“Jamie, Mr. Hemmings wants to see you.” Alicia Waldman, my assistant, delivered the news. She said it with a stunned reverence, in the way she might say, “God is on line two.” Actually, calling Alicia my assistant might imply too high a status level for me; she assisted four other lawyers in the firm as well, all of whom she liked more than me.
I had absolutely no guess why Richard Hemmings would want to see me. I was a twenty-nine-year old, sixth-year associate in the corporate litigation section of Carlson, Miller, and Timmerman, while he was a senior partner in the bankruptcy section. In non-law-firm parlance, when it came to dumping work on people, he was a “dumper” and I was a “dumpee,” but we worked in very different dumping grounds.
We also worked on different floors in our Newark, New Jersey, office building. I was a second-floor guy with a view of the second floor of the building right next door. He was a tenth-story guy, which was as high as it went, with a view on one side of glorious downtown Newark, and a clear sight line to the airport on the other side.
I went right up, and his assistant ushered me directly into his office. He was looking out the window and turned when he heard me. “Jamie,” he said, although he had never met me. He must have just known that he had sent for a Jamie, and figured I must be him. He might even have known that my last name was Wagner. Those are the kind of smarts that partners have.
“Mr. Hemmings,” I responded, keeping the conversation humming. The culture in the firm was that everyone was on a first-name basis, but when it came to full partners, nobody on my level really trusted that. Better to address them formally, and let them correct you if they wanted.
He didn’t, but fortunately came right to the point. “I assume you know that Stan Lysinger is out attending to a personal issue.”
I knew that quite well, everybody did, if advanced lung cancer could be casually dismissed as a personal issue. “Yes.”
“Everybody is pitching in until he gets back,” he said, although we both knew that Stan was not coming back. “I’m taking on his pro-bono responsibilities.”
I immediately knew why I was there. Most big firms feel a corporate responsibility, or at least want to look as if they feel a corporate responsibility, to do pro-bono work within the community. They generally like to assign lower- and mid-level people to these jobs, and Stan is, or was, the resident assigner-in-chief.
Most associates dread such assignments, because it takes them out of the mainstream of the firm, and can thus impact their ability to shine and make partner. I had no such concerns, since it had been clear for a while that I was never going to reach those heights. So I viewed a pro-bono assignment with a wait-and-see attitude; it would depend on the specifics of the assignment.
“It’s with Legal Aid,” he said, as my feelings went from mixed to outright negative. “You’re to see an inmate in New Jersey State Prison named Sheryl Harrison.”
“They’re not going to brief me first?” I asked.
He looked at the file, as if reading it for the first time. “No. They want you to hear it from the client. Seems unusual.”
“Does it say what she’s in there for?”
He looked again. “Murder. She murdered her husband six years ago; slit his throat. Pleaded guilty. Got fifteen to life.”
“Sounds like a nice lady,” I said, but it didn’t get a smile from Hemmings.
“You’ll provide me with written reports on your progress,” he said. “Until Stan gets back.”
“Yes, I certainly will.”
I lived then, and now, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, which made me semi-unique among my colleagues at the firm. My apartment was on the third floor of a brownstone on Seventy-sixth Street, between Columbus and Amsterdam. It was a walk-up, common among those kinds of buildings in the area, and I tried to think positive by viewing the stairs as a way to stay in shape.
I suspected that my Manhattan residence was not viewed as a positive by my superiors, who no doubt felt that the forty-five-minute commute each way was time better spent in the office, doing work billable to clients.
It wasn’t that I was anti–New Jersey; I was pro–New York. If I wanted a pizza at 11:00 P.M., I didn’t want to have to preheat an oven. I wanted to go downstairs and get one.
Also, my favorite bars to hang out in were in New York, though I never really gave the Jersey bars a chance. I felt at home in Manhattan, on its streets, in its restaurants, with its women. And if a woman came in one night from Queens, that was fine as well.
The truth is that I would willingly date a woman from any of the five boroughs, with the obvious exception of Staten Island. Even that would be fine, if not for the fact that at some point I’d have to take her home, or meet her parents, or something like that. I’ve heard that people never come back from there.
I was and am a Manhattan snob, and that’s where I’d soon be looking for a job. I was reaching that point at my tenure in the firm where one was either made a partner or encouraged to leave. I was certainly going to receive such encouragement, and I wasn’t going to move to any job I couldn’t commute to by subway or feet.
I got home from work at about 7:45, which was fairly typical. The phone was ringing as I was walking in the door. It was my friend Ken Bollinger, asking if I wanted to meet him for the first of what would become quite a few drinks.
Ken was and is an investment banker, on track to make ridiculous amounts of money, none of which he was willing to spend. He actually ordered beer based on price.
“Not tonight,” I said. “I’ve got to be at New Jersey State Prison for Women first thing in the morning.” It was a line I had never gotten to say before in my life, and I took my time with it.
I explained the situation, after which he said, “There’s nothing better than conjugal visit sex.”
I knew he was talking about a Seinfeld episode in which George dated a female prisoner. He reveled in the idea of conjugal visit sex. Ken and I could talk for days, only using Seinfeld references.
“And no pop-ins,” I said, since George had also considered it a huge plus that his inmate girlfriend couldn’t just show up at his apartment unannounced.
“Can I go with you?” he asked. “Convicts never insist on going to expensive restaurants.”
“No chance,” I said. “But I’ll see if she has a friend. Maybe a nice, frugal arsonist.”
Copyright © 2012 by Tara Productions, Inc.