Fenno: Bleak Haus(er)


It was a disgustingly early 3:30 in the afternoon, but Fenno was uncommonly excited to haul himself from bed and into the skin-splintering cold of a rejuvenated New England winter. He had only one class that day – the Law and Anthropology Workshop – and it was the one time slot on Fenno’s schedule he had never fudged neither the beginning or the end of. Sure, it was all too easy to slip into Corporations late (weren’t we living, Fenno asked himself, in “late capitalism,” after all?), or leave Secured Transactions early (who wasn’t trying to exit a transaction these days?) But to arrive late in Law and Anthropology Workshop was neither fashionable nor smart – it would have been a sure sign that natural selection had passed Fenno by.

What attracted Fenno to the empty Hauser Hall salon where Law and Anthropology would commence, about fourteen minutes hence? The spread. In the ripe, plum years of the boom, culinary finery flowed as abundantly as aggravatingly angry discussions about the interpretation of obscure amendments through the halls of Harvard Law, and Fenno, like the members of the Law Review editorial board, knew where to find it – the school’s hallowed seminars and workshops, where scrumptious cookies – and the lack of a curve – mixed with free-flowing argument in which no one was ever categorically wrong. Fenno had heard of a place – a mythical El Dorado, it sounded like – where such discussions occurred regularly (the name escaped him at the moment, but it sounded something like “any other graduate school”). But what any other graduate school did not have was the roulette of riches regularly served to the members of their vaunted little seminar.

There were, first, the macademia nut cookies, which the caterers had mixed with little fruits and spices so rich they made Fenno’s stomach gurgle with gastronomic delight – or excess; he could never really tell. The latter interpretation, he was sure, would make him less likely to delve into the velvety chocolate of the brownies, but it made him apt to cry a cure of readily available sparkling water. It was all, anyway, spangled across a sumptuous table covered (naturally) in a well-appointed white cloth. This was a colloquium at Harvard, Fenno thought. These are prerequisites for any high intellectual exchange. After all, what had Plato dragged his compatriots out of that cave for, but the swollen confections and sweet wine of his bacchanalian symposia? If the endowment had grown any larger, Fenno was sure they would have moved his seminar to the baths.

So Fenno entered Hauser with visions of the spread dancing deep in his mind. It soon became clear, however, that his fellow students (arriving on time, as usual) were preoccupied with other concerns. The chatter was about the stock market, the stimulus, spending, jobs. They were all safe, they assured Fenno (who, never failing to enjoy the futility HLS adversaries’ hard work, was disappointed), but they had heard harrowing stories about rescinded offers for students at, well, lesser law schools. “It’s breached the Vault twenty!” twitched one Above the Law addict. Others were talking openly about joining Hillary’s newly expanded State Department. “The worst case scenario,” someone said, “is being posted to Peshawar or something and being captured by Taliban insurgents. But really, I mean, would you rather be unemployed? Or the first J.D. flipping burgers? So they take me hostage. At least I get fed.”

Fed. Fenno wondered when the food would finally arrive. Especially since these were tough times, and he’d only allocated about $1.75 for junk food, to sustain him on the icy death march from Gropius to Hauser – a grueling 13 meter distance. His hand was beginning to stroke the bottom of his last Skittles bag when the caterers finally entered to set up the spread.

What braun! What majesty! Fenno recalled those former occasions when, in times of plenty, the heroic workers of the catering firm meticulously constructed the Workshop’s bountiful spread – ironing every crease of its tablecloth, tastefully arranging every one of its myriad selection of sweets. And yet, this time, something was amiss. In came the tables, yes, but there was no high-thread-count cotton to cover their shamefully flimsy legs. There was coffee, of course, but something was amiss with the usual silver drum, graced with Louis XIV legs and sculptured cherubs: it had been replaced with a dull, brown, plastic box. The caterers left without depositing so much as a sugar cookie: there were two pitchers of water (no ice!), three cans of Coke, two Ginger Ales, and a mismatched assortment of plastic and Styrofoam cups. Fenno took a look at his rapidly emptying Skittles bag, crestfallen. Even the Peace Corps-pondering students around the room were beginning to take notice of the skimpy display. “Holy Hofstra!” screamed even the professor when he walked in on the sorry sight. “This is not what I was lured away to Harvard for!” As he skipped into the hallway, his voice echoed off Hauser’s demi-deconstructed, postmodernist walls of as he pled with his secretary to ensure that nothing was amiss with his salary. Holy Howell Jackson, Fenno thought. The recession was real.

* * *

Fifteen minutes later, the seminar was in full swing – or, rather, had been in full swing, until the meager provisions at the back of the room began to ran low. Now, jaws were slacked, eyes were drooping, and the professor was pleading, again, in vain, for voices to participate in the discussion. “Fuck this,” the students’ bloodshot eyes suggested, “we just came for brownies.” Fenno was beside himself – whereas he usually stuck out animated discussions of “a Geertzian, rather than a structuralist legal discourse” until he could make for a hoard of brownie leftovers, there was no point in not heading for the door fifteen minutes early. He made a point of packing up his bag – as inconspicuously, he thought, as possible.

The gimmick hadn’t worked. The inconceivable transpired. The crankiness in the room, the silence in the other students, the petrified-of-poverty professor – all converged at that moment to demand of Fenno what he least expected: a cold call. In the free-flowing seminar of his fantasies. Fenno gulped. There may not have been cherubim clutching his coffee dispenser, he resolved, but at least he had his flask.