Night Court
“From the outside, this room must glow.”


Jan|Feb 09 Contents
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By Sarah Birnbaum | At night, it’s easy to find a parking space downtown. Outside the courthouse I pull my neck back to get a wider view. But the guard is eyeing me through the glass doors, so I quickly head inside. While he runs my jacket through a metal detector, I try to make conversation. Nice night, huh? He looks me over wordlessly, like he doesn’t understand the question. Standing inside the lit lobby, I feel like I’m alone at night in an ATM—locked between the bank and the street, glass on one side and gates on the other. I can tell that this night is going to be better than last for gathering material.

I spent last night at Starbucks with my notebook, waiting for things to happen around me. A woman set her coffee cup down on a table nearby, both of her hands busy with her coat buttons. One of the table legs was not propping its weight. Wobbly table as metaphor? I wrote. Her coffee cup started to creep towards the floor, gaining speed as it slid. She tugs at herself, neglecting her things, I wrote. Table tilts antagonistically. I watched the cup hit the ground, coffee pouring out, two red straws floating uselessly on the puddle. Climax! I wrote, for lack of anything better, briefly considering a second exclamation point.  

So tonight I went out searching. It’s 11 o’clock and I am at night court in Manhattan. I am here with my notebook zipped into my jacket and high expectations for wild stories, tall tales deserving of hyperbole and overworked punctuation. I have a bullet list of tragic symbols that I’ve been waiting to use. The guard gestures at a set of tall wooden doors at the end of the hall.

When I enter the courtroom, no one turns around in his seat. No one examines me with puzzled acknowledgment. The man in the last row is staring, but by the time I sit down he is bored with me, his glassy focus already turned back to the door.

The court is in recess. A police officer leans back in the witness chair, both boots propped up on the stand. One of the attorneys is playing Tetris on his cellphone. There are six or seven other people waiting to watch the arraignments—women mostly—and at least two are asleep. One has slung a pale, fat arm over the back of her bench, tucking her head into her elbow. I dig into my jacket for my notebook, unwrapping a piece of gum and admiring her ability to sleep under these lights. The fluorescent glare is so bright that the skin on the back of my hands looks transparent. If I were writing a novel, I would start with these lights. I turn to a new page and write: From the outside, this room must glow.

The courtroom is small, but the ceiling is high. The walls are paneled with a dark wood veneer that matches the benches and the attorneys’ tables, and the floors are faux-marble. I am disappointed with the courthouse décor: it looks like the whole room was ordered from a catalog. It looks like it was rolled on with contact paper. Someone has carved his initials into the bench in front of me, and I begin to work on my own mark of boredom, picking at the finish on one of the floor tiles. I take a moment to make sure that no one is looking at me. It’s odd to be sharing space with strangers like this, like we are standing on opposite sides of a stuck elevator.

An officer goes into the back room. It’s easy to tell what role everyone plays here: the cops wear navy blue uniforms, and the attorneys wear wrinkled suits. Even the court reporter—tapping short steps in orange heels, wearing pink lipstick and horn-rimmed glasses—looks like she is in costume. They are all talking and laughing. Through the open back door I can see holding cells behind thick yellow bars. I free-associate with yellow: daisies, Emerald City, megaphones. The Suits talk to the Suits, trading manila files back and forth like cards. It’s after midnight, and it seems like something should happen soon. We are all waiting for the judge.

I get the first glimpse of a defendant when an officer pushes open the big doors, escorting two handcuffed men towards the front. I have never seen anyone walk in handcuffs before, and the effect on their posture is striking. But both men look so devastated that it makes the court administrators—who are still enjoying their recess, laughing and eating and flirting with the stenographer—seem cruel. The first handcuffed man, who is about my age, wears tight jeans and a scruffy beard. He’s attractive, someone I would talk to if we were meeting in a darker room. As he is led to a holding cell, I try to imagine the circumstances of his arrest, assigning him all the innocent misunderstandings I can come up with.

A man with wild hair is escorted out of the holding area. Without handcuffs, he stands slanted. He is tall but he is holding his upper body all wrong, like he has forgotten how the two halves of himself go together. His dreadlocks look like worms growing straight out of his scalp. It’s hard to tell if they are gray with age or dirt. He is led to the glass box, practically falling into the chair inside. Here he is meant to talk to his attorney through a mouth-sized hole in a glass divider. One of the younger attorneys enters the other side of the glass box, which immediately becomes a confessional, a display case, and a cage. Soon the defendant is slanting against the divider, his palm pressed hard against the glass. His eyes are closed and his lips are moving slowly, nearing the circular hole, and some of the wormy gray dreadlocks push through to the other side. If I was an attorney I would not be so brave as this one, who is still mouthing questions with visible concern—slanting towards the man with wild hair, instead of away.

The judge finally enters, wearing a black robe that falls to his ankles and carrying a takeout bag from Burger King. He slings the bag behind the bench as he assumes his seat center-stage. The cops and the lawyers saunter back to their places and I pick up my pen, guessing that things are about to begin.

I perk up when the judge bangs his gavel. The defendant before him looks too young to be here. He is tall but he walks like his height is still new, slouching over—the way you walk in high school if you are trying to be invisible. His straight dark hair is tied neatly between his shoulder blades in a ponytail. His green and white tie-dyed T-shirt has some kind of fantasy animal screen-printed on the front. I hate myself for the jokes that come to mind: Fashion police, I write, then cross it out. The hearing moves quickly, with neither the boy nor the judge saying much. Something about graffiti. The lawyer points out the boy’s mother, who is sitting across the room from me, looking terrified. I am relieved for her when bail is set low and this cast of characters disappears, the judge sneaking a fry from the takeout bag as the police officers lead the kid out the front.

There are a few DUIs in a row. Some other traffic offenses. One man has been arrested for trespassing. By now it is almost one in the morning. Everything is scheduled to stop when the hour strikes. I wonder about the fate of the man with the wild hair, and the one with the beard. I try for another look at the yellow bars.

The next time the back door opens, it is a woman’s turn. I recognize her state-appointed lawyer from earlier: he had been reading the sports section of the Post, reclining in an office chair. Now he stands erect at her side, watching skeptically as an officer unlocks her handcuffs. As soon as they come off, her gangly hands turn into fists; long acrylic nails digging into her palms. I wait for her to swing, to throw herself over the barricade and jab at the judge. No. Throughout the entire hearing, she nods along placidly. “Domestic violence,” the judge says, and she nods. That was a prior conviction. “Assault and battery,” the judge says—this is tonight’s charge—and she nods again. Like the hearing before, things seem to be proceeding comfortably. But neither the judge nor her lawyer can see what her hands are doing behind the stand. Since the cuffs came off, she has been clenching and opening her fists, rhythmically, like a pulse. Holding the fight in.

On his way back from the stand, her attorney sets her file on the edge of the table. I think I am the only one who notices that it is unsteady, that the papers are about to drop. Now the file slides easily, undetected, off the table. But the man sitting behind me—the one who stared when I walked in—suddenly leans in close to my ear. “There’s someone’s life in that file,” he says. His voice is thick. He smells like cigarettes and grease. His chin is inches from my shoulder and the thought of his closeness makes me shake; I can hardly hang on to my composure long enough to watch the careless attorney shove papers back into the manila folder, returning the file to a safer place on the table. Wobbly table as metaphor? I think, trying to keep my pace to a reasonable speed on my way out.

Outside again, it takes my eyes a minute to adjust to the dark. My chewing gum is now warm and tastes like sawdust. I wrap it in a scrap of notebook paper, aim for a trash can, and throw. I miss by several feet but I can’t stop walking, twice glancing behind me to make sure that no one saw.

Sarah Birnbaum is a senior from Bedford, New York, studying English and psychology.


First Person

Notes From the Undergrad “There’s someone’s life in that file”
Alumni Voices His last crazy adventure (not)
Elsewhere Border crossings and crossings-out
Expert Opinion Palin’s sisters



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Last modified 12/29/08