Entry Level Justice

It’s not often that my life intersects with the nation’s court and justice system.  Recently, it did, affording me a first-hand glimpse of how fragile the system is at street level, like an aging car held together with duct tape.

The occasion was a subpoena commanding me to appear as a witness for the prosecution in a traffic case involving a man who had sideswiped my car (smashing the review mirror) and then fled the scene.  He had been easy for the police to track down because his front bumper license plate had fallen off and was lying in the street.

Such offenses are dealt with at a kind of entry level municipal court.  Just before 9:00 a.m., the courtroom opened and I, along with about two dozen assorted others crowded into a cramped seating area at the back of the room, with a waist level wall separating us from the main court area.  All of us, total strangers to one another, sat mute (reminded several times to turn off all cellphones and no drinking or eating). We watched as court officials, busy attorneys, uniformed cops and the court bailiff chatted casually, sipped coffee or water, and used their cellphones, while waiting for the judge to appear (she was late, I heard someone confide). Here’s what I saw:

Everyone involved in running the court was white, while almost everyone sitting with me in the back was black. This imbalance persisted through the entire hour I was there, altering only occasionally when a black police officer would come in to check papers or talk quietly with one of the prosecutors. All of the court officials (including the judge) were women; most of the lawyers were men.  These are not polished shoe, brilliantly suave and arrogantly deferential attorneys from TV and the movies, instead men and women in cheap, ill-fitting suits, rumpled and harried, with bulging briefcases and perspiration on their foreheads.

in such a court there is the sea of paper passing to and fro, in and out of manila folders, spread on desks, stacked in loose piles.  Paper, paper paper. One person sat in front of a computer screen, rapidly making entries, but everyone else seemed caught in a 1980s freeze frame before computers became ubiquitous.  I had to wonder why the court system was so behind the rest of the world.  Money, I suppose. Or tradition. Or ennui.

When the judge entered, everyone was commanded to stand, and did, but as soon as she took her seat behind her elevated desk, numerous conversations broke out all through the court.  Attorneys approached the bench; prosecutors delivered papers, staff and cops huddled, sharing a joke, and a slow steady hum of bustle began.  Where I was, behind the low wall, complete silence, as if we were afraid to move.

The man facing the traffic charges in my case was late.  An assistant prosecutor took my court summons and whispered that if he didn’t appear soon, I could leave; she’d let me know.  Thirty minutes passed with other cases handled. A young man who hadn’t paid a 2004 traffic fine (“Your honor, I just forgot).  $100 fine and court costs.  A woman and her attorney asking for a continuance on some unspecified charge (granted). These and similar cases settled with the pleasant, impersonal demeanor of an airline gate agent.

It was suddenly my turn, or so I thought, my pulse quickening.  The defendant — the man who hit my car and fled — rushed in to the court and stood in front of the judge, begging forgiveness for being late.  Couldn’t get a ride downtown, he said.  One of the charges, which one I didn’t know, was dismissed.  On the other, the man pleaded no contest. Fine: $70 and court costs.  Can you pay that today, the judge asked? No, but maybe by next week. OK, go talk to the clerk. The woman prosecutor came back to where I was sitting, gave me back my subpoena, and said I could leave and, if I wanted, I could go upstairs and be paid $6 for my time.  She laughed. I left.

There is a sort of rough or approximate justice in this entry level court.  The cases that surface here are mostly minor in nature, the floatsam of the life all of us lead against a backdrop of laws and regulations that exist like the stars until something happens — an accident, a failure to follow some arcane, obscure statute we didn’t know we had violated. Cases are routinely handled, like throwing paper into a fireplace, but the paper doesn’t go into the fireplace but rather into the maw of a court record system that in my mind must be burgeoning in underground storage areas, irretrievable.

Why, I asked myself, cannot this part of the justice system be computerized, and cases handled in outlying offices.  Why does everyone have to travel downtown to a 1920-era courthouse so heavily visited that the marble steps are sagging from wear?

Why can’t minor offenses be handled administratively?  Why do we have to have county and city prosecutors and civil and criminal lawyers passing paper records back back and forth, snickering in private conversations, waiting, watching the clock, checking email, waiting for justice to wend its halting way into the courtroom and ultimately on to the shoulders of people — witnesses and defendants and friends — seated nervously in the back or pacing in the halls outside.

I had, I thought as I left, brushed up against a rickety girder holding up this particular municipal court and thousands just like it in cities and towns across America. It’s a “justice” system that sort of works, but really just exists in a stale, ponderous world you don’t ever really want to visit unless you have to.

Drifting Around

There seems to be people drifting around these days.  Not exactly lost, but rather coming into and out of places you’d not normally expect to see them. I’ve noticed recently more and more men and women walking along the side of roads where you’d least expect to see people walking at any time. And if you’ve been grocery shopping, chances are you’ve seen lots more Dads pushing shopping carts and looking lost and befuddled.

Those people walking on the shoulders of Interstate highways trouble me.  For one thing, I can’t figure out what they’re doing there.  They’re not thumbing for a ride, and I don’t seem them lugging a gas can; they’re just walking along with only a sliver of inches separating them from hurtling, speeding metal. I have yet to see any of these people with luggage.

For another, I am perplexed in trying to figure out who these pedestrians are. What’s their story? Where did they come from? Where are the headed? Might they be day laborers, or homeless waifs, or perhaps former accountants or project managers out of work for so long they can’t afford cars? Hard to say without stopping to ask, and I’m not prepared to do that.

I’m searching for an explanation.  Perhaps these wandering strangers are impoverished travelers whose car broke down. Recent studies have concluded that many people in cities can’t find work because they have no way to get to where the jobs are located. Could this be what’s going on — that they are walking to work? To me, they look like refugees, but that can’t be right. There’s no war and nothing to flee from.  Besides, they’re not pushing carts or carrying heavy suitcases.

I’m beginning to think that the people walking along busy roads, and the guys in the cereal aisle might well be the face of the unemployed — that 7% or so of the public that is out or work img_7196sand struggling to make ends meet. Perhaps what I’m seeing is a burgeoning strata of people who’ve been economically displaced, and for which there are no jobs, and won’t be jobs, or jobs that you have to pick up stakes and walk to, like leaving the Dust Bowl.  Businesses — where most jobs are — boosted productivity even in the midst of a severe economic downturn.  But that has impacted people differently. In some families, the traditional “bread winner” — the father, most often — has lost his job, and his spouse is carrying the work load. These are who you see shopping for food. They could also be caught in the ominous new economic reality that many jobs for middle class professionals have been eliminated, leaving them outside of the economic “engine” — perhaps for good.

Does macroeconomics explain why there are more people walking along roads these days? I can’t answer that. I do know several colleagues and acquaintances who’ve lost their jobs and are struggling. I also know that poverty is increasing, even as the economy is gradually improving and people are buying cars in record numbers.

Which is interesting for the juxtaposition booming car sales presents to each of us as citizens. The other day, I came upon two children walking hurriedly along a highly traveled commuter route. ages 10 or 12, I guessed. They had their heads down, as if it were raining (it wasn’t). They were holding hands. I glanced at them, wondering how they happened to be where they were, and then I put my eyes back on the road and my thoughts of them drifted away in the bustling traffic.

My Ties and What To Do with Them

Like many men, I have a closet full of ties.  Not as many as I once did.  Several years ago, I conducted a brutal culling, donating about 50 to 60 ties to Goodwill, along with some old suits, pants and other items of clothing that went out of style in the 1980s, and no longer fit.

But for some reason, I held on to a core selection of ties, including one seasonal tie for Christmas parties (center in photo below), a couple of ties in Carolina blue (my alma mater), and some yellow and red “power” ties that supposedly made me look, well, more powerful in business meetings with other suits.  They didn’t, far as I could tell.

My Ties

My Ties

Nowadays, no one, except perhaps people in the banking field and a few attorneys, wears ties.  Ties are out.  Those that are “in” — the ones worn by Hollywood types and heart throbs — are very narrow (like thin spaghetti) and are typically worn with suit-sort of outfits that look like they’re made out of paper and probably cost several thousand dollars.  For the rest of us mere mortals, we’ve been unleashed from the tie tether; I can’t recall the last business meeting I had where the person I was meeting wore a tie.  Suit or sportcoat, yes.  But open collar shirts with no tie in sight is now de rigueur. Even weddings and, dare I say it, funerals, are no longer tie-required.

This state of affairs, which for some reason hasn’t generated news media headlines, can be traced to around 1988 or 1990, and the advent of a silent but irrestible movement that began in offices across the land.  Men who had worn coats and ties to work since the founding of our nation beseeched management to relax this vestige of long out-dated menswear.  Management listened, at first hesitantly (no ties on Fridays only) but of course once the cat was let out of the bag, there was no turning back.  Tie makers have been crying in their empty plants ever since.

You wouldn’t know that, however, by department store men’s departments.  Ties are on sale all over the place, and they seem to have grown more garish and outlandish (pistachio-hued tie, anyone)? They don’t seem to sell, but instead lie there like long strands of undersea coral, waiting to lure some unsuspecting rube who has managed not to get the memo about no ties anymore.

So, what to do with the ties I have left?  It doesn’t strike me as much of a gesture of empathy to give them to Goodwill. Folks in need of clothing and shelter typically don’t have a power tie on their list of essentials.  Sure, there’s a tax deduction for the donation, but a bag of ties these days is worth what, do you suppose? I’m guessing their value has gone down, like gold and Victorian rocking chairs.

The plan I’ve come up with is to hold onto them in the expectation that someday, I’ll get a call for a business meeting, with the added instruction: “wear a tie.”  Meantime, storing ties is a problem.  They slide off hangars onto the floor of their own volition.  Battery-powered tie racks have never worked in my experience, and besides, you need a truck battery to power enough juice to move the ties along the carousel. And, no surprise, when you turn on the carousel to select that just right for the occasion tie, all the other ties fall off onto the floor.

I’m going to roll them up (I watched a video on this) and store them in one of my suitcases.  That way, I’ll be ready to roll next time I’m headed out on a business trip.  That is, if I am invited to head out on a business trip, which in the days of Skype and Webinars, I probably isn’t going to happen all that much.  I can just as easily sit at home in front of my PC, without a tie.

Of Course I Remember You

I am beginning to notice, more and more, that there are large and growing voids in my memory bank.  Whether this is the result of advancing age, the fact is I struggle at certain points in every day (or so it seems) with remembering people whose lives have intersected with mine.

This situation was driven home recently by one of the websites I often visit.  I think it was Linked In, but it doesn’t matter; I received a note of inquiry from a someone whose name seemed vaguely familiar but was one I couldn’t place.  Checking it out further, the person was someone I had worked with at least a decade ago.  Perhaps realizing that too much time had passed from those days, the person provided a couple of hints to, I suppose, help jog my memory.  No use.  I couldn’t recall the person.

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My digital me

Does this ever happen to you?  Probably.  From what I have read on the subject, most people’s memories are faulty in one way or another.  Some can’t remember directions.  Others (lots of people, I’ll bet) are pretty good with faces even when they can’t recall names.  Memory lapses are undoubtedly associated with aging and the inevitable slowing down of mental acuity.  That’s me, I fear.

Nowadays, we can construct our persona and share it online with the world, a process billions of people willingly have done. Existing in a parallel realm with our real selves is our digital presence. This blog is a personal reminiscence; whether it is relevant to anyone else is an open question.  I guess I’ll be able to tell if I get any comments. I can’t help feeling that if no one is reading or commenting upon this post (or clicking on my LinkedIn profile), then perhaps I am worse off than being merely lost; it’s as if I weren’t being looked for.

There’s also the interesting phenomenon of selective memory, brought about by any number of psychological inducements, including horror, embarrassment, mental or physical anguish, and a host of others.  We flee, it’s fair to say, from unpleasantness and heartache. This is probably a good thing, if it provides us with a bit of surcease from the truly ghastly moments in our past.  How else can families move on following the death of a child?

The other aspect of selective forgetfulness — in which we create versions of our past (whatever those might be) — has implications that go well beyond the personal to the broader, societal, landscape of our existence. That is to say, we summon memories that suit our needs, discarding those parts of our lives that don’t fit our self-narrative.  It appears that we also rely upon widely or commonly accepted myths and reconstructions that, taken as a whole, define our societal existence. An entire library of historical accounts about the Civil War, for example, attempt to re-interpret the causes of that conflict as a noble argument among neighbors.  Hardly that, with 700,000 casualties put in graves over the issue of slavery. What we believe (and not necessarily know) about the past can shape our current outlook.

On a personal level, I’ve long felt that I am able to function capably in a crisis.  That’s not always been the case; I remember me sitting in a hotel room in London trying desparately to write a story on deadline for the newspaper that employed me.  I literally could not write the piece, and the frustration reduced me nearly to tears.  On the other hand, I kept my wits about me and did an admirable job handling any number of sticky situations during a long career as a corporate public relations executive. Which one is truly me?  Perhaps both are valid. My moment of panic in the Savoy Hotel  burned a hole in my brain that I will never forget.

What I do know is that as I grow older, and I am forgetful more often, I also am sensing a heightened objectivity about myself.  Call it wisdom, or maybe perspective. Age is freeing up my memory, ridding it of clutter, and enabling me to visit the past with younger, keener eyes.  The consequence of this is actually exhilarating.  I may not be able to remember the names and faces of people I’ve met along the way, but I seem to be recalling myself more clearly than ever before.

Doing Battle With Nature

Spring began today at around 1:30 p.m., and I am happy to report I already have a jump on it.  Of course, I’m kidding myself.

Last evening, taking advantage of daylight savings (another harbinger of the change in seasons), I laid out on my lawn the first application of fertilizer and weed control. And there are more chemical concoctions stored in my garage, including insect killer, Grub-ex, which purports to kill Japanese Beetle larvae before the grow into the much to be avoided white grubs that destroy entre lawns and villages.  That application comes later, when the weather turns summer warm.

By then, I (or my unwilling son) will have mowed the grass about two dozen times just to keep up with the rapid growth triggered in large part by the fertilizer I just put on the lawn.  It’s hard to say how much of this cycle of lawn care is nature at work and how much is the end result of the various chemicals in the fertilizer.  What I can say is that I have a responsibility to my neighbors to create a perfectly manicured, deeply green lawn and to maintain it that way until the first flakes of snow appear in the fall.  There’s nothing written anywhere mandating my compliance; but it is an immutable, unchallengeable fact of suburban life.

None of this can be good for the environment, broadly speaking.  The stuff I put on my lawn, for example, is banned in the state of New York, which says something.  I’m supposed to keep my Golden well away from the lawn until rain soaks the fertilizer into the earth.  Try keeping your dog off grass.  There are also strict instructions, right on the bag, warning you not to get any pellets on your shrubs, near trees, and on small children.

Flowers in My Yard

All of which makes me question, at least philosophically, whether battling with nature like this is really a good thing. In fact, every Spring I am beset with misgivings about using fertilizer to make my lawn grow faster and greener.  Besides which, the weed control element doesn’t work; I always get weeds.  If I blacktopped my yard, I’d get weeds. They’re definitely a part of nature no one has ever been able to control.

I’m going to attempt to relax about this and try to enjoy and embrace the advent of Spring.  I plan to do the bare minimum of lawn applications and hope for the best (which essentially means hoping that my front yard doesn’t end up looking like an arroyo in Arizona. About embracing Spring: here’s my plan.  As I walk behind my mower, or rake out shrub beds, or scoop up dog droppings, I plan to enunciate and repeat out loud, in the style of Professor Henry Higgins, the wondrous names of flowers, which I happen to believe are the eyes of nature.

Follow along, and add your own . . .

Jonquil.  Rhododendron. Hyacinth, Hibiscus and Hydrangea. Pansies. Crape Myrtle and Purple Coneflower. Lavender, Lilly and Liriope.  Aster and Anemone. Blue Dimple Hosta and sweet gentle buttercup . . .

A Voice for Reticence

Like many of you, I’ve attended my share of diversity or social interaction training sessions, and I always come away from them feeling embarrassed. I blame my mom for that.

My mother passed away three years ago at age 89, and while she had an enormous impact on my life, she was a modest, unprepossessing person whose political and social views were nearly always expressed — if at all — with the disclaimer: “I just don’t know.” As a child of the Great Depression and from modest means, Mom greatly admired FDR and Democrats generally, and she was never comfortable around wealth or opulence. She hated war and could have been a pacifist or an anti-war marcher (a scene I can’t even imagine). For reasons I never fathomed, she loved baseball. She held biases and prejudices, but never overtly, and like many people of her time, Mom felt that if you didn’t have something good to say about someone, it was better to say nothing.

I was thinking about my mom’s reticence last week as I sat through a mandatory meeting with 40 or so of my work colleagues. The people moderating the meeting and directing the conversation wanted — somewhat desperately, I thought — to get everyone talking and sharing their innermost thoughts and feelings about sensitive issues like racism, gender identity and empathy for people not like yourself. They went about this using several tactics. First, we were divided into sub-groups of three and invited to interview one another silently; that is, we had to answer questions about the other person (such as the kind of vehicle they’d like to drive, of what religion were they raised in) by sheer guessing. Following that was an exercise that involved choosing a life we’d least like to experience, and then one we’d most like to have among several not very attractive alternatives. I joined a large group who apparently felt it would be very bad to be an illegal immigrant in America, unable to speak English, and without a job. On the plus side, I joined a slightly smaller contingent who felt that to be a genius-level physicist, but also a quadriplegic, and out of work, wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. And so on. The last exercise involved responding to a page of questions such as at what age did we discover that there are two genders, or when did we realize we were rich, or poor, or middle class?

meeting roomApparently, these are tried and true techniques that, when properly conducted, enable people in group circumstances (like the office) to find out if they are insensitive or culturally deficient. Once our individual prejudices, perceptions and biases are brought out into the open and people have bared their souls, the theory goes, the group can then move forward as a more cohesive, sensitive and empathetic unit.

I kept wondering whether any of this had a basis in quantitative and qualitative research. Was it proven, for example, that by guessing the kind of car someone I barely know was driving, I would be revealing my hidden away biases and pre-conceived notions about relative strangers? I didn’t ever really find out, in part because I managed to pick exactly the kind of vehicle — an SUV — the other person was driving. I even got her religion right. And what did that prove? Nothing much.

I’m not attacking the motives of the people conducting this meeting; in fact, they are in all ways professional. But I think what they are selling is suspect. Underlying this kind of consulting work is an assumption that there are methods that can be employed (like asking you to guess the religion of a person you don’t know) that will reveal your prejudices. And that, furthermore, getting out these prejudices and perceptions in a group setting is the first and necessary step on the path to reconciliation and understanding among individuals with widely varying backgrounds and experiences.

Is that really valid? For one thing, people can always lie, or say what they believe others want to hear. There’s also the presumption that people know how to get in touch with their real feelings, and can articulate them with and among others. Most people I know, including myself, struggle all the time to express their true feelings, even in the private conversations that go on only in our heads. I question the efficacy of building group training around the notion that individuals, sitting with their peers, will not just be willing, but also able to say what they really think.

But my largest objection is to the notion, which seems so pervasive these days, that it is always better — more cathartic, more empathetic, more useful — for people to “share” their feelings, whatever they might be. Doing so makes everyone know you better and helps engender a more “open” society.group meeting

I don’t buy it, and here’s why: I have my share of prejudices, like everyone, and I do not believe I am contributing to the world by uttering these views out loud. To the contrary, there’s much in my mind, and perhaps yours, that’s best left unsaid. What may be appropriate in the Confessional booth or the psycho-therapy session seems to me to be not at all helpful when shared among colleagues in the business or organizational environment. After all, what can they do about it? Or me? Revealing to my peers that I dislike short people (actually, my issue is with people who are taller than me) isn’t going to change their minds about me, about their attitudes towards short people, or their hidden prejudices about race or gender, much less mine. And so, what’s to be gained, collectively, by my personal revelation concerning the height of others? Very little.

These kinds of meetings also reflect the growing noise of public self-indulgence — the mindless chatter online and elsewhere by people talking and writing about themselves. Deeds, not words, the old saying goes. Many people, through the ages, have managed to make a mark on society and, at the same time, remain modest and reticent about themselves. We may not know everything about them, but we know enough to admire, respect and even love them.

Like my mom.

Could I Go Over the Top?

Nothing, to me, is as compelling as reading the accounts of men under the stress and confusion of battle: how they felt, how they reacted, what was going through their minds as they confronted the very real possibility of death.

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A Union Cannon at the Angle on Cemetery Ridge

Now, just back from a tour of the great Civil War battleground at Gettysburg, these thoughts have taken on a more tangible dimension.  Away from the books, I stood in places where men shot at distant targets and were in turn shot at.  Many thousands were killed, many thousand more wounded in three days of fierce combat at places called the Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill. The question I asked myself, as I looked down the barrel of a cannon still poised on the Union lines at Cemetery Ridge, is the question that long has bedeviled me, and perhaps you: would I have the courage to stand and fight, to fix my bayonet, leave my shelter and attack the enemy?  Or would the instinct of self-preservation take over, causing me to stay hidden and out of the line of fire?

(This search for understanding is different from, and much more personal, than my enduring fascination with the causes of war; the broader context of politics, economics and social currents that lead to the clash of nations and peoples. What I want to know is how, why and where ordinary men found the courage to go over the top.  Gettysburg helped me find an answer).

Much has been written over the years about why men fight (and some die) in war.  Until around the time of the Civil War, most explanations centered on a strong identification with an abstract cause (such as freedom or defense of homeland); Confederate troops were said to be more highly motivated than their Union counterparts because they were defending their beloved Virginia or South Carolina from the encroachment of the looming federal government.  Yet that explanation makes only partial sense.  Something more fundamental is required to fully explain why men do not flinch in the face of certain harm.

Gettysburg’s splendid new National Military Park Museum provides helpful clues.  The words of officers and soldiers who participated in the battle on both

A view across the battlefield to Little Round Top

A view across the battlefield to Little Round Top

sides are  widely quoted.  What emerges from the museum exhibits (and the narratives of highly trained and personable tour guides at the battlefield) is that there is a very thin line separating the fighters from the frightened.  Those who are able to overcome their fears do so not because they are especially brave (most expressed grave fears of combat) but rather, because they felt a sense of obligation not to let down the comrades in their squad or troop — their friends, their comrades in arms, the fellows who are beside them behind the parapet or crouching in the shell hole or shallow trench. Interviews with veterans after both World War I and II confirmed the finding: amid the horror of war, and perhaps compelled by it, men fight for one another.  This is especially true when there are common ties linking the men, such as home town, school or work place — anything that reflects common interests or backgrounds.  In the Civil War, units on both sides were composed of soldiers from the same state or city, or calling.  At Gettysburg on the third day, with Pickett’s famous charge close to breaking through the Union lines, New York City firemen, serving together in the same unit, helped sway the tide.

It surely has to be this.  How else to explain why at Gettysburg, men from Maine and Massachusetts and Mississippi threw themselves into the bloody fray. How else to  explain why, with Rebel troops surging towards their entrenched positions, soldiers from the 1st Minnesota Volunteers began a counter-charge in which 215 of its 262 men were killed or wounded in the space of a few short minutes.  What other motivation would compel the actions of a young Union officer named Patrick O’Rorke, out of the Irish diaspora struggling to gain a foothold of acceptance in mid-19th Century America, who led a counter-charge of fellow Irishmen to stem a Rebel advance on Little Round Top and lost his life in a hail of bullets. Ardant du Picq, a 19th- century French colonel and military theorist, explained the influence of common bonds forging a fighting spirit this way: “Four brave men who do not know each other will not dare to attack a lion. Four less brave, but knowing each other well, sure of their reliability and consequently of mutual aid, will attack resolutely.”

The answer, then, is so simplistic that it risks sounding trite:  soldiers do what they are trained to do, and they do what they are trained to do because they don’t want to let down the men they are with.  So it is both a professional (I am a soldier) and a personal (I’m going to do my part) rationale that appears to motivate men in battle. They are drilled to act, but to act, they must draw upon a deep and abiding willingness to sacrifice even their own lives for the sake of those around them.

Which makes the verdant fields of Gettysburg, nearly 150 years after three days of mortal combat, such a melancholy and yet uplifting place.