Page 17 of The Street Lawyer

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Maybe empty from a lack of personnel, but it was hard to walk without tripping over a basket of old files or a stack of dusty law books.

"Who owns the building?" I asked.

"The Cohen Trust. Leonard Cohen was the founder of a big New York law firm. He died in eighty-six; must've been a hundred years old. He made a ton of money, and late in life he decided he didn't want to die with any of it. So he spread it around, and one of his many creations was a trust to help poverty lawyers assist the homeless. That's how this place came to be. The trust operates three clinics--here, New York, and Newark. I was hired in eighty-three, became the director in eighty-four."

"All your funding comes from one source?"

"Practically all. Last year the trust gave us a hundred and ten thousand dollars. Year before, it was a hundred fifty, so we lost a lawyer. It gets smaller every year. The trust has not been well managed, and it's now eating the principal. I doubt if we'll be here in five years. Maybe three."

"Can't you raise money?"

"Oh, sure. Last year we raised nine thousand bucks. But it takes time. We can practice law, or we can raise funds. Sofia is not good with people. Abraham is an abrasive ass from New York. That leaves just me and my magnetic personality."

"What's the overhead?" I asked, prying but not too worried. Almost every nonprofit group published an annual report with all the figures.

"Two thousand a month. After expenses and a small reserve, the three of us split eighty-nine thousand dollars. Equally. Sofia considers herself a full partner. Frankly, we're afraid to argue with her. I took home almost thirty, which, from what I hear, is about average for a poverty lawyer. Welcome to the street."

We finally made it to his office, and I sat across from him.

"Did you forget to pay your heating bill?" I asked, almost shivering.

"Probably. We don't work much on weekends. Saves money. This place is impossible to heat or cool."

That thought had never occurred to anyone at Drake & Sweeney. Close on weekends, save money. And marriages.

"And if we keep it too comfortable, our clients won't leave. So it's cold in the winter, hot in the summer, cuts down on the street traffic. You want coffee?"

"No thanks."

"I'm joking, you know. We wouldn't do anything to discourage the homeless from being here. The climate doesn't bother us. We figure our clients are cold and hungry, so why should we worry about those matters. Did you feel guilty when you ate breakfast this morning?"

"Yes."

He gave me the smile of a wise old man who'd seen it all. "That's very common. We used to work with a lot of young lawyers from the big firms, pro bono rookies I call them, and they would tell me all the time that they lost interest in food at first." He patted his ample midsection. "But you'll get over it."

"What did the pro bono rookies do?" I asked. I knew I was moving toward the bait, and Mordecai knew I knew.

"We sent them into the shelters. They met the clients, and we supervised file cases for them. Most of the work is easy, it just takes a lawyer on the phone barking at some bureaucrat who won't move. Food stamps, veterans' pensions, housing subsidies, Medicaid, aid to children--about twenty-five percent of our work deals with benefits."

I listened intently, and he could read my mind. Mordecai began to reel me in.

"You see, Michael, the homeless have no voice. No one listens, no one cares, and they expect no one to help them. So when they try to use the phone to get benefits due them, they get nowhere. They are put on hold, permanently. Their calls are never returned. They have no addresses. The bureaucrats don't care, and so they screw the very people they're supposed to help. A seasoned social worker can at least get the bureaucrats to listen, and maybe look at the file and maybe return a phone call. But you get a lawyer on the phone, barking and raising hell, and things happen. Bureaucrats get motivated. Papers get processed. No address? No problem. Send the check to me, I'll get it to the client."

His voice was rising, both hands waving through the air. On top of everything else, Mordecai was the consummate storyteller. I suspected he was very effective in front of a jury.

"A fimny story," he said. "About a month ago, one of my clients went down to the Social Security office to pick up an application for benefits, should've been a routine matter. He's sixty years old and in constant pain from a crooked back. Sleep on rocks and park benches for ten years, you get back problems. He waited in line outside the office for two hours, finally got in the door, waited another hour, made it up to the first desk, tried to explain what he wanted, and proceeded to get a tongue lashing from a hard-ass secretary who was having a bad day. She even commented on his odor. He was humiliated, of course, and left without his paperwork. He called me. I made my calls, and last Wednesday we had a little ceremony down at the Social Security office. I was there, along with my client. The secretary was there too, along with her supervisor, her supervisor's supervisor, the D.C. office director, and a Big Man from the Social Security Administration. The secretary stood in front of my client, and read a one-page apology. It was real nice, touching. She then handed me his application for benefits, and I got assurances from everybody present that it would receive immediate attention. That's justice, Michael, that's what street law is all about. Dignity."

The stories rolled on, one after the other, all ending with the street lawyers as the good guys, the homeless as the victors. I knew he had tucked away in his repertoire just as many heartbreaking tales, probably more, but he was laying the groundwork.

I lost track of time. He never mentioned his mail. We finally left and drove back to the shelter.

It was an hour before dark, a good time, I thought, to get tucked away in the cozy litfie basement, before the hoodlums began roaming the streets. I caught myself walking slowly and confidently when Mordecai was at my side. Otherwise, I would've been slashing through the snow, bent at the waist, my nervous feet barely touching the ground.

Miss Dolly had somehow procured a pile of whole chickens, and she was laying for me. She boiled the birds; I picked their steaming flesh.

Mordecai's wife, JoAnne, joined us for the rush hour. She was as pleasant as her husband, and almost as tall. Both sons were six six. Cassius had been six nine, a heavily recruited basketball star when he was shot at the age of seventeen.

I left at midnight. No sign of Ontario and his family.

Chapter Ten

Sunday began with a late morning call from Claire, another stilted chat she initiated only to tell me what time she would be home. I suggested we have dinner at our favorite restaurant, but she was not in the mood. I didn't ask her if anything was wrong. We were beyond that.

Since our apartment was on the third floor, I had been unable to make satisfactory arrangements to have the Sunday Post home-delivered. We had tried various methods, but I never found the paper half the time.

I showered and dressed in layers. The weatherman predicted a high of twenty-five, and as I was getting ready to leave the apartment the newsperson ratfled off the morning's top story. It stopped me cold; I heard the words, but they didn't register immediately. I walked closer to the TV on the kitchen counter, my feet heavy, my heart frozen, my mouth open in shock and disbelief.

Sometime around 11 P.M., D.C. police found a small car near Fort Totten Park, in Northeast, in a war zone. It was parked on the street, its bald tires stuck in the frozen slush. Inside were a young mother and her four children, all dead from asphyxiation. The police suspected the family lived in the car, and was trying to stay warm. The automobile's tailpipe was buried in a pile of snow plowed from the street. A few details, but no names.

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