Two things happened this past month to make me reminisce about my law school days. First, my law clerk has earned his Juris Doctor and begun studying for the Bar Exam. Second, I moved to a new home for the first time in over a decade and spent some time going through boxes of old photos and mementos.
Friends describe my venture into Detroit in the 90’s as being an urban pioneer of sorts. White people fled the city en masse about 30 years earlier after the race riots. Middle class minority families followed in the 70’s and 80’s. Once the epicenter of technological innovation and the American dream, Detroit had become the nation’s murder capital and lost over 50% of its population to the suburbs and to other states. The violence in the city was pathological at times. A week before I became a Detroiter, a woman was pulled from her car, beaten and chased by another driver until she jumped into the Detroit River and drowned after being involved in a minor traffic accident on the bridge to Belle Isle Park.
But, wait. I was from the mean streets of Flint, Michigan. Home of Michael Moore of Roger & Me fame. Another murderous, violent, down and out city. I had lived in a lower income, diverse neighborhood. I had survived. Certainly I was tough enough for Detroit, right?
There are plenty of challenges your first year of law school – some academic, some cultural. During orientation, the dean asked students in my entering class to raise their hand if they have at least one family member who is an attorney. “Keep your hand raised if you have 2…” And so on. I was amazed how long my classmates held their hands up, as I sat in my alphabetically-assigned space in the back row, a hopeful first generation lawyer in the making. These people had first-hand accounts from parents, siblings, and cousins of what to expect in law school. I was clueless and about to have my ego knocked down substantially. I would learn I was never as smart as my confidence levels in high school and undergraduate classrooms previously led me to believe.
I was equally astonished that no one seemed to use the financial aid office. While I piled on loans that would follow me for decades in order to finance books and tuition, my classmates transferred payments from their trust funds. I arrived for class driving what we called a hoopty in the 90’s. A broken down Oldsmobile with missing hubcaps. My fellow students roared into the parking lot in gleaming new BMW’s and Mercedes.
A trip to the bookstore felt more like a trip to Uhaul. You got loaded up with boxes of books. Far more than you ever thought you could possibly read in 3 months. The books were full of musty old cases decided by long-dead justices whose opinions were written in the dry, exhausting prose of the 19th century.
And then at night, I went home. Home was a modest, one-bedroom apartment in a historic high-rise on Detroit’s west side. As an outsider, I misunderstood that its location within a mile or two from major landmarks meant it must be safe. Henry Ford Hospital, the GM Headquarters (GM would later abandon the neighborhood and move downtown), and the Motown Museum were all relatively close. During the daytime, the neighborhood bustled with traffic.
But at nighttime… at nighttime all hell broke loose. Police car and ambulance sirens interrupted the noise of car alarms, breaking glass, screaming, gun shots and helicopters. Looking out my window, I could see the flames and smoke shooting up so high from the homes in the surrounding neighborhood when they burned. I had moved into a war zone.
The homeless men who lived in and scavenged through our garbage dumpsters would appear seemingly out of nowhere, like ghosts or zombies, and disappear again. Above me, I routinely heard the fights of my upstairs neighbors. A woman being beaten, furniture crashing, the sound of a body being dragged kicking and thrashing across wood floors. From the hallway, my giant nextdoor neighbor would bellow out loud shouts and slurred songs sometime after 2am, arriving home drunk more often than not. Sometimes he would pause in front of my door, screaming nonsense. Once he vomited there, pounding the wall as he wretched in agony and yelled. You could hear the rats in the stairwells and see their droppings in the morning, but you never saw them. I heard stories of cats and small dogs being torn to pieces by Detroit’s apartment-dwelling rats. The cockroaches were everywhere too, scuttling away when you open a cabinet door. Further down the hall, a zealot neighbor stayed up until all hours of the night screaming in tongues, clapping and shouting with her tv set full blast to a station preaching salvation. Around me, music pulsed and throbbed so loud that the walls and windows shook. A glass on the table would bounce from the vibrations.
And just when sun began to rise, and life quieted down, it was time to go to school and experience the Socratic method of getting your ass handed to you while you attempt to explain the Rule Against Perpetuities.