I’d heard this one before. Several times, in fact, and so had the rest of my fellow acolytes who were fanned out around the oversized oak table in the dusky Irish tavern we frequented almost daily back then.
The story about the Academy Award winner who tried to seduce him at an Oscar party twenty-five years ago.
It didn’t matter if we were one drink in or nine, the punchline never failed to amaze, entertain and enlighten all of us. This is how we should be living our lives. This is life.
There was the oft-repeated tale about the awkward coworker who got duped into thinking that the attractive waitress at a seedier neighborhood watering hole had agreed to go out with him. Only when he showed up at the appointed restaurant for their rendezvous he discovered that he’d been set up in a different way. A few dozen of his colleagues enjoyed their elaborate hoax and shared a great big laugh at his expense.
The stories would always elicit the same collective chortling, brazenly reverberating throughout the bar and capturing the attention of the rest of the clientele. No matter how loud the rest of the patrons may have been they soon became our audience.
And we were his.
I often write about being a lawyer because that’s who I have been for nearly a decade. But that wasn’t always the case and after scratching together a living as a nine-dollar-an-hour bookstore clerk for fifteen months after law school, desperately lying to myself that I was better off than my former classmates because I wasn’t poisoning myself in that toxic profession, I finally found a job as an attorney. And I wasn’t afraid it would leech my soul through my pores in the process.
But I found so much more than that.
I found an identity.
I found home.
And it all started with him.
He wasn’t a father figure to me. I had that taken care of and was never in need of a surrogate. Rather, he was the superhero movie star I’d been missing my whole life, a larger than life archetype of charisma wrapped in a perfect tan year round. Always in a good mood, he was entirely unfamiliar with the negativity associated with stress or pressure and approached life as if the world and all of its pleasures were designed specifically for him.
Whenever he told the stories about his amorous conquests or winning the ’68 Barracuda by guessing the right number of gumballs in the five-hundred gallon globe at Disneyworld, or the constant parade of topless women at his house, who wouldn’t believe his life was a fairytale? Who could doubt that he deserved to have a following? A following I wholeheartedly joined the moment I was hired.
It all felt so good, the endless laughter, the bottomless drinks, the collective mentality that we were all part of the same unit. That we were one of his guys, or girls; gender was immaterial to the groupthink. He embraced you and made you feel like you were one of his, that he would look out for you and protect you when needed, he would guarantee a steady stream of entertainment and guarantee that as long as you stayed close by you would always have front row seats to the life of the party. Occasionally you’d get to play a feature role in his grand show.
All he asked for in return was, well…
He was self-possessed and never appeared to require even minimal external validation. That made his appeal that much stronger, that much broader, and it’s what led us all to spend hours at a time just listening to him recount the adventures of his life, over and over and over again.
Like the time he took the yacht he co-owned with a cousin up to Alaska and just missed getting eaten by a bear on a quick stop to the shore. Or the time he poured beer on the governor’s head.
He was my boss, but was he a good lawyer? I don’t know, honestly, but that’s less a reflection of the quality of his advocacy skills than it is on the fact that it just didn’t matter. All that mattered was that you wanted to be near him, with him, in his office, or the Thai place for lunch, or the bar after work, or his house.
My god, his magnificent house. The view of the Sound, the expansive, single story floor plan that had wings.
There we had numerous ‘offsite staff meetings’ during the workday, usually involving Bocce and Coors Light, and barbecues celebrating a promotion or wishing someone well as they moved away. The later the hour, the greater the crowds that would show up for these events and when they were in full swing there was nowhere you’d rather be.
The group made sure of that.
The hierarchy and social order that his disciples created dictated that if you were not present then you were fair game to be openly mocked. If you chose to act out of accordance with the mood of the group you were browbeaten into submission, made to feel a fool for wanting anything less than to be part of what the group had created for you.
Don’t you want to be a part of this?
Can you actually do any better?
Aren’t you grateful?
These aren’t questions that he would pose, generally, because he was too far above that. Without ever having to provide directives, he had his most senior apostles available as enforcers in case anyone drifted outside of the historically accepted dynamic. Sit, listen, drink, laugh, listen. But that didn’t mean he avoided putting his hands on the wheel altogether if the ship needed to be straightened out and put back on course.
I had, for example, one co-worker who presented himself as a straight man. That’s a fact. The group, however, saw him as effeminate and did not think he had ever demonstrated sufficient heterosexual masculinity to ever put his sexual orientation beyond doubt. Never mind that this was a man in his late thirties, a seasoned attorney who was good at his job and was loyal to the office. Never mind the fact that his sexuality was nobody’s business and any open speculation in the office, behind his back, was grossly inappropriate, deplorably unprofessional and unequivocally homophobic.
That never mattered.
Instead, whenever the group got together, be it in the office or after hours, the conversation always made its way to the ‘trial’ that would settle once and for all whether or not this gentleman was gay. Another senior attorney, a woman, in fact, was cast in the role of prosecutor in the case, charged with establishing beyond a reasonable doubt that he was not straight. Our leader bore the heavy burden of defending our colleague in this kangaroo court, if it ever actually materialized, and persuading the jury of his peers that despite all evidence to the contrary, he was as straight as he claimed to be.
Yeah, it makes me feel as sick to write this as you must feel reading it. And it’s not like this was 1950.
The group discussed this ‘trial’ countless times. Dozens, at least. And whenever someone uncovered a new fresh piece of evidence it would be analyzed and reviewed and all would agree that our leader’s case was just hopeless and it was all accompanied with laughter so uproarious and out of control everyone got high from the sheer exertion of it. It was infectious and I don’t mean that in a friendly, positive way. I mean that it was viral and contagious. It was sick. And nobody ever had the nerve to mention that this took place to our coworker. Ever. There reached a point that when this took place I would leave and hide in my office out of embarrassment and disgust. But I can’t recall ever actually trying to stop it.
That would have been unacceptable. To do so would have resulted in a degree of ostracism that I wasn’t willing to accept. I feel like a weasel at Nuremberg taking that position but it’s the truth. You didn’t challenge the leader or you risked losing all status. In that office, in that role, in that city and that organization, status as one of his guys mattered more than anything else. Or so I thought.
Four years after I arrived he retired and a coworker of ours replaced him. Our leader’s influence lingered for a while – it’s hard for something that powerful to just disappear overnight – but it waned over time and pretty soon it became clear that he wasn’t bigger than the organization. He wasn’t larger than life or a savior from on high who was to be worshiped and exalted. He was just a guy who retired early to go and enjoy his fabulous life.
After he left I took a look around and realized that my career was stunted. I was in the same government job for four years without any advancement, promotion, professional development or increase in salary. I had been content with scraps for the entire time I worked there and was satisfied to walk in the great man’s vast shadow. To be clear, he always thought I could do better and encouraged me to look up and elsewhere for better work as I gained maturity and experience. I just didn’t. That’s on me, not him.
A few more years passed before I finally spread my wings a little bit and left the organization, city and state. As I look back I think of all the time I spent, some would say wasted, just sitting and basking in his glow, waiting for the next time he repeated a story, or the next time he threw a raging kegger, or the next time we could all collectively make fun of someone. I think about all the time I could have spent honing my craft and growing as a person and a professional, carving a career for myself that was built on more than just the reputation as one of many sidekicks to a man in the late twilight of his career. I think about all of that and have a hard time not resenting the culture he created and cultivated, wishing better for the young attorney who let his career lapse to be part of the popular kids club.
I think about all of that and one other thing.
I really miss him.