May. 14, 2002 * 2:44 p.m.
I spent this morning in traffic court, fighting a $115 ticket that I deserved but couldn't afford. Approximately three minutes before my scheduled appointment, I found a space for my little pickup truck right outside the court house, per my unwavering parking karma (car-ma?). So far so good. I cut the corner of the lawn to beat out a 50's-ish bleached blonde lady to the door, suspecting Darwinian principles would rule in the race for the inevitable line inside. She took the handicap ramp to cross the threshhold ahead of me (damn!), only to be slowed by her excess baggage at the metal detector (ha!). I breezed past her towards the information desk, patting myself on the back for bringing nothing but my wallet and keys. I overheard the explanation that directed another citizen straight ahead for traffic court, allowing me to speed past her as well, only to take my place behind ten other people in line.
After each intake, every person was instructed to "have a seat." I briefly considered following orders, but this would have ended up sitting on the floor, next to about ten other people standing against the wall, each of them eyeing the two full benches for an imminent vacancy. I leaned against the glass wall and surveyed the suspects. A skinny white girl, maybe 23, with a short brown pixie cut and tortoise shell glasses, a dark green top, beige corduroys and clogs. A frail, elderly black man with coke-bottle glasses, a fedora, a beige plaid-lined jacket, and a large envelope. A middle-aged white woman with long brown hair and a familiar face. A middle-aged black couple, both heavy-set, she with a pony tail and brown sweater, he in black pants and shirt. A pregnant Latino woman in her thirties, in a pretty white maternity top, her hair pulled back in a bun. A twenty-something white guy in a baseball cap and jeans. The bleached blonde I raced against, in a white poly-cotton pants suit. My scrutinizing was interrupted by the man behind the counter, who called several names. A seat opened up and I glanced at the wall-leaners. The old black man eyed it, so I held back, but a young Latino guy swooped into place. Another opened up. This time the old man pounced on it. Yet another space became free, but no one moved to take it. The pregnant woman looked at it then turned her back, apparently not wanting to bother. I slid onto the bench. No one spoke. I imagined their lives outside the court house and gave them names. Jobs. Children. Lovers. The black woman (Angela, a part-time nurse with three teenagers and a sickly mother) brushed the lint from her husband's pantlegs (Charlie, a cabinet maker with a taste for the hard stuff). The young white girl (Tracy, an artist fresh out of college with a cat, a boyfriend, and a job at a bookstore) shifted from one leg to the other. The middle-aged white woman (Sarah, a high school biology teacher with no family or friends to speak of) gazed into the heavy space before her. The young white guy (Steve, a junior at Northeastern with a single dad and a gambling problem) glanced compulsively at the clock and chewed his lip. The pregnant woman (Maria, a homemaker with a toddler at home and a philandering husband) rummaged through her purse. The old man (Walter, a widower and retired musician with a bad heart and five grown children) clutched his envelope tightly. The young Latino guy (Marco, a house painter who lived with his three sisters and his mother) The bleached blonde (Jackie, a divorced real estate agent with a rotating posse of bed partners) fiddled with her cell phone in an attempt to comply with the "Silence All Electronic Devices" sign.
At last, a dozen of us were called in succession and escorted into a 15' by 8' room with a table and six chairs. I began to think this was some sort of sociological seating experiment the government was conducting, or that the chairs were tokens, for when the Chair Inspectors made their rounds. Angela & Charlie, Tracy, Maria, Walter, and Jackie came with, leaving Sarah, Steve and Marco behind to stew in the silence. A smallish man in his fifties wearing a cheap suit took the chair at the head of the table, brandishing a stack of citations. This was obviously The Clerk. Maria, Angela, Walter, Tracy and some other guy sat in the remaining five chairs. The rest of us leaned against the wall, ready for the firing squad. The Clerk (who I decided didn't deserve a name and a life) called Walter's name. (John, he turned out to be.) He asked Walter what happened, and Walter explained that he didn't know why he was being pulled over, that he just stopped when he heard an ambulance. He had a raspy voice like a blues singer (making me more confident in my determination of Walter as a musician). He opened his large envelope and pulled out a carefully-drawn diagram of the scene of the crime (maybe architect would have been a better guess), explaining his version. The Clerk kept asking him to repeat himself, and finally informed Walter that the charge was speeding. After a somewhat humiliating exchange, The Clerk found Walter not guilty and told him he didn't want to see him again. Then he called Maria's name. I think it was actually Yolanda or something. She looked like she was in about her eighth month. In a voice far too loud for the tiny room, The Clerk said "So tell me what happened." She started to explain that she was on her way from her babysitter's to her teaching job (oh well, wrong again), and The Clerk interrupted her, asking her how fast she was going. She said she didn't know, but that there were no signs posted. The Clerk launched immediately into attack mode. He asked how long she'd been driving and did she know the rules for driving when no sign was posted (at which point an unfortunate string of guesses was made by various members of the gang, which he instructed her to ignore) and why didn't she just go 50 or 60 if there was no speed posted and maybe she shouldn't be driving if she didn't know the rules and blah blah blah. Maria was trying to keep her cool, but her face began to redden and her tone to change, and before we knew it he had her squirming like an insect in a web. He told her he was finding her not guilty, but that she should learn how to drive. She kept trying to get in a last word. Silly Maria. Angela and Walter were next. They were in two different cars, but got pulled over together, around 2 a.m. Angela said they were on their way home from taking care of her sick mother (SCORE!) but that they were not speeding. The Clerk shot holes in her story and then found them both not guilty.
I watched, as one by one, this petty man with a petty job and a petty mind tried to intimidate every single one of my gang (once suspects, now my brothers and sisters in traffic solidarity) and then set them free. This was a fucking power trip. Nothing more, nothing less. Tracy (a.k.a. Jenna) came close to escaping without injury, but she made the mistake of admitting she was one or two miles over the speed limit. "Are you allowed to go 32 in a 30 zone?!" he ranted. "No," she answered sheepishly. "Slow down next time, and if I see you in here again you're in trouble!" After a few more sorry attempts to justify themselves, my people began to dwindle. There were only four of us left. The seats were now free, but we all remained standing. Nobody wanted to look The Clerk in the eye. "Come on, sit down!" he barked. We took our seats with the speed and precision of Navy Seals taking orders from a Commanding Officer. He called my name. Determined not to let this insecure government employee with a Napoleon complex get the best of me, I met his gaze. I would look him in the eye and lie to him, under oath, as probably every one of my clan had done before me, telling him that I was not speeding. But I would be smart. He wouldn't be able to shoot holes in my story (which, incidentally, involved a cop waving me aside, me mistaking his wave for a go-on-by motion, him chasing me down, me not being able to understand a word he was saying, him getting frustrated at my "fleeing" the scene and finding him unintelligible, and giving me a ticket - which is the true part of the story). I wouldn't try to argue with him, but I wouldn't piss on the floor like a frightened puppy either. I was ready. "Tell me what happened." I drew a breath. A bead of sweat ran down my stomach, unseen by The Clerk. "I was driving 25 mph with my dog in the passenger seat..." (so far, so good - the lie about my speed and the truth about my dog) "...I always drive very cautiously when he's in the car, since I don't have a seatbelt for him - " The Clerk interrupted me. "Not guilty, I don't wanna see you in here again, Deanna Bartlett?" Jackie answered politely. It took me a split second to process the fact that I was free to go. I would not screw it up for my team by opening my mouth. I stood up and left without another word, closing the door behind me.
For a few brief moments I revelled in my victory, but felt somewhat deflated that I didn't even get to tell my story. I was just another cog in the machine. Just another lost opportunity for The Clerk to feel like hot shit. In my reverie, I was passed up by Jackie, who obviously got her walking papers as quickly as I did. She stopped to chat with some boys on a bench. She caught my eye and included me in the conversation, telling me that he didn't even let her explain. Like high schoolers outside the Principal's office, we discussed the bizarre behavior of The Clerk with the boys and gave them advice on how to beat the system. I walked out of there feeling relieved not to be writing a check for $115, disappointed that I'd rehearsed my story for nothing, and most of all, bound in solidarity with the good people of my 11 a.m. court date, united against the evil regime of The Clerk and his lackeys.
WHAT'S IN MY CD PLAYER RIGHT NOW:
Sheryl Crow, "C'mon, C'mon" (wearing out 1st track - "Steve McQueen"!)
LATEST SWEET THING MY SWEET THANG DID FOR ME:
Made me a cup of Sleepy Time tea last night...
WHAT I'M WEARING TODAY:
Cropped zip-up top & hip-hugging pants - both black and stretchy, silver rings on fingers, toes, around neck on chain