At our next meeting, my client brought in a suitcase. He smiled when he saw me. I’ve brought it, he said. That’s great! I answered. Where can we look at it?
We went into an interview room. We both looked at the ceiling, and I again assured him we did not record our conversations, and that as his attorney I was bound by attorney-client privilege. Also, I added, it was more private than the cafeteria, where people could see the contents of the suitcase. This seemed to convince him, and we began.
My client spoke, his hands on the suitcase. It’s very important that you understand something, he told me.
Yes, I said. I’m listening.
What I have to show you is private.
Of course, I answered. Confidential, between us alone. Only if you give me permission may I speak about anything you tell me in confidence.
Okay. My client opened the suitcase. It was filled with papers. Newspapers, magazines, junk mail, scraps of paper with notes of some kind or another. Old Gristede’s shopping bags. A big mess. I tried to not look disappointed and said, Well, this is a good start. Why don’t we go through it?
We began to organize the paper - magazines in a pile, letters in a pile, bills, statements, other kinds of business correspondence. It turned out my client was also a bit of a hoarder, which was probably another future lawsuit, for a different lawyer to handle, but a lucky thing in our situation.
We looked at labels and postmarks, and there were quite a number of items dating back to the early 1980’s. I asked him to take me through the material and tell me what he remembered about it. Stories about the time he had a gift subscription to Time Magazine, old issues of the Village Voice, Con Edison bills, Citibank statements.
This all puts you in the apartment at the right time, as you say, I told him. It’s very good. We can show this to the judge. But I see a problem.
My client turned white.
You are going to have to tell the judge yourself, you know? Testify if there is a trial.
I can’t do that, he told me.
There will be people.
In the courtroom, yes. People. Coming and going.
My client responded, I can’t say anything in front of them. They take down everything you say. And the landlord’s lawyer wants to do me in.
Yes, there is a court reporter. There would be a transcript. And I’m sure the landlord’s lawyer doesn’t want to do you in. He is just doing his job. Trite, but I believed it.
And there is another problem, I told him.
What? he whispered.
We can maybe prove that you lived in the apartment at the time the landlord claims the original tenant was occupying it, but where is this other person, the person on the lease?
My client hesitated, then said, He was my roommate. He went away.
I see. Is this his name on some of the old mail you brought in?
Um… I could see my client was struggling.
Just roommates, I probed? Not lovers?
My client stared at me.
I’m sorry, no offense. But if you were domestic partners, or something like family?
I let the question hang in the air while my client took off his beret to scratch his head. He had a bald spot, and I could see tin foil lining the inside of the beret. I thought of one of my old uncles for some reason.
I’m ask you, I went on, not to be nosy, but because there are certain rights you can claim if you did have a kind of relationship with your roommate. This could help you with your case. You could claim to have a right to the apartment this way.
It makes me nervous.
Okay, I said. That’s fine. We still have time. But will you think about it and maybe we can talk again?
And I was about to add something about the agency’s mental health services, but I stopped myself.
At our next meeting, he brought more papers, in a different suitcase.
I have something to show you, he told me when we were back in the interview room. He smelled more strongly of garlic than ever.
Good, what is it? I asked.
My client handed me a stained and folded up document. I recognized right away we had struck gold.
It’s the original lease!
My client smiled. I found it, he said.
That’s terrific! I told him. Let’s take a look.
And we did, and I saw that the name on the lease was the same name the landlord’s attorney had disclosed to me.
So, I explained. We have the original lease, signed by the old tenant and landlord. And we have the mail you brought in last time. This puts you and he living together at the same time. Did you have an answer about whether you were partners or family members, you and the one who signed? What we talked about last time?
My client said, Well.