The little woman was sitting against our door when I arrived for work Wednesday morning. It was almost eight; the office was locked; the temperature was below freezing. At first I thought she had parked herself there for the night, using our doorway to battle the wind. But when she saw me approach, she immediately jumped to her feet and said, "Good morning."
I smiled, said hello, and started fumbling keys.
"Are you a lawyer?" she asked.
"Yes I am."
"For people like me?"
I assumed she was homeless, and that was all we asked of our clients. "Sure. Be my guest," I said as I opened the door. It was colder inside than out. I adjusted a thermostat, one that, as far as I had been able to determine, was connected to nothing. I made coffee and found some stale doughnuts in the kitchen. I offered them to her, and she quickly ate one.
"What's your name?" I asked. We were sitting in the front, next to Sofia's desk, waiting for the coffee and praying for the radiators. "Ruby."
"I'm Michael. Where do you live, Ruby?"
"Here and there." She was dressed in a gray Georgetown Hoya sweat suit, thick brown socks, dirty white sneakers with no brand name. She was between thirty and forty, rail-thin, and slightly cockeyed.
"Come on," I said with a smile. "I need to know where you live. Is it a shelter?"
"Used to live in a shelter, but had to leave. Almost got raped. I got a car."
I had seen no vehicles parked near the office when I arrived. "You have a car?"
"Do you drive it?"
"It don't drive. I sleep in the back."
I was asking questions without a legal pad, something I was not trained to do. I poured two large paper cups of coffee, and we retreated to my office, where, mercifully, the radiator was alive and gurgling. I closed the door. Mordecai would arrive shortly, and he had never learned the art of a quiet entry.
Ruby sat on the edge of my brown folding client's chair, her shoulders slumped, her entire upper body wrapped around the cup of coffee, as if it might be the last warm thing in life.
"What can I do for you?" I asked, armed with a full assortment of legal pads.
"It's my son, Terrence. He's sixteen, and they've taken him away."
"Who took him?"
"The city, the foster people."
"Where is he now?"
"They got him."
Her answers were short, nervous bursts, quick on the heels of each question. "Why don't you relax and tell me about Terrence?" I said.
And she did. With no effort at eye contact, and with both hands on the coffee cup, she zipped through her narrative. Several years earlier, she couldn't remember how long, but Terrence was around ten, they were living alone in a small apartment. She was arrested for selling drugs. She went to jail for four months. Terrence went to live with her sister. Upon her release, she collected Terrence, and they began a nightmare existence living on the streets. They slept in cars, squatted in empty buildings, slept under bridges in warm weather, and retreated to the shelters when it was cold. Somehow, she kept him in school. She begged on the sidewalks; she sold her body--"tricking" as she called it; she peddled a little crack. She did whatever it took to keep Terrence fed, in decent clothes, and in school.
But she was an addict, and couldn't kick the crack. She became pregnant, and when the child was born the city took it immediately. It was a crack baby.
She seemed to have no affection for the baby; only for Terrence. The city began asking questions about him, and mother and child slid deeper into the shadows of the homeless. Out of desperation, she went to a family she had once worked for as a maid, the Rowlands, a couple whose children were grown and away from home. They had a warm little house near Howard University. She offered to pay them fifty dollars a month if Terrence could live with them. There was a small bedroom above the back porch, one she'd cleaned many times, and it would be perfect for Terrence. The Rowlands hesitated at first, but finally agreed. They were good people, back then. Ruby was allowed to visit Terrence for an hour each night. His grades improved; he was clean and safe, and Ruby was pleased with herself.
She rearranged her life around his: new soup kitchens and dinner programs closer to the Rowlands; different shelters for emergencies; different alleys and parks and abandoned cars. She scraped together the money each month, and never missed a nightly visit with her son.
Until she was arrested again. The first arrest was for prostitution; the second was for sleeping on a park bench in Farragut Square. Maybe there was a third one, but she couldn't remember.
She was rushed to D.C. General once when someone found her lying in a street, unconscious. She was placed in a dry-out tank for addicts, but walked out after three days because she missed Terrence.
She was with him one night in his room when he stared at her stomach and asked if she was pregnant again. She said she thought so. Who was the father? he demanded. She had no idea. He cursed her and yelled so much that the Rowlands asked her to leave.
While she was pregnant, Terrence had little to do with her. It was heartbreaking--sleeping in cars, begging for coins, counting the hours until she could see him, then being ignored for an hour while she sat in a corner of his room watching him do his homework.
Ruby began crying at that point in her story. I made t some notes, and listened as Mordecai stomped around the front room, trying to pick a fight with Sofia.
Her third delivery, only a year before, produced another crack baby, one immediately taken by the city. i She didn't see Terrence for four days while she was in the hospital recovering from the birth. When she was released, she returned to the only life she knew.
Terrence was an A student, excellent in math and Spanish, a trombone player and an actor in school dramas. He was dreaming of the Naval Academy. Mr. Rowland had served in the military.
Ruby arrived one night for a visit in bad shape. A fight started in the kitchen when Mrs. Rowland con fronted her. Harsh words were exchanged; ultimatums thrown down. Terrence was in the middle of it; three against one. Either she got help, or she would be banned from the house. Ruby declared that she would simply take her boy and leave. Terrence said he wasn't going anywhere.
The next night, a social worker from the city was waiting for her with paperwork. Someone had already been to court. Terrence was being taken into foster care. The Rowlands would be his new parents. He had already lived with them for three years. Visitation would be terminated until she underwent rehab and was clean for a period of sixty days. Three weeks had passed.
"I want to see my son," she said. "I miss him so bad."
"Are you in rehab?" I asked.
She shook her head quickly and closed her eyes.
"Why not?" I asked.
"Can't get in."
I had no idea how a crack addict off the street got admitted to a recovery unit, but it was time to find out. I pictured Terrence in his warm room, well fed, well dressed, safe, clean, sober, doing his homework under the strict supervision of Mr. and Mrs. Rowland, who had grown to love him almost as much as Ruby did. I could see him eating breakfast at the family table, reciting vocabulary lists over hot cereal as Mr. Rowland ignored the morning paper and grilled him on his Spanish. Terrence was stable and normal, unlike my poor little client, who lived in hell.
And she wanted me to handle their reunion.
"This will take some time, okay," I said, thoroughly clueless about how long anything would take. In a city where five hundred families waited for a small space in an emergency shelter, there couldn't be many beds available for drug addicts.
"You won't see Terrence until you're drug-free," I said, trying not to sound pious.
Her eyes watered and she said nothing.
I realized just how little I knew about addiction. Where did she get her drugs? How much did they cost? How many hits and highs each day? How long would it take to dry her out? Then to cure her? What were her chances of kicking a habit she'd had for over a decade? And what did the city do with all those crack babies? She had no paperwork, no address, no identification, nothing but a heartbreaking story. She seemed perfectly content sitting in my chair, and I began to wonder how I might ask her to leave. The coffee was gone.
Sofia's shrill voice brought back reality. There were sharp voices around her. As I raced for the door, my first thought was that another nut like Mister had walked in with a gun.
But there were other guns. Lieutenant Gasko was back, again with plenty of help. Three uniformed cops were approaching Sofia, who was bitching unmercifully but to no avail. Two in jeans and sweatshirts were waiting for action. As I walked out of my office, Mordecai walked out of his.
"Hello, Mikey," Gasko said to me.
"What the hell is this!" Mordecai growled and the walls shook. One of the uniformed cops actually reached for his service revolver.
Gasko went straight for Mordecai. "It's a search," he said, pulling out the required papers and flinging them at Mordecai. "Are you Mr. Green?"
"I am," he answered, snatching the papers.
"What are you looking for?" I yelled at Gasko.
"Same thing," he yelled back. "Give it to us, and we'll be happy to stop."
"It's not here."
"What file?" Mordecai asked, looking at the search warrant.
"The eviction file," I replied.
"Haven't seen your lawsuit," Gasko said to me. I recognized two of the uniformed cops as Lilly and Blower. "A Iotta big talk," Gasko said.
"Get the hell outta here!" Sofia barked at Blower as he inched toward her desk.
Gasko was very much in charge. "Listen, lady," he said, with his usual sneer. "We can do this two ways. First, you put your ass in that chair and shut up. Second, we put the cuffs on you and you sit in the back of a car for the next two hours."
One cop was poking his head into each of the side offices. I felt Ruby ease behind me.
"Relax," Mordecai said to Sofia. "Just relax."
"What's upstairs?" Gasko asked me.
"Storage," Mordecai replied.
"It's not there," I said. "You're wasting your time."
"Then we'll have to waste it, won't we?"
A prospective client opened the front door, startling those of us inside. His eyes darted quickly around the room, then settled on the three men in uniform. He made a hasty retreat into the safety of the streets.
I asked Ruby to leave too. Then I stepped into Mordecai's office and closed the door. "Where's the file?" he asked in a low voice. "It's not here, I swear. This is just harassment."
"The warrant looks valid. There's been a theft; it's reasonable to assume the file would be with the attorney who stole it."
I tried to say something lawyerly and bright, some piercing legal nugget that would stop the search cold and send the cops running. But words failed me. hstead, I was embarrassed at having brought the police to nose through the clinic.
"Do you have a copy of the file?" he asked.
"Have you thought about giving them their original?"
"I can't. That would be an admission of guilt. They don't know for a fact that I have the file. And even if I gave it back, they would know that I had copied it."
He rubbed his beard and agreed with me. We stepped out of his office just as Lilly missed a step near the unused desk next to Sofia's. An avalanche of files slid onto the floor. Sofia yelled at him; Gasko yelled at her. The tension was quickly moving away from words and in the direction of physical conflict.
I locked the front door so our clients wouldn't see the search. "Here's the way we'll do it," Mordecai announced. The cops glared, but they were anxious for some direction. Searching a law office was quite unlike raiding a bar filled with millors.
"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.
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