Twenty thousand dollars was a hell of a lot of dough back in 1973, especially if it came in cash and you didn’t mention it to the tax man. In many nice parts of San Francisco, you could get three bedrooms, a view of downtown, and have some bread left over. Scuttlebutt told me that twenty Gs was the standard retainer for someone looking at a murder rap, so that was how much I quoted Umoja Simama.
I was running a shoestring law practice in the Mission at the time. One of his lieutenants, Oso Pardo, showed up at my office with a silvery metal briefcase, snapped it open and dumped packets of bills—a year’s supply of cash—all over my desk. I’d hoped that by asking for that kind of money, Umoja would go looking for another mouthpiece. I wanted out, especially for the sake of my relationship with Christina. But as fate had it, Umoja was unaccountably flush at just that moment.
You see dough like that, you get greedy. Your mind gets addled. So I ignored my better judgment and the advice of everyone around me. I took the money in denial that I was making a Faustian bargain by accepting the loot.
“You gonna count it, man?” Oso Pardo asked.
“I don’t need to steenking count it,” I replied, pretending it was a scene from a post-modern version of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Oso Pardo removed his sunglasses and glared at me with red-streaked eyes. His swarthy complexion darkened. His hands balled into fists. His chest expanded to reveal a telltale bulge under his sweatshirt and I became instantly hot. Did he think I was mocking his accent? If it wasn’t for me being Umoja’s “main man” and if Oso Pardo wasn’t his “bro,” things might have gone sour right there.
“It was a joke,” I said and shrugged, my voice cracking. “From the movie. The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. With Humphrey Bogart.”
He scowled. He still didn’t get it, but recognized it was a joke. His tension dissipated.
I stared at the banded stacks of bills between us. My fingers tapped nervously on the desk. “I’ll count them,” I said, making little piles for each thousand. “ Yep. Twenty . Want a receipt?”
Oso Pardo shook his head. “We work on trust, brother.”
I managed a smile, wondering what happened when there wasn’t any trust. He snapped the briefcase closed and dropped his shades back on the bridge of his broad nose. “You need any security?” He patted the lump beneath his sweatshirt.
I scanned the street through the plate glass windows that took up the larger portions of two office walls. “Don’t think so.”
After he was gone, I packed the loot into a worn leather bag that Emile Taub had made for me in his prison handicrafts class—“The balance of your fee,” as he put it. I hadn’t the heart to tell Emile that it looked like something an eight-year old had made at summer camp. But I had it, so I used it. Five minutes later, I was on my way to Liberty Bank, a hole-in-the wall on Mission Street that was so small, the manager knew my name.
I liked doing business with Liberty and get nostalgic thinking about it. It ceased to exist only a few years later, but at the time, it was one of a number of neighborhood banks. I made a small deposit and opened a checking account after seeing the free safe deposit box inducement in their window. The box remained empty until this unexpected influx of cash filled it.
I soon discovered how bad the bargain was for me. Twenty grand in cash isn’t easy to spend when you don’t want the IRS to know you have it. They’d just begun a crack- down on defense lawyers. Not long after I came into possession of my burden, a drug lawyer I knew got nine months in the pokey after he couldn’t explain how he bought his new Benz. And he wasn’t the only one with such problems. So my plan was, every month I’d draw out a few hundred and put that sum on the books for Umoja. In every way, the twenty big ones quickly became more of a curse than a blessing.