Cops and defendants pour down the stairs to the John Marshall Level, D.C. Superior Court. It’s 9 a.m., mild and gray outside, two days before a major holiday. Judges’ calendars are jammed. Inside the long hallway stretching from Landlord and Tenant Court down to the mail room on the far side, the lights are dim, the ceiling is low, and the black plastic chairs along the walls are crammed with cops, defendants, lawyers, probation officers, social workers, and tots running in circles.

Down by Courtroom JM14, lawyers cruise by, peer in the window. The neat young clerk pops the door open and posts the list of the day’s cases. Folks greet her, gather ’round, and push politely in, anxious to get on the roster, get started. A tall, awkward young man in a backward baseball cap, juice bottle in hand, ambles over to study the case list, then reluctantly enters. Two K-9 Corps cops, guns on each hip, handcuffs in belt, papers sticking out of cargo pockets, study the case list, trying to look cool. They enter with a nervous swagger. A bearded man with kind brown eyes hunches over, elbows on knees, listening intently to the man next to him. Probation officer? Counselor? Minister? Friend? Loping by are men, some with Rastafarian locks, with jaunty hats, a few cell phones, lots of gold chains.

Across the hall, a frail-looking woman in a soiled wool cap peers into the window of JM10. She smells strongly of tobacco. The thin teen boy with her speaks softly, and she laughs. JM10 is not open to the public; it’s for confidential family cases only. The door is locked. A teen mother, her wiggly baby sucking a milky bottle, joins the waiting others. “My baby’s father got locked up last night.”

Cops pour through the door in every costume: men in pinstripe suits, military police with big boots, cops in blue jackets that say “POLICE” on the back, cops with keys, cops in cashmere sweaters and gold chains, cops carrying belts with silver police badges, cops with leather briefcases. One handsome, dark-haired mustached man in a black leather jacket is sprawled in a chair beside JM14, motorcycle helmet and backpack on the chair beside him. A fellow cop in uniform slaps hands with him.

“Where you been?”

“I’m in Crimes and Frauds. Keeping busy!”

Prosecutors clatter over the polished brick floor with their mobile carts full of documents.

“Are you executing a search warrant?”

Law clerks laden with files stagger through courtroom doors. A gray-haired lady in old sneakers takes the teen mom’s baby on her lap. She hums a hymn in a low, lovely voice. In a red sweater, tight stretch pants, gold necklaces, and a gorgeous hairdo, a young woman sways by. She catches the melody and turns toward Grandma and baby with a grave expression.

Suddenly, the air is cut with a “Whoop!” Two hefty young men in black leather jackets holler, jump, wave their hands in the air. All along the hallway, cops, lawyers, and defendants sit up alertly, sensing trouble. But the young men are just jubilant. They’ve won!

Down the hall at Landlord and Tenant Court, there is a long line of quiet tenants winding toward the two long tables where the landlords’ representatives wait to make settlement offers.

Sister 1 says to Sister 2: “Are you listening? He’s not gonna let us work off the whole thing. Just $400. That’s all he can do for us. He wants to see green.” Gloom.

Sister 2 opens her palm and looks at the change in it. “All I’ve got is $1.10.”

Brightly dressed and neatly braided tots charge about the hall, flinging crumpled paper at each other.

An elegantly dressed lawyer asks his colleague to share her candy. She gives him a small package. With tooth and nail, they tear it open.

“Ow! It’s hot!

“Uh-huh. Hotter than usual.”

But little is being eaten—some cheese bits on the floor, a few sodas. Down in the gray cafeteria on the grubby C Level, near the drug-testing stations, arraignment court, and central cellblock, there are a few folks. Mostly graybeard lawyers, the old guard, today shouting about Stalin and Cambodia. The salad is gritty, the noodles as depressed as the decor. Outside near the Metro stop are five hot-dog stands with red and yellow canvas flapping in the wind: hot dogs $1, half-smokes $1.50. For cops, probation officers, and lawyers there are delis and sit-down restaurants all up and down Indiana Avenue from 4th Street to 7th. The cafeteria has only those whom it can capture.

By 12:30 p.m., JM Level has cleared out—only about 10 people left. Some law students munching bagels. A very blond pale-skinned woman with a short skirt, bare legs, and a blank face walks back and forth, back and forth, as she has all morning.

The lawyer for the baby’s father tells the group of small, thin people that they can go home now. It’s OK; the father won’t be charged. They thank the lawyer warmly and walk out together—wool-capped mother, talkative boy, humming grandmother, anxious teen mother, and baby with the milky bottle. They are chatting happily.

And the hall is still… CP