A morning sitting in traffic court

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by Eric Ginsburg

This was written last week about Isa Abuzuaiter’s scheduled court appearance and the other dimension that is traffic court. It was initially intended for publication in this week’s paper but instead runs here in full.

Most of the scattered white faces at traffic court this morning are renegade teenage boys with what I take as their mothers in tow. The proceedings have begun, but there is no judge in courtroom 1B at the Guilford County Courthouse.

Bailiffs fan out to the four corners of the room as one calls out a man’s name in a gruff voice, his arms striking out at downward angles from his shoulders, doubling the amount of space he takes up. No response on the name.

Another man strides into the room through an open door in the back, a red nametag clipped by his breast pocket and a silver badge visible by his sternum.

“That’s the PO,” someone in the pews of this involuntary church of state whispers.

The parole officer slowly walks the aisle like a diver searching for a body, shaking his head. His missing person isn’t here, he says to the bailiff positioned by the rear door. My man isn’t here either.

It’s Isa Abuzuaiter’s first court date since Officer J. Stanley pulled him over on Feb. 17 for speeding and found a stolen gun in his possession. Isa, the husband of Greensboro City Councilwoman Marikay Abuzuaiter, is nowhere to be found as the docket is read. He faces a misdemeanor for carrying a concealed weapon, felony possession of a stolen firearm and a speeding violation.

It was nearly 3 a.m. when he was pulled over, and it’s approaching 9:30 a.m. in the carpeted courtroom on March 20.

As a woman dressed in black and grey and a large, shiny pink necklace on a gold chain calls out roll like a teacher, assigning court dates and rooms as her pupils stand.

The first is a tall woman in heels, her hair dyed a deeper shade of pink than her jacket. Some people dress up for court — flannel is the most popular choice, but there are a few dress shirts. Most people today are wearing street clothes, hoodies. Maybe they’ve been here before, knowing that today, at the gaping maw of the legal system, you’re only graded on attendance.

The necklace woman presides, asking people to raise hands if they arrived late. Two-thirds of the accused indicate their tardiness. She struggles to pronounce Isa Abuzuaiter’s name at the top of the roll call on her second pass. He still isn’t here.

Best first name on the docket this morning: Magic.

A row in front of me, a toddler in a monster-themed, zip-up onesie sucks his left thumb, drooling down his arm. He’s staring at a man across the aisle.

“That’s your cousin,” the woman I assume to be his mother says.

There are at least two other toddlers here, maybe more below the sightline of the pews. I can see that the man next to me favors the same brand of underwear that I’m wearing.

News & Record reporter Robert Lopez is used to covering these circular mornings in court — he’s brought reading.

The law shows no favoritism to fans of the Chicago Bulls, Tennessee Titans, New York Yankees and other bygone sports dynasties celebrated on people’s jackets, at least not in Greensboro. At least not today.

There are written rules in court: Don’t approach the bench at the front unless you’re called, take your hat off and, more recently, no cell phones in the building.

There are unwritten rules, too: You can talk in the lull of traffic court if you keep it down, even run between the aisles if you’re a few years old, but don’t ask questions and don’t stare at the clock in the front of the room or it may actually stop.

The cycle of court is circular like the clock — it’s hard to believe in linear time sitting here. Every morning feels the same, and when the end of the docket is reached, it is time to start back at the top. Defendants are taken out through the back to appear before a judge in a separate room, depriving those waiting of the mildest entertainment.

The man I take for the lead bailiff stares out the window. He’s certainly the oldest staffer in this room and I’ve seen him in the building many times before. His eyes are fixed on the distance. Courtroom 1B looks across Eugene Street downtown; maybe today he can see a passing train. Maybe nothing at all.

He looks a little like Dick Clark, and his voice recalls Johnny Cash — the accent, and that penetrating bass frequency, fit for a job in radio or as a game-show host. Or a job like this, that needs someone to say, “presiding” as if announcing the headlining act.

One man raises his hand, seeking permission to speak. Teacher isn’t looking.

It’s 10 a.m., and the cattle call continues.

I’m pretty sure they just called “Cassius Clay.”

Lawyers have started coming in another door at the back, picking through the docket and chatting with each other. I wonder if I’ll even know if Isa’s file is pulled. Doesn’t look good.

The boy in the monster pajamas is drumming pretty loudly on his seat now, but nobody turns to look.

Johnny Cash returns after leading a contingent into a neighboring courtroom.

“Folks, as a matter of information, please make sure when you go before the judge that you’re not chewing gum,” he says, filling the room with his voice better than anyone else likely ever has without yelling. “Word to the wise.”

Time slows down further. Monster Pajama’s mother picks him off the floor, her squared teal nails glinting, and asks a nearby mother how old her tot is.

“Oh, when does he turn two?” she asks.

“July 30.”

“What’s his sign? He might be a Cancer. I think he’s a Cancer,” Teal says.

“Might be. He crazy,” his mother says of her sleepy son, who is playing with his sweatshirt zipper and kicking his feet gently as he sits on her lap.

A new quiet takes over the courtroom. We’re basically unattended.

Monster Jammies is getting tired — it’s 10:30 a.m. and he doesn’t understand why he can’t run free in the rapidly emptying courtroom.

Teacher, with the pink necklace, returns, but doesn’t want to talk to reporters. She doesn’t have Abuzuaiter’s information in front of her, she says, and she isn’t willing to look through a bin with files where it might be a foot to her left.

Later in the day, his wife Marikay tells me what happened: “We requested a continuance because Isa opens the store everyday. It was not a no-show, it was a continuance. Today is the day sales taxes are due.” She says their lawyer hadn’t called yet to tell them Isa’s court date, and added: “He has a receipt for the gun.”

The next day someone at the Guilford County District Attorney’s office pulls Isa’s updated court information for me. He’ll be in Courtroom 2C on April 17 with his lawyer, A. Wayland Cooke, in front of Judge Wendy Enochs.

  • Ellen

    So great!

  • Jessica Nothing

    The worst article I ever read. Pointless. No wonder they didn’t run it in the paper.