The same themes were repeated by each speaker, except for Mordecai, who spoke fifth and silenced the crowd with his story of the last hours of the Burton family. When he told of changing the baby's diaper, probably its last one, there wasn't a sound in the crowd. Not a cough or a whisper. I looked at the caskets as if one actually held the baby.
Then the family left the shelter, he explained, his voice slow, deep, resonating. They went back into the streets, into the snowstorm where Lontae and her children survived only a few more hours. Mordecai took great license with the facts at that point, because no one knew exactly what had happened. I knew this, but I didn't care. The rest of the crowd was equally mesmerized by his story.
When he described the last moments, as the family huddled together in a futile effort to stay warm, I heard women crying around me.
My thoughts turned selfish. If this man, my- friend and fellow lawyer, could captivate a crowd of thousands from an elevated platform a hundred feet away, what could he do with twelve people in a jury box close enough to touch?
I realized at that moment that the Burton lawsuit would never get that far. No defense team in its right mind would allow Mordecai Green to preach to a black jury in this city. If our assumptions were correct, and if we could prove them, there would never be a trial.
After an hour and a half of speeches, the crowd was restless and ready to walk. The choir began again, and the caskets were lifted by the pallbearers, who led the procession away from the building. Behind the caskets were the leaders, including Mordecai. The rest of us followed. Someone handed me a Lontae placard, and I held it as high as anyone else.
Privileged people don't march and protest; their world is safe and clean and governed by laws designed to keep them happy. I had never taken to the streets before; why bother? And for the first block or two I felt odd, walking in a mass of people, holding a stick with a placard bearing the face of a twenty-two-year-old black mother who bore four illegitimate children.
But I was no longer the same person I'd been a few weeks earlier. Nor could I go back, even if I'd wanted to. My past had been about money and possessions and status, afflictions that now disturbed me.
And so I relaxed and enjoyed the walk. I chanted with the homeless, rolled and pitched my placard in perfect unison with the others, and even tried to sing hymns foreign to me. I savored my first exercise in civil protest. It wouldn't be my last.
The barricades protected us as we inched toward Capitol Hill. The march had been well planned, and because of its size it attracted attention along the way. The caskets were placed on the steps of the Capitol. We congregated in a mass around them, then listened to another series of fiery speeches from civil rights activists and two members of Congress.
The speeches grew old; I'd heard enough. My homeless brethren had little to do; I had opened thirty-one files since beginning my new career on Monday. Thirty-one real people were waiting for me to get food stamps, locate housing, file divorces, defend criminal charges, obtain disputed wages, stop evictions, help with their addictions, and in some way snap my fingers and find justice. As an antitrust lawyer, I rarely had to face the clients. Things were different on the street.
I bought a cheap cigar from a sidewalk vendor, and went for a short walk on the Mall.
I knocked on the door next to where the Palmas had lived, and a woman's voice asked, "Who's there?" There was no effort to unbolt and open. I had thought long and hard about my ploy. I'd even rehearsed it driving to Bethesda. But I was not convinced I could be convincing.
"Bob Stevens," I said, cringing. "I'm looking for Hector Palma."
"Who?" she asked.
"Hector Palma. He used to live next door to you."
"What do you want?"
"I owe him some money. I'm trying to find him, that's all."
If I were collecting money, or had some other unpleasant mission, then the neighbors would naturally be defensive. I thought this was a nifty little ruse.
"He's gone," she said flatly.
"I know he's gone. Do you know where he went?"
"Did he leave this area?"
"Did you see them move?"
Of course the answer was yes; there was no way around it. But instead of being helpful, she withdrew into the depths of her apartment and probably called security. I repeated the question, then rang the doorbell again. Nothing.
So I went to the door on the other side of Hector's last-known address. Two tings, it opened shghtly until the chain caught, and a man my age with mayonnaise in the corner of his mouth said, "What do you want?"
I repeated the Bob Stevens plot. he listened carefully while his kids romped through the living room behind him, a television blasting away. It was after eight, dark and cold, and I'd interrupted a late dinner.
But he was not unpleasant. "I never knew him," he said.
"What about his wife?"
"Nope. I travel a lot. Gone most of the time."
"Did your wife know them?"
"No." He said this too quickly.
"Did you or your wife see them move?"
"We weren't here last weekend."
"And you have no idea where they went?"
I thanked him, then turned around to meet a beefy security guard, in uniform, holding a billy club with his right hand and tapping it on his left palm, like a street cop in a movie. "What are you doing?" he snarled.
"Looking for someone," I said. "Put that thing away."
"We don't allow solicitation."
"Are you deaf? I'm looking for someone, not soliciting." I walked past him, toward the parking lot.
"We've had a complaint," he said to my back. "You need to leave."
* * *
Dinner was a taco and a beer in a corporate bar not far away. I felt safer eating in the suburbs. The restaurant was of the cookie-cutter variety, a national chain getting rich with shiny new neighborhood watering holes. The crowd was dominated by young government workers, still trying to get home, all talking policy and politics while drinking draft beer and yelling at a game.
Loneliness was an adjustment. My wife and friends had been left behind. Seven years in the sweatshop of Drake & Sweeney had not been conducive to nurturing friendships; or a marriage either, for that matter. At the age of thirty-two, I was ill-prepared for the single life. As I watched the game, and the women, I asked myself if I were expected to return to the bar and nightclub scene to find companionship. Surely there was some other place and method.
I got dejected and left.
I drove slowly into the city, not anxious to arrive at my apartment. My name was on a lease, in a computer somewhere, and I figured the police could find my loft without too much trouble. If they were planning an arrest, I was certain it would happen at night. They would enjoy terrifying me with a midnight knock on the door, a little roughing up as they frisked me and slapped on the cuffs, a shove out the door, down the elevator with death grips under my arms, a push into the rear seat of a squad car for the ride to the city jail where I would be the only young white professional arrested that night. They would like nothing better than to throw me into a holding cell with the usual assortment of thugs, and leave me there to fend for myself.
I carried with me two things, regardless of what I was doing. One was a cell phone, with which to call Mordecai as soon as I was arrested. The other was a folded stack of bills--twenty hundred-dollar bills--to use to make bail and hopefully spring myself before I got near the holding cell.