Louella Stands Trial

by A. C. Cherbonnier
"How many people do you think just go ahead and pay a parking ticket because they can't afford to take the time to appeal?" asked Louella.
It took over four months, but Louella finally had a court date for her $42 parking ticket. It was sleeting, and the tires on the aging Miata were a little bald, but she was on her way to the Circuit Court on East Patapsco Avenue. Beside her was her friend Amy, who had a day off from her job as a cashier at Giant Food, where Louella had once worked when she was between public relations jobs.

"Sure is great to get outta the house," said Amy as she watched the waterfront from Hanover Street. "You sure are lucky not to have to work, so you can take time to do this. Me, my feet are so sore all the time I can hardly stand up when I'm home. I'm the poster child for whatchacallit, a couch potato! It's really getting rough, let me tell ya!"

"How are things with Giant these days?" asked Louella as she dodged a pothole. "They affected by that new grocery--Wegman's, right?"

"Affected? Ha! They're in a tizzy. Up at the Hunt Valley store, they're waitin' for the shoe to drop--leastways, that's what we're hearin'. But they're sayin' people are gonna get tired of fighting traffic jams just to buy a loaf of bread, know what I'm sayin'?"

"Uh huh, sure do. I stay away from food shopping. Gives me the hives!"

"Well, I guess that explains why you're built like a stick," said Amy. "Maybe if you strolled those aisles and tapped your foot to the Muzak, you'd buy some stuff to fatten yourself up!"

Oh, please! thought Louella. Like I'd want to look like you!

Amy stretched as best she could in the low-down bucket seat. Louella tried not to notice that Amy's ample rear was rubbing against the gearshift.

"I've never been to Brooklyn, ya know?" said Amy. "That's why I said I'd come. I love to see new things."

You've lived in Baltimore for forty-five years and you've hardly left your neighborhood except to work. Who are you kidding? marvelled Louella, who'd learned a long time ago not to speak her thoughts out loud.

She turned off onto Ritchie Highway, went under a railroad overpass, and stayed to the left to turn east on Patapsco Avenue, which, according to MapQuest, was coming up any second. And there it was. Louella put on her turn signal, then turned it off because no turn was allowed. Geez! You'd think they'd have a turn lane! Patapsco's a main drag! Guess from the look of things around here, the city isn't wasting any money on traffic planning!

She hooked a U turn a block later, careened through a couple of business parking lots, and thumped onto Patapsco. Together she and Amy watched for the street address of the court. "This place looks like it'd be improved real good by a bulldozer," said Amy. "I thought some parts of Highlandtown looked kinda down at the heels, but never like this!"

"They say you can tell a lot about the economy of a town by looking at what kind of business is going on there," said Louella. "And I see a lot of clues that Brooklyn's not on the way up."

"Well, at least maybe you can afford to live here, then!"

"Good point!" Sure am glad I bought that condo before prices went through the roof, thought Louella, who never discussed her personal finances with anyone who might report back to her family. Louella was barely managing on the income from her Maryland lottery winnings, with ten years to go on the payout at $24,000 a year tax-free, and the pitiful interest from the lump-sum settlement she'd received from her last job.

"There it is!" exclaimed Amy. "Nice looking courthouse, huh?"

The place looked brand new and well-kept, and therefore out of place. Louella pulled into a space, and, realizing it was nearly one o'clock, they nearly ran to the entrance. It was two minutes after one when they took their seat on what looked like a church pew. About 50 other people were already seated, mournful looking and silent, like they were at a viewing at a funeral home. A white-haired bailiff surveyed the group without making eye contact. Time marched on. Louella and Amy fidgeted and exchanged glances and shrugs, but like the others, they kept quiet.

Thirty minutes passed, and a woman came in through the door behind the judge's chair and settled in front of a computer, all the while sipping on a straw in a large soda cup. She also avoided eye contact.

Finally a man in the pews addressed the bailiff. "Excuse me, sir, but when's the judge getting here?"

The bailiff said, "Any minute now." Fifteen minutes later he stood and talked to the group about what to expect when the trials started, staring in the far distance as he did so.

You'd think we were cattle ready to be slaughtered! mused Louella. Bet nobody looks them in the eye, either! Wonder what the economic cost is for all these people taking time off from work to defend against a parking ticket? Not to mention the cost of all of us cooling our heels while waiting for the judge! She jotted the math problem on the back of her trial notice envelope. Even at eight dollars an hour, that's four hundred dollars down the tube, she marveled. Not counting these state employees babysitting us!

The judge swept in with five minutes to go to make an even hour late. He launched into the proceedings without explaining his lateness.

It became clear that the judge had heard every excuse before. He cut people off, cut to the chase, and dispatched case after case. Then a woman came, toting her baby born months after she got her $72 ticket. She said she and her husband had received the ticket when they'd parked for a few minutes on a weekend night to take out-of-town visitors for a quick stroll in Federal Hill Park to see the city lights. Unluckily for them, it was a game day, and they'd returned to the car to find a ticket on the windshield.

Louella saw this as a precedent for her case. She couldn't imagine the judge would make the woman pay, and he didn't, but he assessed her the court costs. Even that seemed unfair to Louella. Amy shook her head sadly at the verdict.

Twenty cases later, it was Louella's turn in the dock. She'd asked for the meter maid to be present, thinking the woman might be as sympathetic as she'd seemed to be when she'd given the ticket. But no, Miss Meter Maid, now with hair tipped orange and a gold-rimmed front tooth Louella was sure hadn't been there when they'd had their first encounter at the end of July.

The judge recited the charge. "What do you have to say about this, Miss--" and he garbled her name. Louella had found this could be a good thing, because people sometimes tried to make up for doing that.

She tried to keep her voice level as she outlined the facts. When she started to mention what the meter lady had told her, the woman snapped, "It was a game day! I told you it was! If it had been an hour later I would've given you a $72 ticket instead of the one you got! And there were three signs on that block that told you not to park there!"

"Your honor, there was only one sign we could find, and I have a picture of it," said Louella.

"You may approach the bench," said the judge. He studied the image. "I wouldn't have known there was a sign there either if you hadn't pointed it out to me," he marveled.

"That's because the tree branches cover it!" insisted the meter lady. "It wasn't like that back when I gave out the ticket!"

"You're right," said Louella, trying very hard not to sound sarcastic. "Back then there were leaves on the tree, so you couldn't see the sign at all."

The woman started to retort, but the judge stopped her. "You may only address this court," he snapped. The woman sulked.

The judge then held up a piece of paper. "I've read this letter you wrote when you sent back your appeal," he said.

Louella blanched. Oh God, you don't suppose I overwrote, and he thinks I'm a nut case!

The judge flapped the paper a little and seemed amused. "Very interesting. Charges dismissed, and no court costs. There's no way you could have seen that sign. You may go."

Louella gathered up her belongings and plunged out of the courtroom, with Amy in tow.

"Awesome!" said Amy as they took the elevator to the first floor.

"Yeah! I was afraid he might read my letter out loud!" said Louella.

"How many people do you think just go ahead and pay a ticket for the same thing because they can't afford to take the time to appeal?"

"Plenty!" said Amy. "And you can bet nobody in the city government's gonna change those signs, or let people know it's a game day!"


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This story was published on December 21, 2005.