A Columbus, Ohio lawyer specializes in tree disputes. The Wall Street Journal
As I looked out the window of my office at the package liquor store across the street, I was thinking it was ironic that I, Art Van Stiffel, one of the top two tree lawyers in Columbus, Ohio, couldn’t even afford an office with a view of where my clients came from–trees.
“Here’s my card.”
Instead, all I could see was the bus station, the aforementioned (sorry–I am a lawyer) liquor store, and the Joy-Dot Tailor Shop. The last-named (I’m trying, but I can’t stop!) used to be a “Shoppe,” but they had to drop the Olde English affectation when they were sued for false advertising. Seems everybody’s suing these days–everybody but people walking in my door, that is.
It’s partly my fault. I was partners with Marty Hagan, one-half of Hagan & Van Stiffel, but we kept getting in each other’s way. You see, if you put the two top tree lawyers in a town the size of Columbus under one roof, you’re inevitably gonna get into conflicts of interest. I’d get a call from somebody whose porch just got totalled by a falling elm, and on the other line Marty’s talking to the owner of said elm. We couldn’t be on both sides, so we broke up.
I learned the business of tree law from Marty, and I depended on him for a lot of my work, so it was tough, believe me. “You can copy any of my forms you want,” he said to me on my last day. “My Motion to Attach Encroaching Maple, Writ of Process Upon Overhanging Limb, Birch-Sycamore Cross-Indemnity Agreement–anything.”
“Thanks, Marty, thanks,” I said, fighting down a lump in my throat. “You’ve been great to me, you really have. I couldn’t ask you to do that. Those forms–they’re your competitive edge in the gypsy moth-eat elm world of tree lawyering.”
“You’re right–bag worms can be a real problem.”
“Thanks, Art, thanks,” he said as he clapped me on the back. Little did he know–because I wasn’t gonna tell him–that I’d been sneaking his forms out one by one in my briefcase every night for the past six months while I plotted my move.
I made a big splash at first: Mouse pads, coffee mugs, key chains, bumper stickers: “Tree fall on your car? Call the tree law star!” I hired a local “branding” consultant and boy did I get branded; a thousand bucks for “Artie Van’s Your Man! For tree surgeon malpractice and all your tree-legal-needs!” Yes you remember it, but it’s also stupid.
Everybody’s talking about climate change–believe you me, I could use a little of that around here. It’s climate change that keeps me in business, falling trees smashing cars and that sort of thing. You wanna know how long it’s been since a category three storm hit this little burg and its sub-burgs? So damn long, I have to pay the landlord in cash is how long.
I was stewing in this disconsolate state of mind when I heard a throat clear, and I noticed it wasn’t mine. I took my feet off my desk and swung around in my swivel chair and saw a woman, and I liked what I saw.
“I’d go out on a limb for you, baby.”
She had on one of those “fascinator” hats that female members of the British royal family like to wear at weddings, and lipstick a shade of red that would have made a fire engine blush. She was stacked like a concrete grain silo, without the dust and the pickup trucks parked outside and the risk of fatal explosion. I sensed that there would be an element of danger involved in taking her on as a client, but the guys at Kinkos won’t take my checks anymore.
“Excuse me–are you Attorney Van Stiffel,” she said, stiffly but seductively.
“That I am, that I am,” I said as cordially as I could.
“My name is Myrna Belle Isle. I understand that you specialize in tree law.”
“You and your neighbor have a Chinese elm tiffle? The guy you should call is Art Van Stiffel!” I said, cracking a little wise, I know, but in order to represent someone effectively, you’ve got to loosen them up and get them to spill the beans–I mean divulge all relevant facts.
“Then perhaps you can help me,” she said.
“Please have a seat,” I said, as if I had more than two. She took the one I hadn’t been sitting in–good choice–and we began our initial consultation, which is always free at Art Van Stiffel, P.C.
“I’m having problems with trees,” she began meekly.
“Deciduous or conifer?”
“I . . . I don’t know what those terms mean,” she said, almost apologetically. Fine with me–I like it when the layperson requires a brief summary of the massive amount of higher learning a tree lawyer needs to keep up on.
“There’s two kinds of trees,” I began. “Gymnosperms–meaning ‘naked seeds’”–I stopped right there because she was blushing. “Sorry, I’ll keep it clean from now on. The other kind is angiosperms.”
She blushed again. “I wasn’t blushing about the ‘naked’ part back there, it was the–”
She didn’t need to explain. We’re all so sophisticated these days, what with our 8th grade health class and our 9th grade biology. “Sorry,” I said, and I noticed that tears were welling up in her eyes. “In more polite terms, you’ve got needle-leaved trees, and broad-leaved.”
“And you rake up the leaves of the latter kind–correct?”
“Those are the ones.”
She stood up and moved towards me. “And then,” she said, “you jump in the piles–right?”
The bogus modesty of just a moment before had disappeared like a scalded cat. In its place was a look that bespoke a yearning for home base in hide and go seek; a need to clutch the trunk of a tree between your legs and climb; a desire to go out on a limb for once in your miserable little life.
“You’ve got to help me!” she said as she threw her arms around me.
“The tree next door–it’s . . . deciduous I guess. It’s leaning–precipitously.”
“Like the sword of Damocles?” I asked.
“Damocles–the guy who had to sit under a dangling sword at a banquet.”
“He should have volunteered to be on the fund-raising committee,” she said. ”He would have gotten a better table.”
“Back to your story about the sense of terror that pervades every second of your waking life . . . “
” . . . and some of my sleeping. I can’t live any longer with the fear that tree will topple over on me, but my neighbor won’t cut it down!”
“I’m sure he will,” I said cynically–”for a price.”
She folded her arms in front of her face, like a boxer trying to block a punch. ”I hate this world!” she said as her face melted into a mess of mascara, eyeliner and cheek blusher. ”Why can’t we all just . . . get along?”
“That’s what Rodney King said as the City of Los Angeles burned down around him,” I said. ”You may want to play nice, but that doesn’t mean anybody else has to.”
I reached into the pocket of my jacket and took out a handkerchief. Unlike the slobs who make up the majority of the Tree, Hardy Shrub and Perennial Flower Bar Association, I haven’t forgotten how a gentleman is supposed to dress.
Portable germ carrier
“Has your neighbor . . . what’s his name?”
“Clyde. Clyde Fuchs.”
“Has he got a lawyer?”
“Yes . . . here’s his card.”
I knew without looking whose name would be on it. ”Don’t tell me, let me guess,” I said. ”Marty Hagan, Esq.?”
“How did you know?”
“He and I go way back.”
“Way back where?”
“I mean I started out with him.”
“So . . . you think you can get him to talk some sense into Mr. Fuchs?”
“Maybe,” I said. ”We tree lawyers have a saying. It’d be a great business if it weren’t for the clients.”
“Oh my goodness,” she said, all flustered again. ”I hope I haven’t been a problem for you.”
“Not at all, sweetheart,” I said, as I let my eyes wander over her limbs. ”Not at all.”
I was on the phone first thing the next morning, eyes bright and coat shiny, ringing up my one-time mentor.
“Marty Hagan, tree lawyer extraordinaire speaking.”
“It’s your old apprentice, Marty.”
“Well whadda ya know.”
“Not much–say, you represent a guy named Fuchs?”
“Yes, but it’s pronounced ‘fooks,’ not you-know-what.”
“Oh, okay. Anyway, has he spoken to you about his abutter?”
“A Ms. Myrna Belle Isle?”
“Right. I represent her.”
“She’s trouble Art–stay away from her.”
“She seems very reasonable.”
“If you’re thinking with your trouser mouse and not your brain. Fuchs has got a little sapling–it’s not going anywhere. Tell her to blow it out her panty hose.”
Marty could be a tough guy, but I hadn’t expected that freezer locker blast of cold air.
“So what are you offering?” I asked hopefully.
“I’m offering to counterclaim against her for abuse of process and slander of title if you so much as send me a nasty letter.”
“C’mon Marty, play fair. You’ve gotta let me send you a nasty letter–out of professional courtesy.”
I heard a slight “harumph” sound at the end of the line. ”Tell her–as politely as you can–to go pound sand.”
“Marty . . .”
“Figuratively. That’s my final offer.”
He left me hanging, expecting more, but nothing came.
“Okay, Marty. I guess we’ll see you in Middlesex County District Court, View Easement and Encroaching Limb Division.”
“Talk to her Art. The more you learn, the less you’ll like.”
And with that, he hung up.
I made an appointment to see Myrna that night, but first I had an in camera–that means “behind closed doors”–session with Judge J.T.S. Brown, the only member of the judiciary that comes in a pint bottle.
I was drinking it straight in a tumbler when I heard a rap on the frosted pane of glass in my office door.
“Art?” I heard her say.
“The lawyer is in,” I said, screwing the top back on the bottle of bourbon and turning to face her.
“I . . . you wanted to see me?”
“I did, I did. Sit down.”
She straightened out her dress, and the sheen from the hose on her milky white legs made them sparkle like the driven snow. ”I . . . spoke to the guy who represents Fooks.”
“I thought it was ‘Fucks,’” she said innocently enough, but the batting of her eyelashes sent a cool breeze across the room that ruffled my slicked-down hair. I didn’t know what her game was, so I kept talking. ”He says you have no case, that’s it’s just a little sapling.”
“Did he tell you that it dented the screens in my breezeway? That a branch fell and nearly killed my pet salamander, Tabitha?”
“You’re not much of a lawyer if you couldn’t even get that out of him.”
I bristled at that suggestion. ”Look, sweetheart, I’m doing the best I can. You walk in here without a shred of evidence, nothing but self-serving facts that a good lawyer could drive a voir dire through.”
“What’s a voir dire?”
“It’s a French car–sort of a cross between a Peugeot and a Renault. Anyway, I’m not gonna risk my reputation and go out on a limb . . .”
Before I could finish, she’d fallen on me like a top-heavy elm in a tornado. Her breasts were soft beneath her knit sweater, and her nipples were standing at attention like Boy Scouts at taps. If they gave a merit badge for female anatomy, I would have aced it.
“I want you . . .” she said.
“And I want you too,” I began, but she cut me off.
“No–I want you to go out on a limb for me and saw off just one branch, the one that’s making my life a living hell.”
“But if the tree’s so young, it’s not gonna fall on you.”
She started to sob, and I held her close. ”All right–I admit it. The only reason I want that limb gone is because it blocks my view.”
So that was her game. Hire a lawyer, but get him to do something illegal, something that’s strictly forbidden by Canon 3:16 of the Tree Lawyers Code of Ethics; Thou shalt not use self-help remedies to settle a tree dispute.
The old-fashioned, fun, dangerous way to get rid of leaves!
I looked at her and started to count up the costs. I could lose my license, I could go to jail for trespassing, I could watch everything I’d worked so hard for go up in smoke, like autumn leaves burning in the gutter in the old days, before nanny-state environmentalists made it illegal to light fires on public ways.
“Well?” she asked.
It took me the better part of a nanosecond to make up my mind. ”For you, sugar–anything.”
It was a clear moonless light as we scaled the fence into Mr. Fuchs yard, and as I took in the object of Myrna’s complaint, a mirthless little laugh escaped from my lips. ”This is it?”
“Remember–you promised.” She started batting her eyelashes again, and the dry leaves of late autumn began to swirl in Fuchs’ yard.
“Cut it out,” I said, barely able to resist falling down with her, right there, for a roll in a leaf pile.
“The sooner you finish your chores,” she purred, “the sooner you can have your treat.”
I smiled the smile of a tomcat who smells a queen in heat. ”Okay, sugar.”
It’ll have to do . . . until the real thing comes along.
Lovers lose their reason, this I knew, but what I didn’t know was that they also lose their memory; I forgot that I’d never been good at climbing trees, and willingly accepted the fireman-style boost she gave me to get going.
“Be careful,” she said, and I gave her one last leer before beginning my ascent.
It was tough going–not as tough as the rope climb in gym, but harder than the monkey bars on a grade school playground.
“Which one is it?” I asked.
“That one over there.”
“No, further up . . . the one with the little sucker shoots springing . . .”
Those were the last words I remember. I woke up with my arm in a sling, a process server handing me a summons, and Myrna, scribbling on my cast.
“Artie fall down go boom!” she said. Apparently, she couldn’t turn off the bubble machine, not even in a double hospital room with a cranky guy scheduled for a vasectomy sitting in the next bed.
“What are you writing?” I said, unable to make out her scribbling through the painkillers.
“Yours ’til Niagara–or Artie–Falls.”
Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collections “Everyday Noir” and “Lawyers Are People Too–Sort Of.”