I sit across from a colleague in her office at the Public Defender Service in D.C. A list of names from the jail is on her desk. Some of the names have been crossed out. Others have been highlighted or checked.
“Names are naked things,” my father once wrote. Lists are “an alphabet not intimate like words.” Our flesh moves toward a permanence on a headstone with room for one more number: “in a list I see/already/how it comes.”
I used to represent 30 misdemeanor clients a day when I was a public defender in Philadelphia. I met most of those people for the first time when I printed out the list that morning. Stapling the pieces of paper together, I would stuff the list into my briefcase and head over to the Criminal Justice Center, perhaps stopping at the Dunkin’ Donuts on the way for coffee.
Each of the people on the list had a life, a family, a story. What I saw was a name, a date of birth, a police identification number and a list of criminal offenses.
During my second year as a public defender, I developed a throbbing in my left ear. It was like a bass guitar on high. The hearing came and went. Meniere’s syndrome was what the doctor told me, “syndrome” because they really had no idea what was going on. The condition was often caused by stress.
With that many clients, you can get tired of lists.
Apart from a reference to our mortality, I am not quite sure what my father’s poem means. All I can say is that, if there is a list at the jail with your name on it, let’s hope someone has that list on her desk to monitor.