On one of those gloomy, wet winter days when Seattle sends its weather south, I arrive at the Hollywood branch of the Los Angeles Superior Court at 8:30 a.m., with my partner in crime — we’ll call him Dave, because that’s his name. The idea is to be among the first in line when the clerk’s office opens so you can be among the first to be sent somewhere else to wait. Around me are the usual suspects: parole and probation violators, petty thieves, hustlers, wife beaters, street people, gypsy cabbies, a few thugs of various affiliations, and one pretty boy who seems to have taken a wrong turn off the set of High School Musical 4. There is a lot of coughing. Some of it sounds tubercular. Bad enough, but to make matters worse, Dave and I are here on a bum rap.
It all goes back to the day he and I decided to spend one of our underemployed weekday afternoons the same way we’ve spent too many in this make-or-break stage of our lives: hitting baseballs in the batting cage at the edge of Pote Field in Griffith Park. Not only is this a meditative and surprisingly sweaty undertaking, but it’s also a good way to improve our anemic batting averages in the adult league we play in.
Sometimes, we bring our dogs and tie them up on a parking barricade near the cages while we take our hacks. The routine calls for unloading bats, gloves, helmets, a batting tee and a bucket of balls from the trunk while our dogs pace around the car. This time, after assembling our gear for all of a minute, a park ranger pulls into the lot. Knowing my luck, I quickly grab my dog, Willa, and fasten her leash. Dave’s dog is already on a leash and has been since he picked me up. The park ranger comes over to investigate. Dave’s dog decides he can’t wait to greet his new friend and rushes to the end of his leash. The park ranger dramatically jumps back.
“Get that dog under control,” the ranger yelps.
Dave looks stumped, seeing as how the dog is on a leash and the leash is in his hand. “He’s just being friendly,” Dave says.
“I’d like you to put that dog in the car,” the ranger insists.
“Really?” Dave asks.
“He’s an aggressive dog; put him in the car.” Our ranger, with his caterpillar mustache and last–Boy Scout demeanor, comes across like an unfortunate caricature. He asks for our IDs.
“Are you kidding?” Dave says.
The ranger calls for backup. I hear the words “uncooperative” and “hostile” between bursts of walkie-talkie static so I point out the baseball gear scattered on the ground next to the car, the still-open trunk. “We were just trying to get our stuff together,” I suggest.
“I saw you grab your dog and put it on a leash when you saw me,” the ranger says.
“Isn’t there any allowance for getting out of the car?” I ask.
Two more park-ranger SUVs and two police cars pull up. I’m worried. Dave’s been in jail before, and not just to dry out. He can handle it. I’m too pretty.
The cops and other rangers huddle with our guy, and then survey the scene. They seem slightly embarrassed. Dave talks baseball with the cops, who might want to join our league. The ranger interrupts to tell us he’s citing us for having our dogs offleash.
“But his dog was on a leash,” I say, feeling responsible for the whole debacle.
“That’s not what I saw,” says the ranger. “You’ll have your day in court.
Which brings us to the Hollywood courthouse. Due to some quirk in municipal codes, leash-law violations require that adjudication take place only in a court of law — you can’t pay your way out of the ticket. When Dave and I finally make it to the clerk’s window, we’re assigned to separate courtrooms. This doesn’t bode well for me. Things go wrong with bureaucracies and me. Like, Brazil wrong.
I’m the fourth guy to sign in with the bailiff. Like drones, we file into the wooden benches facing the high seat. Minutes pass like hours. Nothing happens. A half-hour later, the judge’s seat is still empty. I get a text from Dave.
Judge Spurgeon E. Smith will be presiding.
You’re shitting me?
No, that’s his name.
An hour or so passes before the honorable Judge Leslie A. Swain makes an appearance. I text Dave.
My judge is hot!
You should throw yourself at her mercy.
Judge Swain runs through the docket. Is there no end to the plague of medallionless Armenian cab drivers? And, yes, most are wearing tracksuits. Laughing and joking with each other, they have a joie de vivre about this process that I can’t summon. After about 20 minutes, the judge leaves the room. Dave texts.
I just got sprung.
Yeah, the prosecutor took me in the hall and asked what’s up. I told him it was B.S. He told me to take off.
The Buzzcocks’ “Something’s Gone Wrong Again” starts looping in my head. Some people in the courtroom nod out. I try to, but it’s freezing and the room is stark. Only our bailiff, a bright-faced, energetic young man in a green sheriff’s deputy uniform, seems to have dodged whatever pall is being cast here.
Someone starts snoring. It grows more intense the deeper into REM he gets. A chuckle rolls through the back benches like a wave. The bailiff shines his flashlight on the guy. No response. So he walks back among the riffraff to rap on the wooden bench where the man is sleeping.
“You can close your eyes,” the bailiff says politely when the man stirs, “but you have to keep it down.”
The judge returns. Cases that logged in way after me are now being heard in short order: drugs, stealing, stalking, parole violations, domestic violence … I had my dog off her leash. For 5 feet! I start to wonder if my violation just doesn’t rate with the honorable Judge Swain, who was once a federal prosecutor specializing in white-collar crime and who made a name for herself prosecuting the largest bank-fraud case in FBI history. Across the room, the young guy who logged in right behind me looks my way pleadingly. I shrug. The judge leaves again. I realize the bailiff is my only hope, and walk up to the barrier that separates those handing out justice from those receiving it . or wanting to receive it. I tell the bailiff that I’m here for a leash-law citation and was one of the first people to sign in. He looks at me empathetically and checks the log-in book.
“Someone will be with you soon,” he says.
At last, a woman in a severe suit crosses from the inner sanctum to the miscreant section and starts calling out, “James Connelly? James Connelly?”
I hold up my hand. “Joe Donnelly?”
The prosecutor tells me to follow her into the hallway. She scans a file that seems way too thick.
“You had your dog off a leash?”
“What do you want to do?” she interrupts. “You can plead not guilty and schedule a hearing . ”
“How much is the fine?”
The judge comes back and starts plowing through more cases. I catch the bailiff’s eye and give him the what’s up? look. He nods. As soon as there’s a break in the action, he asks the judge if they’re going to process the tickets.
“We have some tickets to process?” the judge asks.
“Yes, two,” says the bailiff, looking at his log. The kid across the room and I exchange hopeful glances.
“James Connelly?” the judge calls out.
“I’m Joe Donnelly,” I say. “James is my middle name.”
“Come up here please.”
The judge rifles through piles of files. Then, the bailiff sets upon other stacks of files. Then, the prosecutor joins in.
“We can’t seem to find your case, Mr. Connelly,” the judge says.
“It’s Donnelly. Joe Donnelly,” I say. “I have the citation, your honor.” I pull a rumpled green ticket from my wallet and hand it to the bailiff, who brings it to the judge.
“You know, you shouldn’t have your dog offleash,” she says, not unkindly.
“Well, I wanted to talk to you about that,” I say.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got a good deal for you. In the service of justice, you’re free to go.”
I look over at the prosecutor, who seems to be still looking for my case file, then at the bailiff, and back at the judge. Only the kid from across the room is left in the benches. He nods in approval.
“Are you sure it’ll be okay? I don’t need a receipt or something?”
“We’ll take care of it,” she says.
Outside it’s raining and cold. I’m free again.
Epilogue: On January 10, a rare warm morning during an exceptionally cold Los Angeles winter, the Department of Animal Regulation cites Joe Donnelly at 10:10 a.m. for walking his dog, Willa, in Elysian Park, without a leash. He is ordered to appear at the Central Arraignments Court, an imposing gray slab of a building, located at 429 Bauchet St., at 8:30 a.m.