It was work selling the idea to the firm. By meticulous design, Carthy, Williams and Douglas was as far away from legal aid as it was possible to get. Its offices occupied three floors of the Tower Walk building in Buckhead, the part of Atlanta where it's a crime to be either old or poor. And if anybody was going to go play in the slums for a few days, it wasn't likely to be me, Jack Hammond. At three years out of law school, I had just moved to Atlanta--the magnet that pulls together the shards of humanity from all over the Southeast--was working seventy-hour weeks, and generally outspending my salary with a vengeance. I couldn't afford any detours. But in spite of this, I made an appointment with founding partner Frank Carthy.
Carthy was seventy years old and had come up when pro bono work was a part of every big firm's responsibility. Until the early 1980s it had been expected, and judges had handed it out as a part of the obligation of the profession. That had suited him fine; he was an old-school southern liberal, with a soft spot for civil rights cases. He still told stories about getting protesters out of jail in the 1960s, mostly for things like being the wrong color to sit at a particular place in a restaurant. So even though he would resist a drug case, he might be attracted to a case about a crying girl and false arrest based on race.
I didn't see Carthy much; within the hierarchy of the firm he occupied Mount Olympus, rarely descending into Hades two floors below him where the new associates worked. In spite of working my ass off--mostly to live down growing up in Dothan, Alabama, with an adolescence so ordinary it could have been cut out of cardboard--my access to the gods of the firm was limited. I had arrived with the impression that I was in possession of a significant legal gift. What I discovered at Carthy, Williams and Douglas was that being the smartest little boy in Dothan, Alabama, was like being the shiniest diamond in a pool of mud. So in a way, just having something to talk about with a founding partner was a boost to my prospects.
I knew the second I told him I had hit a nerve. For a while, I was actually worried he would volunteer to try it with me. For Carthy, a millionaire several times over, taking a case like this was the equivalent of standing outside a grocery store for a couple of hours with a red cup for the Salvation Army, except he wouldn't risk getting wet: it was good for the soul. He probably assumed that this expression of legal largesse would be a minor diversion, likely taking only a few hours. Drug court--a tiny courtroom attached to the police station, with seating for only ten people--was little more than a revolving door.
I went to meet Caliz the next morning, which required a trip to the inner recesses of the Fulton County Jail. The smell of that place is the atmospheric accumulation of everything unpleasant when things go horribly wrong. It is composed of equal parts human misery, sweat, and indifferent bureaucracy, of metal filing cabinets and the homeless and overweight cops and fluorescent lighting that has never been turned off. I followed a wordless guard to a nondescript room with two metal chairs and a long table.
Caliz came in a couple of minutes later, and it took me no time at all to dislike him. Still in his early twenties, he already had the insolent, blank stare of the small-time thug. His eyes were pools of detached anger, precursors to sociopathic behavior. Whatever he lacked in that department, he would certainly find after a couple of years at the school for cruelty known as state prison. Getting a straight story out of him was impossible, his ability to lie having already become effortless. He looked right at me, expressionless, and said, "No, la policía put las drogas in the car. I never take las drogas. Bad for you. I stay away."
From The Last Goodbye. Copyright © 2004 by Reed Arvin. HarperCollins Publishers. Used by permission.
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