Washington: The judge settled his gaze on the homeless man accused of sleeping beside an office building in downtown Washington.

It was a Saturday afternoon in early April at D.C. Superior Court, and Alfred Postell, a diagnosed schizophrenic, stood before Judge Thomas Motley.

Postell’s hair was medium length and graying. His belly spilled over his pants. A tangled beard hung from his jowls.

“You have the right to remain silent,” a deputy clerk told Postell, according to a transcript of the arraignment. “Anything you say, other than to your attorney, can be used against you.”

“I’m a lawyer,” Postell replied.

Motley ignored the seemingly bizarre assertion, mulling over whether Postell, charged with unlawful entry, posed a flight risk.

“I have to return,” Postell protested, offering a convoluted explanation: “I passed the Bar at Catholic University, was admitted to Constitution Hall. I swore the Oath of Office as an attorney at Constitution Hall in 1979; graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979.”

That got Motley’s attention. He’d also graduated from Harvard Law School in 1979.

“Mr. Postell, so did I,” Motley said. “I remember you.”

This homeless man — who totes his belongings in white plastic bags, haunts the intersection of 17th and I streets NW and sometimes sleeps at a church — studied law alongside U.S. Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and former Wisconsin senator Russ Feingold. All of them graduated from Harvard in 1979.

Motley, who declined to be interviewed for this story, paused for a moment before concluding, “But I have no choice in the matter.”

He ordered his former classmate back to the D.C. jail until the charges against him could be resolved.

An educated man

In a city with thousands of homeless people, Postell may be the District’s most academically distinguished. Diplomas, awards and certificates clutter a closet at his mother’s apartment, buried artifacts of a lost life. He holds three degrees: one in accounting, one in economics, and one in law.

On a summer evening, he sits inside a McDonald’s on 17th Street NW, a white towel wrapped around his head like a turban.

Listening to him talk about his life is like dive-bombing into a dream. Everything at first sounds normal. But things quickly fall into disorder. The chronology hiccups. Incongruous thoughts collide.

“Charleston,” he says, “I owned property there, in the city proper. The cotton fields were past the city limits. The cotton fields: They were past the city limits. I picked cotton once in my life. But the cotton fields were past the city limits. I lived within the city. We had property there. We inherited the property. Shortly thereafter, I drove to San Diego, California. I was in love with a girl.”

But these pronouncements always arc back to a single idea. It anchors Postell in the turbulent waters of his schizophrenia. Postell, he tells himself and others, is an educated man. He worked hard. He did right.

Postell, born in 1948, was the only child of a mother who was a seamstress and a father who installed and fixed awnings. He grew up knowing what it meant to live without. He was a normal boy, says his mother, Ruth Priest, but always focused and motivated.

He wanted more than what his parents had. So after graduating from the District’s Coolidge High School, he juggled a day job while working his way through an associate’s degree at Strayer College. Achievement fed achievement. He passed the CPA exam and took a job as the audit manager at an accounting firm, Lucas and Tucker, where he said he pulled in an annual salary of more than $50,000 — big money back then. But Postell wasn’t done. He went to the University of Maryland for a degree in economics. Then, even before he’d graduated, he clacked off an application to Harvard Law — and was accepted.

“It seems like every couple of years I would become aware of a new achievement or plateau that you have reached,” wrote E. Burns McLindon, a prominent Bethesda accountant who instructed Postell at Strayer, in a letter Postell framed. Strayer had just given Postell its Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award. “Your example,” wrote McLindon, who died in 2012, “serves as a true example to our young people today to gather up within themselves the determination and ambition to succeed.”

Courtesy Washington Post