Remembering Mister Lebowitz

By Alejandro Grattan-Dominguez

old man with cane

There are moments in everyone’s life that can dramatically change whatever is left of them. One such “moment” happened to me when I was no more than twelve years old. My family was living in El Paso, Texas. My father had recently died, leaving my Mexican mother, younger brother, Tommy, and me were in a rather perilous position.

Our home was on a broad residential street and sat on a slight rise.  On the morning of that “moment,” my mother had assigned my brother and me the task of raking up the leaves in our front yard, and we were thus engaged when my brother and I started to argue about something the nature of which I can no longer remember. What I can recall is that since the death of our father, my younger brother had grown increasingly prone to temper tantrums.

Then I made the mistake of laughing at his rather ridiculous behavior, which apparently took him over the edge, impelling him to raise his steel rake as if to hit me on the head with it. In that moment, I heard the violent screech of a car coming to a sudden stop right in front of our house. A moment later, two men came rushing out, yelling as they raced up to snatch the rake from my brother’s hands. In what seemed only another few seconds, they had bound his hands with what seemed a bandana of some sort.

My mother, apparently having heard the screeching sound, was now hurrying toward us, deep apprehension written all over her face, as she then tried to politely ask to know what was going on. The detectives identified themselves, then muttered something about witnessing an attempted assault and that they were taking Tommy to the main jail downtown, where she could visit him at various hours of the weekday.

Stunned into absolute silence (quite unusual for my Mexican mother), she and I could only look on in tearful silence as my brother was taken away in the unmarked police sedan. Then she told me to change into some nicer clothes, and made a telephone call to a lawyer who I knew had once helped her with some business problems. He told her that he would meet her at the police station.

Half an hour later, we arrived at the station, where we were quickly joined in the lobby by the two arresting detectives who, in front of several other people, told my mother in very grim terms what would probably be my brother’s ultimate legal fate. Their grim appraisal seemed to amuse the many people gathered around the lobby, but my mother and I were not among them. Then the frightful mood changed in a heartbeat when Mr. Lebowitz, her lawyer, came into the police station.

Not that his looks were all that prepossessing: he appeared very old to me and seemed (in looking back) rather tattered and wistful in some strangely sad way. He was also using two canes to help him walk. Then he started to speak. In what can only be described as a majestic baritone, he began to berate the two detectives in the strongest way, before demanding that my brother be released immediately. Otherwise, he would walk over to see his good friend, the editor in chief of the El Paso Times (then the most powerful newspaper in all of West Texas), and tell him the shameful facts of the matter. 

With that, and in only what seemed no more than a minute or two, my brother was brought into the lobby to the arms of my joyous mother. Finally, turning gratefully toward Mister Lebowitz, she thanked him and asked him what she owed him? I will never forget his answer. “Nothing, Juanita. I had to come down from my office to buy a cigar, anyway. Besides, I am having a wonderful time.”

With my younger brother safely sequestered in the back seat of our old Chevrolet, we started the ride home. Along the way I thought to ask my mother why everything had changed so much when Mister Lebowitz had come to the police station.

“Things changed because he knows the law and is a very well-educated gentleman.”

I remembered those words many years later, just after I had graduated from high school. Many of my friends were going off to college but I had a good delivery job and one of the fastest hot rods in town and liked my current life just fine. However, those words finally had their way with me, and I went off to college to enroll in a pre-law course of study. Though I would later change my major, it was Mister Lebowitz who set the course of my ultimate journey. 

Obviously, I have never forgotten him. 


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