We’re All Friends at the Traffic Court Line Up

Posted on July 24, 2008


I found this entry recently and I thought it was a nice snapshot of the world a couple of years ago. Things happen so quickly now–wars, mobilizations, candidacies and upsets–that it seems easy to forget where we were in 06.  I have to confess to editing it a bit to get rid of some stuff I wasn’t satisfied with and frankly made me cringe–I’m sorry all, there is no such thing as truth. You heard it here first.


A few days after my 37th birthday I was given a ticket for running a red light on a bicycle. This happened in Berkeley. I didn’t know it was a moving violation to run a red light on a bike, I know better now. I expected it to be a symbolic sum, perhaps 100 dollars at the most, but I was wrong about that too. It was four hundred dollars.

Being a poor person, this meant that I had to find a way out of paying the ticket by appearing in person before the judge, who is not actually called a judge in the traffic violation world, but a commissioner, I was to discover. I rescheduled my arraignment for two months later than its original May date. I did not yet know it was an arraignment. Many years ago, when I was a teenager, a trusted adult mentor told me that if I was ever ticketed, to reschedule. More likely than not, he opined, the cop would not bother to come in and the case would be dismissed. Either he was wrong, or I misunderstood, but that is not the way things work.

Firstly, you must arrive at the courthouse at 7 am, one full hour and a half before the courthouse opens, because they only take the first 50 cases, and if you arrive even a half hour later, you’ll miss your chance. When I got there, I recognized one of my fellow traffic violators as someone I had worked with at a temp assignment, which, in strange twist had begun a day after I received the ticket months earlier. We began to chit-chat. There was no line as yet and everyone was waiting around lazily in their own fifedoms around the closed courthouse. A non-descript white guy in his twenties arrived with a little fold out stool and set it up in front of the doors just next to us, his back turned to the rest. He was muttering something about how he must seem crazy to everyone there, which he did due to the muttering, but that was revealed to be only a conversation he was having with someone else through one of those cellular phone borg units embedded in his ear. His pushy attitude prompted a heated exchange with another violator, a Jamaican guy, but after a shout or two they both realized that they knew one another from a couple of days earlier, when neither had known how particular the court was about its max 50 limit, and both had been turned away as number 51 and 52 respectively. The debate encouraged everyone to line up, which all agreed to be a good thing ten minutes or so later when about 60 additional violators all showed up at once.

I was third in line, behind the guy I knew vaguely from my previous job, who was behind the obnoxious white guy. Behind me a white woman and a guy who was unidentifiable, but I assumed was Latino had started a conversation. I usually don’t make so much of race, or I do, but not in my writing. But I find it to be of interest here. My acquaintance asked me what I did and I told him about the book I’m writing, with its liminal characters caught in the post-millenial transnational era of the double 00’s in Ramallah and Manhattan. A few minutes later, the unidentifiable guy asked me about an Arabic tatoo that I had, which prompted him to tell me that he was a Mizrahi Israeli with an Iranian father and an Iraqi mother. I told him that I had been in Palestine in 2000, which he tried to work with, to his credit, but ultimately found to be a conversation stopper. I returned to my conversation with this companion that I did not really know. The woman revealed herself to be a South American Jew from Ecuador and she and the Mizrahi dove hungrily into a conversation about Israel’s latest invasion of Lebanon. Which is really what this is all about.

Just yesterday I was walking around downtown San Francisco on a lunch break from a mind-numbing temp job. I had been entering the names of board members of a rather big and disgusting corporation that I am not at legal liberty to divulge the name of, because my employment was contingent on signing a confidentiality agreement. It was as tedious and depressing as anyone might imagine but it didn’t bother me as much as it might have because I was too upset at what was going on in the world to notice. For the last few years, after I arrived from Palestine, and after all the health problems I’ve had–which I’ve always viscerally felt were caused by my time there–I’ve focused on the day, on the hour, on getting the most I could out of life. To this end I’ve written my book and spent the remaining time trying to freelance enough money to survive and just looking to have fun. I was afraid that if I focused too strongly again on political issues concerning the Middle East, the unquenchable rage within me would be resurface, and it almost destroyed what little life I had left when I returned from Ramallah in 2002. I’d ignored the build up to the Iraq invasion and then the war, and then the occupation. Who knows what I would have done to damage my life and the lives of those around me if I hadn’t. I’ve flirted with the hard stuff, but only for brief moments of writing this blog, holding my breath as if diving for a ring and then coming back up for air.

But this has been different. I am angry. I appear to be standing still but at my core I am oscillating at a speed beyond measure and a molecular chain reaction is waiting to be triggered. I surveyed the San Francisco lunch time foot traffic, people laughing, shopping, talking about television shows and iPods. This is a nation at war, and this is the face of the nation at war, a nation that does not care who wins today’s battle or yesterday’s; does not want to be bothered with the news of the dead, neither ours nor theirs; does not care if the war lasts one more year, or twenty.What would it take for Americans to live the war that they claim to be fighting? I wanted to do something, something that would stop the traffic and the lunches and shut off the ipods. But I found that each idea required a greater committment than I was prepared to make. It was not that I was scared to do them, it was only that I knew that once I did there was no turning back and I would never have the normalcy that I had promised myself as the pay off for my wasted political life. I knew that this moment in time requires just such a committment. But I didn”t want to be the one who made it. And I returned, defeated, to the little cubicle and the meaningless data entry which I am sworn to keep secret.

Back at the courthouse, the white guy turned around, rudely butting into the conversation behind me, and scoffing at the others for being too liberal–presumably for even trying to divine Hezbollah’s rationale and wondering if Israel’s response might be a tad harsh. I’m Israeli, the Mizrahi said, as a qualifier for the explanation he was about to give. But he never got the chance, for the white guy said, I am too, so what. Another guy got into it from the back of the line. I tried to ignore the conversation, my acquaintance tried to help me. But I felt that if it went any further, I would explode. And I finally blurted out that we were all waiting to deal with traffic tickets, and this was the last place to have an ethnic and political melee. It was awkward, but they all paused and few minutes later, we entered the courthouse. People remarked at how the metal detector was even more stringent than at the airport. We took out our keys, buzzed, took off our belts, buzzed, buzzed again and then took off our shoes, and hobbled in our socks to the courtroom with our arms full of our sundries and shoes so that we wouldn’t lose our place in line. I got seperated from the little clatch I’d been party to, and watched them further on down the line as they talked about other things.

I got into a conversation with the older black guy behind me and he told me that my strategy would not work, for I would have to plead not guilty to get a court date and then I would have to pay the fine as bail in any case, or go to jail. He laughed and shook his head when I told him that I had run the red light on a bicycle.

As we waited on the long bench in front of the courroom the conversation turned away from geopolitics, the white Israeli guy, the Jamaican guy and the older black guy who’d been behind me in line were all sitting next close to me and we talked about the World Cup and Zinedine Zidane’s headbutting, and though the Israeli guy commented that the Algerian should be kicked out of France. I was glad when the Jamaican guy gave him a dirty look. The white guy melloed and changed the subject and we shared our strategies to reduce the impact that our respective violations would have on our lives. Fight, you gotta fight all the way, the older black man said suddenly. They want you to give up and plead guilty. But you need to go all the way with them. Somehow the conversation went on to pot, then to the three strikes law and everyone had a ridiculous story about that–about the guy serving 50 years for stealing pizza, and the other guy doing life for taking his cousin’s written driving test for him. Then we talked about the prison industrial complex and how prisoners were making 10 cents an hour to put together Victoria’s Secret lingerie. Then the Israeli guy remarked that this was a depressing conversation. There was silence for a moment, and then I opened up the paper. The front page must have set off the older black guy, because he said that this was what the government was trying to do. Put Iraqis and Afghanistanis in little courtroom waiting room’s like this. This was the democracy we were spreading. The words veered close to poignancy, but ultimately they made no sense and it suddenly struck me as the funniest thing I’d heard anyone say in days and I laughed hard enough to make many people look away uncomfortably.

We were given a stern talk by the bailiff, who lined us up against the wall, and told us that there would be no newspapers allowed in the courtroom, no gum chewing, no hats and no talking. Anyone caught in violation of these rules would be sent home and have to come back tomorrow to start the whole process once again. Not surprisingly, he received an astounding amount of compliance. We were ushered into the courtroom and I sat in silence in the same row next to the South American woman, the acquaintance and the Mizrahi, though now we were prohibited from speaking.

After watching a video that made it clear that there was no escape once caught in the maw of the traffic court, I decided to plead no contest and request community service and was given a staggering 35 hours, a 40 dollar fine and, in a complete non-sequitur, a point on my driving record. I sat down with the bailiff, who was surprisingly friendly, to do my final paperwork and he asked me if he was pronouncing my name correctly, to which I responded that he wasn’t and that the J was pronounced as an H. He replied, in surprisingly good Spanish, that he was from Hispaniola, which he clarified, in English, was the island shared by Haiti and the Dominican Republic, and smiled widely.

When I left, I was no longer thinking about Lebanon or Palestine, about the American-Lebanese forced to pay a repatriation fee for their evacuation by the US government for the bombing campaign financed by their tax dollars, about the 10 to 1 ratio of Arab-Israeli life-worthiness, about the horrifying inferno of Iraq. And I think, that when they come for us, if they ever come, whoever they may be, justified or not, to make us pay, that I’d say I should get in the line just like everyone else.