Justice Court

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I arrived first.

I’d driven by this building at least one hundred times but had somehow never noticed it. It was tucked on a side road off the freeway entrance, behind a Ramada Inn. The freeway arced up and over, crossing the skyline above the court building with rushing cars and exhaust fumes. The air was biting. It was two days before Thanksgiving, but we hadn’t had our first snow yet, and I looked forward to the clean white powder falling on the city.

I considered waiting in the car, but I saw a line forming, and I didn’t want to be here any longer than I had to be. I got out and stood in the cold. It was 7:40 am, and the building didn’t open until 8.

My eyes scanned the crowd, the people I would be spending my morning with. I have a habit of giving people names in my brain, at least when I’m focused on them. There was a tall good-looking stoner looking guy, skinny and in baggy dress clothes; I called him Quinn. A haggard-looking white girl with a stained sweatshirt and ripped jeans sagged against a concrete pillar, awake far too early for her; I called her Tina. A large man with an ample stomach stood against the wall, wearing a baggy hoody over his curly grey hair; he kept nodding to everyone who walked up to the building, saying hello with enthusiasm in a Southern accent; I called him Beau. A gorgeous African woman with coal skin and waves of black and golden hair stood looking furious, her back turned to the man who was there with her; his skin was more like cocoa and he stood in a shirt and tie, his hands in his pockets as he looked at the ground; I called them Rose and Robert.

More people gathered and the doors finally opened. I held the door for a few folks, walked in, and somehow still ended up in the front of the line. The court windows opened, and a clerk took the citation number off of my traffic ticket, checked my name, and confirmed that I’d scheduled an appearance today. The ticket had been issued a month ago now. I signed a waiver stating that I was waiving an attorney and agreeing to represent myself, I handed the form to a pair of security guards, and I passed through a metal detector. I was immediately impressed by the multi-cultural representation in the staff here; the clerks, bailiff, guard, and court reporter were white, Hispanic, Polynesian, and Asian, both men and women, and of various ages.

As I waited for everyone to pass through security, I reviewed the facts of my case in my brain. On a Sunday evening, I’d received a ticket for ‘improper left turn’ from an aggressive officer, one who’d been belligerent and sarcastic. The ticket he’d given me had had incorrect information on it, including the wrong penalty and court information. I couldn’t argue that I’d committed the improper turn infraction, but I thought that perhaps the way in which the ticket had been given might nullify it somehow. I thought I could at least try it.

After a few minutes, with everyone in the room, we were instructed to watch a video made by a judge, a Hispanic woman, that explained our rights, including the option of pleading ‘no contest’, ‘not guilty’, or ‘guilty’ to each of the charges. We were instructed to ‘all rise’ and the judge entered in her black robes. Anna Anderson was her name (no relation). Her hair hung long on her shoulders, freshly washed and not yet dry. She carried a plastic cup with something juicy inside, took a sip from her long straw, and took a seat. The prosecutor occupied one table, a friendly man in his mid-20s, handsome, with a scruffy face and glasses. They both opened up their laptops and began to process through the cases.

I was called up first, and I pleaded ‘not guilty’. The judge invited me to speak with the prosecutor after everyone else had entered their pleas, and I agreed, so I took a seat again and prepared to wait an hour.

There were about 20 people in the room, of all shapes, races, ages, and sizes. Many I recognized from outside. Just across the row from me was a skinny Asian man, likely around 50, who was aggressively plucking nose-hairs with tweezers; he did it with such speed and efficiency that I was almost more impressed than I was grossed out. Beau sat next to him, coughing enthusiastically from time to time and apologizing to others in his Southern drawl each time he did. An old man with an oxygen tank walked in, muttering about the bail he’d posted for his ‘god-damn wife’ and about being in ‘fucking court at fucking 8 in the morning’.

My ‘improper left turn’ charge had been called up first. After that, I was shocked with how the cases escalated in severity. A woman with an endangerment to child charge from 2013 made an appearance, having been avoiding court for five years apparently. Other traffic violations, though many of them much more serious, such as major speeding infractions. Judge Anderson worked through the cases efficiently, with respect to each person, explaining things clearly, offering options for counsel, working out payment plans for various fines. Overall, I was pretty impressed.

Quinn got called up after a few minutes, his blonde hair slicked back against his scalp. I noticed his shoes were scuffed. The judge reviewed his charges, which included a DUI, and he pleaded not guilty, but then changed to guilty after realizing he didn’t qualify for court-appointed counsel. The judge explained that he made far too much money for that. He looked at the ground, clearly distressed, and stated that she could go ahead and sentence him because he wasn’t going to ‘pay no attorney’. The judge counseled him to think things through, asking him if he realized that if he pleaded guilty that he could go to jail immediately and for up to six months, right there from the courthouse. At her suggestion, he agreed to at least talk to the prosecutor before he made a decision, and resumed his seat in the back row of the courtroom. My heart went out to him. I had no idea what his life was like, but facing charges like that couldn’t be easy. Anyone could get a DUI in the wrong circumstances.

Rose was called up next. She had a thick accent, but her English was impeccable. The judge explained that she was facing charges of domestic violence in the presence of a minor, and Rose pleaded not guilty, then asked for a court-appointed attorney. Robert, Rose’s boyfriend?/husband? spoke up and stated that he was financially supporting Rose and her child since she had recently lost a job, and Rose shot him a look that let me know that he had been the victim of the violence. Rose muttered something about this being ‘such a joke’ under her breath, and the judge invited her to fill out the application for court-appointed counsel. Rose stormed past Robert on her way out to the lobby.

Tina couldn’t get out of there fast enough. She looked down, muttered lowly into the microphone as she spoke to the judge about multiple traffic infractions. She pleaded guilty, apologized for having missed court before, agreed to pay the fine in full, didn’t want to come back again, and rushed out after hearing that her license could be reinstated. The was a beat of silence, during which I could only hear the intakes of the oxygen machine and the clink of the Tweezers.

Beau went last. As he name was called (his real name wasn’t Beau), he strolled up to the microphone, speaking before he got there. “Well, your honor,” he said in his drawl, “let me just say thank you for all your hard work and service, and can I just say, ‘Go Utes!'” The judge wasn’t amused. She reviewed his assault charges and Beau pleaded not guilty, laughing as he spoke. He asked for a public defender, explaining, “I’m a veteran, and I’m mentally ill! I get disability. $900 per month, and $450 goes to my new truck and the rest goes to my rent and I use public help for the rest, so I’ll need your help. Go Utes!” He was given the proper forms to fill out and he thanked the judge with one final “Go Utes!” before walking away.

All twenty plus cases were processed by the time an hour was up. Then the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to discuss my case. He was shockingly charming, laughing about how I surely wanted to be spending my day somewhere else. He listened patiently as I expressed my concerns, then he listed my options, careful not to give me advice. I quickly realized fighting the charge wasn’t worth it, though I did have some valid concerns. I ended up pleading no contest, getting quickly processed by the judge, and then paying a $120 fine. I’d already filed a professional complaint against the aggressive officer. The rest would be fine as it was.

I left the building with an overwhelming feeling of ‘meh’. A traffic ticket was ultimately inconsequential. But, upon reflection, being there was kind of a cool feeling, sitting next to people from all walks of life, people whose paths I likely wouldn’t cross even though we lived in the same city. Sitting there, we were all equal. The intricacies of the court existed. Those who worked there interacted with each other daily, with a new crowd of people crossing their paths every day. Different judges, different prosecutors, same security guards, bailiffs, and clerks.

“Hey, Janet, hope your dog is feeling better. Guess we better unlock the doors, we got forty cases on the docket this morning.”

“Hey, Georgette, did you see we have four battery charges, three assaults, and two domestic violence cases today? Better not display your last name! You have terrible taste in men.”

“Hey, Charlie, remember when that drunk guy came in last week? I’ve been drinking more lately since my son went to college. I better not ever get a DUI!”

“Hey, Joe, wanna grab a drink after work? Oh, hang on, that crying lady is walking back through.”

Numbers on a docket. Each person had some interaction with the police that led them here. Each would plead innocent, no contest, or guilty. Each would pay a fine, or hire an attorney. Each could face consequences with their jobs and families, but each represented a series of charges and penalties with the court. Did they show up? Check. Did they plead? Check. Did they accept the consequences? Check. Next! Fill up your coffee and finish your doughnut, the next forty people are headed in.

Ninety minutes in the court. My ticket was paid, my charge was over. I couldn’t help but wonder what this meant for the rest.

Washington Square

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“Where are you headed on your mission?”

In the airport security line, the sister missionary turned around to face me, pulling a lock of blonde hair off her face and behind her ear. She was in a modest black skirt with grey top. Her tag read “Sister Jensen, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”

“I’m going to Montreal, and I’m so freaking excited!”

I laughed, her enthusiasm contagious. “I’m excited for you! Congratulations!”

“How about you, where are you going?”

I gave a soft, tight-lipped smile, and looked down. “I’m headed to Philadelphia, actually. I went on my own Mormon mission there nearly 20 years ago. I haven’t ever been back.”

She held up a hand for a high-five, and I gladly gave her one. “Well, heck yeah! Now you’re going back! Good for you! Gonna see all those people you converted?” She did an awkward little hillbilly-like dance, conveying her good humor.

“Ha, actually, it’s a different life now. I’m no longer Mormon, and this time I’m going back with my boyfriend.” I craned my neck, indicating the handsome fellow standing behind me in line.

Sister Jensen made a sober face. “Oh. Oh! Well, um, good luck!” She rushed off, having been called forward by the next available agent.

I was overcome by a strange sense of nostalgia. In January of 1998, I had entered this same airport in a white shirt and tie, with my own name tag reading “Elder Anderson, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” clipped to my shirt pocket. I wheeled behind me a suitcase full of clothes and toiletries, scriptures and supplies, things I would use for the next two years as I lived with strangers and attempted to convert those around me to what I believed, at the time, to be the true religion. At the time, with only two weeks training under my belt, I had just turned it all over to God, hoping he would make me successful and reward my efforts with great numbers of baptisms.

Just a few years ago, in this very blog, I took time to go through my mission experiences in several different entries. I recounted my efforts to cure my homosexuality through missionary service, my bizarre and tragic experiences with companions, my converts, and my life lessons. But here I was, prepared to actually physically go back to the city I had once lived in for nine months. Then, I was 19 (and looked 14), away from my family for the first time, full of naiveté and self-doubt. Now, I was 39, confident in my own skin and full of life experience, out of the closet and with a fantastic partner at my side. And I was beginning the trip in line behind a brand new sister missionary. The irony made me smile.

The plane ride was smooth. I got a middle seat in the 20th row, and was comfortably nestled in between my boyfriend and an elderly woman who kept hacking, complaining about not being able to smoke on the plane, and sipping on a Bloody Mary and a coffee the flight attendant had brought her. We landed in Philadelphia around 4 pm, gathered our things, and caught a car into the city without incident.

When I lived Philadelphia for those 9 months of my mission back in 1999, I stayed in Germantown, in a crime-ridden area filled with poverty, though the house I stayed in was blocked into the nicer city area where it was safe. This time, we’d be staying in an Airbnb in Washington Square, what they now referred to as the “Gayborhood”, a place with mostly safe streets, thriving businesses, and gay bars. It was sure to be a very different experience.

After checking in, the boyfriend and I went through a long walk in the area, and so much felt familiar, although the city was as different as I was. The skyline, the moisture in the air, the sheer diversity of the people around us, the long flat stretches, the century-old churches int he middle of large blocky brick buildings, the row homes, the garbage on the curbs waiting for pick-up, the people just stacked on top of each other. A million flashes of memory hit me. Trying to maneuver a couch up and down flights of narrow stairs while helping someone move, ringing every doorbell on a particular building while hoping someone would answer and invite us up to teach, tables full of counterfeit products on street corners ready to be sold, navigating busses to subways to trains in order to get anywhere. This city had been so overwhelming to me at the time, so monstrous and impossible. Now it felt both familiar and foreign, like a place I’ve been yet just like every other place, its own history and people here all along, moving forward without me.

In nearby Washington Square Park, I stood in the middle to survey my surroundings. Behind me stood a statue of George Washington behind an eternal flame, making the grave of an unknown soldier to honor those lost in the Revolutionary War. Arrayed around that were benches and tables, pathways, and trees filled with birds. And across the park, a sea of humanity. A beautiful white man with a gorgeous black woman, cuddled tightly on a bench together, clearly in love. A gay man in a pink tank talking loudly on his cell phone while walking several dogs. An older black man with a thick beard mumbling to himself as he looked into one garbage can, then the next, trying to find some treasure. An Asian man reading medical textbooks. A heavyset woman wrapped head to toe in a burka and hijab, the symbols of her religious devotion, the colors of the robes flashing black and red. A well-dressed elderly black woman with tight grey curls laughing loudly, showing half her teeth missing. A handsome man instructing a white couple on how to do burpees in the main pathway. A lithe black woman with a baby strapped to her chest watching the water spilling in the fountain.

A sea of humanity, and one that included me, a formerly Mormon missionary who once stood in this park doubting himself, yet who had now returned to see it with new eyes.

Ghosts of San Francisco Past: Castro

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The streets of the Castro are covered in Pride flags. The roads roll up and down steep hills and the cars navigate them despite the fact that there seems to be nowhere to park. As I walked along the sidewalks, peeking through the windows of trendy shops, coffee and pastry establishments, bars, and small restaurants, I looked down and noticed small concrete memorials to LGBT celebrities past: Sally Ride, Barbara Jordan, Virginia Woolf, Oskar Wilde, Tennessee Williams. I wondered how many stepped over their memories, their ghosts, without noticing.

There are gay people everywhere. Big beefy men walk the streets, holding hands and and keeping dogs on leashes. Older gay men open store fronts. A lovely black lesbian couple make conversation on the subway. Men sit across from each other at tables sipping coffee, looking up and noticing other men walking by with casual interest. Eyes constantly wander. There are smiles on every face. Asian, Latin, African American, white, men and women of every shape, size, color, and age, in tank tops, jeans, suits, and dresses. And everyone smiling, shopping, eating. The sun shines down on all equally in this moment, another that will soon be passed.

I watch the posters advertising local shows and events. Shirtless men holding beers advertising happy hour; four women in drag as the Golden Girls advertising a holiday special; a drag queen in a cradle advertising a show called ‘A Gay in the Manger’; beautiful men in togas advertising a Bacchanalia festival. I overhear conversations about holiday party plans, see Christmas trees and lights in third story windows, and see bags of wine and booze being rushed up flights of stairs while bags of garbage are being rushed down them.

I stop in the newly established LGBT history museum and look at the two small rooms of displays. I spend most of my time on a computer where a feature allows me to select a ‘random obituary’, and I push the button nearly five dozen times. I see newspaper clippings about funerals from 1989, 1992, 1994, 1997, 2001, 2006. Nearly every one I see is a man dead of AIDS. Some have no photos. Some use aliases. One is about an Olympian athlete, one a doctor, one a flight attendant, one a drag queen and performer, one a Viet Nam veteran, all dead from a senseless epidemic. Several of the obituaries close with pleas to donate to local AIDS research organizations to help find a cure. There are only two outliers: an elderly man who had AIDS yet died of cancer, and a black lesbian who was shot in the head in a random drive-by shooting while her partner held her.

I walk a mile in the other direction, up to Corona Heights, and I ascend several flights or old wooden stairs, climbing and climbing. I arrive at the top, then climb on top of a big rock, and I look over the city. The ocean melts into the land on one side, and the Earth curves in the distance. The homes there are beautiful, ornate, enormous. I turn to the left and see rows of homes with no space between them and no yards. An ocean breeze blows against my face, chapping my lips, and I think of the homeless woman in pigtails and childlike makeup who sat on a street corner with a pink blanket wrapped around her shoulders as she made kissing noises at passers-by, and the man who was dressed in a Spongebob Squarepants onesie, the one who held a cardboard sign that said he’d been recently diagnosed with AIDS; he’d written in black marker the web address for his own GoFundMe page.

I climb back down and walk the streets again. I can’t get the obituaries out of my head. I can’t help but wonder what it must have been like back then, to be part of building a community like this. Now, gay neighborhoods are commonplace and have spread through cities. They have gentrified. Now, gay clubs are filled with straight people. But then, to be a part of building a safe place where there were no other safe places. To see these men and women walking the streets, finding jobs and families, building homes and lives. And then to see it all threatened, compromised, and washed away by AIDS, by violent attacks, by oppressive laws. The rushing thoughts inspired me and saddened me at the same time.

I walked past no less than six shops specializing in sexy underwear, sex toys, lube, and vintage porn, then I came across the Human Rights Campaign’s office, and realized it is based in the original Castro Camera shop, the one where Harvey Milk lived and waged his campaign for election before his assassination. That felt right, felt just somehow. Many may not know the history, but they know the name Harvey Milk. He’s been canonized, he’s become an icon, and to see that structure still standing for equality gave me a sense of hope, of history.

I sit to reflect, with Turkish coffee and a pastry with a name I can’t pronounce, and I think of history, of all who have come before who are only remembered by the lives they touched. I think of the stories I have to tell, and how hard it is to make a living at that yet how it’s the only thing I seem to want to do lately. It overwhelms me sometimes, this need I seem to have to honor ghosts. Yet it fulfills me in ways I never thought possible.

Later, I purchase tickets to see the movie Misery in the Castro, a film decades old about an obsessed crazy woman. Kathy Bates is brilliant in it, fully convincing with her syringes, sledgehammers, and dirty birdies. The theater is nearly 100 years old, with textured walls, old movie posters, carved ornate fixtures, and high ceilings. A man plays a pipe organ where the previews should have been. I look across the crowd and see several dozen people here, in this old building, paying full price to see a movie from the past. The Castro has sing-along nights, silent films, black and whites, and still the people come to see it. They are entertained by the past, in an old space. The love the stories.

And that fact, their joy, that finally quiets the ghosts for a time.

 

 

 

 

Understanding New York City

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I’ve walked the edges of New York City, and right through the center.

I’ve left my footfalls on sidewalks, over high bridges, in underground tunnels.

Yet the city eludes me.

I gather puzzle pieces, individual experiences, and cram them together,

trying for the full picture.

The small Asian woman ordering passersby into her shop. “You come inside, now.”

The lithe black woman, unnoticed, singing songs of the city in a public park. “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.”

The wheelchair-bound man, blanket pulled over his head, snoring loudly, all of his possessions in a pack tied to his feet.

The perfectly sculpted 20-something walking six dogs, practicing his monologues aloud. “Our doubts are traitors and make us lose the good we of might win by fearing to attempt.”

The red-tied man, donut and coffee in hand, negotiating loudly over cell phone while he thunders down the steps. “Time is money. Buy, buy, buy.”

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This city, in all its scope and slope and texture.

Penthouses scraping skylines, rats scurrying over subway tracks, Broadway ballads, melted cheese, flashing neon, dirty rivers, Tower of Babel-levels of spoken confusion, shined shoes with mud in the treads.

 

This city, that must be lived in transitions:

waiting to be discovered… to demanding discovery

struggle and survival… to testing personal resolve

paying too much for too little… to being paid too little for too much

 

This city, where being stepped on is appreciated, where hustling is a way of life, where living the dream means doing long past the point of wanting to do.

 

This city, where symbols of freedom cast shadows on systems of injustice.

And both, and all, must be seen and expected.

 

And that’s New York.

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a bus ride through New York

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The old man pulled a stray sweater up around his knees and gave a little shudder of cold. He didn’t speak English, but some movements, gestures, and facial expressions go beyond language, and ‘I’m cold’ is an easy one to convey.

He was likely from India, Bangladesh, or perhaps Myanmar. He must have been over 80. His clothes hung on him and he had a classy cap on his head and a small pack in his hands. After I got on the bus at the Port Authority in New York City, he had made eye contact with me, getting consent as he took the seat on the Greyhound next to mine. And as the bus droned on, his head lolled back and forth in easy motions while he slept.

Two men sat in front of me, loudly bantering back and forth about the women in their lives. They had rich chocolate skin, and one had his hair pulled tight in rows while the other had dreadlocks that reached his knees in the back. They called each other the n word and talked about being unappreciated in their homes, working all day and not getting the love they needed at night. Though I listened for several minutes, I could never determine what their jobs were.

A Hispanic woman sat behind me, her hair dyed blonde, bright red lipstick on her face. She soothed a small child, around 9 months old I guessed, rocking him back and forth on her shoulder, clutching him protectively as she whispered things like ‘Mami loves you’ in his ear.

A white woman with red hair sat across the aisle, looking heartbroken. Her clothes were disheveled and she didn’t seem to have any bags with her. Once in a while she would look up and make eye contact with someone, but she would quickly look away, seeming frightened and sad.

The Greyhound bus driver had left his comm-device off its hook, and it created an obnoxious staticy feedback over the speakers, where there should have been radio. The static grew in intensity, sounding like an alien ship landing, then would go back to gentle white noise, and everyone kept waiting for the driver to notice it, but no one said anything. The bus was mostly silent except for that. From time to time, the driver would pick up the device and speak into it, and it sounded like a barely audible whisper, as he announced intersections or stops. “Is anyone asleep?” he said over and over. “Don’t want you to miss your stop.” But I had to crane my ears up to hear him over the static.

The bus drove through several neighborhoods in New York, through the Upper West Side, and Jamaica, and the Bronx. There were seas of people walking on either side, and endless buildings with businesses on the ground floor and apartments stacked up on top of them, 27 stories high on one building I counted. I pictured all of the people crammed into these small spaces, paying high rents for rooms, signing leases, acquiring ramshackle furniture, packing bikes and groceries up and down the flights of stairs, decorating small balconies and fire escapes with plants and chairs and storage items. I imagined what is must be like to raise a child here.

My eyes took in all the logos on the businesses. An apostolic church that advertised the 12 lost tribes of Isreal as all of the non-white races on Earth, a third floor barbershop where I saw black men laughing together as their hair was trimmed, students sitting on the sidewalk with papers and cups of coffee scattered around them in sidewalk spaces in front of coffee shops, flowers sold out of carts, a chandelier shop with a practicing psychic on the floor above it, on and on, endless, buildings stretching everywhere. Rainbow flags adorned many windows, especially on small bars, with the universal message that all were welcome within.

I watched the people, the beautiful people, rushing in every direction, people of every color and hue. Deep rich cocoa to milk chocolate to sepia, beige to deep earth to caramel, creamed honey to cinnamon to sand. So different from the streets of Utah, where any of these colors stands out in the sea of Caucasian on the streets. Here, regular white bread white was the hardest to spot. Men in traditional suits with red ties, women in flowing African robes, t-shirts and shorts, sundresses. Ball caps and hijabs and turbans and yarmulkes. Men jogging with dogs, women clutching hands with their children, grandmothers waiting for busses, everyone in a hurry.

I wondered what it would be like to live here, to claim parts of the city as my own, a coffee shop, a park bench, a gym. What it would be like to find friends, a routine, to explore these streets and these people in all of their vibrancies and cultural enmeshments. To always be in a hurry.

The bus kept driving, over the river and out of the city, on through Connecticut and into Massachusetts where I would be spending my week with my sister and her wife. But I would be back in New York to explore in just a few days.

I had only been to the city once before, years ago, on a trip with two college friends. I had walked through the city, haphazard, looking at various places with casual interest, not daring to let myself be seen too much or heard to much at the time, as that was how I approached life then. I traipsed through Ellis Island and the United Nations, along Times Square and Broadway, in Greenwich Village and across Fifth Avenue. Now, I long to see it again now, now that I’m authentic and real, and to compare it to the other cities I’m learning to love: San Francisco and Denver, Seattle and Los Angeles, Portland and New Orleans, San Diego and Miami. What a rich and beautiful world it is.

But for now, it is a noisy, cozy, cold bus full of strangers, each with a story as vast and diverse and fascinating as mine.