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 went through.

"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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