Friday, February 19, 2016

The Smouldering Cigarette and the Whiff of Wisdom

The iconic sign for "Mac's Tavern" in downtown Davenport, from the Travel Iowa post on Facebook, April 18, 2015, fair use/public domain claimed.

Greetings All:

About a quarter-century ago, I had the best summer job an aspiring attorney could have, a law clerk ("prosecuting intern" was my official title) for the Scott County (Iowa) Attorney's Office.  I made $7.00 an hour and all the coffee I could drink.  Also, without question, the best part of the job was getting in court.  Although it was low level criminal misdemeanor stuff, it was still court.  It was terrific.  Bill Davis was the County Attorney and he went out of his way to help us feel welcome.  I was so giddy to have this gig that I got my shirts starched and wore suspenders.  Bill told me, gently at first, to stop dressing better than the attorneys.  I thought he was kidding until he told me a second time. 

I also learned a lot about how the real world worked, at least as far as the legal system was concerned.  For instance, although a clerk may not have a position of prestige, make no mistake, they had power.  Woe be unto the attorney who crossed them.  They could easily humble the most hubris-filled barrister.  

One of the places where my informal education took place was "Mac's Tavern."  I nick-named it, "The Fourth Floor of the Courthouse."  It was a place where the judges would gather for lunch.  Mac's would bring in lunch to juries.  On any given day, lawyers, off-duty law enforcement and others connected with the judicial system would gather.  Mac's had the best meatloaf in town.  Back then, Bill Collins (now the proprietor of "Me and Billy's") was holding court and treated everyone as a dear friend.  And they were.

I learned a LOT about how the judicial system worked by hanging out at Mac's.  I may have graduated somewhere between the basement and the wine cellar of my law school class, but I was the damn valedictorian of informal education that summer.  God, how I loved that summer.  It took another 16 years until I had another summer as memorable as that one.

There is one memory that sticks out of that summer and of Mac's Tavern.  It was a Friday afternoon, probably around 5:00 and I was there, at Mac's.  Sitting at the bar was an attorney named Richard "Dick" Larson.  Dick was a well-loved and respected attorney.  He'd faced his own share of adversity and before I knew what resilience was, he personified it.

On this Friday, he and I had a conversation.  He was sitting at the bar, sipping Scotch and smoking cigarettes.  Although his face was lined as one of his age might be, his eyes sparkled, taking it ALL in.  For some reason, he struck up a conversation with me.

I recall it went something like this:

Dick:  "So, you're working for Bill this summer?"

Me:  "Yup."

Dick:  "You likin' it?"

Me:  "Absolutely!  The hardest part of the job is getting up in the morning."

Dick:  (pausing)  "So, you want to be a lawyer?"

Me:  (a bit surprised and pausing to think what to say)  "Well, yeah.  It's what I've wanted to do for a long time."

At that point, he stared at me.  Not the "death-stare-through-your-soul" type of stare.  Instead, it was the stare I could not appreciate at 22 or 23 (or even 32 or 33).  It was one of perspective.  It was one of someone who had seen much and remembered most of it.  

All this while, there was the smouldering cigarette in his hand.  (This was back in the day when smoking in bars was both common and accepted.)  He took a drag of his cigarette.  The smoke, in parallel paths, exited out his nose.  He didn't smile yet he didn't scowl.  It was as if he knew what he wanted to say, yet was debating the best discourse to offer.  Then, like a jury with a verdict, he offered this advice, this whiff of wisdom.

"Kid," he said, decreed actually,  "Your job may be being a lawyer.  But your business is keeping secrets."  

That was it.  He bought me a beer, wished me well on my career and someone else circled into his sphere and our conversation was over.  It was brief but it was enough.  

I have been thinking about that conversation lately.  I wonder if it is because I am doing more law work or if it is because I have a jury trial starting Monday.  I wonder if it is because even when I get my hair cut was a "1" on the sides, there is still gray, faint yes, but still there.  I wonder if it is because we live in a world where there is no true privacy, where our wants are tracked on Facebook with an eerie speed and accuracy.  I wonder about this and other things.  All I know for certain is that the older I get, the more true Mr. Larson's words echo in my memory...and my mind.


A few years after that encounter, Dick passed away.  His memorial service was a celebration of his life.  Yet there was a true heaviness at the funeral home, where the true weight of his passing was felt by all.  After the service, a number of us headed to Mac's.  My friend Rita mused when we got there, "You don't take death home."  These were wise words indeed.  Of course, one does not have to go to a bar.  A church community room or other sober environment works just as well, if not the only appropriate venue, depending on whom the mourners are.  For us, however, Mac's was the perfect place to go for a final toast to our friend Dick.

Dick, as an attorney of many years, must have had many secrets indeed.  By all accounts, he not only attended to his job but his business.  Now, he was free of that burden.  I only hope I can be as good a steward of my business as he was.

This was perhaps the most important lesson learned, case heard during that summer and at that special place, the fourth floor of the courthouse.  I'm grateful I had that opportunity to have that whiff of wisdom, even if it was wrapped in the smoke of a smouldering cigarette.
Be well my friends,


  1. Well said Jeno. I remember those days vividly. Remember you are the son of one of my true heroes. Bill

    1. Thanks Bill, thank you for your kind words about the post and especially my Dad. He's mine as well.