Red Beans and Ricely Yours, Your Local Federal Court

Armstrong
June 10, 1970. (AP Photo/ Eddie Adams)

 

One facemask, one manbun, two pairs of red sneakers. And with that, the first federal jury in fifteen months was seated.

In a second floor, Camp Street-facing courtroom, our twelve-person peer group fidgeted into place, picking up their individually packed supplies, looking out onto the plexiglass partitioned room. And that’s the way they would stay, through six days of witnesses and motions and objections, ultimately rendering guilty verdicts to two DEA agents for taking seized property.

At least they had comfortable seats for it all.

If your only window into a courtroom door is through an apoplectic Tom Cruise or, better yet, an all-in-pink Reese Witherspoon, you might be surprised by what’s within the Hollywood-free halls of justice.

Of course, it’s all a bit less dramatic. Think a librarian-society meeting more than a Stephen A. Smith-styled debate. If you don’t know any good parliamentarian jokes, you might need to know the location of the nearest exit. (If you do know any good parliamentarian jokes, I’d love to know at least one. It could help to finally validate my parking.)

In other ways, though, real-life court will always shine in a brighter, more dramatic light. Because, you know, the whole “real life” part. That’s not an actor sweating through some makeup. That’s a person, his freedom melting some beneath the spotlight.

I couldn’t stop pondering both these things – the humdrum procedure and the heavy results – as I watched the twelve appropriately emotioned men (and women) find their seats on the first day of the trial. And then the music started.

One of the…quirks of federal procedure is that each judge comes in with a loaded playlist. To think I spent a year in law school tuition and this never came up!

Sadly – or fortunately, for you parliamentarian joke-lovers – no strobing lights or spinning turntables appear in these moments. But music does. Contemporary music. New Orleans music, even.

Music more function than form.

Music is played each time there is an important break in the action, muffling the conversation when a judge pulls attorneys near the bench for a pep talk. Ok, based on the body language, it’s probably less pep talk, more impatient demand. But from the gallery, I can’t hear over old Satchmo.

That’s right, Louis Armstrong, back in court this past week, and not on some trumped-up charge of overly enthusiastic New Year’s celebrating.

Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear…

Little Louis’s gunshot might’ve sounded quieter to my ears.

Mack the Knife meets misappropriated cell phones. Only in a New Orleans federal court. Truly, what a wonderful world – also track two on the playlist.

I sat in the second row, on the left side of the court gallery strictly for self-preservation. After an eight-block walk, I wanted to sit nearest to the AC jet stream. It was complete happenstance, then, that I placed myself on the defendant side, directly behind the families of the accused.

I guess that’s his wife? And maybe his teenager? And maybe his mother?

“I get some consolation when I read of someone else’s lonely heart.” Louis, that’s enough.

“Give me your kisses, I’ll give you my heart. Give me your promise that we’ll never part.” They’re facing jailtime, Satch.

“What good is sittin’ alone in your room. Come hear the music play, yes. Life is a cabaret old chum. Come to the cabaret.” I think I’d prefer to stay at home, thanks.

I didn’t dare add to the indignity of having relatives on trial by chatting up the front row spectators. It’s not like I have blog business cards yet.

I did, though, try to observe.

Sidebar after sidebar, song after song, they didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they chuckled along with the jurors when the judge noted they would all become quick Louis Armstrong fans. It was just some music, a backdrop, a beat.

During these pauses, the families avoided those pretty teeth sharks, dear. They just kept swimming. They checked their phones and refreshed their feeds, complimented outfit choices and attorney strategies, stood up and stretched.

They coped with the heaviness of it all by embracing the humdrum around us all.

And we would, too. Because we do, too.

If our focus was just on the suffering in our world, in our communities, within ourselves, bed wouldn’t let us go in the morning. We need some routine, something mindless, something that distracts. We need some humdrum to balance the heavy, a bit of cabaret for the crying.

A week after that jury heard opening statements it issued a final verdict. Nothing can soften the thought of a guilty son or husband or father. No song can dance in that background. No humdrum can immediately lift that heaviness.

Since the verdict, I find myself thinking of that front row much more than those two defendants. That’s the pastor in me, I guess, not the law student. How cope now?

Louis, a song?

So routine that it’s given name to our football team, so expected tourists are charged double for its request, “When the Saints Go Marching In” made the courtroom playlist. It had to. It’s ritual. When the saints go marching in, when that sun refuses to shine, when the trumpet sounds its call, may we both be in that number and be bored to death by it all, shrugging our shoulders and taking our spot.

May the humdrum and the heavy strike up the band—lessons from the first federal jury in fifteen months.

 

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Speaking of Louis Armstrong-inspired coping, Comedy Central’s “Drunk History” is here for a bit more on Satchmo’s life, complete with a reenactment of that famous gunshot.

 

 

Categories: Pulpit to the Pew