Sword and Sandals

While waiting for the report from the Simmons Detective Agency, I started my second year of law school in September. The prior year we rented an attic apartment with inward slanting walls, at 160 Riverside Drive in Westport, about a mile from the train station. I commuted each day on Metro North Railroad´s New Haven line, then taking the Lexington Avenue Express of the New York City subway to my law school classes in Brooklyn (bad idea). We had a cat named Theseus (inspired by our trip to Europe in the summer of  1971). According to Greek legend, Theseus was sired by 2 fathers, Aegis and Poseidon, in the same night. Soon after his birth Theseus was deserted by Aegis, King of Athens (the only fathers he never knew?). He was brought up in ignorance of his birthright (can you imagine?). Each year on his birthday his mother, Aethra,  sent him to lift a large rock, which he was finally able to move when he reached 18. Under the rock he found a pair of sandals and a sword, gifts from Aegis. Aethra then sent him to Athens to present them to the King.  When the King saw them he knew Theseus was his son. Later, Theseus was nearly poisoned, slayed the Minotaur, fell in love with King Minos‘ daughter  (who subsequently deserted him), became King of Athens (after his father’s suicide in the sea soon to be named Aegean), and then was murdered by getting pushed off a cliff. At least he got his birthright. (www.hmstheseus.co.uk/legend.htm; www.greeka.com/attica/athens/athens-myths/theseus.htm). And I thought we were just naming our cat, who was also without a birthright and liked to hang out in our yard, sleeping with whomever was available.

In my first law school year, my commute to Brooklyn (if everything went right) took about an hour and a half – each way. My plan to study on the train was derailed because there were too many distractions. It was impossible to study on the subway. At the end of my first semester, I sat on the number 6 express train, somewhere between Grand Central Station and Borough Hall, on my way to my very first examination, contracts. The professor, Edward J. Fagan, struck fear in the hearts of every first year student (though he once got half the class to laugh when he described an artificial pacemaker as having a ¨lifetime guarantee¨ – the other half of the class apparently didn’t get it). My contracts book lay unopened on my lap. I was too exhausted to study any more. Across the aisle I noticed a classmate reviewing a torts book. How could he be studying torts on his way to one of Professor Fagan’s notorious contracts exams?  Incomprehensible. I had to say something, cracking a weak joke about planning ahead (all the while quickly calculating my options should a torts exam be in my immediate future). He didn’t laugh. He just  stared back, blankly.   ¨You mean we have contracts today?¨  He was in over his head, and he was just getting the memo. I hope he never needed a pacemaker.

Finley Hall, the new home of St. John’s Law School (courtesy of a major donation from Leon Finley, a major New York lawyer), opened in September, 1972 on the grounds of the University’s undergraduate campus in Jamaica, Queens. There was no practical way I could continue to commute from Westport – the trip to Brooklyn was bad enough. And so we began looking for a new apartment, finally renting the second floor of a house on Mayflower Avenue in New Rochelle, New York, owned by Mrs. Miele, a short sweet Italian lady who spoke heavily accented English and made delicious sauce with tomatoes grown from her backyard garden.  We also got a second car so I could drive back and forth to Queens – New Rochelle was roughly equidistant between the law school and my wife’s teaching job in Armonk.

To get to our second floor apartment we entered through the front vestibule. Invariably, Mrs. Miele was there to greet us. Widowed, her husband died on the living room floor from a heart attack suffered years before in front of the mantel. Each day she mentioned her husband and many times reenacted his last moments. I loved Mrs. Miele and her broken English. She came to the United States from Italy in her early 30’s along with her husband and 5 kids. The kids all grew up to be doctors, nurses and engineers. Mrs. Miele continued to live in the same house, visiting her husband’s grave weekly and tending her backyard garden of herbs and vegetables. We stayed there 2 years, until after I took the New York State Bar Examination following graduation from law school in 1974. I always kept in touch with Mrs. Miele and helped her once or twice, when she encountered a recalcitrant tenant (after which she would try to pay me, I would refuse, and she would then show up at my office in White Plains  with 3 bottles of Irish whiskey I never told her about my English family). One day I stopped to visit her, and it was obvious she was beginning to fail. She greeted me warmly, showed me the mantel, and offered a few words about her still departed husband. She then sat me in the kitchen at the same formica table, in a metal chair with a red plastic cushion. There was a black nurse tending to Mrs. Miele’s pots on the stove, about which Mrs. Miele was visibly perturbed. Sitting beside me, in one of life’s treasured moments,  Mrs. Miele began whispering to me in Italian (so the nurse would not understand). Even though I did not recognize one single Italian word, I understood completely. The next time I drove by to check, both Mrs. Miele and the house were gone, she to join her husband, the house to parts unknown.

It was in that apartment that I began my search in earnest. Each day I waited to hear from the Simmons Detective Agency, and each day I heard nothing. I was looking for a quick fix, expecting a telephone call: ¨Listen, Don, do you have a paper and pen handy. She is at 617-xxx-xxxx.  She lives in Boston, not far from where she lived when you were adopted. Her address is such and such. She does not know that you know.¨ I expected her to be in Boston, or near it. I expected that her life had not changed as much as mine. After all, she sent me off to a different life while she kept her own. But the call didn’t come. After some weeks, it grew apparent there was not likely to be a call. The next step was going to have to come from me. I began to wonder if my $125 was a mini-shakedown, a false promise designed to extract from me whatever could be had. On the other hand, $125 seemed a pretty paltry shakedown, even for 1972. I struggled about what to do, not wanting to appear overly anxious (why?).  I was watching myself act in a play, and the part called for the character to be reasonable, intellectually interested, though removed from feeling. I played the part with aplomb (it helped that I was the Director), though with each passing week (day?) the role became more demanding, more impossible to portray. I was waiting for Godot. Who was Godot? Maybe it was me, running around in circles trying to keep the silence at bay. (www.samuel-beckett.net/Waiting_for_Godot_Part1.html).

I finally assembled the resolve to call Mr. Simmons. To his credit, he immediately answered my call, spoke to me.  He was, as he put it, working on my report; I should expect it by mail in a few days. He offered concrete information. I hung up, believing nothing had been accomplished but hoping his promise of a report was true. I reminded myself I had only paid $125. I also knew I could not afford more. It was not like I was going to ask my adoptive parents for a loan. This one was squarely on me. Going to Boston to look on my own was not an option, as law school classes were about to start. I was not God’s gift to the legal community and needed to put every possible effort into studying (though it often seemed one’s success as a lawyer was accurately predicted in inverse proportion to how well one performed in law school – by that measure, I liked my chances). Waiting for the report was the only option. It was also the easiest. My sword and sandals were opaque.  I did not have a copy of the Consent for Adoption, having been too afraid to make a photocopy – though of what or by whom I was not then certain. Maybe it was not the clerk, but something else entirely. Perhaps those papers were better off left in the file in which they were sealed, deep in a storage vault of the Dedham Probate Court. It was the information I needed. My sword and sandals were not hidden under a rock, nor sealed away in a court file. They were as clear as the sky on a sunlit day, and they were yet to be discovered.

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