The Forgiveness Chronicles: Part V - The Machine
Updated: Dec 31, 2020
The Forgiveness Project, Continued
Part V: The Machine
Plunk! Plunk! Plunk! Whirrrrrrrr! Beep.
The noise echoed in the claustrophobic white tube. It was unsettling. I tried to stay still. I knew the drill by now. It was my fourth MRI in two years.
The noises stopped and a nurse entered the room and began pushing buttons. The table I was on slid out of the tube.
“You can get dressed now,” she said. “The doctor will see you back in the exam room when you’re done.”
By now, I loathed doctor’s offices. I had been visiting doctors and getting MRIs, hooked up to machines for weird tests of my nervous system, and consistent blood draws for months. I had slowly ditched most of the specialists. About a year prior, when I was still in San Antonio preparing to return to Kansas City for law school, I had gone for my final visit to the rheumatologist. My doctor had been at a loss to explain the terrible neuropathy and electric shock pains in my limbs. He had dismissed it as fibromyalgia, the diagnosis doctors give you when they haven't a clue what is wrong. I refused all narcotic pain medication, so he had put me on a cocktail of prescriptions that were supposed to balance my neurotransmitters. Nothing was working and I began to feel worse. My appointment had been scheduled for 9:00 a.m., but that day, I was still sitting in the packed waiting by 10:30. Ninety minutes was beginning to feel like being suspended in sap: stuck and going nowhere fast. I fidgeted. Every time the door that led back to the exam rooms opened, I looked up expectantly from my magazine. A big man in a crisply pressed pair of Dockers, a button-down shirt, and expensive looking shoes strode out of the door this time. He was cramming paperwork into a leather satchel as he walked past me in a rush. One of the papers had fallen to the ground right in front of me. It was a colorful, glossy pamphlet. He just kept on going.
I had picked up the pamphlet and opened it. It was for a major pharmaceutical company, and it appeared to be an advertisement for a conference they were holding in the Caribbean at the end of the summer. I looked up and the man who had dropped it was gone. The door swung open again.
“Aubrey?” the nurse called, scanning the room.
I had tucked that pamphlet away into my purse. The rheumatologist was brief and cold during the visit – as usual. He had told me there was this new medicine that would be coming out soon for fibromyalgia, a non-narcotic, and I might want to try it. I told him that everything I was on didn’t seem to be working. I wasn’t feeling any better, and before I added a new medicine to the mix, I would want to learn more about it. He handed me a crisp, new pamphlet for the medication and told me to set up another appointment in a month to talk about it.
The medicine was made by the same company as the one holding the conference in the Caribbean. When I had gotten home, I looked up all the medications the rheumatologist had prescribed. Every single one of them was from the same company. I had a sinking feeling; I suspected that my rheumatologist was getting kick backs of some kind for prescribing all these medications and had a financial relationship with the company; I could never prove it, but it bothered me so much that I never went back. I quit all the prescriptions cold turkey after that.
That had been a year ago. Sitting in the exam room, I patiently awaited the results from the neurologist on my follow-up MRI. He was a kindly older man who hadn't pushed prescriptions. He had a soft demeanor and pulled the brain scans up on a monitor.
“These plaques here are old,” he said, comparing my first MRI to the most recent one. “There just haven’t been any changes,” he continued. “That’s a good thing.”
The tiny blips on the MRI were close to my hypothalamus. I sighed. I felt no closer to an answer. “But there is something wrong,” I said. “These pains, the numbness, the burning…it is less, but it is still there. I am worried I have damaged myself in some way.” I was referring to the overdose.
He shook his head. “No, that would not have been very likely to cause your symptoms or affect that particular part of the brain,” he said reassuringly. “The fatigue, pain, and other symptoms you are having are indeed neurological in nature. We just can’t find the cause. There isn’t enough here to confirm an MS diagnosis. I have no doubt something is happening, but whatever it is, we just can’t find it yet.”
“What about the insomnia?” I asked.
“Sleep deprivation can cause all kinds of problems,” he agreed. “I can prescribe you something for that.”
“But I don’t want to take pharmaceuticals,” I protested.
“I understand your concern,” he replied. “But the fact of the matter is that your inability to get enough rest could be damaging your nervous system in subtle ways that we cannot see. Its going to cause your fatigue, brain fog, and pain to worsen. I know you have a bad experience with medication, and having looked at your past records, it is clear to me that your doctors had you on too much medicine before. This would just be one script, and if you tried it and got good results, the fact that you are getting good quality sleep could make all the difference.”
I stared at my hands and grappled with the decision. He gave me a half smile.
“I know you have struggled with substances,” he said in a soft voice. “I think you were self- medicating, and I don't blame you; the fatigue is persistent. You needed the energy, and so you took the medicine. It happens. Don’t beat yourself up.”
The comment was both reassuring and bothersome. I couldn’t figure out why.
“Okay, I’ll try it,” I said. “I have finals and graduation coming up. I need to be at my best to study for the bar exam.”
He smiled and turned to his prescription pad. “Graduate school is hard,” he said, handing me the script with his illegible scrawl. “The last thing you need is being exhausted. I’ll see you in another six months and we’ll see where you’re at.”
I took the prescription for eight months. The medicine caused me to sleepwalk, jeopardizing my safety. I quit taking it and gave the Western Medicine Machine an Irish exit.
I had been practicing yoga for about seven years at that point, and through yoga, I caught wind of a special diet where a person only ate raw vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Raw veganism. As if veganism alone wasn’t extreme enough. I didn’t care. I was so fed up with my body feeling like crap all the time that I decided to try it. It wasn’t easy at all. I gagged down far more kale salads than I care to admit, and anyone who knew me well knew just how much I loathed kale.
“I feel like a dang dinosaur, grinding away at tough leaves all day, never getting full,” I had whined.
“You mean a Diplodocus,” one of my friends said.
“You know, the vegetarian dinosaur with the really long neck?” she replied.
“What are you saying? How do you even know that?”
She shrugged. “My son is obsessed with dinosaurs.”
I rolled my eyes. I had turned into a damn Diplodocus, constantly chewing bland, tough greens all day and never getting full. I would get so hungry that I would eat two or three avocados a day, and sip olive oil out of shot glasses, looking for extra calories wherever I could find them. I got so tired of chewing all the time that I just started throwing everything into the blender and just pouring the unappetizing green sludge down my throat to be done with it.
"Eat to Live! Don’t Live to Eat!" the Living on Live Food recipe book would chirp at me. I threw the book across the room several times in those six months. I didn’t care what anyone said. A dehydrated date and walnut paste would never pass as a “cake” and carob didn’t taste like chocolate…it tasted like dirt with hint of cocoa. But whatever. I hung tough for six months and in spite of all my whining, I felt incredible. It was the best I could remember feeling since childhood. I was sleeping like a rock, needing less rest, and I was fit…so fit, I trained for a marathon and hiked up a mountain in Glacier National Park. I declared that a dietary detox, high doses of probiotics, and an obscure herb (Pau D’Arco) had cured the fibromyalgia and I could get on with my life. This would remain true for several years. I slowly started adding meat and grains back into my diet. I began cooking my food again. I dusted myself off and acknowledged I needed more raw foods in my diet and called it good.
By now, my energy was back, and I was ready to slay dragons. I exited one machine and promptly found another. Looking back, it was kind of ironic. I found renewed health by bucking the system, but then I headed back into the system, ready for Round 2.
My first job as a lawyer was at a law firm that specialized in personal injury and employment cases. I loved the firm and the work, until I was assigned to work on a case involving a plaintiff who had suffered sexual harassment as a civilian employee on a military base. The allegations were egregious. Men has exposed themselves to her at work. Something inside of me snapped when I would read affidavits and deposition transcripts. It was as though the trauma inside of me was saying, the wound is still here. Look at me.
I couldn’t bear to look. Not then. I had too many important things to focus on...like paying off the mountain of debt and saving the world one case at a time.
The nightmares came back; they didn't care if I shoved the memories away during the workday. I was struggling to sleep again. Then little things began to happen; things weren’t going as smoothly. I quickly became disenchanted; I knew it was bound to happen, but it felt too soon somehow. I was invited to go to the state capitol to lobby, but I didn’t necessarily understand or agree with everything I was asked to lobby for, so I sat in the balcony, not participating, and just observing instead. Watching elected officials doze in their seats, wander around laughing and glad handing with other politicians and lobbyists, huge stacks of proposed legislation sitting untouched upon their desks, was something that didn’t sit right with me. I came away from there wondering what they were doing, why no one cared, questioning everything about the process. There was a sense that I should just defer to the wisdom and experience of those who "know better" and circumvent doing my own deep dive and deciding what my own analysis on the subject was. I rebelled; I just did it internally this time.
I continued to press through my assignments on the sexual harassment case, but the excitement of finally becoming a lawyer and practicing law was soon replaced with dread. I meditated on it nightly.
You need this experience. It is a stepping stone. Just go out on your own. Start your own practice. Do it on your own terms.
I waited for some other answer…any other answer. No other answer ever came. So, I told the best boss I had ever had that I was going to hang my own shingle. He might have been disappointed, but he was great about it. I would miss all the little things: him playing Bob Dylan in the afternoons, singing away in his office; the killer sense of humor my paralegal possessed when I needed a laugh; the kindness of the senior associate who mentored me in explaining the backstory on cases. I didn’t take any of the cases I was working on with me. There were clients who wanted to go with me to my solo practice, but I refused. I didn’t want to practice employment law by myself, and they were in infinitely better hands with the firm I was leaving. Those lawyers had always been incredibly passionate about working with the injured and disenfranchised.
I set up shop in a spare bedroom at first. All I had was a 1998 Corolla, three nice suits, a scanner/printer/fax machine, a cell phone, and a laptop. I didn’t take out any loans. I didn’t have a website. I made my own business cards and printed them off at home; they didn't impress anyone, but I had seen worse. My Mom had bought me an Italian satchel made of red leather, something that looked classier than I did in my beat up heels and rusted out car. Later, when Better Call Saul came out, I had paused one scene where I saw him in his crappy car driving to court ready to do deals. I died laughing. No one ever shows how most lawyers get their start…in shitty little offices with no windows, surrounded by tattered files, in hand-me-down suits. I could admire the fact that finally someone had captured the meager beginnings and had not skipped all the hardship. Watching unrealistic shows like Boston Legal and Legally Blonde had everyone thinking being a lawyer was some posh, glamorous, high-paying gig right off the bat. For most of us, it wasn’t. We were so bogged down in debt that each paycheck could barely cover life, forget about tax with-holdings. Only a handful ever wound up taking the “Big Firm” job downtown for a six-figure starting salary. We – the solo lawyers of the world - were lovingly referred to as "Mutt Lawyers" by one of my favorite mentors. We were the ones in the trenches dodging bullets and getting mud slung in our faces while being sucked dry by the Machine. Making a name as a solo is no small feat these days; it was almost a throwback to the times before women flooded the profession and renegade Good Ol' Boys would try any case on two days notice just for the pure sport of it.
I marketed myself as a probate and municipal defense lawyer at first. Probate was what I wanted to focus on; death was a certainty, and the fact that people consistently fight over money was nearly as certain, so there was a modicum of job security. Criminal defense cases seemed like the easiest thing to land back then. There were more people needing help with criminal and municipal defense than anything else. Most days, I went down to municipal court in one of my three suits and I would sit in the waiting area outside the court rooms or wander around the halls carrying a few manila file folders and a yellow notepad. We weren’t allowed to solicit clients; we couldn’t ask them if they needed a lawyer. We had to wait for them to approach us. I wore the costume and tried to look as lawyerly as possible. It worked. Potential clients would approach and ask if I was a lawyer, and then we would work out a deal – usually for whatever cash they had on them – and I often would strike a plea or try a case for $50 to $250 dollars. A pittance. Sometimes I took cases pro bono, just to establish myself and get experience. This went on for months. By six months in, my accounts receivables were over $12,000 and I knew I would never collect that money. I was eating Ramen most nights. I threw my student loans into forbearance and pawned expensive diamond, emerald, and amethyst jewelry gifted to me by my Gramma JoJo just to make ends meet. I was poorer as a lawyer than I ever had been as a student. I had even had more money to my name when I had been homeless for a few months in Hawaii; back then, I never let my savings get below $1200 in case I had to fly home. I didn’t have any safety net to speak of after law school. Academia and over priced text books had sucked me dry; although, the alcohol had usually been plentiful and free.
Starting from the dirt and building something out of nothing was daunting, but I knew it could be done. I started going to every networking event I could find. Luckily, lawyers like to drink so there is no shortage of social events. At one point, I was going to two or three a week. I would wake up around four or five in the morning, exercise, then research for two or three hours over breakfast. I put together outlines and flow charts to streamline processes for probate. I began getting my templates in order. I was at court or meeting with the few clients I had by nine, and I worked all day until about five, when I would head to happy hours. I often didn’t get home until eight at night. I signed up for the court appointments list, where I would get paid $60/hour to represent criminal defendants who couldn’t afford a lawyer. The state paid me, but I couldn’t turn in my payment vouchers until the end of the case. Sometimes that took a while, and court appointed lawyers were under pressure to both get the client out of jail quickly, but also to resolve the cases quickly so they could get paid. It was an eye opener, to say the least. Jail visits were difficult; the clients lied often, though I always wanted to believe their innocence. The truly innocent clients were the hardest ones, because even the system itself was jaded and cynical. Someone spread a rumor that I was a good writer, so I wound up writing motions as an independent contractor for $30-60/hour for personal injury lawyers. I wound up doing this for over thirty plaintiff’s firms at my peak. The plaintiff’s firms that I did motion practice for, in turn, began sending me probate work. It took about two solid years before I could graduate from Ramen noodles and get myself a new suit.
By the third year, I was feeling the strain. I was grossly undervaluing myself so I was underpaid, and because of that, I was over worked. I never saw a dime for at least two thirds of my time, because much of it was spent researching, going to networking events, and setting up systems to make the practice run smoothly. I considered it an investment in my future. I learned quickly that practicing law was less about what I knew and more about the relationships I was building. Building those relationships took time, and it also took consistently exceeding expectations to build trust and a reputation. But those relationships were the shining light in my career. Camaraderie among my colleagues kept me going; the ones who had reached down to lift me up by referring cases, opportunities, making introductions, and consistently sending me work had my complete loyalty. I would make terribly tight emergency deadlines happen because, ultimately, we were in the trenches together. I knew at some point, I would need a vacation. I just couldn’t fathom taking one; I had to keep the momentum going. I was determined to pay off the student loans that saddled me like a second mortgage.
I was exhausted. I felt like I hadn’t slept in months. My health seemed good; I didn’t have the pain or neurological symptoms anymore. Something just wasn’t quite fitting right. I couldn’t figure it out and I didn’t take the time to figure it out; I was too busy trying to build a profitable practice and to get out of debt. That’s when everything came to a head one day in court.
If parking was to be had at all for court, a lawyer either needed a five-dollar bill or had to be willing to scrounge all the coinage out of her purse and walk a few blocks on busted sidewalks in a pair of four-inch heels. I always chose the latter. After circling the block like a buzzard for ten minutes, I slid into a newly vacated spot, put the maximum two dollars for two hours in the meter, and began hoofing it to the court. Clusters of smokers lingered outside the front doorway grumbling on their phones, giving everyone a taste of the general ambiance of malcontent they could expect inside. I pulled out my identification and marched past the cacophony of metal detectors.
Once in the courtroom, I sat on a hard, wooden bench listening to the muffled dissonance of sirens on the streets below, waiting for the judge to emerge from her chambers for the start of the morning docket. My client had not arrived yet.
Real life court rooms look nothing like the ones on television. These court rooms aren’t outfitted with richly stained mahogany panels, marble floors, and nostalgic hanging lights that set the mood for “JUSTICE.” Replace the theme song from Law & Order with screaming babies, annoying ringtones, and pissed off rumblings. Most of the courtrooms don’t have the huge windows with views of big, wise trees outside. Nope, this court room had threadbare carpet stained dark brown, and no one could be sure if that brown was the original color or if it was a collection of filth that had accumulated since the 1970s. The back half of the room was lined with uncomfortable wooden benches that pretended to be ergonomically curved, but the curve was in the wrong spot for most people and so everyone’s butt either went numb or they wound up with a cramp in their back. The front half of the courtroom boasted two tables, one on each side of the bar, with chipped and peeling laminate reminiscent of wood. No court would be complete without mismatched office chairs that had bum wheels, the kind that refused to roll smoothly and wound up causing lawyers to ungracefully maneuver around the table where deals were made with the prosecutor. Real glamorous, right? The scene did little to evoke justice and instead revealed only a mired down bureaucracy, the flavor of which more closely resembled the DMV.
The bench was obviously the nicest part of the whole room, comprised of real wood, but with an outdated stain that did little to cover years of scratches and dings. If I hadn’t known better, it would have looked like more than a few defendants had left that spot kicking and screaming, clawing for their freedom as they went. The walls looked as though they had not been painted since the early 1980s. On one side of the bench, there was a smaller, low-set desk for the clerk. The clerk always wore a bored expression, completely apathetic, as though someone could run into the courtroom naked, shouting like a lunatic, and she might not take notice. Such an event probably wouldn’t be a shock, either. The early morning docket was where you could see a prostitute in massive heels and a tight, neon colored spandex dress, a homeless man who might not have had access to a shower in a few weeks or months, or the person who thought it would be a good call to impress the judge in a pair of flip-flops and cut off sweat pants, despite all the signs posted everywhere regarding what constituted proper court room attire. Attorneys stood in line in front of the clerk to enter their appearances on cases…and the clerk ignored them until she was damn good and ready. When she finally and grudgingly tore herself away from Facebook to address the attorney standing in front of her, she rarely made eye contact. She treated the attorney like a nuisance, no better than a gnat, asking in a put-off tone for the case number. Attorney after attorney would wait in line to be processed by the clerk and then quietly take a seat on the bench in front of the prosecutor’s table.
There weren't many female criminal defense attorneys at that time. Once, I had arrived in court early and was alone in the courtroom. An elderly male attorney had walked up to me and handed me a motion and proposed order, and had said, "file this for me, wouldya, darlin'?" and had walked off. When he was gone, I had went to the women's bathroom and "filed it" in the sanitary napkin bin. The look of confusion on that man's face when he saw me approach the bench later in the docket was priceless.
Most of the attorneys themselves, especially the older ones who appeared close to retirement, were the epitome of worn out cogs in the great grinding machine of justice. They sat in a row, waiting patiently for their turn to leverage the best deal they could with the prosecutor, with their beat-up, scuffed leather satchels busting at the seams with sloppy notes on yellow legal pads and crumpled up papers stuffed into creased manila file folders with scribbled dates all over them. They sat silently next to one another, staring at their smart phones, pavement worn shoes tapping with impatience, as they checked their email. Everyone knew (but no one really admitted) that most of the time, the only deal to be had was the one the prosecutor gave you. Negotiations were minimal, and usually presented with a “take it or leave it” attitude. The attorneys weren’t getting paid enough to do the deep research needed to bulldog the case or take it to trial, and the clients didn’t want to pay the cost of zealous advocacy. The clients were usually disgruntled, blaming their lawyers for not doing enough, and many lawyers were burnt out from dealing with ungrateful clients who resented having to hire a lawyer in the first place.
Represented clients and those without attorneys packed the back half of the court room. There was always an unpleasant odor: an array of colognes and perfumes, body odor from the homeless, grit from the street, and the stale scent of weed, tobacco, and last night’s drink of choice. Sometimes crying babies would be shushed, the scent of sour milk on their breaths or the stomach-curdling whiff of a diaper needing to be changed. If the ones in court didn’t have money for a lawyer or fines, you could be sure they couldn’t afford childcare, either. The courts were less than patient, yet they didn't provide any kind of childcare. It was all just another burden, and the energy was heavy. The bailiffs kept barking at the crowd to remove their hats, silence their phones, take the noisy children outside, or to spit out gum. It reminded me of filing into the gym for an assembly in high school, the way everyone was treated like adolescents. I could never judge how much of it was necessary or deserved. The surliest one in the crowd – and there was always one – muttered complaints loud enough for those a few rows over to hear.
Everyone in the court room kept staring over their shoulders at the giant clock on the back wall, looking anxiously every time the door opened and the noise from the hall filtered into the courtroom. It seemed like the prosecutor was never, ever on time. And if the prosecutor was late to the docket, the judge took longer. Nine o’clock came and went. Five minutes passed, then ten. The attorneys began to fidget, drumming their fingers, bobbing their feet, wondering if they would make it on time to their next docket across town or back to the meter in time to avoid a ticket.
Machines always make us wait.
“Psssshhhh. We gotta be on time, but they don’t,” a person in the back of the court room observed. “Figgers. I had to catch the early bus and it took ten times longer to get here ‘cuz of rush hour and all them stops,” he fumed.
A bunch of heads nodded in commiseration.
Someone said sympathetically, “I know that’s right!”
The morbidly obese bailiff, his beige uniform straining at the seams, caught the cloud of malcontent and was quick to bark an order to keep quiet in the court room. The person who made the comment just rolled his eyes and muttered, “Mmmmm, hmmm! Like you could catch me if you had to,” as if to say, “one set of rules for them, another set of rules for me.”
He wasn’t really wrong.
The prosecutor sauntered in through the side door, in no apparent rush to begin dealing with the traffic jam of attorneys lined up in front of her table. She chatted with the clerk, who suddenly thawed, snickering at whatever quiet comment had been shared. Then the prosecutor casually looked through some papers, turned on her computer, and acknowledged no one. Eventually she made eye contact with the first attorney in line, who hastily got up, yanked at the chair with a bum wheel, sat down heavily, and began to hash out a deal.
The bailiff abruptly stiffened. “All rise! The Honorable Judge presiding.”
A petite, black-robed judge entered the court room through the other side door and proceeded to the bench, appearing much taller on her perch before she sat down with a huff. The judge impatiently waived at everyone to sit and began calling cases, one after the other.
“City versus Simon Smith,” the judge droned, scanning the court room. Everyone looked around. No one moved.
“Simon Smith?” the judge asked again. No one moved. There was no sign of Mr. Smith.
“Bench warrant,” the judge said curtly, as she tossed a file toward the clerk, whose fingers drummed out a quick note into the system.
And so it went. I knew my case would be at the end of the docket. It was a Thursday. The low-end, high volume traffic docket tended to dispose of the “easy” cases first – continuances, speeding tickets, littering, parking tickets – and left the more complicated cases and trials for the end of the docket. My client had been accused of driving under the influence but insisted he was innocent. The police had gotten a report that a black man in a red Honda had robbed a liquor store a block away from my client’s house. They patrolled the area and found my client parked in his driveway in a red Honda sound asleep in the driver’s seat. The keys weren’t in the ignition and the car wasn’t running. The police said my client matched the description of the liquor store suspect and argued that this gave them probable cause to search my client and his vehicle. Their search was a nothing burger – there was no money and no liquor from the robbery in the vehicle – and, more importantly, no weapon.
Instead, they found my client passed out after drinking a pint of Wild Turkey in the front seat of his car. The officers woke him and asked where he was going. He told them that he had gotten into a fight with his wife because she found out that he had gotten laid off from his job earlier in the week. His wife kicked him out of the house, so he had walked down the block to the liquor store, bought a pint of Wild Turkey, and by the time he had returned, it started to drizzle so he drank the entire bottle in his car while listening to an old Marvin Gaye album over his phone. The earbuds were still in his ears when they had found him. He had passed out and was sleeping it off until he awoke to a cop banging the butt of his Maglite on the driver’s side window.
I had spoken to the prosecutor numerous times about the lack of evidence in the case. No one had seen my client drive the vehicle, there were no keys on my client or even in the vehicle, and the vehicle wasn’t running when the cops arrived. Nothing linked my client to the robbery, either. The cops had searched the vehicle and my client and had not found any cash except for a nominal amount of pocket change. The prosecutor had declined to refer for prosecution the charges for the robbery (as though they were doing him a huge favor), but had refused to budge on the DUI charge. I demanded dismissal of the case against my client, but the prosecutor had scoffed at my arguments.
“The officers found an empty bottle of Wild Turkey in the passenger seat, and your client has alcohol and drug priors on his record,” she had smirked. “I’ll offer you three years’ suspended imposition of sentence, and he has to take alcohol awareness classes and do 80 hours of community service, but that’s as good as it’s going to get.”
It was a turd of an offer. If it had been a white man from a nice neighborhood with a job and some money, I knew the outcome would be vastly different.
I had to relay the offer to my client, who flatly refused it and demanded to go to trial. “That’s bullshit!” he exclaimed. “They can’t prove shit! I know my rights. I wanna take this to trial, let a jury decide.”
“There is no jury, Clarence. This is municipal court. The case is tried in front of the judge. If we lose,” I paused as I watched my client’s face twist up in anger, “then we can appeal it to the circuit court,” I explained.
My client wasn’t happy. “This ain’t no justice system,” he spat, his brow furrowed, accentuating a deep crease between his eyes. “Just ‘cuz some black man in a red car robbed the joint down the street don’t mean I’m some damn thug! I was mindin’ my own damn business, not hurtin’ nobody. Last I checked, this is a free country. Show me the law that says I can’t drink in my car if I’m not driving! They didn’t have no probable cause! You know how many red cars they is on my street? Like fifty! And they ain’t nobody livin’ in my neighborhood who ain’t black, so they can just throw out whatever description they want on a perp and roll up on anyone’s house in a two-mile radius and question anybody about anything, claimin’ that this guy or that guy ‘matches the description.’ Those 80 hours of community service? That’s modern-day slavery if you ask me. This some buuuuuull-shit!”
He was totally and completely right. There was nothing I could say to discount a single thing he said. Yet, the system was the system, and that’s how the system was designed to work, and most lawyers just held their nose and swallowed it because to rail against it would be to expend an incredible amount of effort for little to no pay to get little to nothing done. I sighed.
“I know, Clarence, and I’m sorry, but she isn’t budging because you have priors and this –“
“This what?” he interrupted me, wildly gesticulating. “This is how the system works? You don’t know. Where they think I get the money to pay for a trial? Don’t they realize that that’s like two month’s rent? How do they think I’m scraping the money together to pay you? And every black man in this city has priors. Shit. I can’t go a week without getting pulled over for something. Pssssshhh.”
I wanted to remind Clarence that he hadn’t actually paid me an installment in two months, and I had valid concerns that I would see another dime, but I felt so guilty about it. Why should he have even had to hire me in the first place? When I had taken the case, Clarence had been employed, so he couldn’t qualify for legal aid; if he bonded out, he wouldn’t be eligible for a court appointed attorney, even if he wasn’t the one who had actually posted the bond. I knew better than to take a case without the entire fee up front, but this case was a good case and I agreed to let him make payments…which had never been paid. But…the case was winnable. I wanted to win it so badly, to be able to vindicate what I knew was a grave injustice, to put the wind back in my sails, to renew my faith in a system I was certain was irretrievably broken, and give me just enough hope to keep fighting these cases week in and week out. I considered referring him to legal aid now that he was unemployed, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, because lawyers are often ethically obligated to finish a case once they begin representation, with or without a full payment. Criminal defense was my albatross, because it was always the cases I barely got paid on that ended up requiring the most work. Clarence was chained to my neck, squawking about my head, big wings smacking me in the face, a constant reminder of how inadequate we were both deemed. The system didn’t care about either of us. It cared about revenue and both of us were being bled dry. I was pretty sure the City would see its pay day eventually. Me, not so much. And Clarence would get the worst of it from a system that cared little about his welfare. I wanted a miracle for him.
There were few things that sucked the tailpipe of ambition more than looking at a student loan bill for nearly $1,200 a month and having to show up for city court and waste the better part of a day waiting to go to trial on case that would never pay the bills. All the time spent preparing for trial and dealing with a stressed out, justifiably angry client, and not one minute of it would get me any closer to paying off those damn loans and it might not get him any closer to freedom. The prosecutor sitting at her desk with an apathetic and contrived smile would get the balance of her loans forgiven if she could just stick with her job for at least ten years. The same went for any government attorney, judge, or public defender. But the private attorneys who wound up spending hours of unpaid time – whether the time was intentionally pro bono or not – would never get their loans forgiven. The only thing that would even begin to make cases like Clarence’s even mildly worth it would be a win. I took my oath to represent the oppressed seriously, but the system didn’t seem as concerned. It was an impossible thing to try and explain to a client.
“Clarence,” I had said steadily, gagging down my frustration, “you are innocent until proven guilty. The city has the absolute burden to prove you committed the crime charged and I just don’t see how they are going to do that on what they have.”
“So, you’re sure we gonna win this thing?” Clarence glared at me warily in the hallway.
“I can’t make promises. I’m not allowed to. But I think your chances are good.”
He shook his head as he swung open the door to the courtroom and took a seat in the back. I camped out with the other lawyers in the front of the court room. I was one of the lawyers with the beat-up satchel, raggedy heels, and an aura of anxiety. I looked at my phone. There were four text messages. The first was an old high school boyfriend who had found me on the internet and wanted help finding a lawyer for what sounded like a bogus personal injury case at a casino in Las Vegas. There was yet another text from a client wondering why the court was telling her the fines on her case were $50 higher than what I had told her. Remember that reinstatement fee I told you that you might also have to pay? There were two texts from another friend of mine who had a brother, who had a friend, who had a cousin that had just been busted for possession of weed and who already had a lawyer, but who thought the lawyer was trying to charge him too much and wanted a second opinion. No, a $5,000 retainer is not too much to ask on case with a $10,000 bond and thanks for the offer to take on another shitty case at a discount. Pass. In the end, these texts represented nothing more than stress-inducing dead ends, nothing promising, and nothing that would pay the bills. I was not made for criminal defense. My clients made more sense than the system and I felt powerless to change any of it. I sighed and shoved my phone back into my purse, all the texts unanswered.
“That concludes the morning docket. If there are any cases I have not called, please approach the bench,” the judge said impatiently.
I looked around. The court room was half full. I rose tentatively and approached the bench.
“Your honor, my client’s case is scheduled for trial. If we may proceed…” I said, mustering my manners.
I glanced at the file. “11CR0555, your honor. City versus Landreau.”
Behind the bench, I could hear the judge clicking the mouse as she scanned the screen in front of her. “Ah, yes. Landreau. We can take it up now, if you like. City?”
Thanks for the concession. So glad we could fit this into your busy schedule, I silently retorted. I was on the docket for f&*ksakes, otherwise, I would not be there.
The prosecutor rose and scanned the court room. I looked around and noticed that there were no officers in the court room. Without a witness, the City’s case was toast.
“Your honor, my witnesses are not present. I’d like to request a continuance,” the prosecutor stated matter-of-factly.
It took all the restraint I had to suppress an eye roll and swallow the WHAT THE F%^K???? I felt creeping up my throat.
“I have to object, your honor,” I jumped in, before the judge could even consider granting the continuance. “This is the second time City has requested a continuance. I just sat through a two-hour docket. My client should not be prejudiced by City’s lack of preparation. I request immediate dismissal, since my client is ready to go to trial right now and is being denied his Sixth Amendment right to confront the witnesses against him.”
My client had quietly joined me at the bench and I could feel his anticipation at my side as he fidgeted with his fingers. The prosecutor was just as quick to rebut.
“Judge, these officers put their lives on the line every day and sometimes it is impossible for them to appear in court on scheduled trial dates because of emergencies,” she argued.
For a second time, I fought off the violent urge to roll my eyes.
“Your honor, if my client blew off his court date today without so much as a phone call to this court, you would slap him with a warrant and charge him with contempt without a second thought to whether there might be a problem with the bus schedule. This officer was subpoenaed. The same rules apply to a subpoenaed government witness as apply to my client, officer or not. The officer is in contempt.”
The judge didn’t seem like she had heard me. Clarence squirmed impatiently next to me.
“How long has it been since we set this case for trial?” the judge asked.
I looked at my docket sheet. “Five and a half months, your honor.”
“Well, the speedy trial statute says trial must occur within six months, so we still have two weeks to get this case in by the deadline before I dismiss it,” the judge reasoned.
I almost choked on the exasperated sigh I felt tickling my throat. I quickly regained my composure.
“Your honor, I object. While the trial date may have been set five and a half months ago, this case has been pending for nearly eighteen months because city drug their feet for the better part of a year on disclosure. All the dash camera evidence has been destroyed and –“
The judge waved her hand dismissively at my client. “And I overruled your motions for suppression and spoliation of evidence. City’s request for continuance is granted. Trial will be in two weeks. See the clerk for a docket sheet.” She banged her gavel and spun quickly on her heel, avoiding any eye contact with Clarence Landreau.
“All rise!” the bailiff barked as the judge marched back out the side door towards her chambers.
“What just happened?” Clarence whispered as he elbowed me.
“We lost another battle and we have to come back again in two weeks for the war.”
“What the hell am I paying you for?” Clarence whined. “You ain’t gettin’ shit done on this case!”
I whirled around, barely in control, clinging desperately to the final shred of self-possession I could muster. “You aren’t paying me Clarence,” I whispered fiercely. “You haven’t paid me in months. Let me ask you something: would you show up for work every day if you weren’t getting paid? Would you? Because I have,” I admonished him.
"Pssshhhh,” he said, as I handed him the docket sheet. He snatched it out of my hand and left me standing in front of the clerk by myself. The prosecutor wore a sneer of smug satisfaction on her face, as if to say, satisfying playing for the bad guys, huh? The clerk smacked my copy of the docket sheet down under my nose and went back to her Facebook page. I wanted to flip everyone off Jerry Maguire style on my way out of the court room…but rather than getting hauled down to the jail after being held in contempt for what I knew would only be a millisecond of satisfaction, I did my own walk of shame out of the court room.
I stared at the docket sheet. Tears stung my eyelids as I stepped past security. The metal detectors gave off a steady ERRRRRNK as one person after the other was motioned off to the side for a wand check. I started to shove the docket sheet into my beat-up leather satchel but in that moment, I was standing right in front of a trash can. I furiously shredded the docket sheet and shoved it into the receptacle. If I never came back to this damn court it would be too soon. How on earth do these other attorneys do it, day in and day out, fighting this fight and getting chewed up and spit out, no end in sight, no justice in sight? What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Where was the benefit of the doubt?
In moments like these, old, terrible, and yet familiar feelings bubbled up inside of me. The powerlessness was an old wound that ached in such deep and painful ways. Some days, the pain was barely there, nothing more than a twinge of discomfort. But on the days where court was uncomfortable and unjust? The wound throbbed relentlessly, mercilessly. I imagined it was something Clarence and I both shared.
I didn’t quite realize that tears were rolling down my cheeks as the humid air strangled me out on the sidewalk. I was parked three blocks away. I dug out my phone to check the time and prayed that the expired meter had gone unnoticed by the parking trolls despite all the extra “good karma” coins I had fed it. There were three missed calls, seven text messages, and of course, my email – which had gone haywire late yesterday – was still out of commission. I listened to the voicemails as I quickened my pace down the street. Someone who thought they had been wrongfully arrested, the handcuffs were too tight and had left marks on their wrists, wanted a free consult. There was another message from a telemarketer about consolidating my student loans (delete) and a final message from a court wanting to reschedule a hearing I had next week because the judge would be on vacation. Vacation! Isn’t that nice? I haven’t had one in three years. The texts were just more questions and more projected stress from anyone who was remotely in my orbit, and never with any offer pay to a fee. Criminal defense and I did not share a wavelength. The cases might have come readily, but they were a hassle that struggled to pay the bills.
All of a sudden, in the middle of this deluge of irritating crap, my stiletto caught in a sewer grate and I went face-first into the sidewalk. My shoe came away from the heel, which had fallen down into the sewer. A searing pain came from my chin, my palms, and my knee. I looked down and saw my knee was scuffed and bloody and my chin and palms were scraped and oozing. I collected a disaster of paperwork off the sidewalk before it could take flight in the breeze, having enough sense to yank off my shoes and shove them into my bag. Just when I got back on my feet and headed to the car, I saw a yellow flap of paper fluttering under my wiper blade.
“F*%k! This f*%king goddamned day! This f*%king city! F*%k!”
Somehow, the “F” bomb did not provide the catharsis I thought it would.
The tears became an uncontrollable torrent of frustration. Stress rolled through me like a fierce thunderstorm blowing in. I was shaking. I shoved all my busted worn out crap into the passenger seat and turned on the car. I rolled down the window and blasted the air conditioner, waiting for the car to cool down. I stared at the ticket through my windshield. I was thirty minutes late – fifty cents worth – yet, this ticket was for $31. There was no way to fight it. The fact that the city prosecutor had totally dicked me over and the justice system had failed my client and the cops got to ignore a subpoena without consequence and the judge had been late for the docket didn’t matter to the clowns who counted the beans down at city hall. No one cared. This big, hulking piece of crap justice machine grinded away, smashing and crushing everything in its path leaving a trail of broken shit to trip and fall over. There were those that made the rules, and then there were the rest of us. I pushed the wiper fluid button and a blue stream of liquid squirted out onto the windshield, as the wiper blades smeared and dissolved the ticket.
I was paralyzed, staring blankly at my wiper blades as the parking ticket turned into wet confetti. I was, quite literally, DONE. I had reached my threshold. I was maxed out. There was no way I could conceive of continuing down this path, day in and day out, for even another hour. There was too much going on at one time, too many people hounding me, and on top of it all, there was zero gratification in any of it. I was busting my ass, scraping by, and burned out.
I put my car in gear and jerked the wheel away from the curb. Highway. Now. Quickly. I needed rest. I needed time to think. The nagging urge to escape was wrapping its tendrils around my psyche. I could just get through this if I went to the doctor, told them how much I am struggling to concentrate…NO! I thought fiercely, slamming the brakes on the thoughts that would lead to relapse. I recognized them well. There would be another way through this. I needed some solitude to find it. I had to put myself in time out.
Within ten minutes I was headed south out of the city. The road began to open up to four lanes. My bare foot pressed the accelerator. I forgot about needing to stop by the bank.
“When you complain, you make yourself a victim. Leave the situation, change the situation, or accept it. All else is madness.” Eckhart Tolle’s quote rattled around in my head.
Well, I thought, I left the situation – but not permanently. I’m not sure if I can accept being a criminal defense lawyer as a permanent part of my life, not if it means getting no sleep or having to take a pill to get through it. So…that meant that I needed to find a way to change the situation.
Perspective: it doesn’t always come gift-wrapped with a bow.