"They made me feel so small."
Bea does my nails. I found her because she works seven days a week until 8 at night.
She sits at the front table, which in the world of Vietnamese nail salons means the money is in her drawer, and she's the one who makes sure everyone gets their fair share of business.
Until last Saturday night, though, I didn't know she owned the place.
I came running in way after 7, my nails black from cleaning my suede shoes for a trip the next morning to New York without wearing gloves. Dumb as a doorknob.
When I walked in, near closing, black nails, Saturday night, Bea looked at me like I was God's gift. I tip well — but not that well.
She was almost done, and the place was almost empty except for the other workers, who had gathered around me, no doubt because the message had been spread in Vietnamese: Look who's here, what luck. You're a lawyer, Bea said. She knows I'm a lawyer. What kind of lawyer? I represent big companies in the biggest fights they have: when the farm is on fire.
Can I ask you just one question, she said, just a small question.
My father was what we call a solo (a sole practitioner) in Lynn, Mass. He never made a dime. On the day he had the heart attack that killed him, 35 years ago, he was walking back from the courthouse where he successfully had helped grandparents keep their beloved grandchild from being taken to foster care. No retainer. No fee.
I don't do those cases, except when I do. I worked from the time I was 14, worked my way through college, bartended my way through law school. The big cases are paying my kids' tuitions. The little cases are my way of honoring my father. I can help a person like Bea feel a little bit bigger. I write a letter. Make a call. Give them a voice, mine. Win or lose, it's about dignity. Right now, I have my hairdresser and my secretary.
A fancy white lady walked in with a little dog hidden in a carrier. No dogs allowed in the manicure shop.
OK, there are three Estrich dogs. If I could, they'd be sitting next to me on this plane. So fine.
Except the woman didn't keep the dog in the carrier. She let the dog out, and the dog bit a pregnant manicurist. And the woman who was bit screamed, and Bea jumped up, and the customer started huffing out of the salon, claiming she had no ID and had to leave right then, and Bea took hold of the dog's leash and called the police.
The right thing to do? Of course.
Except when the police came, they treated Bea like the criminal. The customer said Bea had pushed and shoved her. Hit her. The police told Bea that she was subject to arrest, that they could handcuff her and take her to the police station and lock her up.
Bea said, "But I have witnesses." The police officer (yes, the white police officer) walked over to the next station, to a woman who speaks broken English, and started battering her with questions. She got flustered. She couldn't answer. As she told me later, the officer announced that if your witnesses can't speak English, they don't count.
At that point, some of the customers stood up. They offered their names and their testimony. The police officers went back to focusing on the woman whose dog had bitten the pregnant woman. Eventually, the customer left, the pregnant woman went to the hospital, and Bea sat there shaking for the next six hours until I got there, when she finally broke down.
In every city and town, there are police officers who respect the dignity of every citizen, who put their lives on the line every day to keep us safe. And then there are the ones who make hardworking Americans feel like powerless criminals, turn them from people striving for the American dream into people who are small and scared.
Everybody hates lawyers until they need one. We don't just fight for the big guys. We stand between the Beas of the world and the people who, without us, would abuse their power with impunity. We do our best to make the rule of law mean something. We are the priests in the temple of our civic religion. In the rush to find jobs and pay debts, I try to remind my students of this. And myself.
What do I do if the police come after me, Bea asked, still shaking. I gave her my card. Tell them to call your lawyer.
Susan Estrich is a best-selling author whose writings have appeared in newspapers such as The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Washington Post, and she has been a commentator on countless TV news programs. Read more reports from Susan Estrich — Click Here Now.
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