East on St James
by Rick Beck
The following week Gary was back for dinner. Phone calls had taken care of
record checks to uncover who owned the rights to the shops along St. James. Dury drew up a proposal he'd present to the South Carolina agency that held the tax lien on the Kertz property.
So far no roadblocks had been erected, but no one knew a move was being made on all the properties along St. James. The Apartments were key to the St. James project. There had been no communication from the owner or owners of the St. James Apartments.
Early that week Dury drew up a suit against the owner or owners. He could put one of the evicted men's name on it or any number of the men who had been evicted from the St. James Apartments. As he read the American Disabilities Act, the evictions were illegal and they went against most moral standards.
Dury had his ammunition ready for what he didn't expect to be much of a fight. Extra money in shop owners pockets would be an unexpected windfall. The Kertz properties had no value in their current condition. It would cost more to take the buildings down than to sell them for a song to someone who would make the property viable. The state would be happy to unload the property and take its chances on being able to collect future taxes on it.
Dury practiced law with the current South Carolina Comptroller. He'd lay out the plans for St. James, asking relief from the tax lean. He expected to have some degree of success.
Seafood gumbo, corn chowder, tomato bisque, with hush puppies topped the dinner menu. After the dishes were cleared the three men settled into the living room with their drinks.
"I love that staircase, Dury," Gary said, admiring his work. "It really turned out nice. I built that staircase in each of the Plantation Heights houses, and I built that staircase in my house. Fran said, 'it reminds me of a Hollywood set,' but until I did yours, number fifteen I think, I never got that sweep right. Yours is the best staircase in the lot. All that practice paid off."
"That's right, you built his house," Keith said. "What a house it is too!"
"Yes, and he took quite a bit of care doing it," Dury said. "He didn't have to create a house like this. Proves he has artistic blood. Beverly liked that staircase best of all. It has an elegance to it. When we entertained, she'd always stand in the middle of those stairs, lean on the handrail and speak to our guests."
"Quite lovely she was. I remember seeing her in a white gown, standing on the stairs, looking very much like a movie star," Gary said.
"Once you told me you'd build it for cost, I wasn't sure what I'd get, but when I drove out to see the work being done, it was obvious you were building a masterpiece, and you didn't need to go that far."
"I needed to make it right, Dury. I was building over a dozen houses at the time. I was incorporating the best features of those houses into this house. I practice on those houses and I perfected my skills on yours. I owned Plantation Heights because you won my case. I owed you. I was even building my house at the same time. Yours and mine turned out best. A labor of love. Fran could see that your staircase was better than ours. I'm glad Beverly liked it so much."
"That's why I want you in on making St. James into the best living space possible for people who don't usually get the best of anything," Dury said.
"I can see it now. We'll call it Gary Lane, Mr. Lane," Gary said.
"That's funny," Dury said. "I'd forgotten your sense of humor. I haven't been social recently. It's good getting back into the game. I was worried retirement was a bad idea. Now that I've found a purpose, life is good."
"Speaking of which, there's something I want to know but didn't feel comfortable asking, until now, Mr. Lane. I came into your life over a lawsuit you filed on my behalf. I didn't expect much but you delivered," Gary said. "You looked me in the eye, Dury, and you said, 'You don't have a thing to worry about. If what you've told me is true, I'll get your business back and it won't cost you a cent.' Then you took me out to lunch. My whole life was in the toilet and you said, 'It'll be OK. Give me a little time and we'll be fine.'"
"I'll tell you now, there's always things you need to worry about. You need the right judge. You need an opposing attorney who knows is client is an asshole, and then it needs to fall into place the way your attorney envisions it. In your case, it turned out as I thought it should."
"What I know is, you said, 'It'll be OK' and things turned out better than you told me they would. I never asked how you happened to be in that office where I needed an attorney, but you were," Gary said. "I wasn't the most trusting soul in the world, you know, Dury. I'd just been swindled and my life was over. You had no idea how hard I worked to build that business and then someone took it away from me. When I listened to you that first day, you were so confident, so self-assured, I began to believe I might get it back. You might say you restored my faith in people, Dury."
"You had a good case. Crooks usually aren't capable of covering all their tracks. I had to uncover a few of his mistakes to prove my case. I could have driven a Mack truck through the holes your partner left. We were lucky, Gary. It worked out the way it should have worked out. Doesn't always happen that way."
"I didn't know a thing about you, and I still don't know much, which is the point I'm getting to. I do know where you practiced law and I was glad you'd been there when I walked in. I don't know how you got there and I'm curious."
"You want me to tell you the story of what led me to become an attorney?"
"Yes, that's it. You said you were a New York attorney. I can't imagine two different cities that New York City and Charleston. Fran and I went to New York on vacation once. I couldn't wait to get home," Gary said. "Practicing law in that intense city couldn't be anything like practicing law in Charleston."
"That, sir, is at least a three drink story. I didn't just come to the idea of becoming a lawyer. There were some serious events that got me thinking about the laws and the fairness in the law. Some of what led me to going to law school, I still don't understand."
"I don't want to pry, but I'd like to know how you got where you were when I arrived there."
"I wasn't always the polished attorney you see before you now. Retired attorney. No, life got extremely chaotic before I knew I wanted to be a lawyer. In fact we were living relatively calm lives when things got out of hand. My family was a normal family, as far as I was concerned. My friends and I were normal kids, and suddenly we found ourselves in the middle of history and tragedy. Everything changed and none of it made sense, and I decided to be a lawyer."
"Sounds like what I want, Lane. Now that we're becoming future partners, I'd like to know how you became you. Not if it makes you uncomfortable, but I'd like to know the story behind the man," Gary said. "You changed my life. It took you two years, but I was far better off after the case was won than I'd ever been. You did what you said you'd do. How rare is that? It was rare enough I noticed it."
"My interest in the law goes back a few years. There were events that made me want to become a good attorney."
"The road to my career as a contractor was a straight shot from my house to a job site a few blocks away. My skills as a builder began there. Watching a stone mason. woodworkers create the touches that made each house unique. I was amazed. I couldn't lay a brick without someone pulling it up, scraping half the mortar I put on it off, making it level, and telling me to put it in place. I didn't know my ass from a hole in the ground, but they took their time to teach me.
"I knew I'd never be able to do what they did. In time, with years of practice, I was as good as any one. I learned by doing. I didn't know what I'd do after high school. I took the first job I came to, after graduation. Not much planning. That's my story. What led you into the legal profession?" Gary asked.
"The law is a funny thing, Gary. When done properly, you can make it work for you. If you're in the right, and have a good lawyer to prove it, you can right any wrong done to you. Proving how egregious your partner's actions were entitled you to real damages as well as a punitive award for your suffering. It is also a warming to him that he shouldn't do this again. I did my job. It wasn't difficult. Your partner was sloppy. It took us two years to get in front of a judge, and you suffered all that time. The judge called your partner a crook. That was a first even for me. It sealed the deal. I didn't need to add icing to that cake."
"That's what he did all right. It changed my life, Dury. I'd have been happy to get my business back," Gary said. "I didn't have a pot to piss in after he stole my business."
"That's why people need lawyers."
"I understand that now," Gary said. "That's what makes me curious. Think back to when you weren't an attorney. I want to know what it was that made you decide to become one. I'm picturing a Perry Mason episode or something out of a great cases in history, and you suddenly saying, 'I'll be an attorney.'
"For me it was easy," Gary said. "The day after I graduated high school, my father woke me up before he went to work. 'Time to get your ass up and get a job. You think groceries fall off the trees?' I didn't. I never gave it a thought.
"I left the house and came to a place where they were building two houses on the way to the main drag. A sign read: 'Help Wanted.' I figured that was me. I told them I could do anything they asked me to do. They told me to carry bricks up this skinny little ramp into the house. That was my interview. If I was dumb enough to do that, they figured I'd do anything they told me to do.
"Good money though. I liked the money. Boy did my back get tired hauling those bricks, and that's how I became the builder you see before you today."
"It would be hard to top that, Gary." Dury said. "It was almost as if you were destined to be a builder. Those houses weren't there by accident."
"You think so. I was too hard headed to admit a hod of bricks was tougher than I was. Bricks were way heavier forty years ago, you know," Gary complained. "My back still gets tired when I see bricks. After a few weeks, the chicks began noticing me; feeling my muscles. Carrying bricks became cool."
"I know I look like I just fell off the turnip truck, but I assure you a brick is a brick. Today's bricks weight the same as yesterday's if they aren't plastic."
"See, stretch the truth in front of a lawyer and he gives you an argument. I don't carry the bricks these days. That makes them way lighter. Out with it, Lane. How did you grow up to be the lawyer Mr. Lane? Did dear old dad say, 'Get your ass up. It's time to get a job, and you passed a sign: 'Attorney's Wanted.'"
"We're talking an involved journey that put me in the office where you found me. There were some sizable inducements that pointed me toward the law. The events of the day for instance, while I was a teen, made me interested in the law."
"Quit stalling, Lane. I may not know what you're saying, but I know you're stalling," Gary said. "Out with it."
"Keith isn't interested in my ancient past," Dury said.
"Yes, I am," Keith said. "Why did you become a lawyer?"
"OK, you asked for it. Everyone get another drink or two. I don't plan any intermissions, and I'm only telling it once."
"You did tell Bev, didn't you?" Gary asked.
"No, it never came up. She lived through my entire career as an attorney, until she died anyway. We married while I was in law school. I'm sure that was plenty of law for her. She was a business major at New York University," Dury said.
"I can tell you what triggered to my interest in the law. It all started in 1963. I was going to St. Albans in Washington D. C. There were four of us who went buddies. We did almost everything together. There was Dalton, Prentice, Rhodes and me. We'd known each other forever. I don't remember a time when we weren't friends," Dury said.
"St. Albans was an elite school. Something like you'd picture in England. We wore dark blazers and bright ties. We went to school with sons of the president's cabinet members and sons of congressman and senators. My parents sacrificed everything to give me the best education available in D.C," Dury said. "I had no idea what I would do once I graduated.
"Life was good for us. We lived in a beautiful city full of history and full of lawyers. It was a magnet for history in 1963. We were grew up faster that year. A lot of people grew up that year. My buddies and me were sixteen."
"So you're saying you caught it in D. C.?" Gary asked.
"You might say that. I caught it at my house and at my school. I caught it one bright August afternoon on the mall. I caught it one dreary night at the Capitol building on the Hill. The law filled D. C. in those days. Exciting things were happening all around us. What we were watching was history in the making.
"Washington D. C. has always been a city of attorneys. In 1963 it was a city of change and of new beginnings. It's the year I knew I'd go to law school. Maybe it was in the air. Maybe I saw myself as doing good.
"We heard about the march on Washington. Being curious fellows, we were going to see what it was. We were super curious. St. Albans challenged us to be curious about such things.
"We thought the march was for black people. We lived in the blackest city in America at the time, but we never saw black people if we didn't go on a trolley or a bus. We were the kids of privilege in D. C. and we wanted to see how the other half lived. We knew we'd find them on the Mall, which marked the center of our universe. We were often on the Mall. You could spend the day there without going very far. The Lincoln Memorial drew us like flies to honey. We didn't know why. It was our favorite place to go when we had nowhere to go.
"There were speakers on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial when we arrived on the day of the March on Washington. I think we started out going somewhere else first, and then we decided to go there to see what the march was. The marching was over and the talking had begun.
"The space between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial was filled with people. Mostly they were dark skinned people. There were white faces among the mahogany to different shades of brown to black. Hispanics were the second most represented group. It took a lot of faces to fill that space. I'd never seen more people in one place. I'd been to Redskin games, but even a stadium full of people didn't compare.
"We stood off to one side, wanting to see it but not be part of it. If we didn't know where the black people were in D.C. in those days, we'd found them.
"The local press described the march as, 'People coming from all over to stir up trouble.' There were phrases like malcontents and people not content to leave well enough alone.' They were just standing around the reflection pool and almost back to the Washington Monument. If they were making trouble, they hid it well.
"I'd heard Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would speak. I'd only seen him on television a few times. He didn't sound like a troublemaker, but what did I know?
The Post articles made him sound like a real rebel rouser. I knew he was a Baptist minister and that made me think there was more to it than what the Post said. The two images didn't add up in my mind.
"Being called a communist wasn't a big deal. Anyone who wasn't agreeable to the status quo was immediately labeled a commie. What I read made me curious and it was my idea to get closer to the speakers on those steps.
"I wanted to see King for myself. Hearing him called a communist-socialist-jailbird, who stirred up trouble had me suspicious. Not suspicious of him but suspicious of the people who didn't want us to listen to him. I'd read the 'Subversive' comments he'd made, and they were mainly about equality and freedom.
"By this time I began looking for the truth about people that were labeled as bad. I sensed we weren't getting the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Hearing him speak could make the truth more apparent.
"It was summertime and we were free as a breeze, but there was none on the Mall. After a half hour of similar voices saying similar things, we decided it was time to split. Truth would have to wait for another day. At sixteen we didn't stay in one place too long. What I did know, there was no revolution in the air.
"We couldn't hear all of what they were saying. The voices weren't clear and the sound system left a little to be desired, and so Dalton chased Prentice, who chased Rhodes, who chased me, as we headed north and west toward home, three miles away.
"As we stepped off the Mall heading toward the White House, there was a different sound coming from Lincoln's Memorial. At first it was soft, it had a cadence I recognized from my church. The priest saying his lines, the people responding. Just a few words and an amen or two.
"The change stopped us in our tracks. The soft voice, was more clear, distinctive. I thought this might be King's voice. I turned to get my ears pointed toward the speaker. It was drifting across the Mall to where we stood. I led my buddies back across the street near the north corner of the Lincoln Memorial where nobody stood. It was much easier to hear what he was saying. I stood fast when my friends said they wanted to go. I wanted to hear this. I wasn't going anywhere until I did. This was what I came for.
"I told my buddies I wanted to hear what he had to say. They didn't know why. As far away as we were, we could hear his. His voice was clear, like a man who had something to say he wanted you to hear.
"He said nothing shocking or outrageous. He could have been in church giving a sermon. Just not my church.
"What he had to say was all about how black people were treated. The audience continued to interact with him, giving the answers to prompts King gave them. It was all quite well scripted and not my in my wheelhouse. He was talking to black people. I wanted it to be more than that, but King was in politics by way of his Baptist religion.
"Not so different from the Catholic Church. It was like being in church. Most of what he said was about being decent to one another and treating each other with dignity and respect. How did this cause trouble? I was expecting a real fire breathing preacher. The most fire in his voice came when he called for fairness and equality.
"That was in the Bill of Rights and Declaration of Independence, I thought. I'd seen the pictures of kids in Birmingham. Teenagers mostly, some our age, but some were younger. King had been in a Birmingham jail for some time and the day after his release there was a march by these kids in Birmingham. I heard it called the childrens' crusade. The entire world saw those pictures. No one thought that what happen to them was OK, but King wasn't even there.
"A film showed the thousand kids marching down the sidewalk. Cops kept them from going into the street, which was the plan. They were young. It was no big deal, except an instant later firehouses were knocking the kids off their feet. Huge snarling police dogs began biting at the prone children. Big white cops held the leashes. Other policemen were clubbing their way into the march. Children ran screaming,were caught by waiting cops, beaten, viciously thrown to the ground, and those dogs were let loose on them. It made me sick.
"That was the first time I noticed black faces. They were children. I began to question what kind of a country I lived in. I began to question the idea men wanting to be treated like human beings were trouble makers in disguise.
"It was the most brutal thing I'd ever seen. I didn't like it. The law was supposed to protect people not attack them. The entire world was outraged. The dirty secret about America was out. Our politicians were humiliated by what the world had seen and black people were responsible.
"King took the blame for the trouble. He didn't have anything to do with the march. Younger preachers and the children planned it while King was being held in the Birmingham jail. He was blamed in the media. He lead the blacks and caused the trouble.
"How was King responsible for a police riot? Here he was asking for fair treatment for his people. This was his biggest stage ever and he spoke of dignity and fairness. He was a preacher, not a troublemaker. I wanted the truth and this seemed to be it. I heard similar things in church."
"I never liked memorizing things that I was forced to regurgitated in church. I may have had doubts about who I was, but I wasn't a parrot. My ideas came from teachers and books and mostly from my parents, who taught me to think for myself. I was perfectly capable of thinking for myself, even in church.
"Why did they do that to those kids?" Keith asked. "I never heard of that. That was a crime."
"They were just kids," Gary protested. "Who would beat kids? I've never seen that."
"They were just kids," Dury agreed. "It's what happened in 1963. I didn't like it and I no longer believed what the papers said about King. I already suspected there were two sides to the story about the races. I didn't think Birmingham was the first time blacks were brutalized by the establishment. I would find out later that Negroes couldn't vote in the South. We'd find that out in no uncertain terms. That too would play out on television."
"Segregation means keeping the races separated?" Keith asked.
"Right. All whites on this side of town, all black on that side. Nothing like this had ever been filmed before. Pictures of the brutality were on the front page of all the papers in the North. The country was outraged. That march was in May '63 and the march on Washington was in August. For me those two events became connected on the Mall that day. King was fighting for equal rights.
"I wanted to hear King speak and I'd make up my own mind. What I heard at first was a preacher doing what I disliked most about my own religion. Mindless automatons spouting responses. It didn't impress me but how much trouble did it cause? I still hadn't figured out where King stood, or me either for that matter.
"After a few minutes more, we started walking toward home again. None of us had anything to say. Then King began speaking without his chorus. He left them behind. His voice boomed like someone just turned on his microphone. The tone intensified in a way I can't explain. His words were everywhere at once. It filled the Mall, resonating as if there were speakers in the tree tops. Dr. King was on fire.
"Martin Luther King took off in a way I've never heard before. The entire crowd went silent. It was all King, behind us, beside us, over us, and in front of us, and all at the same time. It stopped us in our tracks. I turned to see him still on the Lincoln Memorial steps. It was mesmerizing. I couldn't walk away. This was what I hoped to hear. This is why he came. This is who King was.
"King had taken flight, soaring above the crowd. His voice boomed. It was everywhere at once. It gave me chills. It was the 'I Have a Dream' speech, but it had never been given like this before. This was inspired speech and inspiring. He told us of his dream. These words were written in his heart and on the wind.
"At that moment I understood why King was a a threat. He intended to win his peoples' freedom. He intended to change the world. He wasn't letting segregation stand any longer. His people were due full civil rights and he intended to see that they got them. That was the threat.
"He saw a future with all of us working together to make life better for everyone. Dr. King wanted to create a better America. That's what scared the politicians. How do you stop a man with this kind of passion?"
"King was for real then?" Gary asked. "He wasn't a commie?"
"Yes, he was for real. You can't fake a speech like that. I've never heard another one like it. There was nothing in what he said that threatened anyone, unless they intended to fight to keep segregation in place.
"Washington D. C. was segregated. I didn't realize it until I began to look for black people. Being awakened to the truth surprised me. I didn't know how things got the way they were, but white people were on this side of town and black people on were on that side."
"So that changed things?" Keith asked.
"No, not so you'd notice. The powers that be were just glad it was over in one day. That's all they cared about," Dury said.
"I wasn't aware of the man until he was dead," Gary said. "I did live in the south and it wasn't having anything to do with him."
"He's always been dead as long as I've been alive. I wish I'd heard him. Henrietta had a picture of Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, and Jesus on the wall of her restaurant."
"How did that figure into your decision to become an attorney?" Gary asked.
"I told you it was a long story. That's one of the events I witnessed that had me think I could do some good. We need to get fresh drinks while I take a bathroom break, and if you want to hear more, there's more to tell," Dury said.
"You aren't getting off that easy, Lane. We'll be waiting for you," Gary said.
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