Some tiny creature, mad with wrath,

Is coming nearer on the path.

--Edward Gorey

Location: Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, U.S. Outlying Islands

Writer, lawyer, cyclist, rock climber, wanderer of dark residential streets, friend.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Please Don't Go Away Mad, Just Go Away (You're Scaring the Pretty People)

Howard Bashman links this column regarding Richard Kreimer, a rather litigious homeless man in New Jersey who appears to have made a cottage industry of sniffing out conduct that is discriminatory toward him and seeking recompense in the legal system.

According to the column, offered by John "The Road Warrior" Cichowsky (seriously, the nickname appears just below his by-line),

This scruffy guy is the one who sued Morristown 14 years ago for kicking him out of the library. The one who sued Woodbury over its anti-loitering law. The one who sued a doctor. The one who sued his lawyer, a prosecutor, the state attorney general and a restaurant.

The Morristown case settled for $230,000, so it would appear not all of his suits are frivolous.

Two concerns drive my mention of this story, which I hesitate to promulgate precisely because I fear this sort of thing plays into the right's prevarications about the supposedly increasing frequency of frivolous lawsuits and the supposedly exploding value of verdicts (both of which are belied by the evidence, but the right's commentariat never lets evidence get in the way of a good soundbite).

1. Isn't a column supposed to take a position?

Seriously, the Road Warrior is a wuss. There's no evidence here of anything resembling a strong opinion pro- or con- (or rather, there's equally little evidence suggesting both positions) except that the author insists on referring to Kreimer by variations on the way he introduces him: as "that scruffy, disheveled guy." This is offensive; my guess is the Road Warrior probably wouldn't use such off-hand mockery to designate a misbehaving upwardly mobile professional, no matter how odious the conduct warranting the column, with more frequency than he would use the man's name. Seriously; it's not right.

The Road Warrior continues:

Kreimer is a jumble of irony. Since he became homeless in the 1980s, he has somehow managed to befriend some of the people within the very groups he sues. When he sued Morristown, two sympathetic cops later admitted helping him type the suit and slipping him money from time to time. The homeless man paid them back out of the $230,000 in civil rights settlements he won, he said.

The money's gone now. At 55, he says he's now down to $600 a month in Social Security disability benefits, mostly because he suffers from heart disease and diabetes. More than a dozen vials of medication rattle around in his duffel bag next to his lawsuits. Ten copies. Three for the court. The rest for the press.

"I'm suing for $5 million," he said, pausing as the magnitude of the number sinks in. Without prodding he explains: "Inflation."

But this lawsuit is no joke. Nobody can live on $600 a month, so lots of people like Kreimer take to the trains, which are cheap to ride and where it's relatively warm in the winter. A trip into Manhattan and back can eat up three or four hours, especially if they hang around in the train station eating fast food, sipping coffee and using the bathrooms. The same for a trip to the shore.

This sounds fairly sympathetic. But then this: "Few can forgive him from costing Morristown more than $1 million in settlement and legal fees. A homeless mother with young children would be a far more ideal litigant than the man who files biannual lawsuits."

Who cares about forgiving the man who legitimately was wronged, as manifest by Morristown's conduct in settling for a substantial amount of money? How about we find out who forgives Morristown for misbehaving to an extent that cost them that money. That's the thing: Morristown paid, Morristown wronged, and Morristown and Morristown only is the entity its constituents should blame for committing acts that led to the squandering of no mean sum of money for a modest-sized suburb.

When it comes to the Road Warrior, however, I just can't tell where his sympathies lie, if sympathies he has.

2. Is there any benefit in the telling of feeding back into repugnant stereotypes and assumptions about the homeless?

Even people who mean well constantly imply by subtle cues their general assent to the tacit but everywhere-evident consensus that the homeless are of some other species -- not necessarily a harmful one, just different. I am more aware of this in Pittsburgh than I was back east; New Yorkers don't necessarily attend much to the homeless (it's hard because there are so many), but neither do they pretend that their limited visibility is a function of their non-existence, as appears to be the general assumption here. It's there, growing up, that I got into the habit of always acknowledging each person who asked me for something, even if my answer was no. I make eye contact with more of the homeless than I did with the others walking the streets of New York. Just to convey the basic message that I see you. Even when I cannot, or choose not to, give anything to someone asking, I can offer him the kindness of not pretending he doesn't exist or that I didn't hear him.

As for Pittsburgh, a hypothesis: You don't see the homeless here so much because for whatever reason and by whatever mechanism it's terribly unprofitable for them to be on the street, due to some combination of individual penury and the degree to which the police enforce various laws tailored specifically to enable official removal from view of undesirables -- vagrancy laws, and the like.

The Road Warrior (whom I might prefer to identify as that Elmer Fudd-Looking Guy with the Bad Comb-Over, if it weren't too wordy) describes Kreimer's latest suit as follows:

Richard Kreimer took the train to Newark on Monday and dropped off a 10-page suit in U.S. District Court that claims transit cops and municipal police in Summit frequently frisk him, search his bag, threaten him with arrest and force him to leave.

"I always have a ticket, so I have a right to be there," said Kreimer. "But the cops don't care. They say they have orders to get rid of the homeless because they think we spend too much time in the station."

Does anybody seriously doubt the veracity of these allegations? After former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, I know I couldn't argue; the radical reduction in the visible homeless under Giuliani was not due to workfare or prosperity or anything like that -- his so-called "quality of life" measures included saving the tax-paying or shopping New York residents and visitors the horrors of having to see the poverty visited upon some small fraction of the population as an inexorable consequence of capitalism.

Still, there's a dismissive tone to Comb-Over's column. And this notwithstanding his own acknowledgment that disability doesn't pay the bills. Neither does the minimum wage. And minimum wage workers don't save much of anything if they want to eat. Since they sometimes lose their jobs, what do you suppose happens to them? How long before they're being rousted from public accommodations notwithstanding their license (in the form of a token or a ticket) to be there?

I don't like those frivolous suits that come along, though I'm inclined to so designate far fewer suits as such than most people outside my profession. But I consider the suits at issue in this column to be civil rights suits in the honorable tradition of all that recalls -- these suits raise awareness of those people we leave behind with nary a thought to their well-being, and whom we would just as soon have out of sight and out of mind. It's unhealthy to forget the necessary cost of our own prosperity, and it's a cancer on our society that we consider the unforunate among us anything less than human.

But then if we granted them full humanity, we might have to start asking ourselves why the minimum wage is so low, why healthcare barely reaches the bottom rung at all, whether trickle down economic theories are making it all the way to the bottom, and so on. So it's probably better just to look the other way, charge them with loitering, ridicule or minimize their efforts to win full recognition of their humanity and their individual and collective plights.


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