Apr 01, 2013, 05:36AM

The Curmudgeonly Judge

Every time I was with him, I learned something new.

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When I first moved to a small town on Maryland's Eastern Shore, I had a head full of ideas about saving the town from development, fixing up our old Victorian house, and everyone fixing all the other houses up, too. One of the first things I did (before running for office) was to list the town on the National Register of Historic Places.

My first part-time job on the shore was working as the first Executive Director of the local historical society. I brought lofty ideas about swanky waterfront fundraisers, quaint quilt shows and reprinting historic postcards. I lasted about a year; serving as a public official and the birth of my fourth kid got in the way and after my term I went back to freelance writing at home.

During the time I served first on the board of directors and eventually as Executive Director, my boss was the President of the society, a local judge. "Local celebrity" seems like it should be an oxymoron. I can assure you in this case it is not. Polarized opinions of the judge abound: there are war stories of his epic battles in the courtroom, rumors about things he said that made people cry or quit. No one ever said anything neutral about the judge.

I was curious to meet and get to know him; his reputation preceded him to the extent that I'd heard about him from state historic preservation officials even before my moving truck headed east across the Chesapeake Bay. When I worked beside him on the board, I found him completely adorable and amusing. He was so delightfully honest. Never mind that his honesty could easily border on mean. I liked that even better. The older women were terrified of him. They called him "that old curmudgeonly judge." I thought “The Curmudgeonly Judge” would be a great title for a book. I wasn't terrified of him, which is I believe why he may have (though there was no direct evidence of this) liked me a little.

When my role switched from fellow board member to employee, he became my direct boss. I set up office space for the society in an unused art gallery, borrowing furniture from the courthouse basement. The judge had recently retired, so running the historical society (with me as its only employee) became his main daily activity. He'd come in to the office, tell me fantastic stories about irritating neighbors, how much of a pain in the ass the town government is, old court cases against developers, and generally what an imbecile everyone is. I loved it. I couldn’t leave the office to run out and bring a sandwich back to the office because he’d inevitably call during those six minutes and accuse me of not being there. In the glorious days of the land line phone, I’d sometimes put the receiver in my desk drawer so he’d get a busy signal if he called while I was grabbing a take-out cheesesteak and high-tailing it back to my desk.

Once a week or so he’d take me out to lunch to discuss the society (and who in it was most annoying him that day). People around the town saw me at lunch with him in the town's only decent restaurant and would later ask me how I "put up with him." I'd tell them that every time I was with him, I learned something new. And it was true. My old-man crush on the town's official curmudgeon, in addition to my oft-dramatic shenanigans with the gavel at town hall, helped establish the reputation I enjoy today as a town lunatic.

I see him once in awhile; he eats lunch at the same table on the same day of the week with the same person; another guy who worked on the board of directors with us. I call them Batman and Robin. I am forever tempted to go into the restaurant alone on those days and ask if I can join them. I know they wouldn't mind, just in case I had any town gossip of which they hadn't already been apprised. But somehow, unreasonably, I wait for them to invite me.

I know the curmudgeonly judge talks about me behind my back the same way he talks about everyone else, but I always hope that he thinks I am a little bit less of an asshole than most of the world.


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