Page 34 of The Street Lawyer

"Washington is a black city," he continued, "with a large welfare class. It attracts a lot of people who want change, a lot of activists and radicals. People like you."

"I'm hardly an activist or a radical."

"It's Monday morning. Think of where you've been every Monday morning for the past seven years."

"At my desk."

"A very nice desk."


"In your elegantly appointed office."


He offered me a large grin, and said, "You are now a radical."

And with that, orientation ended.

* * *

Ahead on the right was a group of heavily clad men, huddled over a portable butane burner on a street corner. We turned beside them, and parked at the curb. The building was once a department store, many years in the past. A hand-painted sign read: Samaritan House.

"It's a private shelter," Mordecai said. "Ninety beds, decent food, funded by a coalition of churches in Arlington. We've been coming here for six years."

A van from a food bank was parked by the door; volunteers unloaded boxes of vegetables and fruit. Mordecai spoke to an elderly gentleman who worked the door, and we were allowed inside.

"I'll give you a quick tour," Mordecai said. I stayed close to him as we walked through the main floor. It was a maze of short hallways, each lined with small square rooms made of unpainted Sheetrock. Each room had a door, with a lock. One was open. Mordecai looked inside and said, "Good morning."

A tiny man with wild eyes sat on the edge of a cot, looking at us but saying nothing. "This is a good room," Mordecai said to me. "It has privacy, a nice bed, room to store things, and electricity." He flipped a switch by the door and the bulb of a small lamp went out. The room was darker for a second, then he flipped the switch again. The wild eyes never moved.

There was no ceiling for the room; the aging panels of the old store were thirty feet above. "What about a bathroom?" I asked.

"They're in the back. Few shelters provide individual baths. Have a nice day," he said to the resident, who nodded.

Radios were on, some with music, some with news talk. People were moving about. It was Monday morning; they had jobs and places to be.

"Is it hard to get a room here?" I asked, certain of the answer.

"Nearly impossible. There's a waiting list a mile long, and the shelter can screen who gets in."

"How long do they stay here?"

"It varies. Three months is probably a good average. This is one of the nicer shelters, so they're safe here. As soon as they get stable, the shelter starts trying to relocate them into affordable housing."

He introduced me to a young woman in black combat boots who ran the place. "Our new lawyer," was my description. She welcomed me to the shelter. They talked about a client who'd disappeared, and I drifted along the hallway until I found the family section. I heard a baby cry and walked to an open door. The room was slightly larger, and divided into cubicles. A stout woman of no more than twenty-five was sitting in a chair, naked from the waist up, breast-feeding an infant, thoroughly unfazed by my gawking ten feet away. Two small children were tumbling over a bed. Rap came from a radio.

With her right hand, the woman cupped her unused breast and offered it to me. I bolted down the hall and found Mordecai.

Clients awaited us. Our office was in a comer of the dining hall, near the kitchen. Our desk was a folding table we borrowed from the cook. Mordecai unlocked a file cabinet in the corner, and we were in business. Six people sat in a row of chairs along the wall.

"Who's first?" he announced, and a woman came forward with her chair. She sat across from her lawyers, both ready with pen and legal pad, one a seasoned veteran of street law, the other clueless.

Her name was Waylene, age twenty-seven, two children, no husband. "Half will come from the shelter," Mordecai said to me as we took notes. "The other half come from the streets."

"We take anybody?"

"Anybody who's homeless."

Waylene's problem was not complicated. She had worked in a fast-food restaurant before quitting for some reason Mordecai deemed irrelevant, and she was owed her last two paychecks. Because she had no permanent address, the employer had sent the checks to the wrong place. The checks had disappeared; the employer was unconcerned.

"Where will you be staying next week?" Mordecai asked her.

She wasn't sure. Maybe here, maybe there. She was looking for a job, and if she found one, then other events might occur, and she could possibly move in with so and so. Or get a place of her own.

"I'll get your money, and I'll have the checks sent to my office." He handed her a business card. "Phone me at this number in a week." She took the card, thanked us, and hurried away. "Call the taco place, identify yourself as her attorney, be nice at first, then raise hell if they don't cooperate. If necessary, stop by and pick up the checks yourself."

I wrote down these instructions as if they were complicated. Waylene was owed two hundred ten dollars. The last case I worked on at Drake & Sweeney was an antitrust dispute with nine hundred million dollars at stake.

The second client was unable to articulate a specific legal problem. He just wanted to talk to someone. He was drunk or mentally ill, probably both, and Mordecai walked him to the kitchen and poured him coffee.

"Some of these poor folks can't resist getting in a line," he said.

Number three was a resident of the shelter, had been for two months, so the address challenge was simpler. She was fifty-eight, clean and neat, and the widow of a veteran. According to the stack of paperwork I rummaged through while my co-counsel talked to her, she was entitled to veteran's benefits. But the checks were being sent to a bank account in Maryland, one she could not access. She explained this. Her paperwork verified it. Mordecai said, "VA is a good agency. We'll get the checks sent here."

The line grew as we efficiently worked the clients. Mordecai had seen it all before: food stamps disrupted for lack of a permanent address; a landlord's refusal to refund a security deposit; unpaid child support; an arrest warrant for writing bad checks; a claim for Social Security disability benefits. After two hours and ten clients, I moved to the end of the table and began interviewing them myself. During my first full day as a poverty lawyer, I was on my own, taking notes and acting just as important as my co-counsel.

Marvis was my first solo client. He needed a divorce. So did I. After listening to his tale of sorrow, I felt like racing home to Claire and kissing her feet. Maryis' wife was a prostitute, who at one time had been a decent sort until she discovered crack. The crack led her to a pusher, then to a pimp, then to life on the streets. Along the way, she stole and sold everything they owned and racked up debts he got stuck with. He filed for bankruptcy. She took both kids and moved in with her pimp.

He had a few general questions about the mechanics of divorce, and since I knew only the basics I winged it as best I could. In the midst of my note-taking, I was struck by a vision of Claire sitting in her lawyer's fine office, at that very moment, finalizing plans to dissolve our union.

"How long will it take?" he asked, bringing me out of my brief daydream.

"Six months," I answered. "Do you think she will contest it?"

"What do you mean?"

"Will she agree to the divorce?"

"We ain't talked about it."