Illustration by Lucas Gordon
What is it with me and Authority figures? Like who gets strip searched at the airport--especially when you are a blue eyed blonde? ( Well actually blonde was twenty years ago, I'd have to say white since I am now sixty-four). For a normal middle class woman I have had more than my share of run-ins with the law in all of their glorified forms from airport security, to the FBI, to the RCMP to the Buffalo Police department--to school systems and everything in between. I will relate my latest episode and perhaps you can enlighten me as to where I lost the plot.
( a phrase we used to use at Lakeshore Psychiatric Hospital where I used to work.)
I was on my way from Toronto to my farm in Creemore, Ontario late at night. There is a tiny town of about eight people and a few cows along the way where the speed suddenly goes from 80 to 50. It was late so I just sped through. I immediately got pulled over and was given a ticket for going 40 k over the speed limit. Ok, I accept that and say nothing to the policeman. I know I was in the wrong. He proceeds to inform me that if you are going 40 miles over then you can lose your license. (Yikes.)
Now I have just gotten a ticket a few months earlier in the U.S. for not changing lanes when a policeman was giving a ticket to some one else.( I guess New York State is desperate for money.) If that policeman had been thinner I wouldn't have had to change lanes. That whole episode was a lot of hooey but still it was on my record. My husband, is typical fashion, announced that my insurance was going to skyrocket so I have to fight the ticket. As usual he was right.
So off I went to the closest court in a city that was somewhere north of Creemore and south of the North Pole. My hearing was at noon but I arrived over an hour early as is my style. ( As Sister Immaculata used to say, 'Punctuality is a virtue' and since I had so few virtues I have clung to punctuality for dear life. I was alone in a small 'cafe' as it was called in ''Province of Ontario' court lingo. It was really a 9' by 12' room with vending machines --one of which distributed instant coffee with no cup. It just ran into a trough. There was one dour Canadian male sitting at another table. He wore a curling jacket and sat with his arms crossed. I worked on my computer which seemed to annoy him. Then a third man in a business suit came in with a brief case, sat at another table in this small room and had a coke.
Suddenly a man entered the room and looked like he came from south Asia . He had one wandering eye and looked a bit stunned or perhaps just traumatized. He was shaking and then stood immobilized. I asked what court he belonged in. He shook his head in confusion. I told him the court number was on his summons. When I said the word summons, he began ringing his hands and said he was too humiliated to bring in his summons. His English was very halting I had trouble understanding him. Finally I ascertained that his summons was in the trunk of his car so I sent him out to get it. When he came back he started explaining that he was terribly sorry for what he had done ( 14 miles over the speed limit) and that if he went to Jail his family would have no support, etc. His hands were quivering as he held his summons. I could see that he had no idea what would happen to him, but where he was from if the police stopped you, you could go to jail or get a finger cut off of something more dire.
I sat him down, bought him a tea, and explained to him that I had been to traffic court many times. All they did was lower the fine if you pleaded guilty with cause. Whenever I used the word guilty he would jump and tears would fill his eyes. I assured him that in fact almost everyone in Canada had received a traffic ticket and it was no big deal at all. I said that if he was called before me, I would go up to the bench with him and act as an interpreter for him. I said, 'Remember it is no big deal.' Just say 'guilty' and they will lower the fine.
Finally the court was convened and the judge called up 20 or thirty people before me and they all made lesser pleas, got fewer points on their license, which was the big issue, and paid less than half of their fine. Mine was $275 plus four points.
When I was called to the bench the kind, 'Father-Knows-Best judge' said , "Well the famous Catherine Gildiner. I was sitting in the coffee lounge when you regaled our new immigrant with how mundane and unimportant our traffic court is. I had no idea it was your job to tell new immigrants that they didn't have to worry about our court system and that you had mastered it. Is this what we want new immigrants to think of our court system?" As he was at the height of his diatribe, I recognized him as the man with the brief case that was in the cafe when I was there talking to the frightened man, or I would have said, Helping the new immigrant. He looked a lot more judicial in his robes than he did drinking a diet coke.
I tried to explain my point of view saying that I was trying to be a good citizen and reach out to a new frightened immigrant. I explained that the man was literally too frightened and humiliated to let his summons see the light of day. As I was speaking he said, "Mrs. Gildiner I have heard enough from you today. You will pay your whole fine and keep all of your points. Maybe then you will not belittle my court to a new Canadian."
Great. I wave good-bye to the now mollified immigrant and go to the cashier to pay my full summons and to get the points hammered into my license. As I stood in the line the silent Canadian who had done nothing to help the frightened man-- never even made eye contact--was in front of me. He had a reduced fine and only one point. After he paid, he turned to me in line right before he made a beeline to the door and said with a smirk on his face that I would like to had swept off with a curling broom, "Maybe next time you'll say Mums the word. "