He got caught
An evening in the New Jersey Municipal Court
Trey takes risks - drives over the speed limit, doesn't come to complete stops at stop signs. But, he usually doesn't get caught. He is aware of his surroundings and he’s alert to whoever is nearby that might catch him.
But not this time. He was in unfamiliar territory and was careless.
He got caught.
He was on his way from Texas to New York City. It was the end of a tough semester at the university and he needed to get away and retreat to his apartment sanctuary in downtown Manhattan, overlooking the Hudson River. He had flown into Newark airport and taken the Airtrain from the terminal to a rail station nearby where he caught a New Jersey Transit train that took him one stop to Penn Station. Not the famous one, but the one in Newark, New Jersey. It, too, is quite grand and busy. The Pennsylvania Railroad built these spectacular palaces in the early twentieth century as a way of competing against the many other railroad companies. Several of them were simply referred to as Penn Station.
At Newark Penn, all he had to do for the next leg of his journey was to walk across the platform, buy a ticket, and board a PATH train that would take him through a few metro cities and then under the Hudson River to the pit of the World Trade Center and on to his apartment.
He had ridden this train previously from Newark Penn Station and remembered that the fare machines took cash only. He had a handful of quarters in his hand, out of the pocket where they had been during the flight, and ready to deposit in the turnstile. He didn't want to miss the train. Whoa. There was no place for the coins. These were new ticket vending machines. That’s okay. He used a credit card. He charged on his card whenever he could, even for just a few dollars. He wanted to earn airline miles when he flew to NYC, well, to Newark. The shortest car ride from the airport was from Newark, not LGA or JFK. Typically, he avoided connections and layovers, unless he wanted to explore a new airport. He didn't want to explore on this trip - he just wanted to get home and rest. So he inserted his card and bought one ticket for the PATH train to Manhattan. Out came the ticket and then, short pause, the credit card receipt. Fine. The train hadn't arrived, yet. Often, the PATH train was sitting at the platform and he was able to put in the coins, step through the turnstile, and right on to the train. This time, however, the train was not there. So, he stepped right 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. He stepped forward into the turnstile but noticed that on the screen there was a bright red error message. The machine didn't accept his ticket. He took a step back and tried again. Rewind and repeat. Card in, being more careful this time to make sure he was following the instructions printed on a label adhered to the front of the machine, right by the slot for the tickets. He checked the screen. Pooh, 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. He 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 his ticket that was now only about two minutes old. He looked around. What now? He didn't want to miss the train. He was tired, sleepy, and eager to get to his home-away-from-home. He saw no one who looked like an employee or an official that could help him get into the PATH platform.
Just beyond to 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. Hmm, he could fit through that gap. And why not, he bought a ticket. He even still had it out in his hand. So, he turned sideways a bit and squeezed on through. Great. He won't miss the train. But before that thought finished processing in his head, there were two officers standing right in front of him. How did that happen? He was usually so observant he would be aware of two officers. But, not this time. Maybe he was too preoccupied with catching the train, the error messages, or the desire to get home. But, dang, he got caught.
The first officer (the second guy never said a word) asked what was up. Trey explained that he bought a ticket - he showed his open palm with the ticket - but the machines wouldn't accept it.
"Sorry, he said, I've got to write you a Complaint.”
The officer asked for his ID, then walked a few paces to a room right there on the platform between the NJ Transit and PATH tracks. Authorized Personnel Only. He disappeared inside. The other officer stood guard to monitor me. Trey smiled. The guy barely returned the smile so Trey figured it would not be worth his time to talk with this guy. He pulled out his iPhone and checked email. Anything to look busy. Other waiting passengers were staring, maybe wondering what he had done. Maybe waiting for something interesting to witness that might break up their routine commute and something they could share with their colleagues at work or at home. Trey was happy to disappoint them,
“No real action here - I'm just gonna check my email.”
After a few minutes, the steel grey door opened, and out came the officer. He handed the ID back to Trey and explained the Complaint that he had written up. When he tore Trey’s 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 Trey wouldn't need that info. Fine.
“I live in Texas, can I just send in the fine payment?”
Sure. The Newark Municipal Court would send him details on the case and instructions on what his 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 he gets a ticket for speeding or not wearing a seat belt, he has a routine and a philosophy that he follows. He chats with the officer. He's just doing his job and Trey did choose to violate a law, even if it's a silly law. It’s just not worth arguing with police officers. So, he accepts the ticket and plans to pay the fine the very next morning. He doesn't dwell on it, worry, or make it a big deal. Because chose to drive over the speed limit, not put on a seat belt, whatever, he accepts the consequences. He will sometimes have to pay a fine (often, he just gets a warning). And paying a fine for something that he is admittedly guilty of just does not merit the negative energy it would take to whine and lament the ticket and the fine.
Port Authority Trans Hudson
After just a minute or two, the PATH train screeched into the station. The doors opened in unison. He let some others enter, then he stepped in. He sat down and resolved that, as notified, he would simply await the notice from the court and pay the fine soon after. He let go of the whole ordeal. No ego bruised and no delay in his journey home. By this time, the train had left the shelter of the station, the sun streamed into the railroad cars and he turned in his seat - these trains had bench seats facing the center aisle running the length of the car. So, he turned in his seat to enjoy the view during the trip to Manhattan. We passed through downtown Newark, over the Newark River, and past the PATH rail yard. A couple of stops in New Jersey and then the Statue of Liberty comes 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, he turned his attention to the upcoming week - a week of museums, walks around town, great food, and some productive work while enjoying his neighborhood in Battery Park City, down at the very tip of the island of Manhattan.
The acronym PATH stands for Port Authority Trans Hudson. The Port Authority is an interstate agency that operates and manages some metro transportation and the World Trade Center; it had offices in the towers. The PA has its own security force and a multimillion dollar budget. The Trans Hudson refers to the fact that this train crosses under the Hudson River - PATH.
He had almost forgotten about the Complaint for 'Fare Evasion' from Newark Penn. After he returned to his home in Texas, he was going through the pile of mail that had accumulated while he was gone. Memory jog - there was an official notice from the Municipal Court of Newark, New Jersey. Whoa, there's another one, identical to the first. He opened both. He suspected these would be the notices about the Complaint he had received and would give him instructions on how to take care of the matter. Good. He can mail in a check and get some closure on this. He 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, or written to make much sense to the reader. Maybe its because these forms are written by lawyers, bored clerks, minimum-wage aides, or just poor 'graphic designers'. But they were not designed by people who excel in information graphics. Trey once received a Jury Summons from the County court and, while waiting in the jury room for a full day, he rewrote and redesigned the summons to be very easy to follow; included info about parking, eating, what to expect during the day, and some basic info on how the judicial system worked. He showed a draft to the other potential jurors to get their feedback and comments. All responded that it was much clearer and more informative. Many said they wished they had gotten this form instead of the one that was sent. He revised and printed out the new brochure and submitted it to the County Clerk. Trey told him he could use it for free - no payment, just because he wanted it to be better. He never heard from the Clerk. Possible reasons: government agencies don't take too kindly to suggestions from citizens, they feel insulted, they're too ignorant, or maybe they just don't care.
Trey did finally make sense of the form from Newark. It didn't give him any instructions, it didn't even tell him how much the fine was or how he could pay. Instead, it was a Change of Court Date form. He checked the second one. Maybe it had the info he was seeking. Nope. The second was identical to the first. Exactly the same. Why did he not receive the instruction form? Why two Change of Court Date forms? He hoped to find out.
Mandatory Court Appearance
He called the phone number on the form. On hold for about 30 minutes. He knows that when calling tech support, 'customer service,’ or any bureaucracy, that it is beneficial to have some work or tasks to minimize the frustration of being on hold. The worst part is listening to the insincere recordings about how much we mean to the company, how much they care, and how important our call is to them. He had this one from the Newark Municipal Court just about subconsciously memorized when a strange sound came through the phone. It was a human, a woman. Asking what he needed. Many phone service people are quite nice. This one wasn't. She may have hated her job, just been dumped, or 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. They want them to make their troubles go away.
This lady did not care. He asked her how much his fine would be. She pulled up the record. To find it, she asked for the Complaint number. About three digits into reciting the number from the form, she brusquely interrupted to demand the prefix. "What's the prefix?" How was Trey to know that the number included letters? That was the part that the officer had torn off of the form. He did find two letters that he had handwritten nearby on the form. He assumed those to be the prefix. That seemed to work - she was now ready for the number.
"You have to appear in court.”
“What? I live in Texas. 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.”
He asked to speak to a supervisor (he has learned that supervisors are usually better equipped and authorized to handle customer requests). He checked his copy of the Complaint. The box 'Court Appearance Required' had not been checked. She put him back on hold. He hit the speaker button again and got back to work on at his desk. After about 15 minutes of having the recording drilled into his subconscious, the line just went dead. No 'goodbye' 'seeya' 'we don't care about you'. Nothing. Just dead. Shoot (which is not really the word he uttered, but its close). He did not want to call back. He set the Change of Court Date aside and got back to life.
Thinking the Complaint was just one of those pesky life annoyances that he would deal with later, he put it out of his mind. He booked another trip to New York City for a week (he had tickets to see some Broadway shows). He took all the paperwork with him - the fare ticket, the credit card receipt, the original Complaint, and the Change of Court Date. He thought he would call again from New York. Which he did. Again, on hold. Again, the recording with the insincere mechanical voice. Again, the same response: Mandatory Court Appearance. So, he checked the website listed in the on-hold recording. He 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. He wrote a nice yet persuasive email. He scanned the documents and attached those to the email. He wasn't asking for the fine to be dropped. He was asking for a way to send in payment to avoid the hassle of attending court in New Jersey. He edited it and refined it until it said what he wanted in a positive cooperative manner. 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, he saw an email in the Inbox from NJMC. Great, here's the news he had been waiting for. But, the reply was a form-letter format that only referred him to the website for instructions on how to pay. So far, no one on the planet would tell him the amount of the fine. Phone calls, website, and email - all with no answer to a simple question of the amount of the fine.
The day of Trey’s court appearance
Now it was January 7. His court appearance was scheduled for January 8 at 5:00pm. Dang, now what? He decided to call back. This time, however, his call was answered by a more sympathetic ear. She was a bit surprised about his being from Texas. She confirmed that the record glaring at her from the monitor in front of her stated Mandatory Court Appearance. He asked what he could do to pay the fine other than coming to court in Newark. He had a return flight scheduled to depart at 7:40pm - just a few hours after the court time. She said he could send a fax to the judge and hope that he would get it before the court convened. He copied the email he had written and put it into a document that he could print and fax. After he hung up, he decided he was tired of messing with this. He would just appear in court, at his scheduled date and time, and see what happens. The worst case, would be that he would miss his flight, have to reschedule, and pay the reticketing fee. He could return to his apartment in Battery Park City and fly back to Texas the next day. This decision made him feel good. He had been sweating it out about contacting the court and dealing with people and government bureaucracy. He decided to just go to Newark and deal with it. He was also curious why the system broke down - why he didn't receive an instruction form and why he had to appear in court even though the Complaint said No Court Appearance Required.
Most of the day, Thursday, January 8 - Trey's Court Date - he vacillated between being at peace with what he might face in the evening and being stressed out over what he might face in the evening. He had breakfast at the Ritz-Carlton as a treat for his final day in New York City before heading back to Texas to begin teaching for what will likely be his very last semester of full-time college teaching. Breakfast was okay - you get more food at Denny's or IHop - and it was expensive. But, what the hell. Live a little. A vegetable omelet, some weird fancy potato patty, dry whole wheat toast (he ordered it dry), and, of course, his addiction - coffee. With cream and Splenda. The Ritz-Carlton is just 3 buildings away from his condo building and its an easy walk along Battery Place, past the Skyscraper Museum and the Museum of Jewish Heritage. Inside the Ritz, where he never did have to open his own door, the environment was nice, and he enjoyed eavesdropping on the conversation to his right. Two attractive middle-aged women discussing their clients and 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 all of us to get a pretty good understanding of why he was sitting alone. The rest of the day was spent doing laundry and cleaning the apartment.
Court was scheduled for 5:00pm. He wanted to get there a bit early to talk to someone about his unique case and plead for an easy out. He packed his briefcase, locked the apartment, and left at about 3:30 in the afternoon. He only had to carry his briefcase. In it was his laptop, an iPod, a few papers, a book to read (Angels & Demons, for the second time), and his documents from the PATH station and the Newark Municipal Court. He rode down in the elevator alone. Just Trey, his curiosity, and a slight bit of apprehension. What would happen this evening? In the elevator lobby, he took a left instead of going straight to go out the front door of the building. The front door faces the Hudson River and he needed to go to the World Trade Center. To the left takes one directly to the back door and to the city, saving some steps. He walked north up to the World Financial Center. He looked at people around him, very few of whom, he suspected, were going to night court. He acted like he wasn't either.
Why pay a fine at all?
He had only been in front of a judge twice before. Once, as foreman of a jury in a case of some drunk driver. They 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. He recreated the scene with his car and took photographs. At his hearing, he showed the photos to the ticketing officer on the witness stand who acknowledged,
"Yes, that's where your car was parked.”
Trey 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. Trey accepted his judgment only because he was afraid if he had questioned him - "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 he didn't want to upset his Honor and blow his reduced fine. He left the courtroom, paid at the window in the lobby, and left, feeling halfway victorious.
At the World Trade Center, he 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 the bullhorn and promised that we would catch the cowards. At the end of the escalator from the bridge, across from the brand new 7 World Trade Center Building, was the temporary PATH station. 7WTC was rebuilt as soon as the rubble was cleared from its site. Building number 7 was the last to fall - it collapsed about 5:00 in the afternoon of the 11th. Completely empty, everyone had evacuated hours earlier, the building became nothing more than a pile of steel and concrete rubble. The building housed an electrical substation and the city needed to get it operating again to provide power to downtown. The footprint of the new building is smaller than the original 7WTC but the building is taller. The smaller footprint allowed the city to rebuild streets through the Trade Center site. In the 1970s, when the WTC was built, 12 city blocks were closed off. That turned out to be a mistake - the city would restore many of those streets in the new site plan.
Down two levels, beneath the subway line whose WTC station had yet to reopen, he bought his ticket for the PATH train, having some flashbacks to that December day a few weeks earlier when this all started. He inserted the card - no error message. No red screen. Just a single green word: Go. Down the stairs marked 'Newark'. The staircase marked 'Hoboken' would have taken him to Frank Sinatra's hometown. Fun but not where he needed to go this afternoon. He had a date with the judicial system in Newark. It was a little cold on the platform. 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.
It had rained that morning but now was dry. Trey had decided not to bring his umbrella since he would have to keep up with it on the flight back to Texas. He paced the platform, partly because he was too cold to sit down. Besides, there were only a couple of spots left on the few platform benches. He was apprehensive. He didn't know what he was headed for. He pulled out his phone and used the map function to locate the courthouse in Newark. It seemed to be a short walk from the Newark Penn train station. Good. The PATH train curved around the bend at the end of the platform.
The Terminal Building
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 on the PATH trains. Too many New Jersey commuters depended on the train to get to work. And New York City needed to get people back to work. The PATH trains have long been a vital link between downtown Manhattan and New Jersey. Within steps of the WTC PATH station are six or seven subway lines that spread out all over the New York City metro - the Bronx, Queens, Brooklyn, the Upper East Side, you name it, you could get there from here.
These trains have been making this run askance 1908, under the river in century-old cast iron pipes. Before the Trade Center was built overhead, the tracks went to Church Street, on the far perimeter of the future WTC site, into the basement of a solid brick building called the Terminal Building. During demolition of that building and construction of the Trade Center, the trains kept running. Construction crews worked around the tracks, even supporting them in a tube through the WTC pit.
Since the WTC station is the end of the line, all of the passengers get off and the train is completely empty (a rare sight in the city). Trey stepped aboard and promptly found a seat in a car towards the middle. He often will 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. Its 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. Trey held his briefcase on his lap. A familiar recorded announcement requested listeners to mind the closing doors. The train curves back towards the Hudson River and then goes right under the beams and concrete walls that will be the basement for the new tower that is rising up to recapture the dominance of the skyline that the Twin Towers once held. Then under the Hudson and into 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 where Trey had been caught and cited. He found his way down to the ground level and to a much-needed bathroom. Ah. Better. Then he checked the map again on his phone to get his bearings. He passed through the main waiting room and outside to the hustle of rush hour traffic. It was now about 4:15 and it was already dark (it gets dark early in the city since it is on the eastern edge of the Eastern Time Zone) and it was cold and raining. Shoot. Of course, he chose not to bring an umbrella. He was wearing a jacket with a hood so he pulled that up over his head and clutched his briefcase under his jacket. He wanted to check the map on his phone but didn't want to risk bringing it out into the rain. He made his way to the courthouse from map memory.
Screening for weapons
Dark. Cold. Rain. Trey was both excited and scared. Excited for the adventure that he might be able to experience and scared for the unknown consequences of that adventure. He was in downtown Newark doing something that was fairly new to him. Wow. There's 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. He couldn't really appreciate the beauty and scale of the arena due to the rain he had to peer through. He pulled the hood tighter and trudged on to 31 Green Street. There was a good system of civic signage and wayfinding that listed attractions in downtown Newark. In the list was 'Court House' with an accompanying arrow. Confirmation. He was going in the right direction. A few blocks ahead he saw what looked like the right building: a formal symmetrical layout of the facade and plan, a design element borrowed from the ancient Greeks to convey order, strength, and comfort. It was a stone building with people coming and going through the set of 3 identical doorways in the very center section of the stately building. Whew.
“I'm there. Let the legal proceedings begin. Well, okay, not until I pass through security.”
The small lobby was probably more grand at one time. Now it is 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. He stepped right up to the machine and emptied his pockets into the plastic basket. He asked if he needed to take off his belt and his shoes. A nod back told him it wasn't necessary. He went up 3 wide steps to the intersection - the cross between the two axes of the building floor plan. He looked up and down the hallways but saw no indication of where he should go. He checked the Change of Court Date form again. He didn't find a room number (but, remember, these forms are poorly designed - its hard to find info). He asked a security guard,
”On the second floor, when you get off the elevator, there's a directory that lists everything in the building.”
To the elevator. Up on the second floor lobby he searched the lobby, the hallways. Nothing. No signs. No directory. Trey was starting to panic a bit. Strange building, a court appearance, a flight leaving in a few hours, and he seems to be lost. He turned and saw a woman coming down the hallway. Her hands were full of papers but he asked for help. She smiled, looked at his form and told him exactly where the courtroom was - back downstairs. He then noticed that the room number was listed on the form. He just overlooked it in his haste and apprehension. He thanked her and found the staircase. She had headed that way also. Trey prefers to walk the stairs when going just one flight. It doesn't make much sense to wait on an elevator and use the electrical energy to transport one a matter of 10 feet up or down. So he walked. And so did she. Towards the bottom of the open marble staircase, she again guided him exactly where to go,
"Take a right and go to the end of the hall. Room 105 is on the left.”
He thanked her again. What a delightful woman.
We are all innocent
At the bottom of the stairs, he turned right and went down to the end of the hall. There 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 up 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 he got in line but one lady left soon after. The line was about 12 people strong. He sized up the situation and guessed that he should get in this line and wait his turn to speak to one of the people at the front. Behind the glass, the space was somewhat chaotic - papers, computers, files, lots of junk. Trey chatted up a conversation with the guy behind Trey, he didn't remember his name. He was most concerned about who he might have to talk to when he 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. No pity. Life's tough. Deal with it. Your problems are of no concern to her and its not her job to make you feel better about your transgressions. On the left was a quieter white-haired older black gentleman. He's the one we all wanted to handle our case. Trey was getting tired of his heavy briefcase so he set it in one of the empty chairs. All but one of the chairs were empty. He 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 New Jersey 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. We are all innocent. It's not our fault that we got caught. Trey was not guilty of Fare Evasion. He paid his fare. He has a receipt if you don't believe him. What he was guilty of was not following the proper procedure. The system was set up in which he was supposed to use the courtesy telephone and call for help (he didn't know what the person on the other end of the line would have told him or would have done). But, according to the officer, he should have called for help. So, on one hand he was innocent but on the other, he did walk through the handicap gate without inserting a fare card.
“Next.” Trey got the older man. Great. He pulled up Trey’s Complaint on the computer in front of him. If he had been working at 31 Green Street for a while, he had seen a lot of technological changes come across his desk. He was now using a sophisticated computer that gave him all the information he needed. In this case, it printed out a sheet that told 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? Trey asked if he could just pay the fine. He had learned from others in line and from a chart on the wall that the fine should be somewhere between $52 and $72. He could pay that. He had brought about $200 in cash, a blank check, and, of course, his credit card. He wanted to pay and go. Let him pay the fine, catch his flight, and get out of New Jersey and back to the comfort of Texas.
"No, you can't pay that here. Is it Tony? We just check you into the system and assign court dates.”
He had apparently misread the Complaint and read Trey’s name as Tony. But, Trey protested,
“I can't come back on the 27th. I live in Texas and I'm flying there in about 2 hours.”
“Texas! Texas!” The Clerk repeated as he stepped back.
“Well, golly, what do I do about that?”
The older man looked genuinely confused and bewildered. Trey doubted he had to deal with Texans very often. This was downtown Newark. What's a guy from Texas doing here and why does he have to deal with him?
"Are you really from Texas? Are you really flying tonight? Do you have a boarding pass?”
"Yes, I do”,
motioning to his 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 waiting in line), and asked her what he should do. She turned out to be very cool. And helpful. She recommended he go down to the courtroom and see if they could squeeze him in among tonight's cases. Heknew of no better option, so he looked back at Trey, and, with a polite but still uncertain smile, told him to have a seat. “I’ll be right back.”
He left the glassed-in room and walked out towards the hall, the same hall where the kind woman had guided Trey. He turned and saw the amused looks on the faces of those in line, and took a seat in the gallery. He and his briefcase all alone over on that side of the room. He pulled out his phone to check the time. 4:55. Flight to DFW: 7:40.
To the courtroom
It was nice to sit down. He hadn't sat since the PATH train pulling into Newark Penn and he was tired of walking, standing, and shouldering the briefcase. The man wasn't gone too long before he stepped into the waiting area of the gallery.
“Texas!” The single exclamation bellowed off the walls of the room. Of course, everyone turned and stared at Trey. He smiled, nodded acknowledgment,
“Yep, that would be me.”
He walked around the low wood wall to the door where the clerk was standing.
They walked back down the hall, past the entrance foyer and the security equipment and down the hall to the opposite side of the building. They entered a court room that was full of people sitting and waiting. He turned to Trey.
He went up to a desk next to the judge's box and talked to whomever was sitting there. Maybe a court clerk? 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 well-dressed man, Mr. Stevens, motioned for Trey to approach him. He asked what was going on. Trey explained the whole situation - the ticket, the error messages, the panic, the handicap entrance. He showed him his PATH ticket, his credit card receipt, and the Complaint. He pointed out that the time, 12:20, was identical on all 3 documents. He admitted that he made a mistake and that he had no intention of cheating the city. He had paid his fare. The man listened intently and with a look of empathy. He said he would drop the fine but Trey would have to pay the court costs. Responding to the quizzical look on his face, he offered,
Trey looked relieved and thanked him. Mr. Stevens told him to take a seat and wait for the judge to call his case. Trey then mentioned that he had a boarding pass for a flight in about 2 hours - did he know how long this would take.
“When would the judge begin (it was already about 5:10)?”
The man said the judge would begin whenever he came out of his chambers. He didn't know when that would be - he's the judge and he comes out when he's ready. Softening a bit, he leaned towards him and said that he'd try to expedite his case towards the front. He understood that he didn't want the others right behind him in the gallery to hear this preferential treatment. Thanking him sincerely, Trey turned around to find a seat.
He realized once he had entered the courtroom that he 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. While it is one of the oldest cities in America, first settled by Puritans in 1666, it has long been a majority minority city, part of the massive New York City metro area. Trey was aware of his privilege - he did not want to make a big deal out of his case being expedited. Some, maybe even many, of those waiting would not have their cases expedited. Mr. Stevens had told him they would get to him right after they processed the cases that required Police Officers (as witnesses). Trey assumed they wanted those officers to get home or back to work. That made sense. So, the crowd waiting and 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 him to his flight in time. And, who knows, he might not have gotten preferential treatment otherwise, even being of the privileged class. That’s a weird phrase - privileged class. Sounds like Medieval Europe with Lords and serfs. We often try to downplay the class status in American society, but it is there. In this courtroom in Newark, the Judge and 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.
Trey will never know what impact his privileged status had on the Court's decision, and he tried not to take his preferred class lightly or arrogantly. He saw a spot on the second row about two people in from the end. The guy on the aisle appeared to be sleeping.
Trey 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 Trey more room. To a seat and down. He set his briefcase beside him and looked around the room, checking out the crowd, the clothes, the faces. Mr. Stevens walked along the wall, spotted Trey, and said,
"But, you'll have to plead guilty.”
Trey nodded his acceptance. He was just glad to have to only pay $21 and for the prospect that he might be able to make his flight. He found out later that this man was the Prosecutor for tonight's cases. He finally felt some relief that the resolution of his case was in progress.
As Seen on TV
Though Trey had a book to read on his phone, this just didn't seem like the right time or place to read a novel. Heck, he was living a better story right then. No need for a novel for escape. He also did not want to pull out his iPhone. He suspected that there was a pretty low percentage of people with $300 phones in their pockets. He didn't want to flaunt his. Within about 5 or 10 minutes, a booming voice interrupted his thoughts.
We did. Damn - the tone, clarity, and volume of the voice alone insisted we obey. The judge made his entrance with his black flowing regalia. Just like on television. He motioned for us to be seated. He gave a concise and clear introduction to the process that would take place this evening. We had instructions to be very quiet as the proceedings would be recorded. He stated that he would first call those cases in which the defendant was accompanied by legal counsel. He didn't want to waste the time of the lawyers present. He dove right in to the caseload. After hearing from those with lawyers, he heard from those cases that had police officers present. Those few cases seemed to be just formalities of checking in and getting some information from the officers.
Trey couldn't hear what those first cases were about - the defendants had their backs to him as they stood at the table facing the microphones and the judge. Trey was intrigued at how shabbily dressed some of these people were. They were in a court of law and asking for leniency. But, then he looked down and saw that he was wearing a grey sweatshirt, black jeans, and worn-out sneakers. Comfortable clothes for the flight. He wished that he wouldn't be quite so quick to judge others. It was now about 5:33, according to the large clock on the wall behind the judge. The prosecutor had said he would try to get him out by "quarter to six." He started to worry abou
His name interrupted his thought. The judge had called his name. Now what. What does he do. Wait, he should walk up to the table. Of course, that's what to do. Get up there. Don't stall. This guy has the fate of your evening in his hands. What are you doing? He had to get his briefcase. Oh no, he had to squeeze past those guys again. What if people think the white guy goes next just because he's white.
“(Are they glaring at me? Shut up and get up there. Okay, okay. I'm at the table. How did I get here? Did I go through that gate or jump over the wall?)”
Trey didn't remember. How long did that take. Where did he put his briefcase. His laptop is in there. Would someone tell him - what the heck was he supposed to do now. What does he say?
Down the ramp, please
The judge calmly asked Trey to tell him what happened. Going into some robotic mode, he narrated the details, just as he had to two other court personnel and as he had many times in his mind in preparation for this very moment. That which he had been anticipating for weeks was happening right now. At this moment. But the judge wasn't really listening. He seemed preoccupied with something in front of him on his counter. Trey was still talking. He was alone in the middle of a vast open space. There were no people behind him like there was earlier. Empty. Nobody on either side. The bailiff, clerks, recorders - all gone. Just him, standing in the middle of this space. The next thing he hears from the judge is,
Zing, He’s back in the room. Everyone came back. It was crowded and hectic again. Case dismissed. It didn't register. What does that mean? Does he still pay court costs? Does he have to sign some forms? Does he make this official with a ritual password or hand gesture? What does he do now? What he did was to just stand there like an idiot. Well, he guessed it was just like an idiot. He had never seen an idiot standing anywhere so he didn't really know what it looks like. But he guesses it would look something like him at that moment. Frozen. He should probably move but he was so confused. Finally, the bailiff came over, leaned across the table, and quietly said,
"You can go.”
Trey turned around, picked up his briefcase, stepped back through the swinging wooden gate, past the guys in his former row, past the staring faces in the gallery, and out the door into the hall. He was breathing again. There were several people in the hall, probably waiting on friends and family in the courtroom. He was still a bit dazed. Case dismissed. He can go. He slowly walked down the hall towards the foyer. Wait. Oh no, he never thanked the judge. "Thank you, your Honor" - he never said that. Shouldn't he have said that? Of course, he should have. But he didn't. Does he go back in? Right then, coming down the hall towards him was a woman he recognized as having been in the courtroom earlier in some official manner - a clerk, a recorder, something. He stopped her and relayed what the judge had said.
"Am I free to go? Is that it?”
"Yes, that's it.”
He then begged her to thank the judge for him. He told her he did not want to interrupt the proceedings. This judge was so efficient he was sure he was in the midst of another case. She was chuckling at his desperation. Yes, she would be happy to thank the judge for him. Phew. He felt better. How rude to have a case dismissed and not thank the judge for his consideration. Trey stood in the foyer, still slightly dazed. It began to register - case dismissed. No fine. No court cost. No returning on January 27th. Nothing. He’s done. And it’s only 5:40. He had two hours until the jet takes off for Texas.
With time to think, Trey 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 Trey. Once the officers saw the receipt and the ticket story, they should’ve just said be careful next time. Or they could’ve gone and tested the ticket machine as a way of determining if the machines needed to be repaired.
"Down the ramp, please.”
(Trey had started to exit through the entrance). His brain was busy 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. Really over. Case dismissed.”
He smiled. Really big.
© James Robert Watson, PhD, 2009