Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Marginalia in the Annals of Crime

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My Date With Justice
For a two or three block radius around San Francisco’s Hall of Justice, shabby men wandered, smoking handmade cigarettes, some of them staggering slightly. None of them entered the building. They just surrounded it, like the pawnbrokers and bail bondsmen, perhaps hoping some justice from the building might leak out, and adhere to them.

Back Story
I had been summoned to the Hall of Justice by the District Attorney’s office to give corroborative testimony at a rape trial. What I had to offer wasn’t much. About a year before, around midnight, I had heard an earsplitting scream, and a hoarse shout, “He’s raping me!” Then: breaking glass, and as I grabbed the telephone and looked out the window, a low-slung black car squealed past my house. It may have been a Camaro.

The dispatcher already knew of the incident, giving me an address down the street, and asking me if that was where I’d heard the scream. I said I thought so. Sirens were already approaching as I hung up the phone.

I decided not to go down and see what was going on. All I know about police procedure during a domestic disturbance is what I learned from Fox Television, but I had a pretty strong hunch that the police didn’t really need assistance from a guy in a ratty terry cloth robe.

That was the last I heard of the incident until I was called by an assistant DA, and received my summons in the mail.

It was an unnaturally hot morning as I entered the Hall, and stood in line at the metal detector. There was a young man causing a delay. Dark-haired, sweating profusely in his lumpy black suit, he kept going through the detector, setting it off, removing more objects from his pockets, and going through again. I wondered whether he was a greenhorn lawyer, a witness, or a defendant dressed up for a hearing. I was leaning toward the latter when a man in front of me, with shaved head and mirror shades, got off his cell phone long enough to suggest to the young man that he remove his shoes.

At that, the young man sighed, and hiked up his trousers. What had looked like shoes, with the cuff covering them, were actually knee-high heavy duty black leather boots, laced from toe to top through shiny steel grommets. He sat down, and began the arduous process of unlacing them. Poor guy, I thought. If he’d just worn tassled loafers, like a respectable citizen, he could have avoided this delay.

I always get disoriented in hospitals and bureaucratic bastions, and that day was no exception. After wandering around the third floor for five minutes trying to find an elusive Dept.22 in the sea of threes, I finally gave up, and went directly to the District Attorney’s office, where I talked to a woman over a telephone, even though she was sitting not two feet away from me.

Eventually I was informed that I was on a “telephone standby” basis, and could go home. By this I assumed I would probably not be needed, and that the state’s case was strong.

Busting Out
I made my way out past a middle-aged Latino man sitting on a bench, talking softly on his cell, looking like he was about to burst into tears, past two glammed-up hard-looking women clacking purposefully towards a courtroom door, then downstairs through clusters of lawyers in the lobby, chatting each other up, and talking quickly on their cell phones. I’d never seen so many cell phones in one place in my life.

As I walked over to 6th Street, I passed a young black man, cell-phone free, talking to his friend. I overheard him say, “My counsellor says if I don’t take the class I have to go back to jail next week.” Another portly young man, missing his front teeth, was telling two friends, “He said he’d be over in ten minutes, but that’s the same thing he said the last time he called.”

Along 6th Street, perhaps the seediest street in San Francisco, the little storefront lunch joints had not yet opened for business, and some of them looked like they never would again. In front of a halfway house a black man and Indian woman shared a hand-rolled smoke.

A young Arab-American was removing the plywood from the windows of a corner store, and was about to unlock the front door. Six men and a woman, in various states of decrepitude, stood patiently in line, waiting for their 40s. A little further on, under a gray blanket, a man was sleeping in his shoes.

As I made my way down the steps to the Underground, I heard a sixty-ish black woman shout at her male companion, “What you worried about that for? You ain’t getting’ any.”

Going Home
Then I was free of that zone of missed connections, dashed hopes, and last-minute pleas, on my way back to my own little world of quiet desperation, yes, but one which (for the moment anyway) did not require lawyers.

A half hour later, I was at my stop, then trudging up the hill, past the house where the alleged crime had first occurred. In front of it, someone had written in chalk on the sidewalk, “Ashley had a baby boy,” with the date, and five exclamation marks.

And with that, I was through my front door, and closing it behind. For me, justice was done. Finished. So over.


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