1. On my first day with what was to become America’s most profitable law firm, I had the last of my inherited wisdom smacked out of me: that our declining town is superior to the most prosperous cities, that our calloused hands hold larger shares of wisdom, that our folksy ways delight and instruct the wider world. With my first assignment scrawled across a yellow pad, I told a partner exactly what I would have told any new boss back home, whether at gas station, country club, or iron foundry: “I’ll do my best, sir!” My words were more than a thoughtless courtesy, like the atta boy I expected in return; they were a flourish of the can-do spirit that, in the estimation of working-class boys, only working-class boys possess.
But there was no atta boy. There was a curt, “Stand up.”
“Close the door.”
I re-took the chair on the other side of the desk, with cold coffee and an overfilled ashtray between us.
“Please understand what we are doing here.”
I did not.
He exhaled regretfully, as if his words would not be as harsh as I deserved. “We are doing legal work of a highly refined and obscenely expensive nature, under constant threat of losing the clients and our jobs if we get one little thing wrong. Ever. Which is why, when we interact, I want the confidence that you will get the answer right, get it fast, and get it down in good English. Do you think your hokey saying gave me that confidence?”
I had no answer.
“You did it! You said nothing. Which is the best thing you’ve said yet.” He thrummed the desk. “Don’t sit there all day.”
“Sit down.” He pulled his tie, circled his head, and recomposed his collar on his Adam’s apple. “And don’t call me sir.” He repeated the tic: tie, head, collar, with audible glug on the last tug. “This is not my club. You are not my caddy. We are professional colleagues.”
I raised a finger. “For a couple summers – ”
“You told me that when I interviewed you. It was off-point then. It is redundant now.”
But caddying was never more on point. It ingrained the phony deference that boys like me needed to survive men like him. No matter how hilarious the worm-burners, tree-knockers, or moon-landings that hooked off the clubs we carried, we affected respectful faces, even as we accumulated evidence in proof of every rich man’s buffoonery. When he repeated his tic for the third time, I did not return a glug of my own. I saved it till now.
But he mimicked me. “‘I’ll do my best, Sir.’ Ho boy. Did you get that from Little League?”
Before I could admit it, he snapped my mouth shut. “I don’t care if you got it from Howdy fucking Doody.”
In fact, I got it from my Howdy fucking Daddy, who coached us to 1-14, and me to .000. Feeling about as miserable as I did after every whiff, I stared down a hallway that stretched to a future in the nation’s capital, subject only to my inherited right of violent rejection.
2. I was raised to promise my best, but to do my worst in response to any boss who spoke with a tone, especially if he meant to goad me toward broader horizons. Family precedent suggested a thundering tantrum of profanity interrupted by occasional acts of vandalism to enliven future retellings, like shattering a coffee urn, tossing a bowl of decorative candies, or maybe punching a plate of glass out of a China closet, any of which would have shown them exactly how much wisdom I held in my formerly calloused hands. My father cursed his way out of five jobs in a row, and worked each firing into an epic that he retold with one hand managing both cigarette and beer so the other was free to demonstrate how far up some dumb bastard’s asshole the middle finger was meant to wiggle. I was choosing between unconditional acceptance back home, where nobody was allowed to be any better than anybody else at anything after high school sports, and daily judgment of my verbal performance in competition with thousands of applicants down here, where everything is conditional, right down to the next handshake.
For my failure to throw a tantrum, boys of my closest block and blood have denounced me as a “liberal elitist” and a “well-heeled, inside-the-Beltway type.” That is high praise for someone who never went Ivy. Harvard Law left me fuming on their wait list. U. Penn deigned to have me, but Georgetown offered more money, which is the truth I tell, while Washington was more heavily populated with college drinking buddies, which is the truth that mattered. I finished Georgetown with loans on top of loans, after squeaking through college on financial aid and a Steelworker’s wage. All that while, Reagan was busting unions out from under my kind, cutting financial aid, and giving tax cuts to the men for whom I used to caddy, so they might tip me two bucks a bag, when that became the only future for boys like me.
By the time I finished law school, my debt would have covered a Porsche, while I was pushing as often as driving four consecutive breakdowns that I paid to scrap. I bought the last of the four for the price of a pair of big-boy shoes, which is why I did not own a pair of big-boy shoes. As the junkman winched it up Wisconsin Avenue from the bank of the river, where it sat out my final semester because my spare did not have a spare, I calculated that it might be twenty years until my net worth equaled the junkman’s wrecker, unless I took the highest paying job on offer. There would be no judicial clerkship, government service, or public defender roles for me. My squalor pushed me ass-backward into money.
My firm received a few thousand resumes from second-year students, summarily rejected all but those from the top third of the class at the top tenth of the schools, chose thirty summer associates, and hired twenty into full-time positions. In my first year, I made twice as much as a Supreme Court clerk, and by my tenth, I equaled the Chief Justice. The next year, I was the only member of my class admitted to partnership, where I tripled my income, shot into the top percentile, and watched in despair as men with whom I worked before the foundry’s furnace during my college breaks helped elect George W. Bush, whose tax cuts and financial bubbles doubled my triple.
Mark Twain lamented that working with our minds is so inherently rewarding, we should pay for the privilege, and yet we earn multiples more than men whose labor is dull and dangerous. My multiples shot me from twenty to forty times the foundry hands’ wages for toiling in devilish heat and soot. My tax cuts came in multiples of their gross incomes. My annual investments were five times more than their lifetime accumulations, and subsidized by tax-deductions up to twice their gross incomes. At 48, I semi-retired with 80 times more than foundry hands might accumulate if their bodies endure twenty more years of labor that makes men half their age quit before lunch.
On my first night in semi-retirement, the flight attendant inquired about the book beneath the cocktail she refilled before bringing the wine that started the dinner that preceded a nap in my private pod on the way to Zurich to meet some bankers on behalf of a sheik, whom I was billing more for each hour than a foundry hand grosses in a week. I winced when I answered “Steinbeck.” White working-class wrath toward other ethnicities drives votes that will advantage my family for generations. Before my children finished their private middle-schools, I pre-funded debt-free degrees at the assumed cost of the most expensive university in the land. If the foundry hands’ children dare a higher education, they might die with unpaid loans.
Friends from back home, who lecture me on the perfection of the free market, are suffering its perfect valuation of themselves, which is barely subsistence. According to some clients, “the market dictated” that their company pack up factories in towns like mine for reassembly a hundred yards south of the Rio Grande, where they make American brands for American consumers without American workers, while the executives built themselves a new headquarters in a gleaming American city, where young professionals congregate around bar tabs that overheat as quickly as a working family’s car. They paid us twenty million to mine insurance policies for the costs of remediating toxic waste beneath the factories’ abandoned floors. I flew first-class to court appearances in Chicago, stayed in a luxury hotel, rehearsed my arguments at the head of a 60-foot table in a mahogany boardroom, and skated to partnership across miles of vacant concrete that once were trod by thousands of steel-toe boots like mine.¹
3. Drinking beer in the attic before a holiday meal after another election gave me another tax cut, I listened as silently as I could for as long as I could to men shouting politics over a football game. My father has discouraged my opinions since I was twelve, because they “provoke people who know better.” I thought no one could dispute my argument against my own tax breaks, my subsidized accumulation of wealth, my children’s advantages over the rest of the family. A relative shouted me down with the unshakable certainty of talk radio. He claimed that if he voted as I urged him to do, “The libtards would waste your money on a bunch of lazy Blacks.” With another child on the way, he was unemployed for the second Thanksgiving in a row. This time he threatened to beat up the boss, because “the beatin’ was overdue,” and “deer season was only coincidence.”
His smile confessed the truth of deer season, along with the gaps in his dental plan, which I turned to argument: “If we had universal healthcare, you would qualify without regard to race.”
That cinched his point: “All the Blacks want is free stuff.”
I asked, “Does the trickle-down overflow the tip-jar in any bar you might tend?” I boasted how extravagantly I over-tipped every over-pour in the five-star restaurant in my firm’s lobby, where a Tanq-and-tonic cost twice the minimum wage, or as I preferred to say, “one billable minute.”
4. According to liberal friends, I must do more than vote to improve working-class lives: I must pretend I never observed such lives while living one. When I submitted stories of my youth to a writers’ group here in bluest Bethesda, Maryland, a reader accused me of being an “anti-labor reactionary.” She was appalled by lines of dialog that I had recorded from daily conversation, such as “we’re all white here,” which in context meant “no pickpockets at this picnic,” and “I’m free, white, and 21,” which explained coming to supper without a shirt. She was dumbfounded by my failure to portray the “solidarity among the working peoples of the world.” My characters were “stunted, bigoted, and closer to Klansmen than Social Democrats.” I might have rested on “no shit,” but I was in a sporting mood:
I don’t know what the men were like where you poured iron, but where I poured iron, calling them Social Democrats would strain their rule on hitting “lady folk.” If they thought the way you think they do, this place would be Denmark by now. If you want to know why it’s not, I’ll share a Republican operator’s triumphant analysis: “Working-class whites equate liberals with nigger-lovers, tree-huggers, cock-suckers, and ladies with hairy pits.” I have known of these beliefs as long as I have known English, but I was so stunned to hear them from a man who was paid to exploit them, I was outreached for the last cocktail on the butler’s tray. Remember (as I was perhaps a little too pleased to tell her), “bigoted” was your word. If you doubt the facts that led you to it, come to the bar where my paternal grandfather pours shots for the old-timers. I’ll read them my reactionary bits. You count the “atta-boys,” and I’ll slide you the first double-Beam they buy me.
5. Sometimes I vow to spite them by voting with them, and shrugging off my profoundest policy goal, which is to pay whatever it takes to prepare kids like me to compete with kids like mine, until we have raised the willing and able to their highest contributions to the common good. I know how bitterly kids like me resent me and mine. It is the same resentment I showed college classmates whose parents could afford the outrageous tuition that was partly diverted to grants that made my education possible. My sweat ran bitter every Christmas before the furnace, knowing that of all my rowdy friends, the most Falstaffian of gut, guzzle, and lack of guiding principle was skiing with my academic advisor, who took students who had the money to the Alps. I never finished a shift without working on the message of the song in my head: I don’t want to know about where the rich are going. They are not so clever. They are not so bright. And that truth was only known to gutter snipes.
If education had not saved me from my resentments before I saved my resentments from education, I would have become the man I was born to be, and thus voting down the help I would need now as much as I needed it then, when I was barely traitorous enough to accept it.
6. Relatives, neighbors, and random old-timers from the auto-bodies and junkyards that surrounded our ballfields berated me for “lacking aggression,” “shying collision,” “playing like a pantywaist who won’t amount to nothin’.” When I amounted to something in Washington, the same people advised me to “tak’er easy, ’stead of working crazy hours.” By now, the old-timers’ eulogists are thanking them for instilling the values that lifted the younger generations to where they are today, which is exactly where their fathers and grandfathers ended up, minus union wages. In parking lots outside the churches, the grievers light cigarettes on the ends of cigarettes to catch up on going two hours without one. They ask me about “going bankrupt after being bankrupt,” “making two guys take a paternity test,” or “collecting unemployment if their termination was ‘for cause’ again.”
I reserve my best advice for children who have not yet posed such questions: The more rich kids there are at the college, the less the college will charge a kid like you. If they consider any college at all, it is a branch campus of a state school that offers only loans, which are better spent on learning a trade, “because it pays back quicker.” I get good laughs when I argue that enriching the mind is more important than money. When I gave a poor nephew a richly illustrated edition of Moby Dick, his mother traded it for video games, and told the boy to tell me, “Books are stupid.”
Politicking for free college has been equally futile. The “Spirit Leader of a Christian family” preferred having his daughter commute to beauty school over any college at any price, because “how long would she stay virgin in a dorm?” A mother who works at The Gap said, “You liberals will tax me for those colleges.” She never had qualms about her food stamps, nor earned enough to pay income tax. I surmise that these self-described patriots do not fear the cost of education, but its power to raise their children above themselves, which we used to call the American Dream.
One night back in Pennsylvania, I met friends from town and their cousins from the cornfields, who gathered for burgers, beers, and live music with the extended family. While elders tucked change from broken twenties beneath their smokes along the bar, youngsters introduced ourselves around a table of pitchers and peanuts. The cute cousin was quitting secretarial school for lack of jobs in town, where she once hoped to find her first apartment, maybe start meeting people her own age. She was looking for work in a strip-mall nearer home. I recommended a program of personal advancement that I called “Fuck the Mall.” I advised finishing secretarial school and moving to Boston, where offices were teeming with young arrivals like me. Her smirk accused me of a come-on, which was fair. Besides, her parents would never agree to have her living in a big city. At the risk of rebidding a come-on two drinks too soon, I added, “Don’t ask. Go.” But no. It was selfish to do as you pleased without regard to the whole family, which was the whole family’s judgment upon me, cast down from stools at the watchful end of the bar.
At my most selfish, I almost touched a million. We are warned that looking down from high places will make us dizzy, but the ambitious rarely do. I never counted the powers of ten that placed me a thousand-fold over the thousand bucks at the bottom. My eyes followed the higher thousand-times more, which soared beyond the gravity of our laws on exponents of insider power engineered by middling achievers like me.
7. I never drew a laugh when I joked that I double-majored in philosophy because English was not practical. I did not know enough about careers to be practical. My family had neither money nor experience to share, and in that lucky case, no expectations that mattered to me. Unlike other students, I could not be cut off. I was free to study what I loved, and in my freedom, terrified of what came next, which was a job that paid less than the foundry offered me to return. I barely made the rent on a filthy, lightless room on Boston’s Marlboro Street, with roaches on the floor and derelicts in the hall. Some mornings the heaving-ho of people and possessions disturbed the hangover that left me without money or food until next payday, when I would segregate cash for rent and groceries into a dedicated pocket that I invaded only in the desperations of last call.
With encouragement from the roaches and derelicts, I chose law school over an academic degree. Top law students with part-time clerkships out-earned young professors nearly two to one. I told myself I would pay off my loans with big-firm money, become public defender in some sleepy county, resume my writing. I published a few of the stories that I rose at five to write most mornings, assuming I left the office no later than two that morning. My maternal grandfather did not live long enough to give me this advice, but it comes to my dreams with the wit of an Irish orphan. If you keep shifting from one cheek to the other, my Davey Boy, you’ll always be a half-asser. If I can summon a dream in answer, I will tell him that my unifying ambition was to develop my mind for sport and profit.
According to Thoreau, “It is not that we love to be alone, but that we love to soar, and when we do soar, the company grows thinner & thinner till there is none at all.” Reading has thinned my company more than money. My parents did not discourage me, except when other boys were looking. The summer before third grade, boys who came to the porch to find boys for football told me I was “high and mighty” for refusing to look up from a premature attempt at Moby Dick. I liked their judgment, but would have preferred “subversive,” which is what the men with the closest crewcuts were lately calling the “longhair faggots” who protested war and oppression on The Evening News. “Round here,” they said, “we raise real Americans,” which mostly meant bigger boys who tackled smaller boys face-down in mud. Inside a helmet clotted with turf and snot and tears, I was beginning to “deduce,” without knowing the word for the processes that crowded my head, that if those boys were cheered for using meat and bone to flatten me, I was free to use books and brains to leave them behind on a field of Pee Wees.
8. Testing services and universities certified me for income production, as if I were a vein of coal that showed enough thermal potential to dig me out of my native dirt. For consuming my potential, the firm raised me a thousand-fold in service to clients who rose a thousand-fold over me. I displayed the aggression I lacked on the football field in violent collisions of corporate billions, with pen in hand, socks on settee, and brandy on Strunk & White, till the streetlamps on L Street surrendered to the dawn. A week’s itinerary on behalf of a power conglomerate’s splurge of acquisitions across five continents included stops in Miami, Houston, Iowa, Toronto, and back to Miami for brandy and cigars before the flight to Caracas with the champagne breakfast that bucked me up for the bullet-proof limo through the barrios that surrounded the InterContinental, where mercenaries on the roof wore sunglasses that were as stylish as their machine guns. I snapped up the assignment for the travel, the stories to be told, and the opportunity to measure myself against lawyers for the world’s largest corporation, as soon as I heard that my predecessor got himself kidnapped outside the compound’s walls.
A hometown practice of car crashes, divorces, and disability claims would take me no farther than the next county, where I would have to drive myself. I worked for real people only when they crashed into history. I signed the asylum petition for a man who escaped the Rwandan genocide by hiding beneath a pile of fresh limbs. The associates walked him across Foggy Bottom to show the State Department the scars of the machete that sent him running. In a game that I played for the raw pleasure of winning, those arms felt like an unbeatable pair of aces. Only later, after the firm won his asylum, and paid to resettle his family in a community of survivors in Maine, then won asylum and paid to resettle a second client, who was from the tribe that attacked the first client’s tribe, and was threatened with death for refusing to join the slaughter, did I see those arms as scars on our collective humanity – and instantly wished I had used that rhetorical flourish in the papers we filed. Later still, when I joined hundreds of volunteers in fighting the national disgrace at Gitmo, the gratification was in finding myself quoted on the front page of the Post, where I delivered an overheated denunciation of the Admiral in charge of the brig, where our admittedly innocent client either hanged himself in protest, or was killed under torture then dangled from a bedsheet to cover the crime. I honed and re-honed my words so well, they sounded spontaneous when I read them back beneath the streetlight at the end of my driveway, where I retrieved the paper at dawn.
Meanwhile, our paying cases soared from the hundreds of thousands to the hundreds of millions to the billions that we tried to pry from a monopolist who was approaching the world’s first trillion. Leading to a single day of argument, I managed ten lawyers through fifty thousand billable hours on a budget fronted by a former partner, who left us to start a hedge fund that raised a billion on the London exchange. The judge announced to benches packed with lawyers from DC, Manhattan, and absolutely nowhere else, that he was inclined to dismiss our case. He offered me thirty minutes to change his mind. I went for three hours, and knew that I’d failed, and lost my career, by the punchable smirk on the old bastard’s face when he descended to shake my hand.
9. How could I tell old friends, who told me how they shot bucks at fifty paces and had blood on their boots to prove it, how I blazed away at four billion bucks and hit nothing but the wrong half of my own ass? Maybe that was how. The last time I tried to explain the thrill of the argument, when the sweat inside a thousand-dollar suit was slicker than the boy running skins on a hot-tar playground, and my mouth lashed a rhythm of fact and inference, precedent and analogy, as relentlessly as a whip in a cruel hand, I got no further than “In court that day — .” My grandmother hushed me for my cousin’s ascension to the bakery’s best route, and our conversation followed sticky buns from corner store to gas station to home in time for supper, “where a man with priorities would be.”
My priority was a career of forming abstract propositions into imaginative arguments for sleepless weeks at a time; and for my effort, I eagerly accepted both the multiples and the inherent rewards. When colleagues were knocked out of the game called “making partner,” I organized rowdy going-away parties where we raised sticky mugs to a smoky ceiling to toast the damnation of all partners who voted “out” instead of “up,” then got myself to work next morning if I had to crawl. Even as a lowly clerk, I calculated the value of joining a death-row appeal referred by the ACLU. Equal justice was my profession’s highest calling, but I was equally motivated to impress a partner whose vote would count. For that, I would have worked the executioner’s side of the case.
From either side, the client’s guilt was the darkness on which our skills shined most brightly. He admitted ordering them to lie face down, shoulder to shoulder: the jeweler, the daughter, the small-town deputy who answered the alarm but fumbled the gun. I researched the issue of “mitigation,” because he granted them a last Lord’s Prayer. I have withheld the tale from friend and family, because I know the rebukes it will bring:
Blacker than the Ace of Spades, I bet.
Can I tie the noose?
You helped him for free.
You never helped me at all.
Why did you turn out like this?
I will never say, Because I could, but the truth divides us to death.
¹My multiples are calculated against median income and wealth, which I attribute to foundry hands, who were earning the median when I was one of them. I use “working-class” to refer to workers paid at or below median, which is only half the average income. This means that half the workforce earns less than half the average, because incomes like mine have pulled up the average, but left the people behind.
David L. Engelhardt is a semi-retired D.C. attorney living in Chevy Chase, Maryland, with a prospective move to full-time writing in Saint Michaels. Scoundrel Time has published three of his closely related personal essays. “Born and Raised” won the publication’s prize for their best non-fiction of 2018. “Scrap and Pig” was nominated for a Pushcart. “A Thousand Times More . . . ” is taken from a longer work. His short stories have appeared in The Baltimore Review, two volumes of West Branch, and Folio.
Image By: The author with his Little League team. Used with permission.