Strictly in physical terms, I was paying a price for my journey from the tower to the street. The bruises from the car wreck were almost gone, but the soreness in the muscles and joints would take weeks. I was losing weight, for two reasons--I couldn't afford the restaurants I'd once taken for granted; and I'd lost interest in food. My back ached from sleeping on the floor in a sleeping bag, a practice I was determined to pursue in an effort to see if it would ever become tolerable. I had my doubts.
And then a street punk almost cracked my skull with his bare foot. I iced it until late, and every time I awoke during the night it seemed to be expanding.
But I felt lucky to be alive, lucky to be in one piece after descending into hell for a few hours before being rescued. The fear of the unknown had been removed, at least for the present. There were no cops lurking in the shadows.
Grand larceny was nothing to laugh at, especially since I was guilty. The maximum was ten years in prison. I would worry about it later.
I left my apartment just before sunrise, Saturday, in a rush to find the nearest newspaper. My new neighborhood coffee shop was a tiny all-night bakery run by a rowdy family of Pakistanis on Kalorama, in a section of Adams-Morgan that could go from safe to treacherous in one small block. I sidled up to the counter and ordered a large latte. Then I opened the newspaper and found the one little story I'd lost sleep over.
My friends at Drake & Sweeney had planned it well. On page two of Metro, there was my face, in a photo taken a year earlier for a recruiting brochure the firm had developed. Only the firm had the negative.
The story was four paragraphs, brief, to the point, and filled primarily with information fed to the reporter by the firm. I had worked there for seven years, in antitrust, law school at Yale, no prior criminal record. The firm was the fifth-largest in the country--eight hundred lawyers, eight cities, and so on. No one got quoted, because no quotes were necessary. The sole purpose of the story was to humiliate me, and to that end it worked well. LOCAL ATTORNEY ARRESTED FOR GRAND LARCENY read the headline next to my face. "Items taken" was the description of the stolen loot. Items taken during my recent departure from the firm.
It sounded like a silly little spat--a bunch of lawyers quibbling over nothing but paperwork. Who would care, other than myself and anyone who might know me? The embarrassment would quickly go away; there were too many real stories in the world.
The photo and the background had found a friendly reporter, one willing to process his four paragraphs and wait until my arrest could be confirmed. With no effort whatsoever, I could see Arthur and Rafter and their team spending hours planning my arrest and its aftermath, hours that no doubt would be billed to RiverOaks, only because it happened to be the client nearest to the mess.
What a public relations coup! Four paragraphs in the Saturday edition.
The Pakistanis didn't bake fruit-filled doughnuts. I bought oatmeal cookies instead, and drove to the office.
Ruby was asleep in the doorway, and as I approached I wondered how long she had been there. She was covered with two or three old quilts, and her head rested on a large canvas shopping bag, packed with her belongings. She sprang to her feet after I coughed and made noise.
"Why are you sleeping here?" I asked.
She looked at the paper bag of food, and said, "I gotta sleep somewhere."
"I thought you slept in a car."
"I do. Most of the time."
Nothing productive would come from a conversation with a homeless person about why she slept here or there. Ruby was hungry. I unlocked the door, turned on lights, and went to make coffee. She, according to our ritual, went straight to what had become her desk and waited.
We had coffee and cookies with the morning news. We alternated stories--I read one I wanted, then one that was of interest to her. I ignored the one about me.
Ruby had walked out of the AA/NA meeting the afternoon before at Naomi's. The morning session had gone without incident, but she had bolted from the second one. Megan, the director, had called me about an hour before Gasko made his appearance.
"How do you feel this morning?" I asked when we finished the paper.
"Fine. And you?"
"Fine. I'm clean. Are you?"
Her chin dropped an inch; her eyes cut to one side, and she paused just long enough for the truth. "Yes," she said. "I'm clean."
"No you're not. Don't lie to me, Ruby. I'm your friend, and your lawyer, and I'm going to help you see Terrence. But I can't help you if you lie to me. Now, look me in the eyes, and tell me if you're clean."
She somehow managed to shrink even more, and with her eyes on the floor, she said, "I'm not clean."
"Thank you. Why did you walk out of the AA/NA meeting yesterday afternoon?"
"The director said you did."
"I thought they was through."
I was not going to be sucked into an argument I couldn't win. "Are you going to Naomi's today?"
"Good. I'll take you, but you have to promise me you'll go to both meetings."
"You have to be the first one in the meetings, and the last one to leave, okay?"
"And the director will be watching."
She nodded and took another cookie, her fourth. We talked about Terrence, and rehab and getting clean, and again I began to feel the hopelessness of addiction. She was overwhelmed by the challenge of staying clean for just twenty-four hours.
The drug was crack, as I suspected. Instantly addictive and dirt cheap.
As we drove to Naomi's, Ruby suddenly said, "You got arrested, didn't you?"
I almost ran a red light. She was sleeping on the office doorstep at sunrise; she was barely literate. How could she have seen the newspaper?
"Yes, I did."
"How did you know?"
"You hear stuff on the street."
Ah, yes. Forget papers. The homeless carry their own news. That young lawyer down at Mordecai's got himself arrested. Cops hauled him away, just like he was one of us.
"It's a misunderstanding," I said, as if she cared. They'd started singing without her; we could hear them as we walked up the steps to Naomi's. Megan unlocked the front door, and invited me to stay for coffee. In the main room on the first level, in what was once a fine parlor, the ladies of Naomi's sang and shared and listened to each other's problems. We watched them for a few minutes. As the only male, I felt like an intruder.
Megan poured coffee in the kitchen, and gave me a quick tour of the place. We whispered, because the ladies were praying not far away. There were rest rooms and showers on the first floor near the kitchen; a small garden out back where those suffering from depression often went to be alone. The second floor was offices, intake centers, and a rectangular room crammed with chairs where the Alcoholics Anonymous/Narcotics Anonymous chapters met together.
As we climbed the narrow stairs, a joyous chorus erupted from below. Megan's office was on the third floor. She invited me in, and as soon as I sat down she tossed a copy of the Post into my lap.
"Rough night, huh?" she said with a smile.
I looked at my photo again. "It wasn't too bad."
"What's this?" she asked, pointing to her temple.
"My cell partner wanted my shoes. He took them."
She looked at my well-used Nikes. "Those?"
"Yes. Handsome, aren't they?"
"How long were you in jail?"
"Couple of hours. Then I got my life together. Made it through rehab. Now I'm a new man."
She smiled again, a perfect smile, and our eyes lingered for a second, and I thought, Oh boy! No wedding ring on her finger. She was tall and a little too thin. Her hair was dark red and cut short and smart, above the ears like a preppie. Her eyes were light brown, very big and round and quite pleasant to gaze into for a second or two. It struck me that she was very attractive, and it seemed odd that I hadn't noticed it sooner.
Was I being set up? Had I wandered up the stairs for a reason other than the tour? How had I missed the smile and the eyes yesterday?
We swapped bios. Her father was an Episcopal priest in Maryland, and a Redskins fan who loved D.C. As a teenager, she had decided to work with the poor. There was no higher calling.
I had to confess I had never thought about the poor until two weeks earlier. She was captivated by the story of Mister, and its purifying effects on me.
She invited me to return for lunch, to check on Ruby. If the sun was out, we could eat in the garden.
Poverty lawyers are no different from other people. They can find romance in odd places, like a shelter for homeless women.
* * *
After a week of driving through D.C.'s roughest sections, and spending hours in shelters, and in general mixing and mingling with the homeless, I no longer felt the need to hide behind Mordecai every time I ventured out. He was a valuable shield, but to survive on the streets I had to jump in the lake and learn to swim.
I had a list of almost thirty shelters and kitchens and centers where the homeless came and went. And I had a list of the names of the seventeen people evicted, including DeVon Hardy and Lontae Burton.
My next stop Saturday morning, after Naomi's, was the Mount Gilead Christian Church near Gallaudet University. According to my map, it was the kitchen nearest the intersection of New York and Florida, where the warehouse had once stood. The director was a young woman named Gloria, who, when I arrived at nine, was alone in the kitchen, chopping celery and fretting over the fact that no volunteers had arrived. After I introduced myself and did a thorough job of convincing her that my credentials were in order, she pointed to a cutting board and asked me to dice the onions. How could a bona fide poverty lawyer say no?
I had done it before, I explained, in Dolly's kitchen back during the snowstorm. She was polite but behind schedule. As I worked the onions and wiped my eyes, I described the case I was working on, and ratfled off the names of the people evicted along with DeVon Hardy and Lontae Burton.
"We're not case managers," she said. "We just feed them. I don't know many names."
A volunteer arrived with a sack of potatoes. I made preparations to leave. Gloria thanked me, and took a copy of the names. She promised to listen harder.
My movements were planned; I had many stops to make, and little time. I talked to a doctor at the Capitol Clinic, a privately funded walk-in facility for the homeless. The clinic kept a record of every patient. It was Saturday, and on Monday he would have the secretary check the computer files against my list. If there was a match, the secretary would call.
I drank tea with a Catholic priest at the Redeemer Mission off Rhode Island. He studied the names with great intensity, but no bells went off. "There are so many," he said.
The only scare of the morning occurred at the Freedom Coalition, a large gathering hall built by some long-forgotten association and later converted to a community center. At eleven, a lunch line was forming by the front entrance. Since I wasn't there to eat, I simply ignored the line and walked directly to the door. Some of the gentlemen waiting for food thought I was breaking their line, and they threw obscenities at me. They were hungry, and suddenly angry, and the fact that I was white didn't help matters. How could they mistake me for a homeless person? The door was being manned by a volunteer, who also thought I was being an ass. He stiff-armed me rudely, another act of violence against my person.
"I'm not here to eat!" I said angrily. "I'm a lawyer for the homeless!"
That setfled them down; suddenly I was a blue-eyed brother. I was allowed to enter the building without further assault. The director was Reverend Kip, a fiery little guy with a red beret and a black collar. We did not connect. When he realized that (a) I was a lawyer; (b) my clients were the Burtons; (c) I was working on their lawsuit; and (d) there might be a recovery of damages down the road, he began thinking about money. I wasted thirty minutes with him, and left with the vow to send in Mordecai.
I called Megan and begged off lunch. My excuse was that I was on the other side of the city, with a long list of people yet to see. The truth was that I couldn't tell if she was flirting. She was pretty and smart and thoroughly likable, and she was the last thing I needed. I hadn't flirted in almost ten years; I didn't know the rules.
But Megan had great news. Ruby had not only survived the morning session of AA/NA, she had vowed to stay clean for twenty-four hours. It was an emotional scene, and Megan had watched from the rear of the room.
"She needs to stay off the streets tonight," Megan said. "She hasn't had a clean day in twelve years."
I, of course, was of little help. Megan had several ideas.
* * *
The afternoon was as fruitless as the morning, though I did learn the location of every shelter in the District. And I met people, made contacts, swapped cards with folks I'd probably see again.
Kelvin Lam remained the sole evictee we'd been able to locate. DeVon Hardy and Lontae Burton were dead. I was left with a total of fourteen people who had fallen through the cracks in the sidewalks.
The hard-core homeless venture into shelters from time to time for a meal, or a pair of shoes, or a blanket, but they leave no trail. They do not want help. They have no desire for human contact. It was hard to believe that the remaining fourteen were hard core. A month earlier, they had been living under a roof and paying rent.
Patience, Mordecai kept telling me. Street lawyers must have patience.
Ruby met me at the door of Naomi's, with a gleaming smile and a fierce hug. She had completed both sessions. Megan had already laid the groundwork for the next twelve hours--Ruby would not be allowed to stay on the streets. Ruby had acquiesced.
Ruby and I left the city and drove west into Virginia. In a suburban shopping center, we bought a toothbrush and toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and enough candy to get through Halloween. W'e drove farther away from the city, and in the small town of Gainesville I found a shiny new motel advertising single rooms for forty-two dollars a night. I paid with a credit card; surely it would somehow be deductible.
I left her there, with strict instructions to stay in the room with the door locked until I came for her Sunday morning.