Page 35 of The Street Lawyer

The woman had moved out a year earlier, and that sounded like a good case of abandonment to me. Throw in the adultery, and I figured the case was a cinch.

Marvis had been at the shelter for a week. He was clean, sober, and looking for work. I enjoyed the half hour I spent with him, and I vowed to get his divorce.

The morning passed quickly; my nervousness vanished. I was reaching out to help real people with real problems, little people with no other place to go for legal representation. They were intimidated not only by me but also by the vast world of laws and regulations and courts and bureaucracies. I learned to smile, and make them feel welcome. Some apologized for not being able to pay me. Money was not important, I told them. Money was not important.

At twelve, we surrendered our table so lunch could be served. The dining area was crowded; the soup was ready.

Since we were in the neighborhood, we stopped for soul food at the Florida Avenue Grill. Mine was the only white face in the crowded restaurant, but I was coming to terms with my whiteness. No one had tried to murder me yet. No one seemed to care.

* * *

Sofia found a phone that happened to be working. It was under a stack of files on the desk nearest the door. I thanked her, and retreated to the privacy of my office. I counted eight people sitting quietly and waiting for Sofia, the nonlawyer, to dispense advice. Mordecai suggested that I spend the afternoon working on the cases we had taken in during the morning at Samaritan. There was a total of nineteen. He also implied that I should work diligently so that I could help Sofia with the traffic.

If I thought the pace would be slower on the street, I was wrong. I was suddenly up to my ears with other people's problems. Fortunately, with my background as a self-absorbed workaholic, I was up to the task.

My first phone call, however, went to Drake & Sweeney. I asked for Hector Palma in real estate, and was put on hold. I hung up after five minutes, then called again. A secretary finally answered, then put me on hold again. The abrasive voice of Braden Chance was suddenly barking in my ear, "Can I help you?"

I swallowed hard, and said, "Yes, I was holding for Hector Palma." I tried to raise my voice and clip my words.

"Who is this?" he demanded.

"Rick Hamilton, an old friend from school."

"He doesn't work here anymore. Sorry." He hung up, and I stared at the phone. I thought about calling Polly, and asking her to check around, see what had happened to Hector. It wouldn't take her long. Or maybe Rudolph, or Barry Nuzzo, or my own favorite paralegal. Then I realized that they were no longer my friends. I was gone. I was off-limits. I was the enemy. I was trouble and the powers above had forbidden them to talk to me.

There were three Hector Palmas in the phone book. I was going to call them, but the phone lines were taken. The clinic had two lines, and four advocates.

Chapter Nineteen

I was in no hurry to leave the clinic at the end of my first day. Home was an empty attic, not much larger than any three of the cubbyholes at the Samaritan House. Home was a bedroom with no bed, a living room with cableless TV, a kitchen with a card table and no fridge. I had vague, distant plans to furnish and decorate.

Sofia left promptly at five, her standard hour. Her neighborhood was rough, and she preferred to be home with the doors locked at dark. Mordecai left around six, after spending thirty minutes with me discussing the day. Don't stay too late, he warned, and try to leave in pairs. He had checked with Abraham Lebow, who planned to work until nine, and suggested We leave together. Park close. Walk fast. Watch everything.

"So what do you think?" he asked, pausing by the door on the way out.

"I think it's fascinating work. The human contact is inspiring."

"It'll break your heart at times."

"It already has."

"That's good. If you reach the point where it doesn't hurt, then it's time to quit."

"I just started."

"I know, and it's good to have you. We've needed a WASP around here."

"Then I'm just happy to be a token."

He left, and I closed the door again. I had detected an unspoken, open-door policy; Sofia worked out in the open, and I had been amused throughout the afternoon as I heard her berate one bureaucrat after another over the phone while the entire clinic listened. Mordecai was an animal on the phone, his deep gravel voice roaring through the air, making all sorts of demands and vile threats. Abraham was much quieter, but his door was always open.

Since I didn't yet know what I was doing, I preferred to keep mine closed. I was sure they would be patient.

I called the three Hector Palmas in the phone book. The first was not the Hector I wanted. The second number was not answered. The third was voice mail for the real Hector Palma; the message was brusque: We're not home. Leave message. We'll return your call.

It was his voice.

With infinite resources, the firm had many ways and places to hide Hector Palma. Eight hundred lawyers, 170 paralegals, offices in Washington, New York, Chicago, L.A., Portland, Palm Beach, London, and Hong Kong. They were too smart to fire him because he knew too much. So they would double his pay, promote him, move him to a different office in a new city with a larger apartment.

I wrote down his address from the phone book. If the voice mail was still working, perhaps he hadn't yet moved. With my newly acquired street savvy, I was sure I could track him down.

There was a slight knock on the door, which opened as it was being tapped. The bolt and knob were worn and wobbly, and the door would shut but it wouldn't catch. It was Abraham. "Got a minute?" he said, sitting down.

It was his courtesy call, his hello. He was a quiet, distant man with an intense, brainy aura that would have been intimidating except for the fact that I had spent the past seven years in a building with four hundred lawyers of all stripes and sorts. I had met and known a dozen Abrahams, aloof and earnest types with little regard for social skills.

"I wanted to welcome you," he said, then immediately launched into a passionate justification for public interest law. He was a middle-class kid from Brooklyn, law school at Columbia, three horrible years with a Wall Street firm, four years in Atlanta with an antideath-penalty group, two frustrating years on Capitol Hill, then an ad in a lawyer's magazine for an advocate's position with the 14th Street Legal Clinic had caught his attention.

"The law is a higher calling," he said. "It's more than making money." Then he delivered another speech, a tirade against big firms and lawyers who rake in millions in fees. A friend of his from Brooklyn was making ten million a year suing breast implant companies from coast to coast. "Ten million dollars a year! You could house and feed every homeless person in the District!"

Anyway, he was delighted I had seen the light, and sorry about the episode with Mister.

"What, specifically, do you do?" I asked. I was enjoying our talk. He was fiery and bright, with a vast vocabulary that kept me reeling.

"Two things. Policy. I work with other advocates to shape legislation. And I direct litigation, usually class actions. We've sued the Commerce Department because the homeless were grossly underrepresented in the ninety census. We've sued the District school system for refusing to admit homeless children. We've sued as a class because the District wrongfully terminated several thousand housing grants without due process. We've attacked many of the statutes designed to criminalize homelessness. We'll sue for almost anything if the homeless are getting screwed."

"That's complicated litigation."