My first car led to my first day in court. I loved that car. I had different emotions about that court appearance.
I was in law school in Chicago. Part of the reason I was in law school there was because I had wanted to live in a big city. I had grown up in a small Wisconsin town and gone to a New Jersey college that seemed, and in many ways was, isolated from the world. Even so, that college had been good for me. My high school education had been adequate at best, and the college presented, through its professors, courses, and classmates, new intellectual frontiers. I learned much there, including that I could more than hold myself with the “best.” In our self-congratulatory way, all of us at the college–students, faculty and administrators–placed ourselves in that “best” category. We were the elite.
The school also exposed me to new social settings. My town had only public high schools, but now I encountered a prep school culture. My father was a janitor, and almost all my classmates came from higher, often much higher, economic circumstances. I learned not to be intimidated by money and social standing.
After a while, however, the conformity and the political and societal apathy the place generated began to weigh on me. There was a bigger world. I spent quite a few college weekends taking the bus into New York and walking its streets, which, to me in those days, meant the streets of Manhattan. I felt drawn to the bustle and energy and was convinced that I needed to experience big city life. Law school presented that opportunity.
My classmates who had their choice of law schools overwhelmingly opted for the one in what I thought was in another isolated spot. I did not want to be in New Haven, but I thought Boston would be ok. Even though I had become fascinated with New York, almost no one, if they had other choices, opted for what was then the law school there, and I, too, fell into that category. The feeling about Chicago was even stronger, not because the law school did not have prestige, but because it was in Chicago. While I admit that I had absorbed some East Coast snobbery, I did not fear the Midwest. After all, I had grown up there.
After the admission letters arrived, twenty-one of us could choose between New Haven and Boston. Nineteen picked Connecticut; one chose Massachusetts. I was the only one who picked Illinois.
Money was the deciding factor. Chicago was certainly a city, and in those days, I also put Boston in that category. But I wasn’t going to law school just to get out of small-town life. I actually did want to become a lawyer. However, I knew that I was not going to be the kind of lawyer who would make much money (some predictions turn out to be true). I was going to be the kind of lawyer who fought for civil liberties and civil rights, for the downtrodden, against “the man,” be that corporations or the government.
I did not have the resources to pay for law school. I needed financial aid. The new Haven and Chicago schools offered respectable aid packages, and I thought that along with part-time work, I could manage. The Boston school, however, dangled a package that was half scholarship and half loan. If I matriculated there, by graduation I would have what a sizeable debt. I did not want loan payments to be a determinant of what kind of legal position I would have to take upon graduation. So off I went to Chicago with its scholarship offer. I wrote to the other schools explaining the reasons for my Chicago choice, hoping they would up their antes. New Haven responded with a gracious congratulatory note. Boston wrote, in effect, that it did not have to buy students and that it was not unhappy to see me go elsewhere.
I started to experience Chicago. It was scary and exhilarating and had many places to explore and experience. All of that excited me; I belonged in a big city. At first, I lived in the university neighborhood, but while it was in the city, it did not truly feel part of the city. It was its own enclave, and I wanted more of the real Chicago. Besides the apartment was terrible. I found a cheap apartment (no central heat) several miles west of the campus in one of Chicago’s many ethnic neighborhoods—this one was primarily Polish-American. But now I needed a car to get to my classes. I went to used car lots and found a VW beetle. The odometer said something like 50,000 miles, but that I am sure was misleading. Either it meant 150,000 or it had been turned back. The dealership did not seem high on the integrity scale. The spare tire, which was in the car when I first saw it, had disappeared when I bought it, which I only discovered some time later. It cost $300, which I did not have, but the brother lent me money.
(continued on Oct.19)