Sunday, February 03, 2013

My Time with "Hizzoner" - Mayor Edward I. Koch

New York, 1996

It was 1996 and I was a Legal Assistant at the law firm of Robinson, Silverman, Pearce, Aronsohn & Berman in New York.  I already knew that being being paralegal had no glory.  My time at Teitelbaum, Hiller, Rodman, Paden & Hibsher had already disavowed me of that notion.  But I wasn't yet looking for glory. I had graduated from Middlebury two summers ago and was still finding my way in the world. Having worked for my father's company as an executive at an early age, I thought I had a good internal gauge of my own capabilities, but had yet to prove them to many in the outside world. At my dad's company only recently, I had navigated ourselves to a large contract from the United States Navy for advanced strategic computer based linguistic systems at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis. I personally bid for the project, procured and negotiated the contract, and built and delivered the computer hardware -- and all as a teenager.

Far from my life at my father's company, in New York I was a relatively new paralegal just out of college.  With as much innovation and intelligence as I was allowed to exercise, I would produce litigation files, research which polluters had polluted which amounts and when for one of many massive EPA Superfund litigations, or help prepare court filings. The work was unsophisticated, but required diligence and some level of care.  I arrived every morning at 1290 Avenue of the Americas ready to do whatever the lawyers I worked for would tell me.  I grew to dislike my job for many reasons: (a) I worked in New York yet made a salary that made living with any degree of style very challenging, (b) I worked for lawyers who I looked up to (merely because they were lawyers, and heck, what did I know in those days?) but who didn't share the same respect or fascination for me, and (c) I was, in effect, the lowest member of the "legal professional" totem pole; a role I didn't like one bit.

I met former Mayor Ed Koch, or "hizzoner" as he was affectionately called, while working at Robinson Silverman.  I had joined the firm along with several attorneys from Teitelbaum Hiller, which was collapsing in an old fashioned law firm split dust-up. Except for the fact that I knew Robinson Silverman was larger and had fancier offices, I knew nothing else about the firm.  When I first learned that Ed Koch worked there, I was clearly awestruck. While I had met prominent figures before, I had never had an opportunity to work in the same space as them and had never met them the way I met Mayor Koch.  Koch and I first met in the most unorthodox way: as we were both entering the men's room at our firm. I had gone to the men's room on a thankless errand for myself, to do what people do when they have to use the restroom. Mr. Koch had surely done the same. Yet the interaction that ensued would help alter my remaining time at the firm and ultimately shape my career.

My dissatisfaction with being a Legal Assistant had grown over time, and was now nearing its peak. I was looking to move on but wondered whether leaving the firm so soon after arriving would adversely affect my resume and job prospects.  Arriving at the rest room, however, none of those thoughts were primary. Rather, in addition to the need that had brought me to the restroom, I had a litigation project that Peter Paden, another partner at the firm, had given me, deeply on my mind. I entered the rest room and pulled up to a urinal.  As I approached, I saw that another person, mostly bald with tufts of grey hair, had also approached a urinal nearby. I glanced over, exercising the locational awareness that most humans like having when peeing next to others.  About the same time, my new bathroom companion glanced over at me. I instantly recognized this fellow restroom patron as the former Mayor of New York and quickly returned my gaze to my appointed task. Processing the fact that I was about to pee next to Mr. Koch distracted me from actually doing so, because what followed next was the most awkward 40 seconds of silence of my young career. As both Ed Koch and I stood there attempting to urinate, staring at our respective urinal walls, neither of us actually could. Finally breaking the silence after about forty five seconds, Mayor Koch zipped up, looked over at me, and with a wry smile said, "well, I guess I must have gotten stage fright."

Over the next few months, Mayor Koch made an effort to say hello to me, call me into his office on occasion, and share thoughts on politics, the profession, and on people. He and I shared a culinary love: Peking Duck House in Chinatown, and we referred to that love often. Beyond food, we talked about politics in New York. I recall asking him why he had switched parties to endorse Rudy Guiliani over David Dinkins, who had defeated Mayor Koch only one term prior. After all, Mayor Koch had supported Dinkins in the general election after his defeat in the primaries. Why the switch? Mayor Koch explained that Dinkins bore significant responsibility for the lawlessness of the anti-Semitic riots that raged in Crown Heights and that the riots had convinced him that Dinkins was no longer deserving of his support. The person is more important than the party, he quickly added. Having supported Guiliani in the previous election, Mayor Koch explained to me that he was pulling his support, suggesting that Guiliani's candor and tone bothered him.  The people of New York, Mr. Koch beamed, "deserved better."

When I told him about my dream of being a lawyer despite my disdain for being a paralegal, he spoke candidly about the challenges of the profession but also bullishly about its potential to protect and foster civil rights and aid in the governance of free people. "Bhijit," the Mayor told me in his New York accent, "if being a lawyer is what you want, go get it. Don't worry about your resume, just go do the best you can - nobody will fault you."  Soon after, I followed his advice and left the firm on my own journey to go to law school.

While I didn't keep in touch with Mayor Koch except to thank him after starting law school, his love for his city and the passion with which he lived his life remind me today, as they informed me in 1996, that a life worth living is born of conviction and the courage to pursue it. “How’m I doin?” he famously used to ask his constituents.  You did great, Mayor.

Rest in Peace.

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