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Dear Amy

by jan armon, bc law '74

Dear Amy,

No one at 23 gets to meet her dad when he was that age. All through law school, Alan Phillips and I shared an apartment. We formed a friendship that lasted for thirteen years, until he died at 36 from ALS. When that happened you were barely 3. With toddler eyes that were learning to resolve images, you had watched him cripple. Although he gave you more loving attention than some kids receive from healthier dads, since then you’ve had to live with the might-have-been. Well enough of that weepy stuff! Let me transport you to a decade before you were born, and introduce you to a terrific guy. You may find him somewhat like yourself.

But please let me call him Al, as I called him then.

A picture of Al stands clearly in my mind. He is wearing a short-sleeve shirt with a collar. A top-to-lip black mustache is neatly trimmed to complement his reddish complexion, and his hair is slicked down. At a time when other guys were getting shaggier by the month, Al valued a traditional haircut and used Alberto VO5 to keep the hair in place. When I asked him about it, he said he had to keep his hair short for the Army Reserves. This was sufficient. Every man of us avoided Vietnam, except for those who had already been there. Yet when the Reserves discharged Al, he kept his hair that way, and I realized that he liked it. I thought that odd, until I remembered that Al never tried to be like other people. In those days, Amy, a lot of people our age blew weed. When folks got together, they often passed a joint. Yet I cannot remember Al dragging on one; I only see him passing it on. Drugs did not interest your father, at all, and peer pressure meant nothing to him.

Al Phillips was the genuine individual whom those of us who came out of the 1960s tried so hard to be that we ended up imitating each other. Yet he never condemned the rest of us. Al was a certain way, but other than wanting you to know that, he did not push it on you. He never expected any of his friends to be like him. That made him easy to live with. He expected his roommates to respect his habits, and to share in dinner and in chores and expenses, but I expected no less. And we liked each other.

Not that Al was complacent about himself. I think Al put up with me because I passed for, as he said, “a free spirit.” Those were the early 1970s. A premium was put on people who defied convention and put on a casual or cocky face when confronted with the ordinary. He had me around to keep things loose. In turn I think Al viewed himself, and I confess I viewed him, as a bit uptight. That was unfair, of course. In fact I appreciated the regularity he brought to my life, and I admired his study habits. Al would sit at his desk with his law books until ten o’clock at night nearly every night. Meanwhile, I would get acquainted with the neighbors, or cross the river into Cambridge, where things were more exciting. I studied well, but not with Al’s diligence or regularity. Standing seven inches taller than Al, I sometimes admitted to myself that I was the Grasshopper and he was the Ant. The Ant provides for himself and his family, as Al would. The Grasshopper would need a hand later on, as I did.

Al came to Boston College Law School without intending to practice law. Already he had worked for two years as a reporter on The Philadelphia Inquirer. At Temple University he had devoted his full time to the college daily, using it as an apprenticeship — an opportunity to function at all levels of a newspaper read by a defined audience. Al treated undergraduate school as a professional education, and it rewarded him with a plum, while others had to take jobs with boondock newspapers.

Yet less than two years into his job, Al decided to apply to law school. His goal, so he told himself and friends, was to report on the law. His ostensible role model was a television reporter named Fred Graham, who had a law degree and covered legal assignments of national import. At the Inquirer Al had been assigned to courthouses. They were a junk circuit for cub reporters, but Al had been fascinated by his beat, and decided that he needed a law degree to advance in the field. Once in law school, Al even took a part-time job with The Boston Globe, which had a national reputation for quality.

While studying the law, Al was eager to use everything he had learned as a reporter. He liked writing papers more than most of us (that is, he liked writing papers), because he had written for a living, as you do now. He never learned the touch method, but pecked rapidly on his typewriter. The wisdom he brought as a reporter to legal issues became central when Watergate broke. This was the scandal that brought down the Nixon administration. It developed through a series of newspaper articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in The Washington Post. Through syndication, Post articles ran in The Boston Globe. We subscribed to daily and Sunday delivery of the Globe, so as the story developed we read it. In that respect, Amy, I received the best legal education available during that time. Our news-hound roomie led discussions morning and evening. Of course Watergate was payback for Vietnam, but under Al’s tutelage it became a lesson in what good reporters and a functioning legal system can accomplish.

Al and I both worked at the school’s legal aid office, the Boston College Legal Assistance Bureau, providing legal services to the poor. That was a great education. Working together brought us closer together, and I’m proud that after law school Al worked in Legal Services in Philadelphia for seven years. We had something else in common. Al was excitable, and so was I. From my height I sometimes thought that Al was about to jump up and down. Certainly a good breaking story on Watergate could do that to him. A pretty woman could also get him excited. That would require slowing down if he were driving.

The single event that brought the most emotion to Al came after a classmate called us to say that his wife had just given birth to a healthy baby girl. The next night, Al and I drove into downtown Boston and visited the maternity ward. A woman on the other side of the glass showed us this baby girl, and Al cried. I wasn’t in Philadelphia when you were born, Amy, but I can picture Al’s happiness.

I had found Alan through the bulletin board at Boston College. He and another first-year law student, Harvey, sought a third. Their apartment was in a large dingy building. While there were only two bedrooms, the living room had its own entrance off a large foyer. Harvey and Al would save money if someone would not mind making his bedroom out of the living room. I signed on.

Midway through our second year, along with a new third roomie also named Alan, we moved into a three-bedroom flat in a classic New England triple decker. Triple deckers could be found in cities all over Massachusetts and New Hampshire, as a common form of owner-occupied multi-family dwelling. Each of the three stories was a complete three- or two-bedroom flat. The upper flats had porches in back or in front or both, and they shared an enclosed stairway. The basements were ruled by oil furnaces. Our triple decker was at the top of the furthest western hill of Boston, in the working-class neighborhood of Oak Square. The building had just been refurbished by the owner, Mario, who lived with his family on the first floor. Mario had immigrated from Italy. He had the arms of a blacksmith, and integrity. Our refrigerator was old. It worked, but the freezer was a tiny exposed box that was little better than a place to chill a beer. We asked Mario if we could have a better freezer. He said okay. A week later he carried in a full stand-up freezer. Thus began the monthly trips to a meat market in nearby Waltham. I count those trips among my more pleasant experiences with Al. You learn who matters walking with them behind a supermarket cart.

The freezer stood in a large pantry that had cupboards and a counter. There we stored and prepared food. We frequently ate tuna salad sandwiches for lunch. Cans of tuna came in three sizes, 3.5 ounces, 6.5 ounces and 9.25 ounces. Al instructed me in no uncertain terms that, per ounce, the 3.5 was not worth it. It only made one sandwich, while the next size up, at a better price, made two sandwiches. Al called that size can a “two-er.” The biggest made three sandwiches. But the sandwiches from a “three-er” were skimpier.

Al had a technique. Its regularity is a part of who Al was. Put the tuna from the can into a bowl. Take an ordinary table knife and a fork and rapidly slice the tuna within the bowl until it is shredded. Add one level tablespoon of mayonnaise for a one-er, two for a two-er. Mix. Then make the sandwiches. Wrap each sandwich in waxed paper and put it in a paper bag. Give the other bag to your roomie. If your roomie has already left for law school, don’t worry. You already know his schedule. Show up at the door of his classroom and wait for him to walk over and take his sandwich. Classmates will smile indulgently.

Our first month in the new flat did not start well. After moving in we went on Christmas break. Al visited his parents. One night, from an unknown cause, Al’s mother, your grandmother Ann, died. I went to the funeral. It is another indelible memory, seeing Al in the front row crying before the service began. He was not close to his mother. But that did not make it less hard.

I associate the flat with the sun that came through its many windows, the round dining room table, and Al conversant. Al created a home for us all. He insisted that dinnertime be had together. We would each take turns cooking. Whoever cooked also washed the dishes, many of which could be done before dinner was served. Dinnertime was how we became close. If someone had a date, he included her at dinner. Al’s girlfriend Marty came often. The food was good, because each of us men, including yet another Alan the third year, tried our best. Those dinners created a sense of normalcy that I did not recognize as such; I only knew that it felt right.

When someone is familiar to us, Amy, we may need to see him through the eyes of a third person before we realize how lucky we are. A classmate in my study group often stayed for dinner with us. She was brilliant, gorgeous and engaged, and her visits brightened our home. It was she whose insistence during the first month of law school led us to scrub our toilet bowl. (We’d thought the color was permanent.) Whenever she spoke to me of Al, she used nothing but terms of affection and respect. She saw him as manly. She helped me to form a respect for Al. Because he impressed her, I had to take him seriously.

You see, Amy, I grew up learning not to take anyone seriously. My mother taught me to believe that a person’s self-image was the same as the belittling image she had taught me to impose on them. (My mother and I are not alone; I have just described this nation’s foreign policy.) Relations with Al would have quickly deteriorated the way previous roommate relations had for me, were it not that I was ready to grow, that a classmate who respected him showed me the way, and that Al was uniformly nice to me.

Let me close by recounting a warm spring day at the end of school. Al already had a job waiting for him in Philadelphia, and of course I did not know, but I would hear the next week from a job I wanted in Michigan. Lately, Al and I had taken to smoking miniature cigars, Middleton Cherries and Have-a-Tampas, because we were glad to be graduating. Neither of us liked tobacco, and we stopped a few days later. That morning, my car of eight months woke up with its first flat tire. As I could remember nothing of what I’d learned about fixing flats, Al agreed to help. We walked outside, I went to the trunk for the jack, and then I noticed him lighting a cigar. Aren’t you going to help me? I asked. Sure, he said. My job is to moke this cigar while I tell you what to do. And he did. I remember him beaming, playing the supervisor while his roomie labored.

Years later, when I married, I recognized the feeling of being home.

Yours sincerely,