On Wednesday, I had my day in court. The day finally came that I was to account for my deviant behavior, speeding and neglecting to keep my car inspection current. I’d stressed about it for two weeks. Friends had warned me that I would pay over a thousand dollars between the two fines and the surcharges. I dreaded it, lost sleep over it and couldn’t eat.
“I’m a wreck,” I broke down and cried over the phone to my friend, Celia, the day before. “I don’t know if it’s the courtroom date or the rewriting of chapter ten.”
“What’s chapter ten?” Celia asks.
“It’s the one where Marika’s dying,” I say, trying to hold back the floodwaters churning and swelling in my brain. “But I know it’s not the book. This is my third rewrite; she’s died a hundred times over for me this past year and I’ve never reacted like this.”
“You’ve got a lot going on,” Celia sympathized.
On Wednesday, I got to the Ithaca City Court early, not daring to be late because of the nearby construction or parking problems. I’d brought a book and a snack, having heard it could take hours to be seen. After going through a security check like the one at JFK INTL Airport, I entered the courtroom almost an hour before my scheduled time and settled into a spot in the front right side of the expanse of wooden pew-like benches. I surveyed the scene to find a familiar face, to figure out where I fit in and if I was over or underdressed.
A man in a black suit stood before the judge and was told to pay four dollars to a local food store he’d had some entanglement with. A redheaded teenager squirmed in his seat, nudging his father who wore khaki shorts and rubbed his face every five minutes, looking nervously from side to side. There was a thin, pale woman who was six months pregnant, out of work and paying off hundreds of dollars on previous violations, including driving without a license, five dollars at a time each month. A young man in an orange jumpsuit with chains around his wrists and his waist, had papers removed and then tucked back into his chest pocket by the courtroom police officer who soon came over to me to collect my own papers.
The judge was the one I felt the most kinship with. She was about my age and she wore a neon pink shirt under her black robe. She looked interested, content and tolerant. She seemed like someone who would listen and understand about a fleeting loss of control, about being human and making mistakes. This was a woman, I thought, who’s probably seen everything.
The judge never even saw or heard me. I did not get to stand before her and plead my case. My day in court was sideswiped. The judge left the courtroom and the city attorney suddenly stood over me. He shook my papers at me, the papers which showed how I diligently got my inspection taken care of the day after Officer Barr stopped me for speeding and discovered, in the process, that my inspection was three months past due.
“I’ll make you a deal,” the attorney said.
“Uh, is that how it’s done?” I asked doubtfully, wondering why no one else had been offered “a deal” and why the judge had gone without seeing me.
“I’m going to dismiss the ticket for the inspection and charge you fifty dollars for the speeding. That’s the deal.”
“This is legal?” I asked, looking around for witnesses and still praying that I wouldn’t get charged the thousands of dollars my friends had promised I would.
“You can wait and present your case to the judge but she doesn’t make deals. I make the deals,” he said. It sounded like a great bargain. It felt like a bribe. It seemed they were as eager to get me out of there as I was to be gone. I actually had no evidence to show for the speeding ticket and hadn’t even figured out what to say to a judge about it. “And there’s an eighty dollar surcharge,” he added. But my mind was already made up.
As I left the courthouse, I passed by people in suits, in uniforms, in tee shirts and shorts, and in rags. There were people in wheelchairs, in chains, in tears, in defiance. Some were in dire straits. I passed by a hundred different stories. I was out a hundred thirty dollars but there was so much to be grateful for.