Judge Wright wanted to throw the book at the kid. He thought the boy looked awful. The teenager wore a blue Yankees cap cocked to the side on top of a black bandanna. An extra-large red Sixers basketball jersey, draped over a white tee shirt, drooped on his rail thin frame, above loose jeans, sagging below his waist. His feet sat in unlaced Timberland boots. The magistrate figured the minor was one of many city problems produced by parents with poor family values.
“Miles Brood,” summoned the judge. “Approach the bench.”
The defendant strolled forward.
“You know you have a right to remain silent?”
Irritated by the reply, Wright snapped at the defense attorney appointed by the court. “Counselor,” he asked, “have you informed your client of his rights?” He looked hard at the lawyer.
“Yes, Your Honor. I reviewed his file last night. Then, as soon as he arrived from the Crow Detention Center, I met with him in the holding cell for a quarter of an hour this morning. I offered to enter a plea for him. But, he rejected my proposal. He told me he intends to argue his own case.”
The judge nodded his head. “Well, thank you, Mr. Dabbler. Let the record show you have discharged your duties.” Feeling stuffed in his black robe from the spaghetti platter that he had eaten for lunch, Wright turned to the accused. “Is this not true, Mr. Brood?”
Wright suffered some indigestion. He guessed the boy planned to act dumb. The judge could not count the number of times that boys like Brood came before him. They seemed to have the same idea. They believed they could beat the system by playing the fool.
“Do not test my patience. You hear me, Mr. Brood? Answer my questions. Ten minutes before midnight on June the sixth, five days ago, Officer Hench on patrol in the Mayfair district caught you behind the Olive Garden on Roosevelt Boulevard removing a hubcap from the rear wheel on the passenger side of a Lincoln Continental. So, he arrested and charged you with thief. Is this not so?”
“Okay, I hear you.”
Wright started to slap the kid with contempt. Yet, somehow he refrained and wished instead more blacks resembled him.He blamed most of the boy’s behavior on poor parenting. So many black kids got improper care, Wright felt. He hated having to correct them in a courtroom crowded with white men.
His mother had raised him on her own in a rowhouse on the Stiles and Race corner. For 25 years after the death of his father in the Korean War, she had made ends meet through her job as a bookkeeper in the Service Department at the Lecher Auto Dealership. She had kept the judge on his toes and pushed him to succeed in school. “Learning and labor,” she said, “are the keys to happiness.” The woman stayed busy, working or reading; she simply sat still in church. Her spirit delighted her office and caught the attention of Mr. Skinner, the Operations Manager, who ran the company. She received annual raises from him, which allowed her son to go from the Institute for Colored Youth to Conwell Law School, before she passed from a heart attack.
“Ok, then, Mr. Brood. On the night in question, you were caught as stated. Were you not? You admit that Officer Hench found you stealing a hubcap, yes?”
“Right, Your Honor.”
“Well, then, why?”
The felon shrugged.
“Answer me, now!”
“I needed it.”
“Look, don’t fool with me.”
“Straight up. Swear on my mother’s grave.”
“Who are ‘we’ and what do ‘we’ supply?”
“Me and my brothers.”
“Make sense now.”
“We got a contract”
“I’m warning you.”
“Yo, ease up. Alright, chill. Be cool.”
“Pardon me,” said the judge with a raised eyebrow.
“I mean, for real, Your Honor, no jive.”
Wright had not expected to face such insolence when he entered law school. He beamed with pride when he gained admission through the Bootstrap Program designed to recruit, fund, and retain hardship cases of every color, culture, and creed. He lived off the insurance money from his mother's passing to earn his law degree. As the sole black student in his cohort, outside classes, he spent most of his time alone. He developed a taste for Italian dishes and haunted pizzerias. Though a want of company often distracted him from his studies, he got good grades.
“Some dealers use hot parts,” spouted the teenager, “to discount repairs for their regulars.”
Shaken from his reverie for an instant, Wright asked, “Are you on drugs?”
“I ain’t crazy,” said the boy.
Wright had envied his classmates, who had concentrated on Business Law rather than Civil Rights. They never got cases like his. He had dreamed of being a crusader for social justice. When he finished law school, he had trouble finding work. He did not know what he would have done, had his mother’s former boss, Mr. Skinner, not called his City Hall buddy and set up an interview in the District Attorney’s Office. He became a prosecutor, fell into politics, and landed on the bench.
“I’m telling you, a white dude approached me on the street,” the judge heard the boy say. “He offered me a deal. I needed to get paid. So, I jumped on it.”
“Where is this going, Mr. Brood?”
“Really,” interrupted Mr. Dabbler, “I have another hearing soon.”
“Let’s go, Mr. Brood,” the judge ordered.
“I needed work. So, I cut a deal to collect hubcaps for the man. He set a quota and handed me a bonus when I topped it. I got my brothers involved. We hit the streets at night with gym bags and stuffed them with our haul.”
“Your parents let you do that?”
“No, Your Honor. They ain’t around anymore. They died in a crash, three years back. A white driver from Mount Airy missed a stop sign at Stiles and rammed them into a pole as they crossed Race Street.”
“That gives you a license to steal? What did your parents teach you?”
“My folks taught me to use my head.”
“Then, why haven’t you?”
“By keeping their dream alive.”
“My folks worshiped music. They never spent a day without it. My mother loved the organ. The sax was my father’s thing. Following him, I took up the horn. My brother Martin went for the drums and Malcolm for the bass. For twelve years, while me and my brothers cut our teeth on our instruments, my parents sweated through long days at the Gooden Tent Mill and saved every spare cent to rent a storefront and turn it into a music shop with classes and concerts.”
“Touching story, Mr. Brood, but, how does it pertain to the charge against you?”
“My parents wanted their sons to hang together, become a band, and get big. Calling their shop Village Jams, they opened it four years before the accident. Things began to fall apart after their death. Neighbors lent a hand with their funeral and burial. However, once my folks were six feet under, everyone went on with their own lives. We lost the lease on the store along with our crib. A state agent placed my brothers and me in separate foster homes. I got stuck in a stinking project with a woman who took me for the money. Snatching hubcaps let me and my brothers live together in a boardinghouse.”
“So, you expect me to dismiss your case?”
“I didn’t hurt anyone.”
“You harmed the people who lost their hubcaps due to your shenanigans. According to Article 1661 of the Civic Penal Code, wrongful possession and use of property is a serious felony punishable by a prison sentence. Through your own testimony, you have convicted yourself and your brothers.”
“What do you mean?”
“Be quiet, now.”
“Give me a break.”
“Bailiff, return him to the detention center to await sentencing.” Judge Wright wrote on the boy’s file and handed it to the attendant. “Also,” he told the aide, “apprehend his brothers.”
“Why can’t we go? We’re booked to open for Soul Survivors at Freedom Theater. Give us a break!”
“Don’t make me add contempt to the charge against you.”
“What are you picking on us for?”
“You’ve said enough.”
“What about the man at the Lecher Auto Dealership who paid us to swipe the hubcaps?”
Judge Wright glared at the kid.