Thursday, September 19, 2013

Three dimes

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.

    A block later my hand goes back in my pocket.  Two dimes. Twenty cents, sitting on my open palm. That's what comic books cost when I was a kid. "Captain America." God, I loved those. He was my favorite, and I carefully gathered an unbroken run of issues. Why Captain American though, and not another?
     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. 


  1. While I have forgotten the movie, I do remember some of the TV show that followed.
    One episode in particular, where James is hit by a car driven by a slightly older female student.
    After a short time, he recognizes her & exclaims: "You're president of 'Laura View'"
    I had no idea what "Laura Review" was.
    About 30 minutes later into the hour long show, I finally figured out what he said.
    It was supposed to be "You're [the] president of [the Harvard] Law Review", but with his accent & the incompetence of the producers in not understanding that we, the general public use adjectives & don't use British English like Hahvahd Lawr, it was incomprehensible for much of the show.
    I stopped watching one or two episodes later & it was mercifully cancelled by CBS!
    And thank you for the captions. I hope to find out in the morning what & where the caryatids in the large photo are on.

  2. Right, I've added it -- Palace of Fine Arts, San Francisco. The captions are an extra step I have to get used to.

  3. This line is genius

    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.

    I mostly see it the nights I tend bar. At least once a month, some old-timers will come into what is basically a neighborhood/college corner bar and start reminiscing about how the place hasn't changed a bit since they hung out here in the 1970s. I usually let them go on for a while, then point out the new ceiling, floors, furniture, art on the walls, and the fact that the pool table now costs 50 cents. They then inevitably ask about the bars that are long closed along this street (there used to be 10 places, now just one tavern and one restaurant) I tell them when they spend more time talking about places that don't exist rather than places that do, they are officially Old. Oddly, this usually increases the tipping rate.

  4. Thanks Bill, coming from you, that's high praise.

  5. Harvard law used to brag about how a third flunked out ("look to your left look to your right one of you won't be here next semester"). Now their graduation rate is 99 percent. Of course it's even tougher to get in now and those that do are well prepared.

  6. Wonder if Leah Moskowitz ever thought about you. You are on one of the big papers in the country. She probably reads you daily. Call her. Then let us know.

  7. But the blog is my own personal pasture, visited by not even a thousand persons a day. And she certainly doesn't read me. No need to pester the poor woman for going on a date with me.

  8. Interesting story. Houseman is one of a kind.

  9. Dates you had with gentile gals might also make for a fun blog post.

  10. I've spent 40 years with the memory of a set of liquid blue eyes. 40 years of self destructive behavior and addictions. Addictions that began as a form of self medication to try and live with the silliness of a heartbroken teenaged fairy tale.
    Understanding my weakness and even realizing the futility of fantasy hasn't stopped me from seeing those liquid blue eyes or medicating myself to escape them.

  11. "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." Wow...that's prose like mother used to make. And it sounds just like my house...a pack-rat's nest filled with memories on every wall, and too many trinkets and tchotchkes...the things a deceased friend once called "objects of much affection."

    Like it or not, I'm definitely a cranky old geezer old that I can clearly remember how many things one could do with a "thin dime"--and I can even recall insulting someone in high school by saying: "Here's a up all your friends."


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