McGrath & Company

by Con Chapman

McGrath was getting older but he still thought of himself as young.  He combed his hair over carefully from his part to conceal his receding hairline with his thinning hair, a subterfuge some of the older partners laughed at behind his back, but even the ones who thought him ridiculous at times had to admit that he got along well with the younger lawyers.

Whenever they’d have a weekend retreat he’d be the one who’d go out with the junior attorneys, buy them drinks, make them feel better about the long hours they were putting in for some remote chance to make partner someday.  He’d talk to them, which was something his peers found hard to do; he’d draw them out, tell them what he’d gone through at their age, make them feel better about the firm when they walked back in the doors to go to work on Monday.  For that—and for keeping them under control so that the firm wouldn’t have a drunken driving arrest or an accident on its hands the next day—they thanked him inwardly, and sometimes to his face, if only grudgingly.

His little merrymaking excursions came to be referred to as “McGrath & Company,” and it was understood that once you made senior partner, you could no longer join the fun except as backup adult supervision.  It wasn’t clear who came up with the name—it may even have been McGrath, who had a talent for self-glorification.  It struck some people as a bit infantile, but the fact became a habit, and then a recognized tradition, even referred to in the official materials that would be circulated the week before an outing.

“We’re going to Maxwell’s,” McGrath announced as the Saturday night dinner broke up.  “There are cabs outside for anybody who wants to join us.”

They made their way in a semi-convoy up to the North Side where McGrath played the part of den father, paying the cabbies with firm vouchers and ushering the young men and women to a bloc of reserved tables.  There was music—deafeningly loud—that McGrath seemed to truly enjoy, nodding his head along with the beat.

“What kind of music are you guys into?” he asked his table when the band took a break.  After he’d received a few desultory answers he described the band that his two teenage sons played in, and how gratifying he found it that they were playing some of the same music that he listened to when he was younger.

“We knew they were going to be classics,” he said, “and we were right!”  His boys played songs by Jimi Hendrix and The Who, among others, he said.  The young lawyers at his table, who for the most part had gotten as far as they had by blocking out music and drugs as distractions, smiled solemnly.

“How old were you during Vietnam?” a young man named Chris asked McGrath.

“Right in the thick of it.  If your grades weren’t good enough, you’d end up being drafted so you couldn’t be too wild,” McGrath replied with a wry smile.

“This was before the lottery?” a young man named Zach asked.

“Right—mid-sixties.  We came up with all kinds of wild stuff to get disqualified.”

“Like what?” Zach asked.

“Oh, simple things like acting crazy during your interview, wearing pantyhose to the physical exam.”

There were snickers all around.

“But if you didn’t have a history of psychiatric problems, wouldn’t they know you were faking it?” a young man named Mark asked.

“Sure, that’s why it was a fine line.  You didn’t want to act crazy if it could hurt you later in life, like if you wanted to become a lawyer and had to disclose it on the bar application.”

“For tax law, I think it would help to be crazy,” Mark said, and everyone laughed.

“Did you fake mental illness?” Zach asked McGrath, and the other juniors were a bit surprised by his bluntness.  McGrath shook his head with comic disdain.  “Of course not—otherwise I wouldn’t be here buying drinks for you goofballs tonight.”

“But you got out of the draft?” Zach persisted.

“Yeah,” McGrath said in a off-hand tone, without chagrin.

“How?” Zach asked.

McGrath looked around with a conspiratorial air, then lowered his head towards the table and spoke with a mock-secretive air:  “I dipped a Camel cigarette in ink and smoked it,” he said.  “When they took an X-ray, my lungs looked black.  They asked me how long I’d been smoking, and I told them since I was ten.  They thought I had lung cancer.  I was rejected on the spot.”

One of the boys made a cooing sound to express his admiration at the cunning involved in such a tactic.  Others twisted their lips into little moues of approval.  Zach seemed emotionless.

“You’re interested in the Vietnam War?” McGrath asked him.

“My dad died in it,” Zach said.  “Before I was born.  I never met him.”

“Oh, I’m, uh . . . sorry to hear that,” McGrath said.  He was smiling, the customary expression he used to convey the affection he felt for young men, trying to find their way in the world.  He realized it was out of place, and managed with conscious effort to appear sad.

The band came back on stage and the front man, a singer who’d been moderately famous in the 70s, launched into some patter.  Seconds later, the music was too loud for conversation.