Saturday, June 17, 2006

Cleaning Out My Dad's Office

For Father's Day weekend, I wanted to post this essay about my dad, which I wrote in October.

My dad is moving on Friday and I’m helping him clean out old law files. The Union Carbide building, where my dad joined my Granddad in 1972, soon will be condominiums, part of the downtown revitalization happening in Kansas City.

“They’ve gone and gentrified my building,” my dad tells people.

As we drive into downtown, the smell of the Folgers’ coffee plant mingles with the aroma of our Quik Trip frapechinos. On Baltimore, the new library — housed in an old bank — shines in the morning sun. Farther down the street, a family of kittens has vacated the alley, their caretaker gone.

In the Law Offices of Brewster and Brewster, files stacked to their tipping point cover every desk, copy machine, refrigerator and library table, where they have accumulated since Mrs. Browning, the secretary, died.

Though Granddad died three years ago, and retired five years earlier at age 91, his file cabinets are full. I sit in a worn leather chair and pull up a standing ashtray to put paper clips in. As I flip through coarse yellow typing paper, I wonder why, though this is just an office, I feel like my grandparents’ house is being paved over.

I read off file labels to my dad before throwing papers away.

“Giuseppe D-,” I say.

“Joe D-?” my dad says, chuckling. “Granddad kept him from getting deported and he paid him in a side of beef.”

The court transcript describes a 1953 trial by jury and an appeal. D-, an immigrant, was convicted of drug trafficking in 1943, and a new law said that he could be deported. It must have taken Granddad months of preparation.

“Boy, that was some good beef,” my dad says.

My dad also subscribed to the barter system. Growing up, we ate spinach pizza about once a month — payment from my dad’s client Sarah Patito.

When my mom passed around the figs for dessert, my dad always said the same thing: “Sarah Patito is the only person in Kansas City who can grow figs. She has a green thumb.”

I hated spinach and once got a mouthful of ants when I bit into a fig, but I liked the idea of bartering. The old-fashioned give and take seemed friendly and forgiving. Plus, it’s how we got our Atari.

Four file cabinets later, we recess for lunch. At John’s bar and grill down the street, my dad tells stories. Anymore, bartered food won’t pay the salary of a secretary, so it’s just my dad at the office.

One day, he was preparing a case for probate court. Papers and files covered his desk while a blizzard whipped through downtown. A window rattled.

“You don’t suppose…” he said, eyeing the already cracked glass. Just then the window broke, sucking in snow and icy wind. My dad leaped onto his desk and laid spread eagle.

“If I move, I lose the papers,” he thought. “If I don’t move, I miss the deadline to file the papers.”

“Help,” he yelled. No one heard him.

The funniest things happen when you’re all alone. Unless you’re always alone. My dad was the only person some of his clients talked to. At the funeral of one woman, he and the preacher were the only people there.

And so, he brought his clients poinsettias for Christmas and mowed their lawns if they were elderly. As he loaded a lawn mower into his trunk on Saturdays, wearing his Busch Beer softball shirt, my mom would joke that he should call his business “Law n’ Service.”

Once, a client called him with a legal emergency. He brought along my mom and when they arrived at the client’s apartment, it turned out she just needed her sheets changed. I’m sure she never got a bill for the maid service.

My dad pays for our hamburgers at the bar, where an old man holds twenty lottery tickets.

“The pot’s worth millions,” he explains.

“If I won that, I’d be about even for the year,” my dad says.

My dad never struck it rich. It seems a shame to shred the evidence of his hard work: files regarding divorces, custody battles, bankruptcies and contested wills — my dad always said death brings out the worst in people. The papers will be shredded and recycled into documents for the next generation to sign and date.

On the way back to the Union Carbide, we stop at my dad’s new office in the New England Life building, the oldest skyscraper in Kansas City. Marble floors shine in the lobby and my dad’s office is sage and immaculate. This should ease my mind. My dad is landing in the lap of luxury. But for how long?

I stare out the windows where new boutiques dot the sidewalk. As the downtown revitalization continues, changing banks to libraries and offices to condominiums, I hope that there’s always room for people like my dad. They don’t just work in old buildings. They work in the old style, accepting food for payment and providing more than legal advice.

They know that the papers they push won’t survive them and the money they accumulate will only cause their children to argue. So they live for the day, enjoying their clients, even — or maybe especially — the crazy ones. My dad didn’t just believe that everyone had the right to an attorney. He believed they had the right to a friend.

The sun sets on downtown. Before leaving, I step into the office library, breathing in the smell of old law books. Soon, this library could be someone’s dining room. I picture a young married couple, both of them lawyers, eating dinner where the library table now sits. They tell stories about court. They laugh. They cry. But considering their expensive mortgage, they don’t eat bartered spinach pie.


Anonymous Mom said...

Thank you for printing that again. I am crying, not just because of what a wonderful father you have, but also because he has such a talented and kind daughter -so much like him!

8:03 AM  
Anonymous PVD said...

Aren't you lucky to have a Dad who knows why he does what he does. I'm sure there are many lawyers out there who are supposedly successful who haven't had as many satisfying days as your Dad. He has made a difference
and been a great example to his children and grandchilden.
Yeah Rich!

9:18 PM  
Blogger Leslie Patito said...

Sarah patito is the great aunt of my children
Thank you for your story

11:04 PM  

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