The woman was thankful but not effusive. They barely talked the entire year.
But when the woman's tenure ended and the family moved out, Tolbert felt good enough to look for another family to give his house to.
Reflecting on what set him on this path, Tolbert realizes that it wasn't as simple as a magazine article. His whole life, he said, his parents have modeled generosity.
His mother and sister are practicing Buddhists and share its concepts with him. "I've learned about how karma works," he said. "Blessings flow from making sure that others are taken care of."
His father, one of the city's early African American entertainment lawyers, was diagnosed with Alzheimer's 15 years ago and lives in a nursing home.
"This is, in some way, an extension of his philosophy," Tolbert told me. "Growing up, I can't remember a time when there wasn't someone other than family living with us — clients of my father, friends of friends. He was always willing to open up our home to someone in need."
Like the folks in the magazine article, Tolbert's family has grown closer in the past year. He lives with his mother in one unit of a West Los Angeles duplex he owns; his sister lives in the other.
When he told them he plans to continue the arrangement next year, "they were very supportive."
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Even his job reinforces his charitable notions. He helps run the outreach program at UCLA's law school and teaches a course called "Street Law." "A large part of my job is to help equalize the playing field in the legal profession," he said. "Why shouldn't I do that in my life?"
When word got out on campus about his project, a former student steered Tolbert to Alexandria House, a Mid-Wilshire shelter for homeless women and children. Shelter Director Judy Vaughan had a tenant in mind:
Felicia Dukes and her three children have shared a single bedroom at Alexandria House since February. They landed at the shelter after she lost her teaching job, fell behind on rent and got evicted from their Inglewood apartment.
Now they're packing to move next weekend into Tolbert's three-bedroom home. Dukes can barely believe it: "Who opens their arms out to strangers in this day and age?" she said.
Her 11-year-old daughter tallied the blessings more explicitly: She'll be able to have her own bedroom, shoot hoops in the backyard with her brother, invite friends to her birthday party.
"To live in your house is a miracle," she wrote, in a thank-you letter to Tolbert. "You are like an angel from God."
They were working out details last week when Dukes read her daughter's letter aloud. Tolbert took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. Emotion choked his voice: "It's a blessing for me to be able to share with you, and to partner with Alexandria House."
Tolbert doesn't know how long this chain will go on. And I'm still not sure what to make of him. But it feels good to share his story.
"I'm just a regular dude," he said. "I'm not brave. I'm not a millionaire, with houses to burn. I just wanted to do something to help somebody."