I’ve always been a perfectionist. For most of my life, not one day went by where I didn’t try my best to reach the goals set out in the leatherbound book given to me by my father, bless his soul.
He raised me, his only son, to be like him – organized, down to the last detail. He taught me to study issues from every angle, to analyze the last bit of evidence, because he, Gordon Annals III, was a judge. I, Gordon Annals IV, was destined to follow in his footsteps- that is, until the Emory case.
I graduated from Harvard law school at the top of my class and went straight to a clerking post for a year, as is customary for the elite students in law school. After that I joined the prestigious firm of Hassler and Dukit and worked my way up the ranks to a partner within three short years. This was all within the plan set out by my father and given to me when I was in sixth grade.
My father died two months after I became partner. I didn’t have time to grieve him, although I missed our weekly lunch together and the benefit of him grilling me on my current caseload. I often think that had he been alive, the disaster that was the Emory case wouldn’t have happened.
It was a simple enough case, a case originally assigned to a junior member of our firm who left the firm. I took it over simply out of a sense of teamwork, because I was the youngest partner and the most active.
I never did figure out who did the first interview of the client, who was a young woman with cerebral palsy named Helen Emory. Nor did I bother to call her to review the case. Helen was suing a restaurant under the American with Disabilities Act that refused to admit her in her wheelchair. It should have been a matter for either mediation or a settlement. The restaurant manager clearly violated the law, as far as I could tell, although I hadn’t done cases under the ADA before. But the restaurant owner insisted we go to court and so we did.
His lawyer made a motion for summary judgment, stating that there was no case because my client could not make herself understood to staff by clearly enunciating that she wished to enter the restaurant. Therefore, he argued, the restaurant staff didn’t deny her entrance, they simply asked her to leave because she became combative and uttered strange sounds. Helen Emory, they contended, did not have any case at all because her speech difficulties caused her to fail to state what she wanted.
I didn’t make the time to properly research the case. When I received a copy of the motion, I assumed I could just wing it, go into court and the judge would deny the motion for summary judgment. This was foolish on my part since when such a motion is granted, the case is dismissed. But in my youthful arrogance, I forgot that my unfamiliarity with the law meant that I needed to prepare even more for court, not less.
I arrived in court around 8 a.m. the day of the motion. My client, Helen, was seated in her wheelchair out in the hallway, accompanied by her mother. Helen was 19 years old and as soon as I spoke to her, I realized that she had a speech impediment but it was mild. She was , in fact, intelligent and articulate and it was difficult to imagine that anyone couldn’t have understood her.
As we went into the courtroom, I had a sinking feeling that I should have documented all of this through a doctor or medical report. My stomach began to churn as I indicated to Helen and her mother where they should go in the courtroom and I took my place before the judge at counsel’s table.
I’ll sum up what happened in a brief manner. To put it bluntly, the restaurant’s attorney dished my client up by making a dishonest and terribly ignorant and prejudicial argument against her , using her own disability to almost get the case dismissed. He didn’t succeed, but I made such a mess of defending against the motion that the judge, while not granting it, called one of my partners up and told him that I was not prepared to represent the client on this case .
The next day, after a long and humbling discussion with my partners, I was asked to step down from my recent promotion to partner. They both felt I needed more time to mature. In the arrogance of my youth, I quit the firm. None of this was , of course, in the plan my father wrote for me.
And then I did something that surprised me. I called up Helen and apologized to her for my sloppy representation of her. She was forgiving and gracious and wished me luck on my other cases.
“I don’t have any,” I blurted out.
“Not on my account?” she asked.
“No, I’m leaving the law,” I said, surprised at the words myself.
“What will you do?”
I thought for a moment, then answered. “Make a film.”
“I don’t know,” I replied. I wasn’t sure at all what I intended to do, but for some reason found that making a film was the only thing that came to mind.
There was a silence. “You need a plan,” Helen said.
“No,” I replied. “I’ve always had a plan. I want to deviate from it.” For some reason I told her about the leatherbound book that sat, unopened since my father’s death, on my desk. I began to tell her how much I missed my father, but how freeing it felt to be able to try something else, how tired I was of meeting case deadlines, socializing with partners with whom I had nothing in common but work and all the hundred other things that went into working at a law firm. “I’m only just 28 years old,” I said. “I’d like to be a bohemian.”
“So you think all people who make films are bohemians?” she asked.
“Yes, I suppose most are. Or at least that’s what it seems.”
Before I knew it, I asked her to meet me for lunch. Helen told me that she preferred an outside café two blocks from her home, an Italian place called Alfredo’s, so we decided to meet at noon.
When I arrived, she was seated at a round table outside, a glass of water already before her and another place setting for me next to her. I was dressed casually in the unaccustomed, awkward way those who always dress in suits have – a pair of ironed jeans and a starched tailored striped shirt, carefully tucked in with no belt.
Helen looked down at my brown dress shoes and grinned as I sat down. “Don’t you have sneakers?” she asked.
“I do, but I never wear them unless I’m running. In my track suit.”
“Sneakers would look better, Gordy,” she said. “They have excellent lasagna here. I already ordered.”
“Great,” I replied, motioning to the waiter for some wine. Then I leaned toward her. “Tell me, Helen, is this shirt okay with sneakers?”
“If you’re going to be a bohemian filmmaker, you have a long way to go.” Then she smiled. “Are you sure you don’t want to be a doctor? My mother said to ask.”
“Parents!” I said and we both laughed.
“She said if we were having a date together I should try to convince you to become a doctor.” Helen shrugged. “ I told her I like boehemian filmmakers.”
“A date?” I said. “Is that what we’re doing?”
“Isn’t it?” she asked. “Looks like that to me.”
“Helen,” I began, wondering suddenly exactly what I was feeling, but not wanting to hurt her, “I didn’t think of this as anything but – friendship.”
“Friendship,” she repeated, nodding. “Tell me, is that what you usually say when you ask a woman out to lunch?”
It wasn’t and I felt myself blush.
“It’s okay, Gordy,” she said as two plates of lasagna arrived at the table. “I get it. Friends only.”
To her credit, Helen sailed through the meal in an amicable manner. I enjoyed her company , but found my conscience smarting later that afternoon as I arrived home. She was right. I usually asked women out on a date and wined and dined them. I’d never said to any of them that it was just a friendship. And I wondered why I just assumed I could talk to Helen that way and not hurt her feelings.
Most likely for the same reasons I didn’t prepare her case. Ignorance about being around someone with a disability. Yet, as they say, ignorance of the law is not an excuse to break it.
I never saw Helen again after that day. I called her to meet me for lunch two weeks later and she politely declined.
I did, however, make my film. It was about an arrogant and driven young man named Carl, who let ambition override his dreams. In the script I wrote, I portrayed Carl as a sensitive fellow whose father pushed him too much.
It was the one and only film I ever made. I used up all my savings on it and the truth is it wasn’t good. It was too myopic, too self absorbed and much too self indulgent. I did return to practicing law shortly after I finished my film, in a small practice of my own.
As for the film, I couldn’t help but think I could have done better if Helen had been around to give me feedback.
Copyright 2007 Ruth Harrigan