How I Became a Writer (vii)

Law School (3.)
Penn replaced numerical grades with adjectives. That made it nearly impossible to flunk out. I failed Tax. I received “Excellent” in Fed. Courts. I was mediocre everywhere else.
My main interest was extra-curricula. I had a skill. I wanted to make a contribution. I volunteered to interview clients and do legal research at the Voluntary Defender’s and Community Legal Services. I taught “Your Civil Rights” in a public high school. (“The kids’ll want to know,” someone told me, “what to do if a cop wants to look for drugs up their asshole.”) And I rode as a civilian observer in a patrol car on its evening tour.
I never caught a violent crime or kicked-in door. Mainly I saw DUIs and domestic beefs. One night two young officers shoved a broad shouldered, 40 year old against the booking desk. He smelled of alcohol. He wore a houndstooth cap. The fly on his slacks was down. He had a four-inch scar over one eye. The charges were Loitering and Prowling.
He had $.62 and a billfold stuffed with papers. On a job application, he had penciled, “Have attain some excellence as a boxer.” “Hey, Pete, watch out. This guy was a fighter,” one officer said. Pete laughed. “What’s your name?” “Charley Scott.”
“Charley Scott?” I said.
The man nodded.
I had seen him the best night of his life. He had knocked out Sugar Hart in the ninth in a fight they still talked about. Then, for Christmas money, he’d gone up to New York and lost 5-4-1 to Benny Paret, and Paret got the title shot. Within a couple years, Paret was dead, killed in the ring by Emile Griffith, and Scott was on his slide.
He left for Detective Division, light on his feet, a fighter’s bounce.

The bar that year was The Aftermath.
Chuckie Tusk, Billy McDonnell’s ex-cop uncle, had a cheesy Italian restaurant a block from Lorna’s. He let Tommy and Max open up the basement on his liquor license. They hung posters of Belmondo and Dylan and James Dean on the walls. They put a lava lamp by the register and “Good Vibrations” and “Rainy Day Women” and “Spend the Night Together” on the jukebox. A couple times Max let me card people, which was cool.
But we weren’t like before. I was still scared of acid and had quit meth once I heard how bad it was. Max was shooting it. I was playing basketball in an alumni league with stock brokers and endocrinologists. He was getting high in apartments smelling of cat piss with people who saw a night shift at the post office as a step up. I was headed toward the Bar. He had dropped the French he needed to graduate. “Whatever happened to you, man?” I said. “I’m happy,” he said. He told me pot would be legal within five years; the major tobacco companies had already registered the groovy brand names. (With the same assurance, he would tell me a few years later that heroin was not dangerous. The overdoses the media reported were really suicides. “You’ve seen the notes?” I said.)
One snowy night, we closed the bar early and, loaded with beer and Dex, headed his old Buick to the East Village. The car floated back and forth across three lanes. We couldn’t see two feet through any window. Back in his apartment, we laid our score across a Daily News headline: “$50,000 College Dope Ring Smashed.”
I saw that in my story too.

I read Tortilla Flats, Confessions of a Shy Pornographer, The Magus. (“There comes a time in each life like a point of fulcrum,” I wrote in my journal. “At that time you must accept yourself. It is not any more what you will become. It is what you are and always will be.”) I dated a teacher of deaf children, a go-go dancer Hesh fixed me up with after I put in a word for him with the judge assigned his latest bust, a divorced cellist studying at Curtis. “I could care about you,” she said. “You’re intelligent, sensitive, attractive, together; and you’re not a head. Could you care about me?” I didn’t say anything. “Have you ever cared about anyone?” “There was this girl in college.” The next time I saw her, she was in a booth at Frank’s pressed against a French horn player with a paisley necktie and purple, wide-wale corduroys.
Johnson bombed Hanoi and Haiphong. Students seized buildings on the campuses of Northwestern and Cheyney State. Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Tampa, Newark, Durham, Memphis, and Detroit burned.
Dylan crashed his motorcycle and broke his neck – or didn’t.

Stanley Kessler was married at the Bellevue and took a job in mergers and acquisitions at a thirty member firm on Broad Street. Tim O’Cullinan was married under a tent in Scarsdale, and Tank Nonnanucci in a church in Boston, and Mick Magyar a country club in Wilmington.
Max married Rose in the living room of a Justice of the Peace’s in Upper Darby. The bride wore pink hot pants and a halter top. The groom wore shades and a Day-Glo painted ankle cast he had earned jumping off The Aftermath’s bar. (“He thought he could fly,” Billy said. “What else?”) Gino and Flossy and Goatley and Hickey and Moates and Hesh and Will and Billy Harley and Sally and Bernie and his old lady were there. We were in suits and Levis and madras and minis. We came in cars and on bikes. “I pronounce you man and wife,” the J.P. said. “You owe me $10, young man.” Then we went to the Center City Sheraton and turned on.
I was doing nothing I liked. I was hanging with people to whom I no longer connected. I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t studying. I was thinking nothing new.
Mark Harris’s new book mentioned Adele twice.
I grew another beard.

The main preoccupation third year was the draft.
It worked like this. You registered when you were 18. You were eligible until 26. Each local board had a quota, but you were safe if you were physically or mentally unfit, if you were an alcoholic, drug addict, homosexual, felon. That didn’t help most law students, but your board could also defer students or if your work was important to the nation. Since most of us had gone straight from high school to college to law school, we were 25 and needed one more year.
Vietnam had quotas rising, so guys from small towns or rich suburbs were eye-ing the Reserves, the National Guard, and JAG. But I was from a neighborhood where boys didn’t go to college, let alone law school. And my board’s chairman’s son was a second year student at Temple, and what it did with me would set precedent for him.
I thought about a Masters degree (“Boring”), a clerkship (“Been there”), the Peace Corps (“Two years”). One afternoon, I picked a copy of Ramparts off a desk in the library. It had a color spread on the Haight Ashbury. I could not believe people walked around in public like that. (What is now known as “The ‘60s” did not hit most of the country until some time between the Democratic Convention riots in August 1968 and Woodstock a year later. Philly had about six hippies in 1967. They hung at Rittenhouse Square, where the police rousted them for freaking out old ladies.)
I decided to let VISTA send me to San Francisco. I thought I was promising material. I hung with Al Hickey. I was for the exclusionary rule. I opposed capital punishment and the NBA’s de facto-ed half-white rosters. “I still might end up,” I wrote on my application, “working for a Philadelphia law firm, but at least it would not be because I had taken the easy road simply because it was easy and well-traveled and there.”
It did not escape me that Adele was in San Francisco.
It did not escape me she was my insanity.

Max shot speed for ten days before his pre-induction physical. He wore to it a fatigue jacket, filthy jeans, loafers without socks. When they passed out questionnaires, he dropped his pencil. He picked it up but dropped his paper. He picked it up but made such a mess, he crumpled it into a ball and demanded another sheet – yelled for a new sheet he was so into the questions. Max was shaking and sweating so badly, the sergeant sent him to the medical officer. The officer asked if he wanted meds.
Then he certified Max as crazy. Max went home and everyone else stepped closer to the rice paddies.

The call woke me one morning in June. “Robert Levy? Terrence Killeen. Assistant counsel to the Office of Economic Opportunity. Congratulations. You’ll be providing legal assistance to community action groups in Chicago. And tell your local board General Hershey says we’re in the national interest.”
I had no idea what community action was.