She was white, with a taut ponytail cinched with a “JUST DO IT” band. She wore a large men’s black T-shirt inside out. It hung like a dress over thin legs in shorts and full sleeves of sugar skull tattoos.
She just walked wrong, herky-jerky like an inexpertly operated marionette. She clomped into Room 100 when it was still holding traffic court, sliding in the seat next to me and my friend.
“Have they called S_____ yet?” she whispered.
“I don’t know. We just got here,” I whispered back.
She slid up to the next row forward.
“Have they called S_____ yet?” she asked a young woman there.
The young woman shook her head and shrugged.
It was 40 minutes to bond court.
Bond court at the criminal courthouse at 26th and California, “26th and Cal” to those familiar, isn’t in what one thinks of as a courtroom. The courthouse has those, grand high-ceilinged rooms let rot with chipping plaster and wheezing ventilation, justice dished by judges and juries in decaying chambers that once impressed.
Bond court isn’t in one of those places. The room where bail is set looks like rundown office space for a company that doesn’t care much about its employees. Bright fluorescent lights and that awful off-white porous ceiling tile that you just want to whip pencils at to see if they’ll stick.
The pews tell that it’s not an office. Like castaways from a failed church, the pews were stained wood, heavy and stately and, for that, almost comical for being lodged in what should by rights be a telemarketing call center.
There was a break while the room flipped from traffic court to bond. My friend and I headed to the second-floor cafeteria, passing along the way a petting zoo for TV camera crews waiting to do their live remotes on the luxury trials of the day. Friday’s TV attractions were two pedophile cases, one involving a priest and the other a teen raped while locked up in adult corrections, a smiling newswoman in mortician wax makeup told us.
After our break, we returned. The woman with the taut ponytail and T-shirt hanging like a dress was still there, but most of the other audience had changed. Some milled about the comical pews gabbing while others, like the woman with the ponytail, simply sat, hand resting on chin or nails nervously nibbled or, like the woman with the ponytail, both.
Some reporters entered and left, sitting in their special, fenced-off set of pews. Bailiffs rolled in two, three rolling carts stacked with manila file folders. Bailiffs and clerks and shoddy-dressed lawyers bustled in and out of closed doors near the massive tiered bench for the judge and his helpers.
The pace quickened. The crowd strained necks to see what action would come. A dark-haired woman in a skirt suit walked in front of the audience, explaining the rules and what they meant. The judge sets bond. There are a few options, the most common that the person will have to pay 10 percent of the amount the judge names. If the suspect pays, he or she (mostly he) can go free until trial.
From there, the justice system will see.
All rise. The judge comes in. Be seated. A new door opened and the first suspect was guided out, hands held behind his back to mimic cuffs.
Armed robbery. Aggravated battery. DUI. Possession, so much possession. A man accused of owning child porn. A man who fought the Wrigley Field security guards for saying he was too drunk to enter. A shackled man in DOC reds who wouldn’t give the guards a shiv he stole while awaiting trial on murder charges.
The whine of a printer. The rumble of an impatient crowd. The creaks of seats as each suspect’s loved ones stood to show support when they entered. Reporters leaving and entering the room. The judge calling names and numbers as fresh-faced defenders rattled off mitigating factors.
He graduated high school, your honor. He’s in a GED program. He’s learning to operate a drill press. 25, lives with his mother. 43, lives with his sister. Same house he’s lived in for 10 years, 20 years. Lifelong Cook County resident. Lived in Chicago 23 of his 25 years. Two children. No children. Child on the way, your honor.
Then, the final word from the judge. I-bond. D-bond. Cash for some. Report in July. Report in August. Branch 44. Branch 50. Branch 38. Branch 42-5. $10,000. $30,000. $75,000, numbers meaningless because the real cost will be a tenth. On to the next suspect’s name before the current one has a chance to walk away. The suspect is rushed back through that same door, sometimes jostled into the next person coming out it for justice.
“It’s like a factory floor,” my friend whispered.
“I guess it has to be,” she later said.
It started at the front. Two women in heavy makeup and booty shorts recoiled at something on the ground, yanking their feet onto the pews. A large bailiff who had previously yelled “Be quiet!” to the yammering crowd slammed a foot down by it.
Whatever it was skittered off, its path only discernable by the recoiling audience members looking down in horror. The bailiff gave chase, slamming a foot down every few steps.
With a final slam by the end of the row, the bailiff smiled. He kicked it over to an open doorway where a conference table and a few chairs could be seen. It was a cockroach, now curled and dead. Nothing in the courtroom stopped during the chase. Factory floor justice continued. It had to, just to keep up.
The woman with the large men’s T-shirt and herky-jerky motion sat and watched it all. Squirming like a schoolchild, she tried to joke with a Hispanic woman in front of her.
They were sending them through the door now three at a time. The first would go to the bench, the second to a railing by the reporters’ enclosure, the third up against the wall by the door. Then wall to railing, railing to bench, bench back through that door.
A man came out, was put against the wall. The woman with the ponytail pulled back in her seat.
He was heavy and black. He was big, maybe the owner of the inside-out T-shirt that hung over the woman like a dress.
The woman moved up a row and stood next to the pew, holding onto it for balance.
She waved delicately at the man. He mouthed something at her. What he mouthed had three syllables. What he mouthed ended in “you.” She smiled.
Wall, railing, bench. Charges, mitigation, an acronymic bond name and a dollar amount named without eye contact. Back out the door, new guy coming in.
It took no longer than the others.
The woman clomped away from the pew, pausing for a moment by the door with the dead cockroach, a watery, scared look on her face. She straightened herself as much as her marionette posture could and clomped down the hallway, now truly alone.