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“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden.” Chauncey Gardener, “Being There,” 1979. Dale Wootton — lawyer, restaurateur, raconteur, gardener — recalls that he was frazzled on Oct. 28, frazzled because he was still electronically filing bankruptcy schedules at 6:30 p.m., an hour before the start of Poetry Night at his Garden Cafe; frazzled because he had recently lost his restaurant manager and had to run the East Dallas eatery himself; frazzled because his guest chef couldn’t get the oven started and 60 starving customers who had paid $25 a pop shortly would be expecting a gourmet meal of clay-braised turkey or plum-smoked pork. So he did what he always does, when the stress of his law practice gets too overwhelming or the weight of the world gets too oppressive. He walked to the large vegetable and herb garden behind his law office, which shares a common backyard with his restaurant, and paused. Then he picked sprigs of rosemary to enhance the presentation of the evening’s selections. “I decided a long time ago that I could have a garden or a psychiatrist,” says Wootton, a Dallas solo. “In the middle of the day when I am dealing with a particularly frustrating case, or feeling pressured by a judge, I pick some okra or pull some weeds — it’s therapy.” The harvesting must have helped because by 7:30 p.m., Wootton exuded a Zen-like calm, playing the role of host with near-perfect pitch — genteel, gracious, glib. With a clipboard in one hand and a glass of Cabernet in the other, he asked diners — many of whom were Wootton regulars — if they planned on reciting tonight. “I didn’t know if I was going to read, but I knew there was no way I was going to miss this,” says real estate lawyer Kenneth Martin, the founder of Dallas’ Kenneth D. Martin & Associates. “Listening to some lady reading E.E. Cummings is more beneficial for my soul than making a lot of money in my practice.” Fifteen wannabe poets, six of whom are lawyers, signed up to read. Some would recite their own work; others would read more renowned poets. Those looking for a poetry slam would have to go elsewhere. This was a warm-hearted, slightly liquored-up crowd of establishment types — barristers, doctors, journalists and real estate agents. No dark, brooding revolutionaries were in attendance. There wasn’t a beret in the bunch. Wootton set the tone as he always does. The balance he brings to his personal and professional life could be taught in a CLE course on attorney quality-of-life issues. He is “The Likeable Lawyer.” Despite helping raise four children (three are grown, one is a high school senior), he is a regular at coffee houses and restaurants around Dallas. He can be seen dining at the trendiest restaurants, attending the hottest gallery openings — often on the same night. “He is one of those six-degrees-of-separation people,” says Julie Ehret, a Poetry Night regular who is of counsel at Dallas’ Bickel & Brewer. “I’m always running into someone who knows him. He’s a very social guy.” Wootton says he just appreciates the fine art of lively conversation — conversation that takes root in his own restaurant. During lunch, he will take time from his bankruptcy practice and kibitz with customers — locals and lawyers mostly — becoming as much a part of the branding of his cafe as the food itself. He also cooks, serves and sweeps, as needed. Although his Garden Cafe was breathing rarefied air for Poetry Night, its standard fare is down-home helpings of chicken and dumplings, meatloaf or catfish — with many vegetable sides grown fresh in the garden. Open for breakfast and lunch since November 2002, the restaurant is an extension of its owner: comfortable, easygoing, welcoming. “I am just a meatloaf and mashed potatoes kind of guy,” says Wootton, who describes his restaurant as “nothing fancy, just a neighborhood cooking joint.” Wootton, who often dresses in shorts and sandals in the summer and blue jeans and tennis shoes in the winter, has no pretensions about who he is. “I tell my clients: ‘If you want a downtown pinstriped lawyer, you need to go downtown.’ Most clients laugh and seem to love it.” Over the past 35 years, he has handled high-profile bankruptcy cases but prides himself on representing consumers and mom-and-pop businesses. “I do some trustee work and some creditor work, but it’s the little cases that capture your heart,” he says. “The ones where you get a small fee and a big hug.” “Everyone in the Dallas bankruptcy bar knows Dale,” says friend and attorney John Collins, past president of the Texas Trial Lawyers Association. “He is low key in the courtroom but well-prepared on the law and the facts.” It would seem that a bankruptcy attorney would have more sense than to open a restaurant where the risk of business failure is staggering. “A bankruptcy judge once asked me how my restaurant was coming along,” recalls Wootton, his mellifluous voice easy on the ear. “Well, I jumped back and said, ‘I have filed dozens of restaurant bankruptcies, and there is no way I would be stupid enough to open a restaurant. That’s why I am opening a Cafe.’” But the Garden Cafe is more than just a cafe. It’s a salon society where Wootton can celebrate a writer-friend with a book signing or a lawyer-friend with a photography exhibit. It’s the Algonquin Round Table for the chicken-fried steak set where the friends of Wootton — who are many and varied — are drawn to share their stories, their philosophies, their lives. And it’s a way for a veteran lawyer to gently ease out of his bankruptcy practice, because he is disheartened by a dramatic change in the law. Four times a year, it’s also a poetry reading, a call for lawyers and doctors and businesspeople and homemakers — those with a touch of the poet — to reveal their feelings in verse. MASTER OF CEREMONIES “I want to welcome everybody — I think we have a great crowd tonight, a lot of regulars, a lot of new people,” said Wootton. He was nestled into the poet’s corner of his restaurant, which itself is nestled in the corner of a quaint 1920s storefront that Wootton restored in 1991 partly to house his law office. “Poetry Night all got started about 10 years ago in my house because my 11-year-old daughter started writing poetry.” To give her a venue for her work, Wootton decided he would invite friends over to a potluck dinner and require them to bring a dish and a poem. After he opened the Cafe, he decided to take the poetry reading public. “We think this is unusual, no one else in Dallas does this, and we are real proud of it,” added Wootton, speaking softly into a floor mike and sitting beside a floor lamp, a prop that gave the proceedings the feel of home. The idea for the Garden Cafe was also sparked by his children. “Actually, it started out as a joke,” recalls Wootton. “I used to cook all the time for my son and his neighborhood friends, and they would say, ‘We like your cooking. You should open up a restaurant.’ And I would say, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard. I’m a lawyer. I’m too busy.’” But when a space opened in his building — which in addition to his law office houses a day-care center, a costume designer and an antique store — the idea didn’t seem so dumb anymore. Truth is, Wootton is a lifetime foodie; the restaurant gene runs in his family. Many of the recipes at the Garden Cafe were originally created by Wootton’s mother who, together with his father, owned and operated two Dallas restaurants — one an upscale restaurant in the Adolphus Hotel, the other a barbecue hangout in East Dallas. Throughout high school, Wootton worked in a hamburger joint. In college, he was the cook for his roommates: “I have always cooked for fun and survival,” he says. “A pot of pinto beans would last a week.” While he attended Southern Methodist University School of Law, his mother, then recently widowed, became the manager of the dining hall at Lawyers Inn, the student dormitory where she worked for the next 10 years. “Half the lawyers in Dallas know her,” Wootton says. “She was like their den mother.” Not even a three-month stint in a Navy mess hall during basic training could stymie his food fanaticism. As a Navy JAG officer, he was assigned to the Pentagon until he left the service in 1970. He then returned to Dallas and hung his shingle. “I have always thought going solo was a reaction to the Navy,” Wootton says. “I wanted the opposite of structure.” He says he struggled for a few years, slowly building a business litigation practice, which became more focused on bankruptcy after the U.S. bankruptcy trustee in Dallas appointed him as case trustee in several bankruptcies where the primary asset in need of protection was real estate — shopping centers, warehouses, raw land. The 1980s savings-and-loan crisis was a boon to bankruptcy and criminal-defense lawyers alike, and Wootton became the court-appointed trustee to the bankrupt estate of ex-high roller Don Dixon, the former head of Vernon Savings and Loan who was convicted in Dallas federal court of bank fraud and served more than three years in prison. Wootton was also appointed trustee in the bankrupt estate of Ron Cohen, a former stock broker who was so mesmerizing he even bilked a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, one of the many prominent victims of what was widely regarded at the time as the largest stock fraud case in Dallas history. Cohen pleaded guilty to money laundering and received an 11-year sentence. “I had to sue everyone who had a voidable preference to bring the money back into the estate,” recalls Wootton. Yet Wootton gravitated to small debtor cases — “little old ladies with $60,000 worth of credit card debt who are on Social Security and worried to death,” he says. “I used to tell my children that I worked at one of the few jobs where you can help people and make a good living.” His children felt he was something of a workaholic, but he never felt that way. Unlike big-firm lawyers, he says, he was always home on the weekends, though he does admit to one guilty pleasure: lively conversation. “I love the social interchange of the bar scene, but I was a short-termer. I would have two beers and go home.” He does, however, recall at least one late evening he spent at the old Joe Miller’s in Dallas. “I phoned my [former] wife and said, ‘I’m sitting here with a congressman, a federal judge, [Dallas sports writer] Blackie Sherrod, a bookie and a hooker. There is no way I am getting up from this table.’” But Wootton always made time to cook for his kids and tend to his garden — wherever he lived, he says, there was always a garden. “I’m the only guy in Highland Park who grows okra in his front yard.” His love affair with okra is evident from the poem he chose to read on Poetry Night: “Song to Okra” by Roy Blount Jr. It came as a sobering alternative to the doctor whose ode to urination — “It’s pretty great to urinate” — loosened whatever inhibitions in the crowd that the wine hadn’t. Wootton half-apologized for his selection, saying he previously had been booed for reading it but suggesting that his passion for the vegetable left him little choice: String beans are good, and ripe tomatoes, And collard greens and sweet potatoes, Sweet corn, field peas, and squash and beets – But when a man rears back and eats He wants okra. Good ole okra Oh wow okra, yessiree, Okra is okay with me … It may be poor for eating chips with, It may be hard to come to grips with, But okra’s such a wholesome food It straightens out your attitude …. The crowd seemed more hospitable this time, cheering their host who kept the evening moving at a good clip: No poem lasted longer than three minutes, which was a good thing. A woman named Michelle read an original poem — “Blue, Blueberry Blues” — about not appreciating things until they are gone, Leslie spoke of unrequited love, a broadcast journalist read Keats, a lawyer recited Frost, and still another attorney, who Wootton said had “kicked his butt in court,” read a fairly incomprehensible poem. “It’s by an insurance lawyer,” the lawyer told the audience. A 10-year-old boy read a short, sweet homage to his mother; a doctor’s wife read a short, sweet homage to Texas poetry; Jim Brouner, a partner in Dallas’ Kessler and Collins, read an original work — more of a fashion statement really — about the woman with whom he had just traveled to Croatia. She too was at Poetry Night and had inspired him to pen his poem — during dinner. It was entitled “The Black Widow.” Wootton commented afterward, “I think you get extra special credit if you write your poem while eating.” Attorney Martin, moved by the recent death of Rosa Parks, decided to recite after all. Dedicating his reading to her memory, he recited the work of another poet entitled, “The Colored Section,” which dealt with the history of racism in America. Following him was Julie Ehret — a reluctant poet who, despite being a litigator and a regular at the Garden Cafe, felt so awkward about performing that she never would — until tonight. She agreed to read her original poem, “Poetry Night at Dale’s,” which dealt with her feelings about being a reluctant poet. I can argue in court in pursuit of a case Or present a lecture without a red face But an attempt at comedy, drama or romance? What if I fall flat? Can I take a chance? … As each night unfurls I look to my dear friend, stage right He smiles with serene contentment At the happiness he created tonight. … For what started with his daughters And even a son Has grown into another family Or, at least it feels like one. Closing out the evening, Wootton again took the mike. “I know some of you were here at our last Poetry Night, and that was a special day in my life — my mother died that day,” he said, pausing. “And a couple of weeks ago, when we set the calendar for tonight, my brother came into my office and said, ‘Do you realize what day Oct. 28 is? It’s mother’s birthday — she must be telling us something.’” It was Ehret’s poem, Wootton said, that made him realize just what that something was: that the Poetry Night crowd was also family. “I think mother’s spirit is here tonight and I want to say, ‘Happy birthday, Mom.’” His face warmed into a grin. “We’re just glad to have all our family here tonight — thanks for coming.” STILL GROWING The sun is shining and Wootton strolls around his garden, picking a pod of okra and rolling it in his fingers. “If I was a smart real estate guy, I would have built a mini-warehouse back here — that would have been the highest and best use of this property,” he says. “Of course, I didn’t want the highest and best use — I wanted to have fun.” Instead, he points to the edamame he is growing — the long rows of cucumbers, tomatoes and black eyed peas. “In each of the 40 boxes over there is a different herb,” he says, biting on the raw okra. “I’ve got oregano, parsley, fennel, sage, mint, rosemary, basil for chicken and lavender for hot tea.” It is days such as these when he contemplates his future and realizes “it’s time to start phasing out of my practice.” The reasons he gives are many: He’s 63, he’s tired, he’s had a good run, he needs to tend to his real estate holdings, which provide him enough income to dig in his garden and play in his restaurant. But after 35 years, what truly is pushing him toward curtailing his practice is the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Protection Act of 2005, which became effective on Oct. 17. “I don’t want to fool with it,” he says. “There are some things in it that I think are abhorrent.” He finds the requirement that the debtor’s attorney has to verify the accuracy of a client’s schedule as unrealistic as it is offensive. (“What am I going to do, dig up their backyards to find the gold coins they are hiding?”) He rails against what he perceives as the harshness of a provision that makes it more difficult for consumers to get a fresh start by forcing the debtor into Chapter 13 payout rather than Chapter 7 discharge. (“Forgiving debts is in the Bible, but credit card companies, who got the legislation passed, first want their pound of flesh.”) And with consumer bankruptcies becoming more complex and more costly, he has a harder time justifying his fee. (“I have already given two bankruptcy judges my Nixon speech: ‘You’re just not going to have Dale to kick around anymore.’”) Instead he wants to tend to his garden and his restaurant, where he can engage in lively conversation with customers, friends and family — people smarter than him, he says. “Where else in Dallas can you go to a little joint that has poetry readings and a garden in the back and art on the walls and good, simple food? I just need to be around that at this point in my life.”

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