Page 16 of The Street Lawyer

"You should've called somebody," he said, still hard, but the crack was coming.

"Come on, Rudolph. I was locked down. No phones." There was just enough agony in my voice to soften him.

After a long pause, he said, "Are you okay?"

"I'm fine."

"You're fine?"

"The shrink said I'm fine."

"One hundred percent?"

"A hundred and ten. No problems, Rudolph. I needed a little break, that's all. I'm fine. Back at full throttle."

That was all Rudolph wanted. He smiled and relaxed and said, "We have lots of work to do."

"I know. I can't wait."

He practically ran from my office. He would go straight to the phone and report that one of the firm's many producers was back in the saddle.

I locked the door and turned off the lights, then spent a painful hour covering my desk with papers and scribblings. Nothing was accomplished, but at least I was on the clock.

When I couldn't stand it any longer, I stuffed the phone messages in my pocket and walked out. I escaped without getting caught.

* * *

I stopped at a large discount pharmacy on Massachusetts, and had a delightful shopping spree. Candy and small toys for the kids, soap and toiletries for them all, socks and sweatpants in a variety of children's sizes. A large carton of Pampers. I had never had so much fun spending two hundred dollars.

And I would spend whatever was necessary to get them into a warm place. If it was a motel for a month, no problem. They would soon become my clients, and I would threaten and Irangate with a vengeance until they had adequate housing. I couldn't wait to sue somebody.

I parked across from the church, much less afraid than I had been the night before, but still sufficiently scared. Wisely, I left the care packages in the car. If I walked in like Santa Claus it would start a riot. My intentions were to leave there with the family, take them to a motel, check them in, make sure they were bathed and cleaned and disinfected, then feed them until they were stuffed, see if they needed medical attention, maybe take them to get shoes and warm clothes, then feed them again. I didn't care what it would cost or how long it might take.

Nor did I care if people thought I was just another rich white guy working off a little guilt.

Miss Dolly was pleased to see me. She said hello and pointed to a pile of vegetables with skins in need of removal. First, though, I checked on Ontario and family, and couldn't find them. They were not in their spot, so I roamed through the basement, stepping over and around dozens of street people. They were not in the sanctuary, nor in the balcony.

I chatted with Miss Dolly as I peeled potatoes. She remembered the family from last night, but they had already left when she arrived around nine. "Where would they go?" I wondered.

"Honey, these people move. They go from kitchen to kitchen, shelter to shelter. Maybe she heard they're giving out cheese over in Brightwood, or blankets somewhere. She might even have a job at McDonald's and she leaves the kids with her sister. You never know. But they don't stay in one place."

I seriously doubted if Ontario's mother had a job, but I wasn't about to debate this with Miss Dolly in her kitchen.

Mordecai arrived as the line was forming for lunch. I saw him before he saw me, and when our eyes made contact his entire face smiled.

A new volunteer had sandwich duty; Mordecai and I worked the serving tables, dipping ladles into the pots and pouring the soup into the plastic bowls. There was an art to it. Too much broth and the recipient might glare at you. Too many vegetables and there would be nothing left but broth. Mordecai had perfected his technique years ago; I suffered a number of glaring looks before I caught on. Mordecai had a pleasant word for everyone we served--hello, good morning, how are you, nice to see you again. Some of them smiled back, others never looked up.

As noon approached, the doors grew busier and the lines longer. More volunteers appeared from nowhere, and the kitchen hummed with the pleasant clutter and bang of happy people busy with their work. I kept looking for Ontario. Santa Claus was waiting, and the little fella didn't have a clue.

* * *

We waited until the lines were gone, then filled a bowl each. The tables were packed, so we ate in the kitchen, leaning against the sink.

"You remember that diaper you changed last night?" I asked between bites.

"As if I could forget."

"I haven't seen them today."

He chewed and thought about it for a second. "They were here when I left this morning."

"What time was that?"

"Six. They were in the corner over there, sound asleep."

"Where would they go?"

"You never know."

"The little boy told me they stayed in a car."

"You talked to him?"

"Yeah."

"And now you want to find him, don't you?"

"Yeah."

"Don't count on it."

* * *

After lunch, the sun popped through and the movement began. One by one they walked by the serving table, took an apple or an orange, and left the basement.

"The homeless are also restless," Mordecai explained as we watched. "They like to roam around. They have rituals and routines, favorite places, friends on the streets, things to do. They'll go back to their parks and alleys and dig out from the snow."

"It's twenty degrees outside. Near zero tonight," I said.

"They'll be back. Wait till dark, and this place will be hopping again. Let's take a ride."

We checked in with Miss Dolly, who excused us for a while. Mordecai's well-used Ford Taurus was parked next to my Lexus. "That won't last long around here," he said, pointing at my car. "If you plan to spend time in this part of town, I'd suggest you trade down."

I hadn't dreamed of parting with my fabulous car. I was almost offended.

We got into his Taurus and slid out of the parking lot. Within seconds I realized Mordecai Green was a horrible driver, and I attempted to fasten my seat belt. It was broken. He seemed not to notice.

We drove the well-plowed streets of Northwest Washington, blocks and sections of boarded-up rowhouses, past projects so tough ambulance drivers refused to enter, past schools with razor wire glistening on top of the chain link, into neighborhoods permanently scarred by riots. He was an amazing tour guide. Every inch was his turf, every corner had a story, every street had a history. We passed other shelters and kitchens. He knew the cooks and the Reverends. Churches were good or bad, with no blurring of the lines. They either opened their doors to the homeless or kept them locked. He pointed out the law school at Howard, a place of immense pride for him. His legal education had taken five years, at night, while he worked a full-time job and a part-time one. He showed me a burned-out rowhouse where crack dealers once operated. His third son, Cassius, had died on the sidewalk in front of it.

When we were near his office, he asked if it would be all right to stop in for a minute. He wanted to check his mail. I certainly didn't mind. I was just along for the ride.

It was dim, cold, and empty. He flipped on light switches and began talking. "There are three of us. Me, Sofia Mendoza, and Abraham Lebow. Sofia's a social worker, but she knows more street law than me and Abraham combined." I followed him around the cluttered desks. "Used to have seven lawyers crammed in here, can you believe it? That was when we got federal money for legal services. Now we don't get a dime, thanks to the Republicans. There are three offices over there, three here on my side." He was pointing in all directions. "Lots of empty space."

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