the white boy
like a man overboard
crying every which way
is it in your mind
is it under your clothes
where oh where is the
On TV and in the movies, private investigators are square-jawed, shat-upon, no-nonsense teeth-grinders who travel ‘neath the flag of the Antihero. Their bitter, lonely lives—lived with only sassy secretaries and panes of frosted glass for company—are shot in grainy, noirish black and white. They have names like Nick and Ray, and collect gray fedoras—which match the color of their compellingly existential existences. As heartbreaking strings swell, their dames/molls, whose cases they got too close to, die in their arms before they miss those flights to the Caribbean or Zanzibar, flights that would have led to a new world in which everything would have been good again, clean again.
The real world of private investigators is, predictably, less filmable. Real PIs are usually older, less attractive, and not as well-dressed as their cinematic counterparts. They keep to themselves and do not grind their teeth. They do not have secretaries, and no one dies in their arms. Many are what one could call “used-to-bes.” Some used to be police officers and now investigate to fill idle hours and supplement insufficient pensions. Some used to be bounty hunters who turned to investigation to decrease the likelihood that their heads would be shot off. Some used to be in law school and started picking up cases because they didn’t quite make it to the bar exam.
Then there are PIs like me. I am a baby-faced, used-to-be nothing special in my 20s who is fresh out of a fancy liberal arts college. I am a card-carrying member of the bourgeoisie and extremely white. If you saw me testify, you would wonder which attorney’s teenage son was being allowed to horse around on the witness stand. I am not the guy you would expect to find knocking on your door to ask if you had seen your neighbor kill his best friend. You might ask me just what the hell I thought I was doing on your porch.
I would tell you that, one day, I asked myself what foray outside of my privileged upbringing would expose me to life on the fabled other side of the tracks and help me lead a life less ordinary. I might explain that I asked myself how, as a Caucasian living in a decidedly African-American metropolis, I could go to all the places I wasn’t supposed to go to and talk to all the people I wasn’t supposed to talk to.
I chose freelance criminal investigation.
Here’s how it works: The Criminal Justice Act (CJA) of 1975 sets aside money for private attorneys not employed by the Public Defender Service (PDS) to represent indigent D.C. Superior Court defendants. CJA lawyers need investigators to do the dirty work—subpoenaing witnesses, taking statements from victims, and so forth—while they hash out legal theory back at the office.
The salary for this noble work: $10 per hour, payable by the court only after a case is closed. Experience required: none. Benefits: an up-close and personal view of one of the rootin’est, shootin’est inner cities in America. Any volunteers?
Thus, with two summers as an intern investigator at the PDS under my belt, I became Justin Moyer, P.I., upon my graduation from college in 1998. Did I have to pass a complex entrance exam or jump through a lengthy series of bureaucratic hoops to receive this honor? Nope—I just “registered” in Superior Court’s CJA office by filling out the most cursory paperwork. No one asked me why I thought I was qualified to participate in criminal defense. I received no identification. I was told I would not be assigned to any cases, but would have to independently solicit attorneys to “hire” me to work for the court through them. By way of marketing, I taped up an “Investigator Available” sign in the dilapidated Superior Court attorneys lounge without much hope that it would produce anything besides some passing chuckles from some of the legal troubadours who inhabit the place.
I was wrong. By mid-summer, I was turning down work. The CJA posse, I was quick to learn, is not the most reliable bunch. Lawyers and investigators alike have a somewhat deserved reputation as cynical fly-by-night bunglers out to make a quick dollar. Yes, there are committed, competent attorneys who provide solid legal counsel to people in desperate need. These do-gooders do dirty, difficult work at rates well below market average for incomprehensibly poor clients whom most slickster firms would laugh out of the office. The threat of a periodic bookkeeping “Oops!” on the part of Superior Court can leave CJAers without paychecks for as long as a quarter. That single fact looms large over their gritty, desperate universe, but they keep grinding through cases to the best of their ability.
Still, for every poor man’s Perry Mason combating evil, more than a few hacks backhandedly offer representation to clients that is all cynicism and very little elbow grease. As a CJA team player, I was right beside my share of shy-
sters every step of the way. And how did I set myself apart? By occasionally returning phone calls. My caseload blossomed despite my tendency to complete subpoenas incorrectly and forget the names of the murder witnesses I was grilling. I tried to ignore the fact that the occasional attorney I was working for did not seem to know exactly what he or she was doing, either. I didn’t ask why our city allows underskilled attorneys and investigators to use clients from impoverished, underrepresented communities as Harlequins in a sometimes frightening theater of incompetence. Instead, I found comfort in the advice of a veteran investigator who had been repeatedly shot, stabbed, and beaten by a few of his clients: “Just do your job and keep steppin’.”
Why did I thrust myself into this often morally and, as often as not, financially bankrupt system? I was obsessed with the continual cloud of socioeconomic/racial confrontation that came with the job. I liked knocking on doors in Simple City after dark asking if “8-Tray” was around and convincing whoever answered that I was not a police officer. I delighted in exiting the Anacostia Freeway and getting pulled over on Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue for driving while white. I celebrated my steadily increasing smoking habit by bumming Newports off of witnesses while they told how they had found various friends and relatives dead in various places.
My attraction was both cynical and anthropological. Furtive trips outside of my unremarkable upbringing, terminally uncool race, and ridiculous class had warmed up my generation’s leftovers of a ’60s modernist vision. My job was a realization of the white liberal’s oft-dreamt dream: to travel to exotic black places, meet exotic black people, and help them. Was this great or was this great?
You’d need a backhoe to scrape off the irony coating the bottom of this question. It is no secret that the court boasts a number of all-thumbs Tweedledee attorneys assisted by dishonest Tweedledum investigators. Alternately, we could look to postcolonial theory to explain my own failing: how I have Otherized the African-American community and why my missionary attitude in attempting to simultaneously serve and “experience” this community is fundamentally flawed. However, in a good-faith effort to indict myself alongside the system, I will simply tell a story:
In the blasting heat of July 1998, I picked up my first domestic violence case. My black client was charged with beating the hell out of his black girlfriend. My job was to keep his ass out of jail by taking a signed statement from the girlfriend—that is, by writing down her version of the events, which had led to my client’s arrest, and having her sign this document. Armed with this statement, we might be able to discredit her should she do something as crazy as climb on a witness stand to bring her boyfriend to justice. If she changed her story even slightly in front of a judge or jury, the attorney could make her look like a complete idiot. (“You now say you started bleeding after he hit you twice, but a signed statement taken by my investigator states you started bleeding ‘immediately.’ Are you sure you really remember what happened?”) Signed statements from prosecution witnesses are, for the CJA investigator, pure gold.
With this in mind, I diligently traveled to the other side of the river to speak with my client’s girlfriend. I determined where the girlfriend lived. I knocked on her door. She answered the door with a black eye and welcomed me into her home. Though I clearly explained that I worked for her boyfriend’s attorney (misrepresenting oneself to a witness is considered cheating by the court) and that she was under no obligation to talk to me, she was happy to tell me her side of the story. She gave me a glass of lemonade and filled me in. Our client, of course, had gotten a little bit out of hand. It had happened in the past, you know…now and again. It was all good, though—she didn’t want to press charges and didn’t understand why the government was going ahead with the case when she considered the matter resolved. After all, she and her boyfriend had really made up this time.
Driving back to my comfortably gentrified corner of Washington north and west of hers, signed statement in hand, I felt guilty. Had I overstepped my bounds a little bit? Obviously, it hadn’t been fun helping a battered woman stay battered. My work on behalf of an abusive boyfriend might not have registered as a bona fide miscarriage of justice, but it certainly didn’t taste good going down. Somehow, I felt that my desire to protect my client had only led me to push another member of a downtrodden community farther on her downward spiral.
Well, I supposed, it was a dirty job, but someone had to do it. Or perhaps I thought, After all, people are still innocent until proven guilty. Or maybe it was It’s those that seem least worthy of legal representation who need it most. Whatever my justification, I lit my 10th cigarette of the day in true P.I. fashion: with a clear conscience. I cranked up WPGC. I set the controls for the heart of Rock Creek Parkway.
At this writing, I’ve probably investigated 50 or so cases in the District of Columbia. All in all, I’ve done a mediocre job: occasional streaks of good luck paired with some remarkable bumbling now and again. Of course, I’ve slowed down a bit after being slapped across the face by the 1998 CJA budget crisis (no pay for three months!) and beginning life anew as a full-time nonprofiteer. Still, I’ve pitter-pattered my lily-white footsteps o’er project and pothole in the two-thirds of this city the guidebooks warn you away from. I have stepped out of my upper-middle-class white universe and done some good in the stepping. Then again, sometimes my lily-white footsteps have carried the weight of jackboots. Is it possible that I have somehow brought harm to those I was trying to represent…to understand…to save?
The ever-present question—How can I be down?—makes me grit my teeth. My jaw goes square, and Washington is a noirish black and white. Somewhere, a plane that I am not on flies to the Caribbean. The heartwrenching strings swell. CP