This morning I was forced from my bed at a rather uncivilized hour to fulfill what could be loosely called one's civic duty. I had the dubious distinction of being subpoenaed to give evidence regarding a vicious assault I witnessed on the bus back in May. While the other passengers had pressing concerns that barred them from sticking around long enough to give a proper statement, I took the time to do so. It was, after all, already close to 2 in the morning so another twenty minutes didn't seem like such an inconvenience.
When I showed up at the courthouse this morning, someone handed me a copy of my statement to read over. It was interesting to see how closely the account I wrote at the time mirrors the story I have told countless times since. Obviously the stories we tell change over time, often without our noticing, but I think it is certainly testament to the power of the written word that the act of writing can have consequences in future speech. I've often found that I learn things best by writing them out, that the act of writing what I think I know solidifies it in my mind. It's as if the process of writing a script makes the script unnecessary. That's not to say that my statement was in some way scripted, at least no more so than any narrative of events can be.
It had been several years since I was last in the courthouse. In high school, there was a period where my friends and I would sit and eat lunch in the rows of seats outside of the courtroom. These seats, no doubt the cast-offs of some long shuttered airport, brought back memories. This was fortunate because it soon became clear, unsurprisingly, that I would be spending a lot of time in this busy hallway with its glaring fluorescent lights. These waiting areas, with their drifting clusters of downtrodden looking people and brisk marching lawyers, represent the triumph of inoffensive decorating. Never have I seen such a diverse palette of greys and beiges. I think I managed to spot at least four different styles of false marble cladding, each one a delight to gaze upon absently. The plants were a masterpiece of dissimulation, perhaps living, perhaps vinyl, but certainly not threatening to raise any spirits in the least.
While we waited for the Crown to show up, I wandered over to the canteen. I remember quite vividly that they used to sell these horrendous cinnamon buns that we would purchase almost every day. The buns were slathered in a half inch of thick white icing, slightly sour enough so as to leave open the question of whether it was intentional or past due. The proper form for eating them was to swipe a plastic knife when the stern cashier was distracted and then scrape off the excess icing into the garbage. Only then could you consider biting into its raw doughy centre. I think there was some crude subconscious horse trading going on between my brain and stomach. If you had asked me at the time I would have said without hesitation that these were the among the foulest of baked goods known to man, and yet every day I would convince myself otherwise to feed my body's yearning for high-calorie flour paste. Old habits die hard. I began counting my change, casually at first, but then again with mounting intent. I believe I would have fallen of the wagon yet again, if not for the countless other self-loathing customers who must have come before me, clearing out the plexiglass display case like a swarm of locusts. I wandered back to my row of seats, content at least that I had dodged the bullet of awkward icing stains on my pants.
More waiting. I read and re-read my statement. I probably should have brought a book...
The courthouse offers a unique brand of people watching. Sound travels well, and distant conversations can be heard with minimal effort. I began to eavesdrop shamelessly, taking in every snippet of information I could. The exercise was to try and figure out what kind of matter people were involved with based on their disposition and their brief exchanges with lawyers. The lawyers themselves were fascinating to watch. They seem to spend the better part of their days waiting around, or wandering like lost souls looking for other lawyers, trying to find a courtroom, a client. I don't think I could handle that kind of idleness, not even with the promise of witty exchanges of legal humour in passing. While they certainly appeared in every imaginable shape and size, these creatures shared a common trait. It was a sort of subdued but undeniable cheerfulness, that profound satisfaction that comes from being in one's element. It reminded me of the atmosphere amongst the stone masons at Nuit Blanche: everyone knowing what they are doing and knowing that they are doing it well. It is also probably part of the reason why people often have such a jarring experience of the legal system. The contrast between those who were paid to be there and those who were summoned was a sharp one. I could see how someone would look on this professional joviality as a sign that the odds are stacked against them, that it's all a bit of a racket. Practically speaking, that kind of suspicion is a luxury few of us have.
Eventually the Crown showed up and things started to get moving, supposedly. Around noon we learned that there was definitely some kind of plea deal in the works, but that it hadn't been finalized. Worse still, the courtroom we were going to be using had commenced its two hour lunch break. I ventured outside to smother my annoyance with poutine, while waiting for the prosecutor to call me. Finally the phone rang, as I sat in a tepid pool of sunshine on the Human Rights Monument. The deal had been signed off. A guilty plea, a suspended sentence, the end. That was my non-experience of the criminal justice system. It started with a fist and ended with a phone call.
I am perhaps a little disappointed that I didn't even get to testify. It feels almost like your story is brushed aside when this kind of thing happens, the Crown presumes to already know the gravity of what took place and your involvement at the end of the day is a mere technicality. I can't say that anything has surprised me about the whole affair, maybe just lessened my expectation of the unpredictable. This was after all just a tiny vivid tile in a gargantuan mosaic, a great many-colored beast.