You don’t sell the biography of an unknown man, part scholarly idealist, part monster, as a first book. Complicated book, complicated story. How do you give the elevator pitch? It’s about how much a person can change, how much a person can take, what finally breaks a person, how much we can truly forgive. It’s about history, and the constant, maddening spinning of what children think of as fact. It’s about taking a year, or a decade, or several decades, to digest something that is indigestible, although experienced in some form by millions.
We’d better be going to a very high floor in this elevator if I’m going to finish the pitch. If it takes more than twenty words to summarize, you lose the sale. If you can’t sell it you don’t get paid. Simple. Keep it simple. The man was a monster who never gained monetizable notoriety for it, died recanting his monstrousness to the son who forgave him. Fuck it, too simple. So here’s a book idea for a first book, the better to sell what would become the second book:
Man trying to take care of his dying mother long distance, speaking to her daily from New York. She hates it in Florida, especially now that she’s a widow. The man works as a Piss Boy in the New York City Housing Court, carrying the piss bucket for judges, who are actually, technically, hearing officers in black robes. Death is taking its time with the old woman, has been toying with her for decades. A million cancer cells when they opened her up, the remission, unfortunately, not as complete as they assured her it was when they gave her the five year clean bill of health a few months earlier. It is now two decades after they found those million cancer cells, husband and nineteen year-old poodle both gone, the mother’s death the leisurely hobby of an inconstant cancer.
I am walking up the long hill from the train station by the river, in a river town ten miles north of New York City. It is a warm late June day, in fact it is a hot, sunny day, the sky perfect for a picture postcard of the town. I am walking to the home of old friends for a party celebrating their oldest son’s graduation from college. I talk to my mother on the Motorola Razr as I climb. I do not notice my Hawaiian shirt becoming wet with sweat, or that my cargo shorts are also getting wet, as are my socks. I amuse my mother a few times, and as it is a long walk up the steep, winding hill, and this conversation is the highlight of her day, I am not in a hurry as I make my way up the vertical sidewalk.
Arriving at the party I bid my mother goodbye, snap the phone shut and am greeted in the yard by an old friend who hugs and kisses me before recoiling. “Oh, God, all the make-up just ran off the side of my face!” she says, her face dripping on one side, and I notice, for the first time, that I am soaking wet. It is like I’ve just emerged from long swim in an ocean of sweat. I am soaked to the skin, down to my socks. My host hands me an icy mixed drink in a tall glass, tells me to drink. I do, it’s delicious. I shake the graduate’s hand with a wet hand, probably hand him a damp card with a check inside. I head inside out of the sun, a second tall, iced mixed drink in my hand, and within a minute, everyone in the room is gone, suddenly excusing themselves.
Two people remain, a woman in a chair and her college aged son, on the couch. The woman asks me how I’m doing, and as my host hands me a plate of food and a third drink, I begin, in a twisting torrent, to tell the woman and her son exactly how I’m doing. The intertwined stories come out in a flood, my mother’s slow wasting death, my many trips to Florida, my mother’s recent two week stay in New York, during which I had to tend to a backlog of my cases in the court. How, in hindsight, it had been a mistake to bring her back to New York with me after a two week trip to Florida, how I should have taken a break as all my friends suggested, the call from my mother shortly after my birthday, a few days after our month together, complaining bitterly that I don’t love her because I sent her away just before my birthday. I took a fork full of food, and described my work as a Piss Boy, and the recent, infuriating threat to even that livelihood. The woman and her son found this funny.
Well, obviously, I said, I don’t find as much mirth in it as you seem to. Most of these judges are OK, but from time to time, always at the worst possible moment, one of them will insist on pissing into a bucket that is already gleaming right along the line of the brim with the collected urine of a dozen other jurists. “Your Honor,” you will say, “give me just a moment to dump the bucket, I’ll be right back.” Making this request is not really an option, of course, for someone designated piss boy. Then I explain about the designation.
“I thought you were a lawyer,” says the college boy with a smile.
I tell the boy that I am, and then recount the story my mother tells of a man she had some business with. She’d asked my legal advice, and I’d given it to her firmly and simply as I could. I told her exactly what she needed to tell him. She somehow told him exactly the opposite of what I’d coached her to say. She protested that her son the lawyer had told her to say exactly what she had said. “Your son must be the dumbest lawyer in New York,” said the man, not unreasonably. Now, in the context of that story it’s up for debate, in the context of my life story, he has a pretty strong case.
I described how virtually all of my work is standing in the shoes of tenants deemed unable to adequately defend themselves against eviction. I am in court not as their lawyer, but as them. They have already appeared in court and the judge has decided, or an inept agency called Adult Protective Services has moved the court, in the manner of an implausibly costive bowel movement, that the tenant cannot effectively advocate for themself. It may be because of some mental problem, or a strong personality quirk, or physical infirmity, advanced age– it just has to be an articulable suspicion that the person needs someone else to play the part of them for the legal proceeding that could render them homeless.
So, at any given time, I am standing in the broken backed, smelly, perforated shoes of twenty or thirty such poor devils. I’d say 75% truly need the help, and appreciate it, and the other 25% are professional grifters who get thousands in back rent paid on their behalf every few years so they can spend all their money on booze, or prostitutes, or whatever it is that makes their lives worth living. One crazy old guy lived with a crack addicted hooker and the two of them, for whatever reason, moved their bowels into plastic bags that were left all over the vermin infested apartment. In court, the part of this insane bastard, who was not required to show up in court at all, was played by me, over the course of many months. My pay for this court-appointed role play was a flat $600, whether I appeared once or a dozen times. Most often I had to show up at least four or five times.
As a result of this quirky system that required me to do an ongoing tap dance while the overwhelmed agency dithered, and the interminable delays in Adult Protective Services providing services, which caused me to appear month after month after month on most of these sad cases, some judges regarded me with a certain distaste. Articulate, capable and despicable. In the way that certain bitter people come home after a bitter day and kick their cringing dog, lawyers that were in my line of court-appointed work were available for booting, whenever the pressure mounted on certain of these judges, those least endowed with what we think of as judicial temperament.
“Why would you kick a talking dog?” I wondered, slowly shaking my head as I finished my plate of food and polished off that third strong drink.
The college lad, a bright and engaging young man, was waiting eagerly for the rest of the story. The woman also looked with a bright and interested expression, and so I continued, describing my mother waiting for me for lunch, as I rushed to Manhattan Housing Court to tend to a half dozen cases. In the ordinary course of things I’d find the landlord’s attorney, we’d scrawl an agreement called a stip, short for ‘stipulation’, setting forth the reason we needed to come back four weeks later, and one of us would file the stip in the courtroom where the expedited special proceeding was making its snail-like progress, complete with slime trail.
I’d put all my Bronx cases off for the same date, all of the Manhattan ones, all of the Brooklyn ones. On a good day, I could find everyone I was looking for, get the stips filed, and be out of the courthouse in an hour or two. On a bad day, I’d encounter some asshole who would not agree to my reasonable terms and demand a hearing in front of a judge. There was rarely a time the judge did not agree to postpone the case again for Adult Protective Services (APS) to complete its laggardly work. In cases where the judge’s impatience for maddening APS got the best of her, I’d be forced, a week or a month later, to write and serve an emergency motion to the court to stop the marshall from proceeding with the eviction. I wrote dozens of these over the years.
My mother was waiting in Queens as I dashed into the city to take care of my cases. It was on something like day 25 of my 29 straight days with mom. My mother was needy, she was dying, she was lonely. She would be dead less than a year later. I was the light of her life, if such could be said. She was waiting for me to take her for lunch. I had two more cases to adjourn and I could head back out to Queens. It was around 11:00.
Things were looking good, no tenants were in the picture and I’d disposed of the first four cases quickly. I didn’t have to wrangle with the Giant Squid, the brilliantly insane tenant in the Bronx who hadn’t paid rent in a decade and who would eventually sue me personally. I wouldn’t be accosted by the carping, annoying Paul Small or bellicose retarded George who insisted on his right to smoke crack and enjoy the company of prostitutes in the apartment at his deceased mother’s nursing home, and who would file a blank disciplinary complaint against me with the First Department after I prevented his eviction and settled his case. The First Department takes such complaints seriously, even if blank.
It was around 11:15, Josh, my friendly adversary, and I were signing the stip and one of us would hand it in. I just had to run down to the NYCHA part on the first floor and that would be quick. Then, out the closest door, a dash to the train and I’d be on my way back to Queens and my impatiently waiting mother.
(to be continued)