Since my run-in with Mister on Tuesday, I had not billed a single hour for dear old Drake & Sweeney. I'd been averaging two hundred a month for five years, which meant eight per day for six days, with a couple left over. No day could be wasted and precious few hours left unaccounted for. When I fell behind, which rarely happened, I would work twelve hours on a Saturday and perhaps do the same on a Sunday. And if I wasn't behind, I would do only seven or eight hours on Saturday and maybe a few on Sunday. No wonder Claire went to med school.
As I stared at the bedroom ceiling late Saturday morning, I was almost paralyzed with inaction. I did not want to go to the office. I hated the thought. I dreaded the neat little rows of pink phone messages Polly had on my desk, the memos from higher-ups arranging meetings to inquire about my well-being, the nosy chitchat from the gossipers, and the inevitable "How you doin'?" from friends and those genuinely concerned and those who couldn't care less. What I dreaded most, though, was the work. Antitrust cases are long and arduous, with files so thick they require boxes, and what was the point anyway? One billion-dollar corporation fighting another. A hundred lawyers involved, all cranking out paper.
I admitted to myself that I'd never loved the work. It was a means to an end. If I practiced it with a fury, became a whiz and perfected a specialty, then one day soon I would be in demand. It could've been tax or labor or litigation. Who could love anti-trust law?
By sheer will, I forced myself out of bed and into the shower.
Breakfast was a croissant from a bakery on M, with strong coffee, all taken with one hand on the wheel. I wondered what Ontario was having for breakfast, then told myself to stop the torture. I had the right to eat without feeling guilty, but food was losing its importance for me.
The radio said the day's high would be twenty degrees, the low near zero, with no more snow for a week.
I made it as far as the building's lobby before being accosted by one of my brethren. Bruce somebody from communications stepped onto the elevator when I did, and said gravely, "How you doin', pal?"
"Fine. You?" I shot back.
"Okay. Look, we're pulling for you, you know. Hang in there."
I nodded as if his support was crucial. Mercifully, he left on the second floor, but not before favoring me with a locker-room pat on the shoulder. Give 'em hell, Bruce.
I was damaged goods. My steps were slower as I passed Madam Devier's desk and the conference room. I went down the marble hallway until I found my office and slumped into the leather swivel, exhausted.
Polly had several ways of leaving behind the phone litter. If I had been diligent in returning calls, and if she happened to be pleased with my efforts, she would leave one or two message slips near my phone. If, however, I had not, and if this happened to displease her, then she liked nothing better than to line them up in the center of my desk, a sea of pink, all perfectly arranged in chronological order.
I counted thirty-nine messages, several urgent, several from the brass. Rudolph especially seemed to be irritated, judging by Polly's trail. ! read them slowly as I collected them, then set them aside. I was determined to finish my coffee, in peace and without pressure, and so I was sitting at my desk, holding the cup with both hands, staring into the unknown, looking very much like someone teetering on the edge of a cliff, when Rudolph walked in.
The spies must have called him; a paralegal on the lookout, or maybe Bruce from the elevator. Perhaps the entire firm was on alert. No. They were too busy.
"Hello, Mike," he said crisply, taking a seat, crossing his legs, setfling in for serious business.
"Hi, Rudy," I said. I had never called him Rudy to his face. It was always Rudolph. His current wife and the partners called him Rudy, but no one else.
"Where have you been?" he asked, without the slightest hint of compassion.
"Yeah, I needed to see my parents. Plus the family shrink is there."
"Yes, he observed me for a couple of days."
"Yeah, in one of those swanky little units with Persian rugs and salmon for dinner. A thousand bucks a day."
"For two days? You were in for two days?"
"Yeah." The lying didn't bother me, nor did I feel bad because the lying didn't bother me. The firm can be harsh, even ruthless, when it decides to be, and I was in no mood for an ass-chewing from Rudolph. He had marching orders from the executive committee, and he would make a report minutes after leaving my office. If I could thaw him, the report would go soft, the brass would relax. Life would be easier, for the short term.
"You should've called somebody," he said, still hard, but the crack was coming.
"Come on, Rudolph. I was locked down. No phones." There was just enough agony in my voice to soften him.
After a long pause, he said, "Are you okay?"
"The shrink said I'm fine."
"One hundred percent?"
"A hundred and ten. No problems, Rudolph. I needed a little break, that's all. I'm fine. Back at full throttle."
That was all Rudolph wanted. He smiled and relaxed and said, "We have lots of work to do."
"I know. I can't wait."
He practically ran from my office. He would go straight to the phone and report that one of the firm's many producers was back in the saddle.
I locked the door and turned off the lights, then spent a painful hour covering my desk with papers and scribblings. Nothing was accomplished, but at least I was on the clock.
When I couldn't stand it any longer, I stuffed the phone messages in my pocket and walked out. I escaped without getting caught.
* * *
I stopped at a large discount pharmacy on Massachusetts, and had a delightful shopping spree. Candy and small toys for the kids, soap and toiletries for them all, socks and sweatpants in a variety of children's sizes. A large carton of Pampers. I had never had so much fun spending two hundred dollars.
And I would spend whatever was necessary to get them into a warm place. If it was a motel for a month, no problem. They would soon become my clients, and I would threaten and Irangate with a vengeance until they had adequate housing. I couldn't wait to sue somebody.
I parked across from the church, much less afraid than I had been the night before, but still sufficiently scared. Wisely, I left the care packages in the car. If I walked in like Santa Claus it would start a riot. My intentions were to leave there with the family, take them to a motel, check them in, make sure they were bathed and cleaned and disinfected, then feed them until they were stuffed, see if they needed medical attention, maybe take them to get shoes and warm clothes, then feed them again. I didn't care what it would cost or how long it might take.
Nor did I care if people thought I was just another rich white guy working off a little guilt.
Miss Dolly was pleased to see me. She said hello and pointed to a pile of vegetables with skins in need of removal. First, though, I checked on Ontario and family, and couldn't find them. They were not in their spot, so I roamed through the basement, stepping over and around dozens of street people. They were not in the sanctuary, nor in the balcony.
I chatted with Miss Dolly as I peeled potatoes. She remembered the family from last night, but they had already left when she arrived around nine. "Where would they go?" I wondered.
"Honey, these people move. They go from kitchen to kitchen, shelter to shelter. Maybe she heard they're giving out cheese over in Brightwood, or blankets somewhere. She might even have a job at McDonald's and she leaves the kids with her sister. You never know. But they don't stay in one place."
I seriously doubted if Ontario's mother had a job, but I wasn't about to debate this with Miss Dolly in her kitchen.
Mordecai arrived as the line was forming for lunch. I saw him before he saw me, and when our eyes made contact his entire face smiled.
A new volunteer had sandwich duty; Mordecai and I worked the serving tables, dipping ladles into the pots and pouring the soup into the plastic bowls. There was an art to it. Too much broth and the recipient might glare at you. Too many vegetables and there would be nothing left but broth. Mordecai had perfected his technique years ago; I suffered a number of glaring looks before I caught on. Mordecai had a pleasant word for everyone we served--hello, good morning, how are you, nice to see you again. Some of them smiled back, others never looked up.
As noon approached, the doors grew busier and the lines longer. More volunteers appeared from nowhere, and the kitchen hummed with the pleasant clutter and bang of happy people busy with their work. I kept looking for Ontario. Santa Claus was waiting, and the little fella didn't have a clue.
* * *
We waited until the lines were gone, then filled a bowl each. The tables were packed, so we ate in the kitchen, leaning against the sink.
"You remember that diaper you changed last night?" I asked between bites.
"As if I could forget."
"I haven't seen them today."
He chewed and thought about it for a second. "They were here when I left this morning."
"What time was that?"
"Six. They were in the corner over there, sound asleep."
"Where would they go?"
"You never know."
"The little boy told me they stayed in a car."
"You talked to him?"
"And now you want to find him, don't you?"
"Don't count on it."
* * *
After lunch, the sun popped through and the movement began. One by one they walked by the serving table, took an apple or an orange, and left the basement.
"The homeless are also restless," Mordecai explained as we watched. "They like to roam around. They have rituals and routines, favorite places, friends on the streets, things to do. They'll go back to their parks and alleys and dig out from the snow."
"It's twenty degrees outside. Near zero tonight," I said.
"They'll be back. Wait till dark, and this place will be hopping again. Let's take a ride."
We checked in with Miss Dolly, who excused us for a while. Mordecai's well-used Ford Taurus was parked next to my Lexus. "That won't last long around here," he said, pointing at my car. "If you plan to spend time in this part of town, I'd suggest you trade down."
I hadn't dreamed of parting with my fabulous car. I was almost offended.
We got into his Taurus and slid out of the parking lot. Within seconds I realized Mordecai Green was a horrible driver, and I attempted to fasten my seat belt. It was broken. He seemed not to notice.
We drove the well-plowed streets of Northwest Washington, blocks and sections of boarded-up rowhouses, past projects so tough ambulance drivers refused to enter, past schools with razor wire glistening on top of the chain link, into neighborhoods permanently scarred by riots. He was an amazing tour guide. Every inch was his turf, every corner had a story, every street had a history. We passed other shelters and kitchens. He knew the cooks and the Reverends. Churches were good or bad, with no blurring of the lines. They either opened their doors to the homeless or kept them locked. He pointed out the law school at Howard, a place of immense pride for him. His legal education had taken five years, at night, while he worked a full-time job and a part-time one. He showed me a burned-out rowhouse where crack dealers once operated. His third son, Cassius, had died on the sidewalk in front of it.
When we were near his office, he asked if it would be all right to stop in for a minute. He wanted to check his mail. I certainly didn't mind. I was just along for the ride.
It was dim, cold, and empty. He flipped on light switches and began talking. "There are three of us. Me, Sofia Mendoza, and Abraham Lebow. Sofia's a social worker, but she knows more street law than me and Abraham combined." I followed him around the cluttered desks. "Used to have seven lawyers crammed in here, can you believe it? That was when we got federal money for legal services. Now we don't get a dime, thanks to the Republicans. There are three offices over there, three here on my side." He was pointing in all directions. "Lots of empty space."
Maybe empty from a lack of personnel, but it was hard to walk without tripping over a basket of old files or a stack of dusty law books.
"Who owns the building?" I asked.
"The Cohen Trust. Leonard Cohen was the founder of a big New York law firm. He died in eighty-six; must've been a hundred years old. He made a ton of money, and late in life he decided he didn't want to die with any of it. So he spread it around, and one of his many creations was a trust to help poverty lawyers assist the homeless. That's how this place came to be. The trust operates three clinics--here, New York, and Newark. I was hired in eighty-three, became the director in eighty-four."
"All your funding comes from one source?"
"Practically all. Last year the trust gave us a hundred and ten thousand dollars. Year before, it was a hundred fifty, so we lost a lawyer. It gets smaller every year. The trust has not been well managed, and it's now eating the principal. I doubt if we'll be here in five years. Maybe three."
"Can't you raise money?"
"Oh, sure. Last year we raised nine thousand bucks. But it takes time. We can practice law, or we can raise funds. Sofia is not good with people. Abraham is an abrasive ass from New York. That leaves just me and my magnetic personality."
"What's the overhead?" I asked, prying but not too worried. Almost every nonprofit group published an annual report with all the figures.
"Two thousand a month. After expenses and a small reserve, the three of us split eighty-nine thousand dollars. Equally. Sofia considers herself a full partner. Frankly, we're afraid to argue with her. I took home almost thirty, which, from what I hear, is about average for a poverty lawyer. Welcome to the street."
We finally made it to his office, and I sat across from him.
"Did you forget to pay your heating bill?" I asked, almost shivering.
"Probably. We don't work much on weekends. Saves money. This place is impossible to heat or cool."
That thought had never occurred to anyone at Drake & Sweeney. Close on weekends, save money. And marriages.
"And if we keep it too comfortable, our clients won't leave. So it's cold in the winter, hot in the summer, cuts down on the street traffic. You want coffee?"
"I'm joking, you know. We wouldn't do anything to discourage the homeless from being here. The climate doesn't bother us. We figure our clients are cold and hungry, so why should we worry about those matters. Did you feel guilty when you ate breakfast this morning?"
He gave me the smile of a wise old man who'd seen it all. "That's very common. We used to work with a lot of young lawyers from the big firms, pro bono rookies I call them, and they would tell me all the time that they lost interest in food at first." He patted his ample midsection. "But you'll get over it."
"What did the pro bono rookies do?" I asked. I knew I was moving toward the bait, and Mordecai knew I knew.
"We sent them into the shelters. They met the clients, and we supervised file cases for them. Most of the work is easy, it just takes a lawyer on the phone barking at some bureaucrat who won't move. Food stamps, veterans' pensions, housing subsidies, Medicaid, aid to children--about twenty-five percent of our work deals with benefits."
I listened intently, and he could read my mind. Mordecai began to reel me in.
"You see, Michael, the homeless have no voice. No one listens, no one cares, and they expect no one to help them. So when they try to use the phone to get benefits due them, they get nowhere. They are put on hold, permanently. Their calls are never returned. They have no addresses. The bureaucrats don't care, and so they screw the very people they're supposed to help. A seasoned social worker can at least get the bureaucrats to listen, and maybe look at the file and maybe return a phone call. But you get a lawyer on the phone, barking and raising hell, and things happen. Bureaucrats get motivated. Papers get processed. No address? No problem. Send the check to me, I'll get it to the client."
His voice was rising, both hands waving through the air. On top of everything else, Mordecai was the consummate storyteller. I suspected he was very effective in front of a jury.
"A fimny story," he said. "About a month ago, one of my clients went down to the Social Security office to pick up an application for benefits, should've been a routine matter. He's sixty years old and in constant pain from a crooked back. Sleep on rocks and park benches for ten years, you get back problems. He waited in line outside the office for two hours, finally got in the door, waited another hour, made it up to the first desk, tried to explain what he wanted, and proceeded to get a tongue lashing from a hard-ass secretary who was having a bad day. She even commented on his odor. He was humiliated, of course, and left without his paperwork. He called me. I made my calls, and last Wednesday we had a little ceremony down at the Social Security office. I was there, along with my client. The secretary was there too, along with her supervisor, her supervisor's supervisor, the D.C. office director, and a Big Man from the Social Security Administration. The secretary stood in front of my client, and read a one-page apology. It was real nice, touching. She then handed me his application for benefits, and I got assurances from everybody present that it would receive immediate attention. That's justice, Michael, that's what street law is all about. Dignity."
The stories rolled on, one after the other, all ending with the street lawyers as the good guys, the homeless as the victors. I knew he had tucked away in his repertoire just as many heartbreaking tales, probably more, but he was laying the groundwork.
I lost track of time. He never mentioned his mail. We finally left and drove back to the shelter.
It was an hour before dark, a good time, I thought, to get tucked away in the cozy litfie basement, before the hoodlums began roaming the streets. I caught myself walking slowly and confidently when Mordecai was at my side. Otherwise, I would've been slashing through the snow, bent at the waist, my nervous feet barely touching the ground.
Miss Dolly had somehow procured a pile of whole chickens, and she was laying for me. She boiled the birds; I picked their steaming flesh.
Mordecai's wife, JoAnne, joined us for the rush hour. She was as pleasant as her husband, and almost as tall. Both sons were six six. Cassius had been six nine, a heavily recruited basketball star when he was shot at the age of seventeen.
I left at midnight. No sign of Ontario and his family.