My mother walked toward the courthouse at her usual fast clip, and the smoke from her Marlboro hung over her head. My brother Bernard and I trailed her as we crossed Church Street, and the fall leaves, mostly auburn and pumpkin, crunched under our feet. Everything else around us was so still.
Three weeks before, Mom had called me in the middle of the night to tell me that Bernard had been arrested. After we got off the phone, I wasn’t sure what to do. Even though Bernard was eighteen years old, only six years younger than I was, I had taken care of him his whole life. I had enjoyed his victories––homeruns and high scores––as if they were my own. I was sure his mistakes were mine, too.
Bernard and I could see the courthouse in the distance and we slowed down. There was no bounce in his step and his arms were folded across his chest. His stomach had been hurting him for days and I figured it was finally doing him in, but he told me that wasn’t it.
He laughed. “I’m walking like this because my clothes are tight.” When I had arrived in New Haven the night before, Bernard was making his rounds through the projects saying goodbye to his friends. I asked Mom what he was wearing to court and she said she didn’t know. Bernard was facing six years in prison and I couldn’t let him show up for his hearing in a pair of jeans and a hoodie.
Mom and I divided the department store and rushed down the aisles. The store was closing in fifteen minutes and Bernard’s outfit had to be right. I wasn’t sure exactly what right meant but I knew I’d know it when I saw it. Whatever he wore to court had to counter his youth, his blackness, and his undeniable street swagger.
I checked Bernard out as we crossed Orange Street. The dark green button-down shirt and gray slacks showed off his thighs and tinywaist––I was so used to seeing him in baggy clothes I forgot that he was skinny. Only his hair, pulled back into a tight ponytail, seemed to be hiding. His lawyer had advised him to cut off his dreadlocks before the hearing. Bernard had started his locks when he was twelve years old, right after he had read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and stopped eating pork. He told his lawyer cutting it wasn’t even an option.
No one was streaming in or out of the courthouse entrance so Bernard, Mom, and I walked side by side up the steps past the marble columns and Greek statues. We passed people pacing and squatting in the halls as we scanned the walls for Courtroom C. When we found it, the door was open.
Wooden benches faced the front of the room, and I motioned for Mom and Bernard to follow me to the front row. The judge had to know that our family was in this predicament together and that we were strong enough to help Bernard change course. Other people got second chances; I wanted at least that for my brother.
Bernard’s girlfriend Kay trooped in, and I was relieved to see that she had left her tight jeans and gold necklaces at home. She hugged Bernard and said, “Hi, Ms. Rita. Hi, Catina.” The edge was missing from her voice and her rough exterior was softer. I grabbed her hand as a way to say, we’re scared too.
But I couldn’t be sure that our fear was the same; after all Kay knew Bernard in a way that we didn’t. For so long Mom and I had no idea that he was selling drugs. We saw him as the kid who loved to watch Pee-wee Herman and collect baseball cards. Even his plans for the future seemed solid––attend Morehouse College, become an architect. When he first started selling weed he was thirteen years old and he made every effort to hide what he was doing—he kept his new clothes at friends’ houses and doctored his report cards. Kay always called him by his street name, 5G. The nickname was a nod to his new cash flow, but more than anything else, it gave him a reputation to live up to.
The courtroom felt stuffy. The four large windows against the wall were closed, but they let in an expansive view of downtown. The buildings outside sat on a grid. There was the shopping mall, several law offices, the public library, and dominating it all, was Yale University. The slave monument Make Us Free was right outside those windows too and I drew a line from that copper statue to us.
The bailiff slipped into the room through a side door and made his way to the right of the judge’s bench. He was rail thin with deep-set eyes, and I coughed into my hand to get his attention. But he looked straight ahead and not at us. A few women settled into the back rows and five of Bernard’s close friends arrived. We waited and waited and nothing happened.
I checked my watch and looked back as my father came through the courthouse door. Bernard saw him too and we sprung up and hung a hug on each side of him. It had been months since we’d seen him and we didn’t know if he’d be here. But he showed up, and he was sober––anything seemed possible. Everyone scooted aside so Dad could sit next to Bernard. Peering down the row past Mom, Dad, Bernard, Kay, and Bernard’s friends, I was encouraged by our sheer number. We couldn’t be overlooked.
The side door opened again. In filed four young men being held in jail. They sat shackled in the jury box off to the right. None of them looked over twenty-five years old, and their prison-issued beige tops and pants appeared dull against their skin, which were darker shades of brown.
The judge entered too. He was white, like the bailiff, clerk, stenographer, and lawyers. Once he was behind his bench, he towered over everyone. I rolled my shoulders back and raised my chin.
The clerk announced, “Roderick Bernard Bacote, docket number 387.”
Since Bernard had a private lawyer, his case was heard first. He stepped up to the front of the court and stood next to Randy. Mom worked as Randy’s legal assistant and he’d taken on Bernard’s case as a favor to her.
Mom called on everyone she could think of to help Bernard. It had been that way for years. When he was fifteen-years-old, she asked her brother to talk to him about staying out to all times of the night. The heart-to-heart between Bernard and our uncle came too late: Bernard was already carrying a beeper and a .22 caliber gun. He was selling over ninety bags of cocaine a day and earning seven hundred dollars a week. Money at home had been tight and he’d found a way around that.
The prosecutor dropped two heavy folders, all evidence against Bernard, on the table and took the lead. “Mr. Bacote is charged with possession of narcotics with intent to sell. He pled guilty at his pretrial hearing and the state recommends a sentence of six years.”
The rest of the hearing was turned over to Randy, who preferred to work on personal injury cases instead of criminal ones. It had been three years since he had stepped foot in a courtroom. “Mr. Bacote is a first-time offender,” Randy whispered. He cleared his throat and his voice rose, “He made a mistake but he comes from a good family and he’s ready to start over. I’m requesting that instead of prison he be enrolled in Project M.O.R.E., the alternative to incarceration program.”
“I know what the program is,” the judge said without looking up from his papers.
“Yes, Your Honor.” Randy paused too long and the judge told him to continue. “The director of the agency has written a letter recommending that Mr. Bacote be admitted. She knows that he can benefit from the program.”
The director had never met Bernard, but Mom managed to get the letter anyway. Her ex-boyfriend was a private investigator lawyers hired to help their clients, most of whom were young black men facing jail time. A few of those guys ended up at Project M.O.R.E. Even though Mom had broken up with the P.I. over a year ago, she convinced him to call in a favor for Bernard.
The judge asked, “What about the part of the police report that says Mr. Bacote hit someone with a pipe? I take violent offenders very seriously.”
Randy mumbled that he understood the judge’s concern and his sentence trailed off at the end. I glanced at the four prisoners across the room and imagined Bernard among their ranks. This was my last chance to help my brother. I gathered all my energy, the same energy I used to graduate college, become a teacher, and move to New York City, and directed it toward the judge. I willed him to let Bernard come home. He pulled papers out of a file, and I knew those documents couldn’t capture Bernard’s potential. The letters Mom and I sent to the court were probably in that stack too, but even those could only tell a partial story. Finally, the judge gave Bernard permission to make a statement. I was glad. My brother was smart and eloquent and could convince the judge he would turn his life around. Plus, I needed to hear him declare once and for all, without any hedging or hesitation, that he was done selling drugs.
But Bernard told the judge he didn’t want to make a statement. He reasoned the less he said at the hearing, the better. After all, he was guilty. Drugs were consuming the city like a great fire. Businessmen bought kilos of cocaine. Bosses traveled to New York City and carried back the goods before they packaged the bricks and bundled them up. Lieutenants counted the merchandise and handed it out. Workers lined their pockets with small baggies and waited. The users came in droves. Most rolled into the city from the suburbs but some people were already here and rode their bikes or huffed it on foot to get their fix. A handful of drug dealing superstars strutted around New Haven with their full length Shearlings and BMWs. City teachers watched their high school classrooms shrink and emergency room doctors were busier than ever treating addicts who overdosed and kids who had been shot. Downtown retailers could barely keep their shelves stocked with the latest Mecca jeans and Gucci link necklaces. Social workers, bail bondsmen, public defenders, prosecutors, and the police were working more than ever.
As far as I could tell Bernard was wedged into this mass of the guilty and innocent, and even while he stood facing a judge, I still couldn’t figure out his rightful place. I was disappointed with his choices but I also understood they were tampered with by a billion dollar industry that needed young people to do its bidding. Maybe I refused to condemn Bernard because it felt too righteous. When I lived in New Haven I was cool with guys who sold drugs and even dated a few. I didn’t seek out dealers; I just accepted them. They were so much like everyone else I knew. But I couldn’t accept Bernard selling drugs because I was terrified that he’d meet a violent death or end up in prison, and I wanted him to give up everything he had worked for—his money, power, and status––for a lifestyle that guaranteed none of that. He wouldn’t make that promise.
After shuffling through more paperwork and scribbling on a pad the judge conferred with both lawyers at the bench. In a matter of minutes, the lawyers stepped back behind the table and the judge got ready to deliver his verdict. He stared at Bernard and then glanced at all of us. Bernard shook his head up and down, signaling that he was ready to hear the ruling. Mom held my hand.
“Mr. Bacote, if I ever see you in my courtroom again I am going to put you away for a very long time. Don’t take this as a warning—take it as my word. Today, I’m going to give you an opportunity to start over. This chance will only be given once. Do you understand?”
I looked to Randy and he nodded toward the exit. Everyone who came to court for Bernard stood up, and we passed the prisoners in the jury box on our way out. Bursting through the heavy oak doors, we hugged each other and yelped. My own tears caught me off guard. Bernard was right behind us, un-tucking his shirt.
Catina Bacote is a Dean’s Graduate Fellow in the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa.
Photo by Flickr Creative Commons user vagueonthehow