My day in court; or, Every dog has his day

From The Globe & Mail

I am one of this city’s great silent army of working poor, and so my name is Legion.

I am just one of the masses, evidently, poor and huddled, yearning to breath free; one of the anonymous faces that wash up in the courtrooms of Old City Hall each morning, charged with bylaw infractions and misdemeanours of all sorts and types, categorized in their hundreds in that thick catalogue of “Thou-Shalt-Not” ordinances known as the City Code. There we be, aligned along those benches, waiting for the portals of justice to open; which they do, shortly before nine a.m., and we all file in, as polished as movie extras. There are enough of us to form a jury, if need be; or a soccer team, for that matter. But no: we hapless strangers are the human fodder upon which our grand municipal machine of justice feeds.

Reader, know you the sign of the golden lion and the white unicorn? If so, you have my commiserations. For this unlikely pair of dignified beasts stand, each on one side, two-leggedly like people, astride the city’s heraldic coat of arms, the symbol that overhangs the bench of justice and thus as the highest object in Courtroom E, and probably the full abecediary and gamut of courtrooms that the city possesses.

It is a few minutes before nine. Courtroom E bears some distant likeness to a theatrical stage-set, with all the simple sturdy props in preparedness for the dramatic presentation which I have been mentally rehearsing for weeks. The walls are a pale, inoffensive lime-green. The judicial seat, presently unoccupied, is three-tiered, like a wedding-cake. The lowest level is for the prosecutors and whomever they order forward; the intermediate is for the court clerks, recorder, bailiff — one of whom says, as punctually as a cuckoo-clock at the stroke of nine: “Please turn off all pagers and cell-phones, and there will be no talking during proceedings.” The highest level, just below the lion and unicorn (which on a cake would be reserved for the ornament of bride and groom) is obviously meant for the judge — who, dressed finely in an imperial black robe, now makes his entrance. “All rise!” commanded the clerk, and a flourish of trumpets would not have seemed out of place.

Since I am the only one among this baker’s dozen of petty misdemeanours to have indicated a willingness to plead Guilty, I am the first one called. There are other qualities that set me apart from the crowd: for instance, I am the only one to wear a suit and tie, in sincere respect for the court and its power over me. Each of my fellow citizens is dressed casually; one lady, whose feet are clad in beach sandals, is sipping a soft-drink. “You can’t drink that in here,” the clerk tells her stonily, with a deserved glare.

A roster outlining our particular sins had been posted outside, but of course I could not match the person with the offense. Someone had let a dog run unleashed in a park, another had littered, another had jay-walked, another had failed to muzzle a dog when muzzling was required, and at least two persons had Failed to Keep their Garbage on Premises between Collections. The litany would serve as a sort of dramatis personae.

Reader, I hope it will not unduly prejudice you against me — pray! do not let it! — if I confide that my sin was precisely this latter. Picture me, now, a cipher in your imagination but a man and citizen of almost fifty, and prematurely white-haired, standing before this most powerful figurehead of authority — looking up at the thronelike eminence upon which justice resides — and unravelling my weeks of cogitation upon this accusation of putting my garbage out on the wrong night, which weighed upon my overactive mind like an accusation of something far more serious. While I had no recollection of the alleged act, I told the judge that I fully accepted the police evidence: it was the unenviable task of some poor constable to go rooting through a bag of garbage found outside my premises on a main street, and found at an hour not designated in my neighbourhood as one intended for garbage pick-up; and photographed an envelope bearing my name. (Good going, Sherlock!)

No doubt you are tempted to turn the page on such a triviality and the risible misadventure that followed; but bear on, reader, as you may learn something about this city of ours, which might once have had a heart.

* * *

It was a knock at the door — a pounding, really — on an otherwise tranquil Sunday evening, that alerted me to my painful transgression. . . . Two summons bearers delivered a yellow sheet upon me, upon which the violation was described, Apparently, some six weeks previous, I had put a bag out for garbage on a non-garbage night; and was therefore summoned to appear at a certain hour and day in such and such a Courtroom. I had heard no warning, no complaint; I had never knowingly violated Chapter 309, section 609-5B (4) of the city code; and because I was initially in the dark about the specifics of the alleged offense, the summons bearer seemed to take pity on me and scrawled a phone number on a scrap of paper and thrust it into my hand like a tip from the wise, or perhaps a bookie. “Call this number,” he said.

Who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth? So call I did. The number belonged to the Court of Justice, where I was eventually connected with a talkative (and apparently mildly disgruntled) official who offered to help me, provided I didn’t use his name. I was game. He informed me I had the privilege of a pretrial disclosure of evidence gathered against me. Again, it was “Call this number, ” but now with an additional “but don’t say I told you, okay?”

When I requested the disclosure information, Mr. G.U.’s first question was, “Who told you to call me?” I told him that I had been charged with putting my garbage out on the wrong night, and asked if it was the city’s practice to lay such charges without first issuing a warning. He said, “What’s your address?” and when I told him, I was amazed that he seemed fully conversant with the case! “When you ask for disclosure, you’ll find out why we did what we did,” he said. “It was what we found in the garbage.”

Now this, as you might imagine, created a great consternation in me! Strangers had been spying on my garbage habits, going through my refuse, and now I was being hauled into court because of what had been found at my curb. But what was it? Since Mr. G.U. seemed so familiar with my case, I asked him to tell, but he wouldn’t. “You’d better go through disclosure,” he said. He referred me to a paralegal.

Here are where the sleepless nights began. Was I, or at least my garbage, being kept under surveillance? I simply could not imagine what the police had found in my garbage that would induce them to laying a charge against me when otherwise they would have not. Recyclables? Noxious substances? With a groan I recalled the two empty paint cans under my kitchen sink: could it have been them? For two days I believed the mystery solved; then I spotted the cans still under the sink. I tossed and turned till I thought I would go out of my mind; then D-Day arrived and I rushed downtown to examine the city’s evidence against me. And then I learned what had so incensed the good people at City Hall — the envelope with my name on it had contained a circular from the Public Works department, outlining the schedule of recycling and garbage pickup for the next few months. For this unintended effrontery they felt compelled to teach me a lesson.

* * *

The judge was kind and patient, and allowed me to blather on uninterrupted for several minutes. I supposed that, overexcited as I was, I must have sounded a bit like Ricky Ricardo. I told him I must have mixed up my nights unintentionally, mistaking a Thursday for a Wednesday; that I had never done such a thing before, nor would again; that I was a good neighbour and a good citizen; that I had cleaned a mess of garbage from the street in the winter; but I did not mention that I have occasional bouts of memory loss and confusion, nor that I could ill afford any fine the court might impose — I couldn’t bring myself to say those things, not with all those attentive strangers straining like avid play-goers (or so I imagined) at my every word. Better to accept responsibility for one’s actions, and bear the consequences as best one can, without whimpering.

Finally my monologue was over, and I thanked the judge for listening; he assured me that he accepted beyond question that I was a good citizen; and I do confess that there was something inexplicably comforting in that reassurance, even though I understood he might momentarily sting me with a fine; deserved in my own mind or no. But now the prosecutor rose and, expressing gratification for my guilty plea, suggested the usual fine of $105 might be waived in favour of a lesser penalty of $50; the judge readily assented and offered me time to pay, either 30 or 60 days; and seemed surprised when I accepted the more extended period.

And with that my brief walk across the stage was over. I cannot say for certain, but it seemed to me as if the golden lion and the white unicorn were ever so subtly grinning as I exited Courtroom E — I hope, forever. A moment later, I was back on Queen Street, with pigeons squabbling and streetcars rattling and pedestrians crossing and blessed sunshine gleaming on the glass towers.

If all of humanity is a stream, I had been caught in that particular tributory of it that flows into our Municipal Courthouse, and swept briefly, like a piece of flotsam, into the eddy of Courtroom E; then, all pleaded out, washed back over the courthouse steps to mingle with the anonymous crowd once again. ♦

© 2001

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