A conspirator's story

It begins with a letter to the New York Times. Before its end, a young Wall Street lawyer is tangled up with a man accusing the CIA of horrific crimes.

By Matthew S. Schweber
July 24, 2000 11:40PM (UTC)
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I had been submitting letters to the editor of the New York Times intermittently for years without success. So the first time its editorial page called to inform me that they were publishing one of them, I was elated. The Times was my lodestar, my conduit to society. Its imprimatur was the most authoritative possible affirmation of my opinions. I had achieved the apotheosis of my ambition. I reached nirvana.

After it was published, colleagues mentioned my letter. My parents laminated it. An organization even wrote me about it, soliciting money. At last, I was finally getting the recognition that I thought I deserved and that (as a lawyer) I never received. Buoyed, I began to write them regularly. The second time they called I was gratified, but the sheen of validation already started to lose some of its luster. Still, I persisted each week to write my four sentences of indignant pith, impelled, no doubt, by the attorney's modus operandi, the compulsion for disputation, the yearning for voice.

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By the fifth time I was published, I was already resigned to the irrelevance of "Letters to the Editor." I continued to write nonetheless. The impulse had become reflexive, born of vocational habit and nurtured by professional boredom. My prose radiated the occupational frustration. For my seventh and final letter, I inveighed against the commodification of justice and the absence of intrinsic reward in the practice of corporate law and as such, admonished Wall Street attorneys to forge a new consciousness. Culminating in an ironic allusion to Marx's Communist Manifesto, I exhorted, "Lawyers of Wall St., unite! You have nothing to lose but your golden handcuffs." (Like any faithful bourgeois Marxist, I neglected to practice what I preached.)

Not only did publication prove cathartic this time, it was even significant. Even in the degrading vassalage that epitomizes the life of the junior associate in a Wall Street law firm, Saturday night is sacred. So when I received a call at home on Saturday at 7:00 p.m., I should have suspected that something was amiss. However, when my wife said that someone was on the phone asking for the lawyer whose letter was published Friday in the Times, blinded by naiveti and narcissism, I took the call.

"Is this Matthew S. Schweber, the lawyer, whose letter to the editor was published in Friday's Times?" asked the frantic voice on the other end.

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"Yes, what can I do for you?"

"My name is Richard Silverman and I need representation immediately. I have a hearing next week. You have to represent me. From reading your letter, I could tell that you are precisely the kind of lawyer I've been searching for. I'm only grateful that your phone number is listed."

"I am flattered that you think so, Mr. Silverman, but I am not really permitted to represent clients without the prior approval of the firm," I said, thinking that the peremptory logic of my rationale would discourage him sufficiently to allow me to gracefully terminate the call.

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Mr. Silverman, however, was undeterred. "Matthew," he said, "I am really desperate. I have devoted my life to exposing the CIA and the experimentation they have conducted on human beings, including me, and now the government is trying to ruin my life. I know this sounds crazy, but they are attempting to destroy my livelihood; they're threatening me. And I am suing them for reparations. "Please, Matthew," he implored, "I need your help. You have to represent me."

The desperation in his voice and the allegation of a government conspiracy aroused my dormant social conscience and whetted my appetite for glory. After all, I had just seen the movie "Erin Brockovich." I was overcome with fantasies of grandeur. I would expose and rectify a great injustice. My work would be enshrined as a major feature film. I would be a celebrity.

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"Fax me the papers on Monday," I said

"How about if I drop them off at your apartment tonight," he said, enumerating my address. At that moment, a true New Yorker, more worldly, more savvy, more shrewd than I, would have immediately balked.

"Okay," I acceded.

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"Good. I'll call you tomorrow after you review them," he said and before I could respond, he abruptly hung up.

I reviewed the papers my would-be client left at around midnight while I was out. The first paragraph of his complaint read as follows: "When I was 10 years old the government placed a tablet in the back of my throat that caused my waist to expand 10 inches. The doctors could not identify the malady. Recently, I concluded that they were part of the conspiracy."

Sunday, Silverman called me 15 times, beginning at 9:00 a.m.

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"I haven't had the opportunity to review them, but as soon as I do, I will call you back," I equivocated the third time he called. For the remainder of the day, Richard left messages on my answering machine as I despaired about what to do.

Fortunately, the name and telephone number of his former attorney appeared on one of the documents. I called him Monday morning. He said that Richard was a manic-depressive afflicted periodically by conspiratorial delusions but that he was harmless and supported by a subsidy from his father's estate. I had nothing to worry about, he maintained, advising me to simply decline representation.

I returned Richard's calls later that day.

"Are you going to represent me? What do you think of the case?" he asked anxiously.

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"Richard, I can't help you. But I have the name of three psychiatrists who can." Like any Wall Street lawyer, I was acquainted with a number of psychiatrists.

"You're part of the conspiracy. I c-c-c-can't believe it," he sputtered in a rage and hung up. And in a way, I was. The confederation of credulous, disgruntled New York attorneys hungering for acknowledgment is indeed sizable.

I never heard from Richard Silverman again. I no longer write letters to the editor. For the most part, I have abandoned the dream of a crusade for truth and glory. Now, my greatest ambition is to publish an Op-Ed.


Matthew S. Schweber

Matthew S. Schweber, formerly a practicing attorney on Wall Street, is now a writer in New York.

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Cia The New York Times