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Nolo Contendre

October 18, 2011

There’s a tent city across the street from the Multnomah County Courthouse. A blue tarp hanging from the limbs of a ginkgo biloba tree catches the mid-October sunlight. The sidewalk is colored with chalked slogans and there is hay on the ground beneath the tents. They have an information tent, a first aid tent, a tent where you can get socks, a tent for massages, one for art supplies, and one that’s a library, and dozens more they live in. Both Lownsdale and Chapman squares are filled with Occupy Portland protesters rallying to raise awareness about a system they believe has failed.

I’m in line across the street. The courthouse security screening is slow-going because this woman in line ahead of me is having a hard time of it.

“There’s nothing in my boots.” She walks back through the metal-detector and stands with her hands on her hips, elbows out to her sides, head cocked. “You can’t be serious.”

I get through the checkpoint, eventually, and make my way to room 124A–traffic court. Through the little slit of a window I see a dozen people sitting in pews; each person as far away from the others as they can get. It makes me think of the universe expanding, of galaxies moving away from the center and apart from each other.

Officer Griggs calls my name when I enter the room and we have a huddle. This is the part where we cut a deal.

“Do you want to plead Not Guilty or would you like to work with me to reduce your fine and the class of the violation?”

Griggs is taller than me, but not by much, with a shaved head and sharp blue eyes set close together. He wears full Police gear: bullet-proof vest, stun-gun, real gun, some kind of Han Solo holster strapped to his thigh that I don’t want to be caught showing too much of an interest in.

“I want to work with you,” I say. It feels clandestine.

Griggs says he’ll reduce my ticket from [an alleged speed of] 51 mph to 45 in a 35 zone. This and my good record will drop the fine from $190 to $107 and the violation from 1 to 2. My job is to plead No Contest. Got it. I find a seat in the big empty space at the center of the universe and contemplate nolo contendre.

After an age the judge calls me to stand before him. He says a few words. Griggs says a few words. Then the judge asks me how I plead. “No contest,” I say. “Your honor,” I add, a little too quietly and too late.

I pay the fine on my way out of the courthouse. Across the street I wander around in the tent cities: Lownsdale and Chapman. Protesters are waking up, some are doing dishes, some are talking to the press. In the ginkgo trees overhead, quivering autumn leaves change from green to legal-pad yellow, the fruit is not yet ripe.

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