Sunday, September 13, 2009

Seeing the Sights

I was selected for three juries to date, but served on only one, both the other cases having been settled before the jury could hear them. The legal case I did help decide was not a complicated one, being a simple charge of drug possession, and as nothing ultimately was asked of us but to decide a matter of fact, rather than intent, the length of service was not onerous. I was much impressed with the seriousness with which even so straightforward a case was decided by my fellow jurors. There was a genuine debate, not only as to the particulars of the arrest and the resulting charge, but also as to the conduct of both the prosecution and the defense. Both lawyers were quite young, obviously inexperienced, doubtlessly overburdened, and we the jury found neither specially sympathetic. Neither then could claim the case as either a personal success, or as a high-point of jurisprudence. The defendant, a homeless man, himself an addict, who found drugs in the street and pocketed them, in plain sight of a police officer and other witnesses, was a pathetic figure. The jury asked the judge, not inappropriately, that he be treated with leniency, despite the fact that we had just convicted him. After we were dismissed, with thanks, by the judge, she encouraged us to discuss our impressions of the trial with both attorneys. Nearly all of us did. The defense attorney was taken to task for seeming to find little or nothing in the law that might have allowed us to find other than we did. Instead, she spent her time before us suggesting one unlikely scenario after another to explain he client's actions. None was as plausible as that presented by the cop on the stand. He had considerable experience of the defendant, seemed in fact to know him pretty well. There was no suggestion from the cop that he felt anything but sorry for the man he arrested. Impugning the policeman's character, when he seemed to like the defendant, and knew more about her client than the attorney did, did nothing for her case, or ultimately for her poor client. It was the young prosecutor however, who received the worst of it from us, despite having proved his case. I was far from alone in finding his presentation ridiculously overzealous. He had only to establish the facts with the more than ample evidence. He chose in addition to anatomize the defendant's character, suggesting a preposterous criminality and danger from the few sorry possessions in the man's shopping cart; holding up a few rather mildly pornographic gay magazines, for example, as proof, presumably, of the defendant's degeneracy, when they were clearly intended as something to be sold by the defendant to feed his habit, as were all the other sorry oddments in his cart, other than his few clothes, blankets and the drugs he'd found. Yet the prosecutor repeatedly brandished these magazines as if they proved some larger point. The irrelevance of all this, while evident to the jury, went unchallenged in court, as I remember it. We were having none of this in our deliberations. The one middle aged man on the jury who timidly suggested we might want to have a closer look, was shouted down. I've never forgotten what one of my fellow jurors, a woman of a certain age, told the prosecuting attorney about waving those magazines around:

"The only thing shocking about that stuff was watching you wave it around, with that sneer on your face. That was embarrassing."

I don't know what ultimately happened to the man we convicted. His was not the kind of case or conviction that makes headlines. I don't even remember his name, poor soul. Neither of the attorneys, I should think, remembers him any better than I do. I do hope the young prosecutor remembers what that lady told him after the case was done.

I went out wandering my last late night in Portland. I very much like the neighborhood where my regular hotel is, not only for its proximity to Powell's Bookstore, but of itself. There are always high and low on those streets, as there ought to be in a real city; fine and fancy places, full of well turned patrons, sitting on caned chairs, at tiny tables, eating gelato with dainty spoons, drinking coffee after midnight, and in the same block, or thereabouts, low gay bars, shaking with loud music, loosing happy drunks out into the street to hail cabs or to stumble, in affectionate knots of new friendship, merrily home. I liked the look of all of them, for the happiness evident in an unlikely, drunken hug, or the quite contentment of an attractive couple sharing an ice on a hot night. I like streets to be peopled when I walk them, specially at night, specially when I am myself alone.

I walked a good while and peeped in here and there without once stopping to partake of anything on offer. I was not hungry, but for faces, and didn't need a drink. I was, however, offered one. Just 'round the corner from my perfectly respectable hotel, are two others whose patrons have fallen away from such things and come at last to rest among the wicked, the disreputable, the poor and the pathetic. I confess, I avoid the block whereon these hard times seem to have settled permanently. There are drunks there of a less happy disposition, with less occasion to celebrate, than I elsewhere encountered. The wreak of misery rises in the heat around those doorways, and resignation mixes with despair and anger in every snatch of conversation one is likely to catch, avoiding beggars, on those sidewalks. My mood was such though, after my walk, that I did not notice where my walk had led me coming back, and so I stopped, to light a cigarette, just on the very street I usually disdain to enter. As happens whenever a cigarette is lit in such company, someone asked me for one of mine. Now, in Seattle, on the street where I work, I have long since learned to meet all such entreaties with a stern refusal -- as otherwise I would give away every one I had before I could light my own. That last night in Portland though, I was feeling expansive after my walk. I ponied up. A party of three or four forlorn men were arranged on the sidewalk, across my path, so to each in turn I offered a smoke. All but one took what was offered, and all expressed thanks. And one old party, his red face a bleary map of dissipation, wearing a dirty pink shirt with the word "Bitch" emblazoned on it in sequins, in his turn, offered me a swig of beer from his brown paper bag. I declined, as politely as I was able. It took some time to pass my lighter around before it came back to me, and in the interim, I was asked my name, and gave it. Two of three introduced themselves to me. The one in the colorful shirt tickled my hand as he handed the lighter back. Great friends, we might have been, had I had more than cigarettes to share. I wished them all a goodnight, as they did me, and I walked the block to my hotel.

Just at my corner, before the entrance to my hotel, a car was idling, quite a big, nice car, and quite a handsome, and handsomely dressed man of middle years, with a watch the size of sundial, idled against the car. I had to finish my cigarette before I went in, so I idled awhile too, not so near as to suggest conversation, but near enough to see that I was closely observed. Still feeling quite right with humanity, I returned the gentleman's gaze, and even said "Hello." Just then, what I can only assume to have been my new friends from up the block, evidently had some falling out, as there as a series of loud curses, ending in a shout and what might have been a slap. Something was pitched and broke. Then, silence. I turned back to the man on the car and shook my head a little, receiving a look of genuine disgust, before he looked down again to stare at his grotesque watch for some time, obviously impatient to be gone. As I finished my cigarette, my back now politely turned to the car, its owner and his watch, the woman for whom he seemed to wait, I correctly guessed, came out of the private entrance of a condominium, just up the street from the entrance of my hotel. She looked rather grand, if styled younger than her years might warrant. I turned just in time to see her skitter up to the car, and to hear the man curse at her, for keeping him waiting. She apologized as he opened the passenger door for her and she slid in.

"Why, in Christ's name, do you live down here?!" he asked her, not waiting for an answer, or closing her door, before he walked around to the driver's side.

"Nothing but drunks and queers," he added, smiling at me, before getting into his car and speeding off.

The only thing shocking that last night in Portland was the persistence of a sneer I hadn't seen in years. That was embarrassing.

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