Page 21 of The Street Lawyer

Another series of smiles.

He continued. "As much as we hate to admit it, our survival will depend on our ability to raise money. The Cohen Trust is declining. We've had the luxury of not begging, but now it's gotta change."

"What's the rest of the job?"

"Street law. You've had a good dose of it. You've seen our place. It's a dump. Sofia's a shrew. Abraham's an ass. The clients smell bad, and the money is a joke."

"How much money?"

"We can offer you thirty thousand a year, but we can only promise you half of it for the first six months."

"Why?"

"The trust closes its books June thirtieth, at which time they'll tell us how much we get for the next fiscal year, beginning July first. We have enough in reserve to pay you for the next six months. After that, the four of us will split what's left after expenses."

"Abraham and Sofia agreed to this?"

"Yep, after a little speech by me. We figure you have good contacts within the established bar, and since you're well educated, nice-looking, bright, and all that crap, you should be a natural at raising money."

"What if I don't want to raise money?"

"Then the four of us could lower our salaries even more, perhaps go to twenty thousand a year. Then to fifteen. And when the trust dries up, we could hit the streets, just like our clients. Homeless lawyers."

"So I'm the future of the 14th Street Legal Clinic?"

"That's what we decided. We'll take you in as a full partner. Let's see Drake & Sweeney top that."

"I'm touched," I said. I was also a bit frightened. The job offer was not unexpected, but its arrival opened a door I was hesitant to walk through.

Black bean soup arrived, and we ordered more beer.

"What's Abraham's story?" I asked.

"Jewish kid from Brooklyn. Came to Washington to work on Senator Moynihan's staff. Spent a few years on the Hill, landed on the street. Extremely bright. He spends most of his time coordinating litigation with pro bono lawyers from big firms. Right now he's suing the Census Bureau to be certain the homeless get counted. And he's suing the D.C. school system to make sure homeless kids get an education. His people skills leave a lot to be desired, but he's great in the back room plotting litigation."

"And Sofia?"

"A career social worker who's been taking night classes in law school for eleven years. She acts and thinks like a lawyer, especially when she's abusing government workers. You'll hear her say, 'This is Sofia Mendoza, Attorney-at-Law,' ten times a day."

"She's also the secretary?"

"Nope. We don't have secretaries. You do your own typing, filing, coffee making." He leaned forward a few inches, and lowered his voice. "The three of us have been together for a long time, Michael, and we've carved out little niches. To be honest, we need a fresh face with some new ideas."

"The money is certainly appealing," I said, a weak effort at humor.

He grinned anyway. "You don't do it for the money. You do it for your soul."

* * *

My soul kept me awake most of the night. Did I have the guts to walk away? Was I seriously considering taking a job which paid so little? I was literally saying good-bye to millions.

The things and possessions I longed for would become fading memories.

The timing wasn't bad. With the marriage over, it somehow seemed fitting that I make drastic changes on all fronts.

Chapter Twelve

I called in sick tuesday. "Probably the flu," I told polly, who, as she was trained to do, wanted specifics. Fever, sore throat, headaches? All of the above. Any and all, I didn't care. One had better be completely sick to miss work at the firm. She would do a form and send it to Rudolph. Anticipating his call, I left the apartment and wandered around Georgetown during the early morning. The snow was melting fast; the high would be in the fifties. I killed an hour loitering along Washington Harbor, sampling cappuccino from a number of vendors, watching the rowers freeze on the Potomac.

At ten, I left for the funeral.

* * *

The Sidewalk in front of the church was barricaded. Cops were standing around, their motorcycles parked on the street. Farther down were the television vails.

A large crowd was listening to a speaker yell into a microphone as I drove by, There were a few hastily painted placards held above heads, for the benefit of the cameras. I parked on a side street three blocks away, and hurried toward the church. I avoided the front by heading for a side door, which was being guarded by an elderly usher. I asked if there was a balcony. He asked if I was a reporter.

He took me inside, and pointed to a door. I thanked him and went through it, then up a flight of shaky stairs until I emerged on the balcony overlooking a beautiful sanctuary below. The carpet was burgundy, the pews dark wood, the windows stained and clean. It was a very handsome church, and for a second I could understand why the Reverend was reluctant to open it to the homeless.

I was alone, with my choice of seating. I walked quietly to a spot above the rear door, with a direct view down the center aisle to the pulpit. A choir began singing outside on the front steps, and I sat in the tranquillity of the empty church, the music drifting in.

The music stopped, the doors opened, the stampede began. The balcony floor shook as the mourners poured into the sanctuary. The choir took its place behind the pulpit. The Reverend directed traffic--the TV crews in one corner, the small family in the front pew, the activists and their homeless down the center section. Mordecai ambled in with two people I didn't know. A door to one side opened, and the prisoners marched out--Lontae's mother and two brothers, clad in blue prison garb, cuffed at the wrists and ankles, chained together and escorted by four armed guards. They were placed in the second pew, center aisle, behind the grandmother and some other relatives.

When things were still, the organ began, low and sad. There was a racket under me, and all heads turned around. The Reverend assumed the pulpit and instructed us to stand.

Ushers with white gloves rolled the wooden coffins down the aisle, and lined them end to end across the front of the church with Lontae's in the center. The baby's was tiny, less than three feet long. Ontario's, Alonzo's, and Dante's were midsized. It was an appalling sight, and the wailing began. The choir started to hum and sway.

The ushers arranged flowers around the caskets, and I thought for one horrifying second they were going to open them. I had never been to a black funeral before. I had no idea what to expect, but I had seen news clips from other funerals in which the casket was sometimes opened, the family kissing the corpse. The vultures with the cameras were ever ready.

But the caskets remained closed, and so the world didn't learn what I knew--that Ontario and family looked very much at peace.

We sat down, and the Reverend served up a lengthy prayer. Then a solo from sister somebody, then moments of silence. The Reverend read Scripture, and preached for a bit. He was followed by a homeless activist who delivered a scathing attack on a society and its leaders who allowed such a thing to happen. She blamed Congress, especially the Republicans, and she blamed the city for its lack of leadership, and the courts, and the bureaucracy. But she saved her harshest diatribe for the upper classes, those with money and power who didn't care for the poor and the sick. She was articulate and angry, very effective, I thought, but not exactly at home at a funeral.

They clapped for her when she finished. The Reverend then spent a very long time blasting everyone who wasn't of color and had money.

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