As I approach a milestone birthday, I occasionally think about aging lawyers, especially those who have spent their careers representing poor criminal defendants.  Many of these lawyers cannot retire–some for financial reasons and some based on a compulsion to keep helping the poor.  Early in my career, I wrote about an elderly lawyer in an email to my mother.  Twenty years later, I realize that I was mean to old Abe Gray (not his real name), and what was then to me a comical situation is now an example of the resilience of experience and, yes, age.  Here is my email:

Abe Gray is a fixture in court.  A bit like the screw that holds down the tap on your faucet – he’s there but you don’t notice him until something goes wrong.  Monday, he got noticed.

Abe looks to be in his eighties and all of the old court officers say he’s been around forever.  He always wears a wrinkled suit with an old man’s obligatory dandruff.  Abe’s client was a stocky young black man charged with trespass and disorderly conduct who had to be told to remove his hat.  This admonition caused a guffaw from the young man; his guffaw only worsened the scolding from the judge who went on about decorum-this and respect-that before sending him back to his seat like a kid in the corner to wait a long time before she would have his case called again.

When the court recessed, Abe tried to explain his client’s behavior.  I may have attracted his attention because we’d made eye contact, a difficult thing given Abe’s permanent downward head bend.  About his client he said, “It was just a nervous laugh – he does that you know.”  I certainly didn’t, and was pretty sure that neither did Abe.  As our conversation continued, Abe insisted that I probably would not like being a lawyer for the poor very soon.  “But it beats sittin’ in ya office doin’ nuthin’ don’t it?” which he followed with a friendly punch in the arm, a hearty laugh, and a consequent bout of coughing that only years of smoking can cause.

When court reconvened, Abe and I ended up sitting next to each other.   A stern looking young lawyer whom I had seen run into the ladies’ room the day before to puke loudly into the sink (her stern expression was meant to mask an intense anxiety) sat on his other side. We were near the seats reserved for police officers.  Abe decided he wanted to do what court officers most often have to rebuke lawyers for – chat. And not just chat.  Abe wanted to talk about the police.

So there I am, trying to be decorous and show respect for the court, listening to Abe go on in the sort of loud voice the hard of hearing often think is a whisper, “the cops testiLIE, not testiFY” and how “THEY apparently can wear hats in the courtroom – look at that one over there – she’s got a baseball cap on just like my client’s!”  He actually pointed.  I was mortified. Some of the police were frowning in our direction.  I smiled meekly.  The stern looking puker turned a whiter shade of pale.  Mind you, women are allowed to wear hats in court; men are not, even policemen.

I crossed my leeward leg away from Abe, leaned forward, elbow on knee, chin in hand, and pretended I was fascinated by the proceedings.  He quieted.

About five minutes later, Abe’s client’s name was called.  The client approached the bar, hat in hand, eyes down.  Abe didn’t stand to address the court.  When an uncomfortable silence followed, the clerk announced the name of the defendant’s lawyer (it’s not unusual for a lawyer to be in the hallway or another courtroom – the clerk will say the lawyer’s name as a way of prompting help from the court officers in locating a lawyer).  Abe did not respond; the clerk scanned the courtroom and landed his gaze on us.  He repeated Abe’s name more loudly this time.  I couldn’t figure out why Abe still hadn’t stood. Maybe he was helping stern-face with something?  So I turned around.

Abe’s head was tilted uncharacteristically upwards.  His eyes were shut. His mouth wide open.  His arms were crossed over his chest.  Sleeping?  Dead?  God, I hoped not.  I poked his left elbow with my index finger and whispered, “Attorney Gray?”  No response.  I pressed all four fingers into his left arm twice and, a little louder said, “Attorney Gray.”  No response.  Now I was worried.  I returned his earlier punch three times to no effect other than tilting his torso towards stern-face and disrupting his dandruff.

By this time, everyone was staring at us: The judge, the clerk, the probation officers, the court officers, the police, Abe’s client, stern-face (who was leaning as far away from Abe as she could without pushing herself intimately onto the man next to her, an appalled expression on her face).  I’m not certain what inspired me, but I grabbed the middle finger of Abe’s closest hand and tugged three times as hard as I could without popping his arthritic joints and said again, “ATTORNEY GRAY!”

He snuffled awake, looked around a bit dazed, asked me, “Wha- what?”  “Your case” I said, inclining my head towards his hatless client.  He leapt to his feet with amazing agility, strode confidently to the microphone and said, “Attorney Gray for the defendant, your honor.  He then reviewed the entire case in the light most favorable to his client finishing his effective synopsis with “therefore I move to dismiss.”

Since I wrote this piece, Abe has passed away and, with his passing, I reflected on the experience.  When I was younger, I was concerned about Abe’s client and thought nothing of poking fun at what I perceived to be Abe’s decrepitude. Today, I admire that Abe demonstrated an uncanny ability to go from dreaming to eloquent advocacy, even though it took some prompting.  He fought for the poor his entire working life which deserves my respect.  I hope that by continuing to find humor in the experience I have not dishonored his memory.


I’m reconsidering the country and I’m not talking about the U.S., Israel, or even what should be the Palestinian State.  I’m talking outside Boston’s Beltway–aka, my idea of wilderness.

A bit of background.  Born in New Brunswick, New Jersey, I spent the early years of my life in Carteret (Exit 12, N.J. Turnpike).  Now Carteret was no sprawling metropolis.  It was the kind of small town loaded with bars, churches, and factories.  One where kids ran after the mosquito spray truck ’cause the smell was intoxicating.  But it was also a town when, not smogged from its factories’ exhale, you could see the New York skyline.  For me, country meant the empty lots scattered through town where I chased grasshoppers and lightning bugs, and the park where I played Little League.

I now live in New England, where rural is a spit away and many people I know have always spent some serious time in the hinterland.

When I first moved to Boston from Chicago, people used to pull me along to their cabins, farms, and tiny structures they optimistically called “country houses.”

Sorry, but I’m in the Fran Lebowitz camp.  As she said, “I am not the type who wants to go back to the land; I am the type who wants to go back to the hotel.”

My idea of civilization has always included running water and, most importantly, bathrooms.  We didn’t claw our way to the top of the food chain to shit in the woods.  Which was what my early years of going to the
country often entailed.  Sure, there were outhouses, but I was toilet trained decades ago.  Who wants to use a wooden porta-potty for days at a time–let alone ever?

Especially someone like me who prefers my own bathroom to all others.

In those days, if I really felt I had to go (both to the country and the bathroom) I devised ways to cope.  One way, really.  Kaopectate.  Yep.  I slugged that gunk like an alcoholic sucks down a bottle of whiskey thinking
it might be his last.  And it worked.  I could go nearly a week without excreting anything other than urine, and that usually from the porch if it were night.  The dark and quiet scared the hell out of me.  Who knew
(besides The Shadow) what awaited in the pitch black miles away from any streetlights.  I didn’t want to know.

Truth be told, days weren’t much better.  People wanted to hike and the problem with that was simple.  Unless I’m chasing a ball, the only thing worse than running is walking.  And walking uphill worse than that.
And god forbid I was dragged out into the boonies during winter.  That meant cross-country skiing or snowshoeing.  There are things more painful than traipsing to nowhere.

But age and upward mobility (mine and virtually everyone I know) does have its rewards.  Going out to visit friends in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine no longer means suffering a case of constipation.  Everyone has bathrooms, most have lakes, and nobody minds if I don’t swim in them or
shlep around them.  Sitting on the porch and reading has become acceptable.

In other words, I can actually pretend that I’m home.  There may not be a lot of wonderful things to say about aging (dinner conversations among us old Jews often have to do with everyone reciting their own litany of ailments) but these days going to the country with friends or relatives is most definitely one of them.

In fact, I just returned from my cousin’s half home in Monterey, Massachusetts, deep in the Western part of the state.  I say half home since he and his wife live there about half the week all year round.  An area of my state that houses summer homes for Bostonians and New Yorkers.

Rife with cultural activities (Tanglewood, summer home of the Boston Symphony, Jacob’s Pillow, a world famous modern dance company, Shakespeare and Company…) we aren’t exactly talking rural.  This is my
kind of country.  Satelite TV.  Birdwatching, but from a deck.  Plopping down in a comfortable seat in a tented pavilion, enjoying Dr. John and Wynton Marsalis.  My kind of “great outdoors.”  Especially when it includes great friends.  It’s doesn’t get any better if I’m gonna leave my beloved concrete.

I’m just a spoiled city rat, unwilling to spend my time in a retrobred context.  I wasn’t a Boy Scout, Cubbie, and the only knot I ever learned to tie was for my shoes.  I want to enjoy my country time without slurping bottles of Kaopectate.   And these days I do.

Q: Why is New Jersey called “The Garden State”?
A: Because “Oil and Petrochemical Refinery State” wouldn’t fit on a
license plate.


This past Monday and Thursday my son Jake and I went to watch Jah Energy play and win its semi-final series.  The team played all around solid softball with few mistakes and a stout defense.  Jah’s pitching was superb.  Batters kept the bases busy during the first game and played long ball the second.  It made both of us happy to see the team we had played for earn the chance to win the championship.

But for me the operant words in that last sentence were “had played.”  Past tense–with little future action other than a symbolic inning next year before I officially retire.

This season was the first in twenty-five years that I hadn’t played, coached, or managed.  The first season when, until last week, I hadn’t attended a game or practice.  I told myself I didn’t go to the games because my shoulder surgery kept me from driving.  Eventually I realized I stayed away because it was too weird and painful to feel there was no real place for me on the field.

Once Jah came in first and started the play-offs, however, I couldn’t resist.  You can bet I’ll cheer them on during the championship series–wholehearted enthusiasm mixed with a really difficult goodbye.

I knew how I was going to feel when I first got to the field and saw all of the team’s new faces.  I immediately remembered the early years when Ruben, Jah’s founder, rebuilt the team damn near from scratch each spring because of the turnover.   We actually recruited folks we met in the park and hoped they knew the game.   Every season worrying about having enough players or too many players, enough women or not enough women.   Going through a ton of team iterations throughout those twenty-five years and enjoying every one of them.

Sitting there, remembering all those years of playing in the cold, dank days of Boston’s April. Coming out early on Sundays before practice to work with people who wanted to improve–myself included.  Staring directly into the sun  during the summer, hoping my glove was in the right position to catch the ball I couldn’t see.  Dealing with the push/pull tension of competitiveness versus just having fun.  Also recalling coming home after play-off games and writing them up and sending the stories to my teammates.   Now that was a pleasure–especially if we won.

Faces from the past kept popping into my mind and Jake and I would talk about them.  How Q. would always manage to piss the other team off with his trash talk.  Hell, some of us would bet on which inning it would be before someone blew up.  How Jonathan used to club the ball farther than anyone we had ever seen, though Rone, who still plays for Jah, is the best athlete the league ever had.

I remember Tom who played shortstop and loved to heave the ball over my head.  (My first base mantra was if you were gonna miss, miss low.  Those I could pick.  But over my head?  Not with about three inches of air under my feet when I was at my best.)

I sat there watching John who created the league and has worked as an umpire every single year from the league’s inception.  Remembering the managers I played for and the lifelong friends I’ve made.

Face after face after face from the league that I’ll carry around with me for the rest of my life.

And of course thinking about being on the field with my older son Matt–then in later years with Jake, my nephew Lee, and niece Julia.  That was probably more satisfying than the set of championships Jah won during my tenure.

So this is gonna be it.  I can’t play anymore (except for that token appearance next season), our manager Sara is a much better manager than I was, and I don’t think coaching third would do it for me.

Truth is, it’s time.  Not merely because of my shoulder either.  I held on too long.  I knew it when I no longer wanted the ball hit to me.  Knew it when I couldn’t cover enough ground to make a routine play.  Knew it when I tried to switch positions and become a left-handed catcher but couldn’t buy a base hit.  But knowing it’s time to go and going ain’t the same.  It took the shoulder blowout to drive it home.

So there we were sitting in our chairs chatting about the past, the great plays we’d seen over the years, and all the people.  It would be nice if a future someone watching a Jah play-off game in a lawn chair had my face pop into mind.


“But I did not shoot the Deputy!”

Over the past two months one of our cats has been pissing in the house.  Though she finally stopped after two difficult-to-administer doses of Prozac, we’ve been on guard.  So, when I noticed a small puddle behind the toilet I approached gingerly.

Hmmm, during the last little while I’ve gotten used to identifying that cat smell at ten paces.  This was odd.  No odor.  Over the last several years of watching the multiple versions of CSI.  I feel I too have become a “spatter” expert.  And this spatter did not seem to constitute a crime.  But where is Grissom when you need him?

I moved in closer.  Still no odor.  With a Jewish sigh, I plodded to the kitchen for paper towels.  With a deeper one, I dropped to my knees and dried the floor.  Still no odor.  Then I noticed the pipe between the toilet and the wall had a turning knob on it.

Now those who don’t know me gotta be thinking who is this idiot?  Those who do might still be shaking their heads in wonderment, but understand that I am perfectly capable of walking past broken cabinets, handleless drawers, closet doors that won’t shut, and metal blinds twisted into grotesque modern sculptures without even seeing any of it.

Hell, the bottom wooden step leading to our house had lost a two slats (that someone kindly placed onto the porch) but it never occurred to me to do anything about them.  Drove my friend Bill so crazy he came over with an electric something (drill?) and screwed the planks in with the correct nails.  (Screws?)  Not really sure.

And there lies the problem.  Even if I actually see that something is broken, the only equipment I know how to use is duct tape.  Actually, it’s not pretty but perfect for many fixes–upholstery, holding things in place, and patching, but wouldn’t really work on steps.  As Sue all too often puts it, I’m a “Jew with tools.”

See, my idea of tools are mechanical pencils and I struggle to reload them.  Never know whether to refill from the top or shove the lead  (assuming I chose the correct mm) up the bottom.  There’ve been times  when I was certain of success only to have the damn lead fall out when I  went to use the fucker.  Much to my dismay, a lotta times.

Which means when given a hammer as a kid I begged for books.  Of course, growing up no one ever needed a hammer.  We rented.  And when I left home I continued to rent.  Right up until Sue suggested buying a house in the late 70s and I fought tooth and nail against it since the idea of fixing anything was as foreign to me as Istanbul.  Praise the lord I lost the argument since the house has allowed us multiple career changes, but it was clear I wasn’t going to be what anyone could call handy.

Now I know “Jews with tools” is a horrible stereotype.  My brother-in-law is a contractor and builder, the Jewish friend who plays piano in my ensemble is the same.  Even my own son is an electrician apprentice.  But that “horrible” stereotype fits me like a high-priced, custom tailored suit.  If I do manage to spot a household problem, here’s my solution.  Yell at the top of my lungs, “SUE!!!  We (you’ve) got a problem here!”

Now let me make it clear–I’m not a total numbnut around the house.  I can fill a dishwasher with the best of ’em.  Until my shoulder problems, I religiously made the bed every morning and regularly did the laundry.  I will again, once I can move my arm into certain positions without risking the operation.  (As the surgeon said, no do-over on this one.)

And I can pick up clutter like nobody’s business, despite the rebuke that “picking up isn’t cleaning.”  It sure as hell is when everyone who lives here drops everything into the first room they land.

I also find everyone’s keys on an almost daily basis.

Which all leads back to the bathroom find and fix.  Down there on the bathroom floor, I didn’t panic.  I held my crouch and stared at that damn pipe.  I didn’t yell for Sue (who wasn’t home anyway, though that never stopped me before).  I assessed the situation and slowly, carefully, tightened up that knob on the pipe.  Then I placed a bowl under my best guess as to where the water was dribbling from.

I call this a breakthrough.  Though still without any tools.  Unless you count the bowl.