Scene From a Courtroom
A spacious, stone-floored room lined in cheap oak and pine veneer, old and poorly lacquered, shining stickily in milky light from a row of unwashed windows, high on the wall with blinds askew. In the back half of the room, wooden benches with straight backs; in front of them, a yard-sale hodgepodge of office tables. Three women in department-issue security guard jackets cluster around a computer monitor, chatting over coffee.
To the left, at two paper-strewn tables, three men and a woman. One of the men and the woman are public counsels; the other, paralegals. One is older, caucasian, hunched over and sheathed in loose flesh, tired and noncommital. His counterpart is younger, wearing a blue suit and looking intent.
Slowly the players filter in. A pair of attorneys, suited and groomed so as to suggest competence and power, but the intent is betrayed by the details, individually tiny but cumulatively obvious, like counterfeit designer handbags.
The bailiff is a massive man, dreadlocks gathered in two clumps that stick out from his head like rabbit ears. The judge comes in, puts on his robe, surveys the room; he is a black man, hair thinned, youthful but his face beginning to droop. Pulls out a New York Times, opens it up to the business section, and then looks at his computer.
The bailiff calls court to session in a booming voice trailing away to a mumble.
The first defendant: a skinny, shivering young man in a wife-beater and sagging, soiled black jeans. He walks with a cane. The yard-sale hodgepodge of tables is staffed by a dozen or so people. They fill out papers, carry them from one table to another, write and type. The hum of their activities muffles the proceedings, so only the charges can be heard: resisting arrest, disorderly conduct. Several minutes later, inaudible verdict delivered, the defendant shambles back to the gallery.
The next defendant is bald and muscular in the way of men whose muscle will soon wither and fatten. He too walks with a cane, and the words of his case can’t be heard; it’s like trying to listen to a single conversation across the room at a party. “Do you want to plead guilty,” I hear, and that is all. Decision rendered, he walks away.
“Aladdin” is the name on the back of the judge’s computer monitor. Rubbed, it returns the answers to his requests.
Most of the activity is conducted almost independently from the cases that are heard; the defendant, the attorneys, are only a small part of the show, and hardly central.
Another man, then another. Now comes one of three protesters; there are many here today, their cases intermingled with the usual hearings.
The legal aid lawyer is compact, with a thin beard. He looks like a viking and speaks as if on a stage.
A protester in a Carpenters Union t-shirt accepts a deal offered by the city. He offers his hand to the bailiff, is denied, hugs his legal-aid attorney. A case is heard every few minutes, one after the other in a steady rhythym, and only a few, especially distinctive individuals stand out. The others become a collective presence, indistinguishable in memory, inhuman.
A thin woman with frayed cornrows. From behind, she looks young, perhaps a teenager, in a jean jacket and jeans. When she turns her head, she’s revealed as middle-aged and undernourished, her face creased and prematurely aged. Her postures and gestures are of supplication. She says something; the judge replies, you should have thought of that first. She’s sentenced to twenty days in jail, the first person thus sentenced. The guards escort her out through a door that opens briefly in the wall in the corner; through are glimpsed bars, bright fluorescent lights and yellow concrete walls, another pair of uniformed guards. The woman’s bearing changes, like a cat prepared to fight. She disappears and the door closes, blending into the wood paneling. Unless you looked closely, you wouldn’t even know it was there.
A middle-aged woman with enormous glasses and swept-back hair enters from the side, sits down in front, and begins to read the Times.
The doors to the courtroom are bronze, tarnished with age. On one is a metal relief of a fat man, holding scales of justice; his face is youthful and smug, and two robed young men kneel at his feet. On the other door is an older, heavily jowled man in a curled wig, the spitting image of some Dickensian justice. He carries scrolls, and two young men kneel at his feet, too. They ought to feel grotesque, but instead seem banal and antiquated.
Outside the courtroom the hallway, bustling and jovial. A mother sits with her daughter, who drinks orange juice from a bottle with a mouth larger than her own.
How many courtrooms are in this building, a security guard outside the doors is asked. Twenty, he says.
I don’t know, says another, ask the expert at the desk. The expert at the desk says, fifty, sixty, a whole lot.
Four, five, six, counts off the next guard. There’s probably five I don’t know about. Say fifteen. None of us know.