Page 43 of The Street Lawyer

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"The file isn't here, okay. We'll start with that promise. You can look at all the files you want, but you can't open them. That would violate client confidentiality. Agreed?"

The other cops looked at Gasko, who shrugged as if that was acceptable.

We started in my office; all six cops, me, and Mordecai crammed into the tiny room, working hard at avoiding contact. I opened each drawer of my desk, none of which would open unless yanked viciously. At one point I heard Gasko whisper to himself, "Nice office."

I removed each file from my cabinets, waved them under Gasko's nose, and returned them to their place. I'd only been there since Monday, so there wasn't much to search.

Mordecai slipped from the room and went to Sofia's desk, where he used the phone. When Gasko declared my office to be officially searched, we left it, just in time to hear Mordecai say into the receiver, "Yes, Judge, thank you. He's right here."

His smile showed every tooth as he thrust the phone at Gasko. "This is Judge Kisner, the gentleman who signed the search warrant. He would like to speak to you."

Gasko took the phone as if it were owned by a leper. "This is Gasko," he said, holding it inches from his head.

Mordecai turned to the other cops. "Gentlemen, you may search this room, and that's it. You cannot go into the private offices to the sides. Judge's orders."

Gasko mumbled, "Yes sir," and hung up.

We monitored their movements for an hour, as they went from desk to desk--four of them in all, including Sofia's. After a few minutes, they realized the search was futile, and so they prolonged it by moving as slowly as possible. Each desk was covered with files long since closed. The books and legal publications had last been looked at years earlier. Some stacks were covered with dust. A few cobwebs had to be dealt with.

Each file was tabbed, with the case name either typed or handprinted. Two of the cops wrote down the names of the files as they were called out by Gasko and the others. It was tedious, and utterly hopeless.

They saved Sofia's desk for last. She handled things herself, calling off the name of each file, spelling the simpler ones like Jones, Smith, Williams. The cops kept their distance. She opened drawers just wide enough for a quick peek. She had a personal drawer, which no one wanted to see. I was sure there were weapons in there.

They left without saying good-bye. I apologized to Sofia and Mordecai for the intrusion, and retreated to the safety of my office.

Chapter Twenty-Three

Number five on the list of evictees was Kelvin Lam, a name vaguely familiar to Mordecai. He once estimated the number of homeless in the District to be around ten thousand. There were at least that many files scattered throughout the 14th Street Legal Clinic. Every name rang a bell with Mordecai.

He worked the circuits, the kitchens and shelters and service providers, the preachers and cops and other street lawyers. After dark we drove downtown to a church wedged between high-priced office buildings and ritzy hotels. In a large basement two levels below, the Five Loaves dinner program was in full swing. The room was lined with folding tables, all surrounded by hungry folks eating and talking. It was not a soup kitchen; the plates were filled with corn, potatoes, a slice of something that was either turkey or chicken, fruit salad, bread. I had not eaten dinner, and the aroma made me hungry.

"I haven't been here in years," Mordecai said as we stood by the entrance looking down at the dining area. "They feed three hundred a day. Isn't it wonderful?"

"Where does the food come from?"

"D.C. Central Kitchen, an outfit in the basement of the CCNV. They've developed this amazing system of collecting excess food from local restaurants, not leftovers, but uncooked food that will simply go bad if not used immediately. They have a fleet of refrigerated trucks, and they run all over the city collecting food which they take to the kitchen and prepare, frozen dinners. Over two thousand a day."

"It looks tasty."

"It's really quite good."

A young lady, named Liza found us. She was new at Five Loaves. Mordecai had known her predecessor, whom they talked about briefly as I watched the people eat.

I noticed something I should have seen before. There were different levels of homelessness, distinct rungs on the socioeconomic ladder. At one table, six men ate and talked happily about a basketball game they had seen on television. They were reasonably well dressed. One wore gloves while he ate, and except for that, the group could've been sitting in any workingclass bar in the city without being immediately branded as homeless. Behind them, a hulking figure with thick sunglasses ate alone, handling the chicken with his fingers. He had robber boots similar to the ones Mister wore at the time of his death. His coat was dirty and frayed. He was oblivious to his surroundings. His life was noticeably harder than the lives of the men laughing at the next table. They had access to warm water and soap; he couldn't have cared less. They slept in shelters. He slept in parks with the pigeons. But they were all homeless.

Liza did not know Kelvin Lam, but she would ask around. We watched her as she moved through the crowd, speaking to the people, pointing to the wastebaskets in one corner, fussing over an elderly lady. She sat between two men, neither of whom looked at her as they talked. She went to another table, then another.

Most surprisingly, a lawyer appeared, a young associate from a large firm, a pro bono volunteer with the Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless. He recognized Mordecai from a fund-raiser the year before. We did law talk for a few minutes, then he disappeared into a back room to begin three hours of intake.

"The Washington Legal Clinic has a hundred and fifty volunteers," Mordecai said. "Is that enough?" I asked.

"It's never enough. I think we should revive our pro bono volunteer program. Maybe you'd like to take charge and supervise it. Abraham likes the idea."

It was nice to know that Mordecai and Abraham, and no doubt Sofia too, had been discussing a program for me to run.

"It will expand our base, make us more visible in the legal community, and help with raising money."

"Sure," I said, without conviction.

Liza was back. "Kelvin Lam is in the rear," she said, nodding. "Second table from the back. Wearing the Redskins cap."

"Did you talk to him?" Mordecai asked.

"Yes. He's sober, pretty sharp, said he's been staying at CCNV, works part-time on a garbage truck."

"Is there a small room we can use?"

"Sure."

"Tell Lam a homeless lawyer needs to talk to him."

* * *

Lam didn't say hello or offer to shake hands. Mordecai sat at a table. I stood in a corner. Lam took the only available chair, and gave me a look that made my skin crawl.

"Nothing's wrong," Mordecai said in his best soothing tone. "We need to ask you a few questions, that's all."

Not a peep out of Lam. He was dressed like a resident of a shelter--jeans, sweatshirt, sneakers, wool jacket--as opposed to the pungent multilayered garb of one sleeping under a bridge.

"Do you know a woman named Lontae Burton?" Mordecai asked. He would do the talking for us lawyers.

Lam shook his head no.

"DeVon Hardy?"

Another no.

"Last month, were you living in an abandoned warehouse?"

"Yep."

"At the corner of New York and Florida?"

"Uh-huh."

"Were you paying rent?"

"Yep."

"A hundred dollars a month?"

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