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This is a story about a jacket. A very fine, Hart Schaffner & Marx, plaid, wool jacket that I bought at Goodwill for seven dollars—a great many dollars and a great many years from its former glory.  The jacket has taken a long, twisted road on its way to me, and I have taken an equally long and twisted road on my way to the jacket. As a result, this story is going to take a long, twisted time to get to the point about the jacket, and me, and where the two of us are now headed together.  I’m sorry about that, but there’s no help for it.  You might as well make yourself a cup of tea and settle in.  No worries—I’ll wait.

So then.

It occurred to me with the arrival of the year 2014 that I have now spent as many years practicing law as Johnny Carson spent hosting The Tonight Show.  Carson started that gig in 1962 when I was four, and he left it in 1992 when I was thirty-four. The fact that Johnny is long dead and that the awkward young man I remember vying to succeed him is himself retiring after a twenty-two year run only deepens my suspicion that it is later than I think. Much later.

Carson knew when it was time to get out.  So (eventually) did Leno.  For thirty years I have been standing in courtrooms trying to humor judges and juries, and they can be a tough crowd.  Who am I, at the age of fifty-six, to ask the band to keep playing for me?  I decided shortly before Christmas to write a letter to all of my clients announcing my retirement.

A law practice, or any avocation in life really, once it gets going, is like an ocean freighter carrying a heavy cargo.  It cannot be turned on a dime.  It takes a long time and a lot of sea miles to reverse course once the order is given to do so.  For that reason, I went to work today, and I will go to work next week and next month and next year.  I don’t mind.  It’s what I have to do to make sure my clients are well cared for, and I care about them.  They put their trust in me, and respecting that trust is one way I live for something greater than myself, which is what life is all about.  But in time, that debt of trust will be paid.  In two years—perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less—I will surrender the helm to another lawyer and step off this ship.  The point of the letter was to tell my clients—and myself—that the order has been given and that a change is coming.  Soon.

Unlike Carson and Leno, I am not walking into a life of riches.  I have no firm plans other than to write and to sail.  Those have been my polestars through the years, but there is no money in either of them.  I am fortunate not to be in debt, but there is no vast pile of cash waiting for me.  When I tell people that I hope to become the Employee of the Month at Waffle House, they laugh as though I am joking, which I am—sort of, but not really.

You see, the law is a jealous mistress.  I know this.  She pays her suitors well and flatters them endlessly, but she demands a lot of attention, and she brooks no rivals.  The money and the status she offers become a kind of addiction for which you trade away increasing allotments of your time until time is no more and you realize that what you have lost in the bargain is life itself.  I have few memories of my twenties outside a law school classroom or a law office.

A few years ago, I ran into a lawyer I know who was due to speak at a memorial service for an old partner of hers.  She knew of nothing terribly compelling to say about the man other than that he was constantly at work, he had saved his clients a great deal of money, and he had made quite a pile of it for himself.  So, she had decided to collect the opinions written by the Court of Appeals in the cases he had tried and present them as a memorial to his life.   I felt a chill go down my spine when I heard her say this.  Ever since then I have hoped to save myself from the same empty fate.  Walking away from the compulsion of professional life and not turning back for the money or the status or the thrill of victory takes nerve.  I can only hope if for me that means putting on an apron and serving you an omelet with home fries one day, I will be man enough to do it.

In anticipation of my looming poverty, I have been scrimping and pinching pennies like a miser in all things except the refurbishing of an old ketch I have named Prodigal.  On her I am showering the last of my filthy lucre like a drunken sailor—only I am stone-cold sober and thus without a drunkard’s excuse.  Like Jack London, who spent ruinously on that leaking wreck, the Snark, I beg you not to ask me to explain it.

But while the Prodigal is being dressed in only the highest fashion of bilge pumps and seacocks and sails and rigging, I have been making the rounds of Goodwill stores to see what they might have to offer in the way of a poor man’s haberdashery.

Which brings me at last to the jacket.

I could not believe my eyes when I saw it. It was so incongruously fine, like an emerald tossed into a basket of marbles. It was also the exact pattern of muted, dark brown and forest green window-pane plaid that a college English professor of mine had worn.  I would hardly remember this except for the fact that he wore that same jacket to every class for four straight months.  What we had heard about him was that he was a genius from Harvard, which we assumed meant that he was a Socialist, and which of course impressed us rubes at the University of Maryland greatly.  He also never appeared to have recently shaved or combed his hair. These aspects of his appearance, but mostly the distinctive plaid, became forever associated in my mind with brooding, erudite Harvard writers.

Professor Plaid’s class format required students to pick topics on which to write essays that he would grade for composition and style.  My good friend, fraternity brother and fellow legal aspirant Joe Snee took the class with me.  He had a GPA that soared into the stratosphere in comparison to mine, which barely cleared the hedgerows.  He had been planning and preparing for law school for years, whereas I had spent years planning for the weekend.  I had flunked an upper-level class in grammar.  I was an English Education major, but the high school teacher who supervised my semester of student teaching passed me only after I promised never to teach school.  Yet somehow, in Professor Plaid’s class, I excelled.

Throughout the semester, the professor threw nothing but cold water on our hopes of becoming lawyers.  It was not what it was cracked up to be, he would tell us.  He wanted us to be writers, instead.  In the years since I ignored that advice and took the path that has taken me where I am today, I have often wondered where the writer’s path might have led.

The jacket, as it turns out, had its own journey.  Inside the lining, below the famous Hart Schaffner & Marx logo, is the name of a local men’s clothing store, Hall-Knott & Edwards, above an address, Elkin, NC.  Elkin is a small town west of Winston-Salem. Tucked inside the lining pocket is another label indicating that the jacket was made by the Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America.  A quick check of Wikipedia tells me that this labor union was “known for its support of ‘social  unionism’ and progressive political causes,” including the founding of the American Labor Party in 1936 “that served as a halfway house for Socialists and other leftists who wanted to support FDR’s reelection but were not prepared to join the Democratic Party.” What struck me most, though, were the dates of the union’s existence, indicating that it had dissolved in 1976.  That meant the jacket, which apart from a pencil-sized moth hole in the lapel appeared to be brand new, was made no later than the year I left for college, some four decades ago.

I found no record of a men’s clothing store named Hall-Knott & Edwards in Elkin, which is not surprising. Many small, downtown gentlemen’s shops that once sold high quality, classic clothing to a well-dressed nation long ago yielded the market to malls and discount stores that have sprouted across America.

And yet, despite it all, the jacket is still here, and so am I.  We’re both a little worse for the wear, but we still have a lot of wear left in us.  I took my seven-dollar treasure to Chi’s Tailor Shop in Raleigh, where for another well-spent seven dollars the moth hole was hand-mended to the point of invisibility.  I wore the coat to work today and felt like a scholar.  In fact, I felt like a writer.  The plaid jacket and I have been given a second chance at life, and we intend to make the most of it.