Midnight in the Court System of New York City

Another assignment for Writing & Reporting: Sit for a while in civil arraignment court and see what there is to be seen. What struck me most was the contrast between the court’s employees and the defendants who took the stand.

There’s no one in night court.

My bag runs through the scanner alone. I’m the only one in line for the metal detector. I walk through unscathed, and my steps clatter down the empty hallway to stop in front of double metal doors. The guard gives me a quizzical look. What is she doing here, it says. He shrugs me through.

When I enter the courtroom, no one sees. I tiptoe to a seat near the back on one of the hard wooden benches. They’re scratched beyond repair, and a smattering of graffiti is carved into mine. “SHARP ONE,” it reads. “CHEESE,” “heLp,” and “FTP. Fuck your courts!”

The room is an echo chamber filled with ugly fluorescent light. The wood panels along the walls are almost as scratched as the benches, and the floor has been worn away by eons of shuffling feet. A single metal chain divides the rows of wooden pews from the front of the courthouse, which is buzzing with activity. Police officers, stenographers and legal assistants sit at computers, lean back in chairs or lounge against the far wall. As for the spectators, I’m one of three.

Behind me is a man in a dark jacket. He’s slumped back in his seat, staring eyes glazed over with exhaustion. In front of me sits a small woman with a thick pouf of curls and a paisley scarf. When she moves, I get a strong whiff of shampoo.

We sit tense and expectant. Up front on the other side of the chain is relaxed—cozy, even. Everyone knows each other. They’re completely at east. This is their routine and the court is their cubicle. They’re in it for the long run; arraignment court runs until 1 a.m. every day.

Police officers amble by clutching sheaves of papers in manila folders. The lawyers are either very old or very young—two tall, wizened, white-haired men and a handful of fresh-faced men and women in their 20s and 30s. They wave and smile and joke. Occasionally one glances my way, mystified. I’m the outsider.

The defendants who approach the stand one by one are outsiders, too. They share none of the ease that permeates caseworker headquarters. Every one of them stands with their hands behind their backs, crossed at the wrists, as if already cuffed. They stand, straight-backed, hats off, shoulders up, feet wide. Defensive stance.

A thick green coat dangles from the nervous fingers of the first defendant. He faces assault charges. But he’s held a job for 15 years, his lawyer argues. He’s gone 25 years with nothing but a DWI on his record. The victim told the DA’s office she didn’t want to press charges, but it was too late. The defendant hangs his head in silence.

“Alright,” says the judge. He’s tired. The square fluorescent lights reflect a shiny patch onto his bald forehead. His dark eyes narrow, brows going up, stubble-coated jowls curving downward in a frown as he looks at the man who clutches the green coat.

“I’m filing an order of protection until this sorts itself out,” he says. “You can have no contact with her in any form. If she tries to contact you, you may not respond. If you don’t stay away from her, you are going to jail. Understood?”

He’s the no-nonsense sort. The defendant nods and is led away.

The judge stifles a yawn with his hand, turns and cracks a joke to the female officer closest to him. She’s the one who reads the cases as defendants take the stand. The air around them relaxes as she smiles. They’ll be here all night—they need some way to keep up morale.

Then the next woman is lead in, and it’s back to business. She’s straight-backed, wide-eyed and silent. Pink socks peep out between grey sweatpants and slip-on shoes. The people’s lawyer reads out her case in emotionless monotone:

“A neighbor was quoted as saying, ‘Keep the kids away from her. She’s trying to hurt them. She’s a crack head.’” The woman bows her head, and the restraining order against her goes into effect.

The man behind me leans forward, almost touching my elbow, suddenly petrified by what’s happening on the stand. His breath is in my ear as he edges closer, closer… then the woman in pink socks comes for him and they leave.

More jokes: The judge stands up to stretch. He’s telling a story to the people’s lawyer, waving his right hand for emphasis. His voice echoes off the empty chamber walls, but the other man nods vigorously and smiles. The officer who reads out cases catches a word here and there. She turns to join in, and she and the judge razz each other for a minute or two until the next defendant takes the stand.

Ronald Gibson is a tall, gangly man with a disproportionately thick mustache dressed in ill-fitting green cargo pants and a navy jacket. He takes the stand and the stance: hands clasped behind the back, one holding the opposite wrist. At 10 a.m. he had a scuffle with his significant other. He says he said something to incite her and she went crazy, hitting him and breaking his computer. “She called the cops out of spite,” the people’s lawyer quotes, looking bored. “I want to see our daughter.”

Gibson, like the rest, looks down. The judge is firm. “Listen up, Mr. Gibson.” He reads again the regulations of a restraining order. “Do you understand?” Gibson nods, and is led away. His eyes, when they fall on me, look defeated.

It’s getting late. The court stenographer rests her chin on her palm. Her head lolls to one side as she waits for the next defendant. Near the stand, a young blonde lawyer paces back and forth leafing through papers. His blue basset hound eyes scan back and forth, and a fresh, pink neck shoots out of his crisp white collar like new grass. He’s tired. He takes a swig of soda, trying to keep his energy up. He might as well be standing in his own kitchen.

A new defendant takes the stand. He’s tall with a purple Mohawk, black jacket and red sneakers. He has an astute, pointed face, but his shoulders are tense with nervous stress. He’s been charged with stealing from his employer to pay for community college. He’s only 20.

The police officer who showed me in enters the courtroom. He walks past me down the aisle, humming something from The Nutcracker Suite. He’s waiting for his shift to end. He doesn’t have a care in the world.

Midnight in the Court System of New York City

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