he abandoned me.

robert kept his office the way my old college roommate, anthony, would keep our dorm room. it was a dump. he had a nice office, but it looked like he hadn't cleaned it since he moved in. there were empty plastic bottles here and there, clothes all around, and stacks of papers everywhere. it looked like the guy hadn't ever heard of the filing cabinet. he had long gray hair, and a long gray beard to match. he had his bicycle parked in front of his desk, and his sweaters and bike gear were sloppily stacked on a chair. there was a poster that read "mandala!" on his door. he shook my hand and told me to sit down.

i was at the northwest justice project in downtown seattle. while they do a lot of work i don't know about, i was there mainly to see their call center for low-income people in washington state. poor people with legal problems call this place, and people like robert do their best to help them out. "how long you been working here?" i asked. "ever since the project started, about twelve or thirteen years ago." i must've looked surprised. who would want to answer distressed calls for so long? he quickly defended himself. "i was a lawyer for about thirty years, always working for non-profits. i've loved every minute of it. i've always been a sort of do-gooder. and i love my job." "that's good," i said.

he let me listen in on calls with the caller's permission. most calls seemed to come from spokane, and most involved family law and landlord/tenant issues. he gave me a little headset, and i watched him do his thing. the first caller didn't sound too distressed. she wanted visitation rights for her child, and robert told her that she needed to get a divorce first. she said she hadn't seen her daughter since christmas. robert said that washington was a "no fault divorce state," so anyone who wants to get a divorce will get one. he helped her get some forms and then he referred her to some legal service provider.

"how do you deal with high-stress callers?" i asked. "well, there's not much you can do. i mean, you try to calm them down as best you can. but honestly, those aren't the real problematic callers. the toughest ones to get are the ones with disabilities because sometimes, they're the ones who just can't retain any information, you know? like with my friends, if i were to tell one of them, 'you need to give a written letter to your landlord saying you've already paid rent, and you need to do that tomorrow,' no problem. they can listen, understand what i'm saying, and it'll get done. some of these disabled folks, though, there's not much i can do for them. i can tell them what to do, but if they can't follow my advice, there's not much else i can do. the system really fails them in that way. it's a huge problem."

he took another call. this time, it was the voice of an older woman. he took down her personal information, including name, address, income, assets, etc., and then he asked what her deal was. "he abandoned me," she said, her voice nearly breaking. "and how long have you been together?" "thirty-five years," she said. jesus. i tried to think about what thirty-five years was, but i couldn't. i hadn't even been alive that long. she further explained that her husband of thirty-five years had just left her the week before, and she had no idea where he was, or how she could get a hold of him.

"what should i do with his mail?" she asked. "some of it looks important. one of them looks like it's for his car payment." "i would just let it pile up," robert advised, "once you file for divorce, he'll be required to give you the address where he's staying, and then you can forward it to him." "what about all his stuff?" she asked. "all his clothes and everything?" "again, i would just hold onto it," robert said. "once you get the actual divorce, all your possessions and assets will be divided." how are you supposed to divide three and half decades of stuff? where are you supposed to go from there?

after robert hung up with her, he told me that i should go see patricia, another lawyer who works the call center. "sorry, those calls were kind of boring," robert said regretfully, "i mean, i feel really bad for that last woman, but there wasn't much i could do for her other than give her some forms and referrals. hopefully pat will have something more exciting. i disagreed, saying his calls weren't boring, and then i thanked him for letting me observe. he then led me to pat's office, and she was in the middle of a call.

after pat hung up with her caller, she had some trouble getting my headset connected to her phone. "do you hear dialtone?" "yes," i said. her office was much neater, and it had a very minimalist feel to it, the exact opposite of robert's. she and i would probably get along really well. she even had a copy of naomi klein's the shock doctrine: the rise of disaster capitalism on her desk. she fumbled around some more, trying to figure out why her headset wouldn't work while my was still plugged in. "oh! the splitter!" she left the room and came back with a splitter. "duh!" she said.

her first caller was this old caucasian woman who wanted custody of her great niece. the caller said that the grandparents, who are currently taking care of the child, even agreed to give her custody. pat made the caller explain the case some more, explain why she felt she needed custody. "well," the caller said, "the child wants to move here, and she's currently lives with her grandparents in new york. they're homeschooling her, and she's really behind, like at a fifth grade level. we want her to go to school here, and get her a tutor, and get her back up to speed."

"why is she being homeschooled?" pat asked. "well, she collects about $1,000 every month since her father has passed away." i didn't understand why the caller didn't answer the question directly. apparently, pat wondered the same thing. "okay, but i'm asking what are the reasons that her grandparents chose to homeschool her?" "oh. well, they thought she was being too social and not getting her work done." it sounded like a stupid reason to me. either way, pat was a little unsure what to do, since the caller was trying to gain custody of a child who lived in new york. she gave the caller a reference to a legal service provider in new york, and that was that.

during the next call, i started dozing off. some eighteen year-old girl from yakima was calling to complain that her landlord was mooching off her electricity, and this in turn made her last electric bill over $300. i tried to imagine this landlord, this man who abandons his wife after thirty-five years. who are these villains who cause so much strife for others? will i become one of them? am i one now? how will i be the good guy, solve the world's problems when just thinking about them drains me? when just writing about these things drains me.

around five o'clock, i told pat i had to go. i could've stayed, but even as a freelance writer, i've got to set my limits. she thanked me for coming, and i thanked her for having me. she said, "feel free to call if you ever have any questions." i said, "okay," and i left. i left them behind to finish their day's work. the good guys who fix the world one call at a time. most likely, they won't win medals, or be featured on the ten o'clock news. it's a damn shame that this all you'll probably ever hear about them.

1 comment:

beastmomma said...

Sounds like you had an insightful day. When you were describing the differences in the offices, I chuckled because I think that I will lean more towards having an office like the first fellow.