Monday, July 27, 2009
Ninety-Four, Part Seventeen: Wherein My Placement of A Photograph, Decades Later, Turns Out To Be Symbolic Of Something-Or-Other
Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. Once a week, I'll recap that year. This is part 17; click here for a table of contents.
As memoirs go, this isn't much of one. It's as much about the process of trying to remember as it is about remembering, and as much about what I think about things now based on what I did then as it is what about what I did then.
Which maybe is the point.
But memoirs are supposed to have high points and great events -- like Dr Iannis in Corelli's Mandolin, who wanted to write history but then realized, no, he wanted to live through history -- or they're supposed to have quirky bits in them, like people that go live in a chicken coop for a year to see what that's like. They're not supposed to be (I thought) ruminations on things ranging from license plates to ice cream, and they're probably not supposed to drop storylines and thoughts like uncooked pasta and never come back to them, kicking those things under the oven to leave them there until they're found someday upon spring cleaning (which sometimes happens at times other than the spring.)
I don't think this part of the memoir is quirky, at all. The part coming up, the part where I lived in Morocco, is probably quirky, at least at times, but the Washington D.C. part, the part I've been focused on for sixteen installments so far, doesn't seem quirky or monumental, and it is chock-full of Dropped Pasta -- like my attempts to quit smoking, and my then-sometimes-girlfriend, and even Rip, the guy who lived in my room with me for months and months and months, and about whom you've heard little. And like Carlos, another good friend of mine who may have been from Paraguay or may have been from Uruguay but who also was from a college in Pennsylvania -- maybe Slippery Rock -- and whose parents, I recall, may have been bigwigs in whatever 'Guay he hailed from -- and who was such a good friend of mine that he not only shows up in some pictures from that time but also he rode the train back with me from D.C. to Pennsylvania, where he said goodbye and promised to stay in touch (he did, I didn't) and promised that we'd get together again in the future (we didn't.)
Those people have put in cameos in this memoir, and if it seems they should have had a larger role, that they should have been pictured as many times in my photos from that trip as, say, Hsing Hsing and Ling Ling (the pandas that lived at the National Zoo at the time, and who were underwhelming when I saw them... well, not underwhelming, but they didn't live up to the hype. They were... well, they were just-whelming), if it seems that someone who was my roommate for months on end should figure more prominently in a memoir of that time than a not-remembered diamond, then all I can say is that my memoirs, like my memories, and like my life, don't tend to follow suit. Because I've got one picture of Carlos, and two of the pandas. In the end, from a perspective fifteen years later, looking down the telescope backwards as it were, Carlos and Rip and Frank and Dave and the son of the Shah of Iran and even Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia played cameo roles in my life. They seemed, at the time, to loom large. They seemed, at the time, as though they were significant, but they weren't. They were, in terms of their impact on my life, less important than the first few characters you meet in every episode of Law & Order.
You know what I'm talking about. In every episode of Law & Order, some random character comes along a city street at night, or jogs through a park, or checks her purse for change by a parking meter, or babbles excitedly to his fiance outside of the Statue of Liberty. Then, Random Person spots a body, or bloody stump, or shoe, or something, and they virtually fade out of the episode -- maybe talking to Lenny for a minute or two more before exiting the episode, never to be seen again.
Frank, Rip, Dave, the Son of the Shah of Iran, quitting smoking, Hsing Hsing: these people simply introduced, maybe, storylines to come later, as did Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.
I can't be blamed, I think, for not wanting to downgrade meeting a Supreme Court Justice to a mere cameo in my life. I didn't, in fact, downgrade him to that position until just today, when I decided to write about meeting him because memoirs are supposed to have monumental figures, and meeting a Supreme Court Justice is the closest I've come to meeting someone who is monumental.
Only he wasn't, and it wasn't. In terms of the impact on my life, meeting a Supreme Court Justice was not, ultimately, as significant as any hundred other things I've done. In terms of my memory of meeting him, I have a pretty good recollection of spending time with him. But I have a better recollection of, among other things, an afternoon I spent jogging, including going past the fire department in Hartland, Wisconsin, while listening to Paul Simon's "Graceland" on cassette tape; of the drug store in Pewaukee near the lake where I'd sometimes ride my bike to in the summer, when I was 13 or 14 or 15, buying a snack and some comic books and then riding home, of playing frisbee golf in the forests of northern California with my family and my sister on vacation. I remember all of those things about as well as I remember meeting Justice Scalia, so how monumental can he be?
Anyway, when you meet famous people in real life, they almost always disappoint, and people who are famous for governing are maybe more disappointing that people famous for doing things that aren't so important. I mentioned meeting Senator Bob Packwood, and one would expect him to disappoint, maybe, as a disgraced Senator on his way out. In that, he actually didn't let me down: leaning tiredly in the elevator, he appeared to be, in hindsight, exactly what I would have wanted him to be: a reduced figure, a man of some importance at one point, elevated to prominence only by the fact that he was about to be removed from prominence (as so many of our politicans' career arcs go).
I met other famous-for-governing people before and after Justice Scalia. I met Senator Herb Kohl, a Senator who is beloved in Wisconsin for being "Nobody's Senator But Yours" or some slogan like that. Herb Kohl was a self-made millionaire, or maybe billionaire, who started up "Kohl's Food Stores," a chain of groceries in Wisconsin that maybe doesn't exist anymore. He then started Kohl's Department Stores, which still exist around here, and which I still shop at sometimes, mostly when I accompany Sweetie to pick out a new outfit for her or the Babies! or the kids, or, at Christmas, when we always seem to go there to get someone a sweater as a gift. Along the way, or after that, Herb Kohl also bought the Milwaukee Bucks (which he still owns) and eventually paid some or all of the cost for the "Kohl Center" where the Wisconsin Badgers play basketball. As part of his life, he became a Senator, too, apparently on the grounds that as a million/billionaire, he could not be bought by special interests and also on the grounds that people in Wisconsin really like him.
I was able to arrange a meeting with Senator Kohl in Washington simply by going to his office to meet him. I went to the office, located in one of the office buildings off the Capitol, and found a receptionist and explained who I was and asked if I could meet the Senator. I'd tried this same thing with Russ Feingold, our other senator at the time (and still.) Russ hadn't been in when I stopped by to meet him, and so I wouldn't meet him in Washington, at all.
(I would, coincidentally, almost meet Russ years and years later when I moved to Middleton, Wisconsin, with Sweetie and then joined Sweetie's health club, a health club that Russ Feingold also belongs to. I see him there, sometimes, working out. He doesn't look like a senator when he goes to work out, but it's hard, I suppose, to look senatorial when jogging or biking.)
Herb Kohl was in, and the receptionist got him, after only a short wait. He came out, a short, hunched-over kind of guy with a bald-and-very-red head and very white hair and a smile on his face. He shook my hand, he asked me what I was doing in Washington, he asked me what college I attended, and made a few more bits of small talk, and that was it. He thanked me and went back to work, doing whatever it is Senators do all day in their offices.
I should know what Senators do all day in their offices, as a political science major, but I don't, because they don't teach you that kind of thing in political science, or in college, period. They teach you a bunch of other stuff, but nothing nuts-and-bolts about what it is that Senators do all day or how to be a Senator or whether there's a particular kind of handshake you'll want to use when meeting with college students who pop in to interrupting your Senatoring. Everything I know about what Senators do all day I know because I talked to Rip, who worked in a Senator's office, and I know because I read Parliament of Whores by P.J. O'Rourke, a book that really should be required reading for anyone who lives in America.
What Senators do all day is not immediately apparent from what we see Senators do. What we see them do is talk on TV and make speeches (usually with some sort of prop behind them) and we see them watch the State of the Union and, in TV shows, they sit behind desks and get quizzed by reporters or cops. But there's a lot more that goes into Senatoring, I gather, than that, and most of that "lot more" is either boring, fake, or done by interns and staffers.
Rip, as an intern/staffer, had a variety of jobs that he would tell me about from time-to-time, most of them looking into constituent concerns, which mostly meant "reading mail." Rip got to read the mail for the Senator, and respond to some of it, I think. Rip also talked about people coming in to meet with the Senator he worked for, and talked about staffers researching bills and staffers being lobbied, and the Senator being lobbied.
That, together with P.J. O'Rourke's description of how a representative spent his day -- mostly rushing to and from votes with a little card tucked into his pocket telling him how he stood on a given issue -- and with my own observations around Washington form the basis for what I know about what Senators do, and beyond that, I've never been very curious, other than to think, from time to time, that they appear to have a relatively stress-free job. It seems as though a political science major interning in Washington D.C. should both have wanted to learn more about the process of governing, and have actually learned more about the process of governing, but I didn't really care about that at the time and was more interested in seeing the sights in Washington and more interested in trying to meet famous people who might help me on my rise to fame. Which of these people, I occasionally wondered as I met them or tried to meet them, might be the person in the photo that news shows put up in the future to show when I began my own rise to prominence and fame. There's always such a photo, such a moment, for politicians, at least nowadays, and at least since Clinton met Kennedy.
The answer, I know now, is none of them. There were no photos with Herb Kohl, and fifteen years later he's not shown himself to be the kind of prominent politician that would inspire such comparisons even if I had myself become a prominent person instead of a quiet lawyer in Madison. It's unlikely that if I'd become president by now (I'm eligible, at least) that Katie Couric would have shown a picture of me meeting Herb Kohl to highlight the early beginnings of my career, and not just because there were no such pictures, but also because it was not a particularly inspiring moment. It was more of a pleasant interlude with a guy who seemed as though he'd be more at home sitting on a front porch genially telling kids it was okay to play on his lawn but would they mind the geraniums?
I had higher hopes for my meeting with Justice Scalia. I'd gotten the opportunity to meet Justice Scalia as part of my letter-writing campaign, writing to famous people and groups and asking how I could meet them or join them. I'd written to Justice Scalia and explained that I was here on an internship, that I admired his legal writing and philosophy, that I'd written a term paper on an opinion he'd authored in one of my classes that had dealt in some way with the judiciary, and could I meet him?
Then I'd forgotten about it amidst all the jogging and trying-to-quit smoking and wondering what it was I was supposed to be doing all day at my internship and my general-bumming-around-Washington D.C., forgotten all about it until I got a letter from Justice Scalia's office telling me that he'd be happy to meet with me, and I should call to make an appointment.
So I did; I called right that day, using the old black rotary phone with the phenomenally long cord that hung on the wall just down the hall from our dorm room -- the community phone to be used by our whole section of the dorms, a phone that had to be used amidst everyone else who was using the dorms, so that any phone call was made in a tile-and-cement hallway reminiscent not just of dormitories but also of middle schools and state Health & Human Service Departments. Phone calls to girlfriends to talk with them because one felt like he had to call his girlfriend even if he didn't really feel like calling to talk with his girlfriend, phone calls to family members to say "Hello" and hint around that if people wanted to send, say $100, it would be appreciated, and phone calls to Supreme Court Justice's offices, all were done amist people smoking and showering and walking around in towels and, for one group of guys, playing a semester-long, neverending game of "Axis and Allies," a wargame that I, too, loved, and which I secretly always wanted to be invited to play but never was. I even once said to one of the guys "Maybe I should jump in and play a game with you guys," only to get shot down -- he said "We're in the middle of a game and I don't know when it'll end."
He didn't say "But we'll get you on the next one" and I noticed that and never asked again, but I did, from time-to-time, listen in on their games, on the rolling dice and talk about who was invading who and who would regret strategic moves. I didn't want to be friends with those guys, I didn't want to sit around talking to them or anything. I just wanted to play Axis & Allies, because I loved that game. I don't even know how those guys, and those guys only, got to be the Axis & Allies guys on the floor; I don't think they knew each other when the semester started. I think they just ended up playing a game of Axis & Allies and became friends as a result of that, forming a clique that way and excluding others. Maybe if I'd been more outgoing that first night, I sometimes thought, I'd have jumped into that game of Axis & Allies instead of hanging out with Rip and Carlos and sometimes Mike, the Bald Guy who smoked a lot -- who smoked so much that when he tried to quit, he used the patch, and would smoke with the patch on, something he said gave him "weird dreams." I might have hung out with the Axis guys instead of hanging out with the guy who taught me how to play power chords on my guitar, a guy whose name I can no longer remember but whose legacy lives on in my ability to play So Far Away, Hitchin' A Ride, and Gimme One Reason on my acoustic guitar.
In that respect, I got more out of Guy Whose Name I Can No Longer Remember than I did out of meeting Justice Scalia. I called Justice Scalia's office the day I got his letter, calling from the dorm phone and setting up an appointment.
"Hello?" came the voice on the other end, and, as instructed by the letter, I asked for the justice's appointment secretary. Mrs. Toughill got on and I said who I was and why I was calling.
"Oh, yes," she said, "I know your name."
"I'd like to set up an appointment with the Justice," I said.
"When would be convenient for you?" Mrs. Toughill asked me.
For me? I said: "No, no, I'll meet whenever it's convenient for the justice," I said.
She then reviewed his schedule, noting which days the Court had oral argument and that those times were out (as he'd be in Court listening to the arguments) and we finally settled on an appointment.
When that day came, I dressed up in the nicer of the two dress shirts I had, and put on the nicer of my two sportcoats-- at the time I had only two coats, a dark gray and a lighter gray, and the lighter gray seemed the more serious and monumental of the two, and I put on a tie (I had about four ties) and I rode the Metro down to the Capitol area, where the Supreme Court building was located not far from the Capitol itself, and a little ways away from the White House.
The White House doesn't actually sit directly next to the rest of the government. It's on the National Mall, but it's off to the side. At one end of the Mall is the Lincoln Memorial, and then in the center is the Washington Monument, and then at the other end is the Capitol. Midway through that, and off to the left if you were standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial looking down the Mall, is the White House.
The Supreme Court building is up near the Capitol and Union Station, near where I'd first arrived in Washington. I got to the building early and made my way up the stairs. I walked up the stairs with interest: in getting the day off to go meet with Justice Scalia (a meeting Frank had wholeheartedly endorsed, I suspect partly on the basis that it was important that interns get to do those things and partly on the basis that I wasn't very much help around the office, anyway), in asking for that day off, Frank had told me more Washington lore, in this case a story that the architect of the Supreme Court building had deliberately designed the steps in such a way as to make them, for most people, slightly too long to be taken in one regular step, but slightly too short to be taken in two regular steps, the result being that when you walk up the steps to the Supreme Court, you must alter your gait, and do so very deliberately, taking smaller and shorter steps. Frank told me to look for that, and said that the architect had done that so that people approaching the Court would do so solemnly and deliberately and know that they were approaching a building in which important happenings took place.
Frank may have been making up that story -- I never verified it -- but he was right about approaching the Supreme Court building; it was tough to just walk up the stairs, and I couldn't do it. No other stairs in D.C. were quite like that. There were lots and lots of stairs, most of them small and narrow and steep, the way stairs were made back in the days before "trial lawyers" got a bad name, but no other stairs in D.C. made one walk in a weird, step-and-a-half gait.
The only other stairs I've ever seen anywhere like that, in the entire world, or at least in the portion of the entire world I've visited, are my front walk. The stairs to my front door in the house Sweetie and I bought seven years ago are, philosophically, identical to the stairs up to the Supreme Court building: they are too long to take in one step, too short to take in two regular steps. So each day, when I return home from work, I walk up to my front door in the same exact manner that I approached, fifteen years ago, the Supreme Court building: slowly, deliberately, and with a slightly odd hitch to accommodate unusually-lengthed steps.
I got inside and didn't spend much time walking around before I went in to meet with Justice Scalia. He was, like almost every other famous person I've met, short. He barely came up to my shoulders. I know that I'm kind of tall for a person, at 6'1", but that doesn't account for the fact that almost every famous person I've met has been not just shorter than me, but shorter than average.
Justice Scalia's office barely registers in my mind now, and I hesitate to describe it because I'm not sure how much I remember and how much I've filled in over time. In my mind, when I picture "Justice Scalia's office," I think of a wide, broad, long, old, solid desk with brown edges and a black top, with the chair backed up to a window that had wooden slats on it, looking out onto a garden of sorts. I think of walls lined with deep bookshelves and books upon books upon books. I think of a coatrack in the corner, wooden, bare because it was spring and a warm day.
But that's exactly what a Supreme Court justice's office should look like, and so I don't trust that it actually looked like that. If you want to picture it that way, feel free to do so; it can't hurt.
I introduced myself and thanked him for meeting me, and he was nice about it.
"So," he said. "Do you have any questions for me?" It had not occurred to me until that point that I should have questions for him, that as a political science intern student meeting a Supreme Court justice, I should have things that I'd like to ask him. I had nothing.
So I asked him this: "Is it as great as it looks, being a Supreme Court Justice?"
I have never pretended to be a philosophical person.
He said it mostly was; he said that it was a very good job, and added the obligatory reference to it being a lot of hard work and a lot of effort, about which, I think, now, fifteen years later, that it's not hard work at all, being a lawyer, and it's probably not hard work at all, being a Supreme Court justice, not hard work in the sense that being a construction worker or soldier is hard. It may be time-consuming, but it's not hard and it's not a lot of effort.
But I didn't say that, then. I asked him, instead: "What do you spend your time doing, all day?" And he explained to me, about listening to oral arguments, and researching for opinions, and writing opinions, and re-writing opinions, and debates in conference about how they were going to vote. It sounded thrilling to me then, but it sounds to me now like exactly what I do all day (absent the blogging, of course.) And I know that what I do, while interesting to me, is not thrilling or interesting to most people (including a kid that I had follow me around for a day, once. He wanted to see what it was like to be a lawyer, as part of his high school project, and arranged through a client of mine to "shadow" me, spending a day sitting in on hearings and negotiations and the like. Six months later, he sent me a note thanking me and letting me know that he would not be going on to be a lawyer.)
I asked Justice Scalia, and this is the part I remember most clearly about that meeting, whether the upcoming change in Supreme Court justices was a big deal for him. The Court was at the time, just a few months shy of Justice Breyer taking his seat, and I asked whether that made a big impact in his job and his life.
"Not really," he said, and I remember that because I remember thinking how could that be true but he then went on and said "You know what makes a big deal? We've got a bailiff retiring whose been here a long time. That makes a big change in your daily routine, losing a longtime staffer like that."
We talked a little more, and I got my picture taken by his secretary. I remember that, too. She came in when he buzzed her and I got out my old 110-film camera and handed it to her. We then stood back and waited while she tried to take the picture, only to have her unable to figure it out, so I had to show her again how to use it, and Justice Scalia made a joke about that. He then shook my hand, wished me luck, and sent me on my way.
I thought, in going to meet with him, that it would be a pivotal event in my life. I was, after all, majoring in political science. I was in Washington, D.C., with a career arc ahead of me that at that point included maybe the Foreign Service, maybe politics, but certainly something big, something important, something monumental. I was, I figured, going to live history, and someday, I guessed, I'd look back on this meeting as the starting point, or a starting point, or at least a significant point along the way to my rise to fame and fortune and power and the stunning heights that I was expected, and which I fully did expect, to reach.
Now, fifteen years later, I've got that picture hanging on my wall, in a frame that also includes other things I did that year. That frame hangs on my own office wall, amidst my diplomas and certificates of admission to the Bar and articles I've had published, but also amidst a small joke sign my dad gave me that says I can't be fired, Slaves have to be sold and amidst pictures of the kids, and right next to a picture I took of a decorative lion's head on the Wisconsin Capitol, a building I walk by every single day of my life.
It's just one tiny picture among the other pictures on my wall, and among the other pictures on other walls. It's dwarfed by the watercolor I drew of some flowers that used to grow in a pot on our patio. It sits across from a photo collage of the neon signs in Las Vegas from the family vacation we went on five years ago, and it's smaller than the picture of me standing side by side next to an Elvis impersonator outside a casino. By sheer numbers alone, the Me & Scalia photo is losing the battle: there are 35 photos that have one or more of the kids in them. There are 8 photos that have Sweetie in them. There are 7 photos of things I just thought were interesting and so I took a picture of them.
And there is one each of photos showing Oldest practicing karate, me wearing a clown nose, Mr Bunches sleeping on a bench, the World Trade Center, a little league team I coached, me standing in my father-in-law's living room in Oakland, and me standing next to a Supreme Court justice.
Me and Scalia got lost in the shuffle.
Which maybe is the point.