An Untimely Loss

Page One

Mine was a family that seemed unable to pull itself up; notwithstanding we five never released our death-like grasp on our collective boot-strap. So an inability "to get" was not new to me. It was only afterwards, in the calm of reflection that my reaction made sense. It was not the family's loss, but mine alone that found me so unprepared. Until then I'd taken community disappointment for granted. But I digress.

I was first in the entire family genealogy to attend and graduate college. My acceptance to law school seemed like all that pulling was about to pay off. My enthusiasm was obnoxious. Classes were to begin on a warm, August , Monday in 1976.

I lost my only source of income on the preceding Friday. The notice was accompanied by a pleasant note of encouragement, a blast of President Ford's economic policy, a glancing tribute to stagnation--which by then had begun improving--and a softball-sized rock that settled just above my beltline. My vision of the American dream began melting in the humid Houston heat fift-nine hours before it was to begin. The melting began not with the loss of my job but because my heart was beating at a rate I thought certain to induce a stroke. Reading the note left in my locker--termination was written not spoken--my knees weakened, perspiration surged like a small creek after a spring storm, the sense of dread mixed with panic and a pinch of fear all stirred around the rock and seemed only to compound my symptoms. It was forty-nine minutes after when finally I could stand.

Page Two

I'd used every available dime for tuition, books I couldn't find at the library, and a week's ration of bread, baloney, diet soda, and toilet paper. What had turned out to be my last paycheck was earmarked for gas and payment of a week's rental. Fortunately, there was no penalty for abandoning a weekly rental, and gas costs were going to be nominal. Black, plastic trash bags served as suitcase, my back seat as cabinet, closet, bookshelf. The 1965 Chevy Chevelle offered no option package that included a refrigerator, so I loaded my makeshift fridge into the car's trunk, an Igloo, fifty quart cooler. My best friend "Bottles", a longhaired Chihuahua, was fostered by my only Houston non-work-related acquaintance, then abandoned and finally lost. My address, the law school parking lot; my bed, the passenger seat of that same Chevelle; my shower, the sink in the men's room at the nearby Gulf, Full Service, Filling Station.

My first thought was parents. Surely, having come this far there was something they could do, anything to help. My mother: "Sweetie, you can always come home. No one will think less of you because things didn't work out." My father: "There comes a time in every man's life where he has to choose. Sounds like this is yours." At the time, those phone calls seemed only to steal quarters, dimes, and nickels for long-distance toll that I should have used for toothpaste, deodorant, and soap. I found no help in their well-meaning words. In fact, they caused the rock to swell, now basketball-sized.

Unknowingly, I was benefactor of luck too. There was no security patrol at the school's parking lot, save the inconvenience of constant floodlights chasing night's darkness from my Chevelle; I slept--intermittently--without human interference. An arrest for trespassing would have done significant injury to a hoped-for legal career. I fell asleep counting alternating animated "Don't Panics" and "Stay Calms" jumping hedges in the Irish countryside.

Page Three

Monday morning, after a head dip in the dirty Gulf Station sink and a sponge bath of a weary body's "high" points, books in hand, I sat in an empty classroom awaiting my fellow first-years and the inaugural Contracts lecture. I had taken the first steps on what had become for me as frightful a journey as any through the Amazon jungle, guideless and alone. It did not work--my one step, one task at a time strategy--because it was in any way brilliant, innovative, or courageous. It worked because I had no other option and failure--or in my mother's world "things not working out"--would lead to a place so grim as to make the front seat of the Chevelle Taj Mahal-like. One thing you learn when your life has consisted entirely of struggle--pulling at those bootstraps with apparently no results--is the value of the pulling. It makes calloused hands, broad shoulders, muscled arms and hardened back available, toned, and ready when the pull becomes solitary. I spoke to no one. I had no answer to "Where's your apartment?" No believable explanation for "Why are you here so early?" Not to mention, my image of law students was a progeny of privilege, wealth, advantage. How discomforting for someone from my place, now in my place, to be here with all that.

It was that very Monday I discovered a library annex was opened always. I slept there my first night in law school, and many more, less afraid of discovery, attack, arrest, than seated in the Chevelle. There was still the light issue, but it was air-conditioned, smelled of books, and if I allowed it, perhaps the knowledge, the wisdom of American jurisprudence would envelop me as I slept, small bits and pieces absorbed into my being, new skin to replace what nature daily scraped away. That first step had led me to a better place in the span of 15 hours. The rock seemed back to softball size. Now all I needed was to step into tomorrow; and the day that followed, and so on, and . . .

Page Four

By week three I was re-employed; a student assistant to my Constitutional Law Professor. The pay was meager, but I only needed to eat. Unbelievably, I'd found a place among law books to sleep, a place to shower at the men's locker room in the school's gymnasium, a place to construct a baloney sandwich at the student lounge. It was not my idealized version of law school. Not the John Jay Osborn, Jr.'s The Paper Chase I had hoped it would be. Still, I'd a small victory. My loss had not defined me.

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