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Desperate, he approaches his wiseguy cousin Jackie with an insurance scheme--a way for the Mob to collect from guys who owe but can't pay, and a chance for Robert to use his law degree to make a few quick bucks when he needs it most.
Robert thinks it will be a one-time ...
Desperate, he approaches his wiseguy cousin Jackie with an insurance scheme--a way for the Mob to collect from guys who owe but can't pay, and a chance for Robert to use his law degree to make a few quick bucks when he needs it most.
Robert thinks it will be a one-time thing. It isn't. The scheme works well--too well. The money flows, the violence escalates, and Robert soon learns that getting out of a deal with the Mafia isn't exactly easy...especially when the FBI is onto you.
Thick morning fog rolled in off New York Harbor as the old immigrant was led to a secluded spot in the back of the lot. The hanging mist and a sun that was still a few minutes from rising made him and the younger man who guided him invisible even to those who were filtering through the chain-link gate for a day’s work, just fifty or so yards away.
They stopped behind a green dumpster. The old man was told to get down on his knees, and even though at seventy he was twice the age of the younger man, he did what he was told. The young man stuffed a white sweat sock into the immigrant’s mouth.
“You make a sound, I’ll smash your fuckin’ head in, understand?” the young man threatened.
The immigrant nodded.
“Gimme your hand.”
The old man complied. At first he tried to get away with offering up his left hand, but it didn’t fly.
“Not that one,” the young man ordered. “The one you write with.”
The immigrant pulled his left hand back and slowly pushed his right hand forward, along the ground, making grooves in the earth with his fingers.
The young man removed a hammer from inside his coat pocket.
“Remember, not a sound,” he warned.
The immigrant pressed his eyes closed tight.
The hammer swung down with full force. Blood shot out from all sides of the old man’s hand as if someone had stepped on a sponge soaked in dark red paint. The grooves in the dirt filled in black. Despite the sock and the warnings, the immigrant let out a wail that couldn’t be heard over the sound of workers unloading flatbeds by the gate.
“Motherfucker,” the young man barked, and he quickly drove the hammer down into the hand two more times as punishment for the old man’s disobedience.
The immigrant collapsed onto his side, grasping his mangled paw. He wept silently, the pain too great for any more screams. The young man grabbed the dumpster by its side and pushed it over. The immigrant didn’t even see it coming; he just felt it land on his hand, crushing already broken bone into smaller pieces. The pain was so bad, the old man passed out.
When the other workers found him about twenty minutes later, he was unconscious, bloody, and alone.
The immigrant wasn’t the first guy in Brooklyn to catch a beating—and he won’t be the last. Everyone in Bensonhurst pays their dues eventually. Some pay what’s fair; some pay tenfold. A lot of people feel I didn’t pay nearly enough; they think I got away with murder—figuratively and literally.
And if that is how people want to look at me, I won’t try to convince them otherwise. The blood on my hands and the hands of others—I caused it all. It’s that knowledge that gives me the nightmares that keep me awake every night. But I deserve them; I deserve everything I got. It’s my never-ending penance for what I did. Because what I did was horrible.
My father hired a limousine to take my entire family from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see me graduate from law school. I watched them pour out of the vehicle in front of my apartment building on 113th Street—my stocky father, my portly mother, fat Uncle Vincent and husky Aunt Edith, and finally my chubby sister, Ginny. It looked like some kind of Fat Italian Clown Car. I had tried to dissuade my father from getting the limo. He and my mother didn’t have much money and a limousine definitely was not within their budget. He wouldn’t listen.
“This is the proudest day in Principe family history,” he told me. “We’re going to celebrate it properly.”
My grandfather served under Patton and stormed the beach at Normandy but me becoming a lawyer was considered the family’s finest hour. Makes you think.
To my family, and especially my father, my graduation was validation that everything my family had gone through was not in vain—from my mother’s father leaving Italy as a stowaway in the bowels of a cargo ship to my dad’s dad, and my old man as well, destroying their bodies, one day at a time, as overworked, underpaid, journeyman carpenters. I was the big payoff, the jackpot, the scratch-off ticket that when rubbed with a quarter revealed three perfect cherries. I was the one who would transition the Principe family from blue collar to white, from tool belt to leather belt, from work boot to dress shoe. I was the Golden Boy.
Despite my parents’ aspirations for my career, I never wanted to stray far from my roots. Even though I was recruited by all of the top Manhattan corporate law firms, I turned them all down. Instead, I opened my own practice immediately after law school. I was so goddamn naïve—I thought I had outsmarted everyone. While my classmates from Columbia were working hundred-hour workweeks for behemoth firms such as Sullivan & Rose and Warren, Kugler & Curtis, I’d have my own personal injury practice.
My father provided a built-in client base. He had worked with every lather, carpenter, and laborer from Coney Island to the Bronx. These guys knew him and respected him, so why wouldn’t they hire his son if they ever got hurt on the job? Construction sites are dangerous places and guys get hurt all the time, and their lawsuits are very lucrative. Why the hell would I want to work at some stuffy firm representing banks and hedge funds when I could represent real people, people I knew and grew up with; people who truly needed my help—people who wouldn’t be able to feed their families if they broke their leg or fractured an arm? I was going to get rich doing God’s work. I truly started out with the best of intentions.
I realize now that a big reason I went out on my own was because of my dad. I think subconsciously I knew I could never pay him back for all he’d done for me, putting me through college and all—working his ass off so I could get an education. The least I could do was help his union brothers when they needed help the most. That kind of thinking was my first mistake. A son can never pay back his father. It’s impossible. You can give him everything in the world and still come up short.
So after graduation I opened an office above Morelli’s Deli in Bensonhurst, at the corner of 18th and 71st, just a few blocks from where I grew up. The space was big, but reasonably priced, mostly because on hot days the smell of headcheese and pimento loaf would seep through the cracks of the old wooden floorboards. There was a reception area with a secretarial station, a large office, a small bathroom, and a smaller office that was so jammed with old furniture, boxes, and other junk from the prior tenants that you couldn’t walk more than a few feet inside. The space needed some work—a coat of paint, some rewiring, and a few holes in the walls had to be patched—but it was nothing my father couldn’t fix over the course of a weekend, which he did of course. It wasn’t much, but it was more than adequate for a sole practitioner just starting out.
The large office had a great view of the neighborhood. Sometimes, when I was at work, I’d look down on 71st and see guys I grew up with riding the sanitation trucks or humping Sheetrock for Fortunato Construction for a three-story that was going up across from Morelli’s. I’m ashamed to say it, but there were times when I looked down on them in more ways than one. Even though I was raised by and grew up idolizing men who worked with their hands for a living, once I knew I’d never meet the same fate, I sometimes felt I was a little bit more important than my former peers who dug ditches for a living. Don’t get me wrong—I wasn’t an elitist, and most of the time I didn’t feel that way. It’s just that every once in a while, right after I had first opened shop, I’d strain my shoulder patting myself on the back.
My father was so excited when I first hung out my shingle. Actually, it wasn’t a shingle at all. I had a glass door at street level that opened to a staircase that led up to my office. I put those gold, stick-on letters with black trim on the inside of the door—ROBERT R. PRINCIPE, ESQ.—ATTORNEY AT LAW. My dad kept telling everyone in the neighborhood that I was a partner in my own law firm.
The old man had a tendency to exaggerate the accomplishments of his children. Once, in junior high, Ginny brought home one of those paper certificates you got in gym class for the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge. She did more situps than anyone else in her class or something like that but my father told anyone who would listen that his daughter got a personally signed “Commendation” from President Carter. A couple dozen Americans were holed up in some basement in Tehran, gas prices were skyrocketing, and the United States had just boycotted the Moscow Olympics, but somehow my dad had convinced himself that Carter could sleep at night because my sister clocked a good time in the shuttle run. But you gotta cut the guy some slack. There are a lot worse things you can say about a man than he thinks the sun rises and sets on his children.
Besides, he wasn’t the only one who was excited about my new firm. I couldn’t wait for my first case to come in. I’d be helping the injured in their time of need. And if I got rich in the process, what was the harm of that? I figured I’d settle a few big injury cases after I graduated from law school, save carefully, and be retired within five years. That was eight years ago.
The most interesting thing I learned in law school was the theory of “causation”—the idea that no event is an island unto itself; that everything that happens is just part of a long cosmic chain; and each link in the chain is the result of a prior link having already occurred. I’m convinced that when the world comes to an end you’ll be able to backtrack and find a single occurrence, even if it occurred a million years in the past, that set off a reaction that eventually led to the event that caused the downfall of mankind. In other words, I believe everything has a clearly defined genesis. You need not go back a million years to find the genesis of my personal downfall. It was when I learned that Mrs. Catalano was dead. I had just gotten the news when I heard the phone ring.
“I’m not here, take a message,” I called out to Joey from my office. I didn’t feel like speaking to anyone. I was still sort of in shock. The phone kept ringing. Joey must have been on the other line but I wasn’t about to answer the call. Besides, Joey knew how to use the damn hold button.
I had hired Joey two weeks after I opened my firm and she had been with me ever since. She was a secretary, receptionist, legal assistant, paralegal, and unlicensed lawyer all rolled into one petite, curvy, twenty-five-year-old Puerto Rican frame. Frankly, she was more important to the everyday happenings at the firm than I was and she knew it. But she got three weeks’ vacation, a small cash bonus at Christmastime, and was allowed to leave early whenever she needed if she had to do something with, or for, one of her three kids. In exchange, I paid her a pittance and during rough patches she let me miss a paycheck or two and then make it up with interest when some money came in.
She was like a younger sister to me—so much so that when other lawyers commented on the “hot Puerto Rican piece of ass” I had working for me, it took all of my professionalism to refrain from knocking them out. Eventually, word got around the courthouses that you shouldn’t comment on my secretary, no matter how tight her blouse was or how short her skirt, because I would be pissed off. Some mistook my protective nature of Joey as the by-product of romantic feelings, but nothing could have been further from the truth. Those rumors would have bothered me except that Joey and my wife, Janine, knew they were bullshit and that was all that mattered to me.
Joey entered my office holding a pink phone message slip. I didn’t notice her at first because my face was buried in my hands.
“What’s wrong?” she asked, concerned.
I looked up at her. My eyes were red and swollen.
“I just got a phone call,” I explained. “Mrs. Catalano is dead.”
“Oh, my God. I didn’t realize you were so close to her. I’m so sorry, Bobby.”
“Fuck Mrs. Catalano!” I shouted. “She was one of the best cases in the office.” This business could turn you into a bastard sometimes.
Joey’s face registered concern. “Was she the pedestrian on the sidewalk case?”
“The one who was hit by the Mercedes?”
“The one with the million-dollar insurance policy?”
“That’s the one.”
“How did she die?” Joey wanted to know, as if it made a difference.
“Malignant brain tumor,” I said as I stood and stared out the window.
“I didn’t know she had cancer.”
“Apparently neither did she.”
“Can you settle the case?”
I kicked my trash can over. The prior day’s New York Law Journal spilled out and a brown, half-eaten apple rolled across the floor.
“Sure I can, for about ten grand! This case was worth half a million if it was worth a penny. Perfect liability, surgery with hardware to the leg, huge insurance policy. The whole goddamn case was based on future pain and suffering but you can’t have future pain and suffering when you’re fuckin’ dead, now can you, Joey?”
Like I said, the business could turn you into a bastard—a callous, unfeeling bastard.
“Shut your mouth right now. You sound like a horse’s ass,” Joey shot right back. “Mrs. Catalano’s family is in mourning and all you can think about is your stupid fee? You know better than that, Robert. And I know you better than that.”
“Maybe you don’t know me as well as you think because all I’m thinking about right now is my stupid fee. Money that you and I are never gonna see now.”
“You think I work here for the great pay and the benefits? Or maybe the luxurious surroundings?” Joey said sarcastically. “I’ve stuck it out because you’re the only lawyer I know who actually cares about his clients. So don’t go and turn into an asshole now ’cause I don’t have the energy to start lookin’ for another job.”
Joey stared at me, unblinking. Man, she could be a tough son of a bitch at times. She won.
“You’re right,” I yielded. “I’m sorry. But damn it, when are we gonna catch a break? We’re almost completely tapped out.” I slumped back into my chair. I grabbed the classifieds from my desk and gently tossed them to Joey. “You better start checking the want ads.”
Joey caught the paper and threw it back at me, hard, hitting me in the chest. “Check ’em yourself, ’cause I’m not going anywhere. We’re just going through a bad stretch is all.”
“It’s more than a bad stretch. After expenses, I took home no pay last year. If it weren’t for Janine’s salary, we’d be out on the street. Joey, I don’t know how much longer I can pay you. You need to understand that. You’re a single mother.”
“You never need to remind me of that, trust me,” Joey joked.
She walked behind me and rubbed my shoulders. It didn’t help. I was as tense as a high wire.
“We’ll worry about payroll problems if and when the time comes,” she said, trying to calm me down. “Besides, we still have the Smyth case. When that settles you’ll be a millionaire and you can give me a big, fat bonus. In the meantime, why don’t you go home early, spend some time with Janine, and get your mind off things for a while?”
I stared through the door at the practically empty shelves in the reception area.
“Why not?” I said. “I’ve hardly got any cases to work on anyway.”
I instinctively grabbed my briefcase, although there was no work to be done inside of it, and left my desk. During the months leading up to the day Mrs. Catalano died, there was so little business coming in that I hadn’t had any work to do in the evenings when I went home. But, like a trained seal, I reached for my briefcase every day before leaving the office and took it home with me. And every morning, I’d walk back to work carrying the same empty briefcase. It was almost as if I would have been admitting defeat if I stopped bringing it home each night.
As I headed out the door, Joey called to me. She waved the pink phone message slip above her head. “That phone call before was from Mrs. Guzman. She wants to talk to you.”
“Tell her I’ll get back to her,” I said without turning around. I was in no mood to speak with Mrs. Guzman.
My office was twelve blocks from my house so my “commute” to work was a fifteen-minute walk. I loved that I didn’t have to sit in traffic like the schmucks coming into the city every morning from Jersey, Westchester, and Long Island. Instead, I was able to stroll through my hometown, one of the few perks of my job. Childhood memories from the neighborhood would wash over me. Every day I’d pass Saint Joseph’s Church, where I used to play CYO basketball; Town Circle Barbershop, where my dad and I both went to get our hair cut on the days before we each got married; and Junior’s Diner, where in seventh grade Angela Valario let me feel her up in the back booth when no one was looking.
The past would cloak me and protect me in a way that only someone’s hometown can. I felt safer in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, than I did anywhere else on earth.
But the day Mrs. Catalano died, my walk home didn’t make me feel better. I had “stomach issues”—the euphemism I gave my severe intestinal problems that started soon after I began practicing law and which got progressively worse over the years. A specialist told me my problems were the result of stress and anxiety, which I found funny because no one who ever saw me in court would have ever guessed that I suffered from stress. Whether on trial or arguing a motion, I never showed any signs of anxiety despite the fact that, very often, beneath my calm façade, my heart raced, my organs drowned in adrenaline, my blood pressure soared, my synapses burned, and my stomach percolated. All of my episodes ended the same—with me sitting on the toilet, doubled over, pissing out of my ass. After Janine, diarrhea had become my closest companion.
No one besides Janine knew I had a problem, not even Joey. There had been times when I argued entire motions before the court while in the midst of a full-blown anxiety attack. No one could tell a thing was wrong. I made sure that neither the judge nor opposing counsel became aware of my condition. I’d check my breathing, wipe my sweaty palms on the inside of my pants pockets, sometimes I’d even have to clench my sphincter—whatever I had to do to keep my competitive edge and get out of court alive. But trying to keep the attacks hidden just made them worse, and a vicious cycle ensued. The more anxious I felt, the more I made sure to hide it, and the more I tried to hide it, the more anxious I became because I was scared I wasn’t hiding it well enough.
The impetus of my attack that particular day was clear—I had been counting on the Catalano case to bring some very substantial, and very needed, money into the firm. Now I realized I would be lucky to get five percent of what I had hoped to settle the case for. The pony I had bet on came in dead last. Hell, the pony died in the starting gate. All I wanted to do was get home without shitting my pants, hit the bathroom, and then crawl into bed.
Just when I thought no one in the world had it worse than me, I crossed the street toward Crown Car Wash and spotted my cousin Jackie Masella. He was behind the car wash entrance, pushing some bald, sixty-year-old Chinese guy into the backseat of Jackie’s Cadillac. One look at the fear in the Chinaman’s eyes and I knew that the self-pity party I was throwing for myself was totally inappropriate. The Chinaman had it worse than I could ever imagine. Or so I thought at the time.
If you asked Jackie what he did for a living, he’d tell you that he was a labor negotiator and consultant for the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America. If you asked anyone in the neighborhood, they would tell you the same thing. And everyone would be lying. Everyone in Kings County knew my cousin Jackie had been a thief, crook, gangster, and junior wiseguy for most of his three and a half decades on this earth. But no one ever talked about it.
His father was my grandfather’s sister’s son, which made Jackie my second cousin. But if you know anything about Italians and how we view family, you’d know that such labels are meaningless. If he’s your nephew, you treat him like a brother. If he’s your cousin, you treat him like a brother. If he’s your aunt’s niece’s son’s second cousin on your mother’s side, you treat him like a brother. So long as he is blood. And Jackie was more than blood. He grew up around the corner from me, and since he was only a few years older than I was, we were basically inseparable when we were kids. And we stayed like that until I went off to college. After that we drifted apart a bit, which people tend to do when they grow in different directions. I had studying and internships, and Jackie had the unions and collecting for his boss, Big Louie Turro, or BLT, as he was known in the neighborhood. I had made a point of telling Jackie about all the classes I was taking and the incredible people I had met in college, hoping that maybe he’d turn his life around, go to night school or something. I would even lie to my cousin about all the girls I was scoring at school, anything to get him interested in leaving the neighborhood and doing something with his life other than running around for Big Louie.
But every Christmas break, every summer vacation, whenever I came home from wherever I had been, there were two things that never changed. First, Ferro’s Bakery would give away free zeppoli every Fourth of July and Christmas. You could go as many times as you wanted, eat as many zeppoli as your stomach could handle, so long as you said, “Happy birthday, Jesus,” or “Happy birthday, America,” depending on which holiday it was. No “Happy birthday,” no zeppoli—Tom Ferro’s rule. He said they were the two most important birthdays in the history of the world and they had to be respected.
The other constant was that Jackie would be hanging out at Patsy’s between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m., because those were the hours that guys who “owed” BLT would come by to settle up with my cousin. If they didn’t, Jackie would go looking for them. And everyone in Bensonhurst knew that if Jackie Masella came looking for you, well, you better hope you couldn’t be found.
But Jackie had found the Chinaman. As I watched, Jackie slipped a C-note to the owner of the car wash, who then conveniently “alibied” himself by walking across the street to a coffee shop. I wondered if the poor old guy in the Caddy had any idea of what was in store for him, because I sure as hell did.
Jackie got into the backseat, next to the Chinaman, and closed the door. A metal track pulled the Cadillac into the bowels of the building, where the sounds of gears churning, water spraying, and buffers buffing would drown out any cries coming from the Eldorado. The car disappeared from view. I checked my watch. I felt sicker than before, knowing what was happening inside the car wash, amongst the hot wax and spinning brushes.
Exactly one minute later, Jackie’s car emerged glistening. The back door opened; Jackie got out and walked away from the car. The Chinaman stumbled out after him, his face badly beaten and blood all over his shirt. He looked around, unsure of what to do until Jackie motioned to him to get lost. A swarm of Puerto Rican workers descended on the car, scrubbing the blood off the tan leather interior, just as their boss, I am sure, had instructed them to do.
What had the old guy done to deserve Jackie’s wrath or, more accurately, BLT’s wrath? Had he borrowed money he couldn’t pay back? Did he play the numbers and actually think he’d collect after he won? Or maybe he refused to sell hijacked cigarettes in his bodega? Didn’t really matter. Once you’d gotten a “waxing at the Crown,” as it was called in the neighborhood, the reason you got it was irrelevant. You just knew you didn’t want it to happen again. I had heard about guys getting “waxed,” but I never knew if it was real or just Brooklyn legend. Now I knew. What I didn’t know was that soon enough I’d be getting an up close and personal look at how Jackie did business and that it would make a waxing at the Crown look like a walk in the park.
Jackie grabbed a towel from one of the Puerto Ricans and wiped blood from his hands. I was only about fifty yards from him, so I put my head down and walked quickly so that he wouldn’t spot me. I didn’t want him to know I had seen him “work”—it just would have been awkward. I passed by the car wash without looking up and covered the last few blocks to my home in record time.
I walked the stone path leading from the sidewalk to my brick row house. I remember how proud we were the day we closed on it. Janine and I were barely able to scrape together enough for the down payment, but the house was in good shape and in a safe neighborhood so we made it work. Well, at least we did for a while. Janine was unaware of it at the time, but I had skipped a few mortgage payments in order to pay some law firm bills. And I was finding it hard to catch up.
I remember our first night in the house—Janine and I watched the movie The Flamingo Kid. We kept thinking of excuses to get up from the couch.
You want a glass of water, honey? Let me get it for you.
Are you cold, sweetheart? Let me go upstairs and get a blanket.
Why don’t I run into the kitchen and make us some popcorn?
We really just wanted to strut around our great big house. Truth be told, the house isn’t big at all. But the apartment we had been living in was only two rooms and so small that you couldn’t stretch your legs without kicking over a lamp. All Janine and I had done was buy a tiny two-bedroom, one-and-a-half-bath row house in a middle-class neighborhood, but we thought we had bought the Taj Mahal.
As I turned the key in the lock to my front door, my stomach started to settle down. Going home always made my anxiety attacks subside. That’s because Janine was there. No matter how stressed I ever felt, all I’d have to do was ask her to wrap her arms around me and tell me she loved me and I’d almost immediately start to feel better. That’s why I always told Janine I didn’t want her coming to my office. I didn’t want those two worlds to mix—the one that caused all of my worries and the one that was a panacea for the very same.
My wife called out as soon as I entered. My stomach did not remain settled for long.
“Hi, sweetheart!” she shouted as she ran over to me and threw her arms around my neck. She kissed me repeatedly on the cheek and lips.
“Hey! What did I do to deserve this welcome?” I asked.
Janine was all smiles. “Sit down,” she said. “I’ve got news for you.”
“What kind of news? I don’t like news that I have to sit down for before I can hear it.” I was wary and my instincts would prove to be correct.
“Just sit down and I’ll tell you,” Janine said as she led me into the kitchen. She was absolutely giddy. That alone spelled trouble for me. I don’t claim to know a lot about women. In fact, I know less than nothing. But there is one thing of which I am certain—there is a direct correlation between the excitement a woman feels in response to an event and the dismay a man will experience over the exact same thing. For example, a woman will jump for joy when she finds out her mother is coming in from Tucson to spend a month at her house while a man, upon hearing the same news, will jump out the window. It was my knowledge of this phenomenon that caused my stomach to gurgle much faster when I saw how my wife was behaving.
“Is it good news or bad news?” I asked tentatively, already knowing the answer.
“The best kind of news! I’m pregnant!”
I collapsed into the kitchen chair. My stomach played “Babalu.”
“How did this happen? I thought we were being careful?” With over a million different responses from which to choose, I had managed to pick the absolutely worst one. I’m gifted that way.
Janine became defensive, and rightfully so. “It just happened. Why? Aren’t you happy?”
“I just thought we were going to wait until we were a little more set financially is all.” Once again, this was not the response my wife was looking for.
“Hey,” she argued, “I’m not exactly the Virgin Mary over here. You played a part in this, too, you know.”
I said nothing. I was numb, except for my stomach, which, like clockwork, began to really hurt like hell.
“Oh, forget it. You can be such an asshole sometimes,” Janine said as she turned to walk out of the kitchen. It was obvious I had hurt her, and she was, and still is, the last person in the world I would ever want to hurt. Unfortunately, I have the tendency to do exactly the opposite of what I intend.
I reached out and grabbed Janine gently by the wrist.
“Sweetheart…” I said softly.
She pulled away. “Don’t touch me.”
I wrapped my arms around her waist and pulled her onto my lap and hugged her tightly. It was damage-control time.
“Of course I’m happy. I’m thrilled. I’m just… I’m just a little surprised is all. Believe me, I couldn’t be happier.” Like most lawyers, I can shovel bullshit with the best of them but shortly into this particular apology I realized that I wasn’t spin-doctoring at all. I truly meant what I was saying. I was thrilled and excited to be having a baby with this incredible woman. It literally almost scared the crap out of me. But I was excited nonetheless.
Janine leaned in and kissed me sweetly on the lips. Like always, when she kissed me, I forgot all about lawsuits and bills and mortgages.
We were mid-kiss when the front door swung open wildly, smashing against the table that sat behind it, causing our wedding photo to fall over, facedown. My sister, Ginny, ran into the house, shrieking like only she can. Her live-in boyfriend, Ian, followed behind her. Ian was a spoiled rich kid from Long Island who was in his mid-thirties and still trying to make it as a musician. Ginny was attracted to his alleged “passion for his art” and his refusal to accept any kind of support from his father. But he had no problem letting my sister support his no-talent ass. I had heard his band, Gator Spoonful, play only once, and that was more than enough—imagine a bad ’80s hair band except the members don’t fit into the tight spandex and they don’t have that much hair anymore. He had been living with Ginny for a few years. She was four months pregnant with his child and was beginning to show. I disliked Ian immensely and I didn’t hide it.
“Oh, my God! Oh, my God!” Ginny yelled as she embraced Janine and kissed her. “My mother called and told me the news! I had to come right over!”
“You told my mother before you told me?” I asked, a little hurt.
“You were in court this morning and I had to tell somebody,” Janine explained. “Besides, I wanted to tell you in person.”
“Congratulations,” Ian said insincerely, extending his hand toward me. I shook it, for Ginny’s sake. Ian patted my wife’s stomach and winked at me. “Glad to see you guys are finally catching up to us.”
“Bullshit,” I corrected. “When there’s a ring on my sister’s finger, then you’ll be caught up to us. Until then, you’re way behind.”
Ginny placed her arm around Ian and kissed him on the cheek. “That’ll be coming soon enough, won’t it, honey?” Ginny asked.
“As soon as the baby is born,” Ian reminded her.
“That’s a little ass backwards, isn’t it?” I said under my breath.
“Are you gonna start in again?” Ginny snapped. “This is my life, Bobby, not yours.”
“And you’re doing a fine job fucking it up, aren’t you? You hit Mom and Dad up for any more money this month?”
“Enough!” Janine put an end to the argument. “There will be no fighting. Not tonight.”
Everyone was silent. Janine rarely, if ever, raised her voice. So when she did, you knew she had a good reason. For a petite, quiet woman, Janine commanded more respect than anyone I knew. In a family of boisterous, insane Italians, Janine stood out as our own one-hundred-twenty-pound E. F. Hutton—when she talked, people listened.
“You’re right. I’m sorry,” I apologized to Janine before turning to Ginny. “I’m sorry, Ginny. I just had a bad day at work and I’m taking it out on you.”
“That’s okay. I’ve had a few days like that myself,” my sister said as she gave me a tight hug. “I still can’t believe my baby brother is going to be a father!”
Neither could I.
That night I lay in bed and watched my wife get changed into flannel pajama bottoms and a T-shirt. My God, Janine was stunning. She looked at herself in the full-length mirror that hung on our closet door and ran her hands over her stomach. My stomach hadn’t been as flat as hers since I was twelve.
“Will you still love me when my belly’s big and fat?” she asked.
“My belly’s big and fat and you still love me,” I answered.
Janine climbed into bed next to me and kissed me on the nose.
“Your belly’s not fat. You’re very handsome.” She was being kind. I had ceased being handsome in my mid-twenties, and it was a shame, too, because in my day I was a damn good-looking guy. But during my first year of law school my hair started to fall out in clumps—partly genetics, partly stress. Studying replaced working out and I soon gained twenty pounds. I carried the extra weight fairly well, but I hardly looked thin. Janine called me “stocky” but what that really meant was I had grown love handles. By the time I turned thirty a few lines had become fixtures on my face and “handsome” was a distant memory. A few more years and I had become invisible to all women except desperate, single secretaries who didn’t care that I was married because all they wanted was to land a lawyer. But Janine would always tell me I was handsome. I don’t know if she was lying, blind, or retarded but I wasn’t about to complain. She was beautiful and mine and if she was happy with me, then so be it.
I placed my hand on Janine’s stomach. I was worried.
“I don’t know how we’re going to afford this, honey,” I said. “I’m not exactly setting the legal profession on fire, if you know what I mean.”
Once again, Janine defended me from myself. “You’re a great lawyer,” she argued. “You just need a break is all.”
“We’ll be fine. The school said I could work part-time as a teacher’s aide once the baby is born. I’ll be making a lot less, but we’ll make it work. Besides, after the Smyth case is settled we’ll be on easy street.”
“I hope you’re right. The case is on for a defendant’s motion in a few days. I’ll beat it. But I still have to win the trial.”
“I know I’m right,” Janine said confidently as she turned off her bedside light. “Now spoon me so I can get some rest. I’m really tired.”
Janine rolled over onto her side and got into the fetal position. I did the same and pressed my front against her back and wrapped my arms around her from behind. As we lay there in the spoon position, I drifted into a nervous sleep, dreaming of dead clients and new babies and a wife I did not deserve.
Defendant’s motion for summary judgment is granted. Case dismissed.”
I watched in disbelief as Judge Hall raised his gavel. Its ascent seemed to take place in slow motion. It reached its apex and then began its free fall toward the bench, Hall’s liver-spotted fingers wrapped tightly about the handle, grasping my fate. The head of the small wooden hammer crashed with a loud thud, three times, as was Judge Hall’s trademark disposition of a case. Each bang caused a sharp pain in my chest, as if the judge was using his gavel to drive a nail into my heart. He was throwing out the Smyth case, the case that was supposed to save me, Janine, our impending child, and my law firm in one windfall of cash. And I was powerless to stop him.
“Your Honor, I strongly object!” I shouted so that I could be heard above the din of the ham-and-eggers packing the courtroom. “Ham-and-eggers” is supposed to be a derogatory term. Its intention is to separate the working-stiff schmucks who hump it into the courthouses every day, five days a week, to litigate cases from the Ivy League, thousand-dollar-suit-wearing, Midtown-office corporate lawyers who wouldn’t know which end of a gavel was up because they never had, and never planned to, degrade themselves by stepping into a courtroom. The ham-and-eggers were considered the lower end of the legal profession and the joke was they would bring their lunch, such as a ham-and-egg sandwich, to work in a lunch box while the corporate lawyers would eat out at places like Le Cirque and Gotham. To be honest, I sort of liked being called a ham-and-egger. In fact, I took pride in the term. My old man brought a lunch box to work every day of his life and had eaten his share of ham-and-egg sandwiches. I figured if it was good enough for him, it was good enough for me.
On the day I argued the Smyth case, Kings County Supreme Court in Brooklyn was a madhouse as usual, overflowing with ham-and-eggers. The thing that surprised me most about the legal profession when I first started practicing was the informality and disorganization of the courtrooms. On any given day a judge would have anywhere from twenty to one hundred cases on his or her docket. Courtrooms that were designed to hold thirty people were forced to accommodate one hundred fifty. Lawyers would fill the gallery, the jury box, the aisles, and, more often than not, they would overflow into the hallway. All the while, the attorneys would shout out the names of their opposing counsel’s clients, in the hopes that opposing counsel would hear them above all of the noise. If the name was heard, opposing counsel would call out the name of the first lawyer’s client in response, and then, upon spotting each other, the two adversaries would fight their way through the sea of suits so they could meet and discuss the motion or conference that was scheduled for that day. It’s like some kind of pathetic mating-call ritual that only lawyers understand and it creates probably the most inefficient system possible for the administration of justice. That is why I kept shouting out my objection to Judge Hall’s ruling—I had to make sure he heard me above the din of the courtroom before his bailiff called the next case.
“I heard you the first time, Counselor,” Judge Hall admonished. “And you can object as often and as loudly as you like, but I’m not changing my ruling.”
“But Judge, there are several issues of fact here that, with all due respect, should be decided by a jury and not by you!”
“And that’s where you and I disagree and that’s what makes the world go ’round.”
“Look, your client slipped on applesauce in a Food World. You have no witnesses and Mr. Smyth has no idea how long the applesauce was in the aisle. You can’t establish notice so I have to toss the case. Summary judgment is warranted.”
Judge Hall was right, and I knew he was right, but I wasn’t about to let him know it. I had to keep fighting.
“Your Honor, may I approach the bench?” Whenever I was about to kiss a judge’s ass, I would switch from calling him “Judge” to “Your Honor.”
“Make it quick,” Hall snapped.
I had argued in front of Hall more times than I cared to remember. He was a decent enough guy, but he had been on the bench about ten years too long and had seen all the tricks in the book. He was “surfing”—lawyer lingo for riding out his last few years before hanging up the robe and collecting a sweet government pension. He knew I had no chance of changing his mind but he figured he’d give me a shot at it, maybe out of professional courtesy, maybe out of morbid fascination—like watching a spider try to struggle his way out of the toilet bowl right before you flush him.
I hurried up to the bench but my adversary, John McDonough, had beaten me there by a few seconds and was already making his case to Judge Hall.
“Your Honor,” McDonough pleaded, “I don’t understand why you’re entertaining this conversation. You’ve already made your ruling. If Mr. Principe has a problem with it, he can always appeal.”
“Shut up, John,” the judge snapped back.
Once you were at the bench and no one else could hear your conversation, formalities were over—at least for the judge, anyway. The lawyers still had to grovel, which put me at a distinct disadvantage as McDonough’s obsequiousness was finely honed. In fact, he was famous for it. He was a toady’s toady, a real bench-bitch, the type of lawyer who worshipped judges and dreamed of being one, even though he knew there wasn’t a chance in hell of that ever happening. If you looked up “sycophant” in Webster’s you wouldn’t find a picture of McDonough’s face—you’d find a picture of McDonough with his head firmly shoved up some judge’s ass. And if you had X-ray vision, you’d be able to see McDonough, stuck up in there, smiling from ear to ear, more than content to be snugly nestled in the warmth of the judge’s colon. God, I hated the son of a bitch.
Judge Hall turned to me. “You’ve got thirty seconds to change my mind.”
“Your Honor,” I started, “Mr. Smyth testified repeatedly at his deposition that the Food World in question was where he shopped every week, and that whenever he was there the aisle where he fell was always covered with garbage and debris. That is more than enough to establish that the store had notice of the dangerous condition.” My argument was weak at best, and McDonough pounced on it.
“Plaintiff counsel is well aware, or at least he should be,” McDonough said smugly, “that a persistent, but general, dirty condition does not create notice. To make a case, Mr. Principe would have to demonstrate that my client had notice that the specific applesauce that allegedly caused Mr. Smyth to fall had been in the aisle for a specific period of time. He can’t do that.” McDonough stared at me, proud of himself, waiting for my response. He had no idea how close he came to my response being a crack to his smirking mouth. But McDonough was saved from that fate by Judge Hall, who leaned forward so that we could hear him whisper.
“Look, Rob,” he said, in an almost fatherly tone, “I don’t want to throw your case out, especially with the type of injuries your client suffered. I mean, a skull fracture is pretty serious. But unless you can show notice, I have to toss you. Give me something to hang my hat on and you stay in the game.”
“But Your Honor…” McDonough blurted.
“Quiet, Counselor.” Hall raised his hand, palm out, in McDonough’s direction.
“Your Honor,” I began, “Warren v. Flanders School District holds that a general, consistent dangerous condition is enough to establish constructive notice if the defendant is responsible for allowing that condition to persist. In that case, garbage cans in the school cafeteria were always overflowing with garbage, and…”
Hall cut me off.
“I’m familiar with Warren. It’s a Third Department case. You have case law relevant to Kings County?”
He knew I didn’t. He was a bastard for even asking. I was down to desperate measures.
“Your Honor,” I pleaded, with eyebrows raised, trying to make my face appear as sincere and earnest as possible. “This is the biggest case in my office. I’m begging you, please don’t throw it out.”
“I’m not about to ignore Second Department law simply because you feel this is your ‘biggest case,’ ” the judge shot back, annoyed that I had tried to play on his sympathies. “Now do you have anything else for me to consider or not? You’re wasting the court’s time.”
“No, my argument stands,” I shot back defiantly as if suddenly trying to appear like I had balls would make a difference.
“Then my decision stands as well. Case dismissed.” The judge turned to the bailiff. “Call the next case.”
“Number fifty-seven on the calendar, Tonelli v. Merrick,” the bailiff shouted so his voice could be heard throughout the courtroom.
The attorneys for the next case took their places at counselors’ tables, but I wouldn’t step down from the bench. I had a choice—suck it up and appeal with only a one percent chance of having the decision overturned or lose my shit and act like an insane person in front of my colleagues. I chose.
“Judge,” I shouted. “Do you want to clear a case from your docket so badly that you’re willing to ignore the fact that my client suffered a fractured skull because the defendant can’t keep his store clean?” I had just suggested that a judge dismissed a case in order to lessen his workload. Truth is, judges do that all the time, but it’s a dirty little secret that no one ever acknowledges. That’s a line you don’t cross, but I crossed it anyway. I not only crossed it but then I turned around, whipped out my dick, and pissed on it—all in open court.
Judge Hall turned crimson. “Sanctions!” he screamed. “Five hundred dollars!”
“Who cares? I don’t have the money to pay it anyway!”
“Get him out of my courtroom!”
The bailiff grabbed me by the arm and attempted to lead me out into the hall. I pulled my arm free and walked out on my own.
The eyes of every lawyer in the room watched me as I exited. I was aware that, by noon, every attorney in Brooklyn would have heard about how Rob Principe had a total breakdown in court. By three o’clock the story would be that I slugged the bailiff. By the next morning, the rumor mill would have me getting dragged out in cuffs, crazy-eyed, screaming “Free Manson.”
As a lawyer, all you have is your reputation, and mine was a well-deserved one for being honest, almost to a fault, and for being levelheaded. In a single morning, I had done much damage to that reputation. And it was all the result of choosing to lash out at the judge instead of just walking away from the bench. As bad choices went, I was just getting warmed up.
Roland had been calling my name for about half a block but I didn’t turn around because I wasn’t in the mood for talking. The noise of the traffic was loud enough for me to pretend I couldn’t hear him but he eventually caught up to me when I was waiting for the light to turn at the corner of Church Street and Montague. Don’t get me wrong, I love Roland. He’s been my best friend since we were kids. We went to grade school, high school, and even college together—everything but law school; Roland got his JD at Brooklyn Law. But like I said, I just wasn’t in the mood to talk, even to a pal.
“Hey, Prince,” Roland said as he finally caught up to me. “Slow the hell down, man. I’ve been calling your name since the courthouse. Ya didn’t hear me?”
“No,” I lied. “Sorry, my mind is sort of elsewhere.”
“I’d be loopy, too, if I had my ass handed to me the way you just did.”
“Did you see that bullshit?” I asked.
“Yeah, I was in the back. Tough loss,” Roland sympathized.
“Yeah, well, Hall’s an old mummy.”
“He was right, ya know.”
But he didn’t shut up.
“How the hell did you let your client testify that he didn’t know how long the applesauce was on the ground? That’s borderline malpractice.”
“Malpractice? Why? Because I didn’t tell Smyth to lie at his deposition?” I asked sarcastically.
“No,” Roland responded, “because you didn’t tell him the consequences of not lying. There’s a big difference.”
I was about to lecture Roland on legal morals and ethical responsibility when we were interrupted by Jimmy Fargas, a man for whom these topics would have been completely foreign. Jimmy was a fat personal injury attorney from Staten Island who had gotten rich on pediatric medical malpractice suits. He was famous for landing huge cases and he did whatever he had to do in order to keep the clients coming through his door. He set up “chasers” in hospitals, he bribed nurses and physician assistants for referrals, and he paid off parents who had already hired lawyers so they would fire their counsel and retain him. He was a millionaire ten times over and was two years younger than me. I hated him. He greeted us looking like a fat cat with a mouthful of canary.
“Roland, Rob,” he said, bubbling over with excitement. “Anything new with you guys?”
I could tell he wanted nothing more than for us to ask him the same question.
“Fargas. What’s with the shit-eatin’ grin?” Roland asked, falling right into the fat bastard’s trap.
“I just signed up a brain-damaged-baby case!” he burst out with glee, like a woman telling her best friends that she just got engaged. Roland immediately peppered Jimmy with questions.
“Solid. Misuse of forceps at delivery. Crushed-skull injury.”
“Doc’s got a two-million policy. Hospital’s got five.”
“They ‘no-speka-the-English,’ man. They’ll do whatever I say. I tell them to hold out for more money, they’ll hold out. I tell them to settle, they’ll settle.”
“Solid score.” Roland high-fived Jimmy as if they had just combined on a perfect give-and-go in a pick-up basketball game.
What struck me was that Roland never thought to ask the child’s name, and Jimmy never thought to offer it.
Roland, with great admiration, watched Jimmy walk away. “Now that guy is on the ball, you know what I’m sayin’? You gotta be more like him, Prince.”
“You mean a scumbag?”
Roland smiled. “C’mon, let’s grab some lunch.”
Going to Roland’s law firm always made me feel bad about myself. His space was huge, with ten individual offices, a large secretarial pool, two conference rooms, a copy room, and a kitchen with an espresso machine that cost more than my car. Everything was mahogany and leather, real top-shelf stuff. The work of hip young SoHo artists decorated the walls. Not that I wasn’t happy for Roland’s success. It’s just that after spending a few hours at his place, I always felt depressed when I went back to my deli-meat-stinking office on 71st and 18th.
As usual, Roland had gone a little overboard with lunch. The conference table was covered with food—tomatoes with mozzarella, rice balls, eggplant parmesan, and potato-and-egg sandwiches that were so good they’d make you cry.
“You want anything else, Prince?”
“No, thanks. I’m stuffed.”
“How about some wine?” Roland offered, reaching for a bottle of red from a vineyard out on Long Island’s North Fork.
“No, I’m good, thanks anyway.”
“Some dessert then? Johnny V on the corner makes the best cannoli in town,” Roland pressed, as if I hadn’t been eating Johnny V’s pastries since I was five. In fact, my first solid food was one of his half-moon cookies that my mother gave me to suck on when I was teething. “Since I settled his wife’s car accident case, he gives me whatever I want for free,” Roland continued.
“I’ve had Johnny V’s cannolis, Roland,” I said, maybe sounding a little annoyed, or possibly even defensive, but Roland didn’t pick up on it. “I just can’t eat any more.”
“I’ll just get a few then.” Roland never took no for an answer. That’s what made him such a good lawyer. Roland spoke into his intercom. “Nancy, sweetheart, call Johnny V and have him send over some cannoli, biscotti, and some spumoni. Thanks.”
Despite my earlier refusal, Roland poured me some more wine.
“Prince, you’re my best friend and you know I would never, ever, try to steer you wrong, right?”
“So I want you to listen carefully to me, okay?”
“No one’s telling you to tell your clients to lie. I don’t tell my clients to lie. But you can’t make it in this business unless you explain to your client the effect his words will have on his case. For example, in this Smyth case you just had thrown out, do you want to know how I would’ve prepped the guy?”
“Thanks, but I’ve prepped clients for depositions hundreds of times,” I said, annoyed.
“I’m sure you have,” Roland responded. “Now let me show you how to do it right. I’d have said: ‘Mr. Smyth, I understand that you fell on some applesauce in a store. Under New York law you have no case whatsoever unless you can show that store workers knew that the applesauce was there, which they’ll never admit. Or, you can show that the applesauce had been there for a long enough period of time so that the store should have known it was there.’ ”
“That’s great. Why don’t I just get sworn in and testify for him myself?” I asked sarcastically.
“You want an office like this one day or do you wanna stay in that dump above Morelli’s, no offense, for the rest of your career, which, by the way, is almost over if things don’t turn around?”
“You’re telling the client what to say!” I argued.
“No, I’m not,” Roland defended himself. “I’m telling him the consequences of what he might say. There’s a big difference. And it’s totally legal.”
“It may be legal,” I countered, “but it’s not ethical.”
Roland smiled at my ignorance. “Ethics are like clouds, Bobby. They change shape depending on how the wind is blowin’ at the time. All that matters is whether or not you’re breaking the law and I don’t break the law. The law is my ethics, not some bullshit code of morality that differs from person to person. I pay the best doctors to be my experts, I cross-examine little old ladies to tears if I have to, and I prepare the shit out of my clients before they testify. And I do it all within the law.”
Roland took a sip of his wine and looked me over.
“You know what your problem is?” he asked.
“You went to Columbia Law School to become a personal injury attorney. That’s like buying a fuckin’ Ferrari to be a goddamn cab driver. You think you’re above the rest of us, that you can make your money without getting your hands dirty. But Princey, sooner or later, we all gotta roll around in the mud.”
“Yeah, well, you wallow in it.”
“Perhaps. But I clean up nice, don’t I?” Roland retorted. “I mean, look at me. Bottom of my law school class. But I’ve got a brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, a summer home in East Hampton, and I get more tang than Neil Armstrong. All because I play the game aggressively, all within the boundaries of the law.”
I couldn’t take it anymore. “I have to get back to my office,” I said as I stood and headed for the door.
“What about the pastries?”
“I’ve got a stomachache.”
The last few rays of a setting sun slipped through the blinds of my office window as I was getting ready to go home to Janine for an evening of television and singing to my wife’s stomach.
I had taken to singing to our unborn child. I sang songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Bushel and a Peck.” I didn’t really know all of the words, so I sort of fudged it at places and made up my own lyrics. I found it really fun for some reason.
Janine kept telling me that I was nuts—the baby was way too young to hear anything at this point; she hadn’t even developed ears yet. Janine was convinced we were having a girl. But I liked the singing anyway. It calmed me. And it made me feel close to my kid. So, despite the fact that I would most likely soon become an unemployed thirty-three-year-old lawyer with no prospects for a decent job, I started to feel good for the first time in a long time. I had a beautiful wife, a belly full of food that Roland had paid for, and I was going home to sing to my child.
And then the phone rang. I usually screened calls after 6 p.m. but for some reason I answered this one.
As soon as I heard the voice on the other end, I wished I hadn’t picked up the phone.
“Mr. Principe, this is Paul Stevens from American Home Savings.”
I said nothing. I was hoping that if I stayed quiet and held my breath, Mr. Stevens would just hang up and leave me alone. No such luck.
“Mr. Principe, are you still there?”
“Uh. Yeah. I’m still here. Sorry, I’ve been having some problems with my phone.”
“Oh. That might explain why I’ve been having so much trouble getting in touch with you. I’ve been leaving you messages for weeks, Mr. Principe…”
“Well, like I said, I’ve been having trouble with my phone system. Phone, voice mail, everything…”
“Mr. Principe, I’ve left several messages with your secretary as well…”
“Oh, well, I apologize. That’s inexcusable. I will certainly have a talk with her first thing tomorrow morning. You know it’s impossible to find anyone in this town who can take a good message. I mean, how hard is it? You answer the phone. You write down the message. You hand the message to your boss. You know what I’m talking about?”
I was stalling. It didn’t work.
“We need to discuss your mortgage situation. You’re three months in default, Mr. Principe.”
The son of a bitch kept saying my name, as if he had read in some book on how to be an effective manager that you should keep repeating the name of the person you’re talking to again and again. It really pissed me off, so I did it back to him.
“Sure thing, Mr. Stevens. Now that I think about it, I did get a message that you called, Mr. Stevens, but I’ve been so busy, I haven’t had time to get back to you. I’m in the middle of settling a big case. Should be done in a few days though. Then I’ll be able to make all my back payments. How does that sound, Mr. Stevens?”
“You told me that last month, Mr. Principe. You said something about a case of yours. Smyth was the name.”
“That’s right, Mr. Stevens. Smyth. You’ve got a good memory. Case is still going strong. Insurance carrier just made a solid offer, but it’s too low. I’m gonna squeeze ’em for a few more bucks. Should be wrapped up any day now.”
“Mr. Principe, the bank can only be so patient. If you don’t pay soon, we’ll have to take action.”
“I understand your position. Don’t worry. I’ll have the money to you soon.”
“Okay. Why don’t you send one month’s payment now, as a sign of good faith?”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll send that out first thing tomorrow.”
“I should have it by the end of the week then?”
“Scout’s honor. Keep an eye on your mailbox.”
Excerpted from Slip & Fall by Santora, Nick Copyright © 2012 by Santora, Nick. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted August 1, 2012
Posted December 27, 2011
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