Guest Columnist

Three prayers and none looked back

A black mom cried in a lonely booth in a white enclave in Iowa. She stared at legal documents. She touched them so often her fingerprints were self-evident stories of trauma. She was due in court in 15 minutes.

Now she saw two others in the next booth with coffee.

“I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t know anyone here, I don’t have no family.”

The two heard her tale of a 1- and 4-year-old waiting at home.

One document asked for eviction. The other asked for $5,000. The young mom gave her life to the strangers.

“I lost everything in the hurricane.”

Her thoughts tumbled like torn crochet. She said her father was in hospice. She said the landlord agreed to help but nothing came. Her pretty eyes filled to the brim.

“Where are you from?”

“Texas, I ain’t been here long. I took photos when I moved in. I got taxes comin.’ ”

The two strangers agreed to walk to court with her.

At 10:40 a.m. the judge began. She wore a gray smock. Her brown hair hung in ringlets down her temples. Her somber mouth addressed the first case, as thin as a dollar, it hinged on process — owner possession demanded. Rent due.

The owner wore a black sweater shirt with the collar turned up. He was not new to this room.

“You don’t have valid service,” the judge said.

His request was not mailed. Dismissed. The thirtyish landlord nodded. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.

Three rows shuffled in silence. Black faces in the white shadow. The death sentence of eviction squared in shifting files crunching across the judge’s bench. A cough spilled into the quiet air. Two cameras pointed at the defendants. A video screen set like an eye above the judge’s chambers.

“Are we next?” one whispered.

A corporate name, known as owner to everyone there, issued like sputum into the seats. The entity owned a hundred locations. Its hungry attorney swung her streaked blond hair across her neck, twisted it till it fell evenly on the nape. She pushed at paperwork written by the hand of jargon. The judge called a name. A young black woman took 10 steps to face the judge.

“ … three day notice …” the words sputtered in slow motion. Six hundred dollars or out on the sidewalk. The woman projected a learned helplessness. Darkness stamped her eyes that now cast to the floor. The hovering, white judge brokering hope in still, tight language asked about payment. The impassive, stony faced attorney agreed. Pay by Monday. As Dickens wrote in “Hard Times,” only the facts may be housed.

Now the deaf corporate ear was enlivened by the word, money, “For God’s sake! Money!” Homes, no matter, each typed line leveled by accounting, that mattered. Folders, files and numbers, kept by clerks and legal minds, intelligence about number, space and precise fact. None cried for children.

“Exhibit one …” drolled the legal game.

“Copy of three day …” intoned the cold tone.

“Posted February 6,” shrugged the law; “Mailed February 14,” said the silent hollows of the court.

The ashen faced mom struggled for breath. The city clock showed 10 minutes to 11. No time wasted.

“Would you like a contested hearing?” the judge asked.

Meekly she said, “Yes.” The ravenous entity who owned more dreams than the crossroads where the devil made his deals raised up in the attorney’s chuckled voice.

The poor black mom raised hers in turn and said she swore to tell the truth.

“I didn’t understand,” mom said. The attorney asked whether she had a boyfriend or fiancé. “Money somewhere, perhaps?”

Eviction effective Monday decreed the dry law … but if the money is paid, the second message like a binding shackle. Monday again. Five thousand dollars was left in the trauma for later. The two advocates cheered. Hope on the hill at Golgotha. Money could grow on a tree from a miracle.


“I have photographs. I didn’t damage that apartment,” mom said, weary as a torn veteran’s flag, whipped by iron clad money salutes at the grave. Many were called.

The three walked from the courthouse that day with a prayer. None looked back.

• Tim Trenkle teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College and is a doctoral candidate in education at Edgewood College in Madison, Wis., preparing a dissertation on poverty and homelessness.

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