, words to the effect that, in such a situation I would get revenge. It was that jocular, forgettable, and absurdly against my character, probably in a melodramatic, bad-guy tone that indicated my misfit’s attempt at humour (which habit still gets me into trouble). But she remembered it, resonantly. After my resignation, this colleague, younger than the other woman and twice as stupid, reported the remark to the police, teaching me an important lesson about the grave dangers of circumstantial evidence, a lesson that has affected the rest of my life, at the bar and elsewhere: your innocent words and actions can and will be used against you, in ways you never would have dreamed. Given the right inclination (which is to say reflexive prejudgment), people will add one and one to make thirteen. And day to day you don’t always have the shelter of the constitution. I’ve often wondered since if right-wingers in the U.S. (including conservative justices on the country’s highest court) would be so keen to overturn Arizona v. Miranda (the “you have the right to remain silent” case) if they were wrongly accused of a crime. But then, as a kid who spent the first eight years of my schooling, during the 1950s and 60s, as the only Christ-killer available on the playground for such derision, I perhaps should not have been naïve about this.
READ PART TWO HERE.
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