A Sausage Made It Famous (concluded)

Just as there were many Sheboygan butcher shops in my youth making bratwurst, there were many neighborhood bakers making semmel, the rolls for the brats. Each butcher had his own blend of spices and secrets for making the pork sausages, and everybody maintained that their source produced the tastiest brats. My friends and I thought the bratwurst we ate were the best, but since I almost always ate bratwurst at home, as my friends did, we did not really have a base of knowledge for our bragging. We all just assumed that our moms bought the best.

Aside from festivals—oh, I will get to that—I remember eating bratwurst not bought at our local butcher twice. Johnny M. asked me to go to a Milwaukee Braves game with his parents. They may have thought that would be a treat for me, but since I was so shy around adults, it was torture. Mrs. M. had packed food featuring cold bratwurst. I thought that gross, perhaps even worse than mayonnaise on them. I had eaten leftover brats many times, but ours were always heated in the pot with beer.

          The family did get an irresistible bratwurst yearning sometimes when it was not Sunday and we were not geared up for our own grilling. The answer was to go to a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a commercial street, the Come On Inn. It had three or four counter stools and a perpetual charcoal fire. They may have had something besides bratwurst, but that is all I remember. We would get brats to take home, the only takeout we ever got. I don’t believe the Come On Inn got their brats from our butcher, but they tasted good.

          I do know, however, that all brats were not the same. At least one butcher made a beef brat so the Jewish population could participate in the Sheboygan tradition. It comes as a surprise to my New York friends that this little town in the Midwest had synagogues, but about ten percent of my school classes had Jewish children. (Jackie Mason, yes, that Jackie Mason was born in Sheboygan, but I believe he left at a young age.) In my circles, we were all friends no matter what the religion. I went to some bar mitzvahs, but that does not mean that we understood much about Judaism except that every so often the Jewish kids were not in school because of some holiday not known to the rest of us. I ran for president of the high school, and Barry Goodstein was my campaign manager. (His personal slogan was, “The only Goodstein is a full one.”) I won. (I wanted to win but only for the glory not the job and was a terrible president.) My mother, who really wanted me to be senior class president because that person gave a speech at the high school graduation and she could then gloat at the ceremony about her son, wanted to celebrate my election. We invited Barry. We, of course, served bratwurst, but we had no idea that he could not eat our brats. Instead, after ours were cooked, Barry scraped and scoured our grill and cooked sausages he had brought. We felt awkward.

          While the butchers might have produced slightly different sausages from each other, I never heard any discussion of which bakery made the best semmel. They were regarded the same no matter which of the many bakeries they came from. The mother bought the bratwurst; the father bought the rolls on the Sunday mornings. The father brought the siblings and me to Sunday School at our church at nine o’clock and picked us up afterwards. He went to the bakery. He did not then go home, but to his local bar. You might have to be a Sheboyganite to understand the joys of a tavern at nine on a Sunday morning. (Perhaps another time I will tell you about the time when I was home from college or law school and the father and I got more than a little tipsy playing pool at Dick’s Club while having draft beers and shots of brandy on a Sunday morning. It was a bonding moment as we tried to hide our state from the mother as we ate bratwurst when we went home.)

          I grew up with bratwurst. So did everyone in Sheboygan. Sheboygan was famous for bratwurst. Throughout the state in those days when there were no national purveyors of the sausage, restaurants would advertise that they were serving authentic Sheboygan bratwurst. The local movers and shakers (not my family) thought the town should capitalize on its fame, and the Jaycees, when I was eight, started Bratwurst Day. The festivities were centered downtown at Fountain Park. Not surprisingly, that block-square park had a fountain. It also had a band shell and bubblers—of course, you know what those are; if not, ask a Wisconsinite of a certain age—and a spigot for “mineral water,” regarded by some as healthy. People would fill up jugs to take home. The water tasted to me as if it had been stored in a rusted cast iron pot for several winters and then unwashed socks were dunked in it.

          I don’t know what Bratwurst Day is like now. It has been more than fifty years for me, but I gather it caused a bit of a brouhaha when professionals entered the brat-eating contest to grab the $1,000 prize. Perhaps still now, but back then, the Miss Sheboygan contest was held on that day. She may have been crowned Miss Sheboygan, but it was hard not to call her Miss Bratwurst. Make what jokes that you will.

          In my youth, bratwurst was a local thing, but now, of course, bratwurst can be found just about anywhere, often under the Johnsonville brand. Johnsonville is a village in Sheboygan County about fifteen miles from the great metropolis. The Johnsonville company, located there, does not play up the Sheboygan connection. No one I knew growing up ate Johnsonville brats. They weren’t authentic Sheboygan bratwurst.

A Sausage Made It Famous (continued)

A sausage other than summer sausage truly defines Sheboygan. As the signs say when you drive into the city: “Bratwurst Capital of the World.” At a time when few in the country knew what bratwurst was, everybody in Sheboygan ate it. Our family certainly did. It was our Sunday dinner, eaten midday, at least every other weekend. Cooking it was the father’s job. It was always grilled over charcoal, never cooked in the stove or a frying pan. The father built a grill in the backyard beyond the detached garage. He poured a foundation, laid bricks in a rectangle to waist height with a door in front to scoop out ashes, placed iron bars for a grill, and then, for reasons unbeknownst to me, added over the  back of the grill a chimney that went to six feet. All this was for bratwurst. Chicken, pork chops, and T-bones were cooked in the kitchen, and those steaks and chops were always, always well done. The grill was a monument to bratwurst, which in Sheboygan was well understood.

The grill, however, had a problem. That chimney did not draw well. Instead of accepting the smoke, it often expelled it forward into the face of the father. He was a great problem-solver with physical objects, and he made modification after modification, but the chimney won out.

That lack of drawing power also made it hard sometimes to light the charcoal. He did not use lighter fluid. The father regarded that as dangerous, but perhaps more important, lighter fluid, he thought, could impart a residual taste to the bratwurst. Instead, he started the fire with wood kindling, and when the contraption was not drawing well, he could have some problems. It took awhile to get the briquettes (who knew from lump charcoal back then?) to the desired white ashy state.

When I said we had bratwurst at least every other week growing up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, I did not mean just in good weather. We had brats cooked on the father’s grill even in the dead of winter. The father bundled up against the cold, pulled on over-the-shoe galoshes (we didn’t say boots) closed with buckles and carried out the sausages, a pot with an inch of beer in the bottom that was placed at the back of the grill into which the cooked bratwurst were dropped to keep them warm until the rest were completely done—no underdone pork in this household—and water for flareups. Flareups were common when a sausage casing was pierced and fat—oh, yes, those brats had fat—dripped onto the coals. Flames shooting up were quickly followed by various imprecations and oaths from the father. (I worked with casings at the butcher shop. A large bucket in the walk-in refrigerator held a tangled bucket of guts in a brine. I would tug and unravel one strand until I found its starting point. I then attached it to a faucet and ran water through the intestine, or whatever it was, until liquid squirted out. I then cut the casing before and after the hole. I carefully arranged the section that I had proofed and attached the new end to the faucet and began again. Plunging my hands into forty-degree, heavily salted water made them cold, puckered, and almost unusable for hours afterwards, but I suppose I can boast that in a little way I have been a bratwurst maker.)

The brats my father cooked were eaten inside a semmel, a hard, crusty roll with a soft interior (think Kaiser roll) with an indentation down the middle that made it easy to divide it. Double brat = whole semmel. Single brat = half. The rolls were warmed in an oven while the brats cooked. We put ketchup on the sandwich. A few Sheboyganites used mustard. Onions, cooked or raw, and pickles could be placed on top of the bratwurst. I don’t ever remember tomatoes or lettuce.

Notice no mention of mayonnaise. On the not-yet-spouse’s first visit to the ancestral home, bratwurst was presented. She in ignorance asked for mayonnaise. Dead silence for two reasons. The family could not imagine mayo with bratwurst; it was too heretical for us even to imagine. (Perhaps akin to someone in New York wanting mayonnaise on a pastrami sandwich.) And we did not own mayonnaise. On many sandwiches we spread butter. (Good radishes placed between slices of bread slathered with butter was, and continues to be, a favorite. Gabrielle Hamilton sometimes had radishes and butter on her Prune menu. I like to think that I beat her to that delight.) After a lengthy pause, the not-yet-spouse was offered Miracle Whip, which was in our tiny refrigerator but almost never used, and she looked as if she were going to gag. I don’t remember how she ate her bratwurst.

(concluded June 8)

A Sausage Made It Famous (continued)

 In my returns to Sheboygan after I moved east, I would note changes—some building gone, a reconfiguration of the downtown, a new motel on the Lake—but even so, it seemed the same. It was always a town predominated by modest single family homes with a few double deckers (we lived in one where my paternal grandparents lived on the second floor), and a few low-rise apartment buildings with the tallest structure, an office building, at seven stories. Well maintained houses and lawns on respectably-sized, but not extravagant, lots and churches of many different denominations. Sheboygan has a motto: “The City of Cheese, Chairs, Children, and Churches.” The chairs part of the slogan referred to the many furniture factories. I got a second-hand, full-length mirror for my Brooklyn bedroom long after I left Wisconsin. When I hung it, I was surprised and pleased that on the back a stamp said that it was made in Sheboygan. Brooklyn, New York, where I have lived a half century, had a motto before it was incorporated into New York City: “The City of Churches.” I first learned that from the Buddy Hackett character (miscast?) in the movie of The Music Man. It must say something, but I don’t know what, that I have spent my life surrounded by, but not in, churches.

Sheboygan always seemed unchanged partly because it never seemed to grow or shrink. Its population was about 45,000 when I grew up and has only a few thousand more residents today. It was, and is, overwhelmingly white, although now it has a significant Asian population after Hmong people settled there, and about half of Sheboyganites, including me, could trace at least part of their ancestry to Germany. That meant beer and bars. The town always had many, many neighborhood taverns. That heritage also meant sausages.

When I grew up in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, many butcher shops dotted the town, and each butcher made sausages. My mother worked in a small grocery store. Attached to it was a separately owned butcher shop where we got our meat. I don’t remember its name, but it gave me my first jobs—sweeping and later delivering orders in the owner’s Studebaker with a three-speed stick shift on the column at which I was not very good.

That butcher shop also gave me my first food epiphany. Outside the butcher shop was a smokehouse, and when I was four or five the butcher took me into it. Most of the smoke was gone but it was still warm from the smoking. Hanging all around me was baloney after baloney, some in circles and some straight. The butcher took one down, pulled out a knife, and cut a chunk. He extended it to me and said, “Eat. You won’t find anything better.” I ate. It was drippingly juicy. It was warm. It was smokey. It was fragrant. And it was delicious. I could not find anything better. I may have found food sensuous before, but I certainly did after that.

The butcher may have made kinds of sausages, but the family primarily got two. The first was summer sausage, which always made a great snack and sometimes was diced into scrambled eggs. It puckered into a little cup when thrown into a hot frying pan. I always thought that in the restaurant I am never going to run I would serve a poached egg on top of a round of fried summer sausage.

I also learned about my family from that butcher shop. Sent to the store when I was eight to buy a summer sausage, I went to the counter and told the butcher that I wanted one. He said, “With or without?” I had no idea what he was asking and being incredibly shy and not wanting to show my ignorance, I hesitatingly said, “With.” He saw that I was flustered and asked, “Is it for your mother or grandmother?” When I said that it was for my mother, he replied, “Your grandmother likes it with garlic. Your mother, without.” Garlic. I may have heard the word but did not know what it was. We never had garlic. If Gilroy, California, had been dependent on the likes of us, it would have disappeared. But I learned that my grandmother did eat garlic. I did not know what to make of that revelation. What other secrets did she have?

Although I try to avoid it now for health reasons, I continue to love summer sausage. (Why is it that someone my age has concerns about what to eat? Even if I cut off ten percent of my expected longevity, it isn’t much.) Every so often, the NBP has given me some summer sausage for Christmas, and I get excited. I vow to ration it carefully, but before the sun has set three times, it is gone. On the last trip to Wisconsin, to celebrate the sister’s fiftieth wedding anniversary, we did not stay in Sheboygan but nearby at a resort on Elkhart Lake, where I had spent many days in my youth. I wanted the spouse and NBP to see what a Wisconsin lake was like, and they loved it. On our way back to the Milwaukee airport, we stopped in Port Washington, best known to me as the town halfway between Sheboygan and Milwaukee, for lunch. As we walked about the downtown looking for a likely restaurant, I peered through the windows of a butcher shop and saw stacks and rings of sausages. I was inside in an instant and bought a long summer sausage. I felt a bit conspicuous boarding the plane with that three-footer, but it was worth it.

(continued June 5)

A Sausage Made It Famous

          Sheboygan is famous for one thing, at least in its eyes. No, it’s not me even though I was born and raised there.

          Sheboygan, Wisconsin, sits on the shores of Lake Michigan halfway between Milwaukee and Green Bay, about fifty miles from each. Growing up this location was a boon. We could get television stations from both places, but this was the days of over-the-air and required an antenna. The father installed a rotor that could shift the antenna’s direction south towards Milwaukee or north towards Green Bay. Most often, this did not matter much because each city had the three networks showing the same shows, and while Milwaukee had an independent station, the networks were where it was at.

Occasionally, the rotor would malfunction, and the father would get out a long ladder and climb onto the roof to make adjustments. This being snow country, the roof was steeply pitched. I should have been concerned that this job held some danger, but I had a child’s faith in his father. The repairs, however, were a three-person job. With him on the roof, one of us watched the TV and shouted when the rotor had the antenna in exactly the right position to get Milwaukee. Another of us would be outside the window and relayed the message to the roof man. Then the inside person would move the rotor through some sort of device towards Green Bay, and the same shouting ensued.

          This rotor business was essential for one very, very important reason—the Green Bay Packers. I can hardly overstate the obsession with the Lombardi-era team of my youth, although a similar obsession for each era of Packers has continued. Back then, Green Bay played half its home games in Green Bay and half in Milwaukee. The NFL then had a blackout policy that prevented hometown television stations from broadcasting games for a team’s home games. However, Green Bay was outside the blackout zone when the Packers played in Milwaukee, and the CBS station could carry Ray Scott announcing the game, and the Milwaukee station carried it when the game was in Green Bay. With that blessed rotor we could get all the games in the comfort of our home. (The Packers have played many famous games. Among them is the Ice Bowl when the Packers met the Dallas Cowboys for the NFL championship on the last day of 1967. On that morning, the father got a call from an acquaintance and was asked whether he wanted to go. Showing wisdom I did not always give him credit for, he declined and said that we would watch the game from the comfort of home. It was not that we were not experienced with cold. The average high for three winter months in Sheboygan was in the mid-twenties with the average low fifteen degrees colder. Whenever there was a cold snap, we would wake up to below-zero days, and I can regale you, as I have the NBP (nonbinary progeny) and the spouse many times, about how I walked to school in that cold, although I lied if I ever said that I had to do it without shoes. We knew cold, but we also had an understanding of cold, and December 31, 1967, was extraordinary. The temperature at kickoff was minus fifteen, but, of course, there was a wind, which plunged the wind chills into the minus forty ranges. I can go on about that game, but you can read about in the pioneering book by Jerry Kramer, who made the key block, and Dick Schaap, Instant Reply, but I don’t think that book contains this nugget. In those long-ago days, spectators could carry beer into the stadium. I was told that those who did found their six-packs frozen before the first quarter ended. For Wisconsites, that brought on real suffering. But I digress. Let me move onto my next digression.)

          For me, however, the defining aspect of Sheboygan was not that it was a half-way point between two other places but that it was on Lake Michigan. Those who consider a place like Wisconsin flyover country do not understand the beauty, power, and importance of the Great Lakes (or the Mississippi River.) I spent many hours on the shore and piers of Lake Michigan. (My bedroom has a series of pictures of the Sheboygan lighthouse.) My childhood would have been much different without Lake Michigan (and the myriad inland lakes, Elkhart Lake, Crystal Lake, Little Crystal Lake, Random Lake, and many others within a half-hour of the hometown.) Whenever I returned after leaving Sheboygan, I would first head to Lake Michigan and drive up the lakeshore starting at the Armory where the Sheboygan Redskins played in the first year of the National Basketball Association (you can look it up) past the beach and up the hill to Vollrath Bowl before heading home. (There is a lot of good literature about the oceans, seas, rivers, lakes, marshes, and swamps. I don’t know any about the Great Lakes. Give me suggestions if you know some.)

(continued June 3.)


How does a security guard at a nudist colony pin on the badge?

Have you ever cogitated on the coincidence that both your parents were married on the same day?

When Barack Obama ran for reelection, many tried to make him responsible for things, taken out of context, that the minister of his church had said. I confidently predict the Trump will not have to deal with anything the minister of his church has preached.

“Socialism” is thrown around as an epithet a lot these days. I wish that those who did so would define the term, or does it just mean something the person does not like?

“If the rich could hire other people to die for them, the poor could make a wonderful living.” Yiddish proverb.

“Cultural appropriation” is also thrown around a lot as an epithet. I wish those who did so would define the term. On a recent trip, I saw Moroccans wearing hats with the New York Yankees logo (although I don’t remember seeing anyone sporting any other American team insignia) and NYPD caps. I saw McDonalds, Burger Kings, KFC, spaghetti, and tacos. Was this cultural appropriation?

“Whatever you may be sure of, be sure of this: that you are dreadfully like other people.” James Russell Lowell, My Study Windows.

          In my running days, I was on a traffic island in the middle of a busy Brooklyn street. I was looking for a break in traffic to get to the southside sidewalk when my right foot awkwardly hit broken pavement, and I turned my ankle. I almost fell and had a brief vision of rolling into the moving cars. I could barely stand up. Although I always ran with money in case I needed a cab to get home, I generally avoid taxis. Instead, I painfully hobbled the mile and a half to the house. In those days, I tried to run every day, but in an uncharacteristic act of sensibility, I stopped running for quite a while. But after days, a week, or maybe two weeks the ankle did not seem better. I was worried that it was more than a sprain and that perhaps I had broken or chipped a bone. I finally went to a doctor. I then had an HMO and saw a doctor I had not met before, a suspiciously young guy to be an M.D. He took x-rays and reported that it was only a soft tissue injury. I protested that it was taking “forever” to heal. He replied, “At your age you have to expect these things.” I thought, “I’m paying you for this advice!”  I was then in my mid-thirties.

“As we grow older we grow both more foolish and wiser at the same time.” La Rouchefoucauld.

I am not proud that in scanning the obituaries I feel some satisfaction when I find that a vegan has died of cancer.

Real Americans and Trump

Real Americans I know have had a shot and a beer sitting at the bar of a neighborhood tavern after work. Has Donald J. Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know have sung along with both Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. and Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. Has Donald Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know have seen Citizen Kane, Easy Rider, and all the Toy Story movies. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know eat hot dogs at street fairs, medium rare steaks, sushi, perogies, asparagus, barbecue, haddock, and cotton candy. Does Trump do that?

Real Americans I know have read maybe an Andrew Jackson biography, The Great Gatsby, Harry Potter books, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Michael Connelly detective novels. Has Trump read anything besides tweets and perhaps the crawl on Fox News?

Real Americans I know have at least tried to dance a foxtrot, the Texas two-step, a square dance, a waltz, the swim, the electric glide (or is it slide?), and perhaps, once, the macarena. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know own guns and fishing rods, hunt deer and turkeys, fish for smallmouth bass and speckled trout, and support universal background checks to purchase a gun. And Trump?

Real Americans I know have bought milk and eggs at the local store. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know have a lively sense of humor. Does Trump know how to laugh?

Real Americans I know both go to church and pray regularly. Does Trump?

Real Americans I know have proudly served in our country’s armed forces. Trump?

Real Americans I now have dressed up for Halloween and worn a goofy mask. Can one imagine Trump doing that?

Real Americans I know have read the Constitution. Trump?

Real Americans I know have worked two jobs to make rent or mortgage payments. Has Trump done that?

Real Americans I know don’t take credit for the accomplishments of others. And Trump?

Real American men I know are laconic and self-effacing. And Trump?

Real Americans I know want both secure borders and secure elections. And Trump?

Real Americans I know have waited in lines for tickets, airplanes, buses, and passport control. When did Trump ever do that?

Real Americans I know have donated money to Meals on Wheels, Doctors without Borders, a neighborhood food bank, the Red Cross, or other charities that they do not control? Does Trump do that?

Real Americans I know volunteer at their church, synagogue, or mosque, at a soup kitchen, in the local library, at little league, at the library, in a tutoring or literacy project, or somewhere? Has Trump ever done that?

Real Americans I know do not claim a “natural ability” to practice medicine and science. Trump?

Real Americans I know want to know more and are curious about many things. And Trump?

Real Americans I now have suffered from racial and ethnic bigotry. And Trump?

But, unfortunately, real Americans I know also are ignorant of history, lack empathy, are inarticulate, lie, bullshit, are self-centered, have their egos easily bruised, are vindictive, are afraid of “others,” and speak without thinking.  Donald J. Trump does do that.

Honor and Remember

Even before the year of Covid-19, Memorial Day had lost its official meaning for most of us. The federal holiday, once called Decoration Day and celebrated on May 30 but now on the last Monday of May, was instituted for the remembrance and the honoring of those who died while in America’s military. (Veterans’ Day on November 11 commemorates all those who served in the military.) In recent years, a few official speeches along those lines have been given somewhere (I missed Trump’s speech—surely it was at least as eloquent as his others). Some of our older generations maintain a tradition of visiting the graves of loved ones, but this somber holiday now seems primarily celebrated as the unofficial beginning of summer and, for smaller fry, the end or near-end of the school year. For few of us, is it a time for solemn reflection about the sacrifices of others but instead about the joys of the beach, barbecues, and the freedom from homework.

But what is Memorial Day this year at a time when, for many of us, every day seems the same? Will it still be joyful for the schoolkids whose classes were suspended? I suppose they may be happy that online assignments will soon end (and perhaps their parents even more so). But surely there will not be the same excitement and relief found when running out of the school door on the last day of school with friends, whooping in the playground and chattering about the planned summer activities. With cheerleading camps and Little Leagues closed around the country, any such chatter this year may be sparse and forlorn.

Many barbecues normally held on Memorial Day have been cancelled, and for those who maintain social distancing, they will be much different even if they are held. Memorial Day normally heralds beach time, but that, too, will be a different experience for many of us. This is not a normal Memorial Day.

But even if traditional Memorial Day activities are curtailed, we should spend at least some of our time doing what we should always do on this holiday—remember and honor those who died while in the military. And we should go further and think about the 100,000 Americans who have already died from Covid-19 and about the tens of thousands who will die in the coming summer months. Let’s remember and honor all the essential workers providing healthcare, making deliveries, working in food stores and meat-packing plants, and the like. Many of them have gotten sick and some have died serving us. A person does not have to die on a battlefield to be a hero. And let’s remember all those who are suffering as a result of the pandemic, including those who have lost their jobs and those who do not have enough to eat in this richest country in the world.

We should have more time on our hands than on past Memorial Days. Let’s use some of that time by honoring and remembering.

First Sentences

“Somewhere in the dark years between Adolf Hitler’s invasion of Poland and the turn of the Second World War’s tide, Wystan Hugh Auden returned to his childhood faith.” Ross Douthat, Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics.

“It was not that he didn’t remember he once had another sort of life.” Gao Xingjian, One Man’s Bible (translated by Mabel Lee.)

“My strongest memory is not a memory.” Tara Westover, Educated.

 “The explosion took place two minutes after Elishva, the old woman known as UMM Daniel, or Daniel’s mother, boarded the bus.” Ahmed Saadawi, Frankenstein in Baghdad.

 “Despite being the official retreat of American presidents, Camp David is a curiously bare and rustic facility.” Michael J. Mazarr, Leap of Faith: Hubris, Negligence, and America’s Greatest Foreign Policy Tragedy.

“The nights are so pleasant in Caulfield.” Cornell Woolrich, I Married a Dead Man.

“Tuesday, September 16, 2008, was the ‘day after Lehman.’” Adam Tooze, Crashed: How a Decade of Financial Crises Changed the World.

“Her journey from Alton to Springfield should have taken no longer than two days, but as the stage driver himself said, ‘That’s no more ‘n a hope.’” Louis Bayard, Courting Mr. Lincoln.

 “In 1926, there were countless ways to die in an airplane.” Keith O’Brien, Fly Girls: How Five Daring Women Defied All Odds and Made Aviation History.

 “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” Daphne Du Maurier, Rebecca.

“I think of the old football press boxes first, the ones where you’d look up from scribbling in your notebook and find a guy in the crowd staring at you through the window, probably wondering if it was your story that made him choke on his cornflakes the other morning.” John Schulian, Football: Great Writing About the National Sport.

“Word came today: four lines squeezed on a three-by-five.” Richard Powers, The Gold Bug Variations.

“When I left my boxed township of Illinois farmland to attend my dad’s alma mater in the lurid jutting Berkshires of western Massachusetts, I all of a sudden developed a jones for mathematics.” David Foster Wallace, “Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley,” in A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments.


The newscaster a few days ago said that a tropical storm was forming in the Caribbean and continued, sounding reproachful, “even though the official hurricane season does not start until the first of June.” I know that there are precise times for the equinoxes and solstices that signal a change in the seasons, but isn’t the “official” start of the hurricane season an artificial date or are storms expected to know these deadlines?

I received a census questionnaire. The first sentence of the explanatory material told me that this was my “invitation to respond” to the census. At the bottom of the page it told me that my “response is required by law.” Is it an “invitation” if the law requires me to fill it out?

In this unusual time, many people are doing a lot of baking. I think of the words of a character in Gregory Sherl’s, The Future for Curious People: “My favorite food groups go cheese, bread, cheese bread, and soup served in a hollowed-out loaf of bread.”

Do the Christians who are non-celiac but gluten-free pray sincerely, “Give us this day our daily bread”?

To my surprise, I have been eating healthily during these shut-in days, but I began to feel a strong urge for some junk food. I did not succumb because I could not resolve my quandary: What is a decent wine to pair with a DingDong?

I hear conservatives rail against the “elites,” but that term is not defined. Sean Hannity has seemingly open access to the president and greatly influences him. It has been reported that Hannity makes $36 million a year and lives in a “mansion” in a fancy place on Long Island. Few have as much power and money as Hannity does. Surely that places him in the elite category, but in his eyes and others it does not. That just doesn’t make sense.

A teacher in my grade school periodically checked our fingernails to see if they were clean, something that continues to bedevil me. One girl’s nails always were spotless, and the teacher, pleased, remarked one day, “You must wash the dishes before you come to school.” She smilingly nodded yes in this time before dishwashers. Was this teacherly exercise appropriate? Does it still happen? And why won’t my fingernails stay clean?

A plaque on my desk states: “Every Time You’re Right Someone Loves You A Little Less.” Every time I read those words, I figure that I am not much loved.

I needed a new aortic valve. To get to my heart, the medical team went in with a catheter through the groin. In life generally, the path to the heart frequently goes through the groin.

Old joke: “Drinking makes you look beautiful.” “I haven’t been drinking.” “But I have.”

For Sanity, We Made Jokes

          When I started work as a public defender, I felt myself an outsider. I was viewed with suspicion by many of my colleagues. They were almost always local people who had attended local colleges and law schools. My Ivy League background and my recent relocation to New York City were not considered pluses. Out of the hundreds of attorneys, only a handful had attended an elite law school as I had. Many assumed that I was a dilettante who could not do the work. But the duties suited me.

We did not operate in teams as was done in other public defender offices where I later worked. In New York, an individual attorney, with little oversight, represented clients, and I operated best in this kind of environment. While I learned to discuss difficult cases with others, no authority told me what to do, which, given my anti-authoritarian nature, suited me just fine.

The job required being able to take individual responsibility. I am not a fighter by nature. I seldom initiate a confrontation, but when I am cornered, I am a battler. Basically, a public defender spends a career being cornered, and I was surprisingly good in those situations. I soon had the respect of my colleagues. I truly liked and respected most of the people I worked with. They were good attorneys.

          I also learned a lot and not just about how to be a lawyer. I gained knowledge about lives I would not have otherwise encountered. Much of it was ugly stuff, and I had to find ways to cope with that. Sometimes, for example, I would meet clients hours after they were arrested, and they were going through drug withdrawal, which was awful to see. Even now, many years later, I can’t watch a depiction of that in a movie or on TV. When I left the work, I wanted to leave behind the encounters with violence, dysfunctional families, and hopeless alcoholics. I did not want to bring those memories into the rest of my life, but that has not always been an easy task.

          The difficulty in separating out the public defender work from the rest of my life was there even while doing the work. I cultivated the mental habit of being a careful listener, cataloging and putting into the memory bank what I had been told. The instinct was to be suspicious of every assertion, and I remembered when a client, a cop, a prosecutor, or a judge told me something that was different from what the person had said two weeks or two months previously. Such an inconsistency was hoarded because it might be valuable down the road in defending the indigent. But this habit could become second nature and be carried over into “normal” life, and being immediately suspicious of what friends, family, and other loved ones said is not a particularly good way to operate in regular life.

          We defenders also easily fell into stereotyping victims and defendants. For example, we would say that blacks used guns, Italians knives, and Irish fists. Orthodox Jews committed crimes with pens—various kinds of fraud—or unorthodox sex crimes, such as inserting a key into a young girl’s vagina to “unlock” her. Gypsies (no Roma for us) and Russians were incapable of telling the truth. And many more.

I would like to think that such stereotyping did not affect me when representing the individual client, but I know that I operated on ethnic and other stereotypes in jury selection. Common wisdom was gleaned from other attorneys. For example, try to exclude a black juror born in the West Indies if a black born in the South was on trial. These stereotypes went beyond the racial and ethnic. I had assumptions about the kind of person who would live in certain neighborhoods or hold particular jobs that affected the use of my peremptory challenges. Once again, I did not want all this typing of groups to invade the rest of my life.

          Manipulation also became second nature. Can I maneuver the prosecutor or judge into a better deal for my client? But also, can I manipulate, or more neutrally, convince my client into seeing that a particular plea bargain is not only a good one, but the best he is going to get? Of course, there is manipulation in everyday life, but it is not the constant that it was in criminal defense work.

          Indeed, the contrast between my work life and my other experiences was often jarring. The spouse was studying and training to become a neurobiologist at Cornell and Columbia medical schools. Her mentors were M.D.’s who lived in fancy apartments and townhouses, and many of her colleagues were also medical doctors pulling down nice salaries, while she and I could barely make ends meet. Sometimes I would go straight from work to a Park Avenue party, and the disparity between the two was almost incomprehensible. I was no more than five or ten miles from the courts and my clients’ neighborhoods, but it was worlds apart. I did not talk much about my work at these gatherings because I did not feel it could be grasped by the partygoers just as those I represented could not have comprehended the lives of these doctors and scientists.

          We defenders shared two mechanisms for coping with the work. The first was the more frequent and more creative use of “motherfucker” than even David Mamet could envision. The second was laughter. We all learned to tell jokes about the stuff we saw and did, jokes we knew could not be shared with others outside of our work. Jokes were made about almost anything and was the first reaction to nearly everything.

I remember only one time when we all felt that a joke could not cover the pain of what we experienced, and no one uttered a quip. Other attorneys and I were listening to a tape from a recorder worn by an undercover officer who was in a housing project corridor to make a drug buy. We knew what had happened, but it was still startling to hear the cop’s voice as he recognized a high school classmate as the seller from whom he was to make the buy. We then heard the officer yell, “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!” The classmate had realized that his once-friend was now with the police and had pulled out a .357 magnum. We heard the shot which reverberated in the narrow hallway. We knew that the officer was hit. We could then barely hear his pleading voice get the words out again, “Don’t shoot.” Then we heard another shot which hit the cop in the chest right next to the recorder. We could hear the chilling sound of blood and air being sucked in and out of the gaping wound. And then the tape fell quiet. We public defenders looked at each other in silence. Even we couldn’t joke about what we had just heard.

That incident aside, however, I don’t think I ever laughed as much as when I was a public defender.