Monday, November 16, 2009
My Day in Court
I selected my best duds, tidied up an ugly tangle of stray nose hairs and took steps to ensure I wouldn’t be too hungover for the big day. That left only one item on the big to-do list: watch a taped “Green Acres” marathon.
You can take Perry Mason or Arnie Becker. For me the most persuasive television attorney of all time was Oliver Wendell Douglas. He was the erstwhile New York lawyer who left the Big Apple to farm among the rubes on the TV Land classic “Green Acres.”
I was always thrilled to watch him debate Sam Drucker, Hank Kimball or Mr. Haney because his arguments were tactically brilliant and always accompanied by patriotic background music.
I needed his legal inspiration because I had a Pittsburgh court date last week and the case against me seemed straight out of Hooterville.
Regular readers of this blog (Mom and three guys named Ronnie) will recall my arrest in August for trying to sell $300 of my own pre-season Steeler tickets to an undercover cop for $200. Eric Heyl of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review made me a minor celebrity by devoting his Sunday column to ridiculing the arrest.
Really, it’s all anybody talked to me about for the past two months. In the bar, the grocery store, the post office, all anybody wanted to know was if it was true and if I was going to fight it.
“Fight it?” I’d say. “I’m not gonna just fight it. I’m gonna bring the entire sum of my sizzling intellect to exposing the injustice.
“I’m spending my every waking moment conducting imaginary mock trials that always conclude with the judge weeping over my cause and gaveling over $10,000 in restitution.
“I’m doing it because I believe in truth, justice, the American way and that one enlightened man can make a real difference in a world bereft of reason.”
Plus, I had absolutely nothing better to do.
I packed a thick briefcase of evidentiary arguments and a sassy attitude and marched them through the metal detectors at the throbbing courthouse in downtown Pittsburgh.
There were about 30 of us in the courtroom. There were prostitutes, drunks, degenerate gamblers, scum of the earth and me. I surveyed the motley mix and thought, hmmm, I’ll bet if I could persuade the bailiff to serve booze from behind the bench we’d have one helluva party.
Judge Charles McLaughlin brought a welcome wise-cracking bent to the proceedings. When he ordered one underage drinker to do community service for a non-profit organization, he added, “And I’m not talking about Chrysler or General Motors.”
The cases were dispatched with judicial vigor. Drunks were fined $200 for napping in hedges. Youthful party hosts were fined and scolded for disturbing the peace. A nasty neighbor dispute over a fence was resolved with Solomonic wisdom.
I made judgements of my own based on stereotypical appearances. I was sure the judge was going to throw the book at one surly looking youth, his hair a sprawl of dreadlocks. His slouchy pants and unkempt appearance were, I felt, an insult to the decorum of the court.
The arresting officer said the defendant refused to turn down his car stereo. I’d seen his type, rolling down the streets with the hip hop blasting, the base shaking the fillings free of my teeth. Get him! I thought.
The judge looked down on the bench and said with a tone of irritation, “Now, why wouldn’t you do as the officer asked?”
Through gritted teeth he said, “Man, I was having a bad day and I needed to blow off some steam. This guy was hassling me for no reason.”
The judge asked what caused his bad day. The defendant said he worked with disadvantaged youths at a notorious local center and he was frustrated he wasn’t getting through.
The judge took his glasses off and said, “I’ll bet you do have some bad days there. That’s a difficult job. I’m going to let this go with a warning. Try and obey the officer next time he asks you to do something.”
Next, the judge called out, “Rodell?”
As I pulled open my briefcase, the arresting officer approached. The last time I’d seen this imposing bald gentleman he’d been undercover and was ignoring my salient explanations about why he shouldn’t be arresting me.
“Hey, you didn’t know about this law, did you?” he said in a whisper.
Well, no, and I want to --
“You won’t do this again, will you?”
I have no intention of --
“Judge McLaughlin is going to ask you those same questions. Answer with one word and this will go away. Now, don’t go and screw yourself by talking too much.”
I raised my right hand and swore to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. It happened just like he said it would.
As the judge asked his questions, my options narrowed to meekly complying or to going all Billy Blaze on ‘em.
Blaze was the memorable Michael Keaton character from the great 1982 Ron Howard movie, “Night Shift.” Blaze and mousy clerk Chuck Lumley (played by Henry Winkler) are busted for running a brothel out of a Manhattan morgue.
Blaze infuriates Lumley by refusing a generous plea bargain so he can speechify and press his advantage. It’s hilarious.
My instinct was to go full Blaze.
Alas, my fiscal situation demands meek compliance.
“Yes, your honor.”
And with that it all went away. I didn’t get to issue the brilliant arguments I was prepared to ride all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Later at the parking garage pay machine, I ran into the dreadlocked dude and congratulated him on beating his rap, aware of the irony that his rap stemmed from the volume of his rap.
He smiled and said, “Hey, thanks, man. You, too!”
It was a great moment in race relations. I hope he had a good day because I believe any time he has a good day it will invariably lead to better days for the rest of us, too.
With that, we went our separate ways, me to my bucolic life filled with “Green Acres” reruns and him to occupational heartbreak and constant harassment at the hands of The Man.
What did I learn from all this?
Our court system, flawed though it may be, bestows illuminating and heartwarming sparks of humanity amidst welcome little splashes of true justice.
I enjoyed it so much I’m thinking of committing a petty crime every six months or so just so I can keep going back.