It was pouring rain on my first official day as a lawyer.
And not just any rain. This was one of those drenching, set-in stretches that happen only in Charleston, when the relentless downpour turns the Low Country into a soggy bog, and there I was – a young, would-be barrister, new to the Holy City – splashing like a fool through ankle-deep floodwater.
Well, at least my apartment was dry.
That was because I had just rented a third-floor studio in a stately old house on Rutledge Avenue. By “studio” I mean unventilated attic space. But it was a short walk to where I would be working on Broad Street – I looked forward to leisurely morning strolls past lovely gardens and magnificent churches – plus it had a stained glass window that opened to a view of Colonial Lake.
My Father to the Rescue
On a hot and muggy day in August, my father drove up from Williamsburg County to help me move in, and he was unhappy on arrival.
“I have to tell you,” he said, shaking his perspiring head as we lugged a heavy couch up three flights of stairs to my new digs. “I couldn’t live like this.”
That was one of my father’s things – pointing out circumstances under which he could not live – such as in a stuffy attic accessible by steep, rickety stairs only loosely attached to the exterior of a crumbling mansion, so that each step was an adventure in terror.
“But you don’t have to live like this,” I said, straining under my end of the load. “I do.”
Staggering inside, we eased the couch down and my father collapsed wearily onto it.
“I’m just expressing my opinion,” he said. “And my opinion is I could not live like this.”
I suffered in silence. Of course he could live like this. He had served in the second world war and raised a family and coached youth sports. In fact never had he lived in such grandeur – in the heart of antebellum Charleston, a place of splendor and grace – and did I mention the stained glass?
What he was really saying was he hated the place, and he thought I had made a terrible decision, mostly because of the rent.
“Outrageous,” he said of the $300 or $400 a month or whatever it was back then.
He had never paid that much rent his entire life, including for the house I grew up in, which was plenty good enough, and by the way was fully paid off.
“But you’re right,” he said. “It’s your life, not mine.”
My father was a good and strong and generous man. From a young age I knew how lucky I was to have drawn him from the great dad lottery of life. Naturally I wanted him to be proud of me. I wanted him to say, Way to go! Excellent choice! I love the stained glass!
But these words were unspoken, and after a dozen more treacherous trips up the wobbly stairs, it was time for him to leave.
“You’ll be fine,” he said, and when he put both his hands on my shoulders – in that way of his – I understood that his testiness came from concern. He wanted me to have a happy life.
And he had this advice for my first day on the job: “Just show up and look sharp.”
The Importance of Looking Sharp
Looking sharp, in my father’s view, did not mean just clothes and physical appearance. It also included attitude and enthusiasm. That and showing up, he believed, were the only two things a person needed for success in life.
So on the morning of my debut as a Broad Street lawyer, I put on my blue suit – bought off the rack from B.C. Moore & Sons in Kingstree – and striped tie and stiff black shoes. I was looking sharp.
But when I opened the front door I encountered a deluge of near-Biblical proportions. The rain came down in driving sheets. Walking to work was not an option, and my trusty Datsun B210 was parked far down the street – the lack of on-premises parking being yet another reason my father could not live like this. Cleverly, I had stashed my only umbrella in the car, and of course I did not own a raincoat.
The Tortious Cobblestone
Looking back, I see the universe was sending me a signal.
But that dreary morning all I was focused on was getting to my car, and then to work, while still looking sharp. How to do that? I considered holding newspapers over my head, grocery sacks, an empty moving box. But the rain would have quickly turned those plans into pulpy disasters.
As a last resort I got out my winter coat and was prepared to make a mad dash holding it overhead. Then I remembered the shower curtain liner. I hadn’t even put it up yet. It was still in the package. And when I draped the clear plastic over my body, it was perfect. Like a poncho but better.
So out I plunged into the full fury of the squall, wrapped in a shower curtain and bound for my law destiny.
And I almost made it.
I was this close to my Datsun B210 when I stepped on the cobblestone of doom. Cobblestones are a part of Charleston’s charm, but when they are wet and hidden underwater they are torts waiting to happen. My ankle twisted and I fell into a wave of rushing water. At the same time a howling locomotive of wind snatched the shower curtain from my body and swept it away.
Mother Nature Resides in Charleston
I arrived at the law office dripping wet and limping, looking anything but sharp.
But here’s the thing. Nobody cared. Everyone was excited by the weather, and they barely noticed the new guy. Though unlike me, most had umbrellas and appropriate gear, and some had even brought dry clothes.
By noon, the sky was blindingly blue, and a glorious sun had popped out, which is how it goes in Charleston.
Only hours into my new journey, and I had already learned valuable lessons: that in the Low Country the weather is a fact of life, that it’s best to be prepared for it, and that it’s dumb to leave your umbrella in your car.
This year on Father’s Day my children took me to dinner at a nice restaurant. I got dressed up. I wore the new necktie my daughter gave me.
On the way out the door, I caught my reflection in the mirror, and my heart stopped. My father was looking back at me. He was smiling. I could feel his hands on my shoulders, in that way of his. He had showed up, and he was looking sharp.
Jay Reeves has practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. He now helps lawyers and firms raise their game through Mojo Law. He owns multiple umbrellas and has begun therapy to overcome his fear of cobblestones. Contact Jay at firstname.lastname@example.org or 919-619-2441. Love Jay's article? read more of his writing on Lawyers Mutual's Byte of Prevention Blog.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.