"Lighting a lamp, Wing Biddlebaum washed the few dishes soiled by his simple meal and, setting up a folding cot by the screen door that led to the porch, prepared to undress for the night. A few stray white bread crumbs lay on the cleanly washed floor by the table; putting the lamp upon a low stool he began to pick up the crumbs, carrying them to his mouth one by one with unbelievable rapidity. In the dense blotch of light beneath the table, the kneeling figure looked like a priest engaged in some service of his church. The nervous expressive fingers, flashing in and out of the light, might well have been mistaken for the fingers of the devotee going swiftly through decade after decade of his rosary.”
Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio, "Hands."
In 1919, Sherwood Anderson published an influential collection of short stories entitled Winesburg, Ohio. These stories centered on the affairs of the denizens of the small, mostly agrarian town. Much like Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology, or Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street, Anderson’s tales reflected something more than just the lives of those that resided in the town. The stories can be used as a microcosmic reflection of human behavior. I suppose some would say that all stories are designed to reflect all of humanity, but I disagree. There are stories that are pertinent only to their own little worlds, and in those worlds, become sirens, threatening to draw the reader into a fantasy that the world is real, and just as beautiful as on the printed page.
Anderson opened up forcefully in Winesburg, Ohio. The first story, "Hands," tells of a schoolmaster who was accused of engaging in untoward sexual conduct with one of his students. Later, as many of the other students recounted how the schoolmaster had tousled their hair or placed his hand on their shoulder, the men of a small Pennsylvania town gathered together. In response to these accusations, the men had a simple solution. The schoolmaster would be hanged. However, their resolve was tested upon facing the schoolmaster.
“They had intended to hang the schoolmaster, but something in his figure, so small, white, and pitiful, touched their hearts and they let him escape. As he ran away into the darkness they repented of their weakness and ran after him, swearing and throwing sticks and great balls of soft mud at the figure that screamed and ran faster and faster into the darkness.”
Toward the balmy close of November 1998, I was nearing the end of my first semester at Georgetown Law. It was, in my mind, a decidedly unpleasant experience. My professors seemed aloof (for the most part), unwilling to interact with their students beyond the mere delivery of lectures. My classmates were a motley bunch, and many of them intimidated me with their intelligence, their wealth, or their social charms. I was amongst a small group that hung along the fringe of our section, not quite an outcast, but intentionally and willingly not a member of the group of students that considered the section to be familial, that considered their peers to be comrades. Law school was a competition, I thought. These are not my peers. These are my adversaries.
I held this belief, then, and hold to this day that, even though someone is my adversary in the field of law, I would hold myself to certain rules of engagement when addressing him or her. I would not stoop to “dirty tricks” or dishonesty, I vowed, somewhat sanctimoniously. I would allow myself to be unyielding, perhaps even callous, but I would never be malicious.
Thus, when the rumors began to circulate regarding Jenny, one of the top students and a notorious “gunner,” I was enraged. The rumor started slowly. Quincy, a jovial yet moody classmate from Kentucky, the friend that eventually got me interested in alt country, whispered to me as we walked out of our Legal Justice Seminar.
“Jenny’s obtained a dispensation from the Registrar. She doesn’t have a time limit on her exams,” he said.
I was puzzled, and I could feel my forehead furrow together.
“She told the registrar that she had carpal tunnel,” he said, “and that she could not type or write at high speeds.”
That day, I saw Jenny walking across the marble floors of the law library. She had her hands in braces that looked remarkably similar to those used for inline skating. I decided not to let on Quincy’s introduction to the issue, and greeted Jenny warmly. It was a warmth I did not feel.
“Good lord, what the heck happened to your hands?” I asked. I tried to keep my pitch high and sympathetic.
Jenny explained that she had developed carpal tunnel syndrome, and that she needed to wear the braces while she wrote. I examined her as she spoke. Jenny was older than most of our classmates. She appeared to be in her early thirties, given the wrinkles around her eyes. She wore a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the campaign slogan of her father-in-law. Jenny had married the son of a noted Democratic senator from New England. She spoke of her father-in-law constantly in Constitutional Law. This was a topic of amusement and irritation for many of the class. For those, like me, that were on the fringe of the social structure, it was the impetus, along with a few other mannerisms, for a seething rage at a woman’s insistence that her social and political stature, or at least her family’s, mark the starting boundary of all conversations.
“For god’s sake!” I once said. “She’s so f-cking arrogant she refers to the president as ‘Bill.’ Who the f-ck refers to the President by his first name? Do I go around referring to the Pope as Karol? Sweet Christ, she’s a pain in my ass.”
In the first year of law school, I was sufficiently agitated and misanthropic that I considered the personalities of others to be attacks upon myself. Therapy, clearly, might have been helpful.
Jenny and I continued to talk. I asked her if she was going to be able to take her exams. She explained that she had, “unfortunately,” been forced to ask the Registrar for extra time on them.
“Oh,” I said, “that’s too bad.” I sighed, and forced a concerned look. “Well, I hope you feel better soon.”
That day, on my way home from working at the law library, I stopped at Union Station. Inside one of the tourist-oriented kiosks, I picked up a disposable camera. I slipped it into my bag, and continued to walk the brick-lined streets of Capitol Hill to my home.
The next day, Quincy, Rollins, a tall, thoughtful classmate from Alabama, and I sat on the steps of the library, chatting about our exam outlines. I had decided to forego the step of creating an outline, relying on my typed notes instead. The others thought I was mad. We smiled and cracked jokes about each other. I lazily sucked on a cigarette. It was another warm fall day in the District. People were still riding their bicycles to and from class. Some were sitting on the small green between the law library and the classrooms, taking their lunches.
Jenny rode her bike slowly across my field of vision, and I stopped talking. I could see her, just by the side of the law library, unloading books from her backpack and locking up her bicycle. She wore no hand braces.
“Son of a bitch.”
Quincy and Rollins followed my gaze.
Rollins let out a single, throaty laugh.
“Yeah, the hand injury’s really interfering with her lifestyle,” he said in a drawl.
“Can’t f-cking believe the audacity of that woman,” I said. I could, though. I knew it the day before.
This went on for a week more. Jenny would complain about her hands and show up in class wearing hand braces. After classes ended, I saw her resting her hands firmly on the handlebars of her bicycle, peddling home. I followed her, one day, and discovered she lived only two blocks from my apartment. Eventually, I began to take pictures of her riding her bicycle.
The day before the study period ended, and two days prior to our first exam (torts, if I can recall correctly), I had the pictures developed. A few came out, clearly showing Jenny placing her weight on her hands as she rode. One, I was pleasantly surprised to see, even showed her standing up off her seat, leaning forward. Her forearm muscles were tense. She had a slight smile. She looked relaxed.
I gave the pictures to Rollins and Quincy when I ran into them again at the library. They laughed. If we handed them to the Registrar, Jenny’s career at Georgetown was over. After a few minutes, it was clear that we were earnestly considering giving the photographs to the Registrar.
Rollins sighed. “It would be funny,” he said. He shook his head and looked down, laughing quietly.
“She deserves nothing better. Hell, we could make them into those photo greeting cards and send them to the class,” I replied. I held out my hands to indicate a caption. “’Happy Holidays, I just cheated you all out of a fair f-cking curve.’”
“She does deserve it,” Quincy said. “It’s not right.”
Rollins waived his hands, defensively. “It’s your photos. I want no part of it.” He got up and left.
Quincy and I looked at each other. Almost simultaneously, we spoke.
We weren’t going to do it. I shook my head. We lacked conviction, but we had anger. I took one of the pictures out of the packet, and slapped the remainder against Quincy’s chest.
“Enjoy.” I walked off.
We began exams that Monday. Rollins, Quincy and I didn’t have a chance to talk, and I only ran into Jenny once. After my Civil Procedure exam, I walked upstairs from the classrooms, to the second floor where Georgetown had smaller conference rooms and professorial offices. I had wanted to pick up notes for my Legal Justice exam from the professor’s office. Jenny rounded a corner, and we bumped into each other.
“Hey,” I said. I had little force in my voice.
“Hey.” Jenny answered. She wore her hand braces. She looked nervous. Perhaps she had heard the rumor as it spread around the section.
“How are the exams going?” I asked.
“Good. I’m actually in one now. I just need to proof my essays, and then I’ll be done.” She smiled. “Can’t talk, though.”
I smiled back. “Right, can’t talk. Well, good luck.”
The next day, the basement level, which held the student mailboxes, and the first floor of the building were plastered with photocopied photographs of Jenny, standing as she rode her bicycle, a slight smile on her face. Beneath the photocopied picture was simple caption.
“How’s the carpal?”
Jenny transferred from Georgetown at the end of the first year of law school. She ended up at a highly ranked Ivy League law school. She avoided the section, as a whole, during her final semester at Georgetown. She expressed palpable hatred toward me. I never posted the photocopies of her, though. I can only assume that either Rollins or Quincy had a change of heart.
I keep my single copy of the evidence that Jenny lied about her need for un-timed exams in a filing cabinet next to my desk. Amidst the empty fountain pen cartridges, paper clips, and pencils, Jenny can be seen riding across East Capitol Street, just south of the Supreme Court, her fingers tightly wrapped around her handlebars. I suppose it’s time to throw the photograph out, but it does please me to see it.
1. In law school parlance, a gunner is a student who is aggressively striving for the top grades. Gunners are typically considered arrogant, sycophantic, and boring. Of course, that could simply be my perception.
2. No, not that one.
3. Which bore the title, in the syllabus, of “Democracy and Coercion.” Unfortunately, Constitutional Law II was only called “Constitutional Law II.” They ran out of amusing, neo-hippie titles for classes after the first year of law school.
updated 7/31/03: formatting, replacement of initials with pseudonyms.