If being a writer means writing, I was a writer.
If being a writer means getting paid for what you write?
I was lucky that Bubbe had left some money for me.
About which he never lost a chance to remind me.
Now it was mine.
I lost some of it in law school.
For four years I had thrashed my way through the lush intellectual jungle of Morningside Heights, crossing wide fast crocodile infested rivers, evading charging hippopotami, swinging on vines across gaping chasms, startling up in the middle of the night soaked with fever under the stars, luxuriating in fresh mangoes and berries and bananas, cooling beneath cascading white water falls, hacking through thorn-thrusting brush-choked byways, befriending villagers, emerging in glory at the convergence of turquoise sea and cobalt sky and blazing white sand.
I crossed Amsterdam Avenue and arrived in the middle of the desert.
Sitting among one hundred of my new best friends.
He was strutting back and forth behind the podium, tie whipping behind him as he’d turn, flapping his arms like a wild goose.
I’d seen the drill before.
“Let us address Judge Andrew’s dissent.”
“Did the explosion in fact cause the scale to fall upon Mrs. Palsgraf?”
“And it injured her?”
“And the guard was negligent in knocking down the package that caused the explosion?”
“Well, that’s what the case says but I think . . . .”
“That is what it says?”
“Yes. Both Cardozo and Andrews agree about negligence. But I think . . . .”
“If both of these great jurists agree as to the facts, why does it matter what you think?”
“Because I think the guy was just doing his job and it doesn’t seem negligent to me and if you hold him liable he’s never going to try to help anybody ever again.”
“Your personal evaluation of the presence or absence of negligence here is irrelevant. And I have asked you about proximate cause, not negligence.”
“Yes, but if there is no negligence then proximate cause doesn’t matter and I know what the judges said but it seems to me wrong to call this negligence.”
“Seems to you?”
. . . .
“Seems to you?”
. . . .
“Seems to you?”
. . . .
“Neither I nor any member of the New York State judicial system nor any member of this class cares one whit as to what seems to you. Let us turn to the issue of proximate cause.”
Not one of my hundred new best friends was raising a hand or opening a mouth to defend me.
How much is a “whit?”
“Fine. I’ll turn to the issue of proximate cause.”
“That is very gracious of you.”
Now they laughed.
Like a pigeon.
“But I still think . . . .”
“Please stay with the issue.”
. . . .
“Now. What if Mrs. Palsgraf had had a heart attack instead of being injured by the platform scale?”
“Well, I suppose it would depend on what caused the heart attack.”
“What could a heart attack have to do with fireworks?”
“Ummmm . . . You asked the question. Maybe they scared her?”
“And how would you know if they scared her?”
“Because she’d say so.”
“She’d say so? And a jury should believe her just because she said so?”
“Why not? They have to believe something.”
“What if she were dead? How would you know if she were dead?”
“Ummmm. She’d stop breathing?”
“How would you know? If she were dead?”
“But she wasn’t dead.”
“Answer the question that I ask you.”
“OK. So if she were dead, maybe she said something before she died.”
“What would she have said before she died?”
“Ummmm. . . . I’m scared?”
Even more laughter.
“And you would believe that?”
“Well, she was dying. What did she have to lose?”
“How did she know she was dying?”
“How would Iknow? I’ve never died.”
“You have now.”
Again they laughed.
“I suspect given your performance that you will be lucky to find employment working for a title insurance company. . . . In Schenectady. Miss Burns?”
“Well, sir, that is precisely the reason for Judge Andrews’ discussion of the concept of proximate cause which is meant to establish causation as a legal principle in cases where causality cannot be proven directly but without which the accident in question would never have happened and the principal difference between Andrews and Cardozo. . . .”
I understand that we need lawyers.
Nobody needed me to be a lawyer.
* * *
He drove down to the city for lunch with me the day after the Sunday call during which I casually mentioned that I was dropping out of law school. I was sort of glad to see him because he might actually have been able to give me some advice, which he sometimes was good at giving.
He didn’t comment on my order.
I could tell this wasn’t going to be good.
Before I got my Diet Coke, even before my tuna fish had arrived, he pronounced himself disgusted that I was “quitting” and “throwing money down the drain.” I pointed out that he wasn’t paying for it so it really wasn’t his business. He replied that he didn’t “give a good God damn” who was paying for it, “I did not raise you to be a quitter.” And that “your grandmother would have been appalled that you were wasting the hard-earned money that she left you” which I did not at all believe to be true because I was pretty sure that Bubbe just wanted me to be happy. I pointed out that I would be wasting a lot more money and much more of my life if I stayed in law school just to prove how well I had been raised. He asked me how I was “going to make a living and support a family” and I replied that I didn’t have a family to support and that I was going to write leaving out the thought that thanks to Bubbe I didn’t yet have to make a living, at least not yet. He snorted. I pointed out that I had won a couple of writing prizes in college. He told me “a literary magazine isn’t a living and that nobody pays for poetry” even though I was pretty sure that he had never met a poet in his life so how would he know? I pointed out that he had explicitly raised me to place money below happiness. He insisted that “you have to eat in order to be happy.” I told him I didn’t care much about eating. He snorted and took a large bite of burger. I told him ok, I’d go to medical school. He almost choked. Before he pretty much correctly pointed out that “you vomited dissecting a frog in high school biology class and I had to interrupt my day to come take you home because your mother was in some damn literature class and, besides, you haven’t taken a science course since your freshman year so what makes you think you’ll get into medical school?” I said I didn’t really want to go to medical school but it was a good living if that is all he cared about and anyway why was he pushing me so hard to stay in law school when I so obviously hated it? He told me that “you don’t have to love every minute of what you do but you do have to be responsible.” I asked what was wrong with being a responsible writer? He rolled his eyes. He asked me what was “so wrong with law school, your grandfather would have been thrilled with the chance to go to law school?”
To which I might have replied that I would have been thrilled with the chance to go to Auschwitz.
At which point the conversation was over.
He stormed out.
After he paid the check.
With cash, which he preferred.
Which meant we had to wait for the change.
Perhaps longer than either of us would have liked.
I know he meant well.
I know I’d gone too far.
My apologies were profuse.
The thing about words.
Once you say them.
You can’t take them back.