Thanksgiving is a time for reflection for me, especially when I arrive back at work on the Monday after Black Friday and try to come up with something, anything, to be thankful for. There’s the unlimited free photocopies–check your bill to make sure I didn’t slip in a ream or two of paper as “miscellaneous.” There’s the new coffee machine in the lunch room, which is supposedly as good as the-brand-name-that-shall-not-be-mentioned-but-is-a-character-from-Moby Dick. I’ve tried it and I have to say–office coffee is always office coffee; the problem is, no matter how good it is, you’re surrounded by people from work when you drink it.
No, I don’t squander my thankfulness on the workplace, I reserve it for cool swag like my new Ralph Lauren moccasins! They’re made from micro-suede, which is why they’re so damned expensive; it’s much harder to drive a herd of micro-cows from Texas to my hometown of Sedalia, Missouri, where Rowdy Yates (Clint Eastwood) on the TV show “Rawhide” would put them in a micro-cattle car and ship them to the mini-stockyards of Chicago. You lose one of them teeny-tiny longhorn steers, you’ll be looking for him with an electron microscope, pardner.
I’ve refused to buy a pair of these haute-fashion shoes for a long time. You can safely get rid of yours now, because I’m a canary in the coal mine of fashion; once I get “hep” to a style, all the cool people drop it like a twelve-pound bowling ball with Mazola oil in the holes. I resist style-changes on general principles, but in this case there were stronger cultural forces at work: one, they seemed a bit too casual, like something a guy shouldn’t wear outside his den; and two, moccasins are the shoe of choice among Native Americans, and so there was the issue of Cultural Appropriation to consider. We have a full-time Diversity Coordinator now, and I didn’t want her coming down on me like a ton of interoffice memos just because I’m a reluctant slave (is there any other kind?) of fashion.
Add to these qualms the fact that the fourth Thursday in November has now become a battle between conflicting views of our national day of thanks. In my boyhood, we were taught how the occasion was a model of comity and brotherhood, with Squanto of the Patuxet tribe and ninety (90) Wampanoags joining the Pilgrims for a friendly feast. The Narragansett tribe had sent an ominous threat–a bundle of arrows wrapped in a snake’s skin–but kept their distance, thereby avoiding the First Political Argument in Thanksgiving Day History.
But I grew up in the southern Midwest, at the end of that Chisholm Trail from Texas, and so have actual real-world experience with some tribes. As a boy I used to spend my allowance on Osage trinkets hocked around the Lake of the Ozarks resort area, and as kids we visited a Cherokee reservation in Oklahoma, where we dressed up in native costume. Later as a teen I dated a half-Cherokee woman, and all this background stood me in good stead when I need to review the bona fides of the Senior Senator from my state for dubious claims of ethnicity. To paraphrase George Orwell, there is no claim so ridiculous that the faculty of Harvard Law School won’t believe it.
And so, I’m tentatively comfortable in my new shoes, once my younger son has returned to Texas and I no longer hear laughter at his old man’s feeble attempt to get within shouting distance of current trends in men’s haberdashery. I try to return to work with a light heart as I prepare for the annual sprint to the end of the year, as clients rush to close deals they’ve neglected since, oh, around Labor Day.
But still, it just doesn’t feel right to wear moccasins to work, for the reasons cited supra (above), as we say in the legal biz. I’m more than a bit self-conscious as I step into my office and turn on my computer, whose first message to me is from Human Resources: “Please complete your annual review of Sneezes Three Times,” the message says, causing me to scratch my head. What the hell does that mean?
I look up and stare off into the middle distance when my colleague Dave from down the hall pops his head in my office. “You want to join us for lunch today, we’re wining and dining a client and Smokes Outside had to cancel?”
Sneezes Three Times, Smokes Outside–dawn breaks on Marblehead, as we say here in Massachusetts; I’ve been cursed by my moccasins, and now my partners all have descriptive Native American tribal names. Not to mention the paralegal across the hall who can never sneeze just once–oh no, they come in threes, like the Holy Trinity.
“Uh, sure,” I say to Dave, who I now understand is “Afraid of His Shadow.” The guy has to turn every simple deal into a forty-page document with indemnities, exculpations and in terrorem clauses–so scary you shouldn’t even ask about them. “Who else is coming?”
“There’s Slow of Brain from litigation, and Says What She Thinks from employment law.”
“Is that really a good idea?” I ask, causing Dave/Afraid of His Shadow to hesitate and reconsider.
“She does have a tendency to turn things . . . controversial,” he says. “On the other hand, Slow of Brain always causes the conversation to congeal into a thick goulash of conflicts of interest.”
“I know what you mean,” I say ruefully. I had to stop eating with the guy, he made me nervous with the gory details he’d share at lunch about people getting fishbones stuck in their throats at restaurants, with St. Blaise–the patron saint of people who get fishbones stuck in their throats–nowhere in sight.
“I’ll ask Talks About Sports, he can fill in the gaps between hot-button political issues and deadly dull lawyer-talk.”
The rest of the morning passed uneventfully, with me scouring the internet to find some kind of wikasa wakan (medicine man) cure for my condition. It looked like my best bet was time in a sweat lodge–I could take a steam bath at my club–but then I got jammed up and couldn’t sneak out before it was time for the business development dog-and-pony show.
We met in the lobby of Afraid of His Shadow’s club, where he made the introductions. “These are my partners Says What She Thinks, Slow of Brain, Talks About Sports, and Doesn’t Give a Shit”–this last moniker was apparently mine for my rapidly-diminishing level of enthusiasm as I start my descent on the glide path to retirement.
“Nice to meet you,” the senior banker–who is introduced as Old Grey Fart–says. “I’d like you to meet Head Ducked Low”–a middle-aged guy who looks like he goes out of his way to avoid difficult decisions and get out with a pension in maybe a decade.
We shake hands, and then Old Grey Fart turns to a woman wearing the full Assistant Vice President-starter set. “This is Floppy Bow Tie,” he says, and I have to say, she’s wearing a perfect replica of the kind of outfit that young female professionals–including my wife–wore back in the distant days of my first white-collar employment: blue suit, white ruffled blouse, little string of pearls and the inevitable floppy bow tie, as the name suggests.
We get in the elevator and go up to the 39th floor, where we are met by the maitre d’, who greets us and seats us at a quiet table looking out over the Southeast Expressway, the World’s Largest Moving Parking Lot.
“How ’bout those Patriots?” Talks About Sports says as we sit down, and there follows a good five minutes of palaver about completion percentage, quarterback rating, yards-per-pass and frequent flier miles. The two women in attendance pay differing levels of attention: Floppy Bow Tie has been told she has to develop an interest in sports if she wants to succeed in Boston, so she’s all ears. Says What She Thinks has already made it, with several million-dollar malpractice verdicts against local teaching hospitals to her credit and is checking out her most recent manicure to see whether she’s going to sue her nail salon.
After we’ve exhausted the possibilities of all the wild-card opponents, talk moves to the shore of the ocean of business, and we gingerly dip our toes into the cold seawater of commerce. “I assembled this team to demonstrate that our firm has a deep bench, and can serve all of your needs,” Afraid of His Shadow says, but Slow of Brain undercuts him almost immediately.
“Of course, we would have to check for conflicts if you want us to sue somebody we represent or handle a transaction against an existing client.”
“My services go to the highest bidder,” Says What She Thinks says. “I’m not going to have somebody stop me from taking a case because we did a will for the CEO’s maiden aunt twenty years ago.” She’s living up to her name.
“I don’t know how you do it,” Floppy Bow Tie says, all wide-eyed innocence. “Reading those big long documents all night long, then marching into court the next day and fighting it out in front of a judge.”
“That happens once in a blue moon,” Says What She Thinks says. “Mainly I just threaten people on the phone, by letter, and increasingly–by text message.”
“Gosh!” Floppy Bow Tie says, and I can see that Afraid of His Shadow is getting nervous, thinking his colleagues are going to blow a new client for him by coming off as obnoxious, unlike the 1% of the legal community that isn’t.
“We’ve talked about ourselves enough,” he says. “How are things in your world?” he asks Head Ducked Low.
“It’s a great company,” he says, then falls silent, waiting for his boss to take over again. Must have taken his inoffensive pill this morning.
“We’re on track to have a good year,” says Old Grey Fart, as lunch is served. “Unless something crazy happens with the economy.”
“At least we’re better off with that wing-nut out of the White House,” Says What She Thinks says. We’re a very blue state, so it’s not like she was taking a big chance with that expression of conventional disdain, but Old Grey Fart screws his lower jaw into one of his three chins and his face takes on an expression like he just saw a cockroach in his Cobb salad.
“Couldn’t complain about the economy under Trump,” OGF says, then sticks his fork in a hard-boiled egg like he’s bayoneting a dummy at Marine boot camp, where he spent the balmy days of his youth.
“A bad economy is usually good for me,” says Slow of Brain. “When there’s less money to go around, everybody sues each other.” In his world, this counts as edgy humor.
Afraid of His Shadow starts to cough–something went down the wrong way when he heard Slow of Brain break the A#1 inviolable rule of business lunches: Never, ever, ever say anything that sounds like you’re disagreeing with the business prospect. I decide it’s time to jump in to save the day, although it doesn’t seem fair that this duty should fall on the shoulders of the brave named Doesn’t Give a Shit.
“Let’s talk about . . . kids!” I say brightly, knowing that this is the best way to end a business lunch on a friendly note.
“Mine’s in rehab,” says Says What She Thinks.
“I’m not married,” says Floppy Bow Tie.
“Kids are all grown,” says Old Grey Fart.
“Don’t have any,” says Head Ducked Low.
“I’ve got a twelve-year-old boy with incurable Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease,” says Slow of Brain, and everyone else murmurs condolences sotto voce. “Unless a miracle drug is discovered, there’s little hope he’ll live past the age of 90.”
It’s Afraid of His Shadow’s Turn. “Spencer just dropped out of college, says he wants to make stained glass windows.”
“Is there much of a market for that?” Old Grey Fart asks.
“Not since the Protestant Reformation, but he says he’s committed to”–Afraid of His Shadow gulps as he forms the next words with difficulty–“his art.”
“How about you?” Old Grey Fart says looking at me with an avuncular smile, even though I’m pretty sure he’s not my uncle.
I smile nervously. I was the one who brought up the topic, but I . . . don’t really have much to say about it.
“My wife and I . . . we’ve decided that kids are just not in our future.”
Everyone nods politely, tactfully recognizing that this is very much a personal decision.
“It was a tough choice,” I continue. “We’re going to tell them at dinner tonight.”