Thursday morning, 8:30am. C and I arrived at the downtown municipal courthouse for my small claims case, scheduled for 8:45. It was a cold, gray day; we had parked a quarter of a mile away at the only meter we saw, filled it full of quarters, and made our way to the large cement compound underneath the rolling clouds. Shivering as the rush of outside air followed us in through the heavy glass doors, we were greeted by four buzzing security lanes, with queues of strangers lined up, ready to strip off their belts and coats. A woman asked to look through my purse. I told her to go for it. C commented quietly that it was the most unpleasant place he’d ever been in, and he couldn’t imagine going to work every day in a place so bleak. I agreed; it was bizarre.
As if the existing similarities to an airport weren’t already enough, we made our way over to a wall with huge flat screens suspended from the ceiling in front of it, constantly flashing to the next list of names and court cases scheduled for that day. We had just missed my name, and had to wait two full minutes before it came up again. FARRIS, ALICIA - COURTROOM 5D.
I have to admit, I was pretty nervous leading up to this. I had never had any reason to be in a courthouse, and this wasn’t the kind C and I would be visiting in the coming year or so. I had the irrational sensation that I’d done something wrong; I felt like the one on trial, rather than the one calling for judgement. It was the most drastic version of conflict resolution you could get—and I’m not one who feels comfortable with conflict. Taking someone to court? It was easy to see how people decide to walk away. But this was a two thousand dollar mess, and I needed help cleaning it up.
We got to courtroom 5D and sat down in the sparsely populated chambers. I could feel my hands grow clammy as I looked around the room and watched clerks, the bailiff, and several lawyers in variances of attire, from blown-out, grayish numbers to slick pinstripes with alligator shoes, entering. The fluorescents were glaring down at us delinquents, sitting quietly behind the swinging wooden gate. The lawyers took their seats in the space normally designated for the jury, and the pews on which we sat began to fill up. The bailiff took a stance in front of the pews and called out to everyone already there:
“Will anyone who is not here for a case please wait out in the hallway. Space is limited, and it’s going to get a little crowded in here.”
Instinctively I squeezed C’s hand even tighter, but he’d already stood up.
“I’ll be waiting outside, honey. I’ll see you when you get out.”
I shook my head nervously, but reluctantly acquiesced to his departure. About one minute after I watched him disappear through the double doors, my phone buzzed.
Everything will be fine. You have done nothing wrong. You know what you’re going to say.
I love you.
Fifteen more minutes went by before the room was entirely full of people, and it started to look like something might actually happen. After C left, a scared-looking twenty-something girl found her way towards me and sat down. Like me, she had copious folders and notes, as well as printed screenshots of text messages that she was furiously dog-earing for easy access. It was more under her breath, but out of sheer anxiety, she spoke just loud enough for me to hear.
“Ugh, I hate this.”
“You okay?” I said, sensing she needed an anchor.
“Yes, it’s just awful. This place. I feel like I’ve done something wrong just by having to come here.”
“I know!” I exclaimed at my newfound kindred spirit. “I had to do it, though, it was just too much money to let this thing go. An employer refused to pay me.”
“Oh wow, I’m sorry to hear that. Mine is a roommate thing.” She paused, and looked down at the text messages, shaking her head. Not trying to pry, I let her sentence dangle there. She elaborated further:
“I had this girl taking our rent check for me to the landlord, but turns out she’d been pocketing the money the entire time.” I gasped, in spite of how jittery I was. “I had no idea she was doing it, until I got an eviction notice.”
She held up the letter with prominent, bolded text I could clearly read: YOU MUST VACATE BY MAY 1ST. My heart ached for her.
“I work as a nurse in a prison, and this whole thing makes me more nervous than anything else.”
I wrestled out of my speechless mouth a few words of comfort, and you-got-this-girl’s. She was incredibly prepared for whatever was coming next, judging by all the files she had ready. I just marveled at how a grown, albeit petite woman who administers medical exams to convicts on a daily basis being intimidated by a talk-her-way-out-of-anything lowlife who stole her money. It blew my mind.
At ten past nine, the judge took the bench and the docket was read. It seemed like hundreds of cases were named, although the total was probably more around 50. Nearly the first half were all just corporation names versus people who inexplicably hadn’t shown up. Many of the lawyers present spoke for these corporations, calling out “Plaintiff” when a particular company’s name would be read, with the judge most often saying “Default” after a round of silence ensued and no one rose to argue their case. After a few minutes of Name of Case - “Plaintiff” - “Default” in rapid-fire succession (I learned that the pinstriped, alligator-booted lawyer represented Geico), the docket switched to calling only people’s names versus other people’s names. My case was the third one called. “ALICIA MORGAN FARRIS VERSUS JERROLD CHRISTIE” said the clerk. I rose.
“I’m Alicia Farris” I said, meekly.
“You are?” The judge said pointedly, with powerful resolution. I nodded, “Yes sir.”
A brief pause, as he looked around the room for Jerry. No Jerry.
“Default” he said, in a bored tone. I confusedly sat back down, and looked at my new friend.
“What does that mean, Default?!” I said, slightly panicky.
“It means you won by default, guess you don’t have to stand up there after all!” She seemed happy for me, which made it all the more depressing when she stood up for her case, and across the room, the lowlife roommate stood up too. Resigned to her fate, she sat back down and began to prepare with even more fervor. The docket was read and the court took a recess, and she and I went our separate ways.
The bailiff told me that default cases like mine would be read in about ten minutes before the court starts back full force, and I would be done soon. I thanked him and went out to tell C before returning to my seat. In less than two minutes, they called my name.
“Alicia Morgan Farris.”
I approached the bench. “Yes, that’s me.”
“You are suing Jerrold Christie for how much?”
My mind went absolutely blank. The frozen, slippery files in my brain were shut tight as I clawed at them for an answer.
“U-uh, I believe, it was n-ninteen hundred forty five.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“I’m absolutely sure I wrote it down correctly, what does it say on the—“
“I’m asking you.”
“Yes, it’s nineteen hundred forty five plus court costs.”
“That’s included automatically. I’m going to need you to speak to the judge since you’re not entirely sure on the amount.”
I was flattened. Stupid, stupid brain. I of course checked my files as soon as I got back to the pew and of course it was $1945.00, as clear as day. But now I’d have to speak to a damn judge.
After fifteen minutes more and a couple of fibbing texts to C (They need me to speak to a judge after all! It won’t be long, I guess it was just too much money.. ), the judge entered the courtroom again and called my name second, after a twelve thousand dollar case concerning a botched construction job and a flighty contractor. I felt my worry ease a bit, because their case remained default, in their favor.
The judge called me up and stared me down with steely green eyes. He had a low, gruff voice and the thick mustache of a Texas State Trooper.
“So you are suing Jerrold Christie AND Nashville Piano Rescue?”
“Yessir. They’re the same person; it’s his own small business, he owns it.” I stammered, hearing my Texas accent start to peek out of a normally unflappable newscaster timbre.
“And how did you arrive at this figure?”
“I tuned pianos ‘forim in January to May of last year, and he did not pay me for the final two months.”
“But how did you specifically arrive at 1,945 dollars? Is that an arbitrary figure?”
Man, I thought. He is really grilling me on this freaking total. What about mister and missus twelve thousand over there?
“They’re a collection of individual tunings that I did ‘forim that he didn’t pay me for, sir. Each of those tunings collectively add up to one thousand, nine hundred and forty-five dollars.”The judge sat back, and looked at the clerk.
“I’m ruling your case as default, this ruling will not be final for ten days, during which the other party can appeal. After those ten days you can return and begin the collections process.”
In the car on the way home, I had a sinking, sad feeling. I tried to talk it through with C, but he couldn’t understand.
“But you won.”
“I know that, I just, felt so defeated being there. Even though I won, with the ten days he can appeal and having to return again if he doesn’t and begin the collections process, I feel like there is so much in the way of me getting the money I worked for.”
“But that’s the point” he said, exasperated. “If it were so easy, many more people would be calling people to court and getting their money when they don’t show up. The process is difficult because it’s supposed to be. You have to file a claim, get up early, and go to the worst court in the world with the most unhappy people working there and plead your case.”
Somehow it made me feel better; I’m not sure how. Maybe it was just imagining big, shiny letters above the gray building we just left, and to which I would soon be returning, reading:
THE WORST COURT IN THE WORLD