Damn, I got caught
An evening in night court, Newark, New Jersey

I take risks - I drive over the speed limit, try new foods, and don't come to complete stops at stop signs. I usually don't get caught. I am aware of my surroundings and I’m alert to whoever is nearby that might catch me.
But not this time. I was in unfamiliar territory and was careless.
"Damn, I got caught"

It was the end of a tough semester at the university and I needed to get away and retreat to my apartment sanctuary in downtown Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. I had flown into Newark airport and taken the Airtrain from the terminal to a rail station nearby where I caught a New Jersey Transit train that took me one stop to Penn Station. Not the famous one, but the one in Newark, New Jersey. It, too, is quite grand and busy. In the early twentieth century, to compete with the many other railroad companies, the Pennsylvania Railroad built these spectacular palaces. Several of them were simply referred to as Penn Station. At Newark Penn, all I had to do for the next leg of the journey was to walk across the platform, buy a ticket, and board a PATH train that would take me through a few metro cities and then under the Hudson River to the pit of the World Trade Center and on to my apartment.

I had ridden this train previously from Newark Penn Station and remembered the fare machines took cash only. I had a handful of quarters in my hand, out of the pocket where they had been during the flight, and ready to deposit in the turnstile. I didn't want to miss the train. Uh, oh. There was no place for the coins. These were new ticket vending machines. That’s okay. I used a credit card. I charged on my card whenever I could, to earn airline miles when I flew to NYC, well, to Newark. Typically, I avoided connections and layovers, unless I wanted to explore a new airport. I didn't want to explore on this trip - I only wanted to get home and rest. So I inserted my card and bought one ticket for the PATH train to Manhattan. Out came the ticket and then, short pause, the credit card receipt. The train hadn't yet arrived. Often, the PATH train was waiting at the platform and I was able to put in the coins, step through the turnstile, and on to the train. This time, however, the train was not there. I had a few extra minutes. I stepped next to the turnstile machine and inserted the fare ticket, noting the proper direction and orientation into the slot.

An error message

The ticket is just a piece of heavy paper or light cardboard with a magnetic stripe and info printed on it - location, date, and time of purchase. I stepped forward into the turnstile but noticed there was a bright red error message on the screen. The machine didn't accept the ticket. I took a step back and tried again. Rewind and repeat. Card in, being more careful this time to make sure I was following the instructions printed on a label adhered to the front of the machine next to the slot for the tickets. Another error message. Okay, this is a faulty machine. The machines all appeared to be brand new so maybe there were still some bugs in the electronic system. I backed out and tried the next machine of about four that were aligned in chorus line fashion there on the platform, all in perfect synchronization, awaiting their cue. But, no luck. The next machine flashed the same error message. So did the next one. And the next. None of the machines would accept my ticket that was now only about two minutes old. I looked around. What now? I didn't want to miss the train. I saw no phone or anyone who looked like Authorized Personnel that could help me get onto the PATH platform.

Just beyond the last machine was a wide entrance equipped with gates for wheelchairs. The two plastic arms that closed off the entrance didn't meet in the middle - there was quite a gap between the two arms. I could fit through that gap. And why not, I bought a ticket, I still had it in my hand. I turned sideways a bit and squeezed on through. Great. I won't miss the train. But before that thought finished processing, there were two police officers standing right in front of me. How did that happen? I am usually so observant I would certainly have been aware of two officers. Maybe I was too preoccupied with catching the train, the error messages, or the desire to get home. I got caught.

The first officer (the second guy never said a word) asked me,
"What cha doing?"
Showing my open palm with the ticket, I explained,
"I bought a ticket. The machines wouldn't accept it."
"Sorry, I've got to write you a Complaint.”
The officer asked for my ID, then walked a few paces to a room on the platform between the NJ Transit and PATH tracks. Authorized Personnel Only. He disappeared inside. The other officer stood guard. I smiled. The officer barely returned the smile so I figured it would not be worth my time to make small talk. I pulled out my iPhone and checked email. Anything to look busy. Other waiting passengers were staring, maybe waiting for something interesting that might break up their routine commute and something they could share with their colleagues. I hoped to disappoint them.

After a few minutes, the steel grey door opened, and out came the officer. He handed the ID back to me and explained the Complaint that he had written up. When he tore my copy out of his ticket book, it ripped, so he had to write by hand the missing part of the Complaint case, the prefix letters. He said there was still part of the Complaint missing but he said that I wouldn't need that info.
“I live in Oklahoma, can I just send in the fine payment?”
“Sure. The Newark Municipal Court will send you details on the case and instructions on what your options would be."
Okay. Maybe this will turn out to be just a minor nuisance, nothing major. No big deal.

Even though it seldom happens, whenever I get a ticket for speeding or not stopping completely, I have a routine and a philosophy , I chat with the officer. He's just doing his job, I did choose to violate that law, and I accept the consequences. I pay the fine the very next morning. I don't dwell on it. Paying a fine for something that I am guilty of just does not merit the negative energy it would take to worry and whine about the fine.

Port Authority Trans Hudson

The PATH train screeched into the station. The Port Authority (PA) is an interstate agency that operates the World Trade Center and some metro transportation. With offices in the towers, the PA has its own security force and a mammoth budget. Trans Hudson (TH), because the trains cross under the Hudson River. The doors opened in unison. I let some others enter, then stepped in and sat down. I resolved that, as notified, I would simply await word from the court and pay the fine soon after. I let go of the whole ordeal. No ego bruised and no delay in my journey. The sun streamed in as the train left the shelter of the station. These cars had bench seats running lengthwise and facing the center. I turned in my seat to enjoy the view during the trip to Manhattan. We passed through downtown Newark and over the Newark River. A couple more stops, then the Statue of Liberty came into view. Well, the back of the grand lady. She faces Hudson Bay and the tracks run along the mainland behind the statue. As we were about to go underground, I turned my attention to the upcoming week of museums, walks around town, great food, and some productive work while enjoying my neighborhood in Battery Park City, at the tip of the island of Manhattan.

After I returned to Oklahoma, I was going through the pile of mail that had accumulated while I was gone. I had almost forgotten about the Complaint for Fare Evasion. Memory jog - in the pile was an official notice from the Municipal Court of Newark, New Jersey. And another one, identical to the first. I opened both, suspecting these would give the instructions for the complaint. Good. I can mail in a check and get some closure on this. I scanned the printout of information. As is often the case with documents from government agencies, this one was hard to comprehend. Rarely are these forms designed, laid out, and written to make much sense to the reader. Maybe its because these forms are written by lawyers, bored clerks, or just poor graphic designers. But they were not designed by people who are proficient in information graphics. I once received a Jury Summons and, while waiting in the jury room for a full day, I rewrote and redesigned the summons to be very easy to follow, with info about parking, lunch places, what to expect during the day, and some basic info on how the judicial system worked. The next morning, I showed a draft to the other potential jurors. All responded that it was much clearer and more informative. =============Many said they wished they had gotten that form instead of the one that was sent. I revised and printed the new brochure and submitted it to the County Clerk. I told him he could use it for free, no payment, just because I wanted it to be better. I never heard from the Clerk. Possible reasons: government agencies may feel insulted, they're too ignorant, or maybe they just don't care.

I did finally make sense of the form from Newark. It didn't give me any instructions, it didn't even tell me how much the fine was or how I could pay. Instead, it was a Change of Court Date form. I checked the second one. Maybe it had the info I was seeking. Nope. The second was identical to the first. Exactly the same. Why did I not receive the instruction form? Why two Change of Court Date forms? I hoped to find out.

Mandatory Court Appearance

I called the phone number on the form. On hold for about 30 minutes. To minimize the frustration of being on hold when calling tech support, customer service, or any bureaucracy, it is beneficial to have some work or tasks to do. The worst part is listening to the insincere recordings about how much the caller means to the company, how much they care, and how important our call is to them. I had the recording from the Newark Municipal Court just about memorized when a strange sound came through the phone. It was a human. A woman asked what I needed. Many phone service people are quite nice. This one wasn't. She may have hated her job, just been divorced, or had just hung up from talking with an irate caller. This was not a happy woman. Often these people forget that they only talk with people who have a complaint or have suffered poor service elsewhere in the company. Callers want a sympathetic ear, understanding, and a solution to their problem. We want them to make their troubles go away.

This lady did not care. I asked her how much the fine would be. To find the record, she asked for the Complaint number. About three digits into reciting the number, she brusquely interrupted to demand the prefix.
"What's the prefix?"
How was I to know that the number included letters? That was the part the officer had torn off of the form.
"I need the full listing or I can't pull up your complaint."
I said I would search through my papers from the trip.
"Call me back."
I finally found two letters that had handwriting in the margin of the form. I assumed those to be the prefix. Another call and another concert of hold music. But, that seemed to work - she was now ready for the number.
"You have to appear in court.”
"What? I live in Oklahoma. Can't I just pay the fine?”
"No, sir. It says here: Mandatory Court Appearance.”
"There must be another option. Surely, there is some provision for people who don’t live anywhere near Newark, New Jersey.”
"Nope. None. You have to appear before the court.”

I checked my copy of the Complaint. The box Court Appearance Required had not been checked. I asked to speak with a supervisor. She put me back on hold. I again hit the speaker button and got back to work at my desk. After about 15 minutes of humming along with the recording, the line just went dead. No 'goodbye' 'seeya' 'we don't care about you'. Nothing. Just dead. Shoot (not really the word I uttered, but it was close). I did not want to call back. I set the Change of Court Date aside and got back to life.

Thinking the Complaint was just one of those pesky life annoyances that I could deal with later, I put it out of my mind. Two weeks later, I booked another trip for a week in New York City. I took all the paperwork with me - the fare ticket, the credit card receipt, the original Complaint, and the Change of Court Date. Maybe I would call again from New York. Which I did. Again, on hold. Again, the recording with the insincere mechanical voice. Again, the same response: Mandatory Court Appearance. I checked the website listed in the on-hold recording and searched for the page that listed the amount of the fines for Fare Evasion. Many infractions were listed, but not that one. There was a link to email the court. Great. My email didn't ask for the fine to be dropped, but simply a way to send in payment to avoid the hassle of attending court in New Jersey. I edited until it conveyed a positive cooperative manner. I scanned the documents and attached those to the email. Phew, that should do it. I'll get a response, send in payment, and the Newark court ordeal will be over.

About 5 days later, January 7, I saw an email from NJMC. That was the news I had been waiting for. But, the reply was a form-letter that only referred me to the website for instructions on how to pay. So far, no one on the planet would tell me the amount of the fine. Phone calls, website, and email - all with no answer to a simple question.

The day of my court appearance

My court appearance was scheduled for January 8 at 5:00pm. I called back. This time, however, my call was answered by a more sympathetic ear. She was a bit surprised about my being from Oklahoma. She confirmed that the record glaring at her from her monitor stated Mandatory Court Appearance. I asked what I could do to pay the fine other than coming to court in Newark. My return flight was scheduled to depart at 7:40pm - just a few hours after the court time. She said I could send a fax to the judge and hope that he would get it before the court convened. I could print and fax the email I had written. After I hung up, I surrendered - I was tired of messing with this; I would just appear in court, at the scheduled date and time, and see what happens. The worst case, would be that I would miss my flight, have to reschedule, and pay the reticketing fee. I could return to my apartment in Battery Park City and fly back to Oklahoma the next day. This decision made me feel better. I had been sweating it out about contacting the court and dealing with more bureaucracy. I would just go to Newark and deal with it. I was also curious why the system broke down - why I didn't receive any instructions, why I received duplicate Change of Court Date letters, and why I had to appear in court even though the Complaint said No Court Appearance Required.

On my Court Date, Thursday, January 8, I vacillated between being at peace with what I might face in the evening and being stressed out over what I might face in the evening. I treated myself to breakfast at the Ritz Carlton. Breakfast was okay, though one gets more food at a Denny's IHop. A vegetable omelet, some weird fancy potato patty, dry whole wheat toast (I ordered it dry), and, of course, my addiction - coffee with cream and sweetener. The Ritz-Carlton is just three buildings away from my condo building and it's an easy walk along Battery Place, past the Skyscraper Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Inside the Ritz, where I never did have to open my own door, I couldn't help eavesdropping on the conversation to my right. Two attractive middle-aged women discussing their clients, the impact of the recession, and the coming spring of more bad financial news. Across the room, sitting alone, was a businessman talking on his cell phone loud enough for the others to get a pretty good understanding of why he was sitting alone.

Court was scheduled for 5:00. I wanted to get there early to talk to someone about my unique case and plead for an easy out. I packed my briefcase, locked the apartment, and left about mid-afternoon. In the briefcase: a laptop, an iPod, a few papers, a book to read (Angels & Demons, for the second time), and the documents from the PATH station and the Newark Municipal Court. In the elevator: just me, my curiosity, and some apprehension. What would happen this evening? Out to the sidewalk and a left to go to the World Trade Center. I looked at people around me, very few of whom, I suspected, were going to night court. I acted like I wasn't either.

Why pay a fine at all?

I had only been in front of a judge twice before. Once, as foreman of a jury in a case of a drunk driver. We found him not guilty of one charge but guilty of the more serious one. A tough decision. Deciding on the future of someone is a sobering task. Another time was for parking in a handicap parking place on campus. However, the parking lot was under construction and the handicap area was not marked. I recreated the scene with my car and took photographs. At my hearing, I showed the photos to the ticketing officer on the witness stand who acknowledged,
"Yes, that's where your car was parked.”
I then handed the photos to the judge.
"Your Honor, is my car in a handicap parking place?”
"No, it is not.”
His Honor cut the fine in half. I wondered, 'If I'm not parked in a handicap place, then aren't I innocent of this charge and, therefore, why should I pay any fine at all?' But I didn't want to upset his Honor and jeopardize the reduced fine. I accepted the judgment, left the courtroom, paid at the window in the lobby, and left, feeling halfway victorious.

At the World Trade Center, I walked across the temporary bridge to the Trade Center site. The previous bridge was destroyed on 9/11. This new bridge spanned West Street about where George Bush stood on the rubble with a bullhorn and promised that they would catch the cowards. Down two levels, beneath the subway line whose WTC station had yet to reopen, to the temporary PATH station. I bought a ticket, having some flashbacks to that December day a few weeks earlier when this all started. I inserted the card - no error message. No red screen. Just a single green word: Go. On the other side of a fabric barrier was the ongoing construction for both the new World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial. These trains could not operate after 9/11 but as soon as the rubble was cleared out of the smoldering pit, one of the first priorities was to resume service. Too many New Jersey commuters depended on the train to get to work. And New York City needed to get people back to work. These trains have been making this run since 1908, under the river in century-old cast iron pipes and into the basement of the brick-clad Terminal Building. During demolition of that building for the construction of the original Trade Center, the trains kept running. Construction crews worked around the tracks, even supporting them in a tube through the WTC pit.

The brief morning rain had stopped. I paced the platform; there were only a couple of spots left on the few platform benches. I was apprehensive; I had a date with the judicial system in Newark, New Jersey. I pulled out my phone and used the map to locate the courthouse in Newark. It seemed to be a short walk from the Newark Penn train station. A screech signaled that the PATH train was curving around the bend at the end of the platform. Since the WTC PATH station is the end of the line, all of the passengers got off and the train was completely empty. I stepped aboard a car in the middle of the train and promptly found a seat. I often sit towards the middle of the train (except during rush hours when those cars are standing room only) since most stations have their exits in the middle of the platform. It's one more game that New Yorkers play as part of their daily routine - planning ahead to where their next exit will be and getting close to that spot in the 2-block long row of train cars.

The train sat for a few minutes in the station as hurried commuters ran down the steps and into the cars. The car filled up. I held my briefcase on my lap. A familiar recorded announcement requested listeners to mind the closing doors. The train curved back towards the Hudson River and under what will be the new tower that is rising up to recapture the dominance of the skyline that the Twin Towers once held. In New Jersey, the train emerges from underground and becomes an elevated train for the rest of its journey into Newark, which is the other end of this line. Not a word was spoken on the train. Most commuter trains are usually quiet. After about a 25 minute trip, the train stopped at the same platform and turnstiles where I got caught. I found my way down to the ground level and to a much-needed bathroom. Checking the map again to get my bearings, I passed through the main waiting room and outside to the noisy hustle of rush hour traffic. It was about 4:15, getting dark, and cold and raining. I had opted not to bring an umbrella; I didn't want to manage it on the upcoming flight. I was wearing a jacket with a hood so I pulled that up over my head and clutched the briefcase under my jacket. I wanted to check the map but didn't want to risk bringing the phone out into the rain. I made my way to the courthouse from map memory.

Screening for weapons

I was in downtown Newark, curious about the adventure that I was about to experience and scared for the unknown consequences of that adventure. I passed the new arena for the New Jersey Devils hockey team. A very imposing full-block-long building with a soaring 40 foot tall glassed lobby enclosing a sculptural LED light fixture. I couldn't really appreciate the beauty and scale of the arena due to the rain I had to peer through. I pulled the hood tighter and trudged on to 31 Green Street. There was a good system of signage and wayfinding that listed attractions in downtown Newark. 'Court House' was listed with an accompanying arrow. Confirmation; I was going in the right direction. Across the arena parking lot, I saw what looked like the right building: a formal symmetrical layout, a design element borrowed from the ancient Greeks to convey government order, strength, and comfort. It was a stone building with a few people coming and going through the set of 3 identical doorways in the very center section of the stately building.

The small lobby was probably more grand at one time. Now it's filled with a security scanner, conveyor belt, and the stanchions that organize the throngs coming to court. Back and forth in the maze of barriers. Tonight, however, there was no line. I stepped right up to the machine and emptied my pockets into the plastic basket. I asked if I needed to take off my belt and my shoes. A facial gesture back told me it wasn't necessary. I walked through the scanner, returned my stuff to their pockets, and went up 3 wide steps to the intersection - the cross between the two axes of the building floor plan. I looked up and down the hallways but saw no indication of where I should go. I checked the Change of Court Date form - no room number. I asked a security guard, who replied,
”On the second floor, when you get off the elevator, there's a directory that lists everything in the building.”
“Great, thanks.”

On the second floor, I searched the lobby and the hallways. Nothing. No signs. No directory. I was starting to panic a bit. A strange building, a court appearance, a flight leaving in a few hours, and I seemed to be lost. I turned and saw a woman coming down the hallway. Her hands were full of papers but I asked for help. She smiled, looked at my form and described exactly where the courtroom was - back downstairs. I then noticed that the room number was listed on the form. I had just overlooked it in my haste and apprehension. I thanked her and descended the staircase. She had headed that way also. Towards the bottom of the open marble staircase, she again guided me exactly where to go,
"Take a right and go to the end of the hall. Room 105 is on the left.”
I thanked her again. What a delightful woman.

We are all innocent

At the end of the hall were two sets of doors, each propped open and each leading into Room 105. This appeared to have been a courtroom at one time - at least it was laid out like one. There was a gallery of seats, a low dividing wall, and at the front of the room, which was to the right as you step into the room, was a glassed-in counter with room for 3 or 4 clerks. There were 3 when I got in line but one lady left soon after. In line were 12 people. I sized up the situation and assumed that I should get in this line and wait my turn to speak to one of the clerks. Behind the glass, the space was somewhat chaotic - papers, computers, files, and lots of junk. I chatted up a conversation with a guy who had come up behind me. I was concerned about who I might have to talk to when I got to the front of the line. On the right was a large middle-aged black woman who looked like she had forgotten how to operate her smile muscles. She meant business and made it clear you were not to mess with her. Life's tough. Deal with it. Her job was not to make one feel better about their transgressions. On the left was a quieter white-haired older black gentleman. He's the one we all wanted to handle our case. I was getting tired of holding my briefcase so I set it in one of the empty chairs. All but one of the chairs were empty. I didn't know why they still needed the chairs. This seemed to be just a 'check-in' room where people began their journey through the Newark judicial system. Most of the people in line did not look happy. Many were bitching about 'the man' or 'the system' that treated them unfairly; they were all innocent. I was not guilty of Fare Evasion. I paid my fare. I had a receipt if they didn't believe me. I was guilty of squeezing through the handicap gate when the machine had not accepted my fare card.

Great, I got the older man. He pulled up my Complaint on the screen in front of him. He had been working at 31 Green Street for a while, and had kept up with the technological updates. He was now using a sophisticated computer that gave him all the information he needed. In this case, it printed out a sheet that stated when the court date would be - January 27, 2009. He slid the single sheet of paper through the half-round opening at the bottom of the glass divider. He had circled the date, 1-27-2009. What? I asked if I could just pay the fine. I had learned from others in line and from a chart on the wall that the fine should be somewhere between $52 and $72. I could pay that. I had brought some cash, a blank check, and, of course, my credit card. I wanted to pay the fine, catch my flight, and get out of New Jersey and back to the comfort of Oklahoma.
"No, you can't pay that here. Is it Tony? We just check you into the system and assign court dates.”
“I can't come back on the 27th. I live in Oklahoma and I'm flying there in about 2 hours.”
“Oklahoma! Oklahoma!”
The Clerk yelled as he stepped back,
“Well, golly, what do I do about that?”
The older man looked genuinely confused and bewildered. I doubted he had to deal with Okies very often. This was downtown Newark. What's a guy from Oklahoma doing here and why does he have to deal with him?
"Are you really from Oklahoma? Are you really flying tonight? Do you have a boarding pass?”
"Yes, I do”,
motioning to my briefcase,
"It's right here.”
"Well, I don't know what to do.”

Maybe he hadn't worked here very long. Maybe he really hadn't seen it all. He looked at the woman, who had heard all of this (as had almost everyone in the room), and asked her what he should do. She turned out to be very pleasant. And helpful. She recommended I go down to the courtroom and see if they could squeeze me in among tonight's cases. I knew of no better option, so I looked back at the older man. With a polite but uncertain smile, he told me to have a seat,
“I’ll be right back.”
He left the glassed-in room and walked out towards the hall, I turned and saw the amused looks on the faces of those in line, and took a seat in the gallery. Me and my briefcase all alone over on that side of the room. I pulled out my phone to check the time. 4:55. Flight to OKC: 7:40.

To the courtroom

It was nice to sit down. I hadn't sat since the PATH train pulling into Newark Penn and I was tired of walking, standing, and shouldering the briefcase. The man wasn't gone too long before he stepped back into the waiting area of the gallery.
The single exclamation bellowed off the walls of the room. Of course, everyone turned and stared at me. I smiled and nodded acknowledgment. I walked around the low wood wall to the door where the clerk was standing.
"Follow me.”
We walked past the entrance foyer, the security equipment, and on down the hall to the opposite side of the building. We entered a court room that was full of people sitting and waiting. He turned to me,
"Wait here.”

The man went up to a desk next to the judge's box and talked to the court clerk sitting there. Right inside the wood wall in this room was a well-dressed man standing at a pile of papers. Well-dressed people stood out in this room. Most of the people sitting in the gallery were just what you would expect to see at night court in Newark, New Jersey. The clerk had handed my documents to this man, Mr. Stevens, who motioned for me to approach him. He asked what was going on. I explained the whole situation - the ticket, the error messages, the panic, the handicap entrance. I showed him my PATH ticket, my credit card receipt, and the Complaint. I pointed out that the time, 12:20, was identical on all 3 documents. I admitted that I made a mistake and that I had no intention of cheating the city. I had paid my fare. The man listened intently and with a look of empathy. He said he would drop the fine but I would have to pay the court costs. Responding to the quizzical look on my face, he offered,
I was relieved and thanked him. Mr. Stevens told me to take a seat and wait for the judge to call my case. I then mentioned that I had a boarding pass for a flight in about 2 hours,
“When would the judge begin?”
“The judge will begin whenever he comes out of his chambers. I don't know when that would be - he's the judge and he comes out when he's ready."
Softening a bit, he leaned towards me and quietly said that he'd try to expedite his case towards the beginning. I understood that he didn't want the others right behind us in the gallery to hear this preferential treatment. Thanking him sincerely, I turned around to find a seat.

I realized once I had entered the courtroom that I was the minority - a white guy in a sea of darker skin. The city of Newark, New Jersey, is about half Black, a quarter White, and a quarter Other. First settled by Puritans in 1666, Newark has long been a majority minority city. I was aware of my case being expedited. Some, maybe even many, of those waiting would not have their cases expedited. Mr. Stevens had told me they would first process the cases that required Police Officers as witnesses. I assumed those officers had to get back to work. That made sense. So, the crowd intently watching the whispered conversations at the bench would see the Police get preference, then the white guy. They would not know of the court's considerate effort to get me to my flight in time. I might not have gotten preferential treatment otherwise, even being of the privileged class. Privileged class sounds like Medieval Europe with its class system. We often try to downplay the class status in American society, but it is there. In this courtroom in Newark, the Judge, the Attorneys, and the clerks at the front were all fair-skinned. The security guards, some of the pages, and almost all of the people sitting and waiting were non-white.

I will never know what impact my privileged status had on the Court's decision, and I tried not to take my preferred class lightly or arrogantly. I saw a spot on the second row about two people in from the end. The guy on the aisle appeared to be sleeping.
"Excuse me,”
I nudged him and scootched in front of his legs, holding onto the back of the pew-like bench. The second guy turned aside to give me more room to get to a seat. I set my briefcase beside me and looked around the room, checking out the crowd, the clothes, and the faces. Mr. Stevens walked along the wall and spotted me,
"But, you'll have to plead guilty.”
I nodded my acceptance. I was glad to pay only $21 and for the prospect that I might be able to make my flight. I found out later that Mr. Stevens was the Prosecutor for the night's cases. I finally felt some relief that the resolution of my case was in progress.

As Seen on TV

Though I had a book to read on my phone, this didn't seem like the right time or place to read a novel. Heck, I was living a better story right then. I also did not want to pull out my iPhone. I suspected that there was a pretty low percentage of people with expensive phones in their pockets. I didn't want to flaunt mine. Within about 5 or 10 minutes, a booming voice interrupted my thoughts.
"All rise.”
We did. Damn - the tone, clarity, and volume of the voice insisted we obey. The judge made his entrance with his black flowing regalia. Just like on television. He motioned for all to be seated. He gave a concise introduction to the process that would take place that evening; instructing us to be very quiet as the proceedings would be recorded. He dove right in to the caseload. After hearing from those with lawyers, he heard from those with police officers present.
I couldn't hear what those first cases were about - the defendants had their backs to me as they stood at the table facing the microphones and the judge. I was intrigued by how shabbily dressed some people were. They were in a court of law and asking for leniency. But, then I looked down and saw that I was wearing a grey sweatshirt, black jeans, and worn-out sneakers. Comfortable clothes for the flight. I wished that I wouldn't be quite so quick to judge others. It was now about 5:35, according to the large clock on the wall behind the judge. The prosecutor had said he would try to get me out by "quarter to six." I worried about my flight departure.

“James Watson”
Hearing my name interrupted my thought. The judge had called my name.
'(What do I do now; should I walk up to the table? Of course, that's what to do. Get up there. This guy has the fate of my evening in his hands.)'
I got my briefcase and squeezed by those guys again. What if people think the white guy goes next just because he's white. 'Are they glaring at me? Just get up there. Okay, okay. I'm at the table. Did I go through that gate or jump over the low wall? What do I do now? What do I say?'
The judge calmly asked me to tell him what happened. Going into some robotic mode, I narrated the details, just as I had many times in my mind during the last few days. What I had been anticipating for weeks was now happening at this very moment. But the judge wasn't really listening. He seemed preoccupied with something in front of him on the counter. I continued to talk. I was alone in the middle of a vast open space. There were no people behind me like there was earlier. Empty. Nobody on either side. The bailiff, clerks, recorders - all gone. Just me, standing in the middle of this space. The next thing I hear is,
”Case dismissed.”

Zing, I am back in the room. Everyone came back. It was crowded and hectic again. Case dismissed.
'(What does that mean? Do I still pay court costs? Do I have to sign some forms? Should I make this official with some ritual password or hand gesture? What do I do now?)'
What I did was to just stand there like an idiot. Well, I guessed it was just like an idiot. I had never seen an idiot standing anywhere so I didn't really know what it looks like. But I guessed it would look something like me at that moment. Frozen. I should probably move but I was so confused. Finally, the bailiff came over, leaned across the table, and quietly said,
"You can go.”
I picked up my briefcase, stepped back through the swinging wooden gate, past the guys in my former row, past the staring faces in the gallery, and out the door into the hall. I was breathing again. There were several people in the hall, probably waiting on friends and family in the courtroom. I was still a bit dazed. Case dismissed. I can go. I slowly walked down the hall towards the foyer.
'(Wait. Oh no, I never thanked the judge. 'Thank you, your Honor' - I never said that. Shouldn't I have said that? Of course, I should have.'
But he didn't. Right then, coming down the hall towards me was a woman I recognized as having been in the courtroom earlier in some official manner - a clerk, a recorder, something. I stopped her and relayed what the judge had said.
"Am I free to go? Is that it?”
"Yes, that's it.”
I begged her to thank the judge for me. I did not want to interrupt the proceedings; this judge was so efficient I was sure he was in the midst of another case. She was chuckling at my desperation.
"Yes, I would be happy to thank the judge for you."
I felt better. How rude to have a case dismissed and not thank the judge for his consideration. I stood in the foyer. It began to register - case dismissed. No fine. No court cost. No returning on January 27th. Nothing. I'm done. And I had almost two hours until the jet takes off for Oklahoma.

With time to think, I supposed that the judge thought the complaint should never have been written. It was a waste of the court’s time, the numerous people involved, and for me. Once the officers saw the receipt and heard the ticket story, they should’ve just said be careful next time. Or they could’ve tested the ticket machine to determine if the machines needed to be repaired.
"Down the ramp, please.”
I had started to exit through the entrance. My brain was foggy and not yet thinking clearly. Okay, down the ramp, to the door, through the vestibule with two women hiding from the cold. Out through the front doors and down the steps. It had stopped raining.
“I'm done. It's over. Case dismissed. I smiled and stepped into a waiting cab.

© James Robert Watson    Email    Text

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