Friday, February 19, 2010

January, 2000 + Edinburg, Texas

The South Texas legal Project consisted of three: (1) our very intelligent and highly efficient paralegal, Catholic nun, and conscience of our office, (2) our office manager/legal assistant, a young Latino with an unbounded love for farm workers and the low income folk we served and (3) our director and attorney, your author.

On even years in February, the United Farm Workers held its convention. This required a huge organizational effort from everyone, Project staff included. Other than the general organizing we all did, I was responsible for parking, security, and much of the march which ended each convention.

We three continued our legal work, which included writing briefs, interviewing witnesses and potential clients, and attending court sessions, hearings, and depositions. We were extremely busy. On the day in question, I was rushing as always, only twice as fast. Very early in the morning, I awoke to prepare for a hearing in Edinburg, the County seat, which was about fifteen miles from my home. Documents I needed to peruse were in bed with me. I had no time to waste. I gulped down something that might have been coffee and inhaled something that was probably food. I was dressed for court in black polyester pants, long-sleeve dress shirt and some tie or other.
I made it to the courthouse without an accident, a ticket, or a traffic jam. I was alright as far as time went. I did need some time before the hearing to be sure I was ready for any objections or questions that might come my way. I could never prepare enough, it seemed.

I parked my van in the handicap space. I was in full litigation mode by then, ready to stun the legal world with the cogency of my argument:

"Your Honor, I will prove to you,
to my esteemed colleague, and
to all the world that my argument is
cogent, apposite, germane, relevant,
dispositive, and sui generis. Defendant's
case is utterly frivolous, without
merit, and should be summarily
dismissed and prejudice. Attorney
fees, costs, and punitive damages
should be awarded to my client".

Probably not, but a lawyer can dream.

So, as I say, I parked, got my paraphernalia together on my lap, like many times before. I checked myself out in the mirror, unlocked the chair restraint, and backed up to and opened the side door. I let the lift down so it was even with the van floor and headed out the lift face forward. I would then used the switch located on the lift itself, to ride the lift to the ground. All went as usual. I pushed out of the van onto the lift. By now i knew something was very rotten in Denmark:
My chair wheels were half in the van and half out on the lift. The inside lift switch would let go. It was stuck in the 'GO' mode. The lift was descending on its own. I couldn't get off the lift into the van or onto the ground. This was yet another out of control event that did not have my very best interest at heart.

The situation afforded me but one option. I could only ride it out, hoping I wouldn't be brain damages when my head hit the pavement. Everything seemed to move very slowly, with a will well beyond time.

I hit the pavement on my left side. My briefcase and precious papers were strewn everywhere. My chair was tipped over with me still in it, due to the the seat belt. One chair tire was still spinning. I lay there in full view of everyone walking into the courthouse. I knew help would come soon.

Given this situation, I thought, "I may be late for the hearing". I lay there imagining what my client would say to the unknown visiting Judge in my absence.

Mr. dignified attorney, champion of farmworkers, the United Farmworkers, and civil rights. I was the proverbial turtle on his back. I could flair and flounder, but not much more. Helpless I was, in case you didn't quite get that.

I gazed around, at floor level, so to speak. When would my champion arrive? ' Saint Guy would know what to do and those striving-to-be Samaritans'. I was becoming more petulant and descending fearlessly into self pity. 'Somebody better get here fast' I thought 'or my whole morning will be ruined'. Stating the obvious always helps in situations like this. The obvious ground, so to speak.

Eventually (time is warped in these events) along strolled Saint Guy's evil twin. I had seen this rather corpulent attorney from time to time in courts state and federal. He was, as I say, a stout fellow, one who was in the middle of the letting-himself-go process. My would-be savior was a man of about 45. His garb was lawyerly: a three piece dark blue suit, matching tie and wing-tips enclosed his well fed frame. He resembled Tolstoy's Ivan Illich: a self-satisfied government clerk going to seed. That my no means justifies what follows.

Ivan was the first to see me. he stopped and viewed the scene from seven feet away, "Do you need help?" he asked. If I weren't on the ground already I would have been floored. I could think of nothing to say so I muttered, "No, I'm OK." I listened to myself say these words. Why would anyone of common sense say that? Perhaps I didn't want to bother this guy, maybe I was too dumb founded, perchance my innate sarcasm and cynicism spontaneously emerged, slipping pat the Censor, who usually protects myself from myself. Anyway I take some of the blame for what came next.

Wordlessly, Mr. Illich scurried past me into the courthouse. I was reliving that bus driver nightmare. In this very bad dream, various people would leave me on the ground from sheer indifference or as a result of my dismissive attitude toward the human family at large and individuals in particular.

At any rate, a cadre of helpful people, who didn't need to ask, picked up my papers and me up off the pavement into my chair, right side up. I made it to my hearing on time. The visiting Judge sized up our situation and appeared satisfied. I had, after all, gotten my ass into the Judge's temporary courtroom more or less on time, considering I had been stranded on the pavement.

What of Mr. Illich? To this day I wonder about him. What would it have taken for him to stop and assist? Would a pool of blood have done the trick? How about me writhing and screaming in excruciating pain? Perhaps a small amount of broken glass would have triggered a different response? Or lying next to a detached arm or leg?

The issue is: What does it take for one human being to respond positively to another in obvious distress? What makes saint Guy willing to help or a busy attorney to walk on by? Perhaps my "I'm OK" released him from further responsibility 'Hey, why did you walk by that crippled lawyer tipped over on the pavement? Anyone, even an attorney, would see what was going on and stop to help.' 'Yeah, I saw him lying here--He said he was OK. What do you from me?'
What do you want from me?

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