Monday, May 05, 2008

In the Land of the Impossible

Social barriers are not usually as manifest as the plexiglass barrier between the audience and the working area of Courtroom 1. The door through which Court Officials enter is less than two feet or a universe away from the Public Access, depending on how you measure such things.

Friendship, curiosity and a sense of justice that just won't mellow away even as I grow older led me into Sheriff's Court. A friend had been victimized and the perpetrator was trying to wriggle out of it. Wriggling out of things is something that I never learned or learned to like in others. Fortunately for me, most of the time I felt tempted to be a little smaller than I should have been, I had good friends to remind that wriggling is inappropriate for a biped.

The signs on the wall and the furniture inside the room are standard institutional--matter of fact, if a bit obscure still for my American English. After a moment's hesitation I sussed that "First floor" meant "Second floor" to an American and hesitated only briefly before opening the door to Public Courtroom 1.

The court room is small. The seats for the audience are as hard and narrow as church pews. Perhaps that is the first step in becoming a penitent--merely to sit here. The Plexiglass shield is the only security I have seen since entering the grey Victorian ediface that reeks of Dickens novels to my mind.

Oddly, although the plexiglass extends the full length of the wooden wall that acts as divider between court and audience, the wall does not divide the two halves. Members of the audience, or so I had thought when I entered and took a seat, include the accused on the docket that day. It was more like church than I had thought. When the clerk called their names, the accused slipped through a gap between the plexiglass-covered wooden railing and down a few steps into a larger but probably not more comfortable seat below, directly opposite the judge.

The gap in the plexiglass is more a semi-permeable membrane than a permanent barrier. All but one of the accused slipped into the gap and back out again, at least for now. Even the one in handcuffs has another court date. I pulled out my knitting. My consolation my social cover. It is usually inoffensive enough, but the clerk, spying my knitting, told me to put it down out of sight because it was "inappropriate in a court room." I thought it odd first that knitting should be inappropriate in a courtroom--Mr. Dickens has done knitters a grievous injustice with his characterization of the bloodthirsty knitter in A Tale of Two Cities. Secondly, I thought it odd that she did not tell me to stop it, but only to put it out of sight.

I apologized, finished the row and put it away. The young woman constable in the witness box laughed and said, "If not I might have been the first to be in contempt of court for knitting." We all laughed. The plexiglass provided no barrier for that.

Without my knitting to occupy me, my eyes wander. On either side of the audience section of the courtroom are non-institutional signs--carefully printed on a laser printer with dark type to look official and threatening but the language belies their threat: Anyone caught damaging court furnishings will be prosecuted." The emphasis on caught is mine, of course. I often re-write public signs--a habit of long years as tech writer, information analyst, busybody--whichever title you prefer, but this rewriting is more social criticism. I look at the railings in front of me--a mass of old faint scars on top, where the carving would have been more visible, but just below sight--where the clerk wanted my knitting safely confined out of sight is a forest of vulgarity and egotism. Bathroom graffitti usually has some wit about it. Surely someone sitting her must have had a poem, a joke, something worth leaving behind. I search in vain even after we rise to let the judge come back and conduct the business of the court.

Names are scribed in often. Some with dates attached. Court dates? Birth dates of babies soon to be left behind as they go through the plexiglass gap and don't come back. The only poem is a simple "No dope No hope."

A young woman who is given some latitude for whatever offense she committed (I have to listen hard to some accents still and so it is easy to let conversations slide by half heard.) promises under the gaze of the judge to be good before her next court date. As soon as the judge has left she grows impatient waiting for her official letters. She becomes so agitated that the clerk asks the constable to calm her down. He does so in the easy way of a large man with a gentle heart. He rises to his full heart, looks her up and down and as soon as she realizes how foolish she has been, she sits, complacent only for the time being. The constable tries talking to her. I see her face with the arrogance only a misguided adolescent can have. As soon as she gets her letters, she flounces at the door, a few defiant words over her shoulder. I have a sad sick feeling that she will be back perhaps even before her scheduled court date.

I ralize that I am in the middle of a sea of impossibilities. The Other Side cannot send justice through the tiny gap in the wall fast enough to stem the tide and that knowledge gnaws at them and shapes them in different ways. The clerk defines her world as the hemisphere of circumspect behavior that can be seen within the court room. She looks after the judge; she visits his private chambers. She is firmly entrenched on the other side of the wall. That is her world and she runs it well.

The constables live in both worlds. They know the crooks and the real crooks. In the hallways they tell my friend about the things they know but were not asked in court or about the folks not as brave as she was to go into the court and make visible that which some would keep secret, out of sight.

I have had my day in court and it is enough. A little justice was dispensed that day but I will be glad never to have to go back into that sea of impossibilities.


At 3:50 PM, Blogger TerriRainer said...

Ah...the Scottish vernacular! I adore the sound of the lilting burr...trying to understand it eludes me so often! Trying to WRITE it is an altogether different challenge, one that I am not so sure I have done well!

The courtroom does sound a bit more lax than the ones here....especially the security.

I think I've been having issues with email, which worries me, as I am still awaiting a response from the agent I querried!

:) Terri

At 5:55 PM, Blogger Hayden said...

Here I'm afraid they might confiscate your knitting needles as a deadly weapon, never allowing them to be brought into the building at all!

At 3:59 PM, Blogger The Curmudgeon said...

A very interesting account.

They also frown on reading newspapers, you know, although we have the court calls published in the Daily Law Bulletin here and on some of the longer calls it is sometimes helpful to follow along... we just keep it out of sight.

I remember a federal judge who had a big issue with top coats on the back of those pews -- yes, it's hardbacked pews in Chicago, too -- he would stop court until the offending lawyer used the coat rack provided.

But I'd never seen a plexiglass wall until I was summoned for jury duty in the criminal court at 26th & Cal. -- prospective jurors were kept behind the plexiglass with the other spectators unless we were called in for voir dire. I was not called.

At 8:30 AM, Blogger landgirl said...

Sorry to be slow in responding to your comments. I have been working on my writing classes.
Terri, I read an article in paper about how court recorders were struggling with Scots accents. Often pretty but can be hard to catch sometimes, too.

Hayden, I did wonder if I would get through the door with my needles.

Cur, I was hoping you'd visit this post. Topcoats? That seems even more unusual than knitting needles. I guess this keeping it out of sight thing is more common than I realized.


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