What happened to courthouses? They used to build them up dark, concrete and grey. Slick, thick, powerful slabs of concrete, maybe a couple of stoic lion sculptures at the base of a daunting stairway. Superior, you know? Something you might see in Gotham. Something you would see Bruce Wayne walking in front of. No. What we have now is a hollowed out preschool building turned courthouse. We also have a mental health facility and a public library in the same complex of buildings. Down the street, a sports park. Very family oriented. Very friendly. Very pre-manufactured.
You pull into a parking lot too small filled with SUVs too large and families walking with McDonald's bags too full. Outside the preschool-- excuse me, the "Superior Courthouse"-- a string of people are lined up, arms folded, citations, papers, and cell phones in hand. The melting pot meets here to deal with the Man. Slowly, we file in.
A skateboarder who didn't wear his helmet. A proud mother who plans to dispute a ticket her sixteen year old daughter received last Friday. The sixteen year old on her cell phone, smacking some gum and bantering with a friend about what an idiot "Chad" is. A kid I recognize from high school. A roughed-up lookin' landscaper who works at Pechanga Casino. A woman and her daughter looking at cell phone pictures and laughing. A middle-aged woman violently huffing air and looking at her watch, rubbing her temples, looking toward the sky and mumbling what seem to be small prayers. A man with a funny lookin' haircut and and a young son with the same funny lookin' haircut. A pair of twin girls tapping their feet incessantly. An old man who reads his book out loud and doesn't realize it. And Debra, the tired old lady who is directly behind me in line.
Debra wears burgundy scrub pants, those sterile white nursing shoes, a floral smock, and a matching burgundy coat. Her hair is silver and held back with a floral hair clip. She looks like the standard nurse, except she seems way too old. Two glossy, cataract eyes and a sun-beaten face with the marks to prove it. Retired nurse, maybe? One who enjoyed the beach?
I saw Debra earlier in the parking lot. Actually, I let her have the open space that was made available when a hot shot backed out his Caddy. I waved her in, and she gave me the head nod of gratitude. I still beat her to the line, though. I am young and she is old with a titanium knee.
I know she has a titanium knee because she made sure that I knew standing in long lines is "extremely painful" for her and that she hates it very much. She told me this after she noticed that I was pretty tall and asked if she could stand behind me in order to block her from the sun because she "burns so easily." I laughed. "Of course you can," I said. "I also burn easily." She closely examined my face and said, "Oh, that's right! You sure do." Debra pokes my back with her pudgy fingers and points to the young man a few spots ahead of me. "You're out of fashion," she tells me with a smile. I glance at the young man and notice that he is wearing extremely baggy, loose-fitting pants with a shirt twice the length of my own. I half-laugh. "Oh, ha ha. Well, I guess I am not very cool, but at least I am comfortable," I tell her. She says, "Well, I guess you and I are just the oddballs here, aren't we?" "Yep. Such is life" I say. So, now I know that Debra has a titanium knee, a distaste for the sun and baggy pants, but a love for floral print. I also know she is eager for a little conversation by the way she keeps telling me her thoughts. There are at least thirty-five people in front of us and the line is moving at a grueling pace. "So, were you a bad boy?" Debra asks me ten minutes later. "Ha ha, yes, unfortunately I was caught speeding in a construction zone and, well, here I am paying it off. You?" She tells me she ran a stop sign. "Oops," she says. I can't seem to think of anything else to say after I answer her questions or respond to her small statements. A series of half-laughs and a slow turn back in line. I have never been good at small talk. Either I am really going to get to know you, or not at all. Especially in line at a courthouse. Sad, I know, but small talk is just not my thing. Sorry, Debra. I am getting hungry and now that the line is finally inside the courthouse, I am getting stuffy and cranky, too. It has been nearly an hour and a half of standing in line, 4 o' clock, and Debra says, "Are they going to feed us dinner, too?" Half-laugh and, "I sure hope so! I am hungry!" The clerk calls me forward, finally. I look back at Debra and smile and say "Almost your turn."
I pay my ticket and begin to walk past maybe fifty people who were behind me. They stare me up and down because they have nothing better to do in that stupid line. I am flapping my receipt and walking with a little more enthusiasm through the gauntlet. I walk to my car and see Debra's purple Tercel where I let her take that hot shot's parking space. I stop and think to myself as I put my car in gear, "Debra might go home alone tonight with her titanium knee, her distaste for the sun and baggy pants, her love for floral print, and her hungry belly."I think about where I am going: a warm house with a loving family, friends, and food. I think, "Maybe I am the only person Debra will have spoken to today. Maybe I should have let her in a little bit more."
I think more.