Sunday, July 17, 2011

Like Having to Pee

Writing is like having to pee. I can ignore the urge for a while, but it always comes back, sometimes stronger. The entries below are from 2004 or so to 2009, and the house remodeling blog (This Old House It Ain't, which I also hope to make accessible from this site) dates from 2003-4. New entries will be coming soon.

How To Spell Apologize

Everyone in the courtroom is angry. The judge is frustrated with the bailiffs, who are short-staffed and delay in bringing the defendants from holding up to the courtroom. My attorney is furious with the co-defendant’s lawyer, who presented a last minute witness who laid the alleged armed robbery at the feet of our client. Our client’s mother is fed up with my attorney, and during every break coaches her on evidence she needs to bring up or contest. The client’s mother puts excessive emphasis on small discrepancies between the governments’ witnesses: the complaining witness said the gunman was about 5’10”, but her son is 6’1”. The first officer said the umbrella the gunman carried was white and blue; her son’s is white and green. My attorney already went over this while each witness was on the stand. “But Miss Charles, it’s your job to bring that out more!” our client’s mother says.

“I know how to do my job, Ms. Jones,” my attorney replies. Our client is charged with armed robbery. He is eighteen. He was stopped by police while wearing a distinctive pink jacket with sports patches, carrying a Tech 9 submachine gun, with three crisp $20 bills in his pocket. His friend carried four additional $20 bills. The complaining witness ID’ed them as the two suspects she had described to police a few hours earlier, after she reported being robbed at gunpoint of $140 in twenties by two young men, one of them carrying a submachine gun and wearing a pink jacket with sports patches on it. It is a difficult case.

I wonder if anyone should be angry at our client, this cute, lanky young man who happened to be in possession of a loaded machine gun, and who possibly pointed it to a stranger’s head and demanded money from her. He reminds me of my first boyfriend, who wore Rolling Stones t-shirts and made inappropriate jokes in class. The defendants are teens just like any others; they push boundaries, miscalculate danger, and can’t visualize the future. Their mothers come to court every day; they are concerned, respectful, pulled together. They are normal-looking parents with normal-looking kids who somehow end up carrying dangerous weapons and facing years in prison before they even graduate high school.

I watched a video of a police interrogation of one such young man. He came on camera cocky and demanding a soda, and was escorted off camera six hours later, crying and wiping his nose on his T-shirt. In between, he’d confessed to a robbery gone wrong which ended with him shooting and killing a 74 year-old barber. After copping to the crime, at the detectives' suggestion, the boy began to write a letter to the barber’s widow, explaining what happened and seeking her forgiveness. The kid sat in the interrogation room, writing, erasing and re-writing for about 10 minutes. Then he stopped and looked up at the detectives. “How do you spell apologize?” he asked.

My attorney says the saddest part of her job is when she sees kids she represented as juveniles back in court, facing new charges as adults. Not losing cases, not getting motions denied, not getting overruled on objections, but knowing that for some clients, even if they are acquitted it’s not over. I loved working at the PD's office this semester. It’s a real privilege to be allowed into the clients’ lives, especially for these confused and painful moments. It’s rewarding be able to help them understand, order, and improve their situations. But there is a lot of anger to go around in these cases, and a certain frustration, because no one knows how to make things right.

Mixed Feelings

Our client, Mr. X, is a very polite. He refers to my attorney as “Miss Charles” and nods and says, “Yes, ma’am” when she informs him he’ll have to take another day off work and return to the courthouse tomorrow for the conclusion of his trial. But further than that, he is a nice man. He nervously tries to make small talk about the newspaper headlines while the interns and I wait with him outside the courtroom. The news of the day is the woman in SE who killed her four daughters and kept their rotting bodies in her house. Mr. X shakes his head and says, “It’s a crazy world, that’s for sure.”

Mr. X is charged with attempted rape of his step-daughter. My attorney believes he is innocent, that the girl is lying because she is angry that Mr. X and her mother have recently separated. My attorney cross-examines the step-daughter mercilessly, trying to trip her up and show inconsistencies in her testimony. “And you said when Mr. X came up behind you, you saw his shadow where?” she asks.

“Uh, on the floor,” the girl answers. She is about twelve. She often looks over at her relatives sitting in the audience. She has the hiccups. After every stifled hiccup, she says “excuse me,” quietly into the mic.

I can’t remember now what grade I was in when this happened to me. Sixth or seventh, I think. I remember that some of my friends wore bras – I didn’t, and I wondered if that’s why the man outside the library approached me and my friend. It wasn’t nearly as bad as this – in fact, it was almost nothing, just quick groping through our clothes until we got away from him and ran inside. There was another girl, younger than us, that the same man approached inside the library. He grabbed her and put a lighter to her hair. My mother knew her mother. But that girl didn’t press charges, so only my friend and I went to court. We had to take off school. One classmate said dismissively, “You’re sending a guy to jail because he grabbed your butt?” Another said, “He should have to pay you a lot of money for that!” which sounded wrong at the time, but I couldn’t say exactly why.

Before the trial, my mother talked to my friend’s mother, who was a highly respected attorney, on the phone. They decided that we would not wear our school uniforms to the trial. My mother doesn’t remember hearing this at the time, but someone told me that my friend’s mom had said that “ninety percent of these cases are decided based on appearance.” We wore blue jeans and button-down oxford shirts. I remember my friend said it was OK to roll up the sleeves. At the courthouse, my father talked to the defense attorney before we testified. He said the defense attorney told him that the main defense was that “it wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” On cross examination, all the defense attorney asked me was if the defendant had removed our clothes (no) or touched our genitals (no). The defendant was convicted, and we took the rest of the day off school.

My attorney thinks the step-daughter has been coached about what to say at trial. There is a big focus on what she did after she got home from the house where Mr. X allegedly assaulted her. What did she say to her mother? How did she feel? Was she angry, my attorney asks, noting that her aunt had testified that she “stormed upstairs.” The prosecutor objects: “Relevance, your honor! This has already been addressed in previous testimony!” The girl looks confused. The judge directs her to answer the question.

“How did you feel, when you got home that day?” my attorney repeats.

The girl pauses. “I guess you could say I had mixed feelings,” she says.

On redirect, the prosecutor asks the girl how she felt when she was giving her statement to the police. Again, the girl seems confused. “I just felt like I didn’t want to be there,” she says. The prosecutor asks her what she means. “I felt like I wanted to go to sleep,” she offers. The prosecutor asks her why she wanted to go to sleep. “Because you know, when something bad happens, sometimes I just want to go to sleep,” the girl says. She doesn’t seem able to explain why. Her insight, which she cannot fully articulate, hits me hard, and I think that if she’s been coached, whoever orchestrated that testimony was a pro. I wonder if the girl will ever forget this.

In the end, the judge believes the girl, and finds our client guilty. I am afraid to look at Mr. X’s face while the verdict is read, because I can tell from the way his shoulders are tensed that he is either crying or holding back tears. He is a nice man, and I don’t want him to know I see him like this.

The Truth Is Out There

My attorney asks me to take notes at the hearings, because sometimes the court reporter won’t turn out a transcript in time. I guess they are useful to her; my harried summaries of who says what, when they change their story, when they are caught in a discrepancy. The notes are an overload of information, with cross-outs, abbreviations, symbols, but between the lines, I try to piece together the real story of what happened. I start with the bare bones of the plot: here, our client is charged with murder and obstruction of justice. As a matter of practice, my attorney doesn’t ask the client what happened. Instead, she asks, what will the police say happened? In this case, the police say our client shot and killed someone. The police say there were multiple witnesses. The police say our client threatened the witnesses to discourage them from giving statements. Our investigators find one of these witnesses, a woman named Ms. Mills, and she tells is that she is not afraid of our client. To present this information to the judge, we subpoena her, but she comes to court very reluctantly. She does not want anyone to see her at the courthouse. She does not want to sit in the courtroom. I wait with Ms. Mills in a secluded area, making sure she does not leave in case the judge wants her to testify.

My attorney asked me to find out if our client actually threatened Ms. Mills. But Ms. Mills makes only vague statements to about the case. She thinks our client is “a good person,” but after speaking to the police about the shooting, she started to “see things differently,” and was “uncomfortable” when our client started showing up at her house unexpectedly. She accepted a placement in the witness protection program, left her apartment, and moved into a hotel room in the suburbs paid for by the government. While in at the hotel, her apartment was robbed. They took her TV, she said, and she wondered if it was because of the shooting. Who robbed your apartment? I ask. I have no idea, she answers. She tells me again that she is “very uncomfortable” to be involved in the case. By way of explanation, she says, “I have to live on these streets.” She shrugs defeatedly and tells me she doesn’t know who to trust. I nod, to acknowledge the difficulty of her position, but I have nothing reassuring to say.

At the hearing, one woman in the audience sighs loudly when witness intimidation is mentioned. She seems frustrated, but I can’t tell if it’s with my attorney, who argues that the alleged obstruction is being blown out of proportion, or with the prosecution, who argue that witnesses truly fear for their lives as the result of our client’s actions. The prosecution paints our client as a big wheel in the neighborhood drug and gang underworld. Our client is young – probably under 21. His eyes meet mine in the courtroom, and he freezes like a deer in headlights, staring at me blankly before looking away. There is no confrontation in his eyes. I find it very hard to imagine him killing someone. Could it have been a mistake? A heated argument that got out of control? Self defense? The police imply that it was premeditated. I wonder what emotion could so seize a person, what thought could so inhabit his mind, that it would drive him to murder. The only thing I can imagine is that maybe it’s like being in love -- desperately, obsessively in love -- when everything else fades away and all you can do is think about your crush, talk about him to anyone who will listen, wait for him to call. An email from him makes your day; absence of one ruins it. I wonder if our client felt this way about his neighborhood scene, if its petty interactions had become his be all end all; if the world beyond it had ceased to matter, or in his mind, never really existed at all.

My attorney fights very hard for our clients, but in court, she rarely talks to them, smiles at them, or touches them. Usually she acts as if they are not even there, and they try to do likewise, their faces expressionless as the events unfold. But their eyes often give them away, darting back and forth amongst the actors in the courtroom. I wonder what they think about, while their actions are evaluated and their lives hang in the balance. I ask my attorney if our client will testify on his own behalf, and she looks surprised. “He has nothing to add,” she says. Then, in a flip tone, “He wasn’t there. He has nothing to say.” Whatever he would say, I guess, would be unsatisfactory, vague, confusing. It may add to the clutter of information, but it can’t make all this make sense.

Working for the Public Defender

My first day at the office of the public defender, my attorney was late. She showed up minutes before we were scheduled to be in court wearing gaudy red pumps, a black suit, and swearing like a sailor. “Call me Julie,” she replied to my stilted questions directed to “Ms. Charles.” On the way to the courtroom, she railed against the prosecutor's office, specifically, the attorney she was facing down that morning. “She is – pardon the expression – a bitch,” Julie said, dropping her voice just slightly. I nodded, I hoped, sympathetically. The officer Julie was scheduled to cross examine she referred to as “a cocksucker.” Again, I nodded. Prior to accepting this internship, I had worried about the strong ideological bent of the public defender's office. At a brown bag lunch I attended my 1L year, a PD attorney recruiting law clerks responded to a question about his sources of motivation by thundering at us, “There’s a war going on here, people, and if you don’t see that, I don’t know what to tell you!” It was pretty clear he was not talking about Iraq.

Before coming to law school, I lived in a low income, majority minority neighborhood in Austin, TX for about 10 years. I had many interactions with police and crime. I experienced firsthand how police can denigrate, undercut, or ignore concerns from residents of “bad” neighborhoods. I remember being told by a police officer that there was nothing he could do about the crime in our neighborhood, and how hopeless I felt when he advised me to move if I didn’t like living around the corner from a crack house. I remember asking a different officer to do something about a prostitute meeting johns in front of my house. With a voice full of distain, he said to me, “Do you know how hard it is for me to arrest a prostitute?” Then he turned back to his coffee and conversation with the clerk at the corner store.

I had no doubt that there are some really bad officers out there, a few psychos or bullies, as in any profession. But I also had dealt with good police officers – ones who came to neighborhood meetings, and sat patiently through litanies blaming them for official racism undertaken before they were even born. After a drug dealer threatened me with a gun, I broke down in tears in front of a kind female officer who listened sympathetically to my complaint. She wrote everything down and told me she’d drive around the neighborhood looking for the guy based on my vague description, even though we both know this would probably be a waste of her time.

Basically, before coming to the PD's office, I felt like I had a pretty realistic outlook on the police, and I had little patience for people who acted like police were uniformly racists and sadists or uniformly helpful and professional. I took Julie’s railing against the prosecution and police with a hefty grain of salt, and wondered how professional she herself was, anyway. On the walk to the courthouse, I referred to the man she was representing as “the defendant”. “The client!” she corrected me. “They call them defendants.” As we headed into the courtroom, Julie seemed disorganized and frazzled. When she introduced herself to the judge as counsel for the defense, she spoke quickly, with an air of anger tinged with resignation. The detective testifying for the prosecution started out calm and confident, but as Julie got into the cross examination, his demeanor became more evasive and defensive. He made assertions that no witnesses were pressured to testify as part of a plea bargain, then admitted that he had not been present for any of the witness interviews and couldn’t testify to what had taken place during them. He often claimed that he didn’t know, couldn’t remember, or hadn’t clarified crucial details of the witness testimony on which the prosecution’s case rested. Under duress, he finally admitted that one witness was a drug dealer angling for a plea bargain. The anger in Julie’s voice increased during the cross examination, and the resignation disappeared. During questioning, the detective let slip that an additional person had been present at the crime scene, and that the police and prosecutors conspired to keep this information from the defense. Even the judge was shocked.

After admitting this, the detective looked up, somewhat shame-facedly, I thought. Our eyes met. I was, honestly, flabbergasted at how evasive the police officer was under oath, and I wondered if my shock and disappointment in him was obvious on my face. “You see how shady they are?” Julie demanded after the hearing was adjourned. I nodded, but with more feeling this time.

We returned to the PD's office across the street, and Julie spent some time venting about the experience to one of her co-workers. They laughed at the unfair judges, the lying cops, the stiff prosecutors. They both cursed liberally. Eventually, the conversation wound down and I prepared to leave, assuring Julie that it had been absolutely fascinating and that I was looking forward to coming back the next day for more. Julie made a comment to the effect that the cross examination was perhaps a baptism by fire into the reality of criminal defense. She swore again, laughed, and mused, “And this morning you were calling me ‘Ms. Charles!’”

October 4th, 1957

This is a story I wrote way back in undergrad, but I think about it every October 4th on the anniversary of Sputnik, so this year I figured I'd dust it off and publish it here.

October 4th, 1957

Tommy Morgan died the day Sputnik was launched. He was seventeen, three years older than my brother, Billy; I was ten and had trouble grasping outer space, let alone anything larger. When my mother came to pick me up from school that day, she looked more scared than Mr. Murlitz, our principal, he talked to us about the Russian threat in our annual assembly. “It’s going to be very hard on Billy,” my mother said, shifting her eyes from the road to me. “Tommy was really his best friend.” I nodded automatically. “If you could do anything for him…” she paused and swallowed. “You know,” she continued, tightening her grip on the steering wheel. “Just be a good brother.” I nodded again, quickly, and turned to the window.

When he was thirteen, Tommy Morgan learned how to stand. His parents got him leg braces from the best cerebral palsy doctor in the country which locked his legs into place and set them so he could be lifted upright and then balance, unsupported, his arms jerking with effort and his chin stuck out, proud. My parents and I clapped, and Billy, amazed, rocked back and forth with so much force he almost fell out his chair, his mouth open, one eye trained on Tommy, both of them forcing out raw bursts of incredulous laughter. Two years later Billy was standing too, but since he couldn’t balance on his own, my father built him a standing table to hold onto while the braces kept his legs straight. By then Tommy Morgan was fifteen, and back in his wheelchair, frustrating himself trying to move pegs on a pegboard and relearn exercises he had mastered two years before.

When I got home from school, Billy was in his chair, a pegboard on his lap, crying in rough barking sobs as Miss Burch, his tutor, sat across from him. “I think we’ve done all we can do today,” she said when we came in, putting her hand on Billy’s shoulder for a minute before she gathered up her papers and pegs and put them in her bag. After she left, Billy kept crying and my mother walked over to him slowly, then bent and hugged his jumping shoulders in silence.

“Do you want to take a walk, Billy? I’ll go with you for a walk,” I volunteered. He swung his head no. “Do you want to watch American Bandstand?” Watching TV and riding in the car were two of Billy’s favorite things, but he swung his head again. My mother stood up and moved to the seat at the table that Miss Burch had sat in.

“Do you miss Tommy?” she asked softly, leaning forward and looking into Billy’s face. He nodded, then pitched his head forward and made a little crying wheeze, a question she couldn’t begin to answer. “You know Tommy wouldn’t want you to be sad,” my mother tried, her voice tense as if she was walking a tightrope. “Everyone has to die sometime, don’t they?” Billy twisted in his chair. “For some people it’s sooner, but Tommy lived a lot in the time he had,” She shifted her eyes away from Billy’s crumpled face, her voice stretching out. “You do what you can while you can, Billy, and keep hoping that’s worth something. It’s all you can do.” He twisted further away, so he was looking at the opposite wall, gasping raspy, irregular breaths and crying slowly.

“Do you want to go for a ride –“ I started, reaching for anything that could make it better, but even before my voice gave out it was overwhelmed by Billy’s awkward sobbing. I walked over to the TV and turned it on low, then sat right in front like I was never supposed to do with my back to both of them. After a minute my mother wheeled Billy over and he sat a little behind me, shifting in his chair until I moved over to the couch and sat next to him. We sat like that until my father came home, wrapped in silence except for the muffled voices on the TV and the occasional chokes of sobs that caught in Billy’s throat.

We were back in those same positions, watching the television news about Sputnik when Uncle Clint came by after dinner. “The skies are red tonight, thanks to Eisenhower!” Uncle Clint waved his stubby hand at the screen as he dropped down on the other side of the couch. Immediately I looked over at Billy, whose arm jerked in response. “Well, I know you’ve got a fondness for him, Bill, but as your parents should be telling you, that man’s taking this country straight to hell.”

“Clint –“ my father warned, but Billy cut him off with a raw angry squall and a twist of his knees that rattled his chair.

“Settle down, now!” Clint reprimanded, taken aback as Billy broke into hiccupping wails and bucked in his chair, rocking it back and forth. “It’s only my opinion,” he added, ejecting himself from the couch and moving towards the door as my father went to the closet to get him his coat. Uncle Clint forced an arm through one sleeve and turned back towards us, hunting for some apology. “You know I’m not saying that I could do any better,” he shrugged over his shoulder.

After an hour, Billy’s crying stopped and we went to bed, tucked in and quiet, just a few feet apart. Down the hall, I could hear my parents talking about the whole scene, my mother’s voice starting, sad and plaintive. “Part of the problem is that Clint is just clumsy with people. He can’t help it, you know.”

“Part of the problem is Clint drinks too much and shows up in people’s living rooms without an invitation,” my father answered gruffly. “If he had just asked how we were doing before he jumped in…” his voice trailed to an angry, dry cough and we heard the easy chair squeak as he sunk into it.

We were silent in the bedroom, except for Billy’s uneven, heavy breathing, which didn’t relax until I crawled out of my bed and crossed over to his. He lay on his back, arms pinned down by the sheets and blanket tucked in tight around him. His head, as always, held between two “teddy bears” – the inserts which kept him from rolling over and smothering in his sleep. I reached down and hugged his confined body the best I could, pressing my cheek to his collar. I stayed for a bit, almost forgetting Billy’s tense and shifting body, then when back to my own bed, slipping in as quietly as I could. As we went to sleep, I kept remembering Tommy’s asymmetrical smile, the proud angle of his chin when he stood for us in his living room, and Billy’s pain now that he saw how it had turned out.

Monday evening, Uncle Clint came back with a signed picture of Eisenhower that he got at the Republican office in Buffalo, which my mother arranged on our living room mantle. Billy smiled softly at Uncle Clint, who sighed with relief and reinstated himself on our couch, and we watched the news together quietly, until Billy and I went to bed. In our room that night we stayed awake a long time, both staring up at the ceiling above our twin beds, each minute wondering how many more we had before we’d fall asleep.

Leah's Basement

October 1, 2007

I keep thinking about Leah’s basement. Cinderblock walls, cement floor, no windows, and by the washing machine, a smaller, soundproof room with a built in bar. An old speakeasy, Leah says. Empty now, and waiting.

Nothing motivates me more than underuse. Give me a boarded up house, a discarded toy, a blank page, and I am compelled to rebuild it, re-furbish it, refill it; to pour myself into it and remake it as a reflection of myself. It’s a rather fascistic impulse, really, and I fear it undergirds my interest in the class that’s giving me so much grief this week: Housing Law & Policy. Today’s class was a presentation on HOPE VI, the federal program which funds the demolition of the most decrepit, crime ridden & unpleasant public housing projects and their replacement with new, safer, cleaner communities. We saw pictures of the derelict MLK apartments in Philadelphia before HOPE VI, with graffiti covered stairwells, and narrow slivers for windows. After HOPE VI, in its place stood MLK Plaza, a block of townhomes and new trees fronting the street. The buildings look nice, but there were few pictures of people.

Residents of the housing projects remade under HOPE VI have a “right of return”, but many do not take it. “Some get a voucher for Section 8 housing, and they like it so much that they decide to stay there,” my professor said. It seems too obvious to mention that the place they left behind isn’t there to go back to, for better or for worse.

When I have to come up with a password, I still use the number of my first apartment. That place, East 11th Street -- “the worst neighborhood in Austin,” as one of Jamey’s old co-workers put it – now looks like MLK Plaza. But back then, I joked, it was like living through the plagues of Egypt. There were ants. Then rats. Then rains. There was no heat, and the kitchen tap water was brown. But still, I was afraid I’d get kicked out. When crazy George moved in across the hall, he got it in his head one night to rip up the carpet. I went over to check out his handiwork, and stood in his threadbare apartment, the splinter-y floors pocked with nail holes and industrial stapes. “Don’t make it too nice,” I told him, “or they’ll raise the rent.” I needn’t have worried – soon after, a cigarette discarded carelessly during a long night of domestic turmoil started a fire which scorched his apartment and charred the hallway. “Your building smells like barbeque,” my friend Scott said, months later.

When the new buildings went up on E. 11th Street some 3 years later, only Ms. Williams and I came back. I visited her new beauty salon, with shiny linoleum floors and a modern shampoo station. I told her about my new house, just a few blocks away, and we shared our pride. “This relocation was the best thing that ever happened to us,” she whispered to me, somewhat conspiratorially.

Who knows what the revitalization of our block did for everyone else. I heard that one older man bought a big car and a house in San Antonio. The last holdout from the old neighborhood – Freddie, a homeowner on the adjacent block – told me that the old guy would drive up from time to time to visit his old stomping grounds, which was considered somewhat miraculous because he always arrived drunk as a skunk. But last week, I heard that Freddie is moving. His nephew needs surgery, and the house upkeep is too much for him anyway, so he’s going to sell and cash out. One of the last things he’s doing in the neighborhood is starting a petition in support of the organization that was charged by the city to carry out the whole revitalization project. They’ve done a lot of good, he says. Even though he won’t be around to enjoy it.

My professor is proud of her work with the Philadelphia Housing Authority, and rightly so. They took this housing of last resort, broken down and beat up, feared and avoided, and remade it into a vibrant, healthy place. No more defaced hallways, no more plagues of Egypt. There residents there now choose to live there, and not because they are afraid that they have nowhere else to go. And the people that were there before have new places, and old memories. It is, my professor says, a remarkable change.

Queen Bitch

June 13, 2007

Wednesday starts when I wake up from a dream about an ex-boyfriend, an hour and a half before my alarm will go off. I hear the shower running, and realize that I have to pee. Writing is like having to pee. Out of nowhere, the urge comes on. I can ignore it, and it will go away for a while, but it always comes back, stronger. So while I'm waiting for my roomate to get out of the bathroom, I figure I'll attempt to knock out a catch up post.

I've been thinking in songs these busy days, in my solitary rush from home to summer job to gym to school, and back home. This morning: I'm in love again, felt like this before. I'm in love again, this one's real I'm sure... Would I die if you ever left me? Maybe cause you're all I'm living for? After this life, there'll be no other, until the razor cuts! Yesterday, during a picturesque lunchtime stroll: But oh, if we call the whole thing off, then we must part. And oh, if we ever part, then that might break my heart! Biking home last night, feeling outside of the hipster/gangsta continuum in my gentrifying neighborhood, what popped into my head but: I'm living on a Chinese Rock! I'm living on a Chinese Rock!

Often, it's: I want a boyfriend, I want a boyfriend, I want all the stupid old shit that matters so much, or this: Hear that lonesome whiporwill, he sounds too blue to fly. The midnight train is whining low, so lonesome I could cry. (By the last one, though, I'm usually laughing at myself.) So there you have it, the soundtrack to my melodramatic life over the past 6 months when I have put off blogging about law school grades, drunken nights with new and old friends, and the travails of internet dating.

It's summer now, and even when I wake up from a sad dream, there is vacation in the air. (Summer, summer, summer! It turns me upside down. Summer, summer, summer! It's like a merry go round!) My window looks out on the alley, full of hazy sunlight dappling haphazard back decks and ramshackle garages. My neighbor's parrot is cawing, a window unit whirs, and someone is always speaking in Spanish. Sometimes I catch a whiff of garbage on the street and think for a second that I am back in Cuba. Or when I pass the back security desk at the government office where I'm working this summer: the guard looks up from his paper, cheerfully says hello, then turns back to his day's work of catching up on world events and doing sodoku. Nine to five, what it takes to make a living.

I'm not sure how I feel about government work. The bosses wearing black jeans and bringing their kids to the office are nice. The co-worker who mumbles to himself while staring at the cinderblock walls in the break room: not so much. But I bike to work. We interns go out for lunchtime sandwiches and tomorrow, happy hour at a safari-themed bar. Life is pretty good, even on the days when I wake up dreaming about ex-boyfriends. At least the last dream image burned into my brain this morning was said ex-boyfriend wearing a kente cloth dress. She's so swishy in her satin and tat, in her frock coat and bippity-boppity hat, oh god, I could do better than that! I'm smiling now, even though I'll be late for work. More blog updates soon...

Dear You

November 30, 2006

Finals are upon me now, so I have had very little time to blog and I have been feeling very guilty about it. So today I'm going to kind of wimp out and just post this essay which was supposed to be a 1hr practice exam. The question was, "Do you think deterrence or retribution should be the goal of punishment? Discuss at least two cases and how the different theories of punishment applied in those cases relate to your opinion." I just finished my answer and thought I'd use it as a stopgap post, which will hopefully be a good lead in to a more fun post about graffiti which is brewing in my head.

Now, you may not know this about me, but two things which spark my romantic nature are Kant and graffiti. Kant, because a college crush was always dropping his name in Intro to Comp Lit, and from then on Kant has signified to me the epitome of incomprehensible coolness. (Coolness because of this shy, brilliant guy who was in my Comp Lit class, and incomprehensible because, despite my fascination with the idea of Kant's work, I have never read more than a paragraph by him.) Graffiti is interesting to me for reasons which I will save for the forthcoming post, hopefully to be accompanied by some photographs of the graffiti I admire here in D.C. But suffice it to say that there is a bit of graffiti, written in red, girlish cursive on an electrical box, which I pass every day en route to school. It says: "Dear you: together we can change this rotten culture." That sentence, and my limited understanding of Kant's view of punishment, were ringing in my head as I attempted to answer this essay question.

Question #2
One of the saddest cases we read this year was Commonwealth v. Atencio, where a group of men were drinking together and playing Russian roulette. The language of the opinion suggested unemployed adults, together in some sort of boarding house, drinking to get drunk, gambling to end their lives. One man did die, and his companions, Mr. Atencio among them, were charged with manslaughter for their participation in the game. What is the motivation for charging Atencio, I wondered? What can you take away from this man who wants to die? And what punishment is worse that the life he leads?

Kant's theory of retribution as a moral rational for punishment rests on his concept of human dignity. As I understand it, the argument is that to try to coerce a person to change their actions is an affront to their right to free will. Incentives to change behavior are patronizing. The beauty of humanity is that we are self-aware beings whose voluntary actions guide our lives. If society wants to punish one of those choices, the punishment should be a direct payback for the action taken. Kant glorified retribution as sanitized punishment. The idea even evokes scientific maxims: for each action, and opposite and equal reaction.

But human interactions are a messy science. We cannot be expected to act like perfect machines. Each person's free will is balanced by our innate desire to live in interdependent communities and the tension gives rise to the dramas of human life. How is it in furtherance of human dignity to deny our natural urge to interact with others, to impact their lives and allow others to impact ours in unpredictable ways? To play on these emotions is not wrong, it is inevitable, and quintessentially human.

Retribution has no moral high ground, and it is not practical. Crimes create a not only a physical and/or financial injury, but a psychic one, for which there is no adequate compensation. The only mental restitution victims can hope for is that which they build for themselves out of forgiveness and faith. Beyond the obvious dilemma of how to calculate the amount of flesh owed by each transgressor, retributivism poses a greater problem of who in good conscience could mete out a punishment which does no one any good.
In cases like Atencio, the language of the depraved murder statutes comes to mind. These statutes are designed to describe the work of criminals, people among us so indifferent to the value of human life that they, say, shoot a lunch buddy in the stomach as part of a game. (Commonwealth v. Malone.) But the prerequisite "abandoned and malignant heart", as described by California statute, is also required of anyone willing to mete out a punishment in some of these saddest cases. To Kant, I would say that imposing meaningless punishment is an affront to the human dignity of the punisher.

Not that deterrence is always pretty, either. US v. Gementera shows how retribution and deterrence can be hard to distinguish at times. In that case, the defendant was convicted of tampering with the mail and as punishment, had to stand in post offices with a sign that read, "I stole mail." Gementera claimed that his punishment was cruel and unusual, and that it violated the Sentencing Reform Act because it served a purpose not allowed by the act: humiliation.
Humiliation, the court responded, is not the purpose of this punishment, but is a means to an end. Humiliation is a technique for achieving the real purpose -- deterrence (of others, general deterrence) and deterrence of Gementera specifically from committing the same crime again. Additionally, through his humiliating exposure to potential victims, there was a chance that Gementera might empathize with the formerly anonymous people he had injured, and decide not to commit the crime again, thus serving the goal of rehabilitation.

Humiliation, or any kind of pain, even when justified in self defense or punishment, is not something that it does the human spirit good to inflict upon another person. But we can stomach these actions when we believe that they are in service of a greater good, namely, a decrease in crime (and punishment!) in the future. Deterrence, rehabilitation and incapacitation are the only moral justifications for punishment, which should exist only inasmuch as it serves to run itself out of business.

An Abandoned and Malignant Heart

November 13, 2006

Every day now is filled with intense human dramas, each distilled down to a few pages of tiny type and packed up like leftovers in the judicial opinions that fill our casebooks. I can't help but wonder about these people whose passions, frustrations and failures I plumb every day. Does the family of John Sheckells, incapacitated by a motorcycle accident in the early 1990s, know that law students like me are reading about his claim against the motorcycle helmet manufacturer for inadequate product labeling? Would they feel gratified or violated if they found out?

I spent a few hours walking around downtown today, people watching and shopping. Where do these young suits go at night, what misdemeanors or negligences hide under their wool coats and in their cellphone cases? In my neighborhood, could the man passing by my house, yelling at his companion, harbor a malicious will that could, under aggravating circumstances, erupt into a 2nd degree murder? Who among us has not been compelled to recognize the voice of God speaking to us, if not out loud, at least suggested by a physical sign?

The California penal code defines murder as killing with malice, implied by evidence of "an abandoned and malignant heart." Law school, instead of teaching me rule and order, is dissolving my faith in any impartial system which could possibly regulate the chaos. I write haikus about criminal statutes, and limericks instead of case briefs:

A short angry man named Goetz
fired an unlicensed handgun with zest
At four kids from the sticks
who stole quarters for kicks
and put his fear of crime to the test.

My second year at Oberlin, I flip flopped over what to major in. Although I'd entered school with a love of writing, after learning more about injustice in the world, I decided that my energy would be better spent as a Politics major. But the more I analyzed government and society, the more I was convinced that only fiction made any sense. That impulse gave way to the post graduation plan, as a friend put it, of being a rock star, which gave way to some other plans, which gave way to law school... And now I'm back where I started, surreptitiously studying people on the bus, jotting down quotes I overhear, convincing myself that I can put it all together and maybe, maybe, turn it into something that for a second seems to make perfect sense.

That's My Number

October 27, 2006

Number 920-C. I am in the process of changing my ID name on to this number. Since this next blog entry (and, I imagine, future entries) will consist, in part, of character assassinations of my classmates, I thought this would be wise. Law school, as you may have heard, is very competitive. All grades are assigned on a curve, and employers look at your class rank and the ranking of your school, not your GPA, to assess your aptitude. So a student in the lowest 25% of the class at Harvard has an equal or better chance of getting a high paying and/or prestigious job than someone in the top 25% at, say, GWU. And, at GWU, the curve is set so that the median grade in the class is a B+. So, unlike high school or undergrad, I can't just feel content to cruise through with a 3.5 GPA, as that would put me squarely in the middle of my class -- i.e., make me average. And although I don't like to think of myself as a particularly competitive person, I did not leave my life in Texas, move across the country and sink $120,000 into law school to be an average student.

We've only gotten a few grades back so far, the one being the grade on our first memo. I didn't do so well... a B-/C+. Our second memo is due a week from Monday, and I am desperately afraid I'll get another low grade. For the memo writing class, the grade itself isn't a big deal, because the class is pass/fail, and I've been told no one fails unless they just don't do the assignments. But it galls me to no end to be told that I am a worse writer than my classmates, half of whom seem to have no introspection or creativity whatsoever. Or, maybe I'm just jealous of them. Ugh. The idea that I am jealous of some of these folks makes me feel pathetic.

Today we got our grades back on the one midterm exam. I got a B+/A-, only marginally better than the majority of people in my class. In that class, though, the grade is not a pride thing so much as a practical matter. Being in the top 35% of your class is considered prime for jobs, although I think being in the top half is what really matters. At least, that's what I will tell myself from now on. Or wait, maybe my Dad can get me a job with one of his judge friends! THAT'S what I will tell myself from now on! Yikes. That makes me feel even more pathetic.

Tonight there is a law school party, and we get 5 free drinks with our admission. Yes, this is what I am looking forward to today, getting drunk with my abominable classmates. Now that is incredibly pathetic.

After the midterm was handed back, I stayed in the classroom with one other student reviewing the exam. I wondered why only he and I were left -- were we the biggest nerds or what? Our professor had told us that test grades ranged from 10 to 80, with the median being a 43. (So the median is a B+, and I got a 47, which is why I say I got a B+/A-.) The other student started talking to me and then revealed that he had gotten the 10. "This is really bad," he said, looking down at his test and, I feared, holding back tears. I instantly felt a little better about my grade, and then, felt the most pathetic of all.

Of Kale and Karma

October 17, 2006

Back in Texas, before the e-coli thing, I ate a lot of spinach. Not the pre-bagged kind, not the loose baby leaves kind, not the frozen kind, but real bunches of sandy, dirty, fresh spinach. It's a pain to wash -- you have to rinse, then soak, then rinse it again before it's edible -- but I didn't mind. In D.C., grocery stores in my neighborhood do not sell this kind of spinach, so I have come to love kale. The prep process is similar, but kale is darker, denser and tougher than spinach, in a satisfying way -- like this city, maybe.

My second night back in Texas, I was hanging out with my friends and realized how young they all look. Young and well rested. Vivacious. Dynamic. Happy. Not that they are happy all the time, or even most of the time, but they seem... just more joyous than people here. The night I returned to D.C., I was standing over the sink, washing kale, listening to NPR, and it hit me: quality of life. This is what brings you joy. The little things -- wearing flip flops, washing kale and listening to the radio. Sometimes, I get so busy here I forget to do those little things, or to enjoy them when I do do them.

Instead, I try to squeeze little nuggets of joy into my hectic days. I pick up things people drop on the street, returning a wad of cash to a woman walking in front of my in Dupont Circle, a government ID to a man passing me in Foggy Bottom. They were both so happy when I reunited them with their lost possessions. Good karma for me! Joy! I cross paths with the same neighbors as I walk to the bus stop each day, and we nod and wish each other a good morning. Joy! I laugh with other late night bus riders at funny things, like when a chatty homeless man directed the bus driver to "Take it easy, my brother," and, upon realizing the driver was a woman, hastily corrected himself, "Uh, I mean, Miss!" before he hopped off the bus. Joy!

I am trying to keep all this in perspective here and increase my life's joy quotient as I plow through law school. Today we had our mid-term -- the only grade I will receive in any of my classes before finals. Most of my classmates went out drinking tonight, but I had some cocktails with them right after the test and came home only to sack out on the couch and watch 2 hours of Project Runway. In two nights, I have seen about half the season, I think. Tomorrow is the finale, and I hope Uli wins. Her dresses are loud, colorful, silky things, impractical for anything but a debaucherous beach party in the tropics, and I love them for that. They are like half the blouses in my closet, unfit for our brisk fall weather. I just lay in bed and look at them sometimes. They compliment my pink brocade curtains, multicolor shag rug, and whimsical animal planters, filled with cacti and plants from home. I take it all in and feel a surge of joy.

East of Eden

October 1, 2006

While I was living on Alexander Avenue in Austin, George Bush made a mention in a public address about Texas painter Tom Lea, best known for his idyllic southwestern scenes. Bush quoted Lea, and exhorted Americans to "live on the east side of the mountain," looking east for the sunrise every morning and maintaining optimism about the future.

My mind rushed to my evening ritual there on Alexander Avenue, when I would end most days and start most nights sitting on my front stoop, looking west over the litter-strewn park, watching the light ebb from the sky above. My house faces west, I wanted to tell Bush. I look out on an eroded creek, edged by brambles, tires and garbage. I pick up used condoms left in the street by prostitutes, and drag the mattresses where they turn tricks from behind the Little League clubhouse to the street on big trash day. I spend hours by the window, recording license plate numbers of drug dealers & junkies who meet on our block between streetlights. My eastern view is an old chain link fence, a weedy yard, and the boarded up house next door. I challenge you, Bush, to move into my house and keep your mind on the sunrise side of things.

Before moving here, I wondered how D.C., with its rumors of crime and violence, would compare to life in East Austin. After all the stories of muggings, daytime murders and crime cameras, I expected a lawless and dangerous city. Students at GW call Columbia Heights "the 'hood," but here there are no open air drug markets where guys on the corner flag down your car, asking you what you need. There are few boarded up houses or empty lots. To date, I have seen less than five obvious junkies. So I wondered, where in D.C. is analogous to my old home with the western view?

Although I grew up right outside of D.C., prior to this weekend, I had never gone east of the river. Yesterday, I went to Anacostia, and found the counterpart to my old neighborhood in Texas. There were pockets of neat new home developments next to bleak, dirt yard apartments around the corner from blocks of well maintained modest homes. Areas of hit and miss commercial strips, where mom & pop restaurants ("Clark's Chicken -- food so great you'll clean your plate!" ) shine among dingy mini-markets and empty storefronts. De-natured creeks with industrial concrete banks, undeveloped bramble woods separating housing clusters, guys drinking beer on the street corner at 11am. But unlike my old neighborhood, which was less than 10 blocks square, Anacostia is huge. My bike ride through it was 20 miles, and I saw only a fraction of the area. At times, I found Clifford-Sanchez isolating. If it was hard sometimes to recognize the options beyond that little place, imagine the horizons of a child growing up in Anacostia. East of the river, in the shadow of the US Capitol, but out of sight and out of mind for many. It was strange and familiar, comforting and heartbreaking at the same time.

Last week I overheard two fellow student talking about life in Foggy Bottom, near campus. "We're so lucky," one told the other, "we can walk to everything!" Yeah, I thought, everything. The myriad of sports bars with big screen TVs and syrup-y margaritas, multiple Starbucks, the Italian restaurant with "outdoor" seating inside the mall. Is there anything more depressing than people dining at wrought iron patio tables inside a shopping center? On second thought, yes, there are many more depressing things, like the stuffed animals people leave at street corners in SE to commemorate murder victims by becoming gray and weathered. But still... I would rather live in Anacostia than Foggy Bottom.

That is assuming there is no in between, which is not the case here. I have been listening to Bob Marley this week, and reveling in the song Kaya: "I feel so good, in my neighborhood, so here I come again." Columbia Heights is a great place to live. Last night I crashed a neighbor's party and heard about Fiesta 2006, a street festival in Mount Pleasant taking place this afternoon. "Sun is shining, weather is sweet, make you want to move your dancing feet!" Columbia Heights affords many opportunities to dance, socialize, and explore. It's different from home, but it matches my sunrise view these days. There is an east and west side to every mountain; it's nice to live looking east for a change, as long as it doesn't make you forget the folks turned the other way.

The Human Whisperer

September 18, 2006

During Orientation, I was expressing my concern about the amount of reading law school was rumored to require, and another 1L shot back, "Yeah, but it's not hours of formulas, it's hours of stories." Well, one case we read last week touched on both, as it quantified a human process (in this case, the calculation of acceptable risk) in a mathematical formula. (United States v. Carroll Towing Co., 160 F.2d 482.)

This, friends, has always been a fascination of mine. Starting, I think, in junior high school, where I explained the cliques at school to my mother with a Venn diagram, and growing into my love of genre fiction, whodunits, and Raymond Chandler's classic "The Simple Art of Murder", where he methodically lays out what works (and what doesn't) in detective plots. This interest stems, I think, from my obsessive personality, my desperate urge to codify, order, predict, and thereby control these messy, loose and sometimes random occasions of human interaction that I perceive as my life. One man (other than Raymond Chandler) I am in great awe of is Andrew Beyer, who horse racing fans know as a Washington Post sports columnist and bettors know as the creator of the Beyer speed index. This is a guy who meticulously went through years and years of horse racing data to develop a numerical formula that could identify winning horses in one of the most unpredictable popular sports around, succeeding where Charles Bukowski and all the other handicappers failed.

It is a very seductive idea, one that can drive you a little crazy, as depicted in the movie Pi. It's a fascination that informs my interest in religious ritual and superstition, sociology, and, most likely, law. I joke with my friends that politically, I am not a democrat, republican, anarchist or libertarian, but a closet fascist. But truth be told, I am a fascist as Phillip Marlowe is a white knight, which is to say, not so much. Even as I yearn to break the code of human interaction, wrestle it into a predictive model, or plug its variables into a formula, I know it can never really be done -- and what a sterile world we would live in were this effort to succeed.

One time I went to check out Noam Chomsky's "Manufacturing Consent" from the Austin Public Library, and there on the shelf just where it should have been was an index card, covered with ill proportioned, messy print, which read: "In every generation there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the vampires, the demons, and the forces of darkness. She is the Slayer."

It's the voiceover that opens each episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. And although my roommates scoffed at the idea that it had been left there for me, I tacked it up in my bedroom as a reminder that sometimes engaging in the willful illusion that everything makes sense is what really matters.

Sueltame que bailo sola

September 10, 2006

My new neighborhood makes me smile. After a day of reading cases, making small talk with my lockermate, and debating anti-loitering ordinances in my head, I come home on the 14th Street bus, often jam packed, evesdropping on one-side phone conversations, smiling at jokes between the bus driver and regular riders, and watching, watching everybody. Who are all these people, where are they from, what are they going home to? When started school, I thought I would finally meet new people like me. I imagined conversations we would have about our classes and our passions. Instead, I feel surrounded by kids who talk about football and who was grinding with who at whatever sports bar the school happy hour was at last night. They're not bad people, I told Jamey on the phone, but they're just... not cool. At all. Like not even lukewarm. If they were a temperature, actually, I think it would be the temperature of pee.

Animese! I learned this command from Washington Hispanic newspaper today: cheer up. Everyone is lonely sometimes, I tell myself. Focus on the positive. Understanding snatches of one sided Spanish phone conversations on the bus makes me happy. Walking down 14th Street in the dusk, passing groups of people socializing, calling across the street to each other, even commiserating outside Alcoholicos Anonimos, makes me feel connected with humanity. I feel no connection with my fellow students, though, who seemed so concerned about whether Dick got down with Jane or when the professor will call on them in class and if they will know the answer when he does. One of my professors is 3 years younger than me. And he calls me Miss Miller and I guess I would call him Professor Fontana except that there is never really a chance to talk to professors directly in a class of 100+ students. Especially when a few of them insist on wasting 1/2 of the class period with questions about how to circumvent the ABA's ethics obligations so you can bill more hours. Animese, animese!! Fuck, it's not working.

While I'm in a down mood, I might as well mention that an old friend from grade school committed suicide two weeks ago. I send his mother a sympathy card with a Rothko print on it today. It was the yellow and white painting -- appropriately meditative, but redemptive -- and as I was looking at it, I thought, I should get some more somber cards to keep around for things like this. And I felt a wave of bitterness, frustration with the wrongness of it, that here I am, at age 32, buying funeral stationary. It's just not right, it's just never right, but it happens anyway. Jonathan, you will be missed.

I think a lot about a picture I forgot to take of some graffiti in Santo Domingo near El Conde. Scrawled in rushed spray paint, it said, "Sueltame, que bailo solo." I looked it up in the dictionary, and best I can tell it means, "Let go of me, that I dance alone." It still feels heartbreakingly profound, and tomorrow I return to class for the next song.

It's Like Love

August 19, 2006
Illustration by Gerren Lamson

1L Orientation involves a lot of alcohol and processed foods. I figured I would lose weight after I quit my job at the School of Nursing, where the regular highlight of my work day was finding doughnuts and cookies in the downstairs kitchen. But this week, I've been soaking up more free food and booze than I would get in a month at the School of Nursing. Yesterday, a professor edged in front of me in the buffet line and said, "That's one great thing about law school -- all the free food!" I replied that I had assumed it would end after this week, but she told me that there were frequent receptions where a person could score some edibles, and added, "You don't have to go to the talk or lecture, just stop in after for a snack." Nice to see that my $36K tuition is being put to good use.

Orientation was long, and by the end, I was sick of cheap food, cheap wine, and expensive advice -- and I had a raging hangover. The last speaker, Prof. Schecter, brought me down by telling us that law school would be the equivalent of a 50-60 hour work week. 50-60 hours?!? After 5+ years of working 20 hrs a week, I thought 40 sounded bad. 60 seems insane. He also told us that finding your legal calling was like finding love -- you can't predict when it will happen, but when it does, you'll know. This depressed me immensely. How do you know when you're really in love? I've thought I was in love many times, but looking back, I realize that each time, I didn't really know what love was at all. Maybe I felt some kind of love, but not real love, big love, forever love. I thought back to Jamey's stories from work at Mr. Wasabi. Gotosan, a friend of the Japanese sushi chef, had been kicked out by his American wife. He spent every night at the restuarant, drinking sake and singing heavily accented versions of Beatles songs in the karaoke lounge. After closing, he slept on the pool table. Jamey would come in to open the restaurant for lunch and find Gotosan, rumpled and hungover, stumbling around the place in misery. He would often talk to Jamey about his plight. "Tell me, Jamey, why does a woman leave a man?" Gotosan asked once. Another time he put a drunken hand on Jamey's shoulder, looked directly into his eyes and asked forlornly, "Jamey, what is love?"

I love DC. I love the birds of paradise that bloom outside our kitchen window. I love the Antonio Carlos Jobim record I bought on my way home last night. I love the botanicas and the Dollar Plus store on our block. I love Hayes, my roomate's cat. I don't know if I will love being a lawyer, and that scares me. But after my hangover lifted, I started to think that I might love law school, whatever that means.

Thinkin' About Drinkin'

April 30, 2006

I've been buying winter clothes these days -- sweaters, gloves, a puffy black coat. Actually, my main projects recently have been shopping for warm clothing and potting cacti. And making margaritas. Most evenings, I admire the salvia and lantana landscaping on my way home from the gym, suck in the bbq smoke from Ben's as I turn onto my street, and enjoy a cool margarita and a warm sunset on my porch. I am going to miss everything here so much. People keep asking me, "Will you come back?" and I don't know what to say.

I am just so overwhelmed with sadness today. Even a Blizzard -- a French silk pie Blizzard -- cheered me only momentarily. Do they even have Dairy Queens in DC? I know they don't have cactus gardens, year round 68 degree natural springs, six months of summer.

I'm searching for DC blogs that will make me excited about the city. The City Paper is really not doing the job -- that rag must be staffed by the most negative people in the nation's capitol. Seriously, every issue has snarky articles about how crappy the city is. Like, lots of them. Here's one I found a few weeks back. Wouldn't you know it, I've already lined up a room in a rowhouse in Columbia Heights. The pictures looked nice, and now I really can't wait to meet the neighbors. Where's the tequila?

Building A Better Blawg

Thursday, April 06, 2006

I don't really like people. But I lam very curious about them, their motivations, their lives. There is a big hotel close to my house, and when I bike past it, I look up at all those floors of identical windows and wonder what's going on behind each one. One night, I saw a guy standing at one of the windows watching the street. I couldn't say that our eyes met -- he was at least 7 stories up -- but I knew that he was looking at me just as I was looking at him.

This is why I love blogs. I read them compulsively, even though most are terrible. I jump from blog to blog, just hoping for an interesting one, a funny one, one that mirrors my life. When I was remodeling the house, I searched over and over for other stories like mine, other ambivalent urban pioneers. Google: house repair, blog, stories. Gentrification, experiences. Inner city, remodeling, ghetto. The closest I found was the journal of a minister who relocated his family to inner city Detroit to work at a youth ministry. I eventually started my own blog to fill the vacuum.

So it is no surprise that I've been spending a lot of time perusing law blogs, or blawgs, as I find they are called. Lordy lord, how some of them suck. Paragraph long re-tellings of blockbuster movie plots (you mean, Richard Gere's reporter character and Julia Roberts' runaway bride end up TOGETHER at the end of the film? Amazing!) and rosters of imaginary baseball teams. Reports on boring classes and even more boring cases. Updates on which suit makers Scalia prefers and Chief Justice Roberts' family life. Goddamn, people! I thought an interest in the law meant you liked to discuss Judas Priest's liability for backwards messages in their music, or read reports on the grave-robbing Texas couple busted for life insurance fraud.

Well, folks, that's what this blawg will cover. Sensational, diabolical, and sometimes intellectual musings related to my life and studies as I start law school in Washington DC. I hope you'll read it, enjoy it, and find that it speaks to you.

A Cheerleader's Baton


Early last summer, I decided to apply to law school. So since June, I have been spending a lot less time writing Lovenurse essays and a lot more time studing for the LSAT, taking and re-taking it, and working on law school applications. Since my numbers -- my LSAT score and undergrad GPA -- are not that impressive, I have been focusing on my personal statement, a two page essay that is supposed to convince the admissions officers that I am an amazing, motivated, intelligent person who will add greatly to their school's 2008 graduating class. I got the feeling that these essays are supposed to be pretty concrete, and a couple of people advised me to make sure I included at least one sentence that states why I want to go to law school. But my writing, especially when it's about my life, is rarely so clear cut. I write to express my confusion, confliction, my experiences at the crossroads of longing for and fear of the future. If I can't express these feelings, then is hard for me to find the motivation to write at all. So I struggled with this one, and ended up with about 20 versions of this essay. Below is one of the better ones; please try to read it as if you have never read anything else I've written, as if you came upon this sandwiched between other applicants' essays about how their life was changed by taking a summer trip to Honduras, working for a public defender or raising two kids. How would this stack up?

There is a cheerleader's baton buried by the storm drain where I plant flowers. It is one of the many items I find while gardening around my house or clearing brush from the vacant lot next door: car parts, pieces of furniture, a woman's purse. At first, I relished removing this refuse piece by piece, depositing it in the garbage can, to be carted away forever at the end of the week. But there is always more, waiting to be discovered by my shovel, caught in my rake or exposed by the next heavy rain.

Hortense, who supervises the community garden seven blocks away, says that if nothing else, gardening will teach you patience. I spent two years saving money to buy this house, biding my time in a run-down apartment, clearing up my credit and searching for a property within my budget. Remodeling took four months, every free minute consumed with replacing crumbling sheet rock, sanding layers of paint, agonizing over plumbing bids. Countless afternoons I worked in the house alone, struggling to follow step-by-step instructions on removing an old water heater, scraping browned popcorn texture from the ceilings, taping and floating, sanding, floating again.

These tasks, though difficult, have finite ends and immediate rewards. I gained an improved credit score when I paid off my college debt, a deed of ownership when I closed on the house, and a smooth white ceiling to stare at when I lay in bed at night. In the two years since moving in, however, I've found that outside the house itself, change in our neighborhood is incremental, and success is measured more subtly. Gangs, drugs and prostitution don't become soft and pliable like vinyl tiles under a heat gun. Poverty and desperation cannot be pried out with a crowbar. I now value the number of consecutive nights that pass without a prostitute working the park, the growing attendance at neighborhood meetings, the crack house boarded up after intervention by the newly reactivated neighborhood association.

My neighbors often use the term "relief" to describe the goal of our community activism: relief from crime, violence and poverty. Many of my neighbors are pioneers. Celia, the Flower Lady, maintains a slew of colorful plants outside the house where she has lived since 1947, when she was one of the first residents of this neighborhood, originally developed to house families of African American GIs after WWII. Noel's family, down the street, came more recently from Central America to establish a new life. Jolene, around the corner, built her own house with the help of Habitat for Humanity. Relief seems an uncharacteristically plaintive word on their lips. It reflects the pain inflicted by thieves who kicked in my front door, streets that lure kids into delinquency, junkies who steal even the Flower Lady's hanging baskets.

I am a new kind of pioneer: young, liberal, white. When I first moved in, some people asked me why I bought this place. The decision was pragmatic: because I wanted a home I wouldn't be forced out of due to rent hikes or landlord caprices; because I felt home ownership was the best way to make an investment and build wealth; and because this was one of the few properties that I could afford. Into this 600 square foot house, I have poured all of my savings, countless hours of effort, and grand dreams of financial growth. It is a lot for a little place to hold. This pressure, of big dreams in a confined space, of little money and lots of expenses, of ongoing frustrations and finite reserves of energy and compassion, defines life here. It wears on me, when I find the inspection sticker stolen from my car windshield, or when footsteps in the adjacent empty lot drive me to the back door, straining my eyes to peer out into the darkness. But it also motivates me, not only to pick up litter in the park and to join a nascent neighborhood watch, but also to find ways to address the systemic causes of our pain.

At neighborhood meetings, we talk increasingly about how to solve the problems in our neighborhood instead of pushing them on to another area. But the solutions - equal access to education, better employment opportunities, drug treatment options - often require more time, financial capital, and knowledge than we have at our disposal. My experiences teaching in a nearby housing project, working in my neighborhood, and building police-community partnerships in Austin, TX have shown me that the benefits of computer camps, litter cleanups, and prostitution stings are real, but they treat only the symptoms of communities sick with segregation and injustice. Addressing the real illness requires engagement with the slow moving process of national change via political representation, legal advocacy, and policy reform.

Over the past few years, I have reconsidered how I can most effectively contribute to this process of change. When I found the cheerleader's baton buried by the storm drain, my first instinct was to dig it up. I strained my back trying to pry it from the ground, but finally left it there. The flowers I plant around it bloom anyway. Our neighborhood association meetings end with a prayer and sometimes, a hug. Kids practice football in the park. Bobbie, next door, commends my landscaping and tells me she's glad that I bought the house. As I turn the soil in the garden, the crabgrass in my yard, or the dirt by the storm drain, I can imagine a future where we all feel some relief, and I am invigorated to pursue a career in law, government, and public policy where I can best use my talents to help realize that day.

Amazing Things


Two amazing things happened today. First, the neighborhood association meeting. Until today, all the neighborhood meetings I have attended have been held in various churches, in vinyl tiled multi-purpose rooms with cheap folding chairs, or more frequently, in the community house of one specific church. The community house is a little building around the corner from me, not too different from my place prior to remodeling. The ceilings are low, the walls thick with paint, once white, now tinged with brown. The carpet is dark, matted and bald in spots. The floor slopes to the east. The windows are barred, and covered with thick curtains. Half of them do not open. The bare light bulbs don't really illuminate the living room, which smells musty. Recovery pamphlets about various drug are displayed prominently on wire shelves: What You Should Know About Methamphetamines. Overcoming Crack. Heroin Addiction. There is a Bible on the otherwise empty bookshelf, and no other reading material on display. Despite the positive name, the community house doesn't offer any false promises.

I think a lot about false promises these days. I was listening to "Walk On The Wild Side" by Lou Reed a few weeks ago, and it was a minute before I remembered that he was singing about junkies. "Wild" is the furthest thing from my mind when I see James, a neighborhood addict. He stands on his corner, head bobbing anxiously, craning his neck, looking down the street. His features are made sharp by the taughtness of his skin, stretched across his bones. His pants are stained, his shirt, open. He doesn't have full control of his jaw when he talks, his mouth often hangs agape. When I drive by him at night, he stares hard at my car. Hoping, he raises his hand to wave and then drops it quickly when he recognizes me. He swings his long arms in frustration. He's not waiting for me.

Michael, whose family lives around the corner, is another addict. When he got out of prison a while back, two neighbors came by specifically to warn me about his history of stealing anything not nailed down. Soon I began to notice the increase in traffic to his house. Skinny, skinny women who tiptoed to his back door, avoiding eye contact with neighbors, hoping to be invisible. Doors slamming at all hours, cars coming and going. I asked his son, Anthony, what was going on. He looked me straight in the eye. "I have a problem," he said. "My father is a crack addict." He brought me into the house, and showed me how he had put a padlock on the back bedroom, to prevent Michael from entering the rest of the house. "He steals my dishes, my clothes. I can't cook because he sold the pots and pans," Anthony said. Anthony restricted his father to the rear of the house, and made his father's friends enter through the back porch. To avoid Anthony, they would cut through my yard to access the property. I confronted Michael the next day, told him I didn't want any more of this trespassing.
"You can't stop me from partying!" he retorted. Over the next few months, he lost weight. His skin sagged around his jaw, and he aged quickly. One day he was caught stealing computers from a neighborhood after school program, and was subsequently sent back to prison. Party over.

In contrast to all this, our neighborhood meeting tonight was held at an art gallery and studio space on the fringe of the neighborhood. A far cry from the community house, it is a modern space, kind of industrial, but in a clean way. Ceilings are high, walls are bright, and there is a lot of exposed metal and wood. The art is unusual, postmodern, and it is not clear what it means. A performance piece was to happen in the parking lot later that evening, and young artists in costume paraded around. The neighborhood association meeting was well attended, we ran out of chairs, even, and about 1/3 of the residents were young newcomers to the neighborhood. Walking home afterward with a friend, I took a fresh look at the streets. One house I'd never noticed before had its front door open, and inside I could see a bright, modern kitchen where two men were cooking dinner. A few houses down, a woman stood in front of a newly built house, talking to a friend on a cell phone, the house next door, also new, had striking native plant landscaping. "A gay guy just bought that place," my friend said. "He did all the yard work himself." She gestured to the agaves and salvia and laughed. "There goes the neighborhood!"

Back at home, I sat on my stoop and looked out into the park. From the direction of the art gallery, I could hear dance music. Next door, Bobbie was staying late at her salon, and the laughter of her last customer rode on the breeze. This month I will celebrate my third Halloween in this house. I looked around at all the flowers I'd planted in front of the house, the thick grass that now covers the front yard, the year old crepe myrtles in the park. It was hard to remember what the block had looked like when I first moved in, and I struggled to recapture the feelings of fear and loneliness I used to have so often when I sat out on the porch at night. James has been gone for a few weeks now, caught in a drug sting. His corner is empty. How quickly things can change.

The second amazing thing that happened today is that I trapped the cat. There are many feral cats on our block, their proliferation aided by our senile neighbor who feeds them daily, but will not spay or neuter. When pregnant, they come by our house more often, seeking extra food and a quiet place to rest. This particular cat had kittens over the summer. We found the first, a newborn, dead under our garbage can, and a few days later, found the mother with a second, alive and nursing, on our stoop. We fed both kitten and mama, hoping to socialize the pair and find them homes, but the week I planned to put an ad in the paper offering them for adoption, the kitten died. That Monday morning I came outside and found the kitten lying in the sun, bloated and stiff. There was no blood, no sign of stress, it just didn't make it. We buried it next to its sibling in the corner of the yard. Since then, we struggled to trap the mother to get her fixed. One week we succeeded in cornering her in the house, but she leapt out of the kitty carrier, scratched Jamey, and then became so panicked she threw her body against the closed front door, desperate to escape. Our friend lent us an actual trap, which I baited nightly, but the cat seemed to sense the danger and came around less often, until tonight. Tonight, it was easy. I put the food in the trap and was walking into the kitchen when I heard the cage door swing shut. At first, the cat was confused. She turned around and around in the metal cage. Then, she was distraught. She pawed at the door, struggling to pry it open. Eventually, she gave up, and crouched in a corner, waiting. I know she is scared about the uncertainty of what will happen next. When I look at her, I feel her contagious panic clench in the pit of my stomach. But I exhale, and tell myself that it really is for the best.

Out of Africa


My parents' house in the suburbs of Washington D.C. was always cold in the summertime. Open windows and doors would let out the air conditioning and let in bugs, two intolerable possibilities. Fresh air and the sounds of nature, especially at night, were reserved for vacations at the beach, weekends spent at a friend's country house, or summer camp. Maybe it is because of this that I like to keep every window and door open as much as possible here, listening to the crickets chirping, an occasional stray cat howl or dog bark, and on Sunday evenings, the gatherings of the family around the corner, and the clink of the horseshoes they throw in their backyard.

Living on the edge of the park, bordered on one side by a vacant house, on the other side by a one room hair salon, gives me a lot of solitude at night. "I once owned a farm in Africa," begins Karen Blixen in her memoir, Out of Africa. As I tend to my plants, or clear weeds from the lot next door, or wander through the park picking up litter, I often feel that this is my little farm, my urban finca, my postage stamp sized ranch. I once owned a house on the Eastside. I say this because it will not be like this forever, and because melodrama and soft focus are crucial when writing a romance.

Each neighborhood has a life cycle of its own. This one has descended into infirmity over the past 40 years or so, beset by one illness after the other: racial segregation, divestment, poverty concentration, substance abuse, crime. But an infusion of funds from people like me has functioned as a new treatment, slowly working through the bloodstream, pumping life back into this area one property at a time.

I was gentrified out of my old apartment, located above a hair salon, next to a drug dealer. Around the corner was a cluster of tiny dilapidated houses, occupied by more people per dwelling than seemed possible. Afternoons would find the residents grouped on the corner in battered plastic chairs, drinking beer or playing cards, cursing at toddlers who inevitably rambled towards the street. It was picturesque sometimes, when I woke up on Saturday mid-mornings to the smell of meat smoking on the grill, party music and the rattle of my neighbors playing craps on their porch. My friends smile at those stories, and people who move over here recount the dominoes games they've witnessed. There is some pride in the exotic beauty of it.

Everyone likes a romance. They melt in the mouth, like cotton candy, carefully crafted with just the right amount of tears to diffuse the warmth that builds in places it shouldn't. This story, though, is not really a romance, even if sometimes I try to pretend that it is. In the old apartment, there were lots of fights. Fights between my neighbor and her boyfriend which would spill out of their apartment and into the street, her screaming at the top of her lungs, their two kids, around age 5 and 7, standing in the doorway, listening with pinched faces. The fights between another neighbor and his drug addicted wife, culminating one night in a stabbing, police cars and ambulance sirens. But by far the worse was the couple a few houses down, if they could even be called a couple. Their times staying together were brief and intermittent, their fights loud and ugly, laced not just with regular cursing but racial epithets from the Hispanic woman and misogynist diatribes from the Black man. These were not lovers quarrels; these two people hated each other. One night in particular they went at it ferociously, and as usual I could hear only enough of it through my open windows to know that I didn't want to hear any more. Suddenly there was a brief silence, then only the woman, yelling incoherently. Soon after an ambulance arrived, loaded the man in, but refused to take the woman, who was crying and begging to go to the hospital with him. The ambulance wailed away and left her standing on the sidewalk, where she stayed for over thirty minutes, crying out loud with self-pitying sobs that echoed in the otherwise still street.

But all of those buildings have been sold or torn down now, those residents dispersed. Now I am alone at night on my new block, quiet except on the busy nights, when cars drive by every few minutes, stopping at the less lit places on the street, waiting until I come outside and stare hard at them, urging them to move on. I prefer to be alone, with my newspapers, books, quiet music, computer and sometimes, tequila to keep me company. The air is soft, the pine floorboards worn smooth by bare feet, and when I step outside, the concrete front steps are still warm from the day's sun. The computer keyboard clicks delicately, "Clickety-clack," Jamey mimics, and calls it "the sound of loneliness." That may be true in a way. Even in this urban area, with small houses on tight lots, people are more self-contained than I expected. Partially I assume this is because I am an outsider, and for this reason, avoided by some neighbors. But I also think some measure of self containment, both physical and emotional, is a self protection measure on the part of those who live here. I read about a study of inner city single mothers in the 1990s where half of the women were moved out of their ghettoes and into the suburbs. The new suburban mothers complained of loneliness and isolation, but no more so than the urban mothers, who had stayed in their own familiar environments. The researcher concluded that the ghetto can also be emotionally isolating, despite the density of humanity.

On a quiet night like tonight, I don't feel lonely, or scared. I imagine myself as Karen Blixen, a stranger come to town, considered a positive force by some, a usurper by others. I didn't move to this neighborhood to win a popularity contest, I remind myself sometimes. I am here on the make, investing my money and time in this house, hoping that it will increase in value as the neighborhood changes. What that changed neighborhood will look like I can't fully imagine, or maybe I just don't want to know tonight. I plan the future in soft focus, when I will look back on these days, and remember not the challenges of crime and the frustrations of poverty, but the crisp smell of dirt in the garden, the exhale of a breeze over the trees in the park, the sound of horseshoes and soft laughter.

American Apartied


I visited Diehle's, the sketchy convenience store, for the first time tonight. My upstanding neighbors usually walk the extra four blocks to the cleaner, more legitimate Quick Stop Market, where they don't get propositioned out front and it looks like people actually buy the merchandise on the shelves. But craving a cigarette, and feeling a little tipsy and reckless, I walked the 2 blocks which I otherwise never stroll. The regular suspects were hanging out on the corner, in varying stages of fucked up-ness. The guy at the counter at first told me they didn't have my cigarettes, which was obviously untrue. Being drunk, I asked for them again, pointing only with my chin, "No, I see them, Marlboro Light 100s, right there." Price: $3.50. Matches: unavailable. He asked me for ID, and smiled a little when he examined it. Was he surprised by my address? My age? Just the fact that I'd come in and completed this mundane transaction? The place was dingy inside, the ceiling low, the candy dusty and overpriced. I was glad to leave, but not sorry I went in.

The Fugees reinterpretation of "No Woman, No Cry", my least favorite Bob Marley song, made me think tonight. How hypocritical am I, to deride the culture of the neighborhood in practice, when I celebrate it in songs, culture, and concept? Watching a Missy Elliott video on TV, I thought, you know, she is beautiful. Hip hop is beautiful. America, and intrinsically, the contributions of people of African descent, the contributions which are so often overlooked in the history books, is beautiful.

I wonder if the neighborhood is some kind of Zen test. When you accept your other, they will cease to be your other. I am reminded of the book "Black Ice"; the inner city black kids integrating St. Paul's Academy struggled with segregation from the opposite side, and eventually assimilated into the upper class, white mainstream. It worries me that we live in such a segregated culture, with so few situations that force us outside of our separate areas. Race seems to divide us so much. Here and there, I get a glimpse of a different world from the person who addresses me forthrightly, who talks to the "me" beyond the white girl surface. And again, in more troubling way, from the guy down the street who hisses at me in some hostile courtship ritual that all women in the neighborhood are subjected to. It is a small comfort there that race has been transcended. In his eyes, we are all lowly women: it doesn't matter if we are black, brown, white, or some combination thereof.

What is race, anyway, but an accident of pigmentation? What is ethnicity, but an accident of birth? A friend of mine was trying to explain the benefits of living on the Eastside last week to a mutual friend, and she fumbled a little upon articulation. Why is it inherently better to live next door to a black person than a white one? We are all people, aren't we, why must we be defined by the pattern of our DNA that makes one lighter or darker than another?

But if your goal is to break down the barriers of racial segregation, maybe it is important to live with people of different races. Certainly it is hypocritical to decry segregation, but seek housing in a neighborhood with few or no black people. I am reading a book about the history of residential racial segregation in the US, and the premise of the book is that residential racial segregation is at the root of all other problems of the ghetto - poor schools, environmental hazards, concentrated poverty and the resulting crime, substance abuse and family structure problems. Studies cited in the book demonstrate that African Americans overwhelmingly prefer to live in neighborhoods that are 20-50% African American. Whites, however, prefer a 10% or less African American presence, and when a neighborhood integrates past 20% black residents, whites actively try to leave. How will residential segregation ever be overcome, if white people avoid neighborhoods with more than 10% black people, but blacks fear living in neighborhoods that are 90% white?

Not that every integrated neighborhood should be like mine. Actually, there is a strong possibility that the current level of integration in my neighborhood is fleeting, and that the neighborhood revitalization and accompanying integration slowly creeping East is actually neighborhood replacement. It is hard for me to imagine a stable, racially and economically integrated neighborhood. I have never lived in one, for certain. Somewhere between Diehle's and St Paul's Academy, there has to be such a place.