A week in jail. . .
I've spent a few hours behind bars in my life, though never a full day. And, truth be told, except for the incident where my arrest was brought about by a screw up on behalf of the court clerk, my incarceration came as a direct result of my own idiocy -- a self-perpetuating kind of idiocy that stemmed from my enthusiastic embrace of Demon Rum. But, the few hours I did spend in a drunk tank followed by the next few in a holding cell left me with an appreciation for everything from freely available cigarettes to meteorology, as I stepped out into the sun after a night, and the better part of a morning, in a facility where "climate control" is dictated by the calendar with no window to open, or jacket to put on. I don't care if you live in the Arctic Cirlcle, there is nothing as cold as an air conditioned county jail in August. Nor is there anything quite as idyllic as a humid, 90-degree August morning in western Kentucky.
So, I had a natural sympathy for this client as I hauled him around town to a Western Union, a K-Mart, and eventually the motel where he'd be staying until his court appearance. He seemed like a reasonably sharp guy (apparently, he works in nuclear decontamination) whose brush with the law came about as a result of standing a little too close to the bottle. His more extended stay in the lockup, according to the story he told me, was supposedly the product of trusting a girlfriend to pay some fines he'd racked up in a previous booze related brush. Obviously, self-perpetuating idiocy strikes again.
Jail time can affect people in different ways. It can cause you to sharpen your focus on the consequences of the decisions you make in your life, or it can teach you a lot about the legal system in preparation for your inevitable next encounter with it. Unfortunately, it seems to create more jailhouse lawyers than upright citizens. In my case, as I sat there listening to the other guys in the holding cell discussing sentencing and probation prospects, it occurred to me that several of them could be making good money if they hadn't taken such a hands-on approach to the law. They seemed to be at peace with, and somewhat proud of, the fact that they were going to be there long after I was gone. When asked why I was in, I said I'd been picked up for DUI and driving on an expired license. When asked how many DUI's I'd had, I told them it was my first offense. This elicited a scoff.
"Aww, man. Pffft! That ain't shit." There's something reassuring in being told you are completely inept at lawlessness by someone so seasoned. After several hours of worry and self-flagellation over the notion that your life is ruined, it's comforting to have everything put in context by a man who faces the prospect of spending months, perhaps years, locked in a battleship grey cell within a building that reeks of urine. It makes you want to come back on visitation day with a carton of cigarettes and a stack of magazines. This is a short-lived impulse, however. A day or so after getting out, you realize just how little you ever want to see the inside of that building again.
I can't say my experience set me on the course to turn my life around, but it was the first in a series of events over several years that lent sharp focus to my life with regard to choices and consequences. That's not to say it put me on the straight and narrow. What it did was teach me respect for the legal system. And, let's be clear -- that's r-e-s-p-e-c-t, and not l-o-v-e. I was neither chastened, nor embittered by the encounter. I simply came to recognize it for what it is. It's a system that exists within the larger system of society, put in place to establish and enforce rules for the way its members conduct themselves.
As such, it's in the best interest of every member of society to know as much about the law as he can. Failing that, you need a lawyer. As much as I've railed against lawyers in my life, they are a necessary fact of modern life. Because, while you may be going about your life in a way that respects the law of the land, and recognizes and accepts its limits and the consequences of failing to abide by it, there are people out there busily working to create more laws to govern your conduct. In fact, at this very moment, there are people in my town who are seeking to further restrict the number of places I can legally smoke, and at what hour of the evening.
Yes, there are a lot of lawyers out there who qualify for the "shark" label, irredeemably bereft of conscience. The names "Mark Geragos" and "the late Johnny Cochran" flash in neon crimson as I type. But, at the same time, there are laws on the books that are just as blind to circumstances and designed to claim victory regardless of whether or not the quaint notion of justice is being done. And, while your average cop may be everything that we hope to have in those whose calling it is to serve and protect the decent people of society, there are also cops out there who find sport in taking people down a notch or two, if only because their jobs dictate that they see the worst elements in society on a daily basis.
For every head-knocking dirty cop, there's one who loses his life trying to protect ordinary citizens and provide for his family. And, for every Rolex-flashing shyster who gets a meth dealer off on a technicality, there's an attorney who's working to keep a young mother from spending time in jail because of a single roach found in an ashtray. While it may be fun to paint with broad brushes -- you won't find a bigger fan of lawyer jokes than me -- it really doesn't paint an accurate picture. That said:
A man was walking around a seaside tourist area, checking out the various antique shops in search of unique collectibles when he saw a large brass sculpture of a rat in the window. He felt oddly drawn to the sculpture, having never seen anything quite so ugly, yet interesting, in his life. He walked in and asked the man at the register, "How much for the brass rat?"
The old man smiled and said, "Well, it's $75 for the rat -- but, it'll cost you another $100 for the story behind it."
The tourist said, "Well, it's interesting enough as it is, so I think I'll just take the rat." The old man took his money and pulled the sculpture out of the window and handed it to him. "I'll see you in a little while," he said with a wink.
As the tourist walked along the pier carrying his rat, he heard some scratching and squeaking behind him. He turned around to see what it was, and saw a few dozen live rats following him. A little alarmed, he picked up his pace -- only to hear the noise grow louder and closer. He turned again to see that there were now hundreds of rats following him along the pier. At that, he picked up his pace to a jog -- not sure what to do.
Still, the noise grew louder and louder the further he went. He turned again, and saw that there were now thousands of rats chasing him, so he broke into a dead run, and headed for the end of the pier. By the time he reached the end, the noise was intolerable. By now, he was absolutely petrified and mortified by the noise and the sight of all the rats. Out of breath, and unable to escape the teeming mass of rodents, he tossed the heavy brass sculpture into the ocean.
He watched in disbelief as what seemed to be an endless number of rats jumped into the water after the sculpture, seeming to sacrifice their lives to the idol. Once all the rats had jumped off the pier, the shock wore off and he was able to compose himself, he headed back to the little antique shop where he purchased the sculpture.
Upon arriving, the old man was looking at his watch laughing. "I figured you'd be walking in right about now. I guess you want to hear the story behind the rat, now."
"No," said the tourist. "I just wondered if you had any brass lawyers."