“Excuse me, but how do you spell deceased?”
I don’t often get asked this by strangers in a public place, but then, Room 1050 of L.A. County General Hospital is not just any public place. It is the institution’s Ambulatory Emergency Room and one in which the word deceased gets tossed about a lot. It’s no surprise, then, that the man in front of me asks its spelling, even though he’s not doing a crossword puzzle.
Room 1050 is one of those addresses at which we all find ourselves at some point: a place that will serve (or so we promise ourselves) as a lesson for the future, a vivid reminder of what awaits us if we stray from the path of righteousness. Such places include courtrooms, unemployment offices, jails, community service jobs and automobile tow yards — places where you find People in Trouble (or PITs). (Not to be confused with People Merely Inconvenienced, often encountered at laundromats or the DMV.)
Given the economic Darwinism governing American life, it should go without saying that People in Trouble are also People Without Money; and it is a sad but true fact of our existence that people in trouble/without money are actually what make the tedious waits inside bureaucratic pyramids bearable, for it is from their trembling gestures, outlandish excuses and blood-flecked collars that we draw solace, realizing that here is biological proof that things could be worse for us. (Unless, of course, they are we.)
We may not like to admit it, but as we grow older we become People in Trouble–watchers whenever we find ourselves in rooms like Room 1050. Admittedly, attending such places for fun seems a rather twisted form of entertainment.
But it’s free.
The downtown Criminal Courts Building on Temple Street, an O.J. Megastore of T-shirt vendors and artists during the Trial of the Century, surpasses other PIT-watching places for sheer voyeurism and comfort. It’s always a good place to go to feel better when life gets you down. The last time I was there, I felt lucky before I even stepped inside, having spotted a woman in a wheelchair robotically dragging on a cigarette in the building’s courtyard. Her solitary figure contrasted bleakly with the mirthless stone and glass architecture surrounding her, producing a ready-made travel poster for our grim little pueblo.
For the beginner, Department 128 on the 15th floor is a good place to start. It’s the lair of Marsha D. Revel, a judge who, with her peekaboo bangs and Cleopatran eyes, recalls a 30ish Barbra Streisand or Chrissie Hynde — only in a black robe. You won’t find rows of hourglasses on her bench, just one Kleenex box — and boy, will you need it.
“Why are you looking at a vacant space?” Revel tartly inquires after one man turns to summon his co-defendant wife to their attorney’s table, not realizing she is standing right next to him. “Ssshhhhh!” the judge admonishes the D.A.’s side when its hotshots start yukking it up whenever she’s demanding answers from a public defender.
It’s probably not so much the noise that bothers her, but the fact that this judge is a born entertainer and doesn’t like to be upstaged. No matter which side of the courtroom you happen to be in, you have to like Marsha Revel’s snappy, often whimsical shtick. Recently, following a long discussion about pretrial motions, one D.A. asked if he correctly understood the trial date just set to be September 9.
“September 9, 12, 15,” Marsha sighed, “I said a lot of things. Does anyone remember what I said? Was anyone listening to me?”
Of course they were, for Marsha Revel personifies the fate of all People in Trouble — a sarcastic white woman with little patience for those without a quick answer to her questions. In other words, she is the junior high school teacher who always picked on us. That is why she’ll needle lawyers by saying things like, “I learn by my mistakes, so should you” and “I’ll schedule a date when I feel it’s right.” And that is why we love watching her — we can relive childhood classroom hell and then walk out on it. Unless, of course, we happen to be a defendant.
One such Person in Trouble today — and one not likely to walk anywhere soon — is a South-Central woman who has to push her wheelchair through the small gate separating the court from the spectators’ section. She is the woman I passed earlier outside, and “stands” accused of selling cocaine. Worse, she already has a conviction for the same offense. Marsha, however, is much more interested in just how the woman slipped through the cracks of a bail hearing and is out on her own recognizance. Whenever the judge grills her on just how she managed this, the forlorn-looking woman steals a nervous glance up at her lawyer. And just as often, the judge commands, “Don’t look at him. Why are you looking at him? Don’t look at him unless you’re looking at him to find out if you should answer, then you can look at him.”
At one point, the alleged coke dealer wheels her chair back a few inches and tries to turn toward the few spectators present.
“Where are you going?” Marsha demands. Then, incredulous, to the attorneys, “She’s looking for someone!”
Before long the wheelchair defendant is sobbing.
“What are you crying for?” Revel asks.
The public defender explains that his client has medical problems.
“She may have medical problems,” Marsha scoffs, “but they didn’t prevent her from being convicted of selling cocaine and of being accused of selling it again.”
The woman only sobs louder.
“Don’t hyperventilate in here. Calm yourself!” the judge advises. It is vintage Revel, who, as the woman eventually wheels herself out of the court, cannot resist one last quip: “I bet she wasn’t in that wheelchair when they arrested her.”
Some might see in our gridlocked courts, presided over by judges who are part comedians, part homeroom teachers, the death of justice. Perhaps, though, they represent the rebirth of vaudeville, the last place where the public can go to laugh and feel better about itself. How do you spell deceased?