Sometimes he slept in the Superior Courthouse Downtown. "I had a special little place," Niles DeGrate said, "in the attorneys' conference room."
When he couldn't sleep there, he simply slept outside in front of the courthouse--especially if he had to be in court the next morning.
Not only was DeGrate representing himself in his lawsuit against the company that fired him in 1990, he was virtually living in the places that he used as resources for his dogged legal pursuit.
DeGrate lost his job, lost his home and spent more than four years filing his own motions in a lawsuit against Eaton Corp., where he said he was the frequent target of racial abuse and unfairly fired from his job as an administrator. But finally, with lawyers taking over his case just days before his case went to trial, DeGrate prevailed and on Friday became arguably the richest homeless man in Los Angeles.
Superior Court Judge Florence-Marie Cooper ruled that DeGrate had been the victim of racial harassment and ordered the company to pay him $1.25 million.
Attorneys for the company did not return phone calls from The Times on Friday, when the ruling was announced.
In her decision, Cooper noted incidents of racial taunting including the dumping of food on DeGrate's desk and co-workers calling him "nigger." One of the most stunning pieces of evidence was a joke application for Jesse Jackson's staff that white co-workers gave DeGrate to fill out. The judge called it "a blatantly racially derogatory, disgusting document."
The application was riddled with offensive questions. Under place of birth, it gave these options: Free Clinic, Alley, Zoo, Car, Colonel Sanders and Popeye's Chicken. Under auto, it listed Cadillac or Lincoln and asked "Financed" or "Stolen."
When DeGrate first met his attorneys he told them he could be reached at a phone number--but only at 10 a.m., 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. He was using a phone booth at UCLA.
"On the street, I just dedicated my whole life to this case," he said. "Anything that presented an obstacle was either overcome or insignificant."
On Saturday afternoon, he was still ensconced in the $145-a-week motel just west of Downtown that his lawyers have put him up in. Friday night, they all celebrated at Gladstone's 4 Fish at the beach.
However, no one knows when he will see that money. His lawyers are expecting the company to appeal. But for now, DeGrate, 52, looks athletically fit, crisply dressed in slacks and a sport shirt, his face relaxed.
"I haven't had much sleep during the last four or five years," he said chuckling. But there is no sign of the exhausted, scruffy man who, on the eve of his trial, sought the legal services of Shelly McMillan and Robert M. Ball.
"I always thought I would get to this point," he said calmly. "But I didn't know when. It was just a matter of survival. It was being the victim and the adversary."
Only five years ago, DeGrate negotiated government contracts in the aerospace field for Eaton Corp. in their Valencia and El Segundo offices. "I had the bulk of the contracts for F-14s," DeGrate said about the fighter plane. With a bachelor's degree in biochemistry and a law degree from a small local law school, he made $47,000 a year, rented a $1,050-a-month townhouse on Ventura Boulevard in Woodland Hills and drove a BMW. He played tennis. He played golf.
"From chipping on the green to sleeping on the green--Bob said that in the closing arguments," McMillan said Saturday as she and DeGrate recounted their saga.
He actually did not sleep on a golf course but used other public places. When he was able to save enough money he would temporarily rent an apartment or a hotel room.
He was often at the UCLA law library, working on his motions, and sleeping during the day. He sometimes maintained a locker where he stashed his belongings at UCLA.
"At every law library, there's a loony," said McMillan, "and I imagine to the UCLA students Niles was that loony."
DeGrate has let details of his life on the streets recede easily into a hazy fog.
He tries to remember when he lost his townhouse, "1993, 1994," he said, then smiles ruefully. "You know, sometimes I don't \o7 want \f7 to remember."
He is asked several times when he lost his car. "Why is the car so important?" he asked, a flicker of irritation breaking his otherwise consistently affable demeanor. "People's values get so twisted."
Even his lawyer good-naturedly points out that \o7 he \f7 was the one who brought up the car in the first place.
Similarly, in his homeless life, he got by on public transportation. "All I needed was to go down the street and take the Metro to the court and I was there for the day," he said.
In fact, he is a jumble of reactions to his onetime homelessness.
Not only does he claim fuzziness on the details, he sometimes conveys a sense that homelessness was just an inconvenience--a one- or two-year aberration in an otherwise affluent middle-class, roof-sheltered life.