Having grown up in Tanner Lane had visited its City Hall a few times, including a pair of well-remembered traffic-court appearances, with his father at his side. Never once, however, had he seen the business side of city government....such as the City Council chambers or the next-door office of the Council’s General Counsel. It was Friday afternoon and that was about to change.
Like so many government facilities the post-war Tanner City Hall, new and shiny in his day, was struggling to meet the demands of the twenty-first century....where downsizing and consolidation were the norm. For the General Counsel that process had resulted in a smaller office....a pair of windowless rooms tucked away at the end of a twisting third-floor hallway.
There, in the cramped reception area, a graying, stern-faced woman glanced up from her computer to note Lane’s entrance....looking for a moment as though she was distressed by the interruption he represented.
“Yes,” she asked, eyeing him over the top of her frameless reading glasses.
The name plate on the front of the desk proclaimed that she was “Cary Whelan -- Office Manager,” which seemed to him a rather grandiose title for what appeared to be a one-person office.
“Is Mrs. Brock in? She asked me to come by at two o’clock.”
Swiveling her chair to face him, Carey Whelan began by setting things straight. “It’s Ms. Brock. And I don’t remember her mentioning a two o’clock appointment.” With that she turned back to her work.
“She told me that just this morning,” Lane explained, wondering if it was his casual, not-so-uptown appearance that had the lady on edge. Whatever the reason, he was not about to be dismissed so easily. “Maybe she forgot to tell you.”
With an audible sigh the woman stood to retrieve an appointment calendar from the top of a file cabinet. “I don’t see anything here. What was your name?”
“It was Lane Tipton. Still is. I met Ms. Brock this morning down by the fitness center. I’m sure .....”
“Tipton?,” the lady interrupted, holding up a hand, buying time as she leafed through a stack of notes on the corner of her desk. Finally, having retrieved the single yellow Post-it, she held it up for him to see. “It says Mr. Tipton wants to talk about ‘discrimination.’ Is that right?”
A moment later Ms. Whelan’s professional scowl had faded, swept away by the trace of a wondering grin. “She thought you might have been waiting there at the Job Market.”
Erin Brock had mentioned her meeting with him. What did that mean? “That’s right,” he nodded. “Do you suppose she’ll talk to me?”
Cary Whelan motioned him to a chair. Though it was not her place to be advising Erin’s clients, perhaps she ought to be sure he did not get his hopes too high.
“I expect she will. When people talk about discrimination that usually gets her attention. A part of her job is to keep the City out of trouble. But those laws are very complicated. So it’s hard to know what she can do, if anything. Right now though, she’s in the middle of a conference call. Hopefully it won’t last too long.”
Leaning back, Lane nodded his understanding. Finally it felt as though things might be going his way. Ms. Whelan seemed not to be the grouch he had feared at first. Not that she was the one he needed to impress. That would be Erin Brock....the one who hopefully had the answers and held the keys that could turn his distressing complaint into satisfying justice.
It was ten minutes later when Ms. Whelan stood, answering Lane’s questioning glance with a quick, “She’s off the phone.” Stepping to the Counsel’s office door, she knocked softly and pushed it open enough to poke her head inside.
Though he leaned forward to hear their muted exchange, Lane was left to wonder until Cary turned back, now wearing a smile, to say, “She’s ready. Come on in.”
Lane noticed the difference at once. It was a more relaxed Erin Brock he saw as she looked up from her desk....not the flushed and hurried woman he had met that morning, fresh from her work-out at the fitness center. More to the point, she was smiling as she pointed to the chair across the desk from her.
If he was at a loss for words, Ms. Brock was clearly not. With no preliminaries she cut right to the chase. “So, Mr. Tipton, tell me about this ‘discrimination’ you’re concerned about. I’ve been trying to imagine what that could be about.”
“Discrimination,” he repeated under his breath. It was time for an explanation. Would she still be smiling after she heard his protest?
“Thanks so much for seeing me,” Lane began. “I know this is a bit out of the ordinary. But I didn’t know where else to turn.”
“About what?," she asked. "Why are you turning to me? And why now? You said it was something about discrimination. Is there something you think the City should be doing about it?”
“Yes, I think there is. You see, it’s about a lot of folks who aren’t getting a fair shake, who aren’t being treated right, even though there’s an obvious answer right there in plain sight.”
The Counselor was frowning, perhaps trying to guess where he was leading them. “I don’t think I understand. You believe that what you’re describing is some form of discrimination. Is that it?”
By then Lane’s gaze was focused on his own hands, folded in his lap. In truth, he was wishing he had a better answer....or any answer at all.
“Look,” he said, glancing up at her. “I'll admit that I’m not sure that I know the legal definition of ‘discrimination.’ I can only tell you how it feels to me....that people are being treated badly because of who they are, or aren’t.
“You see, the guys I’m talking about are dealing with hard times. They’re living in tents down by the river, trying to get by on next to nothing. They’re out of work because there are no jobs. They’re struggling, even suffering. And yet, while they’re camping out on the Bluffs, there are perfectly good houses sitting empty all over town.
“I don’t know how the law books would describe that, but I know it’s not right. It needs to be fixed. And the people I’ve talked to tell me the City would have to be involved to do that.”
For the next two or three minutes, without further interruption, Erin Brock listened as Lane presented his passionate, if disjointed objections to the ‘going poor’ reality he knew first hand. Though her gaze remained fixed on him, her professionally-passive expression offered few hints of how she was reacting to his rambling, stream-of-consciousness monologue.
Finally, pausing for a deep breath, Lane realized he was repeating himself. He had said all he had to say and still there was no sign that she accepted his logic. With a silent raised-eyebrow question he was asking for her reply.
“Mr. Tipton. I can tell that you feel very strongly about this,” she began. “And I believe I can understand why you feel that way. However,.......”
He closed his eyes and slumped back in his char. “However,”....it seemed the word was invariably the harbinger of disappointment.
“However,” she continued. “Though the situation you describe may seem hurtful, or unfair, or simply wrong....it is not illegal. You’re referring to what the law calls ‘property rights,’ the ability of a property owner to make choices about his or her property....to do or not do certain things.
"Of course, those rights are not absolute. There are legal limitations on how they may be exercised, but the basic concept is deeply embedded in every level of law. That means it’s not against the law for homeowners to decide against doing what you think they ought to do.
“What offends you so deeply cannot be legally defined as discrimination. There may be ways to persuade people to act differently. But there are no laws being broken if they decide not to do that, so long as their reasons are lawful.”
“Persuade them?," Lane countered, leaning forward in his chair.. "Are you crazy?”
The lady had rendered her verdict, yet he was unwilling to give up without a parting shot. “You’re talking about people like bankers and real estate investors. They're the ones who own those homes. You know that.
“They're the ones who make the rules. And you know they don’t give a damn about some poor guy sleeping in a tent on the Bluffs. They just don’t care. And I suppose it’s your job to see that it stays that way.” With that he was on his feet, starting for the door.
“Just one minute, Mr. Tipton.” Ms. Brock commanded as she stepped from behind her desk. “Do you think for a minute that I don’t see those men, the ones like you, lined up at the Job Market every morning? Do you think I don’t care about that?
“I’m afraid you don’t understand the purpose of my job. I’m here to advise the Council, to be sure they follow the law. I do that by applying the laws as they are, not as you or I think they ought to be. I’m sorry, but that’s all I can do.”
The Counselor was apparently through stating her case. Certainly by then Lane was through listening.
Slamming his palm on the top of a door-side file cabinet he offered a last, loud observation. “Hey, there’s no reason for you to be sorry. They pay you, probably a lot, to look after their interests. And that’s what you’re doing.” A moment later the door slammed behind him.
At her front office desk Cary Whelan turned to watch his boisterous retreat. From the sound of things there was probably nothing she could say to calm him down, but it seemed like she ought to try.
“Sounds like Erin didn’t have the answer you wanted,” she offered as he passed, wondering if her grim little smile could coax something in kind from him. “You realize, don’t you, that she can’t always do what she wants to. There’s a whole bunch of rules that have to be followed.”
With no hint of the smile Ms Whelan was hoping for, Lane settled for his own harsh parting. “I can see why folks say that you guys wouldn’t know what was right if it was standing in front of you.”
That was too much....and he seemed to know that. Pulling the outside door open, he paused to muster a sad grin. “Anyway, thanks for your help.”