Before the judge stands a large man, almost three-hundred-and-fifty pounds, wearing a gray t-shirt and tan cargo pants. He hasn’t shaved in a few days, and his eyes, large and brown under his fat cheeks, have an expression of morose confusion. He is wearing blue and white high tops with no socks or laces.
“Man,” the judge begins. “Sit up straight, so you can hear my question. On the seventeenth day of July an officer proceeding along his beat in front of a beauty supply store, found you selling loose cigarettes. Here is one of those cigarettes. He then detained you. Does this account sound familiar to you?”
“Did it go as the officer explains?”
“Good. Now why were you selling cigarettes?”
“Drop this ‘what’ and answer: why were you selling loose cigarettes?”
“If I didn’t need the money, I wouldn’t sell loosies,” the man says, looking down.
“And why can’t you get another job?”
“I have asthma. I worked for the Parks Department, but I can’t work for the Parks Department anymore because of the asthma.”
“Don’t play the idiot and lie about asthma. There’s no point lying.”
“I’m not lying, yet now you say I’m lying… I’m a peaceful man, yet you always come after me even when I’m minding my own business,” mumbles the man, blinking his eyes. “How can we do without money, your honor? I have a condition, and I can’t find a job except what I was trained for, but I can’t do that job because of my condition, so of course I have to make a little money. I have six kids, and the loosies allow me to get a little bit of formula or whatnot.”
“Why are you talking about formula?”
“What? But you asked yourself! Lots of people, even those with jobs, sell loosies. We don’t have a lot for our own, so many people have to sell them. Of course, a guy who doesn’t have a job and doesn’t sell loosies is a fool.”
“So you can tell me you were selling loose cigarette to make money?”
“What else, your honor? With my condition, I can’t smoke!”
“But you could sell something else. Maybe get a license to sell sandwiches?”
“You don’t find sandwiches just sitting around, and other people already sell sandwiches. There’s nothing better than a cigarette. People can’t afford a full pack, and I can carry them easy in my pockets.”
“He’s pretending to be a fool, as if he doesn’t understand what he’s done” says the judge, pointing. “Don’t you understand what this selling of ‘loosies’ leads to? Why, you could kill people!”
“What, your honor? Who kill? I don’t want to kill anybody. I never killed anyone in my life and don’t want to start now.”
“Smoking causes cancer. Sell cigarettes as a citizen, and you could have death on your hands, and you wouldn’t be protected by the state. The whole point of the law is to protect people, to keep people from smoking, yet you undermine it, so people smoke, and they might die!”
The man smirks and squints his eyes mistrustfully at the judge.
“Well all these years many people sell ‘loosies,’ and no one we’ve seen has fallen down dead because of it, but now you’re saying people are going to die because we’ve been selling them? If I took a gun out and shot somebody, then you could say I killed somebody, but this… with all due respect, your honor, is ridiculous! I’m just minding my own business.”
“But you must understand, cigarettes cause cancer!”
“We understand that… We only sell one cigarette at a time… We don’t sell full packs… We don’t sell cartons… We do it a little at a time… Not enough to kill…”
The man yawns and checks the time on the clock on the wall.
“Last year, the rates of cancer increased in Staten Island. Now I understand why.”
“Beg your pardon, your honor?”
“Now, I said, I understand why cancer rates have increased in Staten Island.”
“That’s why you sit there, and I sit here, because you understand. This is what you have, understanding. But a policeman, he’s got no understanding… He just grabs you by the neck and drags you off… Just messes with you even when you’re not doing anything. Write this down, too, your honor, that he bent my arm behind my back and then put his club across my neck.”
“When they searched your place, they found a second set of these loose cigarettes. When and where did you get them?”
“You mean the ones under the red trunk?”
“I’m not familiar with where they discovered them, only that they found them. When did you procure them?”
“I didn’t get them, it was my buddy Thomas I got them from. I mean the ones that were under the trunk. The one that was in my daughter’s closet, I got from Samuel.”
“Samuel Peters. He repairs shoes, but his business fell on hard times now that no one gets anything done in shops anymore. He needs a little extra for his family, too.”
“Listen, Local Law 97 requires that all cigarette packages must contain a New York State and New York City tax stamp. You are prohibited from selling individual cigarettes. The penalty for multiple violations can result in a ten-thousand dollar fine and the suspension of the retailer’s license and sealing of his store. Do you understand?”
“But, your honor, I don’t own a store or have a license, but, of course, you know the law better than I do. What do I understand of the law?”
“You understand perfectly well. You’re lying when you say you don’t!”
“Why lie? Ask anyone who knows me. All the folks know me and say hi to me. If you don’t sell a cigarette, though, my kids won’t eat, and everyone gets angry…”
“Next you’ll be talking about formula again!”
“Formula is expensive, your honor, so you start to do other things, like give the baby melted cheese…”
There’s silence in the court. The judge turns a page over, studies the words before him, as the man blinks his eyes strenuously as if what he sees before him is the sun. The judge is writing rapidly.
“May I go now, your honor?” the man says.
“No. You’re under arrest with no bail. You’re lucky you’re here at all after what the officers said about you.”
The man stops blinking and stares ahead over his thick cheeks.
“How do you mean, arrest? Your honor, I don’t have time, I have to go home to take care of my children, and another guy owes me twenty bucks, and I got to collect…”
“Quiet. Don’t disturb the court.”
“To jail… If it was for something I stole, but I bought those cigarettes with my own money… I didn’t steal… I didn’t fight… And if you don’t believe the officer, ask another officer, I didn’t put up a fight… A bad man, that officer! Coming up on me when I’m minding my own business. Minding my own business, judge!”
“I’m quiet,” the man says. “I’ll swear an oath that officer’s account are lies.”
“You’re disturbing me. Officer,” shouts the judge, “Take him away!”
“We don’t steal, it’s the honest truth” mutters the man as the two officers, soon joined by other officers, lead him away. “Why is this happening, judge? You always harass me. Judges! You have to be just. Leave me alone, I mean, it’s got to be fair. If I did something, you could put me in custody, so long as I can breathe. I mean, I guess you could even beat me up if I did something wrong. I should just have a right to breathe when it’s done…”