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Looking for a Partner in Kiddie-Crime
The news hit the block and I was excited. I was just a child when I found the thrill of new neighbors moving in. With the enthusiasm particular to a mischievous youngster seeking an accomplice, I asked my mom, “Do they have kids?” Her response was direct and to the point. “No. And he’s a judge. Behave! Or he’ll throw you in jail.”
What Mom didn’t know was that he did have children—three boys. But they had begun their adult lives. And at this tender age I had no way of knowing how my life was about to change. After all, who could have imagined this man of the robe enjoyed many of the activities a rascal like me loved doing? So the scene was set for an unlikely duo—a Chief Federal Judge imposing law and order and an ill-behaved kid seeking judicial favor to stay out of jail.
An Investigating Committee of One
The Weinsteins were still in the midst of unpacking when I went over to investigate what a real-life judge looked like. I walked up the steps to the front door, rang the bell, and waited in wonder.
Soon a woman appeared in a large windowpane, smiling, as we locked gazes, before opening the door to me. “Oh, hello, young man. My name is Evelyn,” she greeted in her kind way. “Who are you?”
I quickly answered, then posed an extremely important question. “Do you have any candy?” She smiled the way adults do when they’ve gotten a kick out of a resourceful young lad and replied, “No, but I have cookies. Would you like some?”
Cookies! Of course! Here was a true revelatory moment—one that cast me frozen in the wake of hindsight. I could only ponder what type of idiot I’d been. Let me explain.
You see, up until that encounter, each day on my walk to the school bus stop, I would routinely detour to another nearby house, that of Mrs. Scharer. There, I’d make the standard sweet-treat request I’d just sprung on Evelyn Weinstein. But, from this groundbreaking moment forward—owing to this fabulous lesson learned—the morning bid to my current supplier was supplemented. The caring and generous Vivian Sharer would start stocking her empty-nester home with candy and cookies.
It was the earliest of the many teachings I would gain from these new neighbors. Alas, though, the judge was not home.
The Power of Nod
Cut to the next day. Having just finished my business in our side yard—a lightly wooded area though, as I was about to learn, not nearly dense enough—which bordered the Weinstein property, I zipped up, turned, … and there he was.
The judge. I understood that fact right away.
To a little fellow like me, this tall, well-built man was, in a word, imposing. Peering down at me, he uttered all of one soft-spoken question. “Do you have a bathroom inside your house?”
“Um, yes,” I replied.
He nodded. That was it. Just a nod.
It was very effective. And I was amazed at just how easily and wondrously it worked.
After all, in my home, communication was quite different. Yelling, screaming, talking over one another, and indulging in every sort of completely irrational conflict behavior were the ways a point was made. I mean, how else could you make yourself heard and understood?
Yet right now, this man looming over me was making his position clear with a simple query and a nod. Lesson learned number two—and a lasting one. Ever since, throughout my years as a practicing lawyer, I credit this first awkward interaction for incorporating the nod into my catalogue of cross-examination techniques. When delivered at just the right moment, it’s proven itself equally effective, just as Jack’s nod had been on me.
I should add too that Jack Weinstein was the first actual real-life “Jack” I’d ever met. I knew of Jack and Jill, Jack and the Beanstalk, and Jack Be Nimble. This meant I had a hard time reconciling in my young mind a judge having a name which I associated with nursery rhymes and fairy tales, not to mention caramel-coated popcorn with a prize in the box.
Anyway … it wasn’t long before I realized that the Jack who’d just entered my world was a dedicated outdoorsman. My awareness of this began the day I spotted an unfamiliar figure swimming in the Long Island Sound, out beyond where it bordered our backyards. I kept my eye on the frogman, slowly and steadily coming my way against the current. Then, out from the tide, emerged Jack. I’d never seen anyone swim in the Sound, but it did, kind of, make sense.
It wasn’t much later that a shiny new rowboat appeared at the edge of the Weinstein shoreline, a perfect complement to the brand-new fishing rod now visible in their open carport. There was only one thing for me to do: rowboat surveillance.
So I began staking out what was happening next door from atop the retaining wall separating our properties from the Sound. I sat here, rod ready, waiting for Jack to come along. My elaborate plan was to innocently ask, “Whatcha doing?” This in hope of luring him (pun intended) into inviting me on what I deemed in my little noggin as my first deep-sea fishing expedition.
Then it happened! I spotted my subject approaching. My chance was at hand, and I took it.
After pretending to look for a certain something in my tackle box, I turned toward Jack as he arrived at his rowboat. While I didn’t get a role in the Mad Hatter play my school was putting on, the surprised look I plastered across my face was convincing indeed. I then morphed my expression into my, I hope you’re still not mad at me for peeing outside smile. Though I imagined myself a cagey kid, Jack was, of course, on to me … and fast. Even before I delivered my well-rehearsed line.
His response, as always, was simple and clear. “If you want to go fishing, you have to dig for worms.” In his hands were a pitchfork and a bucket—which he then handed to me.
From that beginning onward, the day was filled with many lessons.
Once we were down on the beach, among the many things I learned were that you used a pitchfork to dig with, instead of a shovel, because there’s less chance of cutting the worms in half. Then I found out what a sandworm was—I certainly hadn’t known such a creature existed—when one turned up curled over the edge of a pitchfork prong. Jack also taught me the correct way to row, how to secure the oar within the boat, how to anchor, what a sinker was and how to use it, how to bait a hook, and how to drop a line without casting.
“We’re fishing for flounder,” Jack told me.
“Okay, what’s a flounder?” I replied. I didn’t know you could actually fish for a particular species swimming around down there. But, if you put a sandworm on a fishhook and let it rest on the bottom of the Sound, you’ll likely catch a flounder. And when our first flounder came to the surface, I found out that a fish can be flat like a pancake with two eyes on top.
The last lesson of the day I wasn’t too happy learning about—how to clean a fish. But later in life that skill passed on by the judge circled back around when I was vying for an internship at the New York State Attorney General’s office.
At my interview, the Deputy Bureau Chief asked, “What finals are you studying for?”
“Evidence,” I answered.
Proudly she sat back in her chair, eager to share her brush with judicial greatness, and said, “Jack Weinstein taught me evidence at Columbia.”
I smiled and replied, “Jack Weinstein taught me how to gut a fish in his backyard.”
I got the position.
I could list an assortment of useful stuff Jack taught me as a youngster—such as how to tighten my bike brakes, oil the chain, and fix a flat tire, along with numerous other little practical things. However, the one lesson that stands out beyond all the rest is this: the way I was to manage and cope with my emotions.
I can only be grateful that Jack understood how, at times, I was more out of sorts than normal during the dragged-out period of my parents’ ten-year divorce. I wouldn’t say he consoled me. This Evelyn did. But what I can say is that he taught me patience, understanding, and tolerance—in other words, how to deal.
The family yelling I’d earlier alluded to often took place outside, and, since outside was where Jack enjoyed spending much of his time, he was well aware of the next-door conflicts. Yet he was mindful to ration his counsel, waiting until our paths crossed—which many times were early in the morning, when he swam laps in our pool. I knew better than to engage him until this athletic fellow finished his exercise. But after readying himself to depart, he would take the opportunity to be generous with his wisdom. Then Jack would be gone, leaving me to think over the thoughts he’d just shared.
An Unconventional Teaching of the Circumstantial Evidence Rule
Once, when I was sixteen or so, Jack rang our doorbell, asking me to come over to “help him out with something.” When I arrived, he was standing in their garden, located on a strip of land between the Sound and the library pond. Floating nearby on the latter was a family of waterfowl. In my friend’s hands were a potato sack and a broomstick. My eyes widened. I mean, who owned a potato sack in Great Neck?
“Here,” he said, “you take these,” handing both over to me.
“Why?” I asked.
To which he replied, “You’ll see.” He pointed down, and there at his feet was a tiny gosling that had been separated from that floating Canadian geese family. The little creature was trapped behind the fencing and was repeatedly trying to jump through one of its small rectangular wire mesh openings. However, he was too large to accomplish this. Each little hop up and forward scuffed the top of his little head on the rigid wire. He must’ve been at it for a while as he’d scraped feathers and skin clear off, leaving him bleeding from an open wound.
“Okay,” I said. I was ready to do anything that could help the cause. Holding up the sack and broomstick, I asked, “But what are these for?” In response Jack flashed me a nod and a grin that translated into You’ll see.
The moment Jack knelt to scoop up the accidental captive, it began to squeakily chirp, a sound that had an instantaneous effect. Like a jet fighter catapulted off an aircraft carrier, mother goose instantly took flight on an aerial assault mission, making a beeline for my head. Her ability to accelerate was awe-inspiring, as was her vociferous angry honking. She was in full attack mode.
Instinctively I wildly flailed the broomstick and the sack, which only barely redirected the child-protecting mama off her terrified target—me! She made a sharp turn and circled back around, … just as Jack secured the gosling within his cupped hands, gently tossing it over the fence into the water. It swam toward its family, with mom flying past us overhead, offering no threat at all.
But I will tell you that those hectic and perilous few moments when the giant squawking bird came at me still remain a vivid video in my mind’s eye. With my heart pounding out of my chest, I turned to Jack and blurted out, “You couldn’t have warned me?” In response, I received my second grin and nod of the day. I would suggest his failure to warn was this law school professor’s way of educating me on the circumstantial evidence rule.
Definitely Not Qualified
Several years later I found myself sitting next to Jack on the bench near his rowboat, where he liked to spend time looking out at the Sound and collecting his thoughts. At this juncture I asked him what I regarded as a highly important question that did not involve candy. “Why did you go to law school?”
His answer was simple. “I didn’t know what to do next.” That was good enough for me. Yet I’ve always wondered if his response was intended to placate me or to maybe even motivate me—the remedial reader kid next door who Jack knew wasn’t known for academic excellence.
Our next contact came when I asked him to write a law school recommendation for me. After advising him of my poor LSAT score, he said, “I’ll write you the recommendation under one condition.” I waited for him to explain the condition. “That you don’t apply to Columbia Law School.”
I said, “Sure. But why?”
“Because you may then get in, and you’re not qualified,” he replied.
We smiled. It wasn’t as if he was telling me something we both didn’t know. Yet my favorite note from Jack was when he wished me “Good luck,” after submitting his letter of recommendation for my bar admission to the Committee on Character and Fitness. “Good luck.” Ha! I loved it!
Signed Fondly Jack
During my time at Brooklyn Law School, and thereafter when on trial in Kings County, I’d walk over to the US District Court for the Eastern District of New York and visit Jack. He always made time to see me, and we would chitchat but only just a little. He was superfocused on his trials and thus very busy.
As the years passed by, and I had a family of my own, I pretty much lost touch with Jack. This I deeply regret. Then, when one of my sons decided to apply to law school, it brought back all my Jack memories—and I called his chambers. I knew he’d just retired at age ninety-nine, and I thought I’d ask his longtime secretary if she felt contacting him was a good idea, since I didn’t know anything about his current life. Without hesitating, she gave me a thumbs-up, along with his personal email address.
As I worked to craft such an immensely important note, literally my entire childhood had flashed before my eyes by the time I hit Send. What mattered, of course, was giving Jack, simply and succinctly, the credit he deserved for the enormous impact he’d had on my life.
Two days later Jack’s reply was in my in-box.
Upon reading it, I grinned and nodded.
I’ve written this piece so those outside his family and professional circle might understand the many ways in which Jack B. Weinstein was so much more than a judge. I also wanted to acknowledge the great impact Jack had on my life, way beyond the tidbits shared in this piece. That’s the fact, Jack.
On Father’s Day—June 20, 2021—five days after Jack’s passing, I visited his home. I sat on that bench for a long while thinking about him as I looked out at the Long Island Sound. Recently, I learned that the mother of my good friend from law school was Jack’s second wife. After reading this piece Susan invited me into her home where I had many fond memories and we spent hours reminiscing about Jack. It was one of the best days I’ve had in a long time. I dedicate this little slice of Jack to Susan and the Weinstein family.
About the Neighbor
Andrew W. Siegel, Esq., of Siegel & Coonerty LLP, is a personal injury attorney who has a compassionate interest in representing survivors of traumatic brain injury. Andy is on the Board of Directors of the New York State Trial Lawyers Association, as well as the Brain Injury Association of New York State. His many trial successes have repeatedly placed those outcomes among the “Top 100 Verdicts” reported in the state annually.
Andy is also the author of the Tug Wyler Mystery Series, a collection of emotionally charged and thought-provoking medical-legal thrillers. His debut novel, Suzy’s Case (Scribner: A Division of Simon & Schuster), was optioned by CBS Television, was a People.com Best Beach Read, and was a Suspense Magazine Best Book.
Andy also wrote Second Impact: The Ray Ciancaglini Story. Ray is a former professional boxer and an award-winning concussion awareness activist, who sustained a brain injury in the ring. Andy wrote Second Impact to educate and to protect today’s young athletes from the harm that can result by “playing through” a concussion. All proceeds from the sale of the book are donated to Ray’s nonprofit organization, thesecondimpact.com.
Soon to be released is Pavarotti’s Wheelchair: An End-Of-Life Joyride as Big as Its Owner—My Mom. The short memoir chronicles the humorous end-of-life journey Andy shared with his mother, Adele, a fearless cancer fighter. All proceeds from the sale of the book are to be donated to the Cancer Survivorship Program at NYU Langone’s Perlmutter Cancer Center.