Stockton Municipal Court

Friday, March 6 at 5:53pm. On Wednesday afternoon (at roughly 2:15pm), a Stocktonian murderer (whose name is irrelevant because he is but one of thousands) tried to stab a judge in the face with a shank.

He landed a couple stabs, but nothing fatal. The judge was carried out of the courtroom on a stretcher, hospitalized, released, and is now recovering.

This morning at about a quarter after eight, I left for the exact same courthouse in which this stabbing took place. I wasn't planning on sneaking in a shank; I was just there to defend my traffic ticket.

I got there at 8:50am, parked on the corner of California and Fremont, walked to the courthouse, registered for a 1:30pm court appearance, and now it was about 9:30am.

In between 9:30 and 1:30, I decided there's no venue for people watching quite like a Stocktonian municipal court.

The first thing I did was head straight for the criminal wing, assuming this would be the most eventful place to exert my scrutiny. I walked passed the officer at the entrance, who was standing by what appeared to be a brand new sign that read "by entering this wing, you are subject to search at any time."

Nobody searched me.

I sat down on the bench, made a sandwich, and immediately began to listen in on "confidential" conversations between attorneys and their clients.

At some point in each of these conversations, literally every single client said this sentence: "I got a little daughter I'm tryin' to change my life."

At another point in the conversation, literally every single lawyer said this sentence: "don't break your parole this time."

Every lawyer also described exactly how the third strike rule works in very small words.

Both lawyers and felons began a lot of sentences with "one way or another..." When lawyers said it, the next word was "you". When the felons said it, the next word was "I".

Most felons, at multiple points in the conversation, said something to this effect: "will you make sure they know I already served six days?"

Every felon wore a crucifix.

Only one of the lawyers noticed I was writing down his entire conversation word for word (which wasn't interesting enough to reproduce here... I was hoping it would become interesting in the end... I was disappointed).

I was wearing a fancy tie at the time. So I tried to pretend I was the official courthouse scribe. This was not convincing (as apparently no such position exists).

The lawyer left (taking his "confidential" conversation with him).

Then all the other lawyers followed and I was alone in the criminal wing with pages of uninteresting dialog and a ton of bread crumbs.

So I walked over to room 100 where I had registered for my court appearance maybe an hour before. I was hoping to find something interesting there.

I didn't.

The most exciting thing was a fat girl singing Daniel Powter ("so you had a bad day, you're taking one down, take a sad song, and you turn it around!").

God awful song. Especially when expelled from the lips of a rotund hoodlum.

I immediately went back to the criminal wing. But just to the entrance, where the officer was standing next to the brand new "right to search you" sign.

"Hi." That was me to the officer. He almost nodded back at me. He didn't at all, but he came close. It was just enough that I was pretty sure an acknowledgement of my presence had taken place. I continue: "anything interesting happen lately?"

"Not today" he said dismissively, as if trying to sigh and accidentally attaching words to the breath.

"What about Wednesday?"

"Nope" even more dismissively, as if to retract his prior sliver of acknowledgement altogether.

"But isn't that the day that guy snuck in a huge shank and tried to stab the judge all up in the face?"

Silently, the officer turned his entire body to face me and looked me squarely in the eyes. The sliver swelled to one of those huge pieces of Oregon driftwood clogging up the beaches. I suddenly felt very acknowledged.

He then took his pretty large index finger and pointed it toward the ceiling. He held this position for about five seconds, then dropped his hand back to his side.

Another five seconds passed and he still hadn't said a word. So I did: "Heaven?"



Twenty more seconds of silence pass. Then me again: "how do you think he snuck that huge shank in?"

The officer said nothing, turned his head and walked off.

I watched him walk directly toward another officer. They acknowledged each other in a professional way (what I tried to accomplish, but failed), and then struck up a quiet dialog (what I tried to accomplish, but failed).

In the middle of their conversation, both officers repeated looked at me. So I decided I shouldn't ask any more questions about sneaking in shanks.

Instead, I decided I would just hang out by the entrance and try to figure it out for myself.

In thirty seconds I figured out three ways to do it.

One: affix it to some sort of metal item that's too large for the X-Ray machine, like a walker or a cane. Those are the only metal items that totally set off the metal detector and then aren't inspected in any way whatsoever.

Two: the exit and entrance are separated by a three foot tall divider board. Just have six people coming while six people are going. A crowd of a dozen is easily shielding enough to make the handoff to someone on the other side of the divider board (i.e. someone already passed the metal detector). Then that person decides not to leave after all. And he's still six feet from the door, so it wouldn't appear as though he were trying to enter through the exit. It would just appear as though he changed his mind. Maybe he decided he should pee before leaving. He may very well have a long drive ahead of him.

Three: make a badge in Microsoft Paintbrush, print it on ordinary computer paper, cut it out with kitchen shears, laminate it with Scotch tape, put a shoestring through it, tie it around your neck, and bypass the metal detector completely.

I watched at least forty people do this. Maybe their badges were real, but I certainly couldn't tell. And neither could anyone else (including security).

In every metal-detector-passerby, the extent of badge exposure was a flick of the wrist. The badge-wearers don't even slow their pace. While walking at approximately 4.0mph, they aim their badges at the X-Ray attendant for less than half a second from a distance of five to eight feet.

At this point, the X-Ray attendant either does or does not pretend to glance in their direction, doesn't actually glance over at all (ever), and then goes back to looking at the monitor as attentively as people watch the last half of Saturday Night Live.

After watching this little scene as intently as people watch porn, I decided to look for other patterns in my fellow municipal court patrons. I found a lot. As follows:

If you're a middle-aged white male and you're not wearing a badge, you repeat this sentence: "is this gonna set it off?" upwards of ten times before walking through the metal detector for the first time. Yes, sir, your watch will set it off. Please remove it from your wrist. And also take off your belt and empty your pockets of their coins and keys. And put your cell phone in the bin too... No sir, your wallet full of credit cards will not set it off. The nature of a metal detector is to detect metal. It's not going to beep about plastic and leather. It's only concerned with metal, like those little metal tassels on your shoes. Not only will those set it off, but they'll continue to make you look silly as long as you wear them.

If you're a female between the ages of twenty-eight and forty-seven, and wearing a badge, on the other side of that badge, you have a baby picture that looks as if it's six to ten years old (age estimations based largely on degree of sun-fading).

If you're a female in that same age bracket and not wearing a badge, it's very likely that you subscribe to The Linear Law of Age and Leather Boot Height. This law states that every slice of sex appeal lost to chronology must be balanced to a zero-sum total by an equivalent increase in boot height. These boots become cumbersome at age thirty-nine and strike the knees at forty-five. Black females tend to revoke their subscription when they turn forty.

If you're a female aged fourteen to sixty-five and not wearing a badge, you have a lumbar tattoo. If you are wearing a badge, you're also wearing a pantsuit that doesn't expose your lumbar region.

If you're a black female under the age of thirty-six and not wearing a badge, during your second trip through the metal detector, you raise your hands into the sky as if pretending to be at gun point. Hint: it's your huge, huge, huge Aerobie-size-and-shaped earrings. This strikes me as obvious. Either way, I get what you're doing. You want to put on a show as if you're being victimized. And why shouldn't you - it's your god-given right as a theatrical black woman below the age of thirty-six. Though if I were you, I would probably try to satiate my thespian quota by reading the novel Ida B. And then after that, I would just try to act normal at the courthouse.

If you're a black female whose earliest memories do not predate 1970 and do not postdate 1999, your finger nails are really colorful and gigantic. Gigantic. They really, really stand out. This leads me to believe that you also have cervical cancer (as everyone with huge fingernails winds up getting cervical cancer). Even if your earliest memory took place in 1999, thus rendering you an early teen (or perhaps a tween), you may still have cervical cancer. Because who's to say your first memory isn't really inappropriate intercourse?

If you have corn rows, you walk through the metal detector as slowly as you possibly can, as if its detection is based on movement. This might work on Tyrannosaurus Rexes and the motion sensitive porch lights of the houses you break into at night, but I can assure you - on an electronic level - there are very different phenomena at play in a metal detector.

If you have a Satan-beard, you also have face-gripping sunglasses gripping your face. "Satan-beard" and "jean-shorts" are interchangeable in this rule. Obviously both of these demographics have very, very light pigmentation. Not a single ancestor has ever approached the equator.

If you cuss loudly, you have very light pigmentation as well, but you're also way too young to be in possession of advanced paradontal disease. But despite the counterforce of chronology, you've arrived. How did you get there? By being visibly unfamiliar with the American Dental Association while chronically high on meth.

One such boomer of profanity was wearing a shirt that said "it's only illegal if you get caught." This doesn't strike me as brilliant attire while defending yourself in court. And you might want to take your puffy, oversized Cincinnati Reds hat off too. Or at least make the bill point in the same direction as your face.

If you're Mexican, you bring your daughter to court with you. On the way into the courtroom, you hold her hand and walk really slowly beside her. On the way out of the courtroom, you shout things at her like "will you fucking hurry up?!" while speed-walking fifteen paces ahead of her. Males are more violent with the latter behavior, but both genders subscribe to it.

If you're a Mexican boy between the ages of zero and nine, you're doing your part to herald the dual rattail's reentry into the world of fashion. This makes me want to clap.

If you're dressed like a stewardess, you're a white female above the age of thirty-two, younger than fifty-two, and you have a backpack with wheels (as if trying to pass as luggage... it's not luggage though; it's legal files... and you really do look like a stewardess).

And that's all. That's the full list of my observations.

I stood at the entrance watching people come in for at least two hours and during the last thirty minutes, no new demographics were introduced to me. I eventually got bored of the repetition (though that repetition went to incredible lengths to validate the above cast of my observations).

Once I decided I was done observing, I walked up to the X-Ray Tech (is this what he's called?) and asked him what the most interesting thing he'd ever seen was.

The X-Ray Tech pulled his hotdog (with an extraordinary amount of relish) from his mouth, turned his back on the X-Ray monitor completely (another way to sneak in a shank), and answered my question.

"Last week a lady tried to come in with a purse full of knives. She must have had thirty knives in there. So I ask her, I go ma'am can I take a look at something in your purse. And you know what she does? She grabs it and runs off."

"Whoa! That's fantastic! What else?"

"Oh, another guy tried to come in a couple weeks ago with a huge nail gun. And a couple days later we ended up busting another guy who was trying to sneak in heroin."

"Wow... that's a serious addiction if you're trying to smuggle it into court with you. I hope you got the guy treatment."

"Oh I don't really know what happened to him."

"Huh... Well what about crazy personal items. Any good stories for me there?"

"Not really here. But at the other branch I was there when a guy brought in a huge... um... it was his wife's."

"Dildo?" I say really loudly.

"Yeah" he whispers back as quietly as possible, as if the word "yeah" would somehow offend people if they heard it.

After a few more unproductive minutes talking with this guy, I decided to go wait in line at room seventeen (i.e. the courtroom where I'd be defending my ticket).

It was a quarter after one. A pretty big line had already formed. I considered this weird.

I get into that line. A fifty year old white male had gotten there right before me. Prior to my arrival, he was the sole-Elmer in the line (I decided to make up a new term for white people: Elmer, a.k.a. glue stick).

Within five minutes, another twenty people lined up behind us. Now there were about seventy people in line, and we were the only two Elmers.

At the beginning of that five-minute interval, the Elmer right in front of me decided to turn around, face me, and announce that he used to be way (WAY!) stronger than me. And he had way (WAY!) huger guns (meaning arms, though this isn't a term I'd throw around too loudly in the municipal arena... actually it's not a term I'd ever use anywhere ever... because it's stupid... but especially here... I guess especially on planes... but this would certainly be the runner-up).

Anyway, by the third minute, Elmer was telling me exactly how much he used to lift. "I used to bench press 250lb for twenty times!"

I excused his awkward phrasing and said this: "congratulations" while giving him a soft pat on his "huge left gun."

I resisted the urge to inform him that an average set at that weight yields thirty reps for me without much strain... and that I don't even like the bench press. I think it's stupid.

I didn't resist this urge out of respect for him, but because he was walking with a cane... and thus, for all I knew, he could have had a concealed shank.

By minute four, a bandana-clad black girl in line behind me had sent me about fifteen smiles. So I interrupted Elmer briefly and introduced myself to her. I don't remember her name, but she said it during smile sixteen. And I distinctly remember it being two last names ("Johnson Nelson" or something).

I gave her smile number two as we were called into the courtroom.

We sit down, it takes forever, and eventually the judge shows up. She's probably late thirties. Maybe forty. Blond. Attractive.

I immediately deem this perfect. She is precisely the demographic that regards me as a sex god.

I confidently settle into my chair and toss Johnson Nelson smile number three.

Out of the seventy (or so) people in the room, I must have been the sixtieth one to be called forward, which would make Elmer the sixty-second.

Every single one of the fifty-nine people who went before me was unemployed (and thus paying off their tickets in community service, which is literally something like two dollars per hour).

Moreover, I don't think a single one of them had a driver's license.

Perhaps I just didn't pay close enough attention and one to three of them did. But even if they did, they certainly didn't simultaneously have insurance. Even Elmer didn't have any insurance. It was crazy. I was the only one in the room with a ticket that post-dated 2005. And probably one of six people without a warrant out for my arrest.

Every single defendant that stepped forward bolstered my confidence to an amazing degree.

The judge hardly broke her smile the entire time, squeezing a little joke (not really a funny one, but certainly light hearted) to every person who approached the stand.

Finally "Courtney Jensen."

I stand up, walk to the podium (which isn't a real podium; it's just the back of one which is being used as a signpost... there's a piece of crumpled computer paper taped to it that says "stand here" written in Sharpie).

No jokes, no smiles, she asks me how I plead.

"Not guilty."

"Okay, go stand over there." She points to the desk where I would go collect my papers, looking burdened with my very presence.

The next name is promptly called.

In my confused walk toward the destination of her pointing finger, the judge was already joking with the next person walking up to the stand, who wasn't even a citizen.

After collecting my papers, I sat back down and watched the remainder of the session to try to figure out the pattern.

In the end, I decided either she loves denim (I was the only person not in jeans), she hates ties (I was the only person wearing a tie), or there's something psychological at play.

Probability aligns most closely with the latter. So what is it?

Well, she's an attractive blond woman who's very young to be in the position she is. Obviously she was ferocious in the journey that landed her there. And that kind of work ethic always has a motivation. It's never natural. Fanaticism is shaped, not born. So what is it that would motivate an attractive blond woman to that level of passion in the legal arena?

A late-twenties white male with the second-hugest-guns in any given room took advantage of her sexually a lot of years ago? She felt like control had been taken away from her. And so now her hand controls the gavel that controls the very law itself?

I'm not saying I'm right, but it's certainly plausible. Much more plausible than a love for denim.

After the last name was called, I left. I took my handful of papers and walked back to my car on California and Fremont, passing the bus station where my red tie could have earned me a bullet.

When I got back to my car, I sat in it for a moment reflecting on my day. And in doing so, I began to understand the shank to the courtroom trick. Not that I would ever do it, or that I celebrate his attempt at murdering a judge. I'm certainly not going to clap for him (like I will for the dual rattail children). But most Stocktonians are too dim to understand the tension they're buckling under (or the gross comprehension of human psychology for that matter). And so for these people, when they're stripped of personal power, I imagine it's difficult for them to rationalize beyond their decisions of reflex.

It really isn't any different than the black girl adopting the victimized posture as she walks through the metal detector. It all makes sense on some level - all the various ways a Stocktonian will tackle personal expression in the municipal arena. And in turn, why I say people watching here is a venue unlike any other.