Archive for November, 2010

The History of Justice Part I or the Law In Three Parts

Posted in Autobiographical, Baltimore, Homicide Life on the Street, Mayfield, The Wire on November 30, 2010 by smpiv

Part I

“Homicide; Life on the Street”

This is a show I couldn’t get enough of at the time it was aired and now as I work my way through it again on DVD I’m amazed at how riveting it still is.

I was living in Baltimore at the time it was being shot and several times began, but never finished, application to be a dead body in an episode.  Several episodes were filmed close by with one being filmed two houses down from ours.   It was fascinating to watch the hours of preparation go into a scene that wouldn’t last more than a few minutes on screen.  Even more shocking was seeing my elderly next door neighbor being back lit by an elevated Klieg light, her house coat evaporating to outline two spindly stick legs holding up an amorphous upper body.  I think my retinas were thoroughly burned that night.

It was a show that was embraced by the City.  It was so stitched into the City as a prop that it felt more like a documentary than a fictional show.  Andre Braugher who played Frank Pembleton lived in Baltimore during shooting and seemed to be everywhere.  We ran into him at Egyptian Pizza one night and like John Waters he was just “one of the guys”—noted but quickly forgotten as we waited for our meal.

Although some of the dialogue was so choreographed it almost tapped, for the most part, it all rang true.  An early episode had Balis and Pembleton interviewing an Arraber , played brilliantly by Moses Gunn, about his part in a murder for the entire show—you couldn’t look away.

Like most of my legal education this part was done “on-line” through the truncated lens of the TV.  It felt right.  The actors were all average in looks with more foibles than a Christmas tree—bright in spots, very dark in others.  Munch was practically a cartoon, but it all seemed true.  Cases weren’t solved; mistakes were made and never undone.  That big white board filled with names as the year progressed.  Baltimore, after all, was good for at least one murder per day.

Our neighborhood—Mayfield—was surrounded by a reservoir to the North, a golf course to the West and a park to the East.  It was a peninsula that for the most part let us be from the encroaching disintegration of the urban fabric.  It wasn’t sound proof though.  In the summer when we had our windows open and the humidity sat just right the roar of gunfire sounded as if it were right next door.  It was so disconcerting that the first time I heard it that way that I dropped to the floor. 

Some nights it was so intense that it fought with the crickets for attention.  And the next day the papers were silent, nothing to report.

Part II

“The Wire”

Again a show that used Baltimore as a very large character and again a show that was being filmed while we lived there.  This time I was working in Fells Point at an architectural firm that was on Key Highway.  I would set out for lunch and the actors trailers would be lining the streets as they prepared to shoot.

This was a show that I would come to later through the magic of Netflix and take down in great gulps as I sat mesmerized late into the night, one episode at a time.  It was then that I realized that a number of the people I had walked past on my way to lunch were the stars of the show, not the help.

The drug trade in Baltimore was what set off the gun fire every night in the city–one begat the other.  You couldn’t go into Herring Run Park after dusk for fear that you would walk into an exchange.

But, and this is a big but, it made for brilliant TV.  One episode has a street level dealer explaining the intricacies and beauty of chess using the drug trade hierarchy as a foil for the various pieces and the power each piece exerts.  The Machiavellian machination of characters, good and bad, and sometimes hard to tell apart, is a macabre dance that usually ends in gun fire–gun fire that echoed all the way to Mayfield.

Does this television exercise give me inroads and insights into the seedy side of Baltimore—a little, not much, but when it was reported that police calls dropped off to near zero whenever the “The Wire” aired it makes you think.

Part III

Juror Number 672

Somehow or another as a responsible voter in the City of Baltimore I was called for jury duty three times in two years.  Unlike a lot of people I welcomed the opportunity to be a juror.

My first time as a juror my number was in the eight- hundreds, so I thought I didn’t stand a chance to be called.  I sat quietly in the jurors room watching a movie that would be interrupted every once in a while as they called entire blocks of jurors to make their way to one courtroom or another.  And then, bam, my number was called.

I was surprised and excited.  This was my big chance to see justice done; to watch Baltimore’s version of Perry Mason brilliantly work a case through the system; to see a Matlock use his homey charm to disarm a perpetrator, but alas as we filed to our courtroom the Bailiff told us to turn around, the case had been settled without a trial.

Six months later I was called again—juror 672.  Again I waited patiently with my peers another movie playing dutifully on the closed circuit TV.

This time I was quickly called and as we filed to our courtroom no Bailiff turned us around, but simply opened the big door to the courtroom.  In we went.

The courtroom was beautiful, truly beautiful.  The wood was dark and oiled, the trims carved, ornate and bulky.  Painted scenes from around the state worked their way above our heads with a stained glass skylight providing the light.  I took my seat, looked at the judge and suddenly realized that he, and the courtroom I was sitting in had been used in “Homicide”—I was sitting in a stage set, but this was real.  It moved along as each tried and true piece that had been carried out time and again as an introduction to justice was mumbled by each participant.

It was a tired procession as each player literally mumbled, stumbled, ummed, and said “What?”  The jury pool was quickly whittled down as the opposing councils dismissed or accepted a juror.  When they got to me, they didn’t even ask me a question; the prosecutor said I looked fine as did the defense.  I was through the first cut.

The selection process took quite some time, but we were finally seated by about two pm.  One final cut had worked its way around me and I took my place in the front row of what had been the original spectator sport—courtroom drama.

It was at this point that I got a good look at the Defense lawyer—a dead ringer for Booger from the “Revenge of the Nerds” movie franchise.  He must have been court appointed, because who in their right mind would hire Booger.  He even came on like Hollywood—his opening sounded like it had come from a made-for-TV movie, “I will prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that my client wasn’t even at the scene of the crime!”  The lawyer himself would later say that his client in fact was at the scene of the crime.

The prosecutor was prosecuting his first case.  He was so excited that he had invited his family to watch.  His mother kept doing that overjoyed scrunchy smile with the inaudible clapping every time he seemed to make a point.  She looked on concerned, every time he tried to put up his carefully prepared diagram of the crime scene and it kept falling down.

The Crime—I almost forgot the crime.  A young man was accused of being in possession of drugs with the intent to sell.  Stock and trade for the Baltimore jurisprudence.

Having been thoroughly imbibed on “Perry Mason” and “Law and Order” I was sure that one side or the other would make such a compelling case that it would be easy to see the guilt or innocence of the accused.   Far from it, by the time Booger and the Baby Prosecutor had finished their cases I was never so confused.

As we filed into the Jury Room I got a good look at my peers.  Forties and up, mostly women, mostly African American.  This was going to be interesting.

Whoever said that justice is blind was blind.  These eleven people I was seated with all had an agenda, for the most part unbeknownst to them.  We had all been socialized differently, raised differently, in this case, from two distinct races, and from two different sexes.  As the jury foreman (in this case “-man”) took a quick vote just to see where we were, it was obvious that we were evenly split—not by race, most of the jury was African American and not by sex, because most of us were women.  So now we went around the table to give our view on the case.  Mine?

Well the accused had been seen by cops in an unmarked take off when he spotted the cops and throw something in the weeds.  When they arrived at the spot they found a baggie of drugs.  As the cops pointed out this was a known drug area (this could be almost anywhere in Baltimore) so they assumed he was dealing as well.  The accused said they were not his drugs and that he had been framed.  My take was that he was probably dealing, but the police had not witnessed him dealing, so he was guilty of possession.  I was in the middle.

As each juror spoke the far right was voiced as well as the far left.  But it seemed as if most people were coming to the middle, my middle.  We took another vote and there was one hold out, an elderly African American gentleman, who had said little when he initially had a chance to speak. 

This time with twenty two eyes bearing down on him, he explained his position.  What he saw was a young black boy (his words) who had gotten down on his luck and taken a couple of bad turns and deserved a second chance. 

“You dumb, old fool!” blurted a very strident, throw-the-book-at-him, African American woman.

The Bailiff came in to ask if we were near a decision as it was getting late and the judge had tickets for the O’s game.  We were at an impasse and the Bailiff reported as much.  The judge brought us back into the courtroom and told us to be back the next morning to continue our deliberations.   Enjoy the evening, don’t talk about the case and he was off to his baseball game.

 I wanted to tell Lisa everything that had happened but I couldn’t.  It was like having the greatest gift ever and you couldn’t wait for the person to open it.  Lisa also wanted to talk to me about the case because she had sat in the courtroom and overheard any number of things from the defense team.  We both managed to hold it all in.

The next day promised to be more of the same, at least that’s what I came in thinking.  After we had all arrived and taken our seats the elderly man who had passionately defended the defendant asked to be heard first.  The air left the room as I think everyone thought he was going to state his conviction of this young man’s need for a free pass.

Instead he noted that after leaving the courtroom the night before he had realized that the young defendant was alone in the courtroom—even the prosecutor’s Mom was there, but no one to worry about the fate of the defendant.  It made him think that perhaps this young man had been in trouble many times before and past the redemption of even his family (Lisa would later tell me this was in fact true).  Guilty of possession.

And that was it—guilty of possession and not guilty of intent to distribute.  We walked back into the courtroom and just like on TV the judge asked us if we had reached a verdict after peaking at the paper that in fact said as much and the foreman said, “Yes your honor we have.”  Guilty of the one and not guilty of the other; gavel bangs down and the judge thanks us for our time.

Time—not more than twelve hours as a juror, but an education that rights every injustice I’ve perceived from the hundreds of hours of watching the police, courts, judges and lawyers on TV.  Brilliant TV yes, an accurate portrayal of justice—somewhat.

Twelve people seeing and hearing a case twelve different ways, even a seemingly innocuous case as I’ve described, yet not one of us shirked our duty to parse out justice to a young man (Lisa later told me that he was well into his thirties despite looking no more than eighteen) in a very precarious position. 

I left that dysfunctional, yet beautiful courtroom, feeling much better about our judicial system.  And, I suggest the next time you are called for jury duty not to shirk you responsibility.

Oh and I recommend watching “Twelve Angry Men” before you go.


History of the Universe Part I or how to chase your tail.

Posted in Autobiographical, Central College, Iowa, Ships, Simonetta, Stars on November 10, 2010 by smpiv

Just a few days ago I admitted to looking at clouds.  Now I must confess to looking at stars as well.

“Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight…………….”

I don’t remember the first star I saw, but I remember well the first time I noticed the heavens and the innumerable points of light that populate that inky, infinite blackness.

My mom, my brother and I were crossing the Atlantic Ocean on an Italian coal ship, the Simonetta–I was six-and-a-half years old, my brother five.  The radio operator, who had taken an interest in us (mostly in my mother I think), had taken us on deck well after dark.  I was mesmerized by the stars that touched the horizon and then rose exponentially as a dome to hold back the universe—the Milky Way bisected it all with a well defined smudge of stars, as distant galaxies and nebula bent their light through it all.

I wasn’t sure what to do with my discovery, the crick in my neck or the lovely hum of the ship moving through the water at its leisurely pace, so I went back to my early passion of drawing maps.  I was fascinated with the fractal comingling of the land and the sea, the brown and the blue, the  intermittent borders and the ancient mapmakers’ use of sea monsters to define what he couldn’t define.

I think the same can be said for our progenitors’ knack for connecting the dots in the heavens to define the indefinable.   The easy one, Ursa Major, who through the ages of a malleable sky now resembles a large pan, and Cassiopeia a large misshapen W.  Mix that with astrology and we have a fairly earthbound reading of the heavens.

I would love to say that my understanding of the science of those heavens went well beyond my forefathers and their animation of gas giants, brown dwarfs, and our local, rather mundane star, the Sun, but it doesn’t.  I stumble over the thought that the night sky I look at today is millions, if not billions of years out of date; I bumble over the thought that the universe is expanding and accelerating into a void; I wonder at the notion that all the grains of sand, on all the beaches on earth, don’t come close to the number of stars in the sky.

Yet I continue to look.

The second time I noticed the sky was on a bus going from Des Moines to Pella, Iowa.  As we quickly left Des Moines the night sky was unfettered by city lights and like an ocean horizon, this rural, mid-American horizon sat heavy with stars that then rose steadily over our heads. 

I was eighteen and headed back to school following Thanksgiving break.  My parents’ divorce had sent me here—no really.  My mother was in Thousand Oaks, California and my father was in Reston, Virginia.  I chose to split the difference in Pella—home of Pella Rollscreen Windows, Vemeer Rolling Bailers and a small Dutch Reform college, Central College.

I have an odd belief in self-determination and fate—it’s somewhat of an oil and water approach to being that if pushed any further can probably be described best as the philosophy of a dog chasing its tail.  So there I sat on the fourth floor of Hoffman Hall watching the sun set, beautifully I might add, and the stars peppering the darkness much like my ocean crossing years before.

So Fate had brought me here, but I had chosen to get on the bus.

From there it was years of the Suburban/Urban life that pays little heed to the night sky.  The moon still rises, the stars still come out, but they are masked by the human condition that has hazed the skies with breath, exhaust and ennui.   I did little to break that cycle—like most I drove a half an hour to my job five miles away and back, surrendered my thoughts to the television (Stockholm Syndrome if ever there was a case), and generally got by with very little interaction with the night sky.

“………………I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have the wish I wish tonight.”

What would that wish be?

The rural Vermont mantle that sheets me now is again my six year old sky; my eighteen year old sky.  The Milky Way at one end rises from the Woodstock green, arches crookedly over our house and lands solidly towards Killington.  Ursa Major almost always sets ready to empty its contents onto Mt. Tom while Cassiopeia and Orion’s Belt seem not to move far from their usual spots.

The maps I drew as a child are long gone.  My desire to touch down on and to explore those adolescent squiggles mostly fulfilled.

My subway map says “You are Here”, 3 College Hill.  This is where I want to be.

When I see that first evening star, I wish for the health and safety of my family.  That Min will fulfill his destiny—a destiny he chooses, and that Lisa will do the same.

For me?  Well, that when fate delivers me (no self determination here), my destiny complete and when I make my move into the heavens, that that journey begins here–face up and ready to go.

“Make it so, Number One.”

The History of Clouds Part I or a fleeting, purposeful exercise

Posted in Autobiographical, Clouds, Exercise on November 3, 2010 by smpiv

Do you look at clouds?  I do.

Not as I used to as a child.  Not trying to find shapes.  Not looking askance at dark clouds thinking the worst.  No, now I look at them as fellow travelers; as beings that grow and die like I will—imperfect in shape, color and heft, but for the briefest, shining moment when they are noticed by someone like me, beautiful.

Like most of us I enjoy a sunset.  My less than perfect color vision renders them differently than most of you, but the prismic hues still arch through their finite order and infinite tones to tingle my optic nerves.  Clouds, often, standing by to deliver the punch. 

However I tend to enjoy sunrises more.  Perhaps it’s the solitude of the morning as the first light meanders through the hour to light our morning rounds.  Again it’s the clouds that often put an edge on the morning.  Those colors, that reflected light, are much bolder than the waning light of the evening.  Reds, mostly, scorching the underside of a morning, partly clouded sky.

Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.  Red sky at night, sailors delight.

I of course am not the first to take notice of clouds, hardly.  Alfred Stieglitz regaled us with his Equivalents—a number of photographs of clouds that he used as abstracts and an extension of Kandindky’s belief that colors, shapes, and lines reflect the inner self.   

Painters too use clouds in any number of ways to reflect light, project light, and/or to set a mood.  They are, more often than not, used as a supporting cast to define the portrait sitter, the finely stood horse, or as an ominous anvil set over a sailing ship going to sea, or a puffy corsage to greet that same ship on its return.

Some of my favorite clouds are movie clouds.  John Ford often had his cast riding purposefully through Monument Valley with huge puffy, black and white clouds moving just as purposefully across the big Western sky.  I often wonder if they knew they were part of a Western.

The most glaring lack of clouds was 9/11.  A bolt blue sky made a tragic, defining day that much more defined.  No room for interpretation.

So the clouds I look at now are Vermont clouds.  These clouds that come together over the Green Mountains and then to be broken up over those same mountains.  To drop snow when it’s cold enough and rain when it’s not. 

The ones I like best though are the ones that reflect and mirror the mountains.  They are puffy white and move with movie-cloud purpose.  The mountains rise to meet them, but not quite, while the clouds expand and contract as the earthly convections changes from valley to peak.  Their dark shadows expand and contract as they move through those same valleys and peaks.

I love the dynamic movement of this relationship that will only last as long as I look at it.  But, I stare as long as it’s polite and quite often as long as I can safely stay in my lane.

Yes I look at clouds.  Not as I did as a child, but with the same fascination and wonder that made me first look up.  So, please, bury me right side up.