I have had my share of the usual rites of passage: no bar mitzvah, but two weddings, some funerals (not mine), and a ton of graduations. Of these, and passing the inherent sadness of funerals, I can quickly identify which was the worst experience for me: my law school “graduation” from Columbia Law School (“CLS”) in 1974.
In those days, CLS didn’t even have much of a graduation. Just a brunch reception on a patio at the law school where the Dean spoke briefly, runny scrambled eggs and weak Bloody Marys were served, and the diplomas were handed out by someone from the Dean’s office sitting behind a folding table. The reason for this brief non-ceremony was that Columbia University’s massive outdoor ceremony was then held in the afternoon — though all CLS grads were supposed to do there was sit in their caps and gowns for about three hours, at some point be recognized en masse by the University President and stand briefly in response — again, en masse — and then sit back down.
So, on my graduation day, I planned to go to the CLS brunch, schmooze a bit, pick up my diploma and punt on the University exercises in the afternoon (as a good number of my CLS classmates also did). On my way out of the brunch, I went over to the table where the diplomas were distributed and gave my name to the Dean’s office employee. However, after pulling my folder, instead of handing me my diploma, she handed me a note that had been put in the folder in lieu of the diploma. It said, in essence, that I owed a debt to the University and could not receive my diploma unless and until it had been settled. Huh? But, when asked, the employee could not tell me what the debt was for or how much it was; she said that I’d have to go to the CLS Bursar’s Office and deal with it there.
So I went inside to the Bursar’s Office and the employee there checked my file and informed me that I had an unpaid debt of $3.00: an “insufficient funds penalty” owed to the Columbia Bookstore for a check that was apparently initially rejected in January. Again, huh? I had received no previous notice of this from the Bookstore, my bank or CLS. In other words, WTF? And the employee also told me that I could not resolve this issue with her office; I had to go to the Bookstore and square it with them. I exploded at hearing all of this, even as I realized that I had obviously written the check (for about $100) right after my father had sent me a generous check to cover my semester expenses but before it had cleared. And, equally obviously, my bank had had no problem with this since it quickly honored my check and paid the Bookstore rather than notify me that there was an insufficient funds issue with my account. Grrrr….
As part of my explosion, I pointed out that CLS had had more than five months to notify me about this grave matter and get it rectified and it was a damn good thing that I wasn’t some farm kid from Iowa who was the first in his family to get past grade school and whose entire family had abandoned the crops and flown to New York just for the thrill of seeing him get his law school diploma. She demurred and, of course, I had no choice but to trek across campus to the Bookstore to try to work things out.
At the Bookstore, after having ascertained where its administrative offices were buried, I finally found someone who could help me with the situation. She made clear that I could pay the $3.00 to her and the problem would magically go away. She even said I could write a check to cover it. Taking no chances, I gave her $3.00 in cash and made sure that she gave me a very clear letter/receipt to take back to CLS stating that my debt had been fully discharged,
Than back across campus to the CLS Bursar’s Office I went. I showed the same employee there the note/receipt from the Bookstore. After she read it, she nodded and explained that my diploma was in the Dean’s Office and gave me her own note saying that the Bursar’s Office was now satisfied that I was at peace with the Bookstore. I then took that note to the Dean’s Office, showed it to the employee there, and she quickly pulled out my diploma — which, of course, had been sitting in my file the whole time — and handed it to me. I do not recall hearing any strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” playing in the background.
Ironically, when I looked for my CLS diploma for this story (I never bothered framing it), I couldn’t find it in my personal memorabilia bin. Harking back to my Lost and Found story, I will deal with that issue later. Suffice it to say that, unlike my passport, I have never had a personal need to show my diploma. The New York State Bar and a good number of federal courts and SCOTUS have all seen fit to admit me without presentation of it. But, for purposes of this story, I did find on-line what purports to be a CLS diploma. However, the fine print makes reference to the “Dean of the Faculty of Business,” which I am sure was not on my diploma (CLS was certainly focused on corporate law when I went there, but we had law professors, not B-school faculty). Here is that faux diploma:
Anyhow, this whole ordeal took me several hours, and you would have thought that that would have been the end of my annoyances on this lousy day. If you did, however, you would have been wrong. As it turned out, this was only “halftime” of my misery — and without a marching band.
Walking away from the CLS building with my diploma in hand, I headed off to retrieve my car, which I had parked on Riverside Drive the day before, to find a parking place for it on the other side of the street. (Anyone conversant with NYC’s arcane alternate side parking rules will understand the drill; I will spare others.) Much to my unhappy surprise, when I got to where I had left the car, it wasn’t there. You need to understand that, though I had to move my car almost every day to comply with the rules, I was not some sort of a stoner who couldn’t remember where I had left it. I was not this dude:
To the contrary, I knew exactly where I had parked it. Further, I remembered that I had parked it a wee bit closer to (as in “partly in”) a crosswalk the day before, owing to the fact that the streets around Columbia were particularly parked up the day before Commencement. So it was certainly possible that the car had been ticketed and towed. This was better, but only slightly so, than if the car had been stolen, which was always a real possibility on Morningside Heights’ mean streets of the 70’s.
So off I went to the 24th Precinct Station House, which I knew where to find because I had participated in a program it sponsored to let CLS 1L students ride around in patrol cars for an evening and see what the cops were dealing with. At the Station House, the sergeant behind the desk quickly ascertained that the car had in fact been ticketed for being in a crosswalk and then towed to the car pound. (Clearly sensing a financial windfall for cash-strapped NYC with all the out-of-town Commencement traffic, the Precinct had undoubtedly ordered a massive “sweep” of the area that day.) OK, I asked, how do I get the car back? First, the sergeant said, you need to pay the fine, but you can pay it right now to me. It was $25 — pretty hefty for the time — but I had the cash and gave it to him. He then wrote out and handed me a note — I was getting pretty used to these notes by now — which indicated that I had paid the fine and could get the car back from the pound. But, he added, when you get to the pound, you need to pay them an additional $100 for the daily storage fee incurred or they will not release the car. I groaned, but, as they say in NYC, whaddayagonnado? I then asked if the pound accepted checks. Well, the sergeant explained, that depends. They will accept checks from the registered owner of the car, but otherwise you need to pay cash.
Well, this created my next problem. I was in the process of transferring registration from my mother to me as I was soon to become an income-producing attorney, but, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember if we had completed that process yet or not. And, of course, the registration papers were in the car itself, which I presumably would not have access to unless and until I paid the storage fee. Hello, Catch-22. In any event, particularly since, per the sergeant, the pound was on some decrepit Hudson River pier on the Lower West Side (i.e., to Hell and gone), I figured I better pay by cash and not risk the need for a second trip down there and possibly an additional storage fee.
And this created my next problem. I did not have $100 in cash on me; I’d have to get more cash. Recall that this was 1974. No ATM’s yet and all banks closed at 3:00 p.m. It was already about 2:15. So I dashed from the Precinct House up to my bank branch on 113th Street and Broadway (it was then called Chemical Bank), got in line and got $100 in cash just before the bank closed. Then I took the subway down to the pound, which was one scary looking dump. About as run-down as possible, with barbed-wire fencing around the car lot and some snarling guard dogs just to enhance the ambience.
Of course, there was a long line at the pound — as mentioned, there had obviously been a “sweep” that day — and the mood in the line would have made waiting at the DMV seem like a tea party by comparison. But I finally made it to the front, gave the guy there my Get Out of Car Jail note from the Precinct sergeant and $100 in cash and was then given yet another note to present to the guy at the car lot gate. That guy took the note, unlocked the gate and gave me some lousy directions as to where to find my car.
And I finally found it, Dude. It looked pretty much like this (a stock image of a red Karmann Ghia convertible, circa 1969):
Before driving my beloved Karmann back uptown, just because I was in pure masochist mode by then, I checked the registration in the glove compartment. Sure enough, the registration had been transferred to me; I could have paid by check and spared myself the trip to the bank and attendant agita. Oh well.
Once I got uptown and made sure that Karmann was parked in a 100% legal spot for the night, I went to my apartment, exhausted and a smelly mess (it was also a super hot day, I should have mentioned), showered and then dressed for dinner. I was meeting my then-fiancee and her parents at a local restaurant. My fiancee was also graduating from CLS that day but, more importantly, she was a Barnard trustee (its youngest). As such, rather than go to the CLS brunch in the morning, she had attended Barnard’s commencement ceremonies and then been part of the Barnard procession and contingent at the Columbia ceremonies in the afternoon. As her father was a bigwig Columbia alumnus, he and his wife had also attended the afternoon stuff.
When they asked at dinner how my day was, I explained as per above. To my eternal gratitude, they were all sympathetic. Frankly, had I been one of my fiancee’s parents, I would have seriously wondered what sort of moron was about to enter the family.
To sum it all up, at the end of this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, I had accomplished exactly two things: gotten my CLS diploma and re-gained possession of my car. Accomplishments? If you had asked me at the beginning of the day, I would have told you that, for all intents and purposes, I already had those things.
So I trust all can understand why this day was my most memorable “rite of passage” ever. And I mean that in the worst possible way.