Born Between 1925 and 1955. Hooray?

A friend, who is not a conservative, told me that he had been placed by an acquaintance on the distribution list for conservative chain emails. After he described a few of the emails, I said that I was curious and asked him to forward them to me. Many are overtly political, frequently with factual mistakes that a reasonably educated ninth grader would notice. Some are humorous, but even with these the urge to politicize often can’t be resisted, and a conservative slant is appended.

The friend recently forwarded this chain email:

Subject:  BORN between 1925-1955


The best years to be born in the history of Earth & we got to experience it all.  Thank God for all the times, the adventures, wars won, technology developed.  Generations after future generations will never experience what we did.  What generations we turned out to be.




Our Lives are LIVING PROOF !!!    

To Those of Us Born 
1925 – 1955:     
At the end of this email is a quote of the month by Jay Leno.

If you don’t read anything else, Please read what he said.       
1930s, 40s, and50s !!   
First, we survived being born to mothers who may have smoked and/or drank
 While they were pregnant.   

They took aspirin, ate blue cheese dressing, tuna from a can, and didn’t get tested for diabetes.  

Then, after that trauma, we were put to sleep on our tummies in baby cribs covered  with bright colored lead-based paints.   
We had no childproof lids on medicine bottles, locks on doors or cabinets, and, when we rode our bikes, we had baseball caps, not helmets, on our heads.  

As infants and children, we would ride in cars with no car seats, no booster seats, no seat belts, no air bags, bald tires and sometimes no brakes.. 

Riding in the back of a pick- up truck on a warm day was always a special treat.
We drank water from the garden hose and not from a bottle. 

We shared one soft drink with four friends, from one bottle, and no one actually died from this.  

We ate cupcakes, white bread, real butter, and bacon. We drank Kool-Aid made with real white sugar. 
And we weren’t overweight.  
Because we were always outside playing…that’s why!  
We would leave home in the morning and play all day, as long as we were back when the streetlights came on.   
No one was able to reach us all day
And, we were OKAY.

We would spend hours building   
Our go-carts out of scraps and 
then ride them down the hill,

Only to find out that we forgot about brakes. After running into the bushes a few times, we learned to Solve the problem. 

We did not 
Have Play Stations, Nintendo   
and X-boxes. There were   
No video games, 
No 150 channels on cable,    
No video movies 
Or DVDs,    
No surround-sound or CDs,     
No cell phones,
No personal computers,   
No Internet and 
No chat rooms.       
And we went 
Outside and found them!   
We fell out of 
trees, got cut,    
Broke bones and 
Lost teeth,    
And there were 
No lawsuits    
From those accidents. 

     We would get 
Spankings with wooden spoons, switches, ping-pong paddles, or just a bare hand,
And no one would call child services to report abuse.

     We ate worms, 
And mud pies    
Made from dirt, 
The worms did 
Not live in us forever.   
We were given
BB guns for our 10th birthdays, 
22 rifles for our 12th, rode horses,
made up games with sticks and
tennis balls, and
    -although we were 
Told it would happen- we did not put out very many eyes.
We rode bikes 
Or walked to a friend’s house and knocked on the door or rang the bell,  
or just Walked in and talked to them.


Little League had 
And not everyone 
Made the team.    
Those who didn’t 
Had to learn    
To deal with 
Imagine that!! 

The idea of a parent  
Bailing us out
If we broke the law
was unheard of ..
They actually sided with the law! 

These generations have 
Produced some of the best risk-takers,    
Problem solvers, and 
Inventors ever.   
The past 60 to 85 years  
Have seen an explosion
of innovation and new ideas.
We had freedom,
Failure, success and responsibility, 
and we learned

How to deal with it all.   

   If YOU are One of those born    
Between 1925-1955,CONGRATULATIONS!  

  You might want 

to share this with others who have had the luck to grow up as kids

before the lawyers and the government regulated so much of our lives for our own good.  
While you are at it, 
forward it to your kids, 
so they will know 
how brave and lucky 
their parents were.  
Kind of makes 
you want to run through the house
with scissors, doesn’t it ?
The quote of the month  
by  Jay Leno:  

     “With hurricanes,  tornadoes,

fires out of control, mud slides, flooding, severe thunderstorms

tearing up the country

from one end to another, and with

the threat of bird flu and terrorist

attacks, are we sure this is a good time to take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance?”



For those who 
prefer to think that God is not 
watching over us…
go ahead and delete this.
For the rest
 of us…..  
please pass this


I read a lot of this with a smile, for I was born in that lauded time. I rode my bike without a helmet and didn’t have to show up at home until the evening meal. But I also knew that a lot was left out of the halcyon description. I read the email again and noticed it said: “To all the kids who survived the 1930s, 40s, and 50s!!” Of course, it could not address those who were dead, but that salutation got me thinking about the childhood deaths and diseases of those born between 1925 and 1955.

(continued June 19)


On yet another Bloomsday, I remind myself that I am in the tiny minority who have read James Joyce’s Ulysses twice. And that I also am in the huge majority who don’t have a bar of lemon soap’s understanding of the novel.


Joyce’s Ulysses was banned for a long time in the United States and elsewhere for being obscene. Did that mean there were people who were turned on by the modernist novel?


The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) holds the WCWS (Women’s College World Series.) Doesn’t seem right.


My old corner mailbox was swapped for a newer version. I found this notice on the still-pristine receptacle: “For security of your mail, avoid putting mail in the box after last posted pick-up time.” No matter when I put the envelope in the slot, I am simultaneously inserting it both before and after that last listed time. What, then, should I do? And is this notice implying that there are pick-up times that are not posted?


The sign said, “One Stop Truck and Boom Repair.” I looked for, but did not find, any place that was a two-stop truck and boom repair shop.


I jokingly told my thrice-married friend that I would teach him all about women. He responded, “I know a lot about women. . . . I just don’t believe it.”


Have you ever wondered what Kellyanne Conway does all day?


When I said that the beachgoers were formicating, she thought that I said something dirty.


“He’s a prince.” Doesn’t sound derogatory. But compare: “She’s a princess.”


Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said: “If I blunder, everyone can notice it; not so, if I lie.” Hasn’t Donald Trump definitively disproved that?


In a newspaper column, the writer speculated about why the recent anti-abortion laws passed in many states have wiped out the longstanding exceptions for rape and incest. I had assumed it was because the male legislators passing the laws wanted to father more children.


Double dactyl for the day (courtesy of the spouse):

Jumpin’ Jehoshaphat,

Executive privilege.

A meaningful subject for all to explore.

The subject can be somewhat


With Trump, it’s a practice to strongly abhor.

A Civics Examination (concluded)

Whether Congress can cede its legislative power to other branches of government leads to the constitutional issue of the nondelegation doctrine. (Although I do not remember what was on my high school Elks constitution exam, I am confident that this rather arcane topic of nondelegation was not tested.) This doctrine says that since the Constitution vests all legislative power in Congress, Congress cannot surrender this authority to another branch of government. As with many other absolutes in our fundamental charter, however, this seeming absolute is not absolute, and it illustrates why those who think it should be easy to read and easy to apply our Constitution don’t know stuff from Shinola. The absolute principle was undercut in the Constitution itself when it gave the President a role in legislation through the veto provision. Furthermore, it was soon clear that the government could not function if Congress had to fill in every picayune detail of actions it legally authorized. Some discretion had to be employed by those executing a law.

Ninety years ago, the Supreme Court held that Congress could delegate legislative authority to the executive branch as long as it supplied an “intelligible principle” to guide the executive in its use of the delegated legislative authority. The Supreme Court found a legislative delegation unconstitutional a couple of times during FDR’s New Deal, which helped to precipitate a constitutional crisis, but not since.

The nondelegation doctrine, however, continues to be discussed, mostly by conservatives. Their targets are regulatory agencies, those bodies who have given us safer drugs and cleaner air and so on. The statutes authorizing many agencies often do give them broad authority with few principles to guide their discretion. Powerful corporations suggest that the nondelegation doctrine should be enforced to prevent many regulatory actions, thus allowing the companies to make bigger profits. My prediction has been that the doctrine would regain traction with at least some of the conservatives on the Supreme Court. It would fit in with the trends of increasing corporate power and less protection for the public generally.

Conservatives, however, also seek to uphold presidential power. This presents a dilemma for conservative jurists. If “national security” and “national emergency” are constitutionally valid, intelligible principles that allow the president to exercise his actions on tariffs and arms sales and border wall spending without violating the separation of powers doctrine, then it should be almost impossible to strike down regulatory actions with the nondelegation doctrine. This assumes, of course, that the ever more conservative Supreme Court justices apply principles consistently.

But let me return to where I started. Most Americans know little about the Constitution or even the basic structure of government. A recent email from the New-York Historical Society said that “only 23% of American eighth graders are able to demonstrate proficiency n civics, and only 18% are able to demonstrate proficiency in U.S. history.” Haven’t you ever wondered, with good cause, whether those who represent you know as much as an eighth grader? We all should be able to cite examples casting doubt on any such assumption, much less that they understand the more complex constitutional issues. For example, did Congress think about the nondelegation doctrine when it enacted the laws granting the president broad legislative authority? Does the president think about separation of powers when he legislates?

I think back to the constitutional test I once took. Perhaps we ought to ask candidates for office to take a test on the Constitution as well as one on United States history so we can factor those results in when we vote. Perhaps the $400 that I feel that the Elks Club still owes me could help fund this exercise in civic responsibility.

A Civics Examination (continued)

nThe first words of the first article of the Constitution state: “All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States. . . .” Congress, however, was not granted untrammeled authority to legislate. The Constitution’s drafters, hypersensitive to unchecked powers, gave the President a role in the passage of laws. A bill does not take effect merely because the legislature passes it. A bill passed by both Houses of Congress “shall, before it becomes a Law, be presented to the President of the United States; If he approves he shall sign it but if not he shall return it, with his Objections. . . .” If the President does not approve—if he vetoes it—the bill then becomes law only if each House of Congress passes it again by a two-thirds vote. Thus, the Constitution gives the President an authority in the legislative process to check the passage of legislation through the veto provision. It does not, however, give him the authority to pass or initiate laws. Besides this veto over bills passed by Congress, the Constitution imposes a single duty on the President when it comes to legislation: The President “shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed. . . .”

The Constitution seems clear. The President can force a reconsideration of a bill before it becomes law and if he does so, he requires Congress to pass it with two-thirds majorities. But the President can’t make laws. Only Congress can do that.

I thought that I understood this division of legislative power under our Constitution, but our current president has been exercising many legislative powers. For example, a recent news story said that the president was going to bypass Congress and sell billions of dollars of arms to Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates; the president has restricted purchase of products made by Huawei, a Chinese telecommunications company; the president has taken money allocated for the military and shifted it to be spent on a border wall even though Congress rejected money for the wall; and the president every day seems to impose or remove some tariff.

These actions seem to be exercising authority expressly given in the Constitution to Congress. Thus only Congress was granted the authority “To regulate Commerce with foreign Nations. . . ”, and approval of arms sales to Mideast countries and the prohibitions on the purchase of Chinese products are regulations of foreign commerce. The Constitution enjoins that “No money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law,” which require congressional passage. When the president shifts spending from the military to a border wall, he is drawing money from the Treasury even though Congress has not specifically authorized that appropriation. Only the legislative branch is given the authority to impose tariffs: “The Congress shall have Power To lay and collect, Taxes, Duties, Imposts and Excises. . . .” So, what’s going on here?

I am not suggesting the president is just ignoring the Constitution. Instead, he can cite constitutionally passed laws to claim legitimacy for his actions. For example, legislation grants Congress a review period during which the legislators can modify or prohibit a prospective arms sale. A provision of the Arms Export Control Act, however, allows the president to bypass Congress if he deems an “emergency exists which requires the proposed sale in the national security interest of the United States.” Similarly, a law grants the president tariff-setting power when he deems it necessary for “national security.” And the National Emergencies Act allows the president, after finding that a “national emergency” exists, to take money already allocated by Congress for another purpose and spend it to meet the national emergency. Thus, our president says that because of national security he can allocate funds from the treasury for a border wall even though Congress has not appropriated money for such a purpose.

People can argue that our president is not correctly using the powers he was given in these statutes, but I don’t want to get into such arguments here. Instead, I am pointing out that in the laws the president relies on for his actions, Congress has surrendered some of its legislative powers and given it to the president, who, under our Constitution, does not have these legislative powers. It might seem that these laws have recast our fundamental charter.

(concluded June 12)

A Civics Examination (continued)

If you had been the third person with us in the car as I was driven to the Wisconsin-wide Elks Constitution test, you probably would have found it to be an uncomfortable ride. The man drove a Karmann Ghia made by Volkswagen. This car was produced for a dozen or so years as VW’s version of a sports car. The newspaper auto columns I read had taught me disdain for this vehicle. It did have a beautiful body, but the auto writers told me that it was built on a VW Beetle chassis with a VW Beetle engine and steering. In other words, it was really a VW Beetle with a nicer look but no more acceleration or better handling. It was the car for people who wanted to look like they owned a sports car but did not really want or could not afford to own an MG or Triumph. And my companion looked like he fell into that category—a more than middle-aged, much overweight man who tried to talk to me often as if we were the same age. Well, he at least did not wear driving gloves. (Carmen Ghia is a character in The Producers. The movie version was made when VW was still producing the Karmann Ghia, but it had been long discontinued when the musical play came out. I wonder how many theatergoers got the reference.)

I can tell you almost nothing about the exam. I don’t remember in what building it was held or how long it was. I have no memory of whether it was multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, or essay. I don’t know what areas of the Constitution were tested. This was not that far after McCarthyism and school desegregation. Did it stay away from these controversial topics? At the end of the day when I got home, I mostly forgot about it.

But then two or three months later, I was told that I had placed third. This meant money. The winner got a $600 scholarship. My third place was worth $400, and prizes went down to a $100 scholarship for sixth place. By then I had been accepted for college and had received a scholarship from the school, which also included a required job of waiting on tables. I had also received scholarships from other organizations. They would send the money to the university which would administer the funds.

The national Elks organization provided the money for the top three prizes. The state Elks handled the next three winners. The national organization would send the funds to the university. The state, however, sent its checks directly to the student. However, the university, when informed about my $400 prize, told me that I could not accept it. Apparently, they had some formula that indicated that I had maxed out on the amount of scholarship money I could have. When I learned this, I realized that if I had finished in fourth place, I would have had a check sent directly to me without the university’s intervention, but by then I could not figure out a way to finagle a lower finish. (I never got the money, but I would have thought that I would have received some sort of plaque. If so, I don’t remember that honor, and I know that I would have rather had the money.)

(Yes, I know what many of you are thinking. He is just writing these stories to brag about his illustrious high school career. Your mind moves to Springsteen’s Glory Days; if he brags about those long-ago days, he must have nothing to brag about since. How sad, you may be thinking, but perk up. Life has been good since then. For example, at my small tennis club, I once won the Men’s B doubles.)

Graduating from high school, I was already confident, with good reason you can see, that I understood the Constitution, but even so I deepened my knowledge. I took Constitutional Law courses in law school, and I studied various constitutional provisions in my academic career. Not only have I read the Constitution may times, I have read the Federalist Papers and what are called the Anti-Federalist papers. I have read histories about the background to our Constitution, and its drafting and adoption. I have read commentaries on the Constitution. And I have studied many Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Constitution. Even so, I now find myself often confused about governmental powers. The basic structure of our federal government, I had learned, is that Congress makes the laws; the President enforces the laws; and the Judiciary interprets the laws. However, the Constitution is more complicated than that.

(continued June 10)

A Civics Examination

A friend says what others have said: many, perhaps most, Americans don’t understand the basic structure of our government. They don’t understand federalism—what should fall under the purview of the national government and what should only be a concern for the states. And they don’t understand that our national governmental powers are separated into three branches, a structure that was adopted to give us a government of checks and balances.

The friend, along with others, feels as if this basic knowledge has declined because the teaching of Civics in high schools or earlier has declined. The ACTA (American Council of Trustees and Alumni), which states that it “is an independent, non-profit organization committed to academic freedom, excellence, and accountability of America’s colleges and universities,” reports that a 2016 survey found that only a quarter of Americans can name all three branches of government. An ACTA survey found that 80 percent of seniors at 55 top colleges would have earned a D or F on historical knowledge. This organization states that a reason for this lack of knowledge is that an emphasis on math and reading “has pushed out other subjects, such as civics. . . .”

I confess, however, that I am often confused about the present structure of our government even though I had a Civics course—in which I got an A (brag, brag)—and, of course, I can not only name the three branches of government but have enough historical knowledge to know who Daniel D. Tompkins was, although I confess I learned about that Vice President not from Civics but from Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street. Indeed, I was even a bit of a high school constitutional nerd having won, but not received, money from a constitutional examination.

This particular test was sponsored by the Elks Club. Service clubs were not part of the heritage of my working-class family. I knew that my town had a number of them—Optimists, Eagles, Rotarians, Elks, as well as VFW and American Legion halls. My guess is that there was some sort of pecking order among these. I thought, but was not sure, that the Rotarians were at the top of the heap. At least, that is the impression I got from a schoolteacher when I was invited to a Rotarian lunch—I guess because I was student president of the high school. This event has stayed in my mind, not because it opened a world of networking that I later developed. I was painfully shy. I talked a bit with one or two friends and immediate family members, but I was as quiet as a blue point on the half-shell (homage to Red Smith) with all others, and that certainly included those adult Rotarians who sat next to me at the lunch. What I do remember, however, is the luncheon slide show.

A doctor in the town, who was presumably a Rotarian, had done volunteer work in Vietnam. This was at a time when the U.S. commitment in Vietnam was tiny, and few gave that country much thought or could even find it on a map. I don’t know how or why the speaker went there, but he showed picture after picture of deformed children and physically damaged adults. As one disturbing image succeeded the next, I began to feel queasy having never before seen a concentrated dose of such stuff. Sweat beads popped out on my forehead. I swallowed back what started coming out of my stomach. All I could think about was that I was about to disgrace myself. Finally, it ended in what I thought was the nick of time, and I rushed, without saying anything to my table companions, for fresh air. But I digress.

I had no idea where the Elks, or more formally the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, stood in the town’s service-organization pecking order, but on a late winter Saturday morning of my senior high school year I went to our Elks Club. I have no idea what I had done to qualify for the state constitution test, but I remember that I had prepared by drawing on my Civics course memories, reading the Constitution the night before, and perhaps by reading about it in our encyclopedia, which was not the mindnumbing, comprehensive Encyclopedia Britannica, but an old, breezier World Book.

I went into the dark, dingy, musty Elks clubhouse and met the person who was going to drive me the hour to Milwaukee for the statewide test. I felt a bit sorry for him, whose name I certainly don’t remember. He tried to chat me up, but as I said before, I hardly talked with anyone back then, much less a strange adult. He did try to tell me how great the Elks were, as if he were laying the groundwork for recruiting me to the B.P.O.E. later in life, and how lucky I was to live in a great town like Sheboygan. I said but a few words in reply. The “conversation” did come back to me many years later. I was on a kick of reading some American authors whose reputations had declined through the years, such as John Dos Passos. The Nobel-Prize-winning Sinclair Lewis was on this list. I had heard that he had written outdated, cliché-filled novels that were almost embarrassing. I, on the other hand, found very good books. George Babbitt was not dated if you had been raised in the 1950s in a small midwestern town; it was certainly not dated if you ridden in a car with an Elks booster from Sheboygan.

(continued June 7)


There was once a professional football team called the Beloit Fairies.


CVS gives me receipts longer than some of my golf shots.


At one time, you were not supposed to have sex until you were married. (We can be confident that this “moral” injunction was frequently broken, even in Puritan New England, at least as revealed by studies of marriage and birth certificates that indicate a lot of babies were born in early Massachusetts only five or six months after the marriage.) My friend was a young modern woman, and she and her boyfriend had not waited for marriage to have sex. Indeed, they were living together without an official marriage ceremony. However, even though her work allowed her to put a significant other on the health insurance plan, she told me that she would never do that unless they were married. Ah, modern romance.


I learned at the bar trivia contest that the official state motto of Indiana is “The Crossroads of America.” That motto made sense to me. I have entered Indiana from the north, south, east, and west. Every time I continued driving straight through, wondering when I would get to the next state. I, however, have met nice, interesting people from Indiana. I met them all in New York.


The Indiana state motto is better than some others. Michigan’s is “Si Quaris Peninsulam Amoenam Circumspice.” Come on. This is the USA. Speak American. I tend to believe that we should have no Latin, except perhaps for et cetera. (Remember Yul Brynner in “The King and I?) Maybe you understand that Michigan motto, but I have to trust those who tell me it translates to, “If you seek a pleasant peninsula, look about you.” I like lots of things about Michigan, but really? How many of you have ever woken up and said I would like to visit or live in a place that boasts it is a “pleasant peninsula.” How many of you have ever thought of Michigan as a peninsula? But then again, a part of Michigan is known as the Upper Peninsula. That implies a lower one, which means that there are two peninsulas. I am guessing that the motto excludes the upper one.


And I note without comment that the state motto of Alabama—“Audemus jura nostra defendere”–translates to “We Dare Defend Our Rights.”


The billboard from some sort of church warned “LUST DESTROYS.” And here I thought that lust led to the creation of new life.


I put on shorts for the first time as I head into a new summer, and I look down and think: “An old white man’s winter-white legs are never attractive.”


“Do they lie down in soft grass

to gaze up at a sky of roaming shape-shifting

clouds? Do children still have time for daydreaming?”

Harryette Mullen, “Urban Tumbleweed”

Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender (continued)

After trying cases at what seemed like a non-stop pace for a couple years, I left the trial bureau and went into a test case unit of the Legal Aid Society. Doing legal research and drafting memoranda and briefs without having to pick a jury gave me time to reflect on my experiences, something I could not do when I was involved with trial after trial. I thought hard about what I had done well and what I what had not done well. I thought that I was being objective when I concluded that I had performed much better than I had given myself credit for. Yes, I was a good trial attorney, and my clients, even the ones who had been convicted, where lucky to have had me.

Six months into the test case unit, I went back to try a big drug case involving a defendant arrested by an elite, but corrupt, unit of the police. Conviction meant an automatic life sentence, but now I had the confidence that I knew what I was doing. The client, however, was scared and tried to get me replaced, but his mother—a sweet, sweet woman, who, in spite of everything, loved her son–said that she had a vision from God that I was Mikey’s savior. So, he began to cooperate with me. I did do a terrific job, and to his surprise he was acquitted of all the more serious charges. He did not get a life sentence.

From that time on, I felt I was able to look at my trial performances more dispassionately. Even when there was a conviction, I could see whether I had done a good job. I looked back on a trial not to flagellate myself, but to see if there was something to learn for the future. I learned that I had to try each case. By that I mean that I could not let other people tell me how to try it because I was the one who had to live with the result. I learned that sometimes risks had to be taken and the safe path not followed. The safe path, the one that others can’t criticize, often leads to a conviction because that is the usual result in a criminal case. Risks would leave me open to criticism, but I learned that the client came first, not me. If I thought that the risks increased the likelihood of an acquittal, even though an acquittal was still unlikely and even though I would be criticized if a conviction resulted, the risk was worth it. I learned to have confidence in my judgment, or at least I learned that I knew the case better than any observer and my judgment about my own case was better than anyone else’s. I eventually went back to regularly trying cases and trusted that I really knew how to do it. I would like to think—do think—that I served my clients well. I still felt bad after a loss, but now I found joy and satisfaction in winning.

Mikey’s big drug case, while giving me found confidence, also led me to an ethical breach. Defender ethics prohibited me from taking anything from the client or his friends or family. But after the case, Mikey’s mother kept insisting that she had to do something for me. She settled on a Saturday lunch that she would prepare. I said no again and again, but she persisted. She could not understand the reason for the refusal, and I could see that I was hurting her feelings. I decided to bend my ethics and relented. She then insisted that I bring the spouse. I am glad we went because I had an experience that has not been duplicated.

She lived in a cramped apartment somewhere in what was then the shadow of Shea Stadium, the home of the Mets. We quickly learned, however, that after coming from Cuba (well before Castro), she had lived in the Bronx and was a Yankees fan. Her accent was thick, and she kept talking about the love of the New York “Jankees.” I tried not to smile every time she said it. There were religious artifacts around her living/dining room, but then I noticed pictures of a handsome man in the kind of fancy dress that I associated with Cuban men. When I asked about the person in the picture, she lit up. That was her husband who had died, but still lived in her memory. I did not know how to react when I found out that he was a Cuban band leader who primarily led orchestras playing on cruise ships plying the waters to Havana. I did not ask her what she thought of “I Love Lucy,” but here was a woman who had been married to a real-life Ricky Ricardo. She was fascinating talking about that life.

She had us sit a small Formica table, and she brought the spouse and me food. After we ate it, she brought more food. After a few minutes, she brought even more, and after that was sampled, another dish, and another. I felt sick and was hoping each time she served us it was the last time, but I also felt that I would look ungrateful if I did not continue to eat. She had worked on this meal not just for hours, but for days. The spouse and I kept urging her to sit and eat with us, but she refused. She was only there to serve us.

If we talked about her son (who was serving a nine-year sentence), it was only for a moment. She tried to give me some money, but I was insistent on giving it back to her. I didn’t see her again after I waddled down the steps, but for years, until she died, I got a Christmas card from her through her son. I don’t think that she could read or write English.

(to be continued occasionally)

Confessions of a Sometime Public Defender

Over the last eight years, I have volunteered at a couple of public defender offices. I started my legal career as a defender and going back to that work after decades made me remember how hard it is to be a public defender. It certainly was difficult for me at the beginning of my career when I tried many cases.

Because of plea bargaining and dismissals, many defenders and prosecutors try few cases. The overwhelming majority of cases end without a trial, and new attorneys might go a year and more without doing a trial. I, however, tried a lot of cases shortly after being sworn in as an attorney.

After getting a graduate law degree, I joined the Legal Aid Society, then New York City’s public defender. I was a favorite of the chief attorney of the organization because he, as I, was a graduate of the University of Chicago Law School. He advanced me quickly, and I was in a major trial position three months after I started, having already done a few misdemeanor trials.

Federal money had come into New York City for special drug courts, and I, with five others, was assigned as a public defender in these newly opened courts. Cases were transferred there from all around the city. Because of the backlogs in the other courts, many of the cases were old, no acceptable plea bargains had been negotiated for them, and a stack of cases was waiting to be tried. Our new courts were for the purpose of trying such cases. As a result, for about a year and a half, I started a new trial about every two weeks.

The pressure was intense. In some sense, I never was not thinking about my cases. I carried a notebook—at movies, parties, dinners, the subway, wherever—to jot down notes about the cases because I could not shut down my mind about them. I put the notebook by the bed because almost every night I would wake up several times thinking about my clients.

Mostly I lost the trials. I knew that this was normal. Defendants are convicted 75% of the time, and the conviction rate for the kinds of drug cases I was trying was even higher. A legendary attorney who mentored me said that it was a miracle if a defender won half the cases. Even though I knew these facts, I had not learned a necessity for a public defender: how to cope with losing. I consider myself sane and balanced, but this was the one time that I felt that I could be close to a nervous breakdown. Of course, it may not have been my fault that a person was convicted—the evidence against him was simply too strong—but even so, each time I questioned whether I was competent to do the work.

Especially hard was a loss when the defendant had been free on bail, then convicted, and immediately handcuffed and shoved into a cell behind the courtroom. I never wanted to see that person at that moment, but I felt that I had to. The bars that separated us always gave me a chill. They haunted me. This feeling always comes back to me when I see the final scene of the movie “The Maltese Falcon.” Although I have enjoyed this film many times, I often turn away at that closing shot, which gives me the creeps. Mary Astor is being led away by the police, and she is hoping that Humphrey Bogart will save her. In a great monolog, he makes it clear that he won’t. The cops take her to an old-fashioned elevator with a gate, and the gate is closed with her on one side and Bogart on the other. The gate’s shadow falls like bars across her face. The horror of what awaits her has now sunk in. She panics. The scene brings back the memory of the queasiness I had to fight when I went to see Abraham S., who had been out on bail, in the cells after he was convicted. His was the real-life face of Mary Astor’s character. Worse yet, it was not clear to me that he was guilty. Sleep was only something to be desired that night.

I did win a few trials, but these did not prove to me that I had the right disposition to be a public defender. I realized that after a not-guilty verdict I did not feel elation or gratification. I did not even feel a satisfaction about my trial attorney skills. I was only relieved that I had not lost. The win did not make me feel good; it only staved off the depression of a loss. After one acquittal, I talked with the friendly presiding judge, and I explained these feelings to him. He responded that with such emotions, I should not be a public defender. I knew that he was right, but I had no idea what to do to survive in the work.

(continued May 31)

First Sentences

“The smoked fish counter has a long and glorious tradition in New York.” Ed Levine, New York Eats.

“I had a lot of jobs in Los Angeles Harbor because our family was poor and my father was dead.” John Fante, The Road to Los Angeles.

“American criminal justice today is premised on controlling African American men.” Paul Butler, Chokehold: [Policing Black Men].

“The prisoner will stand.” Horace McCoy, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

“As I waited in the drowsy neon-lit customs line at JFK, I tried to remember precisely when the war on drugs started.” Johann Hari, Chasing the Scream: The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs.

“I first met him in Piraeus.” Nikos Kazantakis, Zorba the Greek.

“Two centuries ago, Napoleon warned, ‘Let China sleep; when she awakes, she will shake the world.’” Graham Allison, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?

“He speaks in your voice, American, and there’s a shine in his eye that’s halfway hopeful.” Don DeLillo, Underworld.

“Victoria and Tennie’s father, Reuben Buck Claflin, was a one-eyed snake oil salesman who posed as a doctor and a lawyer.” Myra MacPherson, The Scarlet Sisters: Sex, Suffrage, and Scandal in the Gilded Age.

“I had just begun to peel the potatoes for dinner when my oldest sister Bessie came in, her eyes far away and very tired.” Anzi Yezierska, Bread Givers.

“All of us in the public defender’s office feared the Martin Luther King speech.” James Forman, Jr., Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America.

Devils, Ahmad thinks.” John Updike, Terrorist.

“The first historical fact that I remember learning as child was the place that I called home was once an independent nation.” James E. Crisp, Sleuthing the Alamo: Davy Crockett’s Last Stand and Other Mysteries of the Texas Revolution.

“This was back when I was frittering away my Venezuelan inheritance.” Patrick Modiano, La Place de l’Étoile.

“My experience of Jesus begins with my father.” Richard W. Fox, Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession.