Wednesday, November 12, 2008


Yesterday's post about my colleague in the Criminal Court Clerk's Office prompted some memories of my time there. I could write for days about the events that unfolded on the third floor of the courthouse from January 1985 through June 1997.

One of my supervisors was a man by the name of Joe Sbuttoni, or Joe "S- button-eye" as he used to say for those who had difficulty spelling his name. Joe was what one of my uncles would call a 'character'. Truly he was. A character that might appear in a Tolkein adventure, or a Chesterton story. He was white-headed; his hair curled in waves over his collar.
It was common for him to wear a beat up cardigan sweater, in the sagging pockets of which he carried fresh garlic-fresh garlic with a purpose outside the kitchen; on the shelf in his office he kept a mortar and pestle like an anciet pharmacist. He would mix the fresh garlic, with fresh onion and olive oil, until it was paste thick, and insert a plug of it between cheek and gum.

It'll keep the evil spirits away, I tell you! he'd say with conviction.
I never get sick, I have yet to have a fever in forty five years, and I never have a cold, he'd say repeatedly.
I grimaced. Joe, the reason you do not get sick, is that no soul around here can get close enough to you to give you their germs- your aroma precedes you. I argued.
Get back to work he would mutter, waving his hand at me.

Often when I was debating something with Joe, I'd go to his cluttered office. One day, I noticed a sign perched on his desk like one on which names are inscribed. The sign read: "THINK".
Where'd you get that? I inquired, pointing to the sign.
College, I got it from my philosophy professor.
Hmmm, I mused, chagrined I'd not seen Joe as the college type. In that afternoon, and many that would follow, we conversed about determinism, naturalism, existentialism, Descartes, Kant, Kierkegaard, Locke, and on and on.

In addition to his garlic, onion, and olive oil olfactory surprise, he smoked inexpensive cigars. I use "inexpensive" purposely, because to say the cigars were cheap would cheapen Joe, and Joe is priceless. He spoke in Italian on the phone with his infirmed mother, and flailed his hands as he spoke, sometimes cursing, but never at her. He was first generation Italian American. Both his parents were born near Bologna Italy. Joe and his brother were born and raised here, in Nashville, and helped in their parent's family business, a restaurant off the square, called, none other than "Sbuttoni's".

Every now and again, I would make a mistake on a document. Undone, Joe would grab his head with both hands, tucking the butt of a three day old cigar in his teeth, and holler: "THINK! THINK!". Though I knew Joe was for me, his words burned. He would restore calm by winking at me from across the room or conferring with me in a kinder voice.

Joe pushed me hard to excel in law school. I wish I could say our conversations on thought were the tipping point that put me at the head of my class, but I was not an academic stand out. - I struggled. I struggled, but am persuaded his shouts to THINK, THINK and our debates of philosophy, assisted me in ways only eternity may reveal-I've already had inklings, like enjoyment of writing down thoughts, here, on this blog, for instance.

1 comment:

rachael said...

thank you for writing this lovely piece about my grandaddy joe!

rachael sbuttoni schafer