Court of Esopus
Monday, December 6 2004
A wet snow fell for most of the day. It never accumulated very deeply, though it did manage to stick to the roads. This wouldn't have been a big deal except for the fact that I had to go to be in court at 6:45 pm to deal with a speeding ticket I got on the Thruway in September while driving back from Virginia. I'd been lucky in that I was pulled over in the Town of Esopus, whose court is in Port Ewen, directly across Rondout Creek from Kingston. I'd been even luckier in that my court case was happening on a Monday night, a night that our friend Peter represents indigent clients in that very court. Though I was completely guilty of the charges alleged on my speeding ticket, he'd told me he'd represent me and help knock the charge down to something minor that won't end up on my record.
I hadn't left enough time to drive through the treacherous conditions and arrived a few minutes late, but it was no big deal. After greeting Peter, I looked around and took in the ambience of the spartan court room. I was expecting some marble tile, wooden chairs, and maybe the odd Roman column. But not in the Esopus Town Court. The taxpayers of Esopus can take comfort in the fact that their money isn't paying for anything more than what is absolutely necessary for the adjudication of its town's caseload. The court room was no bigger than our living room and its æsthetic suggested an auto mechanic's waiting room. Faux-wood paneling covered the walls and the judge's bench was a laminate monstrosity that hadn't been altered since the 1960s. Those waiting for their cases sat in metal folding chairs, each of which had been stenciled "Town of Esopus" on the back.
It turned out that the State Trooper who had pulled me over didn't even show up for this case. I'd always heard that one wins the case by default when this happens, but Peter told me that to benefit from this rule we'd have to wait until the end of the court session and even then there was a chance that the judge would simply adjourn the case for later. I wanted this over with as quickly as possible, so Peter negotiated with some of the State Troopers who were present and they offered me a plea bargain of "defective speedometer," which I gladly accepted. That sounded like a very minor charge.
When I appeared in front of the judge (who was female), I immediately noted a change to the somewhat stern but gracious quality I'd heard in her adjudication of the other cases. Now she seemed a dash more pleasant, with a heaping spoonful of not taking herself or the gravity of the situation (such as it was) too seriously. Something about Peter's presence had completely disarmed her. It was as if she were fighting back a room-filling smile so she could play this role that she plays, the one of judge. "I see you're represented by Mr. F____," she said. "Yes," I said. "Good choice." She read the charges I'd plea bargained, the one about my speedometer not working as opposed to driving 83 in a 65. I plead guilty. At that point Peter piped up and made the court aware that I am not currently employed, which is sort of true. "Well, then, a fine would be quite a hardship," said the judge helpfully. She asked if maybe I'd like to do 20 hours of community service. "Okay," I said. Then she actually gave me the opportunity to pick where I'd be doing my community service. At that point it was a simple matter to suggest the Catskill Animal Sanctuary, for whom I already do community service.
What struck me most about this experience was that the familiarity between the judge and my attorney (Peter) was everything in this case. Sure, there's law and it can be consulted, but in this case the arguments, such as they were, weren't about law at all. It was all about reasonable people doing reasonable things to people who share a mutual friend. What made Peter so helpful was that he made the judge only two degrees of separation away from me.
And if historians ever look at court records to see what sort of crimes were committed by the people in our time, they might be surprised by how frequently our speedometers failed.
On my way out of Port Ewen, I stopped at a gas station to buy some gas and some beer. Since they had it, I bought a 12 pack of Molson XXX, the stuff with the 7.3% alcohol content. As he rang me up, the cashier muttered, "headache in a bottle," under his breath. "That's right!" I agreed. He was embarrassed that I'd heard him but then volunteered that he'd drunk a bunch of them one night and all he could remember about them was the three Xs and the terrible hangover the next day, which he spent fishing. "Fishing is a great thing to do when you're hungover," I said.
Truth be known, I'm not a huge fan of the flavor of Molson XXX unless it's very cold. If it's not very cold, it starts tasting too much like brown sugar, and not the kind Mick Jagger used to sing about either.
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