Page 45 of The Street Lawyer

But Gantry was a contributing cause in our theory of liability, and to ignore him as a defendant would be to ask for trouble as the case progressed.

Hector Palma had to be found. and once we found him, we somehow had to convince him to either produce the hidden memo, or to tell us what was in it. Finding him would be the easy part; getting him to talk might be impossible. He quite likely wouldn't want to, since he needed to keep his job. He'd been quick to tell me he had a wife and four kids.

There were other problems with the lawsuit, the first of which was purely procedural. We, as lawyers, did not have the authority to file suit on behalf of the heirs of Lontae Burton and her four children. We had to be employed by her family, such as it was. With her mother and two brothers in prison, and her father's identity yet to be revealed, Mordecai was of the opinion we should petition the Family Court for the appointment of a trustee to handle the affairs of Lontae's estate. In doing so, we could bypass her family, at least initially. In the event we recovered damages, the family would be a nightmare. It was safe to assume that the four children had two or more different fathers, and each one of those tomcats would have to be notified if money changed hands.

"We'll worry about that later," Mordecai said. "We have to win first." We were in the front, at the desk next to Sofia's where the aging computer worked most of the time. I was typing, Mordecai pacing and dictating.

We plotted until midnight, drafting and redrafting the lawsuit, arguing theories, discussing procedure, dreaming of ways to haul RiverOaks and my old firm into court for a noisy trial. Mordecai saw it as a watershed, a pivotal moment to reverse the decline in public sympathy for the homeless. I saw it simply as a way to correct a wrong.

Chapter Twenty-Four

Coffee again with Ruby. She was waiting by the front door when I arrived at seven forty-five, happy to see me. How could anyone be so cheerful after spending eight hours trying to sleep in the backseat of an abandoned car?

"Got any doughnuts?" she asked as I was flipping on the light switches.

It was already a habit.

"I'll see. You have a seat, and I'll make us some coffee." I rattled around the kitchen, cleaning the coffeepot, looking for something to eat. Yesterday's stale doughnuts were even firmer, but there was nothing else. I made a mental note to buy fresh ones tomorrow, just in case Ruby arrived for the third day in a row. Something told me she would.

She ate one doughnut, nibbling around the hard edges, trying to be polite.

"Where do you eat breakfast?" I asked.

"Don't usually."

"How about lunch and dinner?"

"Lunch is at Naomi's on Tenth Street. For dinner I go to Calvary Mission over on Fifteenth."

"What do you do during the day?"

She was curled around her paper cup again, trying to keep her frail body warm.

"Most of the time I stay at Naomi's," she said.

"How many women are there?"

"Don't know. A lot. They take good care of us, but it's just for the day."

"Is it only for homeless women?"

"Yeah, that's right. They close at four. Most of the women live in shelters, some on the street. Me, I got a car."

"Do they know you're using crack?"

"I think so. They want me to go to meetings for drunks and people on dope. I'm not the only one. Lots of the women do it too, you know."

"Did you get high last night?" I asked. The words echoed in my ears. I found it hard to believe I was asking such questions.

Her chin fell to her chest; her eyes closed.

"Tell me the truth," I said.

"I had to. I do it every night."

I wasn't about to scold her. I had done nothing since the day before to help her find treatment. It suddenly became my priority.

She asked for another doughnut. I wrapped the last one in foil and topped off her coffee. She was late for something at Naomi's, and off she went.

* * *

The march began at the District Building with a rally for justice. Since Mordecai was a Who's Who in the world of the homeless, he left me in the crowd and went to his spot on the platform.

A church choir robed in burgundy and gold got organized on the steps and began flooding the area with lively hymns. Hundreds of police loitered in loose formation up and down the street, their barricades stopping traffic.

The CCNV had promised a thousand of its foot soldiers, and they arrived in a group--one long, impressive, disorganized column of men homeless and proud of it. I heard them coming before I saw them, their well-rehearsed marching yells clear from blocks away. When they rounded the corner, the TV cameras scrambled to greet them.

They gathered intact before the steps of the District Building and began waving their placards, most of which were of the homemade, hand-painted variety. STOP THE KILLINGS; SAVE THE SHELTERS; I HAVE THE RIGHT TO A HOME; JOBS, JOBS, JOBS. The signs were hoisted above their heads, where they danced with the rhythm of the hymns and the cadence of each noisy chant.

Church buses stopped at the barricades and unloaded hundreds of people, many of whom did not appear to be living on the streets. They were nicely dressed church folk, almost all women. The crowd swelled, the space around me shrunk. I did not know a single person, other than Mordecai. Sofia and Abraham were somewhere in the crowd, but I didn't see them. It was billed as the largest homeless march in the past ten years--Lontae's Rally.

A photo of Lontae Burton had been enlarged and mass-produced on large placards, trimmed in black, and under her face were the ominous words: w~Io ~LI. Er) kO~riv.? These were dispersed through the crowd, and quickly became the placard of choice, even among the men from the CCNV who'd brought their own protest banners. Lontae's face bobbed and weaved above the mass of people.

A lone siren wailed in the distance, then grew closer. A funeral van with a police escort was allowed through the barricades and stopped directly in front of the District Building, in the midst of the throng. The rear doors opened; a mock casket, painted black, was removed by the pallbearers--six homeless men who lifted it onto their shoulders and stood ready to begin the procession. Four more caskets, same color and make but much smaller, were removed by more pallbearers. The sea parted; the procession moved slowly toward the steps as the choir launched into a soulful requiem that almost brought tears to my eyes. It was a death march. One of those little caskets represented Ontario.

Then the crowd pressed together. Hands reached upward and touched the caskets so that they floated along, rocking gently side to side, end to end.

It was high drama, and the cameras packed near the platform recorded every solemn movement of the procession. We would see it replayed on TV for the next forty-eight hours.

The caskets were placed side by side, with Lontae's in the middle, on a small plywood ledge in the center of the steps, a few feet below the platform where Mordecai stood. They were filmed and photographed at length, then the speeches started.

The moderator was an activist who began by thanking all the groups that had helped organize the march. It was an impressive list, at least in quantity. As he rattled off the names, I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer number of shelters, missions, kitchens, coalitions, medical clinics, legal clinics, churches, centers, outreach groups, job-training programs, substance-abuse programs, even a few elected officials--all responsible to some degree for the event.

With so much support, how could there be a homeless problem?

The next six speakers answered that question. Lack of adequate funding to begin with, then budget cuts, a deaf ear by the federal government, a blind eye by the city, a lack of compassion from those with means, a court system grown much too conservative, the list went on and on. And on and on.