By Andrew Lawrence Crown
Copyright © Andrew Lawrence Crown, 2018. All rights reserved.
The fall canopy of the forested mountains and hills, within which the university campus was situated, was a mixture of dark green from the conifers, and a blend of reddish-brown, fiery red, and fading yellow from the deciduous trees. As it was still early morning when I carefully paced myself while climbing the steps leading up one of the hills to the building wherein was located my office, I could feel the cool autumn air fill my lungs with each pine scented breath. To climb those steps leading up the hill was no simple task each morning, but on this particular day I was thankful for the smell of the pines and the cool air drifting through them and into my lungs on a beautiful, clear, blue skied day. But it was not an insignificant climb up those steps each morning, so while I traversed the path up through the wooded hill toward the campus building where I taught my English classes, I was breathing heavily when my colleague of seven years, Jonathan Franks, approached me with much less effort and labored breathing since he was walking down the steps to meet me somewhere near the halfway mark.
“Morning to you, Jonathan,” I said enthusiastically while I used the opportunity which meeting him halfway up the hill gave me to catch my breath. I was habitually enthusiastic when greeting my colleagues on campus because, spending the majority of my time off campus with my Korean speaking wife and son and other family members, I relished the opportunity to speak natural and fluent English with another weiguksaram or foreigner like myself.
Jonathan was not so pleased to greet me as I was to greet him on this particular morning, and I already knew why, before he returned my enthusiastic salutation in his usual sedated manner. I knew it was the issue of my CV all over again leading Jonathan to frown his distinctively morose frown and mutter recriminations under his breath before he cheerlessly acknowledged my presence. The CV had always aroused the jealously and spiteful envy of so many people in my life over the course of the nearly twenty-five years since I had graduated from The University of Chicago, I was used to it all by now and determined to meet the skepticism with an abundance of self-confidence and vigor, with my energetic “bully” as the South African Jonathan was wont to describe it in his half-British and half-Afrikaner accent.
“Bully good morning to you Paul. Yes Paul, it’s always bully with you because you are so damned pleased with yourself every time I see you. Bully good morning and bully good afternoon and bully how is your lunch and bully have a nice class. With you it’s always bully Paul, but I know you are hiding something from all of us here at the university, from every one of us in the English Department. So to your bully good morning I say to you, bully cock. I continue to believe, in spite of all of your denials, that you purposely inflated your qualifications on your CV. I urge you once again to knock a few points off the GPA and to come clean about the rest of it before the Director or the Dean or even the President here at the university fires you for it.
I responded, as I habitually did to all such accusations, with a hearty chuckle, which seemed to me to be the most proper and natural manner in which to respond, since I believed in the undeniable truth that everything on the CV was accurate and sound. Of course I laughed as I was forced to laugh, just as I had laughed about all of this nonsense over the course of the last seven years at the university where Jonathan and too many others in the Department of English had repeatedly gainsaid everything I claimed I was and am. They regrettably maintained a skeptical perspective nothing short of ludicrous to me who had lived every second of the life depicted on the CV and remained staunchly committed to defending its veracity. There was no anger in my voice as I responded, once again, to the bitterness and envy, but it was all a bit exasperating and trite for me by now after all of these years of living with the CV and all of the suspicion it engendered from others. Sadly, even some of my own family members back home in Chicago had, more than just occasionally, accused me of distorting the truth with the CV, and that was one of the reasons why I felt less guilty than I probably should have about leaving my relations and all of my other connections in Chicago behind in order to return to Korea to teach English, as I had done for almost ten of the last twenty-five years. The ceaseless accusations seemed funny to me for these reasons. At the same time, I also understood that when all the others watched me laugh, sometimes hilariously, in response to their allegations, I might have appeared to them as more than somewhat unhinged and possibly even dangerous.
“This is not funny,” Jonathan almost shouted with rising indignation in his voice. It was obviously all very frustrating for him to be forced, once again, to listen to me as I, once again, adamantly stood my ground with the CV, just as I had done for the entirety of the seven years we had worked together in the same department at the university. I tried my best not to laugh and instead to appear as serious about everything as Jonathan apparently was, but I could not stop myself from laughing openly, knowing full well that my irreverent display would only lead the South African to conclude that I was somehow, in some important and fundamental way, a demented and possibly dangerous person.
“Stop laughing,” he urged me again. “The department Chair and Dean have instructed me to contact the police about all of this and request that they investigate you and your CV in order to find out who you really are. They have also asked me to make a few phone calls myself in order to uncover the truth about you Paul, if Paul is even your real name.”
“Sounds kind of serious,” I managed to say in between a chortle and a snicker. I tried to appear contrite, but in reality I could not be more pleased about the prospect of an official, legitimate investigation concerning my CV and all of my claims therein to dutifully earned honor and prestige. I knew everything was flawlessly accurate. I could take it to the bank, and so I was confident that in the end everything would be verified and I would come out on top again, just as I usually did. I did my best to conceal, but I could not hide, my pleasure in hearing of the possibility of a formal inquiry into the matter at hand, and my joyful, elated countenance in response to this good news only deepened the sense of frustration that completely consumed my colleague Jonathan Franks as we confronted one another on the steps beneath the pines halfway up the hill, on top of which was the campus building wherein our shared office was located. I felt simultaneously superior and sympathetic as I observed, with more empathy than anger, the plight of my unfortunate colleague. Poor poor Jonathan Franks. He had more than enough in his own life to leave him feeling frustrated and embittered, so I understood why he had little patience to endure the frivolity with which I responded to his most serious of charges against me and my integrity as both an academic and scholar, and also as a human being.
Jonathan had previously, before all of this nonsense about the CV played center stage in our relationship, confided in me and explained the sources of his tremendous frustration in life. Born and raised, as well as educated, in South Africa, after graduating from university he found it to be impossible to land a decent and reputable post in his chose fields of study, education and theology. I knew him well enough as a colleague for seven years to be certain that he was no kind of a racist, as his white South African, both British and Afrikaner, heritage might erroneously lead one to expect him to be. Nonetheless, he was sure that in the post-Apartheid era during which there are so many government sponsored programs and policies to address the great social disparities inflicted on his native land in the past, it would be next to impossible for Jonathan, or his wife Johana, to find decent work as teachers. This was in fact the reason why the Franks were here in South Korea, where Jonathan taught English at the university while Johana homeschooled their two young sons in the tiny and simply insufficiently spaced apartment situated in the residential district not far from campus where many of our students lived. Jonathan often referred to himself and his family as exiles, a family which was homeless in the sense in which one’s country of origin can be considered one’s home.
As a former student of politics, I followed the international news carefully and closely, so I was able to intelligently discuss with Jonathan in the office, or elsewhere on campus in our free time, the dilemmas which being a white South African educator in the post-Apartheid era posed for him and his family. The latest news concerning the proposed land reforms spearheaded by the ANC representatives in the parliament convinced the Franks that South Africa was headed on the road to ruin traversed only recently by Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. Confiscation of white owned farms and businesses would surely lead to the same kind of food shortages and economic recession, or more likely depression, experienced in Zimbabwe due to Mugabe’s policies against white famers there. Next, according to the Franks, one could only anticipate massive currency devaluation followed by hyperinflation, economic chaos, all resulting in political instability and violence. South Africa, the wealthiest and most developed country in the African continent was setting itself up for economic collapse because the current government was failing to abide by the spirit of the blueprint for black-white coexistence envisioned by the truth in reconciliation commissions supported by none other than the now deceased Nelson Mandela. The optimistic, cooperative, and humanitarian vision of the Mandela era was rapidly transforming into a new era of political pandering to the impoverished black majority with punitive measures targeted at whites and “their” property. Not surprisingly, this situation was leading to an exodus of whites, like the Franks, from South Africa. Many were heading for Australia and New Zealand as regions which, like the old South Africa, were former possessions of the British Empire. Jonathan and Johana had their hearts set on Canada, I and I knew they were making great efforts to explore what opportunities for immigration to Canada might be afforded to them.
Consequently I was not surprised to see Jonathan’s frustration, which originated in his predicament as a South African citizen who could see no future for himself and his family in the land of his birth. In an obvious but uncomfortable manner, I was a symbol of what he was struggling to become; a successful academic unhampered by the setbacks imposed upon him by the inescapable facts of his nationality.
After leaving South Africa with a master’s degree in education, he came to South Korea to teach English at the university. Thinking always of what would be best for his future, he enrolled in an online degree course with another Korean university leading to a Ph.D. degree in applied linguistics. The online school was not prestigious and Jonathan finished the entire program leading to the degree in just two years. I offended him with my remark once in the office concerning his doctorate and my views concerning its marketability. I reasoned that since the median time to completion for doctorate at a reputable American graduate school was at least seven years, I had my doubts concerning the quality and reputability of Jonathan’s online doctorate. In truth I believed the degree was not worth the paper it was written on, at least not in the competitive academic marketplace for A-list schools in the United States or Europe. His degree might enable him to obtain a position at a junior college, or perhaps at some dodgy proprietary school, but was essentially useless as a credential required to land him a secure position with a reputable research institution, college, or university in the States.
I tried on multiple occasions to explain to him that when it comes to academic credentials, quality trumps quantity, but he refused to heed my advice and he was now, once again, enrolled in an online degree program leading to a master’s in theology. His ultimate goal, he explained to me, was to obtain a second doctorate in divinity from a reputable school in the USA, and to afterwards secure a position as a theologian and scholar at a university in Canada. The two of us butted heads when I tried, unsuccessfully, to explain to Jonathan just how essential the prestige factor is in the academic marketplace, at least for the reputable schools in the US, and I assumed, elsewhere. Frustration was the word to describe his complicated predicament as an academic exile who did not quite understand the ins and outs of academia and what it takes to make it back in North America. I believe it was primarily this sense of frustration which led him to confront me on a routine basis and accuse me of inflating the credentials on my CV.
“I have spoken via Skype with Luther Martin again,” Jonathan announced. “He is certain the CV is bullshit. Isn’t that evidence Paul? Isn’t that proof enough to convince you to revise the document and come clean about your past?”
“Well, good old Luther Martin the evangelist,” I responded. “I hear he is currently in China with his Korean wife, spending his retirement smuggling bibles into the People’s Republic, and taking a bit of a risk in doing so since it could lead to a jail sentence or deportation if he gets caught in that nominally communist country. In reality China is now not quite so communist as it formerly was. I would refer to the political and economic system there as authoritarian capitalism, managed and controlled by the dictatorship of the military and communist party.”
“That is right Paul. Since Luther is now over sixty-five years old, he is legally ineligible to teach at a university in either Korea or China. But this has not slowed him down a bit. He is making valiant efforts to spread the word and the good book, and I admire him for that. Now, don’t you think his opinion concerning your CV matters? Luther is a true man of God. A good man is he, Luther Martin. I know he gave you grief about your credentials when he worked here at the university, but he, like me, is only trying to help you. The police are taking a look at your CV. For goodness sakes Paul, it is time to fess up and lay it all on the table. This masquerade has gone on long enough. I know you poo poo my online degrees Paul, but I am an educated man, as is Luther Martin. Does not our opinion mean anything to you? I urge you once again Paul. Change the CV before it is too late and you get fired or deported for it.”
I tried hard not to, but I found myself laughing again because it was all so ludicrous from my perspective since I knew the CV was 100 percent valid and accurate. Jonathan’s and Luther’s views notwithstanding, it was my firm belief that people in the know, know what my credentials and degrees are worth. Obviously, Jonathan and Luther, and a number of others on the faculty at the university were not in the know, having had little or no experience dealing with people like me; Summa Cum Laudes, Phi Beta Kappas, and graduates of schools like The University of Chicago.
“I respect your right to hold your opinion concerning me and my claims,” I said more seriously now than before. “You need to understand that your opinions, and the opinions of Luther Martin and the others on the faculty you have lined up against me, do not constitute evidence. I would have to refer to your repeated statements and accusations against me as hearsay, which in a legal sense means they are no more than unsubstantiated and uncorroborated rumor and innuendo not based on the testimony of a direct witness to a material fact. This is what your statements are at best. At worst, your persistent attacks against me and my reputation constitute slander and spoken defamation. Let us not allow these recriminations to fester and rot to the point where I will be forced to take legal action in order to defend my good name. If this continues much longer I may be forced to sue you for significant monetary damages in retaliation to the manner in which you are tarnishing my reputation and dragging my good name thorough the mud. My reputation and good name I have rightfully and dutifully earned through my hard work, determination, grit, and a healthy share of natural God given talent and aptitude.”
Jonathan listened to my, by now, all too familiar unequivocal defense of my claims to be everything I said I was over the course of our seven years together working at the university. In his dark suit and tie, his hand tugging thoughtfully on his heavy reddish-brown beard, he looked to me like could have been an Amish farmer rather than a university professor. My thoughts briefly drifted away from our conversation and I saw visions of Jonathan and the rest of the Franks riding a horse and buggy through the farmlands of the Pennsylvania Dutch on their way to church on a Sunday morning. When Jonathan interrupted the vision with another question, I snapped back into the immediacy of the present moment.
“What about the Dean and Chair of the English Department? Think Paul, please think of how he might respond when the police tell him the truth about you. What are you going to do then?”
“Well Professor Franks, Doctor Franks I should say now…the police will undoubtable confirm that everything with me is accurate, legitimate, and in order. I am not the least bit concerned about the Dean. He studied in the United States at both Columbia University and New York University. During his time at these two elite universities he must have encountered dozens of people like me with credentials like mine. He is familiar with people like me and knows exactly what we are like. I am not worried about any flack coming from anyone in the administration here at the university.”
Jonathan sighed in exasperation and frustration once again. Although I knew the Dean was in the know, Jonathan most certainly was not. He tugged on his heavy beard again, unable to think of the proper response to my more than adequate defense of my position. But he was not ready to give up, not just yet. He continued the cross-examination in his accusatory tone.
“I hope, for your sake Paul, that your confidence concerning this matter is fully warranted and not misplaced. You must know by now that you are being investigated here, and that we have been reading your e-mails you have written and received when you are logged on to the university server. In particular, I am concerned and disturbed by your reckless correspondence with this shady character who calls himself Leo Schwartz. The administration has instructed me to pay close attention to your correspondence with this person. I have to tell you that I believe Leo Schwartz is in reality some kind of a Russian underworld figure and that his e-mails to you, particularly the ones concerning financial matters, are in fact an elaborate phishing scam. I strongly recommend that you immediately end all contact with this criminal before he empties your back account and robs you of all your savings and investments. You must cut off all correspondence with this Russian scam artist before it is too late and you lose everything.”
In response to this latest of a long line of false allegations against me, I responded with a combination of dismay tempered and lightened by a determined and purposeful deviousness. Once again, the charges were simply ludicrous. Leo Schwartz was in fact my oldest and truest friend from my childhood in Chicago’s south suburbs, and of course not some shadowy figure from the Russian mafia. More seriously than before, I felt I needed to say my piece about the “investigation” into my background which entailed the reading my e-mails on the university server by Jonathan and others at the university.
I told Jonathan that all of this reading of my e-mails, the investigation, the close monitoring and looking over my shoulder at every opportunity, was nothing less than an unethical and possibly illegal invasion of my privacy. Sure, I conceded, my CV with all of the honors and awards listed thereon was bound to raise a few eyebrows. This was not the first time in my career that I had been called upon to defend the CV and provide proof of my credentials. I told Jonathan that I was more than happy to provide him, the Dean, the police, and anyone else at the university, including the President, with written documentation of all of the achievements listed on the CV. Had I not already presented to him my academic transcripts, degrees, letters of recommendation, passport, and birth certificate? Had I not already posted my thesis and other academic essays and fiction to my website and online portfolio? What more did he require of me? Yes, there were Luther Martin in China and others on the faculty who claimed it was all an elaborate ruse and deception on my part. But their opinions were merely hearsay, while my documents were material facts with legal standing in any court of law either in Korea or the United States. I informed Jonathan that I considered the reading of my e-mails on the university server a step too far and completely unacceptable.
Jonathan told me he had been instructed by important people in the administration to monitor my online presence, which included reading my e-mails, following my social media posts, as well as combing through the extensive works posted on my online CV and portfolio. Since the order to investigate me came from his supervisors at the university, he believed the investigation was fully warranted and legitimate. To this I responded that if your supervisors order you to do something patently unethical and possibly illegal, you have an ethical and legal obligation not to comply with the directive. We argued back and forth about these matters for what felt like a long time, even though this was territory we had traversed on numerous occasions prior to the present confrontation.
“I want to know Jonathan,” I demanded, “Just why my documents and the piles of evidence I have made available to you in my defense are not sufficient to convince you or Luther Martin or anyone else that I am on the up and up. I am a straight shooter Jonathan. All of it, every page of it, is accurate, valid, and true.”
“These days anyone with some computer savvy like yourself can easily obtain fraudulent documents online,” Jonathan countered. “The transcripts, the thesis, the essays, the stories, the degrees, all of it can easily be acquired illicitly or simply lifted from websites online. Once we uncover the truth, your time here at the university will be finished Paul, if that is even your real name. I am talking about the termination of your employment Paul. You stand there before me smiling and laughing about this, seeming so confident. I do not understand you and why you are not more worried or concerned, as you should be, about this investigation.”
“The Dean studied at Columbia and NYU,” I reminded Jonathan again. “He must have met and studied with a great number of people with credentials like mine at those illustrious schools. I know he believes me even though he tolerates your ridiculous little farcical venture into CSI Korea and this fantasy investigation.”
As usual, Jonathan was unable to conceal his frustration as I defended myself and refused to back down. I stood as solid as a brick wall against his accusations and gave no quarter.
“What about this Russian scam artist Leo Schwartz?” he asked with irritation in his voice. ”His e-mails to you about your finances look exactly like an elaborate phishing scam. Do you have any proof concerning the legitimacy of these suspicious e-mails from Leo Schwartz? What have you to say about this? How will you convince me, the administration, and the police, that Leo Schwartz is even a real person who is who is says he is? I am trying to do you a favor here Paul. Luther Martin and I are convinced Leo Schwartz is going to rob you blind.”
I decided at that moment that I would tell Jonathan a story about my best and truest friend in the whole world, Leo Schwartz, in order to, at the very least, convince Jonathan that Leo Schwartz was in fact a real person, a dear and lifelong friend of mine, and certainly not the Russian scam artist Jonathan believed him to be. Since it was my habit to respond to Jonathan’s skepticism with a kind of tongue in cheek deviousness designed to target his ever present sense of frustration, I knew exactly which of the hundreds upon hundreds of tales from my lifelong friendship with Leo Schwartz, a friendship spanning almost half a century, I would gladly tell to Jonathan. The story I intended to narrate focused on the most recent of events in the life of my friend Leo Schwartz, as I hoped a more recent tale would better corroborate the information about the two of us, Leo and I, Jonathan had pieced together from the e-mails on the university server.
I suggested to Jonathan that we find someplace more comfortable to sit down and talk than there standing on the steps halfway up the hill under the pines leading to the building where our office was located. We decided to climb up the steps and go to our shared office on the second floor of the large, six story university building at the top of the hill. I made an attempt to lighten the heavy mood as we trekked up the steps, but Jonathan only responded with his habitual, dour frustration.
“Beautiful day, isn’t it Jonathan?” I asked cheerfully. “Just look up through the trees and take in that cloudless blue sky above us. Aren’t we lucky to be able to work amongst such brilliant splendor with this burning fire of colorful fall foliage all around us? This is what it means to enjoy the gift of God’s good earth in all of its magnificent glory. You are a theologian, or at least you aspire to be one. Certainly you can appreciate and recognize a gift from above when you are walking through the midst of it.”
“Yes, yes,” Jonathan muttered without much enthusiasm. “It is another bloody fabulous day today. You often speak of God and his gifts Paul. Why are you not more concerned about offending Him with all of the deceptions surrounding your manufactured claims to distinction? How can you speak so frequently of God and continue to be so false with all of us here on the faculty in the English Department?”
“I am committing no offence against God with the CV, Jonathan.” The calm manner in which I asserted myself only infuriated him all the more.
“Then what about those filthy, profanity filled e-mails from the scam artist you now tell me is your friend? Rarely have I read such profane, blasphemous filth as that garbage he consistently e-mails, probably from some place deep in Russia. I have warned you before Paul. I strongly urge you to cut off all contact with this character before he steals away from you everything you own. I am deeply offended by the e-mails and the manner in which they mock religion, God, and even the passion of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is pure filth plain and simple.”
I tried to explain, in defense of my friend, that he was experiencing the most trying time in his entire life right now. As a religious person myself, I understood why Jonathan was offended by my friend’s mockery of faith in the e-mails. Although I am a Jew and not a Christian, I too felt Leo’s e-mails were far too often deeply offensive, inappropriate, and in very poor taste. I also knew that the failed attempts at humor in the e-mails were Leo’s way of coping with the recent disappointments and tragedies in both his professional and personal lives. In short, his life right now was consumed by the pain of one disaster after another. Leo’s failed attempts at humor, while not in the least bit funny to even me, his best friend, were an essential part of his endeavor to move past the deep and inescapable misery into which his life had been immersed during the course of the last year or so.
Eventually, after our climb up the steps, Jonathan and I made our way to our office. I purchased some coffee from a vending machine just down the hallway from our office. We both drank the coffee and I began to relate to Jonathan one of the countless tales I could tell about my best friend, Leo Schwartz. The story I told was one of literally hundreds of stories I could have told from our half century as best buddies, more like brothers really. We had been acquainted with one another since birth, and our parents, long before either of us had been born, had been close friends who lived in the old Jewish communities of Chicago’s South Shore and Hyde Park. In fact, the primary reason why my own parents decided to move to the south suburbs after racial residential transition, more commonly known as white flight, transformed their beloved South Shore and Hyde Park in the 1960s and early 1970s, was because the Schwartz family had moved there before mine and raved about how they had found and ideal place in which to raise a family. The suburbs both of our families settled down in to was safe and comfortable, with terrific schools, a great park district and little league baseball for the children, and everything else one could ask of an ideal suburb to live in at that time in the history of the Chicago metropolitan area.
The stories I could tell Jonathan about my friendship with Leo Schwartz could fill volumes and volumes of books, if only I could find the time to write them all down. We had been through it all together, me and Leo. From the days of pre-school to little league, to family vacations with the Schwartz’s in Florida. Michigan, and elsewhere, to fast times and wild adolescent debauchery and rebellion in high school, and through all of the rest of it, our twenties, thirties, and forties with careers, marriages, and families factoring as the key milestones in life we had passed through together. For many of those years, since I lived a considerable number of them as an expatriate English professor, Leo and I lived on different ends of the earth. But we never lost contact and stayed together through thick and thin. There were simply too many stories to tell, and of course it was impossible to process and convey even the essence of it all during a chat over coffee in the office. Still, I knew I had to tell Jonathan at least one good story about Leo Schwartz in order to convince Jonathan that Leo, profane and irreverent as he was, was also a true blue friend and not the Russian scam artist Jonathan believed him to be. I began to tell my story about Leo to my skeptical colleague.
“All of those e-mails about financial topics are legitimate and not part of an elaborate phishing scam. Leo Schwartz is not only my best friend who I have known virtually since my birth forty-nine years ago, he is also currently my financial advisor who is managing one of my retirement accounts. The account is a modest one and nothing like a fortune. It was left to me by my father after his death as part of the inheritance. Leo is doing a fine job managing the account, even though he is relatively new to the field of finance. He never studied finance in school, but was instead a commercial photography major at the elite West Coast art school, The Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.”
“What on earth is a photographer doing managing your retirement account?” Jonathan wanted to know. “Why do trust someone with little experience in finance to take charge of your account?”
“Leo is a self-taught financial advisor and he has been interested in stocks and other financial instruments since high school. Although he lacks formal training in the field, he has studied finance on his own for decades. In addition to this, he also has some natural talent for dealing with numbers and figures. So for these reasons, and also because he is my best friend, I trust him to manage my fund. But you are not out of line to question why a talented and gifted artist like Leo Schwartz is currently working in finance instead of photography. Let me tell you the story of Leo Schwartz’s recent trials and tribulations so you will have a better understanding of who he is and why we maintain frequent contact by e-mail and social media.”
“Leo ran his own free-lance photography business in Chicago for over twenty years after he left Art Center in Pasadena. For most of those years he was fantastically successful. Represented by the top agent in the city and entire Midwest, he was widely viewed by both art critics and clients as one of the two or three most talented young photographers in the region. He shot commercial photography for dozens of Fortune 500 firms and top brands that are household names. At the height of his success his studio grossed over eight hundred thousand dollars a year, though his net income was substantially below that figure as his business required significant overhead costs. He was able to hire and pay multiple assistants, purchase top of the line equipment, and rent out a spacious studio in the warehouse district in the South Loop. Riding high at the height of his success, he was blindsided when suddenly unforeseen changes in technology forced him into bankruptcy.”
“You see, Leo was what is called a high end table top photographer. This means he would take a product which a client wanted to market and sell, build a background and set for it with his remarkable set building skills, and spend days, sometimes as long as a week, to produce the perfect high end photograph for the client. Unfortunately, with the development of digitized photography and computer generated imaging, known as CGI, traditional film and camera work became marginalized in the rapidly changing field of commercial photography. CGI and digitization enabled computer based artists to produce product much more cheaply than more traditional photographers like Leo could. Consequently Leo’s work was undersold by CGI. To make matters even worse, something called stock photography took a big bite out of Leo’s high end business. Basically, low budget hacks produced lower quality, but vastly less expensive, product than Leo, a high end and premium artist, produced. The stock photography, though clearly inferior to Leo’s work, was preferred by his clients due to its bargain basement pricing. Stock photography, together with CGI, were the double knock out punches that drove Leo’s business into bankruptcy.”
“Leo tried his best to tread water and keep his studio afloat for several years after technological transformations had wiped out almost all the other high end photographers he knew in Chicago’s tightly knit art world. Somehow he was able to survive after most of his friends in commercial photography had gone under. Eventually he was forced to throw in the towel and say goodbye to his beautiful and beloved studio and the only career he knew since he left Art Center in the early 1990s. He sold all of his photography equipment on E-bay and resolved determinedly to find himself a new career, turning his back completely on the art world, the only world he had known for over twenty years.”
“At that time Leo was living in the near north suburbs with his girlfriend, who he called his wife, even though they were never officially and legally married. She was a middle school teacher in wealthy north shore school district, and they had two bright children together, including an extremely gifted little girl whose elementary school teachers thought was eligible to skip not just one, but two grades in school as a kind of child prodigy. Leo and his wife first met one another soon after Leo finished art school and returned to Chicago from California. They dated seriously for a few years, only to break up when Leo told his then girlfriend that he was not ready for the marriage she wanted. They both found new lovers and went through several relationships, some of them quite serious ones, until after almost a decade of separation, they got back together again, lived together as husband and wife (though not legally or certifiably married) and mother and father of the two lovely children.”
Leo’s wife made a good living teaching in the wealthy suburban district, and to do his part and contribute to the paying of the mortgage, Leo, who had always been interested and intrigued by the workings of money, chose to go into finance and insurance sales to help provide for his family. Leo’s long standing fascination with the markets made this choice for his new career actually less far-fetched than one might supposed given his background as an artist. He had the kind of aggressive and assertive personality required for sales, and I always knew him to be a tenacious person, one who took rejection well without letting it bring down his spirits. Sales jobs have always been among the easiest to acquire, but due to the stress and pressure inherent in the profession, among the most difficult to keep. Since Leo thrived on pressure, using it as a source of inspiration and striving, the jobs he took in finance and sales had the potential to be ideal for him, given the impossibility of his returning to a career as an artist.”
“This was how Leo’s life with the family he cherished proceeded for a number of years. While his wife held a stable and secure job as a teacher, Leo strove to do his best as a financial advisor and insurance salesman. Meanwhile he devoted himself to the care and raising of his two gifted children in their respectable, but by no means opulent home in the suburbs. Since we were best friends, Leo and I were in regular contact by e-mail, social media, Skype, and Facebook Messenger while I lived and taught overseas in South Korea. Based on our communications I believed his life was progressing as well as anyone could expect given the nature and difficulty of his career change from art to finance and sales endeavored upon in his early to mid-forties, a time in life when an ordinary worker in most fields of employment is expected to be at the top of his game. You can only imagine then, just how shocked, dismayed, and bewildered I was when about a year ago this December, Leo dropped a bombshell on me when he told me that everything he believed to be stable and predictable and solid in his life and relationship with his wife and children was completely and utterly blown to pieces.”
“Leo’s wife, after over a decade of marriage and two children together, for reasons which she adamantly refused to share with the man who had given her and the children everything he possibly could, suddenly, inexplicably, decided she wanted out of the marriage and also wanted Leo out of her life. Divorce was what she wanted, but she would not tell Leo why she wanted the divorce, no matter how strongly he implored her to at least have the decency and dignity to inform him of why she was unhappy and dissatisfied enough to want to end all of it, everything and every part of the life they had made together.”
“During the following months leading and continuing to the current time, Leo and I were in regular and consistent contact, via smart phone and computer, as he revealed to me the details, often sordid and always disheartening, of the nastiest and most contentious divorce and child custody battle that ensued. It was not easy to be Leo’s sounding board and confident as he, week after week, revealed to me all the details of the way in which both his personal and professional life spiraled down the drain to the point where Leo was nearly destitute and hopeless. Painful as it was to listen to and follow the progress of Leo’s desperate and disastrous tale, I knew I was one of only a few people in the world with whom Leo could confide in and trust unequivocally. I remembered the old adage that a friend in need is a friend indeed. Consequently I resolved to listen to his oft repeated reports concerning the very worst year of his life. Though I understood there was little I could do to help, I believed it was a form of therapy for Leo when I patiently and empathetically listened to the stories he related to me in a tone of sheer desperation, disbelief, hopelessness, anger, righteous indignation, and above all, absolute candor.”
“As was true of the rest of our life together as best friends, I could write volumes about the stories concerning the divorce Leo told me over the course of the past year or so. His predicament was so painfully desperate, an accurate documentation of the entirety of his ordeal would challenge the bounds of credulity. I possess neither the time nor the strength today here in our office, Jonathan, to relate in full this incredibly complex and complicated tale with all of its twists and turns of devious betrayal, financial struggle, and psychological maladies and pain. I am afraid that if I attempted to tell you everything, I would be unable to do justice to the truth and severity of Leo’s struggle. Instead of telling you all of it and necessarily falling short of what is really required, I believe I should and can explain to you the essence of my friend’s unhappy predicament by relating to you a single story to serve as an example of his near total defeat and despair in the face of the personal, psychological, and financial pain his wife, now his ex-wife, has inflicted on him this year past. I will pretend to be Leo while I tell to you precisely what Leo told to me recently during a Facebook Messenger call about his failed attempt at participating in group therapy for his very serious psychological condition”
“Paul,” began Leo, “I think I told you previously that my psychiatrist has earned the reputation for being the top doctor in his field in the Chicago area. His services are in such demand, there is a long list of patients waiting for the privilege to become his clients, and he does not accept insurance as payment. Everything must be payed out of pocket and he only accepts cash payment, charging $175 for a fifteen minute medication management consultation. For an hour long session of therapy he charges $300. In addition, there is an annual retainer fee of several thousand dollars. You know Paul, I am flat broke and have almost no money, so you will understand how difficult it is for me to come up with the payments required to see my doctor. But he is one of the best, and my condition is very serious, so I want to continue to see him in spite of the outrageously high cost. My ex-wife, that witch of a vindictive malcontent, has taken everything. I have given her everything she wanted from me during mediation just so she would agree to let me remain in my children’s lives. Those kids mean more to me than anything in the world, so I sacrificed everything financially in order to obtain my ex-wife’s cooperation with the parenting agreement.”
“I am broke because I gave her the house and the $135,000 in equity I had in it, all of the furniture and appliances I paid for, the yard equipment, one of the cars again paid for my me, and just about everything else you can imagine. You know Paul, I’m not making much of a salary at the insurance and finance firm where I only get paid by commission, and my supervisors refuse to give me good leads leading to sales that will pay. I have forked over thousands and thousands of dollars to these shyster divorce lawyers who charge me outrageous fees for everything. I am in state of near bankruptcy because a ten minute phone call to answer a simple question cost me over $100 a pop, and a fax is over $300. The lawyers are robbing me blind, and considering the vast sums I have forked over to them, they have not really represented me all that effectively during the long, drawn out, mediation process. I am not happy with the insufficient amount of time I have been allotted with my children, and the witch has literally destroyed me financially, taking everything I invested in the home, and cleaning out all of my savings and other investments for child support payments for the children she would rather I not see at all. I am way behind on payments to the lawyers and the doctors. Credit collection agencies are calling to threaten me daily. I am all maxed out on my credit cards, two months behind on rent for the apartment I now live in without any furniture because I can’t afford to buy any. There is enough money in my checking account to pay for food and gas for about two more weeks. After that, I won’t be able to make the long commute to work without money for gas. My boss wants to fire me because he says I am bringing too much drama from my personal life into the office. I must leave the firm soon anyways since I am not making quota, not earning enough to support myself, let alone pay off my mountain high pile of bills and debts.”
“There is no one I can talk to about any of this, except for you on the other side of the earth, my father, and one or two other old friends here in town. My own mother called me a spineless dead-beat dad. My brother and sister, with all of their fantastic successes in life and money, refuse to offer me any financial support or assistance, and they have not even bothered to speak with me in over a year. They do not answer or return my phone calls. My sister is a doctor and my brother, the bond trader with his Ivy League Wharton School degree, only a few years ago had a multi-million dollar home in Winnetka custom built to his specifications. They are both Ivy leaguers, my sister and brother, both fantastically successful with more than enough money to lend a helping hand if they cared to, but they will not even talk to me now.”
“I am at the end of my rope. I need to talk to my psychiatrist, but I cannot afford to see him. I do not want to try to start up with a different doctor because I just think it will be impossible to explain all over again the absolute hell I have been through this past year, a year which has been the absolute worst year of my life. I am rock bottom Paul. These overseas calls with you are the only thing keeping me sane enough to at least make it to work on a regular basis, and to have the strength and spirit required to be with my kids on the rare days I have been granted visitation rights and custody.”
“The witch took everything from me. The kids have finally figured it out on their own without me telling them about it since I am barred from discussion of the matter due to the mediation agreement. The vindictive woman, who has not slept with me once during the past seven years, was having an affair with my mechanic for at for at least the last two years. My daughter, who is gifted with an IQ score over 150, went into the witch’s phone and read the mechanic’s explicit and dirty texts regarding the affair. My daughter is a genius. It is she and my son who are keeping me alive and fighting for survival. I took a look recently at the history menu on my daughter’s I-pad. Mind you Paul, she is only in the sixth grade right now. I found hundreds of searches for the key words “child custody” and “divorce” and “mediation judge” and “contact information for mediation judge in the case of the Schwartz divorce”. She confessed to me that she is trying to contact the judge in our case in order to request that I be given full custody of her and her brother. They both want to live with me and hate living in the same house with their selfish and self-centered mother and her new boyfriend, my mechanic.”
“Seven years going on eight without any sexual intimacy between me and the witch. She claimed it was because I am too big down there and sex with me is painful, but I think that is just an excuse. And she will not even tell me why she kicked me out and is putting me through this hell. I know she planned all of this months in advanced, socking money away from me secretly to pay for the lawyers before she told me she wanted me out of her life forever. She’s a bitch Paul. King Kong bitch.”
“I need to talk to my doctor about all of this but I can no longer afford to see him. I am losing my mind here, and that is why I decided to give no-fee, free group therapy a try a few months ago. But even that turned out to be another disaster. Since I cannot afford to see my shrink for more than ten minute medication management consultations, I tried group therapy. The group therapy is sponsored by a private charity and also partly paid for by government funds through the county health service, so it is free of charge and I decided I would see what it was like and if it had the potential to help someone like me. I hoped I would meet some people like myself, build a few friendships or other supportive relationships to help me through the hard times I am going through now. What a terrible mistake my decision turned out to be. Let me tell you all about it.”
“The group therapy session started at 8:00 p.m. on a Wednesday night and was scheduled to last for ninety minutes. Since I did not have time to go home and change out of my work clothes after making the long drive through heavy traffic from my office in the suburbs, I was wearing a business suit and tie when I arrived for the therapy about fifteen minutes late. It all took place in the basement of the Ludington Hotel, a second rate hotel on Chicago’s north side. Above the basement of the Ludington is the hotel swimming pool. Consequently it was uncomfortably warm and humid in the basement. Even before I had the time to properly introduce myself to the therapist and fifteen some participants, I felt the perspiration building up under my arms beneath my suit and also on my forehead and above my upper lip. I was exhausted from a long and difficult day at work during which I had made dozens of cold calls, trying unsuccessfully to secure new clients and make that quota.”
“I looked around the basement at the people gathered there while they all stared back at me with looks of incredulity written all over their worn and tired faces. I noticed a small table in the corner of the room full of a variety of cookies, a large coffee pot, and some paper coffee cups. I immediately noticed how different the clothing of the session participants was from mine. I wore a nice suit and tie for work purchased not too long before from the Men’s Warehouse, a purchase which put me over the limit on one of my maxed out credit cards. In contrast, the other people in the basement of the Ludington were so poorly dressed that most of them looked to me like they could be homeless people. They wore old tattered coats, worn pants and faded shirts that most likely came to them through charitable donations or thrift shops, and dirty old shoes looking ready for the trash rather than sufficient for protecting their feet from the cold Chicago weather. The men, in contrast to me with my clean shaven face, had obviously not shaven for days or wore thick, shaggy beards as oily and greasy as the unkempt hair atop their heads. I stood there looking at this desperate crew for a few long uncomfortable moments while they eyed me with the appearance of fear and trepidation. Finally I broke the silence and spoke.”
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Leo. Nice to meet you all.”
The therapist was the first to return my greeting.
“Good evening Leo. Are you with the county health service? Are you the health inspector?
“No,” I answered, taken aback and set off kilter by the questions. “I was told by my doctor that there is free group therapy here two Wednesday nights each month.”
“Are you with the police or the FBI?” one of the group participants asked. His clothes were so worn, and he looked so disheveled, I thought he might be some kind of a drug addict.
“No. I am not a police officer or FBI agent. I am here for the therapy. I heard there was therapy here.”
“You are not a public health inspector sent here by the county to evaluate us this evening?” the therapist asked again.
“No I am not, “I responded, a bit perturbed by now. “I suffer from some serious psychological conditions and I am here for the therapy,” I announced to the therapist and the group assembled before me.
There was a collective gasp by everyone there in the sweltering basement of the Ludington, followed by a barrage of questions from the desperate people gathered there. Apparently they did not believe me to be a candidate for therapy.
“Why are you wearing that suit?” the therapist asked me. “It looks expensive.”
“I got off work late tonight. I made the long drive back into the city in heavy traffic, so I did not have time to go home and change into something more casual before I came here. Is the suit a problem for you?”
“You mean you have a job?” shouted out one of the disheveled group members who looked like he was strung out on crystal meth.
“Yes. I have a job,” I answered as calmly as possible, not quite yet understanding what the source of the mystification concerning me was all about.
“And you have a car and can drive?” another one asked me. This time it was an older woman who could easily have been mistaken for a homeless bag lady.
“Yes,” I answered again. “I have a car and a license to drive. I drove here tonight because my doctor told me there is free group therapy here. Is there a problem with that?” I wanted to know.
“You mean you are not on Medicaid like the rest of us here?” another one of the group asked. “How do you hold down a job and afford a car and that nice suit? What do you do about the voices and the visions and the anxiety and depression? None of us here can work. We all survive with Medicaid, one step away from the street. How do you do it?”
“I don’t know,” I said still very uncomfortable with all the questions. “I just work through it all and force the terrible thoughts someplace down inside where I can hide them there long enough and not think about them or acknowledge them long enough in order to get through the day.”
“All of them in the basement of the Ludington began to talk amongst themselves feverishly in complete disbelief. They could not understand why I was not like them or why, in my suit and tie with a job and a car and not dependent on Medicaid for survival, I had even shown up for therapy with the likes of this despondent group of people. I stayed there for a few more minutes which felt like hours, fending off the intrusive and skeptical questions as best as I could without attempting to offend anyone. Eventually I apologized for interrupting the meeting and unintentionally making everyone there feel so uncomfortable. I told them I had made a mistake showing up that night and begged their leave to say goodbye and then I got out of there as fast as possible. So concluded my first and probably last attempt at group therapy.”
In our office, Jonathan Franks and I, Paul Robertson, took a look at the clock on the wall and realized that it was almost time to head off to class to teach those Korean college kids some English. I told Jonathan that I was finished telling him the story of my friend Leo Schwartz, at least for that morning. Jonathan apologetically conceded to me that he now was certain that Leo Schwartz was not in fact a Russian scam artist engaged in an elaborate phishing scam designed to empty my savings and retirement accounts. I thanked him for lending me his ear to listen to my long and meandering tale. He asked me if I could offer any advice concerning his plans for graduate school in and immigration to North America. I promised him I would tell him everything I knew about those important topics at another opportunity soon when we had some time after or in between classes. He thank me earnestly and we both went to our classrooms to teach the Koreans there awaiting us, all of them waiting for us in our classrooms while searching mindlessly and incessantly on those ubiquitous smart phones.