A Day in Court

Brass Tacks

YOU WALK into Elijah Adlow's courtroom and you want to get out. The courtroom is a jail cell; its high flat walls move square around you, and the windows are slatted with iron. But unlike a jail cell, which offers some sanctuary, Adlow's courtroom is thoroughly menacing. You are intimidated by the judge, by the bailiffs with their thick chins and thin lips, by the chuckling old men who come to watch every day, and mostly by the walls that hold you inside--even if you are a free man, as I was Thursday, just a spectator.

An appearance before Judge Elijah Adlow is a frightening confrontation with irrational authority. He is the man in power, with his army of bailiffs, his pews full of friends. You are the victim, and that is all you can be in this courtroom. He will throw out your constitutional arguments, all the wonderful safeguards you read about in the New York Times. And he will do it bluntly, without care of subtlety: "Let's not descend to this low level of legal discussion. This is a very simple matter ..."

The power is in the eyes, and the wisdom too. His soul is in those blue nuggets set back deep in their sockets--the only glow of color in his face. His skin is pink and peeled away, the shinylayer that is left to an old man after the epidermis is worn away. He wears a vest that he pulls at, a white starched shirt and a darkly polka-dotted tie. Behind the desk with its law books and walnut, he is only a head, only those blue gems of eyes. But he will stand every 15 minutes or so, walk about behind the desk, take a drink of water, gulping it down very quickly, sucking it in his mouth powerfully, with his free hand on his hip, holding his robe open.

HE HEARS 50 cases in a morning, and they are all decided in the eyes. He does not take notes, does not consult the law books in front of him. He draws the defendant in with his look, calls on his 50 years of legal experience, all the thousands and thousands of evil men he must have seen in his life--the pimps and whores, the murderers and car thieves, the dope addicts and pickpockets, the larsonists, shoplifters, rapists -- he remembers all these and the wisdom in the eyes decides: "guilty, six months at the state farm"; "guilty, one year in jail, sentence suspended"; "guilty, straight probation;" "not guilty."

If you are Adlow, after all these years, all these thousands of faces, you have to believe in your eyes. If you did not, you surely could not hand out the sentences; you could not bear the enormity of it. It is difficult to think about the lives of people you must judge, of their whole lives back into childood, into their miserable pimply youth, the cheerless beer, drunk on the streets at 25, a car thief at 13, a rapist at 15, to think of these lives and the enormity of your decision, how the words from your mouth mean a whole existence for another person. In these cases, the cases that face Adlow every day of the week, the only sane thing to do is to trust in the knowledge of your eyes.


Still, those eyes often have little to do with the law: A white girl, blonde and well-dressed, with a leather skirt and wonderful white thighs surging underneath, stands tall on the stand in front of the court. She looks back at the spectators over her shoulder with one eye, brushing her hair back. It is the coldest look I have ever seen. The old man across the aisle says, "Goddam long hair, has to keep it out of her eyes." He wants her too. Her parents, squat and ugly, a mother with a loaf of bread for a head, stand next to her. She is charged with being idle and disorderly, and her lawyer asks for a continuance, more time to prepare his case.

BUT ADLOW has seen all this before. The blue nuggets are remembering. He is vicious and bitter; something is bothering him and he will remain in this ugly mood for the rest of the day. He had been compassionate with the drunks before, but now he is vicious: "No continuance. We're not going to let ourselves be pushed around by a bunch of kids." The girl is given a suspended sentence--there is some mercy there. The judge must know about Bridgewater, he sent so few of the drunks up, and I suppose he knows about Framingham too and the lesbians, so it is a supended sentence.

But the fear is moving across the courtroom now in waves. I am very scared that I will never get out. I look across the aisle at the Harvard people who surely will not get out, and I am certain they are very brave. Then the bailiff says, "Michael Glass to the stand please." And I am frightened to death. At that instance I am sure he has called me to the stand. Wasn't that my name? Then someone else walks up, but I am not reassured because I am certain that I am next. I look across the aisle at David Loud and smile. He winks. Loud is the only one with eyes almost as powerful as Adlow's; still I am very scared.

In this court Adlow says what he wants. All the prejudices and hatreds, even hatreds for the law, come right to the surface. His bailiffs used vicious obscenities several times when talking to the black welfare mothers. This goes on in the Municipal Court, Room 404, for it is Adlow's court. It is run by him this way; he is sure this is the way it must be run. His eyes are old and they know very much; they know more than mine, have mine thoroughly whipped (I tried to stare at him for a time but could not). My eyes are frightened, flit around the room, unable to gather it all in and not wanting to, wanting to get out of this jail cell.

A SHOPLIFTER, a woman who has stolen a $6 dress from Filene's is on the stand, tears making muddy tracks on her smooth brown face. Everything about her is smooth, and I want to help her--that is it--there is no one in this court to help anyone else. We are all alone against the unreasoning command of the eyes. Someone else is crying, a whole family--the fattest woman I have ever seen, her daughters dressed in vinyl shoes, a three dollar skirt, and hair that was set the night before (she set it the night before to look neat when she went to court). The son, the brother has been sentenced for possessing a revolver; bail is $5000. He has a record that it took the court attendant five minutes to read; it started five years ago when he was 13. And just the same, like me, like the shoplifter, like the Harvard people and the welfare mothers, the family of the boy with the revolver needs so much help. Here in Elijah Adlow's court, we are all done.

But suddenly I have the thought that something good will come of this, perhaps destructive, but something good. I suddenly feel very close to the other people who are frightened, suddenly I feel we are together and against Adlow and his bailiffs and the old men, and maybe all the oldmen with power all over the world. The thought builds slowly but suddenly it flashes clear. Perhaps it is not real, the feeling is only to assauge my own fears, but I feel solid together with these people. And even though they are braver than I am, I can draw on that.

A welfare mother, just sentenced to a month in jail, leans over the bench and says to me, "Whenever I come into this court, I feel like I am in another country." This is another country, but we are all here together.