Illustration by Ward Sutton
At our house, we don’t get a lot of people knocking on the door. I attribute this to several factors. Factors like the increased isolation of individuals in contemporary American culture; the diversity, ubiquity, and simplicity of telecommunications; speaking to my neighbors exclusively in pig Latin; and a flashing neon sign posted on the front porch that reads, “Try our chicken-fried Jehovah’s Witness.”
So the sharp rap of knuckles on wood was both unusual and unwelcome. That it came during dinner made it untimely and unwelcome. That it was a police officer doing the knocking made it unwelcome and more unwelcome.
I opened the door a few inches. “Robert Woodiwiss?” he asked.
“Depends. How’re you spelling ‘Robert?’” I answered, trying to sound like a film noir tough guy but ineptly giving it an upbeat inflection that made it sound more like a Sesame Street segment.
“I’m spelling it with an umlaut over the ass, wiseass,” I like to remember him saying, though he absolutely did not. Rather, he pushed a piece of paper at me: average 8.5-by-11 build, 20-pound bond, African-American type on Caucasian stock, the word subpoena in large letters at the top. “Everything you need to know is on there,” he said, turning to walk back to his cruiser. In the waning daylight, I read the paper carefully. It didn’t tell me who played Eb on Green Acres or explain why men are expected to put the toilet seat down but women aren’t expected to put it up. Everything I need to know? I thought. Hardly.
Ten days prior:
I was out running, pounding the mean-to-my-knees streets of my urban neighborhood. I’d already logged five miles with another three to go. Four, if I chose to exaggerate by a third. This particular afternoon was sunless and cold with a nasty, gratuitous, insufferable wind, what the National Weather Service calls a Limbaugh Clipper. Exactly the kind of weather that makes Cincinnatians tough enough to endure each other’s winter whining.
As I approached a minor residential intersection, I saw them: a man and woman, walking, 70, 80 yards ahead, other side of the street. She was in front by a step or two and repeatedly turned her head sharply left to 90 degrees, talking at him over her shoulder in a loud voice with a no-nonsense tone.
In my decades of urban core running, I’d often pursued routes through some pretty sketchy areas and had come upon (and galumphed past) couples’ drama several times. Once it was a prostitute asserting herself with a pimp or john. (Naiveté in matters of sexual commerce is one of my best qualities.) Another time, a lady crackhead was stridently chastising her crackhead paramour for some crack-related transgression that I always like to imagine wasn’t so serious a little crack couldn’t patch things up. Then there was the time I witnessed the faithful reenactment of a scene from Divorce Italian Style, but in English and with infinitely less attractive people. Point being, as I ran down the street, I was observing an unremarkable city sidewalk squabble, thought nothing of it, and kept striding.
Until: A handful of footfalls later, the woman’s voice rose, her tone sharpened. My brain, fully re-immersed in my running groove and pickled in endorphins, didn’t register what she’d said. Rather, her speech sounded more like an adult in a Peanuts TV special, immediately raising some concern in me that my allusions had slipped from foreign films to American cartoons. My sense was she’d simply ratcheted up her performance a notch—from, say, “Be gone, sir” to “Be gone, knave.”
Not so. Because she repeated herself. Several times. Same volume, same timbre, same insistently syncopated inflection. But no longer in abstract, trombone-ish blurps—in words. Now, distinctively, I heard:
“Call the PO-lice.” Pause. “Call the PO-lice.” Pause. “Call the PO-lice.” Her request was persistent and unambiguous but oddly lacked exclamation points.
I looked toward the voice. I’d closed the distance, was directly across the street, maybe 20 feet away. They were no longer walking. Instead, she stood with her back against the brick wall of a large apartment building; he was blocking her without contact, the way basketball players used to play defense. I stopped, but unwilling to break my rhythm, lower my heart rate, or slow a potential retreat, continued to run in place.
The woman appeared to be about 50, though, honestly, I stink at that game so take “about” as shorthand for between 35 and 70. She was slight, wiry, looked tough, but tough like a prairie chicken dinner, not like a badger in a fight. Maybe gristly is a better word. The lines in her face weren’t wrinkles but deep ledges running from the bottom of her nose, around the corners of her mouth, down to her chin. Her eyes were brown, her expression depleted. She wore pastel pink jeans and a dingy white sweatshirt emblazoned with a Scooby-Doo logo. Her race was beside the point.
I could only see the guy from behind but made him as the same imprecise age and beside-the-point race. His hair was cropped short and, when he turned toward me, I saw a mustache—a feature that, rightly or wrongly, I associate with men who are too prideful in their dancing. He didn’t strike me as threatening, but then a person incapable of ballparking someone’s age probably can’t be trusted with threat assessment.
“Call the PO-lice,” she said again, this time directing it right at me. I, cell phone-less, coin- and payphone-less, telegraph-less, semaphore flag-less, was unresponsive. “Call the PO-lice.” This time I got the message loud and clear: She wasn’t going to stop shouting that until I did something.
“Hey!” I called, to the man from my safe remove. “Leave her alone!”
To assume the feeble, breathless shout of a sweaty stranger in athletic tights would have no effect in this charged situation would be incorrect. However, the effect was on the woman, not the man. Exploiting my engagement, she now got chatty, delivering, fervently and over the shoulder of her human screen, a soliloquy woven with perfidy and betrayal.
Doing justice to her narrative here is, I confess, beyond my limited powers. Her speechifying compressed hard years into a few ugly minutes, much of it disjointed and rambling, over-rich in detail here, no contextualization there, told with nary a period, several ellipses, and in a vernacular that, while comprehensible in the moment, would be impossible for me to replicate and insulting to mimic.
But, to distill: The man boxing her in is her husband. He’s cheating on her, not for the first time (there are some indications he’s never not cheated on her). She recently tossed him out of their house but he returned while she was out and took her stuff (unitemized). He did this as a ploy to get her back (logic unclear). He refuses to return her stuff and categorically denies being an adulterer, though he’s also paying child support to at least three other women (!). She, The Wife, has a child elsewhere (non sequitur). The Husband’s current actions are an attempt to get back in her good graces and life (dubious strategy). He drinks too much (non sequitur; mazel tov!).
With her story told; The Husband, still hand-checking like Kareem in his prime; and me unwilling to move any closer for fear of a pulled handgun, drawn knife, swinging haymaker, jabbed jab, launched loogy or airborne infectious microorganisms, but loath to leave for fear of abandoning someone in (unwitnessed) danger, we now had a Mexican standoff—though until a weapon was actually pulled, let’s be honest, more of a Canadian standoff.
It was then a man exited the apartment building, headed for his car. I called out. He replied, “Yeah, I have a cell phone.” Praise be! For a picosecond, I was almost semi-convinced we don’t exist in an indifferent, godless universe.
“Call the PO-lice,” rang out once again. What else was there to say?
In truth, plenty. First, the man required much convincing to make the 911 call. He also required much pleading to stay until the police arrived, in case his phone was needed again. Once the police rolled up and the situation was defused, well, the words began to flow in earnest. The Wife, The Husband, and me each speaking our truth. The Rashomon analogy that sprang to mind was reassuringly cine-centric.
In due time, my “information” was taken. I was dismissed. The cops continued interviewing the couple. Now outside the action, I stood shivering in my sweaty clothes. I was three miles from home, far further from warmth.
On the day I was to testify, I got up early and rummaged through my closet for something that’d make me look believable to a jury, a heretofore ignored fashion consideration. A suit? Pretentious. Sports jacket? Car salesman-shifty. Dress shirt with tie, no jacket? Less successful car salesman-shifty. Running low on options, I finally settled on something comfortable, relatable, splitting the difference between business casual and business indifferent.
In the courthouse lobby, I shuffled my way through an unexpected security checkpoint—a gauntlet of conveyor-belted X-ray scanners, metal detectors, and armed guards. The whole process seemed more suited to an airport or a Lil Wayne house party than the justice system. Besides, how safe were any of us, really, with so many lawyers about?
Arriving at the assigned courtroom, I was unsure whether to go in or wait outside. Momentarily flummoxed, I hesitated, hand on door handle. It was then that a white man in a navy blue suit and club tie appeared at my side. I supposed his product-slicked, aerodynamic hair had facilitated his silent, stealthy approach.
“Robert?” he asked. I came close to using my “depends on the spelling” line again but stopped short when I remembered men in suits only laugh at their own jokes.
“Good,” he said. “I’m Jerry Blahblah [not his real name, probably], prosecutor’s office. We’re waiting for the principals in the case to show up. The judge’ll call the case in a few minutes. Why don’t you just wait here?” He indicated a bench across from the courtroom. “I’ll come get you when we’re ready.” He pivoted on his heel and strode away down the long hall. Somehow, he disappeared before reaching the vanishing point.
I took a seat. The bench was uncomfortable (an observation about as keen as “the bacon was delicious” or “the Papa John’s guy sucks”) but I was willing to sit there, working my gluteus to the maximus, for as long as the rule of law demanded, even if that meant the whole (employer paid) workday.
From above and behind, morning sun through large blinds-less windows lit the drab institutional walls that contained me, revealing a high-ceilinged corridor of colorlessness covered in a gritty film of cheerlessness. To my left and right, swarms of humanity busily buzzed, expediting and thwarting jurisprudence according to their nature. Groups of three and four formed and milled about, mostly comprised of a patronizing briefcase carrier in a tailored suit addressing blank-faced, patronization-proof mopes slightly leaning in to the source of the words, the better to understand: obviously a lawyer, less obviously his victim client(s), his perp clients, or relatives of his either-way client(s). Other groups that coalesced in my vicinity were attorneys-only, self-possessed professionals diligently plea bargaining, lunch date arranging, and negative stereotype reinforcing.
None of these klatches lasted more than two or three minutes. Upon dissolving, the individuals would drift into the thick current of jurisprudence participants flowing past. It was this river of others who struck me, though, thank God, not literally, because unsettlingly often they were a matched pair of prisoner and police officer. Yin and yang. Fire and water. Goofus and Shootus. That the uniformed law officers weren’t in the company of colleagues or friends was made clear by the various jumpsuits (neon orange; dull blue; classic black and white horizontal stripes; nouveau pastel orange and white “Creamsicle” stripes), cuffs, shackles, and shoestring-less footwear their companions wore.
This parade of misfortune was visual heroin; it was impossible to look away. Prisoners, captives, the incarcerated, the unfree, the custodialized, all right here. Not peering out from a wanted poster or grainy newspaper photo. Not perp-walking for the news shooters. But in three dimensions, taking up space and sharing the common air. Their mugs all too human, divulging resignation, humiliation, wrath, emptiness, defenselessness, and all too frequently the teeth of a sugar-gobbling hockey enforcer. Their bodies—the exposed arms and necks and peeks of belly below too-short shirts—were canvases of tattoos, prison crude to parlor lavish, accented by scars and gashes and scabs and bruises, some disturbingly fresh, others faded. These were damaged men (well, overwhelmingly men) who’d done damage. Possibly. I did my best to withhold judgment. Of course, my dispassion wouldn’t be the most memorable moment of their day.
I sat for 40 minutes. Mesmerized. Ass aching in the background. Until, out of nowhere, Jerry Blahblah appeared.
“You can go,” he said.
“To the courtroom?” I asked.
“No. Home. Work. Whatever,” he clarified. “The woman didn’t show. Case dismissed. Happens a lot. Thanks for coming in.” With that, Jerry withdrew, off to his next attempt at doing meaningful work. I just sat. Looking credible.
A couple weeks later, a check for $12 came in the mail: my witness fee ($6) and reimbursement for parking ($6). Who says crime doesn’t pay?
Originally published in the July 2014 issue.