I brought a magazine folded in half into the small courthouse annex building, just across the parking lot from the office.
Court hearings, in my brief experience, never start on time. Afternoon court hearings, pushed later and later by late morning hearings, either don’t start until an hour after they’re scheduled or don’t start at all, as defense attorneys pass back and forth through the waiting room, from clients to prosecutors and back, working out details of a deal.
I brought a magazine to pass the time, but I couldn’t read. With all the people passing, keeping an eye peeled to find the man whose hearing I was waiting for, the words slipped by on the glossy page without me hearing them. I read, but really it was a cover, something to do so that it didn’t look like I was watching everyone come and go.
Each of the district courts in the county seem to take on a different personality. Clymer, set out not too far along the highway, seems to deal often with inmates at the nearby state prison facility. Or at least, that’s when I end up out there. Mostly they traffic in DUIs, disorderly conducts, harassment.
I don’t know much about Homer City or Blairsville, south and further south along another of the county’s arteries.
But the Indiana court deals with the influx of university students; and every time I’ve had to cover a hearing, the waiting room and the sidewalk outside is crowded with nervous young adults, poorly dressed, chatting or texting on iPhones or chain-smoking the nerves away or making foolish jokes with equally poorly dressed friends – moral support and quite possibly partners in petty crime.
It was crowded Thursday afternoon, and the sun was brilliant outside and I – and probably most of them – wanted to be anywhere other than in court. I watched anxiously for my man, the one whose hearing I was stuck inside for. That’s the biggest challenge, to me anyway, in a crowded court. Most of the time I know the man or woman by the name on a police report, the age and date of birth printed on the charges filed and faxed over to me. I know the gender, the race, the age. But I don’t know what the person looks like; and one of these days I worry I’ll wait for two hours for a hearing that ended 30 minutes ago, just because I didn’t know who it was walking into the courtroom.
Thursday I didn’t worry. A basketball player, he stood tall over everyone in the room.
It was his height that struck me first. Sitting on a hard folding chair in a corner of the room near the door, he walked in just a few feet away from me, and I had to look up to see his waist. It was like someone took a normal torso and put it on stilts. At least, from my seated angle, that’s what it looked like.
The second was that he, out of all the young adults coming and going that afternoon, knew how to dress for a court appearance. Slacks, button-down shirt neatly tucked in, matching tie, shoes so glossy you could see you face reflecting out of them. Hair and goatee neat and trimmed.
And most striking of all was the contrast between him and the others there that day. I saw one other in a tie, an exceedingly anxious young man who rubbed his hands together constantly and laughed but looked like he’d cry any minute. He was surrounded by about five girls, and an older man I presumed to be his father. He’d shaved, leaving the skin of his neck red and angry.
But the others? The only other in dress pants wore ill-fitting ones, a short-sleeved button down flapping untucked behind him. The girl beside me was wearing jeans and a too-tight dress shirt. Most wore jeans, but one – coming in to pick up a citation, not for a hearing – wore a gray hoodie and gym shorts and old tennis shoes.
The gym short man was joined by another, also picking up a citation, in washed-out jeans with tight ankles. Their friend came in with a skateboard in hand, and they hung together, waiting for court staff to process the citations.
“Hey,” the skateboard-carrying one said when two police officers walked past with handguns holstered on their hips. “That sign said no firearms allowed in here!” He lingered there, half-joking, half-serious, in his desire to point out the officers’ fault, until he read the sign again. “Except where permitted by law.” Ah yes, there you go. Police officers may carry guns in court; you may not. (Another thing I struggle to remember: leave my pepper spray in the desk when visiting a courtroom. They don’t take kindly to weapons.)
Strangest of all? They all knew each other.
“This your first underage?” the girl next to me asks the boy in the faded jeans.
“First as an adult, I had a DUI before though,” he says, and I wonder at this strange set of friends who keep track of each other’s court appearances and compare them.
The basketball player’s attorney walks out with an envelope and returns empty-handed, and the basketball player is nowhere in sight. The prosecutor, who incidentally represented us in buying our house, recognizes me and guesses my errand. The hearing is postponed for a month, no point in waiting any longer.
I walk home in the brilliant sunshine, and wonder. I’m irritated with a system that criminalizes drinking for young adults who are also required to sign up for the draft. I’m irritated with young adults who don’t care, who show up to hearings in jeans, mainly trying to figure out how to not tell their parents, thus proving the state’s point that their hardly adults, not responsible enough for alcohol. And I’m slightly irritated that I spent an hour sitting in court waiting for a hearing that’s been postponed.
But mostly? It’s sunny, and there are tiny leaf buds opening on every bush, and I’m glad to be walking home in it. Also, I know what not to wear in the case of a court hearing.