Page 39 of The Street Lawyer

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I was spellbound by his story. With every client I had met so far during my brief career as a homeless lawyer, I had wanted to hear the sad details of how each ended up on the streets. I wanted reassurance that it couldn't happen to me; that folks in my class needn't worry about such misfortune.

Pelham was fascinating because for the first time I could look at a client and say, yes, perhaps that could be me. Life could conspire to knock down just about anyone. And he was quite willing to talk about it.

He hinted that perhaps his trail was not cold. I had listened long enough and was about to ask why, exactly, did he need a lawyer when he said, "I hid some things in my bankruptcy."

Mordecai was shuffling clients in and out while the two white boys chatted, so I began taking notes again. "What kind of things?"

His bankruptcy lawyer had been crooked, he said, then he launched into a windy narrative about how the banks had foreclosed too early and ruined him. His words were soft and low, and each time Mordecai glanced down at us Pelham stopped.

"And there's more," he said.

"What?" I asked.

"This is confidential, isn't it? I mean, I've used lots of lawyers, but I've always paid them. God knows how I've paid them."

"It's extremely confidential," I said earnestly. I may have been working for free, but the payment or non-payment of fees did not affect the attorney-client privilege.

"You can't tell a soul."

"Not a word." It dawned on me that living in a homeless shelter in downtown D.C. with thirteen hundred others would be a wonderful way to hide.

This seemed to satisfy him. "When I was rolling," he said, even quieter, "I found out that my wife was seeing another man. One of my patients told me. When you examine naked women, they'll tell you everything. I was devastated. I hired a private detective, and sure enough, it was true. The other man, well, let's say that he just disappeared one day." He stopped, and waited for me to respond. "Disappeared?"

"Yep. Has never been seen since."

"Is he dead?" I asked, stunned.

He nodded slightly.

"Do you know where he is?"

Another nod.

"How long ago was this?"

"Four years."

My hand shook as I tried to write down everything.

He leaned forward, and whispered, "He was an FBI agent. An old boyfriend from college--Penn State."

"Come on," I said, completely uncertain if he were telling the truth.

"They're after me."

"Who?"

"The FBI. They've been chasing me for four years."

"What do you want me to do?"

"I don't know. Maybe cut a deal. I'm tired of being stalked."

I analyzed this for a moment as Mordecai finished with a client and called for another. Pelham watched every move he made.

"I'll need some information," I said. "Do you know the agent's name?"

"Yep. I know when and where he was born."

"And when and where he died."

"Yep."

He had no notes or papers with him.

"Why don't you come to my office? Bring the information. We can talk there."

"Let me think about it," he said, looking at his watch. He explained that he worked part-time as a janitor in a church, and he was late. We shook hands, and he left.

I was rapidly learning that one of the challenges of being a street lawyer was to be able to listen. Many of my clients just wanted to talk to someone. All had been kicked and beaten down in some manner, and since free legal advice was available, why not unload on the lawyers? Mordecai was a master at gently poking through the narratives and determining if there was an issue for him to pursue. I was still awed by the fact that people could be so poor.

I was also learning that the best case was one that could be handled on the spot, with no follow-up. I had a notebook filled with applications for food stamps, housing assistance, Medicare, Social Security cards, even driver's licenses. When in doubt, we filled out a form.

Twenty-six clients passed through our session before noon. We left exhausted.

"Let's take a walk," Mordecai said when we were outside file building. The sky was clear, the air cold and windy and refreshing after three hours in a stuffy room with no windows. Across the street was the U.S. Tax Court, a handsome modem building. In fact, the CCNV was surrounded by much nicer structures of more recent construction. We stopped at the comer of Second and D, and looked at the shelter.

"Their lease expires in four years," Mordecai said. "The real estate vultures are already circling. A new convention center is planned two blocks over."

"That'll be a nasty fight."

"It'll be a war."

We crossed the street and strolled toward the Capitol. "That white guy. What's his story?" Mordecai asked. Pelham had been the only white guy. "Amazing," I said, not sure where to start. "He was once a doctor, up in Pennsylvania."

"Who's chasing him now?"

"What?"

"Who's chasing him now?"

"FBI."

"That's nice. Last time it was the CIA."

My feet stopped moving; his did not. "You've seen him before?"

"Yeah, he makes the rounds. Peter something or other."

"Paul Pelham."

"That changes too," he said, over his shoulder. "Tells a great story, doesn't he?"

I couldn't speak. I stood there, watching Mordecai walk away, hands deep in his trench coat, his shoulders shaking because he was laughing so hard.

Chapter Twenty-One

When I mustered the courage to explain to Mordecai that I needed the afternoon off, he very brusquely informed me that my standing was equal to the rest, that no one monitored my hours, and that if I needed time off, then I should damned well take it. I left the office in a hurry. Only Sofia seemed to notice.

I spent an hour with the claims adjuster. The Lexus was a total wreck; my company was offering $21,480, with a release so it could then go after the insurer of the Jaguar. I owed the bank $16,000, so I left with a check for $5,000 and change, certainly enough to buy a suitable vehicle, one appropriate to my new position as a poverty lawyer, and one that wouldn't tempt car thieves.

Another hour was wasted in the reception area of my doctor. As a busy attorney with a cell phone and many clients, I stewed as I sat among the magazines and listened to the clock tick.

A nurse made me strip to my boxers, and I sat for twenty minutes on a cold table. The bruises were turning dark brown. The doctor poked and made things worse, then pronounced me good for another two weeks.

I arrived at Claire's lawyer's office promptly at four, and was met by an unsmiling receptionist dressed like a man. Bitchiness resonated from every corner of the place. Every sound was anti-male: the abrupt, husky voice of the gal answering the phone; the sounds of some female country crooner wafting through the speakers; the occasional shrill voice from down the hall. The colors were soft pastel: lavender and pink and beige. The magazines on the coffee table were there to make a statement: hard-hitting female issues, nothing glamorous or gossipy. They were to be admired by the visitors, not read.

Jacqueline Hume had first made a ton of money cleaning out wayward doctors, then had created a fierce reputation by destroying a couple of philandering senators. Her name struck fear into every unhappily married D.C. male with a nice income. I was anxious to sign the papers and leave.

Instead, I was allowed to wait for thirty minutes, and was on the verge of creating a nasty scene when an associate fetched me and led me to an office down the hall. She handed me the separation agreement, and for the first time I saw the reality. The heading was: Claire Addison Brock versus Michael Nelson Brock.

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