When I was given the ticket in Part One of my tale, I’d been over in Merriam town, a different part of the Greater Kansas City Metropolitan Area from my own humble dwelling. And so I needed to drive back over to the Merriam courthouse to see things through, and hope for the best. When you’re living on the financial edge, one ticket can be the difference between making rent and being served notice. But to properly explain what my experience in the Merriam system was like, I should probably explain how things work in KC.
The Kansas City Kansas courts are what every church in Christendom might look like if Martin Luther had been strangled at birth and Robespierre had been elected Pope. Heavy thick doors designed to withstand the invading Turks open in to hard floors and bare walls. Everything is black and white as the sermons of Saint Paul, broken only by dark wood furniture salvaged from the True Cross.
The room is huge with a high ceiling, full of echoes and lit with lights harsh and unforgiving. The pews line the main part of the room in two giant rows, and armed Bailiffs in black suits and ties keep an eye on the Unforgiven with an alertness that would have done Solomon Kane proud. Show up on time, by the gods. Sinners running too late get locked out-- they can explain themselves to the Centurions later after arrest. And if any wanting to fight the ticket they will take to their Golgotha and with this very gavel drive in the nine-inch nails. Hard, long pews, bright lights, crowds of sinners ready to beg for an even break (or at least a penance they can afford), and angry gun-toting goons in every corner ready to mop upon any who don’t genuflect.
At the back of the room are the crowds: later arrivals, stay-at-home parents with kids, and anyone who just doesn't want to be any closer to the front altar than possible. All of them just hoping for an even break, or at least something they can pay and still make rent. There is nothing quite like knowing that the very people you’re appealing to for mercy are the ones turning the screws in the first place. At the front are the hopefuls, the early risers, and the lawyers working their way up the ladder to pay off the bills. And at the very front of the room is the Bench, where the Hammer rests, and the devil always wears black.
The altar is in three parts. To the right hand of the Unwashed Heathens is the State Lord High Inquisitor: hard, but fair; the mailed fist by whom the Lord deals out retribution and plea-bargaining according to the Law. To the Rabble’s left is the Voice of God: a modern day Metatron and Gabriel all in one, who calls the names from the Book of Life that all may be Judged, and hands out the ticket receipts. In the middle is the High Priest of the show, in all his ebon-robed glory, flanked to either side by his own Twin Pillars of the Temple . . . in this case, the flags of the State and the Nation. He looks out across the peasants for a moment, and tries to struggle against despair. Then the call of “All rise!” is sent forth, and His Honour spends about fifteen minutes explaining exactly how things work in his court, and why.
Solomon generally is an older man, but not elderly, wearing a sympathetic beard and a weary voice that really wishes we could all just go away. In a voice too tired to brook any dissent, he explains the rules: no cutting in line, listen up, take of your hat, no talking out of turn, no bathroom breaks, and answer every question promptly and correctly with your coloured piece of paper in hand, ready to trade it out for a report card and dismissal before the three o’clock bell.
Just being in that room is guarantee of some kind of fine, and that’s bad enough. Almost everyone there has the same look of defeated calculation. Maybe they could make a deal and pay it off in pieces, or maybe they’d have to borrow money for rent after all. That is, if they could find anyone who could loan anything. But the real punishment was just having to be there at all, exiled back into some twisted grade school flashback.
Every time I’ve been in a KCK court I’ve found myself wondering, Oracle-like: if I look in the mirror, will I still have my beard? Or, terrifying thought, will my pre-pubescent self be staring back at me, begging for release from the Public School Asylum, all the successive years between then and now only a dream?
I once watched as a grown man was caught cutting in line. And I swear to you now, he was put in time out, forced to stand in the corner, facing the corner, until everyone else has gone. The Court Gunsels watched him to be sure.
Unnerved, I found myself feeling for my beard. Still there.
So compare this if you will to the Merriam Experience that awaited me regarding the Rabbit.
When I finally found the courthouse, it had taken me several moments to be sure that I hadn’t made a mistake. Light and quiet glass doors opened to a small room with low ceiling and soft lighting. Everything was in soothing colours. Footsteps were muffled by the comfortable blue-grey carpeting and the gentle murmur of voices as court goes on.
As I entered the court proper, His Honour was palavering with someone on webcam, telling her, “Sorry, but with this many outstanding tickets you still need to come in to settle it, we can’t grant you continuance over the web. Yeah, I know it’s a pain, but it’s the law, and congrats on your new job by the way.”
The gentle buzz of conversations just lent a droning background as I find myself a comfy padded chair and tried to relax. No flags or other idolatries, just a few nice views. And through it all, the room itself seemed to take on a kindly drawl as I listened.
On time? No problem, brother: we decided to start a little early since there were folks already here . . . maybe you’ll get out a little quicker. Running late? Come on in, neighbor . . . we’ll be here a while anyway, right? Come on up to the Deacon, you’ll know him by the walrus mustache outlining his smile and the gun belt casually slung under his blue-grey polo shirt. He’s been doing this for a while, and he’s seen it all. What’s your name? Spell that? Oh, that’s right, sure. Here’s your slip and take a seat. Maybe you’ll need to see the judge, maybe not. Oh, you'll know him by his place at the back, no need for robes here, pilgrim. We all want the same thing, after all: gettin’ you out as painless as we can.
No “all rise”, no locked doors, no sin and penitence, no angry threats. Just a few little crimes and how-can-we-get-this-covered, indulgences available upon lawyers’ requests.
When my name was called from the Book of
Pro-Life, I went up to the City Prosecutor and . . . she knew me. Personally.
Recognized me on the spot. I, meanwhile, tried not to look too confused as my
mind scrabbled to place her with the desperation of a man grasping at the shale
of a steep cliffside.
Now, having someone recognize me before I
recognize them is not in and of itself unusual. I am not a forgettable person,
and I never have been. So sometimes I’ll be well into a conversation with
someone when I’ll suddenly realize Just how we know each other. But I could not place her face for
love or money. Amused, she strung me
along for several minutes before she raised the curtain and let me know we’d
been in Drama together, back in High School. We reminisced about family and children and
years and other sundry things, and she asked about the ticket.
I told her about The Dead Rabbit and my
low-light vision, and she smiled and said that was the most unusual story she’d
heard in a while. Fortunately she knew me well enough to know that I wasn’t
going to lie to get out of a ticket . . . and under the extenuating
circumstances she moved the ticket from seventy-five dollars down to
twenty-five, and gave me another month to pay.
That, at least, I could do.
So, I went to court and didn’t get screwed too badly, for all that Johnny Bosco still got paid. I know that police, more and more, are used for financing. And it’s a terrible thing, not just because of the rift it widens between Them and Us. I also know that the courts don’t ask for this mess either, and people caught in a rat trap will get tired, no matter which side of the desk they’re on. But for all that, it’s amazing to me the difference between the two courts and the atmosphere they engender. Does income alone really make that great a difference in how a crowd gets treated? Or are the legal cultures between the two towns just that different? Thousands of books have been written and millions of studies done over the years, and we’ll probably never know for sure just how it all really fits together. But considering my experiences between Merriam and KCK, I know which temple I’d rather be in when the cops pass out the collection plate.
(Robespierre meme courtesy of diylol.com; angels courtsey of hollywoodhatesme.wordpress.com; Andy Griffith created himself; Robber Baron cartoon courtesy of mises.org; Evil Judge is (c) Capcom. All Rights Reserved by those who wish to reserve them.)