Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Making an "Impression"

I had lunch a few months ago with one of my lawyer friends at a downtown Potbelly Sandwich Shop. While we were waiting in line, my friend pointed to a 20-something guy with an acoustic guitar who was singing songs to the noon-time crowd.

"Farmer," he joked, "that should be your gig."

"Been there, done that," I replied.


"As recently as last December," I said.


I then explained to my friend how I, a middle-aged lawyer, ended up playing the Potbelly gig, albeit at a different location.

In 2013 and 2014 I practiced law in a downtown office building that housed several restaurants on its lower level. Potbelly was the joint I hit on a regular basis.

I always talked with the folks who were making my sandwiches, and one afternoon the conversation turned to music.

Jerry Butler's "He Will Break Your Heart" was playing on the store's sound system, and I was shocked to see one of the young men behind the counter singing along during the chorus. I asked him if he knew that the guys who wrote that song -- Jerry Butler and Curtis Mayfield -- grew up in Cabrini-Green.

He was surprised to hear that, and we talked a bit more about Butler and Mayfield.

The store manager was standing just a few feet away. He asked me why I knew so much about old music. I told him it was a hobby.

I also told him that I kept a guitar in my office upstairs, and I'd be happy to bring it down and play that Jerry Butler hit, along with a bunch of other great tunes, anytime he wanted an old guy to entertain his lunch crowd. Once he realized I was serious, he told me to pick a date.

And that's how I ended up doing the occasional Potbelly gig.

The last time I played the store was December 30, 2014. That afternoon, I told the manager that I was going to leave my law firm in a few weeks. I wished him well because I knew I probably wouldn't see him much in 2015.

Yesterday, while scrolling through a 2014 calendar, I saw an entry for that lunchtime gig.

That got me thinking. I've played very little music this month, and the year is quickly coming to an end . . .

So I shot my store manager buddy an email and told him we were sneaking up on the one-year anniversary of that December 30 gig. I suggested we should make it a holiday tradition.

He was game. So tomorrow, on December 30, 2015, I'll grab a guitar and do my best to entertain his customers.

Life is for living.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Little Milton and Hurricane Katrina

Make no mistake. It was soul man Little Milton Campbell who broke the ice inside of that silver Nissan Altima as it sped north out of Houston on a hot September night 10 years ago.

Quite a feat, really, since Little Milton had been dead for almost a month.

But with just one question from the old guy in the back seat of my car, our 600-mile drive got a lot easier.

“Matt, is that Little Milton singing?”

“Yes, sir. The one and only.”

“What in the world are you doing listening to Little Milton?”

My longtime buddy Billy Dawson, who was riding shotgun, let out a laugh. And so began my friendship with James Williams, the Little Milton fan stretched out across my back seat.

Billy and I had met James inside the Houston Astrodome just a few hours earlier. He was 61 years old and built like an NFL tight end from another era. Shortly after the three of us met, James walked silently out of the arena with Billy and me, clutching only a small plastic grocery bag that contained some medicine and personal effects.

I still don’t know what he was thinking as he got into the car with two absolute strangers — a pair of 40-something Chicagoans, one black and one white — who had promised to drive him to Memphis, where his 95-year-old mother lived, but I’m sure he quickly sized us up and decided we were a safe bet.

A couple days earlier, James, along with one of his favorite New Orleans neighbors, boarded a crowded bus outside the Superdome, only to wind up in Houston, along with thousands of other Hurricane Katrina evacuees.

Around that same time, I had called Billy and told him I was losing my mind watching cable news coverage of the Crescent City flood. I had decided to drive to Houston to help with ongoing relief efforts. I told Billy I was going to leave that evening, and I invited him to join me.

Two hours later, I picked him up at his Kenwood apartment and we began our 1100-mile drive to the building once dubbed the Eighth Wonder of the World.

We had no return date, no place to stay, and no guarantee that we’d even be allowed into the Astrodome, but we were fast talkers and those were minor details.

I knew things were going our way when, after 12 hours of exceeding every applicable speed limit, a small-town cop in Texas let us off with a warning after I told him we’d been driving through the night from Chicago to get to the Astrodome.

When we finally arrived at the arena, a Houston cop initially denied us entry into the stadium parking lot. I did my best to channel John Belushi’s off-the-cuff story from The Blues Brothers, where he quickly flashed an ID and claimed to be Jacob Stein from the American Federation of Musicians.

I pulled out an Illinois attorney ID, popped my trunk to show the officer some relief supplies we’d brought from Illinois, and I quickly mentioned the names of one or two Houston lawyers I knew.

And just like that, we were in.

But neither one of us was prepared for what we were about to see — thousands of people, mostly black, occupying cots and stadium seats in the building where Billy “White Shoes” Johnson once returned kickoffs for the Oilers. The one-time Eighth Wonder of the World had become, for all practical purposes, an American refugee camp.

Billy and I quickly went to work wherever we could lend a hand. I’ll never forget meeting an anxious New Orleans grandmother who was by herself and having no luck locating any of her family members. She was distraught but still made it a point to give me a big hug and thank me for driving down from Chicago. She told me that my effort meant a lot to her. She had no idea where her family had ended up, but she found time to thank me. Go figure.

I experienced that type of kindness over and over again inside the Astrodome.

At some point in the evening, Billy and I had to come up with a lodging plan. We’d been doing some work alongside a nurse volunteer from the city’s M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. She’d recently moved to Houston from Jamaica.

She was trying to make heads-or-tails of our story. Two middle-age guys from Chicago drove through the night to Houston with no real plan and no place to sleep? She made a joke about us possibly being ax murderers before inviting us to stay at her house.

To this day, I’m convinced Billy’s dreadlocks helped get that deal done.

It was an unsettling feeling leaving the Astrodome to sleep in a stranger’s comfortable home in Houston, knowing that thousands of people were going to be on cots for many nights to come, but it was also another act of kindness that I appreciated.

The next day, more evacuees arrived at the Astrodome, and Billy and I did what we could to help them.

Later that afternoon I decided that we should offer to drive some evacuees to Memphis, St. Louis or Chicago — three cities we would hit on our way home. I bought some poster board and markers and made a sign indicating that we could drive up to three people to one of those destinations. I then spent an hour walking the floor of the Astrodome holding that sign above my head.

[Advertising for riders headed to Memphis, St. Louis or Chicago -- all photos courtesy of Billy Dawson.]

A young woman stopped me to ask about my offer. She told me she was there with one of her New Orleans neighbors and said that her neighbor’s mother lived in Memphis. She asked if she could have a few minutes to see whether that neighbor, James Williams, might be interested in making the drive with us.

James signed on, but Billy and I found no other takers, so early that evening the three of us walked out of the Astrodome and hit the highway.

With Houston in my rearview mirror, I made two quick stops. We needed dinner and James needed some threads. There was no way I was going to deliver Mr. Williams to his 95 year-old mother unless he had at least a week’s worth of clothes.

Retail options were limited on Saturday night, but I did manage to find a Walmart that was still open. Billy and I pushed shopping carts through that store like we were contestants on a game show spree. Quickly asking James for his shoe size, belt size, shirt size and favorite colors, we loaded up carts that would allow him to get around Memphis for a bit without having to worry about his wardrobe. Lord knows he had plenty of other things to worry about.

During our meal and our shopping blitz, James was polite to a fault, but he didn’t have a whole lot to say — until I popped a Little Milton CD into my car stereo.

That’s when the conversation got going. At that point, we became three music lovers making a 10-hour road trip to Memphis.

I’ve stayed in touch with James since we met at the Astrodome. I’ve visited him in Memphis, and he’s stayed with my family and me in Chicago. He’s now 71 years old, and his mom just celebrated her 105th birthday.

He’s been back to New Orleans three times since the flood (for a wedding, a funeral and a family reunion), but he’s told me he’ll never live there again. His old neighborhood is one that’s been left in disrepair.

If all goes according to plan, James and I will again spend some time together next week. I’ve been promising my 13-year-old daughter a trip to Sun Studio and the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and there’s no time like the present.


On August 30, 2015, my youngest daughter (not pictured) and I had dinner with James in Memphis. We had a ball -- along with some great banana pudding and peanut butter pie for dessert.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Guitar Lawyer

[This piece was originally published by The Third City on May 17, 2015.]

I’ve had the privilege over the years of visiting many classrooms to speak with students around the city. Whether I’m talking to grade-school kids or graduate students, I always look forward to the challenge, and I do my best to make sure the students get something out of it.

When I left my house Thursday morning to meet a buddy downtown for a casual lunch, I had no idea I’d find myself later that afternoon addressing students in a classroom at Northwestern University School of Law.

I certainly wasn’t dressed for success, sporting blue jeans, a red and black lumberjack flannel shirt, and a grey hooded sweatshirt. I did, however, smartly accessorize that look with both the heavy-duty, black plastic knee brace I’ve been wearing since February (when my kneecap was surgically reattached to my shinbone) and the acoustic guitar in a black nylon travel case that I’d slung over my right shoulder.

All in all, I looked, on that particular day, like the kind of guy who might get tossed out of a law school for trespassing.

My plan was to grab a sandwich with my friend and then wander over to the Magnificent Mile to spend part of a beautiful spring afternoon busking on a North Michigan Avenue street corner.

I’ve always found it a blast to work as a street musician. You plant your musical flag on a city sidewalk and let the chips fall where they may.

Twenty-three years ago, when I was still in law school, I spent a summer working for a large firm that specialized in trial work. The woman in charge of hiring once introduced me to several of her partners by saying, “I knew we needed to hire Matt after he told me that he played music in the subways. If you know how to work that crowd, you’re well on your way to becoming a good trial lawyer.”

She understood. You need to be comfortable engaging absolute strangers who may not look like you, live like you, or view the world like you.

In any event, after lunch I decided to plant my musical flag near the corner of Michigan and Erie, near the Salvatore Ferragamo boutique. Forty-five minutes into my set, while playing Rodney Crowell’s “Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight,” I noticed three guys sizing me up from about ten feet away. They looked harmless. One was even nodding his head in time to the music.

They kept their distance until I finished my next song, Johnny Cash’s “Get Rhythm,” at which point they approached me.

The group’s spokesman introduced himself as Sergei. He had a thick Russian accent, but spoke English fluently. He told me he enjoyed my singing and playing and wondered whether I would be interested in performing at a nearby event in an hour.

We talked for a few minutes and I learned that the event in question was at Northwestern’s law school, where Sergei and his friends were students. He told me that as part of a year-end assignment, he was supposed to venture out into the city and negotiate a deal to bring someone — a bartender, an alderman, a circus clown — to the school to speak to, or perform for, his class.

Sergei never talked down to me. He was a gentleman. He also had no idea that I was a trial lawyer, albeit a currently unemployed one. Sergei and I hammered out our little deal in about two minutes. In exchange for a nominal sum, I’d hobble over to his school in an hour to perform a couple of tunes for his classmates. Sergei didn’t realize that I was heading to his law school not for the pittance we’d just “negotiated,” but for a chance to talk briefly to some soon-to-be lawyers.

I then spent another 45 minutes regaling the Michigan Avenue crowd with three-minute ditties about broken hearts, fast cars, and life in prison.

Once I got to the law school, Sergei helped me with my gear and asked me to wait outside the classroom for a few minutes until it was time for me to play.

When it came time for him to bring me in, he introduced me to his roughly three dozen classmates with gracious words. Before strumming my first chord, I asked the students how many of them wanted to try cases. A few hands went up.

I then played a song.

After that, I believe I surprised the class — though perhaps not the teacher, whom I actually knew — by stepping out of my role as a limping, middle-aged street musician.

I told them that I began with a question about trying cases because young lawyers need to know that it’s important not to lock yourself into preconceived notions about people when you pick a jury. The same rule applies when you’re sitting across the table from a relative stranger during a negotiation.

I explained that when Sergei negotiated his deal with me, he had no idea that I was an attorney, much less one who had negotiated (on the defense side) many multi-million dollar settlements.

And why should he have known that? I certainly didn’t expect him to notice during our brief exchange on Michigan Avenue that the lanyard I was wearing — the one that holds my City of Chicago street musician license — was a National Institute of Trial Advocacy faculty lanyard.

I then told the class that I left my job in late January, immediately blew out my knee, and was now on the mend and back in the job market.

I spoke for a few more minutes, but my main point to the students was simple. When you get out into the legal world, treat people with decency, just as Sergei did. And remember to keep an open mind in your dealings with others. Things aren’t always what they seem.

I then played one more song before heading home to put ice on my left knee.

The Unemployment Diaries: Part Two

[This piece was originally published by The Third City on February 8, 2015.]

A few hours after I injured myself shooting hoops at a local YMCA, emergency room doctors at a nearby hospital sent me across the street to see an orthopedic surgeon, who quickly sized up the situation after examining my multi-colored, grapefruit-sized left knee. The surgeon was confident I’d ruptured my patellar tendon, a diagnosis confirmed by an MRI scan a couple days later.

The doc and I then talked surgery and rehabilitation. He told me he operates on Mondays and Thursdays, and he suggested we schedule the procedure for the Thursday after the Super Bowl.

I sat quietly on his exam table, still in my basketball clothes, staring down at my bulbous kneecap, which, no longer tethered to my left tibia, was now in a place it wasn’t supposed to be.

I’d not yet figured out how I was going to make it up five steps to the front door of my house that evening, much less negotiate an additional flight of stairs to my bed. Nor had I wrapped my brain around months of rehab. I’d even managed to block from my mind — if only for a few moments — the fact that I was now (voluntarily) unemployed, having given notice to my old boss earlier in the month.

But the one thing I did know was that I wasn’t having surgery that Thursday.

“Doc,” I asked, “can we push the surgery off a few days until the following Monday? Would that short delay be bad for my knee?”

“Is there a problem?”

“No problem. It’s just that I have a gig.”

Yes, that’s where my head was at that particular moment in time.

In early December I’d agreed to play music at a February 5 fundraiser for Raise Your Hand, a grassroots coalition of parents who advocate for quality public education. It’s a group near and dear to my heart.

I’d even lined up a couple of my good friends to play and sing with me that night, and I was looking forward to the event.

(Pre-surgery Raise Your Hand gig with Brian Wilkie and Diana Laffey)

I also realized, while talking to the surgeon, that it would likely be months before I could again play music with my friends in neighborhood bars. And having shot what was almost certainly my last jump shot earlier that day, I wasn’t about to let an upcoming music gig slip away without a fight.

As it turned out, my surgeon signed off on the short delay. He then prescribed a leg brace to immobilize my knee and some painkillers for my Elvis Presley Pez dispenser.

The following week, my buddy Brian Wilkie, one of the city’s best guitarists, drove me to and from the Raise Your Hand gig, loading and unloading all my gear. Anyone who has heard Brian play knows that in a just world he’d be performing on big stages in Nashville or New York; instead, my friend spent the Thursday after the Super Bowl helping me get through the evening. (By the way, that prescription leg brace cost me more than the Gretsch guitar I played at the gig that night.)

Let the doc do his cutting on Monday. Last Thursday night I needed to pop pills and play rock-n-roll.

Life is for living.