A son finds memories and solace in the office of his late father, Charles Hoffman 31L
BY ROY HOFFMAN
Sitting at my dad’s old walnut desk, my elbows on the leather desk pad cracked dry with time, I gaze out his twenty-fourth-floor law office window. Past his now-silent Dictaphone, over the two dozen black bindings of the Code of Alabama lined up on his windowsill, over the snapshots of my mom, who passed away three years ago, I see the view that, like the possessions in this office, will forever belong to him.
There’s the red terra-cotta dome of the Gulf Mobile and Ohio railroad station, now restored for offices and a bus terminal, where he took the train to Atlanta during the late 1920s to go to Emory law school; the grain elevator and loading berths of the Alabama State Docks, which he represented as legal counsel for four years after World War II; the port of Mobile with its lazy brown river opening out to Mobile Bay, and all the sites where we launched a boat to go fishing when I was a boy.
For forty years he looked out this window, having moved into this building once it opened in the mid-1960s across the street from the nineteenth-century iron fountain and ancient oaks of Bienville Square, the historic heart of town. For thirty-five years prior to that, his office had been housed in the 1905 First National Bank Building that was torn down once the modern bank building was ready. He overlooked an airshaft there, but no matter. He was a young attorney on the way up. I’ve got a news clipping from the Mobile Register, July 24, 1931, headlined, “New Law Office Opens. Charles Hoffman, Native Mobilian, Is Graduate of Emory University.” The article, in part, reads, “Returning to Mobile, his native city, Charles Hoffman, son of Mr. and Mrs. M. Hoffman, has opened a law office on the seventh floor of the First National Bank Building. . . . Mr. Hoffman was licensed to practice law in Alabama in the fall of 1930, having passed the state examination in summer of that year.”
Dad recalled with satisfaction that he had passed the bar exam even before finishing law school, and on the wall behind where I sit hang his 1931 Emory law diploma and 1930 Alabama law license. In 2004 I accompanied him to bar association events where he was honored for being the oldest practicing attorney in Mobile and the entire state of Alabama. I heard him speak, with a catch in his voice, of his pride in what had always been, for him, a “noble profession,” and on a lighter note regale audiences with tales of that long-ago bar exam. It had been administered in the Montgomery courthouse, then under construction. “They were working in the courthouse,” he recounted, “and the desks were made of sawhorses with pine wood across them. Air-conditioning was a nonexistent word, and fans were limited in their scope. Beads of sweat would occasionally drop from your forehead while you were writing and smear the ink.”
I can read many histories from the pictures on these walls, the memorabilia on these shelves. Atop a brick on his desk is the framed picture of the YMCA building where he boxed as a youth, the start of a lifelong willingness to “put up your fists,” even into his nineties when an insolent young lawyer insulted him in court and Dad challenged him to “step outside.” Both the brick and the photo were gifts from his trusted secretary, Debby. The photograph is from the local archives, and the brick from the recent demolition of the building, which stood two blocks from the square and five from where he grew up over his parents’ general mercantile store on Dauphin Street. On a hallway wall are copies of the instruments of surrender of Germany and Japan in World War II. Already a seasoned lawyer in 1944 when he was drafted by the army, after basic training in Michigan he ended up in Washington, D.C., with the military police, then worked in the Pentagon with the Secretariat of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, handling paperwork and orders.
In addition to the sunny photos of my mother, Evelyn—he put up ever more of them when, after sixty-seven years of marriage, he lost her to a long illness—there are pictures of us four children and spouses, the six grandchildren, the three great-grandchildren. One photo, a favorite of mine, is of Dad with four of his nephews and great-nephews. In a rogues’ gallery they bow, heads down, to the camera—five bald men showing off their shiny pates. I got my thick head of hair from my mom’s side of the family.
And there is the empty chair.
How often I sat there, facing this desk, while he sat here, in the swivel chair I now occupy on this hazy, Gulf Coast afternoon. As a child I visited him rarely at his office—he was out the door with hat and briefcase after breakfast, returning from the far-off world of work for dinner—but as a teenager I began to see his work world more often. In the office or when I tagged along to court, he tried to entreat me, persuade me, and downright insist that I set my sights on law school, too. Our hometown was steeped in father-son law practices. I was fascinated, I must admit, by the struggles and triumphs of his storied career, from his rite of passage as a fledgling criminal attorney taking court-appointed cases to his later involvement in business law.
His had always been a one-man practice, and when a lawyer friend of mine from a huge firm in New York asked him his specialty, Dad answered, “People law.” Estates, real estate deals, criminal defense—he did it all, and sometimes for generations of the same family. “There is no end,” he told me philosophically, “of human complication.” He handled divorces but felt a matchmaker’s delight when he got couples, about to split, back together again. He incorporated one small Protestant church for the African American community, then another and another. One church even asked him to help write its creed. “But I’m Jewish,” he said. No problem.
Didn’t I wish to join him in helping people deal with their complications, and make a good living at it, too? When I graduated from college in 1975, to appease him I took the Law School Admission Test. But I sat in his office, in the chair across from his desk, and told him, really and truly, I wanted to try wandering a different path.
He became my most attentive reader, of works both published and unpublished, and I remember calling him from various offices in Manhattan and Brooklyn, including home offices, where I looked out other windows. Often, if only in my mind, I sat in that chair across from him as we talked.
On August 1, 2006, a Tuesday, I sat in that chair while he sat in this one. Having moved back to Mobile a decade ago with my family, and working several blocks away at the newspaper, I walked over to this office almost daily for lunch. We even had an unconscious comedy routine, playing into my father’s love of old-timey puns. “I’m running a little behind,” I’d sometimes say, calling him from my cell phone. “A little behind,” he’d ask, “or a big behind?”
As usual that Tuesday, we made our way to the elevator, Dad ambling slowly with his cane, dressed in pinstripe blue suit with suspenders and two-tone shoes. In recent years, finding a necktie uncomfortable, he’d taken to wearing bolo ties brought to him by my sister who often travels out West. That afternoon he sported a bolo with two Indian head nickels on a circle of silver as the clasp.
“Hey, Charley,” said a colleague when we stepped onto the elevator, “nice to see you.”
“At my age,” he quipped, “it’s nice to be seen.”
Downstairs in the basement lunchroom, Claire Zitsos, the owner said, “Happy Birthday, Mr. Hoffman.”
“You know who wants to be ninety-seven years old?” he asked.
“No sir, Mr. Hoffman.”
“A man,” he said, “who’s ninety-six. And who wants to be ninety-eight? A man who’s ninety-seven.”
He was that exuberant ninety-seven-year-old man.
She brought him a piece of baklava, light desserts being one of his rare gustatory pleasures amid a no-salt, low-fat diet prescribed by his cardiologist a year before. Three years earlier he had learned he had heavy calcification in his arteries and opening them up with stents would be too complicated. He had the option of a heart bypass operation but waved it off. “I never wanted to be Methuselah,” he’d told the doctor, “but I would like a few more years. And I’ll go to meet my maker just as I am.” With medication he’d returned to work and scrapping in court, meeting up with me to catch a weekend movie or baseball game, and returning to the seniors dance club he’d joined with my mom. With his legs too weak to dance as he used to, he liked to have a little Scotch with water, then stand in place rocking side to side, stretching his arm out while a lady friend turned about holding his hand.
After lunch we went back to our respective offices, and I called him at the end of day to make sure he was soon heading home. We had a family birthday dinner scheduled for early evening. “I’m just winding things up here,” he said.
Our dinner was celebratory. The next day, his heart nagging him badly, he checked into the hospital, summoning his legal secretary once and calling the office several times to take care of paperwork for clients. A week later we brought him home with round-the-clock hospice care. Our family, from all over the country, hurried to be at his bedside, keeping vigil until the night of August 10.
He never sat in his office chair again.
My father, a practical man, was organized at the time of his passing. Although he fully expected, I have no doubt, to be back at work the day after his ninety-seventh birthday, he had planned for what he knew would come, sooner than later, with time. Like the artful attorney he was, he had consolidated his assets, streamlined his will, and made sure we wouldn’t have to spend a lot of money, well, consulting a lawyer. With a colleague’s simple signature and Debby’s expertise, we handled matters all on our own.
Dad had asked, in notes he had given us weeks before, that we keep the office door open for several months, with Debby on the payroll. There was the matter of settling the estate, getting files back to longtime clients, selling the law books, and distributing the furniture.
And there was his desk.
For all the times I had sat on the other side of it, and now in its commanding chair, I had never taken it upon myself to open its drawers. After all, if the office was his domain away from home, the desk was its sacred center.
Inside it I find objects and paperwork that tell even more stories of his life. History reveals itself here in unexpected ways. There’s a travel itinerary from a trip he and my mom took to Europe in 1962—they departed from Idlewild Airport in New York and, as part of their continental tour, visited the Berlin Wall. There’s an envelope marked “Birth Announcements,” with newspaper clippings and copies of birth certificates for me and my three older sisters. There’s a color slide of me receiving my college diploma, and copies of letters from relatives in Israel. There are jokes he jotted down that he liked to tell, and a plastic bag with a snack of peanut brittle. There are condolence letters addressed to him in 1956, when his dad died, and in 1960, when he lost his mom. Those letters have an immediacy to me now.
In the lower left drawer, behind a long file of financial papers, he kept a pair of 10x50 binoculars he liked to use to survey the scene below. I take them out and, as he often did, scan the horizon. I can see the newspaper office where I have sat many afternoons, gazing out at his building. My desk is near the window, too.
I imagine him peering out at my building, fiddling with the focus, seeing if he can spot me. He’s not looking out at me, so much as looking out for me. He still does.
Roy Hoffman’s novel, Chicken Dreaming Corn (UGA Press, 2004; pb, 2006), is inspired by his immigrant Jewish grandparents’ world in early 1900s Alabama. A staff writer for the Press-Register in Mobile, he is also author of the novel Almost Family and the nonfiction Back Home. This essay originally appeared in Preservation: The Magazine of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.