Sunday, February 11, 2007

BUS STORY # 21 (Dennis)

I’d seen Dennis* only one other time since I first began taking the earlier No. 11 to work. Both he and Abel* showed up together one morning and we talked about a neighborhood incident involving the SWAT team, concussion grenades at 3:00 a.m., and piles of fast food trash in the neighborhood come daybreak. My wife and I had been awakened a little after midnight by bullhorns and sirens. Dennis had been hiking in the Sandias the day before and had slept through the whole thing. “So that’s what all the trash was about,” he mused. Abel had the whole story that lasted until it was time for me to get off at Wyoming.

The next time I saw Dennis, I was waiting alone for the earlier bus. Dennis, I recalled, had been here less than a year, was a lawyer, and his wife was a student at UNM. All true, except there was more to the story. Turns out Dennis had given up the practice of law some 10 years ago. I asked why, of course. He told me the incessant adversarial nature of the job had corroded his spirit. He told a straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back story about a young woman who’d come in to see about getting a divorce. After the information-gathering interview was concluded, she asked him, “Are you mean?” He asked what she meant. She explained she wanted a lawyer who would “go after” her husband. He told her he thought divorce was trauma enough for both parties, and his focus would be on getting her a fair settlement. “If you’re looking for a mean lawyer,” he told her, “I’m not your man.” She thanked him, then got up and walked out of his office.

So where was he going these mornings if not to work? To St. Martin’s Hospitality Center where he was helping serve breakfast to the homeless three days a week. More questioning brought out the story that he spent afternoons sitting with hospice patients sometimes in institutional settings, sometimes in their homes. He made a “lawyer-trying-to-get-to-heaven” joke I’d heard a few years earlier from a brand new graduate nurse in his 50s, another retired lawyer looking for a new career in hospice. He’d confided he “lacked the killer instinct” to be a truly effective attorney. I’d sensed a dual regret: that he had not changed careers early in his work life, and that by not doing so, he’d short-changed his clients.

Both stories are, to me, extraordinary stories, and extraordinarily personal stories at that, from two good people with gentle souls. I also think of them as cautionary tales about the culture we live in. Those who know me might attribute such thoughts to my inner child-of-the-‘60s, but I’d like to think they have a lot more to do with my grandmother’s mantra about the Golden Rule, and with my hand-in-glove religious upbringing which regarded the material world and its pursuits and rewards with deep suspicion.

I figured Dennis was not working, no longer had a lawyer’s income, and had a student wife, and that explained why he was taking the bus. “No, we have a car,” he replied. He used to have a truck, but it got 14 miles to the gallon and was costing him over four dollars a day to drive. So he sold it. Sometimes he takes the car, sometimes the bus. “It all depends on how the spirit moves me,” he said, and laughed.

I got off the bus that morning with the idea that giving up the car was the next thing on his to-do list for getting into heaven. And I freely admit that sounds like a story my inner hippie-child might tell.


*Real name changed.


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