I had to go to court today. A few weeks ago, while crossing the street mid-block, I was jacked up by bike pigs who materialized out of nowhere and wrote me a ticket. I sensed no malice in them, just mindless functionaries in a system designed to make the hardest men weep, "Do you know where the courthouse is on 6th Street?"
I ate lunch at the soup kitchen (Some kind of meat based glop with green beans stirred in.) and had a quick shave in the bathroom so as to make myself presentable for the judge. I hid my drugs in an aluminum can, stashed it behind a dumpster, crossed 6th street illegally, and made it to the courthouse with time to spare.
A likely looking assortment of bums and vagrants milled about the waiting room. I checked my bags in with the indifferent security guard and had a seat.
There were two model-gorgeous UT students sitting in the corner, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible. A particularly grizzled old bum hocked some phlegm into the waste basket and sat down next to them, "What did yall pretty ladies do to end up in here? Huh? What did yall pretty ladies do? Public intoxication? Jay walking? I know yall pretty ladies didn't commit no crimes." They giggled nervously and tried to dematerialize into their phones.
Then a guy came in dressed completely in blankets and towels. He looked like a pile of laundry that had been animated by an evil wizard and ordered to become a Buddhist monk. He had so many blankets wrapped around his head that they formed a giant ball with only his eyes and nose sticking out. He went up to the receptionist and asked her, "Do you have a list of the places I can do my community service?"
"Do you have a list of the places I can do my community service?"
His voice was muffled by all the blankets and towels so he had to ask her several times before he finally got the list. I tried to imagine that guy helping out at the recycling plant dressed in his bizarre costume. After he left, the security guard got up and sprayed some Lysol where he had been standing.
At one o'clock the receptionist told us to go into the courtroom and wait for the judge, who was running late. I had a seat in the front row so I could hear all the details of the other cases, and also because I didn't want the judge to think I was afraid of him.
We waited a long time. I noticed the judge had a stuffed elephant on the shelf behind his desk. A lady with googly eyes kept looking at me.
Finally, after keeping us waiting for forty five minutes, Judge Coffee arrived with a perfunctory apology and got right down to business. No standing for the judge, no robes.
Now, Judge Coffee, who I've met before, is as charming and avuncular an old man as I've ever laid eyes on. He reminds me of Ronald Reagan. He has perfect white hair, piercing blue eyes, and the practiced but easy smile of a natural politician. If he doesn't have a trophy wife and a well trained house-boy, it's because he doesn't want them.
But he is also the fulcrum around which a deeply evil system operates. All the people who get ticketed for sitting on the sidewalk, sleeping in the park, crossing the street, or just not looking right in the city of Austin, must eventually pass through his courtroom. It is he who sentences the poorest in society to work for free, doing community service, while real criminals fly around in private jets, sipping Cristal. I was eager to tell him what I thought about my case, and also about the way traffic laws are enforced in general. As for the diabolical system he represents, I figured I'd leave that part out.
The first case was a guy who was in for fighting. That pissed me right off the bat. How can crossing the street be considered the same class of crime as attacking another person in a public place? If I'd lost control of myself and actually punched another person, I'd feel bad about it, maybe even like I deserved to be punished. This stands in stark contrast to my don't-give-a-shit attitude regarding my "crime" of crossing the street.
There were a few more cases, nothing worth talking about. Everyone, including the bruiser, got either a fine or community service. It was three o'clock by the time the judge called my name and I went up to his bench to face justice, "You are here today for the crime of crossing the street mid block. Would you like to enter a plea?"
"Yes, Judge. I'm guilty."
"Do you understand the blah blah blah blah blah?
"Ok, I'm going to sentence you to 10 hours of community service to be completed within the month. See the receptionist on the way outside for a list of places where you can do your community service. And look, what's the best reason not to cross the street mid-block?"
I knew the "correct" answer to the question but what I gave him was, "To avoid the potential legal ramifications."
"No," he said slowly, "It's to avoid being hit by a car."
"Well, it was seven o'clock on Sunday morning when this happened, there was no one on the road except for me and the tumble weeds, and, of course, APD, who I didn't notice. But if I may speak personally..."
"Sure, go ahead."
"If you guys are going to have a zero tolerance policy on jay walking and crossing mid-block, I think you should also have a zero tolerance policy on speeding and failing to use your turn signal. I know you guys have a problem with pedestrians getting hit, and I think the way folks drive around here has just as much to do with that as the jay walkers you go after so aggressively."
What could he do but agree, "Well sir, that is a very valid point and it's something you'd have to take up with the enforcement end of things."
I saw an opening, "I'd love to Judge, but I don't seem to have much pull with APD."
Everyone in the room; the judge, the interpreter, and, of course, the bums, laughed at this joke. Even the court deputy gave a chuckle. Knowing that the ideal time had come to make a graceful exeunt I said, "But I know what you mean Judge, thanks for listening."
"Sure, don't forget to get a list from the receptionist."
And I was free. I got my list, got my bags from the security guard, and was out the door to retrieve my can of drugs from the dumpster across the street. I felt like I had done my civic duty. I told the judge what I thought, and even caught him with a zinger. My only regret is that I never found out what those pretty ladies did.
UPDATE--- March 12, 2014: The man who I described as a "pile of laundry that had been
animated by an evil wizard" has become a fixture around skid row, and is,
perhaps not surprisingly, something of an enigma. I frequently see him on the
fringes, tooling about with his collection of junk, and writing things
down on torn pieces of cardboard. He radiates intense concentration, but also
gives the feeling of great serenity. I get the impression that he's on some
kind of Eastern Philosophical, religious trip.
I've been trying to make contact for several weeks, but every time I
talk to him, he clams up, acting nervous and frightened. Hilariously, his voice
is almost impossible to decipher through all the
towels wrapped around his head. It's like trying to talk to Kenny from
"South Park." Finally, this morning, I made some progress. He was sitting behind
the homeless shelter studying his mysterious cardboard texts when I walked up
and said, as calmly and non-threateningly as possible, "Hey, how are you doing
"Hmmm mmm hmmh hhhmmmm."
"You're doing well, you say?"
"Say, look man, I'm kind of curious what your deal is. You seem to be on some
kind of unique trip, and I can't help but be curious where you're coming from."
He made a sound kind of like R2-D2 makes when he's feeling forlorn. I could
tell he was slightly freaked out by my interest in him. He had always reacted
this way in the past, and I had always backed off immediately, figuring it
would be wise to lay off and gain his trust over time. This time I decided to
press a little further and state my case, "See, the thing is, I'm a writer, and
I'm trying to do some freelance street journalism. I can tell you're
on to some heavy shit. Am I right in guessing that you are religious man? Some
kind of monk?"
Reluctantly, "Mmm hmm."
"Well, I don't pretend to be a religious person myself, but I'm interested in what you're doing. I'm not trying to fuck with you or make fun of you, or anything like
that. I understand why you would be wary of people in this neighborhood. I
don't trust them either."
He made a few noises that seemed to indicate he was picking up what I was laying down, so I
decided to try my luck, "So---what are you writing on those pieces of
cardboard, there?" He held up the cardboard to show me that they were covered with
symbols, charts, and Asian writing of some kind.
"What does it say? I mean, I know you can't read me the whole thing, but will you tell me the gist of it?"
"Mrrr hmmmphh ppprrr mmmmm hrrrr." he said.
At this point he shocked me by pulling a layer of towels from his mouth and
speaking in a clear, but barely audible whisper, "The Stages of Guruhood. There
is Goat Fox, Daffodil Salamander, Lion Ibex, Groundhog Stinkbug, and Tortoise
After listing The Stages, he pulled the towels back over his
face. I said, "So that's your goal huh? To progress up The Stages of Guruhood?"
"That's awesome, dude. I knew it had to be something like that. I'm pulling for you."
"Well, thanks for telling me. I've been dying to know what you're
writing down. Maybe you can tell me more about The Sages of Guruhood some time."
And with that I went back to the business of looking for drugs on the ground.
(We each have our own path to follow, you see.) Because I was patient, and
didn't push the guy too quickly, in the end, he was willing to talk to me. As a
result, we now all know The Stages of Guruhood, and are, at least aware, that there is a state of being called "Groundhog Stinkbug" that we can strive to attain.
Also, I feel compelled to point out that I never did end up doing my
community service, so I now have a warrant out here in Austin. It doesn't
bother me. I honestly don't feel normal unless I have warrants for my arrest.