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.


Nate’s quote, (see last week’s post LOCKED IN LEISURE),  was an accurate reflection about his impending death, but the real meat of our relationship had much more to do with living than dying.

I live in Jamaica Plain, a mixed Boston neighborhood next to predominately Black Roxbury.  In the lull between writing and my trial and jury consulting, I decided to channel my unemployment into getting in shape.  Located across from Roxbury Community College, the Reggie Lewis Community Center was a well-appointed gym with spacious community rooms, a state-of-the-art indoor track, and virtually no White members.  It was also affordable, opposed to gyms where you gotta refinance your house in order to join.

As mentioned last week, it wasn’t very long before Nate invited me into his circle, mainstays at the Center and the heart of their senior citizens club called The Sensational Seniors.  Suddenly I found myself reveling in an entirely Black social life and paying dues to the seniors club.

Now let’s time machine back about 30 years from then.  I spent my last three years of high school at a residential Hasidic yeshiva in Brooklyn—and believe me, five days a week were more than enough.  So I began to visit my mother and her husband Seymour’s house in Orange,  New Jersey, desperately hoping to find some sort of weekend fun.

I did.  Seymour taught in a local high school and his colleague, who lived down the block, had a son named Clifford who was my age.

Although he was ordered to visit me, turned out we liked each other and became really close friends, hanging out on a steady weekend basis.  Clifford and his family were Black.

Which, despite my liberal upbringing, was a new do.  Especially when we went out.  In fact, the first dance we attended thrust my face into my own unconscious racism.  There were about three hundred kids and, for the first hour, mine was the only White face in the crowd.  Although Cliff had been teaching me to dance, I just paced the periphery.  Then a White girl strolled through the door.  My eyes lit up.  I figgered I was golden.  Gonna have a chance to practice my new moves.  Hey, one White guy, one White girl.

A half a dozen dances later, Cliff whispered into my ear. “You know she’s Albino, don’t you?”

“What’s an Albino?”

“She’s a Black girl who looks White.  Plus, her boyfriend just walked in and you’re dead meat if he sees you dancing with her.  You better take that leap and dance with a black Black girl.”

He was sweet but I understood why I had waited to dance for someone who was “White.”

For the next three years my entire weekend social life was hanging with Cliff and his friends.  Needless to say, I danced with any and  all the girls with whom we partied and played and took to the White Castle before going home.

Still, it had been a long jump since high school and took a while to grow comfortable with Nate’s ever expanding crew.  On the other hand, it was sort of like déjà vu all over again, having the time and space to rap and hang out and get to know people without rushing off to the next place to be.

Soon our hour-long gym sessions had two hour kibitzing chasers. I remember a woman confiding one of her greatest experiences was when Duke and his orchestra came to town. There were tears in her eyes as she recalled Duke prancing down from the bandstand in the middle of a song to ask her for a dance.

I also learned about the racism traveling Black musicians faced, Duke included, whenever they rolled into town during the 40’s and 50’s.  Any town, but Boston was particularly nasty where they were forced to sleep in buses or peoples’ houses.

I learned through my friends’ firsthand knowledge how warm Louie Armstrong was, the hours Coltrane kept (returning from a gig at 2 A.M and practicing until dawn every night), how difficult Sonny Stitt was at times.

Eventually I began gyming three days a week then going to lunch across town at The Old Country Buffet where Nate made it clear he wasn’t gonna sit in a booth.  “That’s where cockroaches live in restaurants,” he explained.  There were about six of us who became regulars, becoming great friends with the manager, and spending most of our afternoons eating, talking, (serious and otherwise) and playing with other customers as many grew to know and enjoy our hijinks.

It was flat out fun and an eye opener—despite the ribbing I got from my other friends about belonging to a Black senior citizens group and spending my days hanging at Old Country.  An eye opener because their stories also brought back memories—some not so sweet—to those who were telling them. Unlike my high school friends, these men and women had lived through some of the worst racism 20th century America dished out.

I learned directly about the hostility and horror my friends had faced and truly began to understand the strength it took to survive all those decades.  I listened to personal accounts about how an oppressed community dealt with the shit poured on their heads and still managed to stay intact despite it all.

But what I learned the most was there really are times when color need not be a barrier to love and friendship in a way I hadn’t in high school.  This despite the subtle but strong weaving of racism throughout the fabric of our culture.

Thanks Nate, you reminded me of something I’ll never forget again.  He was bright and interested in ANYBODY who was sympatico.  He also had the ability to have fun in any situation and was able to share that fun with those around him. That’s the really fine art of living.

Success is not to be pursued; it is to be attracted by the person you become.” —Jim Rohn