October 26, 2014

Little Details (1/21/10)

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And justice for all

Jan. 21, 2010

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

“Hello, may I please speak with David*?” I asked.

Silence.

“This … this is David’s father,” a voice, resonating with pain, responded. “We buried him this morning. His mother and I are cleaning out his apartment.”

My hand trembled. The phone suddenly assumed enormous weight. I stumbled through an unprepared, inadequate expression of condolence.

“Who is this?” the father asked.

I explained I was the investigator assigned to David’s civil rights case against his former employer. David was fired shortly after disclosing to his supervisor he had AIDS. I invited the father to call me back if he wanted me to pursue the case.

Conversation ended, I walked unsteadily to my boss’ office. Charlie could be counted on for supportive, thoughtful advice.

The son of a Pittsburgh cop, Charlie was a true Pittsburgher. His manner was “casual folksy” — a far cry from the more “direct” Boston culture I grew up with. I marveled at how he cared for his wife, suffering from a chronic illness, and still made it to his kids’ games. I remember a story he told of a Thanksgiving “picnic” his family enjoyed when his wife was too fatigued and he was too busy to prepare a traditional turkey dinner. The family packed simple sandwiches and a thermos of something warm to enjoy on bleachers at a park.

Charlie remembered when steel reigned supreme. Young men passed on college, heading straight to the mills — Homestead, J&L, U.S. Steel — where their fathers, uncles and grandfathers worked. Immigrants from Ireland, Germany and Eastern Europe slogged side-by-side filling insatiable coke ovens, harnessing blast furnaces dispensing their fire-hot, molten elixir. Strong unions insured generous wages, vacation time, “Cadillac” health insurance and pensions.

“My dad, when he made detective, would sometimes ask me to wash his car when he came home for lunch,” Charlie mused. “Within an hour it’d be caked with dust (from the mills) and I’d write messages on it.”

The U.S. steel industry, unable to compete with cheaper foreign sources, collapsed in the 1970s. Pittsburgh’s population sliced in half as unemployed workers abandoned Pennsylvania to find jobs elsewhere. This daughter of a Teamster wonders if the unions asked for a little too much.

Sitting in Charlie’s office, his desk piled with cases, I explained the call and the sinking sense I handled it poorly. Charlie encouraged me to not be so hard on myself — it was a tough call.

Our office investigated alleged civil rights abuses in employment, housing and public accommodations. We monitored local hate group activity, including Neo-Nazis and the Ku Klux Klan. I remember an image — a silhouette of a black man dangling from a tree — sitting on my colleague’s desk. It was one of many posters hung surreptitiously on telephone poles and at bus stops. Naïveté slipped away upon learning such hatred existed, percolating just below the surface in certain corners of my adoptive city.

Most of my colleagues were black, relegating me to “minority” status. I worked hard to earn the respect of my co-workers and the trust of my clients — most of whom were also black.

Discrimination is hard to prove. It requires proof beyond a reasonable doubt, perhaps in the form of detailed comparisons of salary, promotion and personnel records. “Sandwich tests” determined if landlords discriminated against black would-be tenants. Drawing on drama skills, I played “the white apartment seeker” — no make-up required — using theater to seek justice. Witness testimony, hard to extract but potent, could turn a case. It took a courageous secretary at a prominent Pittsburgh law firm to bring down a lawyer who repeatedly harassed a co-worker with sexually suggestive comments.

I interviewed all sorts of folks. Some of my hardest conversations occurred when, after reviewing facts, it became evident a firing was justified due to excessive absences, gross misconduct, etc. I heard tales of nuanced sexual harassment that, to this day, make me believe Anita Hill. One man broke down in tears as he spoke of his inability to find work, due — he felt —to obesity.

I re-read David’s file. He worked as a waiter at the Westin William Penn Hotel for 13 years. His tenure and increasing responsibility implied competence.

As a gay man diagnosed with AIDS, he felt obligated to tell his employer although the law did not require him to do so. He was fired shortly thereafter for a seemingly minor infraction.

David’s father never called me back. I wish he had. Just months before, President George H. W. Bush signed the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act, a law designed to protect people like David. He died without insurance, a “benefit” of his employment.

 

* Name changed

 

Katherine Bielawa Stamper lives in Williston. Reader comments are welcome at [email protected] or [email protected]

 


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