Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005


Saturday afternoon I'm in a cafe with a new friend (the mutual friend who introduced us having just left) playing a game of chess. I'm losing. The phone rings. I look at the ID and see a 212 area code number my phone doesn't recognize. I think, "Could it be . . . ?" and then, "Naaaah."

It is.

As soon as I hear his voice, I recognize the slightly Latin urgency of Mr. C., Esquire, a sole practicioner in Manhattan who specializes in federal criminal defense. The call is not entirely unexpected, though I wouldn't have minded had it never come.

Last year, my parents, who did some work for Mr. C., introduced us. They had mentioned to him in passing that their son was an attorney, and he had indicated that he was looking for a young associate to add to his practice. A series of phone calls followed, during which we expressed mutual interest and started setting out possible terms of employment. In April, I traveled to New York to meet Mr. C. in person.

Mr. C. is a diminutive, round-chested, energetic Latino with close-cropped hair and a pattern of speech at once clipped and fluid, a staccato patter that conveys a great deal of information in a short period of time. He attended a top-10 law school, clerked at the federal level, then joined for five years the New York office one of the more prestigious law firms in the world. For whatever reason, after his tenure at that firm, he left the law entirely. Soon thereafter, however, he returned to the practice by taking court appointments to represent criminal defendants in federal court. Seven years or so later, there he is, in a large chaotic office on Canal Street on the edge of Chinatown, with a teeming client list including names you've heard but I will not share.

Our interview went wonderfully, notwithstanding that the long habit of working alone has made him difficult to sustain a discussion with; he's always moving in several directions at once, and the nature of his practice makes for frequent phone calls, one visit by a defendant during our interview, and a generally scattered if not unfriendly atmosphere.

Nothing we covered in that interview suggested that the contemplated arrangement was anything but agreeable; he would get the sort of inexperienced but very well credentialed protege that sole practitioners typically cannot afford, and I would get a swift induction into the world of small practice criminal defense, working on high-profile cases in federal court, hopefully practicing courtroom advocacy within a year or two. The salary number we were throwing around was too expensive for him to retain me only as a researcher and writer; he would need more from me to justify the expense.

At the last, however, a week or so later the combination of his immediate need, my lack of availability until the end of the summer, and his general insecurity that he would draw enough business to guarantee my continuing employment at a fairly high salary, led him to decline to bring me on at that time. He emphasized, however, that were I to continue in my current position and stay interested, he would expect us to discuss an identical opportunity next year.

In the intervening year, I have examined how comfortable I am with making my indefinite home in Pittsburgh. I've never stopped loving this city, but I have spent some time wondering whether it's the place for me, a cosmopolitan thirty-something single, a liberal iconoclast of an attorney in a town with a fairly conservative bar. Lately, however, I've been settling in again, warming to the idea of buying and renovating an inexpensive house, working perhaps for a big firm for a little while to make some serious money, getting active in arts and charity organizations to carve for myself a position in the best parts of this delightfully singular community.

The combination of this and my general fatigue over the last ten years of refusing to say about any place "This is my home for the foreseeable future" contributed to my inaction on the opportunity to work for Mr. C. I figured that I should call and restate my interest by December. But December passed, then January and February.

Then the phone rings, and all of my doubts, all of my conflicting aspirations, all of my mutually exclusive ideas of how to be an attorney I can be comfortable going to sleep in every night, disrupted my late serenity with a reinvigorated cacophany of doubt and contradictions. I was detectably shocked by the call.

So I think it might be him when the phone rings, and I answer, and I recognize the voice.

"May I speak to MoonOver Pittsburgh?" he asks.

"Mr. C.," I gush. "How nice to hear from you."

"You remember me."

"Of course I do, but I thought that perhaps the time had come and gone, so I'm glad that you called." It isn't entirely a lie, though my happiness is complex and ambivalent. Still, it's nice to have made such a good impression that a year later he would seek me out again.

We exchange brief updates, and then I ask whether I might call him back, explaining that my chess opponent is stuck watching me on the phone and it's my move. He agrees.

About an hour later, I grab cigarettes, a glass of water, and sit in my thinking chair in the turret. I dial. "This is serious," I admonish myself. "This is business. This is a negotiation. He's not your friend, not yet anyway." Coach Moon taking over.

Our talk covers various concerns, scheduling alternatives for my possible entry into the practice, Mr. C.'s packed trial schedule leading into the fall, few if any of which have any chance of settling pre-trial for reasons he explains. I tell him that my interest remains, but that last year's salary proposal is off the table, in light of inquiries I've recently received concerning very lucrative positions here in Pittsburgh, where I can buy a funky house for the price of a year of New York City auto insurance.

Concluding, rather vaguely, that there remains a conversation to be had, I suggested, and Mr. C. embraced, that we reconvene a week later, once he's spec'ed out his needs and I've nailed down my salary requirements and decided that, for a given compensation package, I'd be willing to move.

And that's where I stand right now. Researching the tax implications of given salaries, poking around to get a sense of what rent would cost, examining whether I'd have to sell my car to make ends meet, and whether I could handle that (New York is one of the better cities to skip the whole car thing, but friends who live in Brooklyn have insisted that I'll end up wanting a car, and they're probably right -- then the questin becomes can I afford my current thief-magnet car, or whether I'd be better off bying some $3K clunker with no radio).

It is a singular opportunity -- to be taught so intimately by such an uncommonly skillful, and by all accounts honorably, attorney, to be thrown head first into the fire, to have the pressure to perform of immediately being indispensible, if somewhat invisible, to clients facing hard time. My experience would be serious enough that I probably would always be able to find work at an adequate pay level thereafter, too; the position is not a career dead-end, nor will I be dependent on Mr. C. for my solvency, at least not after the first year or so.

And I'd be lying to say that New York doesn't appeal to me in itself. My family is still there, and they're all aging. When I moved, I needed to get away from them, from everything I'd grown up in and around, but now I don't need distance so urgently. I'm autonomous enough that I won't have any problems drawing lines as to how available I make myself to the family, something I had problems doing when I was just out of college.

On the other hand, here I can live comfortably without killing myself, I can dabble in public law, and I can become a prominent member of the arts community if I so choose. There, I will not have any of those luxuries in due proportion. Here, I might be able to move into politics. There, I probably will not, or rather, will not be willing to make the many sacrifices necessary to compete in such a crowded and wide-open field of aspirants.

Here, retirement in ten or twenty years is not entirely unthinkable. There, It might be fifteen years before I can afford to buy myself a two-bedroom condominum in Williamsburg, if ever. I will play catch-up with my finances for as long as I can foresee. I'll live in a small, over-priced apartment instead of my current, spacious, cheap apartment, or the nice house I can buy here more or less any time I want to.

But here the legal community lacks diversity, both in its people and in the nature of the practices available. In New York, there's a boutique for everything; here, the criminal defense bar is crowded, and ninety percent of what remains is time-intensive, overly stratified big firm work, defending corporations against other corporations, the most dull inconsequential work I can imagine, and not what I intended to do with my degree.

But here are my friends. Here is my entire adult life, give or take a year. Here is where I grew up, and continue to grow. Here is where I'm settled, accustomed to the quieter, friendlier rhythms of the near-mid-West, half-liberated from the memory of New York's sturm und drang.

O but what a delightful sturm und drang it is. And this might be my last realistic chance to return to my first and true home.

This promises to be a very long week.


Blogger Shar said...

"And this might be my last realistic chance to return to my first and true home." I think you've already summed it up with that statement. Looking forward to reading "MoonOverNewYork."

1:25 PM  
Blogger Orionvega said...

What are you waiting for? You have the opportunity to live and work in one of the most diverse cities in the world. Think of what you will learn and see!!! The experience... it will make your mind rich and keep you youthful.

The 'burgh will always be here.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Orionvega said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:39 PM  
Blogger Orionvega said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:39 PM  
Blogger David said...

f-ck that.

stay in pittsburgh. if everyone goes "there" we will never have "here".

4:52 PM  
Blogger Moon said...

who invited everyone?

9:42 AM  
Blogger matt said...

I'm actually investigating an evil plan to have all of Pittsburgh relocated to Tucson. It is a multi-level scheme reaching the highest echelons of government. Allow me to just reveal this one tidbit; if you've gotten a Starbuck's coffee in the last 6 months, you're on the list.

9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm your Bizzaro world alter-ego.

Moved to NYC from the 'burgh about 5 years ago (Manhattan, Brooklyn, now NJ) with my wife. Now moving back next month with wife + 2 kids.

The stuff about learning to create space from family mirrors us perfectly. Now we're ready for our kids to be closer to grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.

And yeah, the draw of buying a house at a comprehensible price has its appeal.

NYC is the greatest city on Earth. But it's also true there's maybe no place better to make a long term home than Pittsburgh.

4:04 PM  
Blogger Orionvega said...

pardon, me button sticks.

10:05 AM  

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