Saturday, February 09, 2008

Hello on Saturday morning!

Mary has three new posts up. What a treat! She had trouble sleeping Saturday night (where would she get that?), but that's our gain.

The last of the three posts describes her conversation with a seller at the Maasi market. It shows how she and the seller became people to each other, stepping out of the role of seller and buyer (which are fierce roles at that market, Mary no less than the Kenyan, I can tell you), over to that of person and person, and then back to buyer and seller but buyer and seller transformed. It reminds me of a story from my working for Jack Hunter, a fine lawyer from Raleigh, during the summer between my first and second years of law school.

Jack, a litigator who practiced "solo" (not really solo - he had a great legal secretary), had a case representing some black people who were injured when their car, traveling in rural Eastern NC, had a wreck when two mules ran across the highway in front of them. Letting one's mules loose was against the law, and my job was to drive to the tobacco growing area where this happened and find some witnesses. Jack said to get up early and see if I could find people going out into the fields, especially farmers, who might have seen or heard something.

He gave this advice: "Don't walk up to someone, introduce yourself as working for me in Raleigh, and start asking your questions. Greet the person in a friendly way, talk about the weather, talk about the crops, talk about the tractor, tell them your name, and begin to get into the question of the accident only after all of that."

OK. So here I am. I pull off the road in my car, when I see a farmer sitting on a tractor out in a field. I have on a coat and tie, wingtips, the uniform, you know. And I walk out between the tobacco rows, and as I approach the farmer (he has seen me, by this time), I say something like "Hello, beautiful day. Has it been this way all week? . . . . This tobacco looks really healthy (!) . . . Have you started picking any of the leaves yet? . . . Etc." He joins in the conversation. He in his overalls sitting on his tractor, I in my city clothes, both talking like we were just standing there waiting for a bus. Then, finally, I ask him if he heard about the accident. "Yessir, you mean that car full of n******s than ran into those mules?" "Yes, sir," I said, "it's too bad, because of couple of those folks were hurt and have been in the hospital." And then we spoke in earnest. (His use of the N word was not unfriendly. This was a different world in 1969, at least in that place.)

What I was trying to find out is if he knew that the mules belonged to Farmer X, which he did, and whether he had ever seen them running loose before. The second question was important, because there was no absolute liability standard for an owner whose livestock causes an accident. There needed to be some proof that the owner did not do a good job of keeping his property fenced, and evidence that people had seen these mules running loose before was admissible on the subject of the owner's negligence.

Anyway, the farmer was forthcoming, courteous, and helpful. But as he had to prepare his fields to receive the tobacco seed to have any hope of a good crop, I had to show him a human being behind the suit, a human being who recognized another human being who happened to be sitting on a tractor, wearing bib-overalls.

This "cutting to the chase" idea, so popular with people who measure out hours and minutes as if they are precious gold (see the second of Mary's new posts) is really not so effective and efficient, whether one is Nairobi, in eastern North Carolina, or, for that matter, in Miami.

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