Legal Aid: "All The Stuff I Already Looked Up Online"
When I first filed for divorce, I was terrified. My husband had been emotionally abusive during our entire marriage; he made a point to tell me he would leave me with nothing and take our son every time we had a bad argument, which was often. His drug addiction made him even meaner and also more irrational as each day passed.
I went to TESSA, the local women's shelter, for some help getting a restraining order. The case worker and I filled out the paperwork together, and they gave me a list of people that could, theoretically, help me; I didn't hold out a lot of hope but my family was practically destitute and I was worried that my husband would try to hurt our son, so I was open to ideas.
I used to work for lawyers. Way back in 1996, I was living in Russia - broke and nearly living on the street, not wanting to admit defeat and come back home - when I landed a dream job with an American corporate law firm. The job was interesting - introducing the worst parts of crony capitalism to the former USSR - and working in the center of Moscow with incredible people was an added perk to being able to stay in the country I had fallen in love with.
The law has always fascinated me, and because of my limited legal experience, I easily navigated the early divorce paperwork on my own. But my husband's ever-worsening mental condition troubled me and I wanted to protect myself as much as possible, so I looked through the list TESSA gave me and called Legal Aid, who told me to apply online, which I did.
Just an FYI: Their super professional website is not indicative of their services.
I remember it took Legal Aid too long to get back to me; I had already filed for divorce and I knew the police would be serving my husband with the paperwork any day. The fear of what he would do when he got the paperwork consumed me, and I felt utterly abandoned.
I left an abusive boyfriend before, so I already had experience with people pressuring me into leaving and then cutting me loose the moment after I left. Although that time, I didn't have kids to protect.
Legal Aid called in the early afternoon, when my mom and I were getting ready to run errands.
"Hello?" I repeated.
Another long pause, then, "Hello." It was an elderly woman. And yet another long pause, so I opened my mouth to ask her who she was, when she said, very slowly, "This is Janice." And yes, yet another long pause, then, "I'm with Legal Aid."
I was excited to finally hear from them, so I explained my situation quickly. This went badly, because she obviously couldn't understand or hear me. I explained something, she asked me to repeat it. Over and over. She finally spit out that she needed some documents so she could submit ... something to somebody. I asked a few questions she either didn't understand or hear, so the conversation was basically ... pointless and stupid.
But I thought I needed their help, so I gathered the necessary paperwork and headed over to the Legal Aid office.
I don't know why, but I expected their office to at least be in an office building, or maybe a strip mall. But not on the ground floor of a dilapidated old apartment building.
I also don't know why the sight of that terrible building made me feel utterly offended, shocked, appalled, dismissed and defeated.
There was a pair of used men's tighty whiteys on the sidewalk outside the entrance, which pretty much sums up my whole experience at Legal Aid. The entrance isn't clearly marked (except for the tighty whiteys), so we walked around the entire building before figuring out how to get inside (because the back of the building makes sense as an entrance, amiright?).
The middle-aged receptionist sits inside a big glass box, I assume because of the rage these people induce in their clients. "Surly" is probably the best word to describe this woman, who we'll call "The Box" from now on, because she and a box do about an equal amount of work in the Legal Aid office.
She didn't want to help me. She was annoyed I was there. She had no idea who Janice was, and she really didn't care, but told me I could sit down and wait for someone to come out and talk to me.
I sat in a chair in a far corner of the waiting room, looking around at the vintage furniture, worn carpet and dark wood panelling. It smelled like decades of flooded basement and stale cigarette smoke. There was a pathetic pile of broken, rainbow-colored plastic toys heaped nearby.
As I began to wonder what was taking so long, a woman hurriedly burst through the front door and approached The Box.
"My husband ... " she began. She was clearly distraught and out of breath. "I need help with my divorce." No response from the box. The woman continued, breathless. "I don't have any money ... he's abusing me."
The Box responded, her canned answer was short and cold. "Did you apply online? You have to apply online."
"What?" the woman said, still trying to catch her breath. Young, white, slender. Nicely dressed. "I didn't, but my husband ..." she pleaded. She seemed confused by the demand.
"You have to apply online we can't help you here," The Box said in one long, monotone breath.
The young woman paused, staring silently at The Box, then anxiously looked down at the papers she grasped firmly in both hands. "Where do I apply?"
A paper pamphlet, pinched between three bony fingers and a thumb, creeped through an opening in the bottom of the actual box. "Here," The Box said contemptuously, quickly going back to her book.
The young woman, obviously caught off guard by The Box's utter lack of empathy, turned impatiently and put her papers on the 1970s coffee table behind her. She paused for a moment, to ease her temper, then reached over and gingerly slid the pamphlet off the counter. She skimmed the front, then the back, then opened it to read the middle; finding nothing that could help her, and nearly in tears, she grabbed her papers and stormed out the front door.
The Box looked up at me a few minutes later, then called me over; she couldn't remember my name. "Why are you here?"
"I have to give Janice these papers." You know, like I told you before. The Box just stared at me. "She said I had to bring them," I added.
The Box picked up the phone, her skeletal fingers deliberately pressing each button as if entering the code to disable a bomb. When the person on the other end of the line answered, The Box covered her mouth with her hand and spoke quietly into the receiver; she had clearly discovered that I was The Mole, there to blow the lid off their entire criminal operation.
I know. Hyperbole. But she was that ridiculous.
I held the papers tight to my chest; I didn't want to lose my temper but I knew I was already losing my temper. The Box had already turned away one victim of domestic violence, who could say she wouldn't get rid of me, too?
"Janice will be out in a minute," she said, and shoved her nose back into her book.
It was a lot longer than a minute.
Methuselah finally emerged from her dark cave at the end of the long hallway. Her short, white hair jerked as she crept towards me. One bony hand was wrapped tightly around the end of an aluminum cane, which she violently stabbed, with a loud thud, into the threadbare carpet before each step.
She stopped several feet back from the little wooden gate that, I assume, was there to keep the exalted safe from the peons. She looked at me with disgust. At least, I think it was disgust. It seemed like disgust.
"Why ... are you here?" she mumbled, leaning heavily on her cane.
"I'm Carrie. We spoke on the phone?" No recognition whatsoever. "You told me I had to bring you these documents," I said cheerfully, hoping to jog her memory. She looked at me with confusion. And also, still, disgust. "You called me the other day and said I have to bring you these documents." Still no sign of recognition. "Do you want me to...?"
"Well ..." she interrupted, her voice trailing off. I waited for her to say something else, but she seemed to be contemplating whether she really needed to take my documents.
"You told me to bring them to you. I'm Carrie," I repeated. "We spoke on the phone?"
"Well," she said, her voice again trailing off. The Box, by the way, neither said anything nor offered any help.
"Can you just make a copy of them?" I offered, not sure that she would agree to it.
"What?" she demanded. She had a look on her face that old people generally reserve for teenagers on skateboards.
I held out my pile of papers to her, which she did not accept right away. "You could make a copy ..."
She took them but made it obvious that she knew I was trying to take advantage of her. She clumsily crammed my papers - which included originals of all our birth certificates and other important documents - under her arm, turned on the end of her cane and lumbered back down the hall. Thump, slide. Thump, slide. Thump, slide.
The Box never looked up from her book.
I sat back down in the same chair and picked at my handbag.
To say I felt doomed would be an understatement.
After too much time, Janice finally thumped back to the lobby with all my documents and told me I would be hearing from them about my case, and whether they would take it. Frankly, I was afraid they would take it. I imagined having to deal with Janice and The Box on a regular basis, and it scared me.
They turned me down. Even though I had no income and I could prove my husband was on drugs, dangerously mentally ill and my family was in danger, they turned me down. I got a letter that looked like it was printed on a dot matrix printer that said they couldn't help me.
And a part of me thought I would be better off without them ... and I think maybe I was.