By Anne Sullivan
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I looked out the window of the bus as it neared twenty-sixth
and California. My nerves were on edge. Thirty-five years in this
city and there weren't too many places I had never been. This
neighborhood was not familiar at all.
I cursed the crack dealer that brought me there. He got arrested
on the corner where I'm a crossing guard-or at least he says
he got arrested on my corner. I couldn't really say. Every now
and then there's some police activity around there. One time there
were cops swarming from all directions and guns drawn and a man
was thrown over the hood of an unmarked unit. All of a sudden
the traffic was tied in knots and I had kids coming home from
school and drivers gawking, all wanting to see what was going
on and not watching where they were going. I had my hands full.
I never saw who got arrested. I didn't care.
But a year later here comes this guy telling me that he was the
one and now I could help him get off. He'd been busted on a crack
dealing charge. There was a mistake on the address in the arrest
report, he told me, saying he was busted down the street when
it really happened right on the corner. If I'd only swear in court
that he was the guy who'd gotten busted on my corner he could
get off. He was being framed. I just had to help him.
I declined. "I never saw who got arrested," I told him.
"I can't help you."
"It was me!" he cried, pointing to himself with both
hands as though that would jog my memory. "Come on, man!
I got kids. I got me a baby. I can't be goin' to no prison again."
"I'm sorry," I told him. "I never saw who got arrested.
I can't lie under oath and swear it was you."
So he subpoenaed me. I spent a day and a half on the phone unsuccessfully
trying to talk to his public defender and let them know that I
couldn't help. It was no good. No one would talk to me or return
my call. I was ordered to appear.
When I stepped off the bus my first impression was one of barbed
wire, stone, and concrete, under a glowering fall sky. There were
no trees or grass, no warmth of wood, nothing to comfort the senses.
Tall chain link fences topped with rows of razor wire surrounded
asphalt parking lots, guard towers and low slung buildings of
brick and stone. It had all the ambiance of a concentration camp.
The courthouse rose up in the center of it all. The wide face
of the building could have been welcoming with it's sweeping series
of steps leading to the doors. If only there had been some grass
or trees; if they lost the bars on the windows; and if they cleaned
up the filth.
I followed the signs and a steady stream of people to the courthouse.
Beside the first step I noticed a ravaged newspaper box. It was
an unsettling sight. The back of the box had been ripped off violently,
as though someone had taken a crowbar to it . It lay in the dirt
amid the trash. The box itself was filled with garbage: fast food
bags, boozed bottles, candy wrappers. Caught on the jagged edge
of the newspaper box hung a used condom. It's liquidy contents
swayed in the wind.
It frightened me. How could someone do this to that box here-right
next to the courthouse steps? Aren't there too many cops around?
I looked around and a sign reminded me where I was-- Cook County
Criminal Courthouse & Cook County Jail.
Over seven hundred and fifty murders happened in Chicago in 1997,
about a hundred less in 1998. Every killer that got caught walked
through this building. God knows how many murderers and rapists,
how many armed robbers and child molesters, how many dangerous
thugs-and their friends and families-had set foot here. I looked
around. Any one of these people could be a criminal and a danger
to me. And any one of them could be a victim; or just like me,
a witness. There was no way to know who was who.
Hushed conversations and footsteps echoed inside the cavernous
stone entrance hall of the courthouse. An oppressive pall hung
over this place, like a hundred years of bad karma. A bank of
metal detectors and x-ray machines sat at either end of a partition
that divided the great hall and blocked off the entrance. I went
to the closest one which had no line but was waived away by a
uniformed guard. "Women on the other side."
I walked over and got in the long line of women. "Take off
your coat. Place your coat and bags flat on the conveyor. Place
your keys and coins in the basket." A guard chanted the litany
every few minutes for the new ones in line. It was like the airport
but it was no vacation.
The woman in front of me wore a melange of designer and brand
names: Nike, Nautica, Ellis, Hillfiger, Boss. Every item she wore
or carried was emblazoned with someone's name. Her hair and nails
were both lacquered and sculpted. The nails were long and curved
and festooned with rhinestones. The hair must have been eight
inches tall and she had a rat-tailed comb stuck in it. It was
stiff and shiny and it twisted into amazing coils and dips. She
was a caricature. How does she sleep on it, I wondered, without
wrecking it? She turned and looked at me as though she felt my
eyes on her. She didn't have to ask me what the hell I was looking
at, I knew she was thinking it so I looked away. She was a caricature,
but a menacing one.
The female guards were unsmiling. A few milled around beyond the
barricades, stepping up when the apparatus buzzed, and patting
the visitor down. But three worked each x-ray machine. One sat
behind each machine on a high stool watching as the parade of
shadowy possessions marched across the screen. One stood on the
other side of the portal through which each visitor stepped, with
a hand held detector. And one stood by the head of the line, watching
who put what on the conveyer and looking each visitor up and down.
I watched the procession of women. A woman in the next line had
four little kids with her. The oldest was no more than seven;
the youngest, a toddler who clung to her teddy bear. Were they
going to visit Daddy in jail? Why would you bring little children
to a place like this? The guard stopped the family before they
"You can't go through with the stuffed animal."
"It's just a teddy bear," the mother snapped angrily.
"It has to go through x-ray."
"Put the damn bear up there," the mother said to her
child. The little one began to cry and clung to the bear shaking
her head. "Put it up there!" she yelled. The child refused
and the mom snatched it from her, nearly pulling the toddler off
her feet. She began to howl with a look of terror as her beloved
bear disappeared into the machine. "Shut the fuck up!"
hissed the mother, and she held her up by one arm and gave her
three good whacks on the back of her legs that echoed in the large
hall, then dragged her through the metal detector, the other three
kids following. The baby stopped crying the moment the bear was
thrust roughly back into her arms and the group walked off.
The guards were unaffected by the scene. How could they be so
cold, I wondered, to ignore the cries of that child. Then I saw
that there were several other families in the lines. This must
happen all the time. I wondered what it must be like to be one
of those guards, spending their day in this place and facing an
unending stream of women with bad attitudes. I watched as a guard
poked her fingers through the elaborate beehive hairdo lacquered
high up on the head of one woman who muttered, "be careful,
be careful!" Another guard searched through a baby carrier
after having the mom lift the baby out. They eyed everyone with
suspicion, even the lawyers with their briefcases, but they behaved
in a professional and coldly respectful manner. But it wasn't
a respect borne out of deference, but out of fear. It was the
respect one gives a dangerous animal. Don't take your eyes off
it. Don't get too close. Don't relax.
The woman in front of me set her belongings on the conveyor and
went to step through. The guard stopped her and pointed to the
rat tailed comb in her hair. "Ma'am, you can't take that
comb into the building." She said it politely, without a
hint of malice. It was just a statement of fact. But the woman
took it as a challenge and whirled to face her.
"What am I supposed to do with it?"
"Throw it away or take it back to your car. You can't go
in with it."
The woman pulled the comb from her hair. "It's just a fuckin'
comb!" The guard shrugged. People in line behind me began
to murmur about the holdup. The woman pointed the tail of the
comb toward the guard and stepped forward menacingly. "What
am I gonna to do? Stab you with it?" The guard retreated
but her back was against the x-ray machine and she had nowhere
to go. You could tell by the fear in her face that she considered
the question anything but hypothetical. Her hand fumbled at her
side and unsnapped her mace canister. Several guards moved forward
and the woman with the comb stepped back. But for a minute she
stood defiant, unwilling to throw the thing away but wanting to
go in. At last she threw the comb on the floor and spat on it;
a big wet hocker that went 'splat' on the forbidden object.
"Fuck it!" And she walked through the x-ray cussing
under her breath.
I stepped over the comb as though it were a pile of nuclear waste
and laid my bookbag and coat on the conveyor. The guards eyeballed
me in the same suspicious way as everyone else.
I asked for directions to the courtroom. I came early thinking
that I could always get a cup of coffee or something but now I
thought that the courtroom sounded safer.
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