The Chili Dog That Lawyers Dream Of


By Jay Reeves

It is not doing the things we like – but liking the things we do – that makes life blessed.

Those words were written by Johann von Goethe a couple of centuries ago, but for me they’re just as true today.

Too often I get it backwards. I expect whatever it is I’m doing – paying bills, mowing the lawn, practicing law – to magically assume a golden glow that fills me with surpassing joy. When this doesn’t happen I get bored, impatient or resentful.

Then I remember Brenda and her hot dog cart.

Showing Up With Your Best Self

I met Brenda long ago, in the days of Goethe, back when I was a solo lawyer in Charleston spending huge chunks of otherwise billable time sharpening a box of Dixon Ticonderoga #2 pencils down to tiny nubs.

I had become somewhat jaded about my law life. Week after week of waiting for clients who never show up will do that to a person. To lift my spirits I’d begun making a conscious effort to do things I liked, such as taking naps and solving crossword puzzles and – because I’ve always had an odd fascination with pencil sharpeners – buying an electric Bostitch beauty and grinding away.

Or I would visit Brenda’s hot dog cart on the corner of King and Queen streets.

“Heaven on a bun,” Brenda said of her wares, and she was right.

What made her hot dogs special was not the homemade slaw and chili, or the diced Vidalia onions, but the bright smile and warm greeting that came with them.

“Here you go sweetie,” she would say, offering up another messy delight.

Naturally, I assumed Brenda was doing what she loved – and that it was the inherent bliss of serving steaming pork byproducts under a broiling Port City sun that made her so happy. If only I were lucky enough to have landed such a gig.

But then one day Brenda disappeared. Another vendor – one who did not appear to be thrilled at wearing the ketchup-smeared apron – stood in her place under the big yellow umbrella. And though everything else was just the same, the hot dogs suddenly tasted less celestial.

Taking Life as it Is

Fast forward a year or so. All my pencils had been sharpened, and I was shopping at Service Merchandise on East Bay Street. A familiar voice rang out.

“Here you go, sweetie.”

It was Brenda. She was running one of the cash registers, and it was the same old Brenda: welcoming, uplifting, fully present.

That’s when it occurred to me. Perhaps it was not her innate love of frankfurters or retail sales transactions that made her so happy. Maybe it was who she was, not what she was doing.

Light Heart, Positive Thoughts

In a prior life I represented lawyers who were in trouble with the State Bar. Some were experienced attorneys who felt the profession had let them down. Practicing law had changed for the worse, they would say. It used to be good. Now, not so much.

Others were newcomers who felt a cruel trick had been played on them. They had gone to law school expecting one thing, only to discover something different – and considerably less enjoyable – when they graduated.

Life is hard enough as it is. But when we seek meaning from something out there – people, jobs, whatever – we make it even harder. A gentler, more reliable approach is to look for joy within.

Goethe was a lawyer in addition to being a thinker of deep thoughts. Apparently these two things are not mutually exclusive.

I doubt Brenda ever heard of Goethe. She didn’t need him. In fact, she could have probably taught him a thing or two about showing up with your best self and turning the mundane into the magical, all while serving the best chili dog in the cosmos.

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Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina. During the course of his 37-year career, he was a solo practitioner, corporate lawyer, Lawyers Weekly Legal Editor, Legal Aid attorney, insurance Vice President, risk manager, coffeeshop owner, softball coach and father of four. He is the founder of Your Law Life, where he and his team help lawyers take their practice to the next level.


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