This guy with the elegant barbed-wire bracelet tattooed around his right wrist talks as if he had just wandered into Viva House from an Elmore Leonard novel.
"My legal status right now is highly illegal," he says.
He's stepped out of the afternoon line at the soup kitchen to consult with David Walsh-Little, the 27-year-old attorney who runs the Sowebo Center for Justice.
When the weather's good these late fall days, Walsh-Little hangs out his shingle over a table under the back porch at Viva House on Wednesday and Thursday. Bad days he's inside. His clients call him "Dave."
Viva House is the shelter Brendan Walsh and Willa Bickham have operated nearly 30 years at 26 S. Mount St. in emulation of Dorothy Day, the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement. The Sowebo center's office is next door in a sort of annex.
Dave offers free legal advice to the poor, powerless and homeless who stream past for free food. A 1994 graduate of Columbia University School of Law, he served his apprenticeship in the defense of outcasts and underdogs in the New York office of William Kunstler, the radical attorney who was an advocate for persecuted pariahs for nearly half a century, until his death in September 1995.
The guy with the barbed-wire tattoo figures he's been in violation of parole since his mother told him to get out of the house the other day at 2 a.m. He was on parole under a home detention program. Dave met him at the House of Correction in Jessup. He knows him as "Mike."
"He's been in and out a long time," Dave says. This last time for an assault during a fight on McHenry Street in Southwest Baltimore (Sowebo, as they say around Hollins Market).
Dave asks the name of Mike's parole officer.
"Do you have an address to give him?"
"Absolutely not," Mike says. "I'm hopping from place to place."
This conversation is taking place in a cacophony of noise and movement as people file through the yard to their midday meal of beans and hot dogs. Lots of kids chatter and play in the yard while they wait. Viva House serves from 200 to 350 free meals a day, with more and more families at the tables each week. The committed talk politics, believers preach God, the crazed talk to themselves.
Dave tells Mike he'll phone the parole agent. Sometimes just a call is helpful for his indigent clients. After all, by the time a parole violation is processed, Mike's original sentence will be over.
"Sometimes you can say to the agent: You guys can just recommend putting him back on the street and you won't have him wasting your time."
Mike hops off for his meal. A man in line falls hard coming into the yard, cuts his head. He hasn't eaten in two days. Dave helps. Brendan calls an ambulance. A volunteer serving hot dogs finds out somebody's broken a window out of his car. A siren sounds outside on the street. The police chopper chugs over head. The soup line moves forward.
A somber woman appears at Dave's table. She doesn't want legal advice. She wants bus fare.
"Bus fare? We really don't do bus fare."
"Any way you can help me out," she pleads. "I'm stranded. Anything. Please."
He forks over a dollar.
"You didn't get it from us," he cautions, half seriously. He can't afford to hand out dollars all day long. "This is a law office not a money distribution center."
Dave graduated from Columbia Law School with his J.D. (juris doctor) degree in 1994. He's relaxed and easy-going at his table. He chats with a lot of the regulars in the soup line. But he's clear-eyed and searching as he talks to this clients. He wears jeans and sport shoes and a collarless shirt. He's got John Kennedy Jr. good looks.
His peers from Columbia law were making $70,000 to $80,000 a year as soon as they left the campus. Almost all of them had jobs guaranteed before graduation.
So what's Dave doing in Southwest Baltimore making virtually nothing and handing out dollars to hard-up women and free legal advice to down and out parole violators? About the only perk is that he doesn't have to wear a suit and tie.
"To make that much money," he says, starting a simple syllogism, "you have to charge that much money. And if you charge that much money, who can pay that much money? The regular working-class person, middle-class person can't afford to pay that $400 an hour."
His clients certainly can't.
"I almost never charge anyone from here," he says. "I do a sliding scale for somebody working."
He figures his practice consists mostly of criminal law and Social Security disability cases. But he does a lot of tenant-landlord work, child custody, even divorce. Around Viva House unhappy couples are often too poor even to get a divorce.
"I honestly think," Dave says, "that maybe everybody, but specifically lawyers, have an obligation to try and insure everybody gets a fair shake in the legal system.
The lawyer business
"The way law is practiced in America is that lawyers are essentially business people and that's fine. But the problem is when people can't afford the business.
"It's not just they're denied services," he says. "The possibility is greater their rights are being abused. They're at greater risk of going to jail. They're at greater risk to lose their kids in a child dispute. Or at greater risk not to get the benefits they should be getting."
His biggest win so far was in a case from the Eastern Correctional Institute where he argued against a deputy attorney general for the right of a prisoner to a have disks along with his word processor. His client was a prolific writer named Gerald Davis Fuller and his fee was a book of poems called "Sniffle, Sniffle."
Dave does have some paying clients. He gets some donations. And Columbia in effect provides a subsidy by paying his student loans at a ratio based on his salary, which basically was zero for his first 13 months here.
"Brenda and Willa are always saying about Viva House: 'It's not charity. It's just giving back to people what they have a right to."
"You should have a right to live in a house where the ceiling's not falling in," he says, his voice serious amid the babble of the food line. "You should have your side heard before you go to jail. I mean these are basic rights."
Dave Little grew up in Troy, New York, where his father was a real estate appraiser and his mother a registered nurse. He graduated in 1991 with a philosophy degree from Fordham University in New York City, which is where he met Kate Walsh, 27, who is the daughter of Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh. They got married last year and became the Walsh-Littles.
Dave went on to law school. He spent his last two years clerking for Kunstler. Kate graduated, also in 1991, with a degree in education and a specialization in reading. She taught three years in New York.
Kate now teaches four blocks away at Frederick Elementary School. Her students often pass through the Viva House line. Fifty-five percent of the kids in this neighborhood live below the poverty line.
Dave went to work with the New York office of Legal Aid, which went on strike before he even argued a case. He stayed with Legal Aid about year until a budget cut caught him as the last-hired lawyer and left him unemployed. He and Kate wanted to leave New York anyway and Baltimore is home for Kate. So here they are.
"Baltimore's a nicer place to be," Dave says. "Dorothy Day was probably right. You gotta live in the neighborhood. That's the great thing about Viva House it has been here and people know it's here. And I get the great advantage of all the respect they have."
Bill Kunstler, he recalls, used to keep on his desk a statue of David, from the Biblical story of David and Goliath.
"The David had no slingshot and he was completely naked and he had this puzzled look and he was sort of looking up," Dave says.
"The way Bill always described it was that what he was doing and what we should be doing is representing the Davids and not the Goliaths. [David] was looking at the monster without even a slingshot.
"And yet he continues anyway. He fights anyway. He makes a stand anyway. Bill tried to do that and that's what I would like to try to continue to do."
Pub Date: 10/29/96