Tuesday was an intake day at the Community for Creative Non-Violence, or CCNV, by far the largest shelter in the District. Once again Mordecai handled the driving. His plan was to accompany me for the first week, then turn me loose on the city.
My threats and warnings to Barry Nuzzo had fallen on deaf ears. Drake & Sweeney would play hardball, and I wasn't surprised. The predawn raid of my former apartment was a rude warning of what was to come. I had to tell Mordecai the truth about what I'd done.
As soon as we were in the car and moving, I said, "My wife and I have separated. I've moved out."
The poor guy was not prepared for such dour news at eight in the morning. "I'm sorry," he said, looking at me and almost hitting a jaywalker.
"Don't be. Early this morning, the cops raided the apartment where I used to live, looking for me, and, specifically, a file I took when I left the firm."
"What kind of file?"
"The DeVon Hardy and Lontae Burton file."
"As we now know, DeVon Hardy took hostages and got himself killed because Drake & Sweeney evicted him from his home. Evicted with him were sixteen others, and some children. Lontae and her little family were in the group."
He mulled this over, then said, "This is a very small city."
"The abandoned warehouse happened to be on land RiverOaks planned to use for a postal facility. It's a twenty-million-dollar project."
"I know the building. It's always been used by squatters."
"Except they weren't squatters, at least I don't think so."
"Are you guessing? Or do you know for sure?"
"For now, I'm guessing. The file has been tampered with; papers taken, papers added. A paralegal named Hector Palma handled the dirty work, the site visits, and the actual eviction, and he's become my deep throat. He sent an anonymous note informing me that the evictions were wrongful. He provided me with a set of keys to get the file. As of yesterday, he no longer works at the office here in the District."
"Where is he?"
"I'd love to know."
"He gave you keys?"
"He didn't hand them to me. He left them on my desk, with instructions."
"And you used them?"
"To steal a file?"
"I didn't plan to steal it. I was on my way to the clinic to copy it when some fool ran a red light and sent me to the hospital."
"That's the file we retrieved from your car?"
"That's it. I was going to copy it, take it back to its little spot at Drake & Sweeney, and no one would have ever known."
"I question the wisdom of that." He wanted to call me a dumb-ass, but our relationship was still new.
"What's missing from it?" he asked.
I summarized the history of RiverOaks and its race to build the mail facility. "The pressure was on to grab the land fast. Palma went to the warehouse the first time, and got mugged. Memo to the file. He went again, the second time with a guard, and that memo is missing. It was properly logged into the file, then removed, probably by Braden Chance."
"So what's in the memo?"
"Don't know. But I have a hunch that Hector inspected the warehouse, found the squatters in their makeshift apartments, talked to them, and learned that they were in fact paying rent to Tillman Gantry. They were not squatters, but tenants, entitled to all the protections under landlord-tenant law. By then, the wrecking ball was on its way, the closing had to take place, Gantry was about to make a killing on the deal, so the memo was ignored and the eviction took place."
"There were seventeen people."
"Yes, and some children."
"Do you know the names of the others?"
"Yes. Someone, Palma I suspect, gave me a list. Placed it on my desk. If we can find those people, then we have witnesses."
"Maybe. It's more likely, though, that Gantry has put the fear of hell in them. He's a big man with a big gun, fancies himself as a godfather type. When he tells people to shut up, they do so or you find them in a river."
"But you're not afraid of him, are you, Mordecai? Let's go find him, push him around some; he'll break down and tell all."
"Spent a lot of time on the streets, have you? I've hired a dumb-ass."
"He'll run when he sees us."
The humor wasn't working at that hour. Neither was his heater, though the fan was blowing at full speed. The car was freezing.
"How much did Gantry get for the building?" he asked.
"Two hundred thousand. He'd bought it six months earlier; there's no record in the file indicating how much he paid for it."
"Who'd he buy it from?"
"The city. It was abandoned."
"He probably paid five thousand for it. Ten at the most."
"Not a bad return."
"Not bad. It's a step up for Gantry. He's been a nickel and dimer--duplexes and car washes and quickshop groceries, small ventures."
"Why would he buy the warehouse and rent space for cheap apartments?"
"Cash. Let's say he pays five thousand for it, then spends another thousand throwing up a few walls and installing a couple of toilets. He gets the lights turned on, and he's in business. Word gets out; renters show up; he charges them a hundred bucks a month, payable only in cash. His clients are not concerned with paperwork anyway. He keeps the place looking like a dump, so if the city comes in he says they're just a bunch of squatters. He promises to kick them out, but he has no plans to. It happens all the time around here. Unregulated housing."
I almost asked why the city didn't intervene and enforce its laws, but fortunately I caught myself. The answer was in the potholes too numerous to count or avoid; and the fleet of police cars, a third of which were too dangerous to drive; and the schools with roofs caving in; and the hospitals with patients stuffed in closets; and the five hundred homeless mothers and children unable to find a shelter. The city simply didn't work. , And a renegade landlord, one actually getting people off the streets, did not seem like a priority.
"How do you find Hector Palma?" he asked.
"I'm assuming the firm would be smart enough not to fire him. They have seven other offices, so I figure they've got him tucked away somewhere. I'll find him."
We were downtown. He pointed, and said, "See those trailers stacked on top of each other. That's Mount Vernon Square."
It was half a city block, fenced high to hinder a view from the outside. The trailers were different shapes and lengths, some dilapidated, all grungy.
"It's the worst shelter in the city. Those are old postal trailers the government gave to the District, which in turn had the brilliant idea of filling them with homeless. They're packed in those trailers like sardines in a can."
At Second and D, he pointed to a long, three-story building--home to thirteen hundred people.
* * *
The CCNV was founded in the early seventies by a group of war protestors who had assembled in Washington to torment the government. They lived together in a house in Northwest. During their protests around the Capitol, they met homeless veterans of Vietnam, and began taking them in. They moved to larger quarters, various places around the city, and their number grew. After the war, they turned their attention to the plight of the D.C. homeless. In the early eighties, an activist named Mitch Snyder appeared on the scene, and quickly became a passionate and noisy voice for street people.
CCNV found an abandoned junior college, one built with federal money and still owned by the government, and invaded it with six hundred squatters. It became their headquarters, and their home. Various efforts were made to displace them, all to no avail. In 1984, Snyder endured a fifty-one-day hunger strike to call attention to the neglect of the homeless. With his reelection a month away, President Reagan boldly announced his plans to turn the building into a model shelter for the homeless. Snyder ended his strike. Everyone was happy. After the election, Reagan reneged on his promise, and all sorts of nasty litigation ensued.
In 1989, the city built a shelter in Southeast, far away from downtown, and began planning the removal of the homeless from the CCNV. But the city found the homeless to be an ornery lot. They had no desire to leave. Snyder announced that they were boarding up windows and preparing for a siege. Rumors were rampant---eight hundred street people were in there; weapons were stockpiled; it would be a war.
The city backed away from its deadlines, and managed to make peace. The CCNV grew to thirteen hundred beds. Mitch Snyder committed suicide in 1990, and the city named a street after him.
It was almost eight-thirty when we arrived, time for the residents to leave. Many had jobs, most wanted to leave for the day. A hundred men loitered around the front entrance, smoking cigarettes and talking the happy talk of a cold morning after a warm night's rest.
Inside the door on the first level, Mordecai spoke to a supervisor in the "bubble." He signed his name and we walked across the lobby, weaving through and around a swarm of men leaving in a hurry. I tried hard not to notice my whiteness, but it was impossible. I was reasonably well dressed, with a jacket and tie. I had known affluence for my entire life, and I was adrift in a sea of black--young tough street men, most of whom had criminal records, few of whom had three dollars in their pockets. Surely one of them would break my neck and take my wallet. I avoided eye contact and frowned at the floor. We waited by the intake room.
"Weapons and drugs are automatic lifetime bans," Mordecai said, as we watched the men stream down the stairway. I felt somewhat safer.
"Do you ever get nervous in here?" I asked.
"You get used to it." Easy for him to say. He spoke the language.
On a clipboard next to the door was a sign-up sheet for the legal clinic. Mordecai took it and we studied the names of our clients. Thirteen so far. "A little below average," he said. While we waited for the key, he filled me in. "That's the post office over there. One of the frustrating parts of this work is keeping up with our clients. Addresses are slippery. The good shelters allow their people to send and receive mail." He pointed to another nearby door. "That's the clothes room. They take in between thirty and forty new people a week. The first step is a medical exam; tuberculosis is the current scare. Second step is a visit there for three sets of clothes--underwear, socks, everything. Once a month, a client can come back for another suit, so by the end of the year he has a decent wardrobe. This is not junk. They get more clothing donated than they can ever use."
"That's it. They boot them after one year, which at first may seem harsh. But it isn't. The goal is self-sufficiency. When a guy checks in, he knows he has twelve months to clean up, get sober, acquire some skills, and find a job. Most are gone in less than a year. A few would like to stay forever."
A man named Ernie arrived with an impressive ring of keys. He unlocked the door to the intake room, and disappeared. We set up our clinic, and were ready to dispense advice. Mordecai walked to the door with the clipboard, and called out the first name: "Luther Williams."
Luther barely fit through the door, and the chair popped as he fell into it across from us. He wore a green work uniform, white socks, and orange rubber shower sandals. He worked nights at a boiler room under the Pentagon. A girlfriend had moved out and taken everything, then run up bills. He lost his apartment, and was ashamed to be in the shelter. "I just need a break," he said, and I felt sorry for him.
He had a lot of bills. Credit agencies were hounding him. For the moment, he was hiding at CCNV.
"Let's do a bankruptcy," Mordecai said to me. I had no idea how to do a bankruptcy. I nodded with a frown. Luther seemed pleased. We filled out forms for twenty minutes, and he left a happy man.
The next client was Tommy, who slid gracefully into the room and extended a hand upon which the fingernails had been painted bright red. I shook it; Mordecai did not. Tommy was in drug rehab full-time--crack and heroin--and he owed back taxes. He had not filed a tax return for three years, and the IRS had suddenly' discovered his oversights. He also hadn't paid a couple of thousand in back child support. I was somewhat relieved to learn he was a father, of some sort. The rehab was intense--seven days a week--and prevented fulltime employment.
"You can't bankrupt the child support, nor the taxes," Mordecai said.
"Well, I can't work because of the rehab, and if I drop out of rehab then I'll get on drugs again. So if I can't work and can't go bankrupt, then what can I do?"
"Nothing. Don't worry about it until you finish rehab and get a job. Then call Michael Brock here."
Tommy smiled and winked at me, then floated out of the room.
"I think he likes you," Mordecai said.
Ernie brought another sign-up sheet with eleven names on it. There was a line outside the door. We embraced the strategy of separation; I went to the far end of the room, Mordecai stayed where he was, and we began interiewing clients two at a time.
The first one for me was a young man facing a drug charge. I wrote down everything so I could replay it to Mordecai at the clinic.
Next was a sight that shocked me: a white man, about forty, with no tattoos, facial scars, chipped teeth, earrings, bloodshot eyes, or red nose. His beard was a week old and his head had been shaved about a month earlier. When we shook hands I noticed his were soft and moist. Paul Pelham was his name, a three-month resident of the shelter. He had once been a doctor.
Drugs, divorce, bankruptcy, and the revocation of his license were all water under his bridge, recent memories but fading fast. He just wanted someone to talk to, preferably someone with a white face. Occasionally, he glanced fearfully down the table at Mordecai.
Pelham had been a prominent gynecologist in Scranton, Pennsylvania--big house, Mercedes, pretty wife, couple of kids. First he abused Valium, then got addicted to harder stuff. He also began sampling the delights of cocaine and the flesh of various nurses in his clinic. On the side, he was a real estate swinger with developments and lots of bank financing. Then he dropped a baby during a routine delivery. It died. Its father, a well-respected minister, witnessed the accident. The humiliation of a lawsuit, more drugs, more nurses, and everything collapsed. He caught herpes from a patient, gave it to his wife, she got everything and moved to Florida.
I was spellbound by his story. With every client I had met so far during my brief career as a homeless lawyer, I had wanted to hear the sad details of how each ended up on the streets. I wanted reassurance that it couldn't happen to me; that folks in my class needn't worry about such misfortune.
Pelham was fascinating because for the first time I could look at a client and say, yes, perhaps that could be me. Life could conspire to knock down just about anyone. And he was quite willing to talk about it.
He hinted that perhaps his trail was not cold. I had listened long enough and was about to ask why, exactly, did he need a lawyer when he said, "I hid some things in my bankruptcy."
Mordecai was shuffling clients in and out while the two white boys chatted, so I began taking notes again. "What kind of things?"
His bankruptcy lawyer had been crooked, he said, then he launched into a windy narrative about how the banks had foreclosed too early and ruined him. His words were soft and low, and each time Mordecai glanced down at us Pelham stopped.
"And there's more," he said.
"What?" I asked.
"This is confidential, isn't it? I mean, I've used lots of lawyers, but I've always paid them. God knows how I've paid them."
"It's extremely confidential," I said earnestly. I may have been working for free, but the payment or non-payment of fees did not affect the attorney-client privilege.
"You can't tell a soul."
"Not a word." It dawned on me that living in a homeless shelter in downtown D.C. with thirteen hundred others would be a wonderful way to hide.
This seemed to satisfy him. "When I was rolling," he said, even quieter, "I found out that my wife was seeing another man. One of my patients told me. When you examine naked women, they'll tell you everything. I was devastated. I hired a private detective, and sure enough, it was true. The other man, well, let's say that he just disappeared one day." He stopped, and waited for me to respond. "Disappeared?"
"Yep. Has never been seen since."
"Is he dead?" I asked, stunned.
He nodded slightly.
"Do you know where he is?"
"How long ago was this?"
My hand shook as I tried to write down everything.
He leaned forward, and whispered, "He was an FBI agent. An old boyfriend from college--Penn State."
"Come on," I said, completely uncertain if he were telling the truth.
"They're after me."
"The FBI. They've been chasing me for four years."
"What do you want me to do?"
"I don't know. Maybe cut a deal. I'm tired of being stalked."
I analyzed this for a moment as Mordecai finished with a client and called for another. Pelham watched every move he made.
"I'll need some information," I said. "Do you know the agent's name?"
"Yep. I know when and where he was born."
"And when and where he died."
He had no notes or papers with him.
"Why don't you come to my office? Bring the information. We can talk there."
"Let me think about it," he said, looking at his watch. He explained that he worked part-time as a janitor in a church, and he was late. We shook hands, and he left.
I was rapidly learning that one of the challenges of being a street lawyer was to be able to listen. Many of my clients just wanted to talk to someone. All had been kicked and beaten down in some manner, and since free legal advice was available, why not unload on the lawyers? Mordecai was a master at gently poking through the narratives and determining if there was an issue for him to pursue. I was still awed by the fact that people could be so poor.
I was also learning that the best case was one that could be handled on the spot, with no follow-up. I had a notebook filled with applications for food stamps, housing assistance, Medicare, Social Security cards, even driver's licenses. When in doubt, we filled out a form.
Twenty-six clients passed through our session before noon. We left exhausted.
"Let's take a walk," Mordecai said when we were outside file building. The sky was clear, the air cold and windy and refreshing after three hours in a stuffy room with no windows. Across the street was the U.S. Tax Court, a handsome modem building. In fact, the CCNV was surrounded by much nicer structures of more recent construction. We stopped at the comer of Second and D, and looked at the shelter.
"Their lease expires in four years," Mordecai said. "The real estate vultures are already circling. A new convention center is planned two blocks over."
"That'll be a nasty fight."
"It'll be a war."
We crossed the street and strolled toward the Capitol. "That white guy. What's his story?" Mordecai asked. Pelham had been the only white guy. "Amazing," I said, not sure where to start. "He was once a doctor, up in Pennsylvania."
"Who's chasing him now?"
"Who's chasing him now?"
"That's nice. Last time it was the CIA."
My feet stopped moving; his did not. "You've seen him before?"
"Yeah, he makes the rounds. Peter something or other."
"That changes too," he said, over his shoulder. "Tells a great story, doesn't he?"
I couldn't speak. I stood there, watching Mordecai walk away, hands deep in his trench coat, his shoulders shaking because he was laughing so hard.