“You are the Man!”

Friday, August 5, 2011 — Week of Proper 13, Year One

Albrecht Durer, Matthias Grunewald, and Lucas Cranach the Elder, Artists, 1528, 1529, 1553

Today’s Readings for the Daily Office (Book of Common Prayer, 978)

Psalms 88 (morning) 91, 92 (evening)

2 Samuel 12:1-14

Acts 19:21-41

Mark 9:14-29

Today’s story of the prophet Nathan’s challenge to the king David is so compelling. The king’s power is absolute. Prophets can be jailed or killed. Nathan’s story of the poor man and the little ewe lamb engages the monarch’s imagination before he realizes that he is the target of the story. “You are the man!” cries Nathan. He speaks truth to power, like Jeremiah and John the Baptist and Jesus and so many others will in the future. How often power refuses to respond to truth.

There is a man who I know, a poor man. He’s helped me on a number of occasions. I’ve known him for more than a year. He seems to me a good man. He doesn’t have a car, so he walks, or he is dependent upon the very limited public transportation that we have. Recently he was injured on the job when he stepped into an uncovered drainage ditch in a poultry factory. He will have to have knee surgery. The company told him that he couldn’t continue working on his injured knee. Worker’s compensation will pay for his surgery, but the company did not authorize him for wage compensation through worker’s comp. Without income, it took him only a short while to fall behind in his rent. He was living on a friend’s couch, until that friend was evicted for non-payment. Now he’s homeless, in a pretty tough place.

It wasn’t always this way. He used to have a good job. I just learned “the rest of the story” this week. There was a time when he had a regular, steady job. He had a cosmetology license and made what he called a good living in a salon. But one night he drank too much, got in his car, and was arrested. When people are arrested for DWI, the car is impounded. Around here one of the local towing services gets a call from the police, tows the car, and keeps it until claimed. It took my friend several days to work through the legal process. He pled guilty. (A lawyer friend told me that was a big mistake. With his low alcohol level and a first offense he could have worked out a lighter sentence if he had hired a lawyer.) He paid his fines and other court costs, but that left him broke.

Every day that his car was impounded the towing company added another storage fee. By the time my friend was able to go to the lot to see to his vehicle, the costs to reclaim it were prohibitive. The towing company wouldn’t even release some of his property that was in the car. It was a 1985 model, but very dependable. It was his means for traveling to the salon to work. He couldn’t get to work. He lost his job. Not long afterward, his $150 cosmetology license renewal came up, and he didn’t have the money. His license expired. As the daily storage fees mounted he gave up ever being able to retrieve his car. Life has been extraordinarily hard ever since. No car. No job. No home. He was making his way back with the dirty job in the poultry factory, when he was injured. Now he’s in a pretty tough situation.

He made a mistake. A DWI. He regrets it. He admitted his guilt. As far as I know he doesn’t drink or do drugs. I can’ recall seeing him under any influence. But because he is one of those many people who live from paycheck to paycheck, he was impoverished by the fines, and, in essence, he forfeited his car. A lawyer tells me it happens all the time. That DWI arrest became a slippery slope that has destroyed what was a secure, productive life.

It is the car business that has stuck in my craw. I remember a similar situation a few years ago. A homeless man who lived in his van got permission from one of my friends to park in front of her house. (When people live in their vehicle, one of the biggest challenges is where to park it? Not many private landowners want a homeless person parking on their property, and police will usually have a vehicle moved from public spaces.) There was a neighbor who didn’t know that my friend had given the van owner permission. The neighbor called the police. There is a strange van that has been parked in the neighborhood for a couple of days. The van was towed. By the time things got worked out so the owner could reclaim his vehicle, the towing company wanted nearly $500, an impossible amount. I went to the towing company to negotiate on behalf of my friend. He reluctantly dropped the costs 20%, and I paid for the vehicle’s release. The woman who originally gave the permission to park in front of her house helped bail out the vehicle. The van owner could never have afforded it. Yet, in that vehicle was everything he owned. It was his home, his shelter.

So, I’ve got a Nathan project. It is not right that people who are on the edge can lose their most valuable resource — their vehicle — because of towing and storage costs that escalate so rapidly that they can never pay to reclaim their property. It seems like a form of legal theft to me.

I know plenty of people in my circle (and their children) who have been picked up for DWI. They pay their bail quickly, reclaim their vehicle, hire a lawyer and work the system. So many poor people cannot work the system. The fines and car charges accumulate. They forfeit their vehicle for a minor offense, or sometimes even, a mistake.

I talked to a probation officer and judge the other day who bemoaned how much of their time is spent trying to process people who can’t afford fines, sometimes small fines, then fail to appear, then get into big legal and financial trouble.

“You are the man!” It’s a terrible system that is grinding up some of the most vulnerable of our neighbors. When you are poor, a small mistake can be catastrophic. I’m going to look into this car towing-storage business. It doesn’t seem right to me. But I’m not too confident that our local system will be as repentant as David.

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