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On the bottom floor of the Carl Moultrie Building, where Superior Court hangs its robes, there is a lingering lethal mix of unsavory aromas: Body odor. Cigarette smoke. Alcohol. Cheap cologne. Listerine. Trash. And it all smells worlds better than the business at hand: Neglected infants bruised and beaten. Jive-ass juvenile delinquents. Bona fide, pissed-off criminals in leg irons. Lawyers who look like Mafioso. Cops who look like skinheads.

People assume their places and walk through their parts—it mostly goes off without a hitch. Occasionally, two women may get into a fight outside family court that ends with a nail file and a high-pitched scream, or two lawyers, in the heat of negotiation, may appear one fist away from blows right there in the hallway, but that stuff is the exception. Moultrie is a place where surprise is as rare as justice.

The scene is fundamentally the same no matter what courtroom or conference room you enter: some overworked and undercompensated lawyer trying to convince his or her indignant and unappreciative client to accept a guilty plea or sign a settlement agreement that the client doesn’t want. But what clients want isn’t as important as what they are going to get if they don’t just fall in line. Choice is the province of winners, of people who haven’t fucked up so bad they can’t have what they want, ever.

I should hate it, hate it the way my indigent clients hate the crooked finger that’s always pointing at them simply because they are poor, but I don’t let it bother me. This particular coal mine requires moving shovels full of humanity. It’s all part of an attempt by me and thousands of other lawyers in this city to cultivate that beautiful principle most of us take for granted: due process.

I stopped getting hung up on the particulars and the personalities that I observe weekly down here a while ago—until J came walking through the door. J is a 23-year-old African-American male who spends a great deal of time coming in and out of the courthouse. He comes here to answer to criminal charges, to produce urine that he knows is full of reefer, to say yes and no Your Honor—to play his role. J is part of that infamous 40 percent of young black men who are tied in some manner (prison, probation, parole, awaiting trial, etc.) to the criminal justice system. And, check it, he ain’t sweating it. In fact, he smiles nice and easy when I see him, talks casually about his relationship to the criminal justice system, and doesn’t seem to give a damn that he will always have to come here to set out some bullshit about why he is violating his probation.

J’s not my client—I’m not a criminal lawyer. I spend my time down here trying to keep the poor of this city from getting evicted from their decrepit, run-down, over-priced apartments. But what has happened to him bothers me more than all the rat- and roach-infested units I have seen over the years combined. Many, many years ago, before crack, before the District tipped over, before kids were as likely to be in court as in class, I knew J, and I knew in my heart he was not going to be part of the modern penal assembly line of black men. But there he is.

I met him back in the day when I was a day-care counselor. He liked to cut up, shoot basketball, talk about girls, and eat loads of candy. Yeah, he was poor and from a single-parent home, but J was different from most of the children in the program. Often, I would find J right beside me talking about going to college, learning computers, or taking off for New York to study to be a cook. He damn sure didn’t want to involve himself in criminal activity—he wasn’t about that.

J liked to borrow the copies of Rolling Stone I would have in my bag, and we’d talk about the people in the magazine. I liked this kid. Who wouldn’t? Tucked in a vast rolling sea of dysfunction, here was a kid who sensed there was more to the world than what he was seeing. J was the kind of kid who brought out the social worker in me. And I never, ever expected to come across J at the courthouse.

He made a big entrance the first time I saw him as an adult, strutting into the building boldly with a bandanna on his head, ragged-ass, oversized jeans, and one of those overdone metallic belts. The hardware immediately sent the metal detectors at the entrance into a frenzy, and the marshals rushed toward him. J threw his hands up in surrender and calmly removed his belt, all the while snickering at the attention he received. When I walked up on him, he reeked of fresh reefer smoke as if he had been smoking right outside the building. His eyes were blood-red and barely open. Tall and slim, he still had the face of a child.

“What’s up, J?” I said as he came my way in the hallway. He was shocked to see me, but I was a familiar face nevertheless. His eyes gleamed.

“Hey, Brian, what’s up?” he said. We shook hands and embraced. The talk about college and computers had been replaced by the lexicon of the corners: bitches, brew, and smoke. He was not about to lie to me—from the jump he had always been honest, and today was no different, even though things hadn’t gone the way he planned.

J hustles uptown, off Georgia Avenue. Crack and marijuana. Hangs out, smokes blunts filled with the chronic, and swings with the girlies. He drinks Moët & Chandon champagne or malt liquor depending upon how well his week goes, and checks out a go-go show when one is happening. It goes without saying he doesn’t read anymore.

The one that got away didn’t get away after all. In spite of having been blessed with substantial gifts, J’s timing sucked. He came of age precisely when all hell broke loose in the District of Columbia. Crack took over the city in the mid-’80s, when he was a boy looking around for indications of a way to go. The homicide rate in J’s age group skyrocketed, and schools, once safe havens for kids like J who were about something, became just as dangerous as the streets. Is it any wonder that he found succor and some degree of security in affiliating with the corner boys?

And a job? Well, job programs are a joke, unless you are talking about a kid like J. A little success and opportunity would have taken him a long way. They never came along.

Now there are a lot of kids beyond our collective reach, but it shouldn’t have been that way with J. He was the kind of kid who would have taken the first ladder up out of the hellhole he was in—that is, if he had come across one.

J had other burdens, including a younger brother he had to watch over constantly after his mother basically gave up. J spent much of his time getting his little brother out of trouble, going with his mother to juvenile hall to pick him up, even fighting some of his brother’s battles on the streets when he had to.

But J wasn’t thinking about all that anymore. He was on the other side, where the problem is The Man with all his various idiosyncrasies.

“Man, these judges down here think that weed is causing the black youth to do bad things, to sell drugs and shit, but they don’t know. Weed don’t hurt nobody—ain’t like we smoke crack or some shit,” J told me.

I tried to explain to him, without getting too preachy, that the system was going to keep him coming back again and again for petty bullshit until it took over his life. Like an idiot, I suggested that he lay off the blunts for a few weeks.

“Man, it takes longer than two weeks to get it out of your system. It takes like 30 days, and even then they gonna say it ain’t clean. They just want to hold somebody back with some bullshit. That’s all this is—man can’t even get on with his life, they gotta keep calling me down here for piss tests and drug rehab. I ain’t no junkie, man, why I got to go to drug treatment for weed?” he chanted.

As he raved on about the system holding him and his brethren back, his beeper went off. He lifted up his shirt, checked the number, and started to go make a call but decided to keep talking. I asked him about the rest of the old crew, the other boys who came up in that day-care program.

“Man, them mark-ass niggahs, they soft. I can’t roll with them no more. Me and Billy hang. You remember Billy?” Yes, I remembered Billy. Another kid from the program, but it was no surprise to me that he had ended up fighting for coins on a drug corner where no one ever gets ahead. Back when they were little, Billy had always followed J, so I couldn’t help but assume that J had made the bad choices on his own and had dragged Billy after him.

J’s road was set when other roads didn’t open up. Like most black kids raised in the city, he needed loot to impress the girls and to buy clothes, and a rep to be able to hold his own on the city blocks. The rest of the program—drinking brew, smoking blunts, and generally fucking off—went right with it. J started down that path, so he took what was there.

J and I saw each other again over the next few months. He was on his way straight to hell. Not only had he served a short sentence for a probation violation, but he had a new charge to deal with—possession of a firearm. The District is full of endless forgiveness, but not for gun crimes. J was out on the strip one night trying to move some rocks, and the jumpouts rushed everybody. Got everyone out there against the wall and shook them all down. Found a 9 mm semi in J’s belt with a clip inside. He told me he had wanted to try to throw it away but the cops would have busted holes in his head if he had pulled a gun from his belt. “You must like comin’ down here,” I said after we finished with the update.

“Not really. It’s some bullshit.”

“So why you down here again? And on a gun charge?”

“No way out, that’s all. Shit is critical out here, no jobs, no opportunities, no nothing for the young black youth. Ain’t nothin’ else to do but hustle…. I’m just tryin’ to make it, that’s all.”

I told him that I knew where this wrangle ended if he didn’t turn it around.

“How? How do I turn this around?”

J’s words caught me off guard. I couldn’t make a phone call for him and get his gun charge dropped. I couldn’t do shit. His path was set, somewhere between back when we chatted the day away and the here and now of Moultrie. I gave him my card and told him to call me if he ever needed anything. We shook hands, and he smiled. I watched him pimp-roll down the hall with his jeans damn near dragging to the ground. He didn’t seem too worried. He knew the routine: Take the guilty plea, do a few months, get out on five years’ probation. And then get violated on the probation and head back into

the joint.

I haven’t seen J in court since that day. I assume he probably took a plea and is serving a short sentence somewhere, or maybe he’s on a lucky streak. I know now that he probably won’t give up the life any time soon. It’s more likely he will get his two inches in the Washington Post Metro section. Unknown assailant, two shots to the head, no leads forthcoming. Or perhaps he will be the unknown assailant and struggle onward for his share of the city’s drug trinkets. When I’m in court these days waiting for my cases to be called, I keep hoping he shows up. Even if it’s for the bad, I’ll know that he’s still living. But I’m not holding out for J’s ending up any different from the rest. That’s past now.CP