I hate district court.
Used to love it, now I hate it.
In Lewiston, 8th District used to be on Park Street. It was a convenient location where we media types could huddle in cologne-reeking clumps to watch accused criminals on their walks of shame. We'd stand on the sidewalk, elbowing each other for position, while the inmates were led across Park Street like models on a dusty catwalk.
"Leon the strangler is wearing a bright orange jumpsuit, his inmate number stenciled on the breast, both informative and stylish."
"And here comes Raynald, accused of burning down a bar because he didn't like a song on the jukebox. He's also wearing bright orange but he has rolled his sleeves a turn and a half. A nice variation that's sure to become a jailhouse trend."
A good time was had by all. But alas, those days are over. These days, 8th District is on Lisbon Street. Criminal suspects are sneaked in through the back, no longer given the opportunity to strut their stuff out on the street. Reporters can hang out on the sidewalks if they want to, but they'll only serve as target practice for the pigeons. There is nobody there to whom we can shout out our intricate, journalistic questions, such as: "So, did you do it? Or what?"
The district court is no fun on Lisbon Street, but it remains popular all the same. So popular, in fact, that the people who designed it felt it necessary to dedicate one whole window to serve everyone who goes there on criminal matters.
Not two windows, three or even four. Just the one.
So it's nearing 4 o'clock on a Thursday, almost closing time at 8th District. My business there will take literally 10 seconds. A quick question, a quick answer and I'm gone. But for now, I'm standing behind a pair of women at the one criminal window. Lots of business, but there's only that one window. In case I haven't mentioned that.
The ladies are mother and daughter, as it turns out. The daughter is very thin and blond. The mother is huskier and dark haired. Both are agitated. They came in to pay off the daughter's fines — part of preparing for a weekend in Lewiston is paying fines to stave off warrants — and found that the total was four figures long instead of three.
"It's ridiculous," the mom says. "I already paid a part of this."
"Totally ridiculous," says her daughter.
"Why," muses the mom. "Why, didn't I keep the receipt?"
"You should have kept the receipt."
She probably would have said more but then her cell phone rang. Her ring tone was some rap song, very loud. She hauled the phone out of her purse and dropped it.
"Part of that is a late fee," the mom is going on at the window. "I was told they were going to waive the late fee."
From where I stood, I couldn't hear the clerk behind the glass. Her face was completely neutral. She even smiled when appropriate. I looked to see if she had bald spots on her head. If I were the clerk at that window, I'd pull out clumps of my own hair until there was nothing left but scabs.
The daughter has made quick work of the phone call and is back next to her mother, who is trying to dicker with the clerk as though she were buying concert tickets. Once again, the court clerk goes through the charges, the fines and everything else that contributes to the total.
The daughter sighs wearily. This is going to take a while. And while I'm sort of enjoying listening to this drama, I feel it would be polite to give the pair some space. You veterans of district court will recognize the misstep at once.
So, all polite, I step away from the line and move to the window that opens onto the vista that is Lisbon Street. A young woman pushing a stroller. A man sitting glumly on a park bench. Holy crap, we have a Lamey-Wellehan? I had no idea.
I've given the ladies their space, but they have no interest in privacy. The more they mull the fines, the louder they become. It's not shouting, exactly. It's more a case of dismay at full volume. The fines and fees now top a thousand dollars. If they can't pay it, there is a good chance that warrants will be issued and the girl will be hauled off to jail. Who wants to go to jail when it's the middle of July and the forecast is grand?
"If I pay this," the mom says, "I want a note stating that the fines have been paid in full."
"With big letters," the daughter adds. She looks drained. Is it irritation that she has to deal with government bureaucracy? Is it shame because her mother has to pony up big money to keep her out of trouble? Is she just tired because her ring tone keeps her up at night?
Could be a little of each. In district court, the people who do business at the criminal window tend to evince either sheepishness or cocky aggression. This young lady exhibits neither. She just looks tired. Perhaps the extent of her criminal history is such that she evolved over the years from sheepishness to aggression and then to this weary state of sighs and four-figure fines.
And speaking of tired, the hot sun blazing in has left me a bit sluggish, as well. I've been standing here for, what? A half-hour? Forty-five minutes?
At last, things seem to be wrapping up at the criminal window. A check is written, a receipt handed over. In the end, mom and her troublesome daughter bound away almost gleefully. Business taken care of. Weekend coming. Let the good times roll.
I turned back to the criminal window. But, lo! The women are gone but two others have crept in to replace them! Now a young man is at the window, waiting for the clerk. A middle-age woman is behind him, murmuring into her cell phone and waiting for her turn. Being polite has burned me once again.
I don't know what the man's business is in court this afternoon, but I hear him sputter this:
"What? That ain't right."
Oh, this will take a while.
I turn to go. The question I had for the clerk probably wasn't all that important to begin with. And you know what? After listening to the drama at the window for nearly an hour, I've completely forgotten what that question was.
Mark LaFlamme is a Sun Journal staff writer. You can test his patience at firstname.lastname@example.org.