Friday, October 14, 2011

Phone Booths

The walls inside the courthouse are an endless maze of cinder block and institutional paint, designs of an era long ago when architecture was more function than form. The walls meet the linoleum floor with a faded cove molding, scuffed by the shoes that have rested there, perhaps while waiting for their turn.

And yet, there they are. Built into the wall, next to the courtroom, they look completely out of place now. Two identical phone booths, showing their age. Wrapped in wood, it’s as if the booths are straining to provide elegance, yet not quite doing so. For each, there is a wood and glass sliding door, and a vent above the doorway, placed high enough to at least provide the illusion of privacy. Scratched into the doorway are several messages, including an optimistic, “Frank loves Mary” framed in a roughly scratched heart.

A bench sticks out of the side, but looks barely big enough to do the job. There is a small shelf opposite that, perhaps for papers, or for resting an elbow while trying to make sense of what happens inside those imposing courtroom doors.

Right above the shelf, the framework for the phone is still there, but now it is little more than a metal box, with holes where the important parts once lived. Through the holes, I see wires, neatly tied off—wires that once carried words, hopes, and emotions, but now represent only dead ends, waiting to be permanently removed.

As I wait for my client, my mind wanders. What stories can that booth tell? So often, I wander these halls, waiting for my client, mentally reviewing the case, having reduced it to legal elements to be presented. Over time, the case becomes a problem to be solved, a puzzle to be put together. Of course, it’s better that way because, then, emotions won’t cloud my judgment. But still, looking at that phone booth, I’m reminded of the reasons why people stand against that wall.

I don’t judge the reasons people come to see me. I’m not in their shoes. I’m not wearing their scars. For many of my clients, this is not where they wanted to be, but it is where they are now. Family court is really an oxymoron, if you think about it. Many times, this is where families come to die. Families come in, pieces go (sometimes crawl) out. This is where friendships and partnerships come to confirm suspicions of broken promises and abused trust. For all the talk of separation, divorce, alienation, growing apart, it’s all really talk until I turn around and hand them the document that officially confirms the end. They have paid the price; I have just served to walk them through the end.

And, so, I wonder. What conversations have taken place in that booth? What fears has it heard before the court session opens? What grief or perhaps relief has it heard afterwards? Were there any children hanging nearby, perhaps oblivious to what is going on? How many wadded-up pieces of tissue have been picked up off its floor? How many times has the phone booth door slammed? Does Frank still love Mary?

As my client approaches, I look at the phone booth one more time and think, “What if you could talk?” Of course, there is no answer. It just stares back, empty, with nothing but dead wires inside.


Gail said...

I AM BLOWN AWAY! This is an incredible piece of writing.

fafred said...

I remember I think it was Frank Serpico who said that you could always tell a corrupt judge by his use of the corridor pay phone in case the office phone was tapped.

These days I guess they have no name cell phones.

Lawyer said...

@Gail: Thanks!

Auntie J said...

Good sir, if you do indeed practice family law, I commend you. I can't imagine a more difficult career to have, even if you're successful at maintaining an emotional detachment.

I never thought, in a zillion years, I'd need the services of a family law attorney. (I am, however, selfish enough to believe mine is the best ever. No offense.) When we first met with our lawyer, it was a "just in case" measure. Three months later, it was desperation, as I sat there next to my husband and visibly shook, unable to stop the tears. It took fourteen months for our case to wind through the court system, with my husband and I feeling like we'd run a legal gauntlet as we fought to protect our three nieces--whom we'd cared for, in loco parentis, for over a year at the time of that second meeting with the attorney--from the very people who should have wanted to protect them: their biological parents. More concerned with themselves than their children, it was up to us to fight on the kids' behalf.

I'm over-simplifying, obviously, but in the end, the court came back with a decision that we were still the best home for these three children, children I now think of as my own. The court was very specific in saying we had provided excellent care.

I have to credit our attorney with her insight, her fine mind, and her walking with us through what was one of the worst times in our lives. For us, we had a happy ending. For us, we walked out a whole family, rather than one that had been parsed apart. For us, our day in court was a cause for celebration. I realize that isn't usually the case, and from the perspective of my brother and his ex-wife, they lost. And I realize our situation is not the usual child custody suit.

But as I sat in Courtroom 1 that day, I looked at the portraits of past judges that have served our county. And I wondered the same thing...what stories could they tell?