An Excerpt from Laws Delay
By Richard Brown
It had all begun with a phone call.
It was 11:30 on a Thursday night in an unusually cold October. I had pulled myself away from my cluttered desk, turned my den light off, and was in the kitchen fixing myself a cup of hot apple cider, sprinkled with a dash of cinnamon and a slice of lemon, the way Mom used to fix it every year around Thanksgiving Day. I had just turned twenty-eight a few weeks back, but cold New Jersey nights always gave me a child-like thirst for Mom's hot cider.
I had spent the last four hours hunched over my desk, searching for a way to get an edge on my defense of a young Puerto Rican going to trial on Monday-grand theft auto compounded by assault and battery. The tough part was that he was guilty as hell, and this was not his first run-in with the legal system. But, for me, that wasn't the main issue. My problem was that I just hated to lose, and treated every case like it was it was a moral imperative that I win. My reputation for being thorough, putting up a good fight, did not go unnoticed; often getting me assigned some of the more difficult cases.
With cup in hand, I crept up to the bedroom, careful not to wake Betty, turned on the small TV just off to the right of the bed, and, with the sound turned down very low, watched the last minutes of the late news.
I changed into my pajamas, finished my drink, and switched off the TV just as the Action News Team was saying goodnight to the Delaware Valley. After suffering through a long, demanding day at the job, followed by a few nerve-racking hours in my den probing through old court files borrowed from work, I desperately needed to get some sleep. I slipped in beside Betty's warm body, wrapped myself up, and closed my tired eyes.
Sleep did not come right away. My brain was too tired to think, yet it kept thinking, and no matter which position I contorted my body into, I couldn't find one comfortable enough to help lull me to sleep. I tossed and turned for what felt like a heartbeat short of forever before just about winning the fight and sensing myself beginning to floating off into a comfortable and well-anticipated nothingness. I took slow, deep breaths, filling my lungs with the crisp night air drifting in through the slightly ajar window by our bed, exhaling the tension and frustration of a long and tough day. The open bedroom window was a carry over from childhood. I had to have fresh air blowing across me while I slept, even in the dead of winter, otherwise I would have fitful dreams about drowning or being buried alive, and wake up screaming, gasping for air. I was told once by young doctor in a crisp white smock, "It appears to be a fear of dying; probably brought on by watching too many horror movies during his most impressionable years as a child." It sounded like B-S back then, and I haven't changed my mind. Still, the window stays open.
It had taken a while, but I began to feel my body gently losing touch with the soft smoothness of the linen sheets and the weight of the heavy comforter keeping the cold night air at bay.
The phone's first disturbing ring was more than annoying. Not just because of the late hour, but mostly because it had snatched me back to square one in my attempt to get some rest.
It only took three seconds for my anger to come up with a solution to the annoying ringing of the phone. Envisioned in my mind was the phone, launched by me, crashing through the bedroom window, on its way down into the darkness behind our house, never to be heard again. It was difficult for me to keep from turning that fantasy into reality.
Only the most cold-hearted, inconsiderate person in the world would dare cause my phone to ring in the middle of the night. Yet, ring it did, and I was pissed. I mentally cursed the phone company, Ma Bell as I blinked my eyes, trying to focus on the LED display of my clock radio. It was 3:11.
The second ring grated my nerves even more, but I still fought desperately against returning to the world of the wide-awake. "Ahh! Dammit to hell!" I muttered into my pillow.
The phones third ring was a real pain in the ass now that it had wakened Betty, and both she and I knew the call had to be for me.
"TK, are you gonna get that?" Her voice was a sleepy plea for me to end her pain.
"Yeah, Bett. Go back to sleep. I got it," I mumbled through my pillow.
Being disturbed at home at almost any given hour, day, night, weekends, holidays, was an eventuality that I had only recently begun to accept as one of the negatives of being a public defense lawyer. It came with the job. My colleagues called it, and most anything else that was negative about the job, the nature of the beast. The beast, according to my more experienced colleagues, spends most of its time trying to kill you.
The year was now more than three quarters over and my caseload approached two hundred. Thankfully, only a third of them were listed as being In Work, with the file on Juan Rojas at the top of the stack.
Juan was a good natured Puerto Rican kid barely out of his teens. He had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding on the New Jersey Turnpike. Unfortunately for him, when the officer called in the tag number of the brand new Cadillac Coup de Ville, the vehicle came up as one recently reported stolen. The owner of the car, a retired nurse, had stated that the thief had attacked and robbed her in the parking lot of a supermarket on Mount Ephraim Avenue, and then sped off in her new car.
My job, working for the Public Defender's Trial Services office, was to prepare a defense that would prove to judge and jury that my client, 20 years old, unemployed, caught driving a stolen vehicle while speeding from the area of the crime, and having a police record for committing similar car thefts, was innocent. That was how my career was molding itself around me; always an emergency, always an innocent victim of circumstances, always now.
My first thought was that the person responsible for ruining my night was good old Juan; calling from the police station. I had made the mistake, a cardinal sin for more experienced lawyers, of giving a client my home telephone number. With nothing else to do but sit and worry about his future, Juan often used the pay phone at the jail to call me when he had thought of a new scam for how we could beat the system. Juan had dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He spoke broken English with a thick Puerto Rican accent filled with street slang. I was convinced that it would be him on the other end of the phone wanting to discuss some cock-n-bull scam to get him released. I remembered his last phone call. "Leesen, soul brotha. Wha' woul' happen if we tol' de judge I was no from here? Hey, vato , we coul' tell heem I'm from Puerto Rico. Can ju dig tha', man? We coul' say I wa' jus' here visiting my familia. Wha'ju thingabout tha', huh? Tha's some slick shit, right? Then they woul' deport me back to Puerto Rico, right?"
Somehow, Juan's street education had not included an important bit of information that would have been very useful to him, and me, trying to get some sleep. No one had informed him that the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of The United States, the closest thing to actually being a state. There would be no deportation for him, only jail, unless I could pull off some kind of miracle. As it was, I was not in the mood to work on or even consider miracles.
"TK..! The phone.!" The tone of Betty's voice had elevated to anger.
"I got it! I got it!"
Assuming that it was Juan, I grabbed the phone from the nightstand on the beginning of its fourth ring and spit my anger into his ear. "Juan! Dammit! That's it! Hang the damn phone up and don't ever call here again! Find somebody else to listen to your bullshit."
"TK.? It's me. You alright?"
"Popeye.?" I had recognized the deep, commanding voice straight off, even though it had been nearly four years since the last time I had heard it. A shot of adrenalin bolted through me as nearly forgotten memories of past phone calls flashed through my mind. Before I realized that I was moving, my legs were over the side of the bed, feet searching the floor for my leather birthday slippers, and my free hand reaching for my purple-and-red wool father's day robe, at the time, Fathers Day, I had been at least six months away from being a father but Betty had insisted. "Yeah.uhh.Yeah.Hold on a second."
I carried the cordless phone from the bedroom, down the dark, carpeted stairs, and into my makeshift den that used to be the back porch before I walled it in. It was a compromise I had made with my wife after she threatened to remove all of my work junk from my first makeshift office, the dining room table, and toss it all into the black hole that used to be our garage.
Without looking, I hit the light switch on the wall just inside the den, quietly closed the door behind me, took a deep breath to calm the hint of anxiety growing in my stomach, and addressed the voice on the phone. "Popeye.? Is that you, man?"
"Hey, TK! Wha's up, slick? How you been, brotha? I heard you was doin' a good job workin' downtown with some fat dudes with big wallets."
"Yeah...right. Fat dudes.big wallets. What's up, Popeye? Why are you callin' me at this hour of the night? Where are you? Are you in some kinda trouble, again?" It had been another midnight call in the early spring of '76 that had awakened me to Popeye's last emergency. As I tightened my robe to ward off the cold night air seeping into my den, I remembered that most of Popeye's emergencies started with an after-midnight call. My lack of sleep and his slow response to my questions collided head on. "Look, Popeye, it's late and I've got a long day ahead of me. Cut the shit. What's on your mind?"
"Slow down, Your Honor! Damn! You still keep that brain of yours on full speed, huh? Well, you're right as rain, my brotha. Oh Yeah, I got somethin' on my mind alright. And it sure as hell ain't pretty.""
I heard him take a deep breath and exhale, as if he had just taken a long drag off of a cigarette.
The phone line stayed silent for another few seconds. I waited, expecting Popeye's pregnant pause to end with him telling me of some act of stupidity that had, again, gotten him into trouble with the law. After a long moment, he continued, but with a cautious and serious edge to his voice.
"Listen up, slick. I need some help real bad, man. Got myself in a major nightmare. Shit's 'bout to fly everywhere. I need you, man-like now." I heard the urgency in his voice, but I tried to pretend it wasn't there. It was like trying to pretend not to hear the hammer being pulled back on a pistol with its barrel pressing against my ear.
Popeye was a rebel, mostly due to circumstances beyond his control. Fate seemed to have created him without having any real idea as to where he would fit in. In all of the years I knew him, he simply did not fit in anywhere. He was not typically violent man, but he was very capable of ripping a man's heart out with his bare hands if he felt that that was what was needed at the time.
Fighting was second nature to Popeye. And he was good at it. I had been a witness to one, and what I saw was inhuman. He was like a machine, cold, calculating, and unyielding. And yet, as I learned that same day, he was not cruel or bloodthirsty, far from that, he was.purposeful. Every move he made, every punch, every word he spoke, from the start of the fight until it ended with him as the victor, had purpose. A lesson needed to be taught, and more often than not, was learned. He usually left it up to his student to decide if the goal of the lesson had been achieved, or if the process needed repeating. Most of the time, Popeye's lessons were only taught once. But there were those who refused to learn-like Bear.
I remembered the day the three us met, fourteen years earlier.
* * * *
Looking back on my first day of high school, I remember how proud I was; not just because I was now in high school, but because I was going to Camden High, the Castle on the Hill. I remember walking up the slow curve of Park Boulevard, pride bursting from my chest as the school slowly came into view through the thickly leaved sycamore and maple trees lining the street. The sun was shining, keeping September's first chill at bay. My clothes were color coordinated, gray knit sweater, white shirt, black pants, brand new black wing-tip shoes. In my hand I carried a three-ring notebook, just in case I needed to jot something down. Everything was perfect. I was perfect.
Lost in the magic of the moment, I had no idea that I was walking bright-eyed and smiling right into an ambush. They called it 'Rookie Day'.
Someone at the Board of Education office must have thought he was doing new students a favor by scheduling returning students, the juniors and seniors, to come to the High at eight o'clock, get their homeroom assignments, and then leave before the new students, the freshmen, came two hours later. Unfortunately, all that did was create the opportunity for the juniors and seniors to greet the incoming freshmen and sophomores. On the first day at Camden High, sophomores held the same rank as freshmen because most of the sophomores, like me, had completed 9 th grade in Junior High school. Even though I was coming in as a sophomore, I still arrived at school with the freshman class.
There was no advance warning, no signs or banners, no pre-high school lecture on what to expect on your first day of high school. No one bothered to tell us that once the juniors and seniors were dismissed for the day that they armed themselves with tubes of the brightest shades of red lipstick they could buy, borrow, or steal.
In dozens of small clusters of three or four, they hung around all of the entrances to the school waiting for unsuspecting freshmen to arrive. They laughed, joked, and waited patiently. We were easy to spot; new shoes, new clothes, fresh haircuts, and that look of starry-eyed confusion on our faces. As soon as a freshman was spotted, somebody would yell, 'Rookie!' and then the chase was on. Most of the time the victims, like deer in headlights, would be frozen in confusion. A small gang of juniors and seniors would swarm their victim, bent on marking up their faces and clothes with smears of lipstick, scrawling the word 'Rookie' on their foreheads. And what made it worse was that, for the remainder of that short day, the most outrageously marked rookies were pointed out and laughed at as they walked the halls of Camden High. For many new students, bruised egos marked their first day of high school.
Just like most of the other rookies, I didn't find out about rookie day until it was too late.
As I was walking up Park Boulevard, approaching the front of the school, I spotted a group of four thuggish-looking teenagers lingering on the school steps.
The tallest of the four turned his head in my direction, a second before the other three. He had a large Afro, dark brown complexion, and an evil grin. I did not recognize him or his friends; one standing beside him and two sitting on the steps leading up to the large metal front doors of the school. They just seemed to be lazily killing time, probably waiting for something or someone, I thought. Not me, though. This was my first day. No one knew I was coming.
At first, the tall guy; his cold eyes watching my every move as if he was looking me over, maybe to see if he recognized me, locked his eyes on me. Then his face lit up. He slowly started down the stretch of concrete steps, his three friends clustering behind him. I had no idea who any of them were or why they were so focused on me.
I slowed my pace and tried to add a little extra dip to my Camden strut. That's how people could tell where you were from the streets. Folks called it bopping. The toughs in Philly bopped on their left foot and leaned to the right, right arm swinging deep to the rear. The New York bop, left knee bounce with shoulders back, was more of a 'let's get it on' posture. However, in Camden, the bop was, lead with the right shoulder and bounce on the left knee, head cocked to the right. The added bounce on my right knee and my head tilted slightly to the side like I had an attitude problem should send a signal to anybody watching that I'm from the streets of Soup City . Surviving on inner city streets meant knowing what the right signals were and when to use them. I was afraid that if these guys thought I was some kind of punk, I would be in for a whole lot of trouble. But, if my signals were right, they would be recognized and maybe even set me up to get a little respect. Unfortunately, I already knew I had a couple of strikes against me. My hair was cut into a short Natural, waiting to grow into a blown-out Afro, but still made me look to clean-cut, and I was just a tie away from being suited down.
The four thugs showed no interest in my bop, and worse, their bop was definitely smoother, more practiced and more threatening. They advanced toward me in a slow and casual manner, but their eyes gave away their intent. They were sizing me up, pretending not to be staring at me, not to even have noticed me, but watching my every move. Like a pride of lions easing up on an alert gazelle, they were all too obvious. I knew something was up, but I had no clue as to what to expect.
The last thing I needed was for some thugs to jump me on my first day of school. My fist instinct was to stand and try to talk my way out of a bad situation. However, the look on the faces of the four guys coming toward me cancelled that thought. My only other choice was to run.
I made a quick turn to my right and snapped into a sprint across Park Boulevard toward Baird Boulevard; away from the school. I looked back only once; a fatal mistake considering the new shoes I was wearing. I saw them charging right for me and catching up. As I turned my eyes back to see where I was going, my right foot caught an edge of the uneven cement sidewalk. I fell hard, scratching and bruising my hands, elbows, and knees; my notebook flew off into hedges lining a well manicured front yard.
The thugs were on me before I had a chance to clear my head. I was just about to become lion lunch when all of a sudden the trumpets sounded and Tarzan came to the rescue. "Leave 'im alone! He ain't done nothin' to y'all!"
I laid there in a ball covering my face, my eyes peeping over my arms.
Popeye is the kind of guy you don't want to see standing over you, but right then, I sure wasn't going to argue the point.
He was wearing dirty black motorcycle boots, faded blue jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and a black leather jacket, old and worn, but the whole outfit gave him a street-tough appearance. He was dark-skinned and his head cue-ball smooth and glistening with perspiration. The skin around his eyes and chin was taut and smooth. He wore a smirk on his face that made it clear that you'd better think twice before you said anything out of line to him. Popeye and the leader of the thug chasers had the same thick build and both were about two inches taller and twenty pounds heavier than me.
Popeye's voice was a raspy whisper, almost like a growl. I watched him as he stood unflinching, relaxed, staring into the eyes of the leader, while the rest of his group stood over me as if they were protecting their kill. Popeye's eyes stayed locked on the lead thug, but I could tell that he was aware of every movement any of them made.
The lead thug looked at me, but spoke to Popeye. "Hey, man! Back off! We caught a rookie. We're gonna initiate him. This ain't got nothin' to do with you." Two of his friends quickly voiced their agreement. One thug remained quiet, staring at Popeye's face as if he was surprised at who he saw.
Popeye said, "Yeah, all uh y'all jumpin' on one guy that don't even know why you chasin' 'im. Y'all just go find somebody else to 'nitiate." The thug leader, face gripped in outrage, looked as if he was about to say something in challenge to Popeye's interference when his quiet friend interrupted him. "Yeah.uhh.Popeye. Sure, man. We didn't know he was a frienduh yours." Then, tugging at his angry leader's arm, he started walking away. "Come on, Bear, let's find somebody else."
Popeye almost smiled when he heard the name. "Bear.? Yeah, I hearduh you."
Bear pushed his chest out an extra inch. "Tha's right," he proclaimed proudly. "I got a rep. An' I'm gonna be seein' you again. You can believe that."
The four attackers turned away and slowly jogged back toward the school doors they had been guarding. The one called Bear slowed to a stop and turned to face Popeye. That he and Popeye would meet again, under different circumstances, there was no doubt. Their gazes locked for a moment, and then Bear slowly rejoined his friends on the school steps.
I was just starting to stand when Popeye stuck out a hand to help me up. I smiled and said, "Thanks, man. I don't know what that was all about. They just jumped me."
"You a rookie. Tha's what." He spit out the words as if it pained him to have to say something so obvious. "It's rookie day. Everybody tha's a rookie is gonna get jacked up. Tha's what happens the first day'uh Camden High."
"Man, nobody told me nothin' about that. I'm glad you came along. How long you been goin' here?"
"This is my first day." This time his words sounded almost like an apology. "I'm a rookie, too. My brother tol' me all about rookie day. He told me what to wear. An' tol' me somethin' else." Popeye reached into the pocket of his leather jacket and pulled out a brand new tube of bright red lipstick. On the top of the tube, in red letters was the word, 'Crimson'.
"My brother said once you get marked, nobody else'll bother you." He handed me the tube. "You need to put a little on your forehead and a spot or two on the side of your face and then you'll be alright."
"Okay," I said, as I followed his instructions.
The two of us strolled toward the school. I noticed right off that Popeye didn't bop. He just walked as if he didn't have a fear in the world. I tried to match his stride and held my head high, also fearing no one. "My name's Thomas, but everybody calls me TK. Did I hear that guy right? Is your name really Popeye?"
"Na. Tha's just my nickname. But I like it better'n my real name." He didn't bother to say what his real name was.
"Popeye, ain't you gonna put any on you?" I asked, lifting the tube of lipstick toward him.
"Hell no!" he answered, seemingly disturbed at my question. "Ain't nobody stupid enough to try that simple shit with me."
I knew right then that Popeye and me were going to be partners. But I had no idea what being a friend to someone like Popeye really meant.