Sunday, May 06, 2007

Odor in the Court

There are eight million stories in the Naked City--and they're all crammed into landlord tenant court.

At least that's what it seemed like to me last week when I went down to the courthouse on Livingston Street.

I was there to attend a hearing to evict the animals who had been occupying the upstairs apartment of my family's house--until they took off in February without so much as a by your leave, as my dear mother used to say.

In my mind, though, this was an exorcism, a holy ritual to drive these vile tenants, these two-legged rats, out of my ancestral home and back to the depths of hell from whence they came.

So, yeah, I don't like these people. And I have to say that being forced to give up my morning, show up late for work, and waste three hours in court waiting for a two-minute procedure has done nothing to improve my opinion of them.

But it was necessary. We had to go through this routine because even though these bums are gone from the property, we need an official order to get the city marshals up there to clear the place out.

If not, these larcenous leeches could come slinking on back and say we stole or damaged their precious property. Knowing them, they'd probably claim they had Rodin's The Thinker up there.

The hearing was scheduled for 9:30 a.m. and I figured that since it was in downtown Brooklyn, it wouldn't take long to get there.

Now I work in lower Manhattan, just two stops away from the Court Street station, but somehow I thought I'd roll out of bed and pop up in the judge's chambers all fresh and ready to go. Oh, the power of denial.

I totally misjudged the time, of course, but I would have been okay if I hadn't arrived at Bay Ridge Avenue just in time to see the R train pulling out of the station. This has been happening to me a lot lately and I'm starting to take it personally.

This was the worst kind of miss, too; where you walk down the stairs at the brief quiet period when the train is in the station and the doors are open. Then you hear that obnoxious ding-dong--which sounds a lot like loo-zer!--and you know you don't have a hope in hell of catching that bastard.

I even tried pantomime pleading with the conductor, opening my big brown eyes nice and wide and cocking my head like a dog begging for a biscuit. But the putz in the control booth was immoveable, unlike the train, which hauled ass out of the station and left me on the platform.

All right, so I wait for the next train. And I wait. And then I wait some more. I was really trying to do the whole Zen-mindfulness-Buddhist monk routine, but it was just rolling me off as I thought our lawyer throwing his hands up in frustration while the judge got ready to can my keester on contempt charges.

The train finally pulls in, I get on, and instead of roaring out of the station like the one I had missed, this anemic R limps out of the station like a wounded lamb. I start doing my out-patient low-breath mumble and people in the car are moving away from me.

In desperation I hop on the N train at 59th Street in the lame hope I'll catch up with that first R train--I'm determined to catch that bugger. Naturally, that train was well on its way to Montreal and I end up on Pacific Street waiting for its dim-witted cousin to crawl into the station.

Here Come Da Judge...Eventually

Okay, I get to Court Street, dash down to Livingston Street, run into the lobby of the Kings County Courthouse, ditch my property into a plastic try and waltz through the metal detector on the first try; I didn't even get the wand.

I run to the elevator bank to catch a ride to the fifth floor, but the elevators and the subways are apparently operating on the same schedule. I see a mob of people all staring up at the floor display signs as if waiting for a message from God. Or perhaps an elevator, but it looked like neither one was going to show up any time soon.

I look at this situation calmly and logically: I've been cursed. I've offended some witch doctor or minor league deity and now I'm going to be brutally reamed by the judge.

I find a flight of stairs and up I go, just weeks away from turning 50, I'm running up five flights like Dirty Harry racing to put the kibosh on a rampaging pyscho.

I get to the courtroom, finally figure out what number to tell the court office so I get on the hearing list, and then I slide into one of the benches, where I wait. And I wait. And then I wait some more.

Th e place stinks--literally. The ventilation is bad and the air reeks of confinement and despair. The room fills up quickly with bodies and I realize no one is waiting for me to get the party started. The wheels of justice really do grind slowly, when they grind at all.

I'm one of the few Caucasians in the room and probably one of the few landlords, which usually go hand-in-hand around this place. The players--lawyers, clerks, and other such courthouse veterans--stand out because they walk around confidently, greeting each other with a smile and cracking jokes while the rest of us sit with our heads hanging low.

I'll bet a lot of these people are victims of unscrupulous landlords, forced to live in freezing, rat-infested hellholes. Years ago The Daily News dubbed one especially vicious property owner "The Dracula Landlord." And each year The Village Voice nominates the worst landlord in New York, but I swear it's not me.

My sister and I became landlords by default, after my father got too sick to run the place on his own. We're good landlords, I want to say to all these people around me, we ain't Dracula.

Since I don't know what my lawyer looks like--my sister made the initial contact--I eyeball every white guy in a suit who walks into the room. But I don't get any response and I'm starting to wonder if I've been stood up.

I'm sitting next to this young black woman and her beautiful little daughter, who was about four years old. Instead of being miserable, I decide to have some fun, so I start making goofy faces at her. She responds by poking me every time I look away and then pointing to her mother as the guilty party.

"It's him," she keeps saying earnestly.

We're having fun until my lawyer--it feels strange to say that--shows up. He tells me that we have to wait for my tenants to be officially called by the judge. When they fail to appear, we can get the order.

So finally the clerks call out the hated names--yuck! phtooey!--and my lawyer gives me the signal and I head out the door with him, pausing briefly to wave goodbye to my little buddy. The hallway is jammed with more bodies, as lawyers and their clients huddle wherever they can and discuss what's going to happen next.

The place is filled with so many different ethnicities the U.N. should open a branch office down here. My lawyer moves swiftly, clearly knowing the terrain and how to maneuver around inert objects. I follow him into an office filled with even more people, all silent, all seated, all looking down at the floor.

My lawyer speaks with a young Irish-looking man behind a desk for a few minutes and as they talk, I notice a small, framed black-and-white photograph of a police officer on the desk. The resemblance to the young man is incredible, clearly that's his father in the photo, and I wait for a break in the conversation to ask about the photo.

"Let's go," my lawyer says and sprints out of the office.

That's My Boy

Whoosh, he's gone and I'm being pulled by his slipstream, but I linger for a few seconds and point to the picture.

"I'm curious," I say, "is that your dad?"

The young man makes this sad, wisful smile and nods. There's so much emotion in his face, I know his father must be dead.

"Yeah," he says.

I know there's more he wants to tell me and I want to hear it, but I can't lose sight of my lawyer or I may never get out of this place. I guess I'm feeling a little ashamed because my father's memory doesn't make me smile like that. I don't have his picture on my desk.

Like all of us, my father had his faults, but he had this way of inflicting them upon his family that is very difficult to deal with sometimes. I still feel angry when I think about our confrontations over the years and I really do try and think about the good times we had as a family and how he supported me when I was at my worst.

Maybe this man's father died when he was a child, so he only has fond memories of his dad. His old man didn't get a chance to grow old, there wasn't time for the relationship to hit the inevitable bumps along the road, so now he holds a sacred place in his son's heart. And maybe I got it all wrong.

We go before another judge in another courtroom and my lawyer exchanges pleasantries with her about a vacation he took to Ireland. When he asks me for the deed to the house, I hand my copy to him and his face promptly falls five floors down to the lobby.

"This is no good," he blurts, holding the deed as if it's diseased. "We need the original!"

My stomach starts doing back-flips. I look in my bag, but I know that's the only paperwork I have and if it's no good, that means I'll have to come back here again and relive this nightmare. If a Buddhist monk would freak out at that possibility.

The lawyer starts babbling something about going to the hall of records nearby and getting a proper deed, which means more time on the clock, more time away from my job, and more time around here.

"But let me ask the judge first," he says.

Yes, let's do that. Let's ask the judge who is running this show. And the judge takes one look at the photocopy and says it's just fine. The lawyer shifted from zero to panic in under two seconds and for absolutely no reason. And he's supposed to be on my side.

I have to raise my hand and swear to the particulars in the case, who owns the house, who were the tenants, and so forth. I answer a few questions, the judge approves the order, and the lawyer turns around and asks me for a check for $900.

Did Perry Mason ever demand payment so quickly? You never saw him taking money from anybody and he got people off death row.

It would have made for some interesting TV if old Raymond Burr turned to his client once the real murderer confessed before a whole courtroom full of witnesses and said, "all right, sweetcheeks, show me the money."

I hand over the check and I hear the judge offering the lawyer her condolences. It seems his father died just a few weeks ago. I express my sympathies and tell him about losing my dad in January. I'm thinking about the young man and his black and white photo and all these sons who have no fathers.

The lawyer gives me his card and vanishes into the crowded hallway. I take the stairs again and in a few minutes I'm back on the R train heading for work.

I said before that this was a necessary procedure and I think it was necessary in other ways. As awful as this morning was, I think it was important that I go through it, that I see people in such difficult situations to remind me how lucky I am to have always lived with a roof over my head.

Lesson learned, but please don't make me go back there.

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