Christmas was three months ago. That morning, my youngest daughter led the congregation in song for the two morning masses at St. Bridget’s. Away at Columbia for Fall semester, it had been months since she worked with Bill, our parish musician. But having done so many masses together since high school years, the services came together easily. The live acoustic of this stone floor Catholic Church just up the hill from the Schuylkill River favors high frequencies, making a lower register the best contribution the cello can bring to Mass. So I covered the bass line. It was a cold, clear day, and doing two masses in a row was a welcome form of service. Home by noon, we opened a few modest presents and started to prepare Christmas dinner while tending a fire in the living room hearth.
A few days before, I received notice that a federal judge had approved my compensation request for a Court-appointed case that had dragged on for three years, but in the process had accumulated enough hours of legal work to pay the upcoming semester of college tuition. Money has always been uncertain since I left White and Williams in Philadelphia nearly ten years ago. In fact, paydays back then as a junior partner were fewer and farther between than they are now. I am no entrepreneur, and it has been the curse of my careers in law (and previously in music) that I prefer to get the job done than think about how much I can publicize or charge for it. An enduring naivete, that if I won the case both money and firm recognition would follow, led to a sad end at White and Williams, where I did not realize the overriding importance of office politics until too late. But last Christmas, financial concerns took a temporary back seat to the holidays. We went to mass at the Basilica in Center City on New Year’s Day and started in with 2020. The name of this year is the most futuristic yet. Until writing this, I had forgotten how odd “2000” looked when the 20th Century came to an end. But so much was going on, raising babies, getting them through school, finding a house and trying to make money, that I did not realize how fast time was passing. The teen years of the new century coincided with our daughters’ same phase, and now they are almost adults, living at home only because it is the plague time.
Two months ago, the year had made a promising start. With my office back in Center City I was doing a lot more walking, mainly 22-block round trips to federal court. Out of a car and on the street, I was surprised to see how miserable most people looked up close during the first week of January. I was able to resolve several criminal cases that month, and in February added two new cases for private clients. We ended the second month of 2020 with a Leap Day recital at the Presbyterian Church next door. The program went well, the sanctuary was filled and our decision to donate the freewill offering to the Church gave it a bigger collection than usual. Then came March, with Columbia dorms closing on March 13, my oldest daughter getting one of the last flights out of the UK on March 18, and the Pennsylvania Governor issuing an Order closing most non-essential to life businesses on Friday, March 20. Many people in Philadelphia were slow to take the pandemic seriously, and I joined those ranks by making a last trip to the state liquor store on March 14, before they all closed three days later.
From stop signs merely advisory to the fast food packaging thrown out of cars when they do stop, there is a high rate of background illegality in Philly. In the virus context, this shows in the frequent groups of more than six people I tried to avoid yesterday on the Kelly Drive running trail. It also surfaced at my turnaround point, the crew race reviewing stand half-way to Center City. The adjoining parking lot was filled with cars at 2 pm on a weekday, the occupants engaged in strolling conversation while a strong scent of weed lingered, dense enough to resist the breeze from the river. I wondered as jogging home if smoke would accelerate the virus by drying the throat, or if a belief had formed that weed conferred virus immunity by making one sufficiently “chill” to not worry about it. I have no doubt that at large law firms, people are still trying to outdo each other through face time at the office, in hopes that the compensation committee will remember their bravery when the time comes. Over the last quarter century in this City, I have learned that the Philadelphia status quo is extremely durable. Those who reaped the rewards of being part of the ruling class don’t change their ways. At this point, the virus has still not convinced them that this time, more than 9/11 and the near-death experience of big law in 2009, things are changing at a pace previously unimagined.
After climbing the steep rise of Midvale Avenue at a pace that was probably slower than walking, I arrived home to blossoms opening about two weeks ahead of schedule due to that other multinational problem, global warming. Although it was only 3 pm, I mixed a medicinal shot of rum with cranberry juice to celebrate covering two miles more than on Sunday. The rest of the day passed with normal, some would say compulsive, activities. I practiced cello yet again, then did my normal 30 minutes of German on Duolingo, a language learning app that actually helped me speak it in Leipzig last summer. Duolingo is perfect for those of us with obsessive compulsive disorder, because it keeps track of how many consecutive days you have studied. This week, I could not resist the lure of 100 consecutive days, and then breaking the 16,000 level for “gems,” which one accumulates as completed lessons stack up. The earliest notice in late February that the virus was actually a huge problem came from German news sites, which I review in the morning as a real-world compliment to grammar drills on Duolingo. With cello and language studies done, I overheard the evening news, and it was bad. The reports of bodies being kept in tractor trailers outside major New York hospitals moved me to thank Columbia University for getting it right and closing the dorms 12 days earlier. It took less than two weeks for the business as usual vibe I noted in Manhattan during the March 13 move-out to vanish completely. When complacency eaves Philadelphia remains to be seen.