The death of John Mortimer was right up there among the sad deaths of the past 12 months (Jeff Felshman, my mom’s cousin Craig, Vic Chesnutt — I almost started crying just typing that one — J.D. Salinger, my friend Lee Kluever, Jay Reatard), although unlike many of the others, he at least got to live a long, full life full of creative fun. If you’ve never been graced with the joys of Mortimer’s most famous creation, you need to get the Rumpole books or the DVDs as soon as you can. Though books are more portable, I’d actually recommend the audiovisual version in this case, as it was greatly enriched by the acting talent of Leo Kern, who also died just a couple of years ago, damn the universe to all hell.
Rumpole of the Bailey was that rare breed of barrister who cared far more about keeping his poor, huddled, and usually shifty clients out of a cage (it didn’t matter to Rumpole whether they did it or not; in fact he didn’t want to know) than about keeping his wife in fancy dresses, or himself in anything like a respectable-looking wig and hat. Bit like a hooker with a heart of gold.
Anyway, one of old Rumpole’s delightful chomps at the legal system that fed him was to habitually refer to the prestigious circuit court, to which he never quite got promoted, as ‘circus court.’
Boyyyyyyy, did he have that right.
So there I am at 9:30, an ocean away from the old Bailey, and not as close to the Skokie circus court as I need to be at this hour. I was out at a rock show last night, but that’s not why I’m late; I left the house at the usual time, but I’m up over my knees in snow, and hoping I can somehow manage to slog through before the judge starts asking ‘where the hell’s that interpreter temp?!’ and calling the agency. I’m only about a mile into the 2.3-mile slog from the el’s yellow line to the courthouse; the snow is thick and wet, the day is getting warm, and I haven’t been this deep in unplowed snow since the el broke down and I had to walk home in the middle of the night during the blizzard of 2000.
I should have left home earlier, because I should have guessed that nobody in fucking Skokie believes in shoveling the sidewalk. It’s like another goddamned planet, where everyone is born with a car seat attached to his ass. I’m surprised I haven’t been picked up for vagrancy, or a drug search. It’s like being back in Carbondale.
Even when there aren’t two feet of snow, some of the sections of street along my route don’t even have sidewalks. Why do they send all the criminals from the north side of the city of Chicago to a circuit court in an unwalkable suburb that only has one el stop? As if I didn’t know! The court employees probably lobbied like crazy to have it built there: the more small-time criminals who can’t afford cars who can be convicted in absentia, the quicker they can get to lunch. I’m not joking; the lawyers and courtroom cops start making lame quips about how great food is going to be starting at around ten. (Speaking of the cops: I love the way courtroom cops glare imperiously at me until they figure out that I’m not a defendant’s moll; dude, you’re basically a security guard. All the criminals you see are already in cuffs.)
Well, at least I’ve got my practical boots on. They get me through to the courthouse only a bit late. The nasty lady cop who does entry security (she, too, has an unearned ‘tude; I see her there every goddamn time I work, it’s clearly her only duty) screams and rolls her eyes at how stupid I am when I leave a quarter in my pocket before entering their metal detector. She’s my favorite coworker.
I get to the court, and I’m relieved to find that, as usual, there is a long, long list of males waiting to be tried before the females come up, and the defendant I’m translating for is a woman. (They refer to the defendants as ‘males’ and ‘females,’ and since they seem determined to do all the males first, I’ve developed an absurd theory that after the verdict is passed and they’re taking them back to the prison, they spay or neuter them, and they don’t want to have to switch tools for every case the way they would have to do if they went in alphabetical order. Yeah, I can get bored and wacky sitting there.)
Not only has nobody noticed that I’m late, I can sneak out to the cafeteria and get a caffeinated beverage; now that the judge has spotted me and noticed I’m here, the clerk will know that she can page me if the woman’s case comes up.
But first, I want to watch the current trial. It’s clear that it’s a bigger deal than what they usually do — there are witnesses and everything! Usually they just push the defendants through; it’s hard for any lawyer, much less a public defender, to refute the usual failed breathalyzer tests and video-taped shop-liftings. The drug cases are my least favorite, because the cops always seem to have the shakiest evidence on those — I’ve never seen a photo of a confiscated package or any such thing in court, and the judge never asks. I wonder how hard it would actually be to frame someone? And while more addictive drugs might cause people to commit robberies and murders and such, ingesting or carrying marijuana is kind of a classic example of a victimless crime, in my book.
This defendant is a bit different. He’s wearing a bright yellow jump suit, which I’ve never seen, only a dingy blue for the women, dingy green for men. Maybe it means something in prison code. At any rate, I’m sucked in to his story. The public defender and the DA are cross-examing the cop who arrested the guy, and then the guy himself. It’s clear that the guy was caught with bundles of small packages of marijuana (to which which the DA sneeringly refers as ‘dope,’ apparently having no idea what a dill-hole she sounds like); the question is whether the cop saw him stuffing the bag into his pants as he was pulled over, and whether there was a bit of the bag still sticking out of his pocket when the cop approached. I slowly figure out that they’re trying to determine whether the search was warranted or illegal.
And then they call in the star witness. Now, this is the kind of drama you think of when you think of a ‘court case,’ and it’s exactly what I have never yet seen in a court of law. Speaking of molls, this witness would make John Dillinger so envious he’d get hives. She has perfect hair, perfect nails, perfect butt in a modestly gray but very, very tight knee-length skirt. She’s well-spoken, and the words are coming out of a beautiful face. It’s making everyone in court’s day. The DA says to her, “Now, of course you’re going to try to protect your boyfriend, because you want him to stay out of jail so he can… keep being your boyfriend.”
Moll (softly, with a charming modesty): He will be no matter what.
Whether he goes to jail or not, you have to admit, he’s sort of a lucky guy.
Anyway, she was the driver in the car, and her story matches the boyfriend’s, doesn’t match that of the cop. The public defendant points out all the inconsistencies in the cop’s story; the DA makes some very assertive-sounding ad hominem attacks on the lovely couple (and manages to say ‘dope’ again about five times). I thoroughly dislike her by this point.
I do like this judge, however; she’s always kind to me, and she always tries to be fair; she did go off on a repeat-offense drunk driver once, but christ, it’s scary for everyone to have people drinking on the road. And she always looks reluctant to sentence small-time drug offenders, even when the evidence (which, for all I know, she has in fact seen in legal briefs which would be too time-consuming to drag into the formal proceeding; pardon my conspiracy theory above; just had to get it off my chest) seems damning. She says she needs a few minutes before she can make up her mind, and goes on to the next rubber-stamp case while she mulls over it.
I basically trust her. But you never know. I decide to go get that beverage instead of wait for her decision, so I can pretend she did the right thing, so that I’ll go on liking at least one of the people in this looney bin (there’s also a court secretary — I think that’s what she is — who’s very sweet and showed me where the water cooler was, but she was out sick today). Drug prohibition always bothered me, but not as much as it has since I’ve had this job. Judges and lawyers and lawmakers might be public servants in their way, but in their own way, so are drug dealers. I’m allergic to pot myself, but I have friends who enjoy it — and so do you, and so does everyone, even if they aren’t aware of it. Even if pot were legal, would you want to go through all the rigamarole of growing it? It’s supposed to be a pain in the butt. I mean, you don’t even grow your own tomatoes, I’ll bet, and those are easy. Without drug dealers, everyone would be a drunken lawyer.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I was on my way to the cafeteria, and I spotted one of the lawyers I’d seen slouching around the courtroom. The client I’ve been translating for — we’ll call the poor woman N — gets a new public defendant every week, and I’m hoping he’s it, because then I can check in with him and tell him where I’m going so I may have my caffeine in a relaxed mood.
“Hi, I’m the interpreter for the N case. Are you her lawyer?”
“Nope,” he says. “But I’ll tell him you’re here.”
“OK,” I say, “thanks,” and I turn to walk away.
Ha ha, nothing’s ever that goddamned simple.
“Interpreter!” he calls after me. “What language?”
“French,” I say, and instinctively cringe, because I know he’s going to say…
“Oh? French! Really? Oui oui oui!”
Why do all douchebag court employees say this when I answer that question? I’ve never in my life heard any French person actually repeat ‘oui’ three fucking times. Is that from some dumb fucking movie or something? It makes my blood boil.
And he goes on: “Bonjour, Mademoiselle! Bonjour! Oui oui oui! I love French. It’s the most romantic language.
“Ah, vraiment? Alors vous…”
“Ha ha ha, I don’t know what you’re saying. Those are the only words I know. But it’s soooooo beautiful and romantic. I LOVE it.”
Yeah? I HATE people who say shit like that, what a coincidence. If you’re clever enough to be a lawyer, and you looooooooooove French, and it’s suuuuuuuuuuuuch a romantic language, whhhhhhhhhyyyyyyyy do you only know three words of it? Oh yeah: because learning French wouldn’t make you any money, and you’re a lawyer fuck. If you used your big brains on beautiful things like French, you’d be a fucking temp. Also: how do you know you looooooove a language when you only know three words of it? I think Japanese is kinda sexy sounding, but for all I know it has a gimped-up grammatical system from hell. Therefore, I say that am a curious about the language, but I don’t use that curiosity to ham-fistedly hit on its current students.
Yep, hit on. Real subtle, too. One conversational turn in and I’m already hearing him say: “You know, you really look kind of French… with those glasses… mmm… hey, are you nervous?”
“I, uh, no, I’m tired, I had to walk in the snow from the Skokie Swift…”
“You walked all the way from the Skokie Swift?!” He shrieks. Clearly he is one of those car people who consider any act of autolocomotion that carries one farther than the distance from the mall food court to the far-end Macy’s to be a feat akin to the Boston Marathon.
“Gosh, no wonder you’re in such good shape… you look very athletic.” Yeah, I’m a power walker, dude. Maybe I look sporty with my winter zip-up fleece on, but I don’t have enough hand-eye coordination to drive a car, much less excel at naked racquetball or whatever the hell he’s seeing in his simian head.
He’s still going: “Perfect complexion… ” (has this moron ever heard of makeup?!) “…and what color are your eyes under those glasses?… mmm…” It occurs to me that he is actually analyzing my appearance for himself OUT LOUD, as though I were deaf. How many deaf oral interpreters do you get in here, bonehead?!?!
“Speaking of romantic, it’s almost Valentine’s Day? Are you doing anything?”
I guess he figures he’s gotten past the flirting stage now, and it’s time to drag me into his lawyer-cave. Jesus, how do these douches pass the bar? “I hate Valentine’s Day.”
“That’s refreshing. Not going in for those bullshit holidays. I don’t meet girls like you very often.”
I want to comically slap myself in the face and then let my fingers slide down till they pull my lower eyelids inside-out at him. But instead I say: “Hey, I’ve really got to get some caffeine in me while I wait for my case. When you get back to court, could you let the public defender know I’m here?” I want to make sure that he and I are headed in opposite directions.
“Anything you like! That was actually my last case, but I’ll do anything for you if you can tell me how to get hold of you.”
My jaw is bouncing off the floor. He thinks I want to give him my phone number!?!? I give him my e-mail (“I hate the phone”; this is just as true as my remark about yet another holiday which revolves around extorting gift purchases out of people, but I’m trying to edit my conversation to include only things I hate), panic momentarily over that — why am I always so reflexively polite?!? — but remind myself that I can put him on my junk list the minute I hear from him.
Finally, coffee. I sit down with my book and start to sip. Ahhhhh.
Two minutes later, I hear a voice making noises at me: he’s back. Gehhhhhhehehhrhhehrheherhhrehererrher. Circuit music starts playing in my head as he starts to talk to me. I lamely attempt to keep reading my book, but he’s talking too loud, and I am too angry now. He spews a lot of idiotic drivel which makes me rabid over the fact that he’s rich and I’m poor; I distract myself by making a solemn vow that the next person who tries to tell me we’re living in anything resembling a meritocracy is going to be in a coma for at least eight weeks. He’s gone past analyzing my appearance now, and has now begun to extrapolate, from my terse, barely polite replies to his inquiries, as to what kind of girlfriend material I am. “Cultured, studious, unconventional… and you’re studying medieval history!” I stonily refuse to point out the fact that the book I’m reading is in fact a history of ancient Greece. “Wow.”
The conversation is getting more uncomfortable by the minute — not that he’s bothered — and he comes up with what I suppose he thinks is a save: “Hey, they probably won’t be doing the females till after lunch. How about I take you out?”
“I just had a sandwich.”
“We could go get a nice glass of wine then! French wine, ron ron ron!”
I stare at him. “Before court?” Then it suddenly dawns on me: he’s not just serious about his offer — he’s already drunk. I finally look straight at him, which you’re not supposed to do if some dude is pestering you — it ruckuses up their hormones, I guess — and he can barely focus his eyes. His face is all red. He’s shitfaced.
“Is there anything you do need?”
“I need a nap. I’ve got to work my other job tonight still…”
“Oh, well, I’ve got 72 channels of cable at home, you can just zonk out there until…”
“I’ve got a boyfriend,” I say, and stalk out, furious. I mean, I’m all for the civilized, old-world glass of beer or wine at lunch. But this is the 21st century, and we’re working in a building where people who have the nerve to like marijuana instead of or in addition to booze are sentenced to lose years of their life in a fucking cage. And this guy is walking around blatantly shitfaced on his nice, legal, expensive wine? That’s taunting, you fuck. If you were in the NFL you’d get fined for that! It isn’t cricket. I mean, if you have one beer at lunch, OK. But so shitfaced you’re asking the goddamn temps to go get shitfaced with you!? It’s not like I don’t drink enough outside of court as it is! Go to hell.
Anyway, I might be steaming from the ears, but at least I’m rid of Toad Lawyer. Yet the fun is nowhere near over. We’ve still got N to contend with. Her case doesn’t come up till just before the lunch break, at 1 PM (whatever; I got paid to sit around for three hours and be pest meat).
Cripes, poor N. It’s hard to think about her. I keep feeling like I should have done something, even if I am forbidden to get involved with the clients. I just repeat what everyone says, like some demented legal parrot. “I was just squawking my job!”
Well, at least they didn’t kill her. Just took a couple years of her life. They did give her psychiatric care for free, I suppose, if by ‘lots of meds, just enough to quit hallucinating and sort of tolerate being in a prison filled with violent criminals whose language you do not speak’ you mean ‘psychiatric care.’
N was picked up for shoplifting from an overpriced department store in 2008. Doesn’t seem like the kind of crime you’d spend years of your life in jail for on a first offense, does it? Ha ha ha. Welcome to the great state of Illinois, kiddo. Sell a Senate seat — become a celebrity! But if you steal over $300 worth of clothes — and in the case of her little spree at Nordstrom’s, that only came to one blouse, a pair of pants, and a bathing suit — you can go to jail for two to five years. She should have gone to Filene’s.
I only started working on her case about six months ago. I don’t know who was doing her translation when she first got into the system, but they must have really had a hard time believing what they were hearing. Because they were hearing things like “I was born under the Vatican, the reason I seem to be speaking French is because They put a device in my throat; my native language is Latin. N isn’t my real name; that’s the name of the woman who killed me and my family.”
N didn’t come to the U.S. planning to shoplift, nor did she hope to have her first psychotic break. The back story didn’t come clear till her last psychiatric evaluation, which took place in the Cook County legal system’s psychiatric unit, which is on the tenth floor of the 26th and California branch of the circuit court building, which is connected to the jail. N has been bouncing between this unit, the jail below, and the Skokie for two years now. The psych unit has large windows which offer a sweeping view of idle factory chimneys and active storage facilities and dingy attic apartments. On the day of her last eval, the sky was grey and furry with snow; fortunately for me, the south side of Chicago does believe in snowplowed sidewalks.
The psychiatrist tried to make conversation with N, pointing at the window: “Boy, you’ve been in jail a while. I bet that looks just like the garden of Versailles to you now!”
Way to break the ice! She nods; it probably didn’t take her long to learn that she needs to accept their stupid jokes.
But he won’t stop, he’s got to say what they can never seem to stop themselves saying to her: “Boy, France sure is a beautiful country. I’ve been there a couple of times, it’s just beautiful.” Yeah, buddy, she really needs to be reminded of that. Not only is it beautiful, it’s her home and she’s in prison half a world away. You could hop on a plane and go to the baths of Constantine at Arles any time you like; she can’t even go out there and run around the dead factories. She understands enough English by now that I can get away with letting this remark go untranslated, but from the look on her face she understands exactly what he said and feels the whole awful well-meaning brunt. What a bedside manner! Once again, I find myself wondering who hands these ‘professionals’ their credentials.
Now he gets down to work. He really does mean well; as he explains to me later, she’s still a little wacky — at one point in the interview she claims to have known Mayor Daly for years — but he wants to declare her fit to stand trial so she can finally get tried and go home, since she has already served the two-year minimum between jail and the psych ward, and the Skokie felony judge wouldn’t be cruel enough to sentence her to anything more than the minimum.
That’s the scary thing I’m learning about the legal system: most of the people in it aren’t actually evil or cruel, except for some of the rinky-dink cops. They don’t need to be to do their damage. They’re just bumbling, or stupid, or drunk, or overworked — you wouldn’t believe how many repeat intoxicated-driver shitheads they have to process per diem; those guys sure seem to get out of jail and back to weaving in and out of lanes in good time — or hopelessly tangled in a nonstop loop of paperwork. (Not to mention the injustice of many of the laws they’re instructed to enforce: shoplifting from Nordstrom’s is hardly more of a victimful crime than pot smoking; it costs every investor what, one penny? — which they’ll surely make back with their overpriced made-in-sweatshops crapola.)
Every step of the process revolving around N has been shoved back and back and back for such reasons as a form which one day’s public defender forgot to pass along to the next, or the fact that the psych ward seems to have lost her psychiatric records a couple of times. N’s mom sent bond money to the state of Illinois so she could at least not have to be in jail in her condition; the state took the money but for some reason never did the paperwork to let her out. When she says something about that, the lawyers tend to mumble something that I can’t translate for her clearly, because I don’t fucking understand it myself, and I’m pretty sure the lawyer doesn’t either. Once I even got paid to sit in court for an extra hour because the cops had brought the wrong damn prisoner out to Skokie instead of N, and we had to wait for them to go back and get her. The woman they brought didn’t even speak French, and was rather insulted that people were speaking to her loud and slow. Awesome job, legal system! You meant to release the shoplifter, but you let Jeffrey Dahmer go instead! Woop, our bad!
Anyway, I digress; at the last fitness eval, N’s delusions were basically under control, and she was ready to tell us what set her off in the first place, as soon as the lawyer quit unintentionally taunting her. And surprise, surprise, it was quite ironic. One of the nice things I found about France when I was there was that the French aren’t quite as… steal-y as Americans are. I went into a night club — mind you, this was a crappy little college town, not Paris, so don’t try this in la Capitale, kids — and my friend told me I could throw my coat and wallet in a corner. I looked at her like she was out of her fuckin’ mind (imagine me saying this in a thick Chicago accent), but everybody else was throwing their coats and cell phones and god knows what, their family jewels, in a big pile in the corner. To be polite, I threw my coat on, but I kept my wallet in my pocket.
Because habit dies hard. I don’t care how many kilometers you’ve put in on a jet plane. The same held true for N. She came here as a tourist, and made the rounds of DC and NYC and Vegas (why Vegas is anyone’s guess, but hey), and finally came to Chicago, where to her delight her cheap hotel happened to include a swimming pool. She happily took off her clothes, in which were her wallet and money and ATM card; fortunately her passport had been left in her room — without that, who knows, she might have gotten waterboarded. She left them all unlocked in the vestibule; she’s not from the city, she probably didn’t even think twice. Nobody stole her stuff while she was swimming; they waited till she was in the shower afterward, so they could take her bathing suit too. The security guy at the hotel just shrugged when she told him what happened; he probably thought she was a moron, and deserved the mishap for being spoiled by an easy life where people don’t always walk away with everything you don’t nail down.
So there she is, alone in a foreign country, and all her money is gone, and her swimsuit is gone, and what, considering what stage of the trip this was, were probably her last clean clothes. I don’t know what she wore to flip out and go revenge-stealing — her pajamas? I’m aware that some parts of her story don’t make sense, and that she may have been lying, but I never heard the psychiatrist, who had access to her file, contradict any of it. Well, except the part when she started in on her personal friendship with Daley…
At any rate, at least she wasn’t talking about her imaginary friends any longer. At her last eval, she claimed that she stole the clothes because she had wealthy friends that no one else could see, and they were going to pay for her clothes, but they disappeared as she was approaching the cash register, so she got confused and headed for the door. At the end of the day, she got two years for wandering out of a department store in a delusional state, carrying a couple lousy yards of fabric.
So here we are: it’s finally her day in court, her real day in court, where she has to give up her right to a jury trial and mumble ‘guilty’ and finally go home. Some people from the French Embassy have FINALLY taken an interest in her; they’re sitting in court, a hideously ugly Belgian-looking woman in a powder-blue cardigan and a snickering fellow who can’t quit twitching. Good job, French Embassy; you’re about as efficient as the State of Illinois. Just before they call her case — as the cops are complaining because they already ordered their lunch and we were supposed to wait for the females till after the break — the lawyer calls me over to the temporary storage area where they keep the defendants in glass boxes while they wait for their moment before the judge. He wants to talk to N to make sure she knows what’s going on.
He explains to her that he’s made a deal with the state to reduce her charges to a misdemeanor, considering her state of mind at the time of the crime — they really didn’t mean to keep her so long, and they’re very sorry. He tells her that she can go home after the trial, that the embassy is there for her (now that she’s going to go free anyway), and makes sure she knows that she needs to see a shrink the minute she gets home to keep up her medication schedule. We all stand up to go into court. It’s her big moment.
And then: “Boy, I’ve been to France a couple times,” the lawyer says. “Lovely. Man, it’s beautiful. You’ve really got a lovely beautiful country to go home to.” She looks down. She’s lost two years of her life, her home, her family. I grip my file folder and squeeze my eyes, because I’ve got no right to cry; I’ve never been in prison, and it would just be unseemly and unprofessional. But someone is yelling… the yelling is getting louder… I open my eyes.
The glass box full of South American drunk drivers across the hall from us is ringing with the cries of males who haven’t seen females in however long. They’re making ‘phone me’ gestures with their thumbs and pinkies, yelling at me and N: “Take my business card, baby, I’ll give you a job!… Hey, hon, when you get out of the joint let’s get together!” Even the lawyer looks somber now. Sometimes I don’t like my species very much. And on this note, N goes into the stuffy, dingy courtroom to admit her guilt.