Ties That Bind

This piece is an excerpt from my latest book — “and . . . just like that — Essays on a life before, during and after the law.” It is available for sale on Amazon:  http://bitly.ws/8jUd 

For the entirety of my law career, I sat behind a desk and wore a suit and a tie. I shaved every day. It was not always like that. Before the adventure began, I had nothing against people who sat behind desks. My dad spent his whole life behind a desk. He hated it. If he could not stand it, I had no chance, so why even try? I was going to do something for my whole life without a desk or a formal attire requirement. Something outdoors sounded good.

So before the law, I knew with conviction that I would never spend my whole life clean-shaven behind a desk wearing a suit and a tie. Then, just like that, I was starring in a late-night television B-movie nightmare, and I had become everything I always associated with desks and suits and ties and daily shaving rituals.

A desk! A suit! Oh my God, a tie! I had become the person I used to laugh at when I was a teen. In my younger days, when I knew everything, I swore I would never become that guy. But I did.

I tried, and thought about trying, many things to do before law school. When you are young, you can dream and plan, and I did. As a young kid from Queens, I read Spiderman comics and I dreamed that I would be bitten by a radioactive spider, stick to walls, swing between buildings, save New York City every night, and then in my alter ego, take photographs for a newspaper while I worked the crime beat. The required bite never happened, and there is no Spiderman without the bite. No bite meant no sticking, swinging, saving, and no crime beat photos. Bummer. It would have been fun.

I consumed baseball. I devoured the players, the literature, baseball cards, the folklore, the strategy, the essence. I was in love. It was the real thing. It was the perfect job, from what I could see. I could be famous, I would not have to wear a tie, and I could work outside each day. Of course, I needed significant talent to play — which I lacked — but, nevertheless, baseball helped me focus on the need for a career that was not work.

I played basketball and fell in love all over again. No ties. No suits. It was not an outside game, but there was no desk either. Nothing was as sweet as the sound of a ball tickling a net. Nothing as fine as the fantasies of a child thinking, dreaming, and becoming Walt Frazier for an hour; Barnett to Bradley to Frazier — swish; the imaginary crowd roared. No matter what community league I played in, I had to be number 10, because Walt Frazier was number 10. This was no childhood infatuation: I fell in love, hard. But that natty talent thing got in the way once more, as well as a certain vertical challenge diagnosis — no height and insufficient jump. I stopped growing. I considered hormones; I considered hanging from a chinning bar. I considered my fate; I considered it an undeserved, unwelcome sign. It is hard to be a basketball player of any magnitude from the under-six-foot perspective. I was pretty sure it was damn near impossible to do it from to do it from the five-foot-seven (okay five-foot-six and a half) perspective.

I played the guitar. No tie, unless I wanted one. Idolizing teenagers screaming and crying and fainting. I could make social statements. I did not have George Harrison’s hair, but I could improvise. And there was no desk. Each day I repeated great inspirational thoughts like “something in the way she moves” and “baby you can drive my car.” This guitar thing was not just any post-piano, childhood infatuation. I never came up with that great catchy lyric, that great original inspirational, quotable thought, but I was a respectable player and there were plenty of guitar players who did not write world-class lyrics. It just never happened, I guess. And my voice is an acquired taste, to say the least.

These dream careers that never happen are what happens to almost every kid. They are nothing more than the life-altering realizations of one’s limitations. The dreams are necessary to winnow down the available life choices. I was – and still am — in love with each of my fantasies, but each one is a matter of the heart and none of them pay the bills. Some of these fantasies, as well as others, gave me places to go when I needed to be somewhere other than a law career. I never could swing between Manhattan skyscrapers on a web, but I could play guitar late into the night if the law day had been hard to deal with. I could play basketball at a local neighborhood court until I became too old to do so. And, as you will discover, I had other places I could go when I needed a place to be other than the law.

But, as dreams faded, gradually, I started to move from fantasy to rationality as I considered my future and the need for food and shelter, as long as it was a future without the desk, tie, and suit. So, at the conclusion of each school year, I hunted for a summer job, sometimes with little or no success; and my dad (perhaps because he so hated sitting behind his desk or perhaps to help me realize that as bad as the desk was, there were worse things to do) helped find me outdoor jobs. Three stand out.

One year, through the good graces of the New Haven political machine, I was blessed with the opportunity to paint the lines on the highways of Connecticut — you know the ones, down the middle of the road and the crosswalks. No suit, no tie, no desk and a substantial chance for a great tan. When the crew and I painted the lines by a West Haven beach, it was also a good job for girl-watching. The state issued each line painting crew member a hard hat and a bright orange fluorescent vest. The vest was designed to catch the driver’s eye so I would not be splattered all over the new freshly painted lines. The hard hat was apparently designed to save me from injury in the event a driver did not spy the reflective vest and splattered me. The vest seemed to work; I never tested the hard hat, but I had my doubts that it would work if put to the test.

As in everything I do, I learned something about myself that summer. In painting lines, I learned very quickly that I was not a Rembrandt of the open New England roads. I could not paint a straight line to save my life. Not to worry; Connecticut was a progressive state at the time, and if I could not paint a straight line, I could still work on the crew, scattering glass beads in the freshly painted lines. As the paint dried, the glass beads became embedded in the line and at night, reflected the headlights and helped the nighttime drivers see better and stay within the lines. I was a pretty good bead-scatterer, but after a summer of painting crooked lines, spilling paint on the shoes of other workers, and scattering beads, it just did not seem to me that I was cut out to be a line-painter for the state. No line-painting talent.

The next year, I could not find a job, but my dad came through in the clutch. This time, I had a real man’s job. I was a septic tank troubleshooter at a mobile home park. I worked with another man who operated the backhoe. There was no written job description, but my job apparently was to get down into the hole he had dug and try to see what the problem was. The first few hours of my first day on the job went quite well. The other guy dug, and I hung out, occasionally peering into the hole to evaluate the situation in my capacity as troubleshooter. It was noisy work, so I typically just turned to my colleague and gave him the thumbs-up sign that his hole was coming along quite nicely.

The days of early summer in Connecticut are so fine, and made for hanging out, and I am sure they influenced my distaste for sitting behind a desk. The air smells so sweet out in the country and there always seems to be a breeze. While my colleague dug the hole, I had plenty of time to reflect on the air and the breeze, as well as the growing list of career choices I had left behind: Spiderman, baseball, basketball, rock and roll, and line painting.

Soon, the hole was finished, and it was my turn to go to work. I was offered no training class on how to be an effective troubleshooter. All I was told I had to do was to identify septic tank trouble and help fix it. Now, the key to this kind of work from what I could gather was to make sure that care was exercised in going down into the hole, and above all else, to make sure that the mobile homeowner under no circumstances flushed anything, especially the toilet, while I was in the hole. What I did not know was that it was not the backhoe operator’s job to enforce this latter crucial requirement. I later found out that enforcing the anti-flushing rule was the responsibility of the troubleshooter — me. I do not think I will ever forget that day when I added the phrase septic tank troubleshooter to the list of careers that I could eliminate from my life plan.

We broke for lunch and found one of those maples growing its dense mop of leaves that later in the New England fall, make Connecticut so singularly and everlastingly memorable, and under the maple tree, we ate and talked about baseball and basketball and rock and roll and outdoor jobs and not being bound by any ties, whether the neck kind, or the female kind, or the life-shaping kind, and when we finished, down into the hole I descended.

I, of course, erroneously assumed the lady of the house, the woman of the mobile home, had been informed by the backhoe operator of the anti-flushing requirement. After all, he was the senior member of this two-man crew. The lady of the mobile home was uninformed, however, and so she did what homeowners do. She flushed. She chose to flush at just the moment that I found the pipe leading from her mobile home. I should be more specific. She flushed just as I grabbed the pipe with its end resting on my knee, the knee that was covered with my brand new pre-washed Levi’s. It was not a long flush, but it was a long ride home that night. I was using my mom’s Ford Pinto that summer. It was not air-conditioned, and just as well. There was no way I could have kept the windows rolled up. I did not think too much about the sweet air or the cool breeze and as I drove and tried very hard to hold my breath as much as possible, I was pretty sure I would be dead long before the maples along the road caught the fall colors of fire. That night, the New England summers did not seem all that inviting. Lunch had long ago been lost (and not in a misplaced sort of way) and by the time I got home I had the further indignity of having to peel off my jeans by undressing at the front door of our apartment for everyone on our floor of the building to see.

The flush ruined my beloved Converse sneakers and the jeans of every rock and roll star’s choice were beyond recognition. To say that my pants could have stood without the aid of an occupant did not begin to tell the story. Even my best friend, my guitar, could not help.

As I lay in my bed that night after what seemed like several hours of antiseptic and exhausting steam cleaning and showering, I thought about the great outdoors. Was I just cursed? Did my dad send me into the troubleshooting world and then down into the hole to make a point — to teach me something? No matter. My troubleshooting days ended with one eight-hour paycheck which bought me new Levi’s, new Converse sneakers and left me some change, if not dignity, in my new pocket.

But my dad came through in the clutch again. He found me no outdoors job this time. This next employment endeavor was driving a forklift used to stack skids of frozen bagels twelve high in the basement cryogenic freezer of a famous frozen bagel bakery company. My shift — 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. No, it was not outdoors, but the freezer was so cold that the bakery issued a bright red ski parka to me to wear. With a little imagination, the freezer could have been mistaken for the great outdoors like a ski resort. Of course, there were some things missing, like the snow, the views, the mountains, the breeze, the endless blue skies, the fireplaces, and, well, you get the picture.

It was not a bad job at all. But there were a couple of problems. The primary issue was that I did not know how to operate a forklift. My instructor on the graveyard shift taught me by speaking to me in Portuguese and sadly, I didn’t speak or understand a lick of the language and he did not do well with English. In all fairness, the entire crew gave me a crash course in forklift operations, and they were all nice guys, but, as I said, they did not speak much English, and I listened and sometimes said in Spanish “no comprendo” which may not even have been an approved phrase in Portuguese. There were other, lesser, problems — such as, in the freezer, icicles formed on my eyelashes so I could not see where I was going. But that was surmountable. Most importantly, at the end of the training sessions, I did not know how to operate a forklift.

So on my first night on the job, having graduated from the training course, sort of, I donned my red parka and, with vision-impairing icicles hanging from my eyelashes, I drove the forklift I could not skillfully operate into the freezer with a skid of bagels that had to be fork-lifted on top of a tower of eleven previously stacked skids of bagels. Note to self — never drive a forklift while suffering from the incurable impediment to the performance of the appointed job duties, in this case, a severe lack of skill.

Two things went wrong. In retrospect, it was a miracle that only two things went wrong, but they were big things. I guess I had not yet mastered the “how to stop the forklift” lesson and I guess I did not get the “how to accurately raise a skid of bagels and deposit it atop eleven other skids” lesson. These two lessons were not pieces of cake in any language, at least not for me.

In any event, cutting to the chase, after a few attempts I successfully loaded the twelfth skid onto the forklift and drove into the huge freezer facility. But, sadly, my forklift (with me at the helm) crashed into the eleven-skid tower of bagels at about the same time that the twelfth skid did not get securely deposited directly atop the eleven skids. The result — the skids crashed down and there were cryogenically frozen bagels, hundreds (maybe thousands) of them rolling everywhere. They rolled around the freezer. They escaped and rolled around the bagel bakery plant. People on the shift were agitated, I suppose understandably, and they chattered nervously in Portuguese. One of them called the owner. To be expected.

At 3:13 a.m, the owner arrived to survey the scene, and to be honest, he had not tried to comb his hair and he looked like he had pulled a minimal amount of clothes over his pajamas. I guess that was also to be expected.

He began to talk to the crew, not in Portuguese, but in Yiddish. As I watched the whole thing unfold in slow motion, it struck me that people were talking to the boss in Portuguese, presumably explaining to him what happened, and he answered them in Yiddish, presumably barking some ethnic order to fix the problem. And, each seemed to understand the other. It was the damnedest thing.

Then it was my turn to talk. I apologized profusely and I suggested that since the bagels rolling around were frozen, they could be retrieved, repackaged, and restacked in the freezer. Of course, from a food safety perspective, that was not a viable idea, and the boss let me know as such in English — yay, finally a language I could understand.

I made it to the end of the shift, and I turned in my red parka, and I was sent packing. Another life lesson — freezer work with a forklift was not my calling.

Other eliminated careers based on work experiences included dishwashing in a dining center, waiting on tables in a restaurant, sandwich making at a submarine sandwich shop, lawn mowing, house painting, snow shoveling, bookkeeping, basketball refereeing, ticket-taker at a summer rock concert series, and beer tap renting, to name a few. All good life lessons to help focus on what might come next.

Many, many years later, after law school, I shaved every day, wore a suit and a tie and sat behind a desk. I often daydreamed and reflected: What did I learn from this pre-law school period? Life is so unfair. Who would have ever thought that I would be forced to join the clean-shaven, suit-wearing, tie-tying, desk-sitting throngs just because I could not hit, grow, lyricize, paint straight, troubleshoot, avoid a flush, and drive a forklift?

What else did I learn? This: it is darned hard to figure out what to do with a life. I often think back on the pre-law school times and reflect on whether I missed something. Did I have some other skills that I failed to identify and pursue? I have always thought I had some other skills, but they honestly never came to mind. So, just like that, one night I identified law school as my next potential calling, but I made a pact with myself that I would never practice law and I would never wear a tie. Little did I know.

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About the author: In addition to his work as a photographer, Mark Shaiken is a retired veteran of the commercial bankruptcy law trenches. In April, 2020, “And . . . Just Like That — Essays on a Life Before, During and After the Law.” The book was the #1 new release on Amazon in a law genre. The book is described as follows: “ “Forty-one years of a life in the law, and then, one day, no more law. Just like that. Did I always want to be an attorney? Heavens, no! With humor and self-deprecation, poignancy and bite, this book presents observations on my life before the law, my forty-one years in the law, and my life after I left. If you’re a law student or an attorney; if you know an attorney, if you live with an attorney, if you are friends with an attorney, if you are curious about attorneys, and if you hire attorneys, you will find this book an entertaining read of how one attorney finally dreamed his way into his law afterlife.”