February 25, 2014 at 1:48 am

Sorry, Judge Keith

And apologies to my new friends in the E.R. after my luncheon misadventure

My apologies to Judge Damon Keith. Also, my apologies to the homeless guy in the emergency room at Detroit Receiving, who was probably only there for the Jell-O.

I saw them both last Wednesday when I went to his honor’s annual Soul Food Luncheon at the federal courthouse.

Plus, I took my first-ever ambulance ride, apologizing most of the way to the hospital because I couldn’t swallow and my only other option was to expectorate as discreetly as possible into a clear plastic bag.

Then it struck me that the paramedics were seasoned professionals who work in a big city, and they deal with gaping chest wounds. So I stopped saying I was sorry, but I still felt pretty darned silly about the whole thing.

For those who’ve never had the pleasure — of the soul food luncheon, not a gaping chest wound — it’s an annual gathering of maybe 500 people who come to enjoy Keith’s hospitality while saluting an honored guest.

Despite Keith’s best efforts, the honored guest usually gets fussed over considerably less than the host. But when the host is a legendary 91-year-old U.S. Appeals Court judge whose concession to age is to only work part-time, fussing is pretty much a reflex.

We fussed over Keith a few months ago when his biography hit print. We fussed over him the day after the luncheon. Now I’m fussing again.

Is that over-fussing?

I’d say no. But first I should probably say what I was doing in the ambulance, besides discreetly expectorating.

Well, it was fun ...

Any number of movers and shakers were on hand at the courthouse, shaking and moving.

I saw Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan and corporation counsel Butch Hollowell come bounding out of a freight elevator. I saw Gov. Rick Snyder, who noted, “This is fun.”

Indeed it was, until I decided to wolf my lunch and my esophagus objected.

Until that moment, the only thing I knew about the esophagus was how to spell it. Now I know that mine doesn’t like to be rushed, and if I anger it, it will launch into deep, wracking spasms.

They’re not life-threatening deep, wracking spasms, but they are inconvenient. When you can’t swallow or even take hearty breaths, there’s very little you can do, except nod your head when the very nice security staff and the very nice nurse insist you need to let a very nice EMS crew trundle you to the hospital.

All it took was a few hours for the very nice staff at Detroit Receiving to have me bounding perkily out the door. That, and a few injections, a minor surgical procedure, and more expectoration, which could not have been entertaining for my companions in the emergency room, no matter how discreet I tried to be.

My apologies, then, and I hope everyone who needed it was able to cadge enough Jell-O.

One wrong reporter

As for Keith, he’s come a long way since he returned home after law school and took a job swabbing floors at The Detroit News.

There, a grumpy old reporter saw him studying for the bar exam during a lunch break. “A black lawyer?” the reporter said, laughing. “You better keep mopping.”

That was 1949. By 1971, Keith was ruling that if U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell was going to authorize illegal wiretaps, he’d darned well better disclose transcripts.

When your rulings are taught in law classes, you’ve had a tidy career. When your former clerks flock back for your annual lunch, you’ve done more than make important rulings.

“Judge Keith has been a second father to me,” said Lin Chan, 35, who flew in from San Francisco. “He taught us judgment, and how to live as a better person.”

Which takes us back to the question, how many times can we fuss over Damon Keith?

I don’t know. How many times can you say Al Kaline was a great ballplayer? Is there a maximum?

Judge Keith is a hall-of-famer, too, and he’s still on the field.

(313) 222-1874

U.S. Appeals Court Judge Damon Keith hugs Marcia Carter, who was an administrative manager for Judge Keith in 2006, at Keith's 27th Annual Soul Food Luncheon on Wednesday. / Max Ortiz / The Detroit News