|Hotel Pattee; Perry, Iowa|
Walking south on LaSalle Street Wednesday, I reach into my pocket, feel something, pull out a dime. Must have got in there when I scooped some change off the night table.
"Mr. Hart, here is a dime. Call your mother. Tell her there is serious doubt about your becoming a lawyer."
I can hear the words as clearly as if Professor Kingsfield had spoken them in my ear, though it is just memory, echoing off the coin. John Houseman's mellifluous voice in "The Paper Chase."
A popular movie, to people of my generation—released 40 years ago next month, incredibly. About the struggles of first year law students at Harvard Law School, it made a big impression on me. I remember the first time I saw it, in the fall of 1978, at Northwestern's A&O Film series. I remember who I saw it with, Leah Moskowitz, a fellow Northwestern freshman. I was affected, not for the legal aspect, but for the ambition. The students, so hungry to learn, to strive, to achieve. That was me. My date, however, shrugged it off, at least in my recollection. I remember gazing at her, dumbfounded, almost offended. You didn't like it? You're kidding me. We never went out again.
"Mr. Hart, here is a dime..." How could that sentence slumber in my mind for so long? True, it was a dramatic high point—Kingsfield is throwing the hero, played by Timothy Bottoms, out of class. But I saw the movie, what, maybe three times? Once in 1978. Again in the late 1980s when VCR tapes took hold, and one more time, showing it to my boys in the 2000s -- who like Leah Moskowitz, were indifferent.
And why should it bubble up now?* I've handled many dimes over the decades. Why this moment? The more I look at the dime, the more comes back. My grandmother's voice, over the telephone mounted on the wall in our kitchen in Berea, a few months after I saw "The Paper Chase." I was home for winter break.
"A lady I play poker with," she said, in her thin, reedy voice. "Has a granddaughter at Northwestern. You two should meet."
I was always ready to meet anybody willing to meet me. The grandmother angle was worrisome, true, but I could work with it.
"Sure," I said. "What's her name?"
"Leah," she said. "Leah Moskowitz."
"Shit grandma," I said, before I could stop myself. That wasn't going to happen.
Those images, hiding amidst the trillions of neural connections. I put the dime away, these thoughts rattling around, blocking out LaSalle Street. Worried. Memory is the prison old people build for themselves then live in, squatting in the smoldering ruined palace of their lives, rooting around in the ash. The images kept wafting up, unbidden, like wisps of smoke. I could see Leah Moskowitz, 18, porcelain skin, very white, probably 85 pounds. It made me almost want to track her down, call her. "You know, in my memory you're still 18." Flattering? No, creepy. Note to self: don't be creepy.
You have to be careful unspooling the past. The assumption is that other people care, and usually they do not care. A common affliction of men my age is to view the present as a mere pretext to dig up these non-sequitur memories. To be interested not in what is but in what was. "Funny you should mention Belgium, I spent a month in Belgium once..." And off they go. They're bores. Note to self: try not to become a bore.
Pondering, I plunge my hand back in my pocket, bring it out. Three dimes. Thirty cents. A candy bar....
The key is knowing when to stop. Though it's difficult. Leah Moskowitz ... she looked like a china doll. Never saw her again, at least not so it stuck. But with a little online digging, I find she changed her name -- that's why I decided it's okay to use her maiden name here; any embarrassment for having seen a movie with me 35 years ago most likely won't get back to vex her. And oh, look at this. After Northwestern, she graduated from Harvard Law School, and spent her career as a lawyer. Maybe she liked that movie more than she let on.
*The above was written, and posted, and I was in the midst of tweeting the "Here is a dime" quote when it struck me: hmmm, I had just left the morning session of the Illinois Supreme Court, having spent 90 minutes listening to legal proceedings. Maybe that had something to do with it.