Manhattan’s uptown skyline marches off like a child’s Lego playground below me, beyond the 12th-floor windows here at 500 Pearl Street. I know it’s impossible to put all of it in my iPhone camera, but I reach into my pocket for the device out of habit. My hand finds a flat metal disk embossed with the number 35; the phone is down on the ground floor, in the security checkroom.

I will have to trust my memory to call up this picture. And the neat mental photo of the great brown sculpture of Blind Justice, thrusting her scales up to the roof in the lobby twelve floors below. And the video of what will soon take place behind the huge wooden doors of courtroom 12D, where I’ll be seeing my neighbor–I’ll call him Joe–for the first time in four months.

Joe has been our neighborhood’s ad hoc gardener longer than I’ve been a resident. He’s a generous, funny young man with a magician’s talent for making the yards bloom. He’s also addicted to illegal drugs, a sad attempt to medicate the ills of his scrambled life that has brought him to this hearing, a brief courtroom stopover in his long pre-trial incarceration.

An elevator behind me dings open, and a large man in a suit sweeps by and opens the door to 12D. I slip into the otherwise empty courtroom behind him. He turns and introduces himself as Joe’s lawyer. Sam. He is amiable and down-to-earth and his handshake is firm, his palm harder than I’d expect from a man of desks and briefs. I like him immediately.

I comment on the phenomenal view from the hall windows. He tells me that I should see the view from the top floor, the 26th. He smiles and adds, It’s amazing what a few billion dollars will buy.


I have been sending Joe funny cards since he was first locked up, and correspond with him through the jail’s monitored email system. He has not complained about his treatment to me, but I know from reports that there have been roommates who objected to his sexual orientation, suicide watches, and disruptions in his medications. I worry about him. Yes, he’s an addict, but he’s an asset to his community, not a threat. And I doubt that jail is effective treatment for substance abuse. I’m not the only one in the neighborhood who feels this way; many of us have contributed to his defense fund, and a rotating cast of friends and neighbors have taken time off from their busy lives to show up at hearings and to visit him.

The courtroom is both businesslike and churchlike—lots of polished wood, tables, pews for onlookers, and padded chairs for the jury that might or might not someday be chosen.

The last time I was in a courtroom was many years ago in Massachusetts, when I covered a murder trial for a small weekly newspaper edited by a friend. That courtroom had been more than 100 years old, as echo-ey as my old Catholic second-grade classroom.

This room, 12D, has no echo; when the judge speaks without a microphone, I can hear what he says even though he must be 60 feet away.

There is a court stenographer. It’s a concept that felt anachronistic to me the last time I saw one, and it seems even more misplaced in these square-cut modern surrounds. I would expect that, by now, we’d have evolved to videotape, audio recordings, a computer up-link of some kind—but no, there is a woman tapping at a narrow keyboard.

The guards lead Joe in. He has gained weight, and his gardener’s tan has turned to a pasty grey, except for the dark circles under his eyes. He glances back at our section, at the benches filled with friends and family, at his crazy partner—a well-meaning but disruptive man whom Sam has sworn to good behavior—and he starts to cry. Sam pours him a paper cup of water, and his hand shakes as he raises it to his mouth.


The hearing lasts an hour. Sam discusses Joe’s welfare almost conversationally with the thin, silver-haired judge, sketching his complicated physical and mental health issues, agreeing that his client was clearly unlawful in substituting somebody’s clean urine sample for his own when he came back from a month’s rehab (the judge declares that he has never known an addict to do that), reminding him subtly and respectfully that this is Joe’s first incarceration, that he has been in the not-so-gentle arms of the law for months without yet being tried. He asserts that there is more wrong with Joe than could be remedied with a month’s rehab program and, yes, he knows of no year-long hospital based program—which is what he’d recommend, after doing his homework—that would take his client right away.

Sam recommends that Joe be put in a 28-day residential program, then re-assessed for where he might go after—be it jail or, preferably, the longer-termed medical/psychiatric alternative.

Joe listens in silence, rocking back and forth almost imperceptibly.

The judge is unwilling to grant the request unless he knows what will happen after the 28 days. Sam requests a hearing in another week, when he can produce a healthcare professional from the shorter program who could offer insight about long-term options.

The government’s representative speaks, and Joe’s partner has a brief coughing fit. He has yet another as the judge describes Joe’s incarceration as humane. I suspect these are attempts to object to what he hears in a manner that won’t get him removed from the courtroom.

The judge agrees to the new date.

We file out. Sam takes questions in the hall, next to the window with the uptown view. He tells us the judge is a “middle-of-the-road” man, not as easy as some, not as intractable as many. There is hope here, in the fact that he has agreed to hear about potential care from professionals who deal in it.

Joe’s partner tries, again and again, to interrupt, to highlight the injustice of Joe’s incarceration. The lawyer counters that there is too much wrong with the justice system for any of us to cure it. “I’m just concentrating on one very small part of that system right now,” he says. “That’s Joe.”

After the crowd has dispersed, I take the elevator up to the 26th floor.

I pull aside a sun-shade and look down the island of Manhattan. The view is indescribable. I long, once again, for my phone and its camera but, of course, I will never be allowed to carry it in this hallway. I run my fingers, again, over the embossed 35 on the disk in my pocket.

I see the Brooklyn Bridge below me, to my left, its stone feet planted in the East River, its paved arms linking this spiky downtown flatland to the greener borough I have called home for the past five years.

I am free to walk from here to there. I wipe the tears from my eyes and press the button for the elevator.