Thursday, February 17, 2011

Not going to happen

Cold again. Deacon James and I decide to split the duty today. He does the front and I do 86th Street. Wonder why it’s always worse, if the crosstown street is like a canyon for the wind. As I sweep, I’m thinking about the people in Egypt, the women, sweeping Tahrir Square after the departure of Mubarak.  How that simple act defined dignity, ownership of the process. Just like every day I do this, I feel that much more connected to this place. Like it would be that much harder to give up. Someone calls to talk about a wedding. The weight of accumulated projects, lack of progress feels heavy, as is my concern that our friends don’t start to burn out. This feels like midwinter. Midwinter. 
I leave Housing Court to come and take care of the church.  I take off my collar to do the sweeping.Then I’ll have go back. Realized quickly this morning that this, court,  would become my day. Went there, clergy collar and all, to support a member. He’s been in this apartment for 22 years. Disability payments from his brain injury pick up part of the rent, roommates picked up the rest. Then the roommates disappeared, months unpaid.  The landlord allowed the back rent to accumulate to build a case for eviction. So the apartment could be freed from rent stabilization and rise to market rate. 
We Americans are proud of our court system, the “rule of law,” as we call it. Cornerstone of democracy, we believe. But everytime I come here, I see again how at the bottom level, it is as my member calls it, kafkaesque. The line to pass through security downstairs. My metal overcoat buttons get me a closer inspection. The line waiting to get into each room. The disproportionate number of poor people and people of color in every courtroom. Court appointed attorneys wandering though the room calling out names of clients they’ve never met, stacks of case file folders in their arms. Waiting to make an appearance. Court officers enforcing the no hat, no cell phone rules. Late arriving judge with no robe. 
The attorney for the landlord calls us out into the hall. Searches through his stack of files.  We’ve got no attorney. The social worker argues well. Maybe a deal can be made. The attorney calls the landlord. He shakes his head. “Not going to happen,” he says. We’re going to have to come back in the afternoon. The social worker asks me what it might be like working 8 hours a day to put people out of their homes. 
Back in the courtroom an 89 year old man with a walker, an attendant and a thick eastern european accent is arguing with the judge. The judge is occasionally sympathetic, more often annoyed and condescending. The old man, like all of us, has an internal sense of what justice should be. “I know what you want,” says the judge. Then like the attorney before him, says,"not going to happen.” The old man argues some  more. Then gives up. “You do to me like the Nazis did,” he says, defeated. It was like he had dropped an f-bomb.
I race back downtown to get there before the 2 o’clock start up time. It’s more like 2:45 before it resumes and 4pm before our case is called. The judge starts out thinking its a simple case of  unpaid rent, nothing else relevant. The social worker begins to explain the complexity. All the efforts we have made. The judge asks who I am. I explain that I’m the pastor. He allows me to remain in front of the bench. She explains the effects of short term memory loss. How a move to a new neighborhood could be problematic, if not dangerous. She offers a solution. The judge looks at the attorney. The attorney shrugs. “Not going to happen,” the judge says. The social worker requests an evaluation by Adult Protective Services. The judge mulls this over. “You’re in a bad situation,” he says. “You’ve got no attorney, but your social worker has done a yeoman’s job. Your pastor has come down to be with you all day. That speaks well as to what kind of person you are. OK, we’ll get a APS report. Come back on March 23rd.”
Leaving the courtroom, the APS man approaches. Arms overflowing with file folders. Rich African accent. Takes quick notes. “OK, OK” he says. Tells us he’ll set up the evaluation. Motions us away.
Outside the courtroom, my member says, “I stopped taking it personally long ago.” We talk about Frankl. About how we can’t always change what happens to us but we can choose how we respond. How we understand its meaning. “ I know it’s hard because you experience it personally,” I say.  “Yes, but I don’t let it define who I am,” he says. We leave the court, ready to take the train back to the upper west side. 

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