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I was just one of the city’s great masses of yearning poor who wash up in the courtrooms of Toronto’s Old City Hall each morning, charged with bylaw infractions.
A roster of our particular sins was posted on the wall like a dramatis personae. Someone had let a dog run unleashed in a park; another had littered; somebody had jaywalked; another failed to muzzle a dog; at least two had failed to keep their garbage on their premises between collections. That was my sin, precisely.
There we sat, lined up on benches, waiting for the portals of justice to open, which they did shortly before 9 a.m., and we all filed in. We hapless strangers are the human fodder upon which our grand municipal machine of justice feeds.
Courtroom E resembles a theatrical stage set. An unlikely pair of beasts – a golden lion and a white unicorn – stand astride the city’s heraldic coat of arms, hanging above the judicial seat, which is three-tiered, like a wedding-cake.
The lowest level is for the prosecutors and whomever they order forward; the intermediate is for the court clerks, the recorder of proceedings and the bailiff, one of whom says as punctually as a cuckoo clock at the stroke of 9: “Please turn off all pagers and cellphones, and there will be no talking during proceedings.”
The highest level is for the judge – who, dressed finely in an imperial black robe, now makes his entrance.
“All rise!” the clerk commanded that day, and a flourish of trumpets would not have seemed out of place. As the only one among a baker’s dozen of petty offenders to plead guilty, I was the first called.
It had been the unenviable task of some poor constable to root through a bag of garbage found outside my premises, and then to photograph an envelope bearing my name. (Good going, Sherlock!) The investigation was followed by a knock at my door – a pounding, really – on an otherwise tranquil Sunday evening.
Two summons bearers handed me a yellow sheet indicating that I had violated Chapter 309, Section 609-5B (4) of the city code. Because I was initially in the dark about the alleged offence and had not received a warning, one of the summons bearers took pity on me, scrawled a phone number on a scrap of paper and thrust it into my hand.
“Call this number,” he said.
The number belonged to the Ontario Court of Justice, where an official offered to help me, provided I didn’t use his name. I was game. He informed me I had the privilege of a pretrial disclosure of evidence gathered against me. Again, it was, “Call this number,” but with an additional, “But don’t say I told you, okay?
When I requested the disclosure information, the first question I was asked was: “Who told you to call me?”
I told him the charge and asked if it was the city’s practice to lay such charges without first issuing a warning. “What’s your address?” he asked, and when I told him, I was amazed that he seemed fully conversant with the case.
“When you ask for disclosure, you’ll find out why we did what we did,” he said. “It was what we found in the garbage.”
He would tell me no more; I would have to wait until the disclosure papers were ready.
That was when the sleepless nights began. What had the city found? Recyclables? Noxious substances? With a groan, I recalled the two empty paint cans under my kitchen sink: Could it have been them? For two days, I believed the mystery solved; then I spotted the cans still there, under the sink. I tossed and turned till I thought I would go out of my mind.
When D-Day arrived, I rushed downtown to examine the evidence against me. And then I learned that my garbage had contained a recycling calendar from the public works department. For this unintended effrontery, the city had felt compelled to teach me a lesson.
Picture me, a man in his 50s, standing before the throne of justice and unravelling my weeks of cogitation upon the charge against me. I told the judge that I fully accepted the evidence. I said I must have mixed up my nights, that I had never done such a thing before, that I worked as a volunteer, that I sometimes cleaned the sidewalk, etc. Overexcited as I was, I must have sounded a bit like Ricky Ricardo.
The judge listened patiently until the awareness of all those strangers straining like avid playgoers constrained me to silence.
The judge reassured me that he accepted I was a good citizen. Then the prosecutor rose and suggested the usual fine of $105 be waived in favour of a lesser penalty of $50. The judge readily assented, and with that my brief walk across the stage was over.
It seemed to me as if the golden lion and the white unicorn were ever so subtly grinning as I exited. A moment later, I was back on Queen Street, with pigeons squabbling and streetcars rattling and pedestrians crossing and blessed sunshine gleaming on the glass towers.
If all of humanity is a stream, I had been caught in that particular tributary that flows into our municipal courthouse; swept briefly, like a piece of flotsam, into the eddy of Courtroom E; then, all pleaded out, washed back over the courthouse steps to mingle with the anonymous crowd once again.
Bill Gladstone lives in Toronto.