Some of you may be familiar with this, as I posted it on my Facebook page pretty much right after it happened, but it’s still a pretty good story, if you can handle the schmaltz. Here goes:
Thursday night, February 5th, 2009, was the night of the University of Toledo School of Law Public Interest Students Association (PILA) fundraiser at 20 North Gallery. As at many law schools, PILA is charged with filling the coffers of the Summer Public Interest Fellowship, a source of funding for law students who wish to devote their summers to public interest/poverty work. And, me, well, as a liaison between LAWO/ABLE and the law school, I was charged with the task of magically producing our attorneys and staff at this event – a task which did not come without some measure of unease. The budget crunch had foreclosed any opportunity for LAWO/ABLE to purchase a block of tickets for this year’s event, as had been the tradition in the past. A few days before the event, I learned from PILA that only a meager quantity had yet been sold. So it was with a tiny trepidation that Julia and I dragged our carcasses off of my sofa, dusted ourselves off, and piled into her rental towards the gallery.
We made our entrance. As soon as I put away my green coat, though, I breathed a sigh of relief. Ten or twelve of our staff members flecked the toasty crowd. I felt as if I hadn’t let anybody down. People were buying tickets and bidding on silent auction items. I was free to hit the open bar.
Just as the orange walls of the gallery reflected a warm glow, the small crowd exuded the warmth and friendliness I have come to find so characteristic of Toledo. I scanned the smiling faces of friends and strangers, looking for someone in particular. Finally, I spotted him. He had initially been camouflaged. He can do that sometimes. His orange sweater had rendered him completely invisible against the orange walls.
As he carried on with an oblivious interlocutor, the corners of our eyes touched. A secret salutation. Then we went back to our separate conversations. I had the chance to speak with people from our offices I normally don’t see. I was able to finally meet more students and professors. I rocked an outfit which, I feel, successfully towed the line between professionalism and smuttiness. I got work done and made some new friends. In between all of the interactions, I just could never seem make it back to where the food was.
He found me by the bar with some colleagues after taking a look at the silent auction items. “I have an idea.” “O.K.?” I said, recalling that our soon-to-be-housemate Tim had recently asked him to start wearing a tinfoil hat to keep out all of the ideas. “So, there’s a $100 gift certificate to a jewelry store.” “Yeah?” I said, taking a sip from my wine. “Well, I’ve been thinking about buying a ring.” Bigger sip from the wine. “How about if I take the money I was going to put on a ring and put it down as a bid on this gift certificate? Then, if I win, you’ll have this $100 ring, but you’ll be wearing a whole public interest fellowship on your finger?!” Flooded with the realization that this is the possibly the greatest most insanely perfect idea he could have, my eyes got wide as saucers and I beamed, “You know I wouldn’t care if the ring you gave me was made out of a pipe cleaner!” He chuckled at me, “Well, I’m not going to give you my pipe cleaner. I only have one left. I mean, it might end up being, like, a peace sign ring.” “No, how about a mood ring?,” I giddily interrupted. And, with that, my happiest surprise disappeared back into the crowd.
I just stood there chewing on a damn big smile for a few minutes. The full meaning hadn’t even yet blossomed within me. I was just thrilled at the possibility of giving a big f-you to the diamond industry and wedding market machine. I must have licked the last winedrops from my glass and said to Julia, out of the corner of my mouth, “We have to take a look at something.” I wasn’t really sure what was happening. Without any dinner, I was really feeling the wine and it was growing more difficult to piece together a mantle of casual nonchalance. I realize now that I must have dragged her quite forcefully towards the silent auction items. We looked over the first table, the second table and then finally came to the third, which held a polite little silver gift bag atop a list of bids. Looking into the crowd, Julia was distractedly saying, “I don’t understand why people over-bid on silent auction items, I thought the point was – …” I cut her off and grabbed her wrist. “Julia, look DOWN,” I implored. And there it was. The last bid.
A bid for Toby Fey for way more than $100.
We retreated back to the bar. I watched him from across the room. Even behind all that big personality, I knew that he was nervously chatting about what he had done to all of our colleagues and mentors. I could feel a buzz start to develop in the room. People would walk up to that piece of paper and walk away with a big smile. But nobody’s was bigger than mine. I overheard many exclamations, ranging from “Oh my God! Did you see what Toby Fey did?” to “Just what do public interest attorneys make, anyways?” to “Is he high?”
I lost sight of him. He must have gone out to smoke. The dean got on the microphone to make an announcement. “Excuse me, excuse me everyone. Can I have everyone’s attention for a moment? Something remarkable has just happened. I must take this moment to thank ABLE Attorney Toby Fey for an extraordinary bid on a $100 jewelry store gift certificate. This will single handedly fund a summer fellowship. It is generosity like this that makes me proud to be a part of this legal community.”
Needless to say, he won. I realize that this opens me up to a lifetime of way more Tolkien references than I ever wish to encounter, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Later, it all hit me. Way at the very beginning of this relationship, I realized that, when you put the two of us together, we multiply exponentially our ability to give. That’s what it’s all about, for me, at least. That’s why I chose him. That’s what he’ll remind me of. That’s why there is no more fitting way to mark the beginning of this beginning. A gift and a joke and a flipping it all over on its head. Just the way I like.