July 23, 1998
Trafficking in Futility
By Teresa Strasser
Trafficking in Futility
I was caught in the cruel cogs of a heartless machine. I was stripped of my humanity and dignity. I was without representation or recourse.
I was in traffic court.
Before my little run-in with Santa Monica's finest, I believed in justice. I was sure that a judge, once presented with the "truth," would revoke my ticket and the accompanying $280 fine. Sure, the light wasn't green when I entered that intersection to make a left turn, but neither was it red. So I put on my most presentable outfit, took the afternoon off from work and prepared to clear up the matter once and for all.
I had hoped that the ticketing officer would be a no-show, giving me an automatic victory. But there she was, sitting in the front row of the courtroom, trading weight-lifting tips with two of her associates. She looked swaggeringly confident, propping her elbows atop the wooden bench and laughing as she tightened her blond ponytail. I started to wonder if this was such a good idea.
When it was my turn to testify, I nervously told my story and stressed my heretofore pristine driving record. Things were looking good. Until my cop took the stand. Apparently, she had arrived early, creating an intricate three-color diagram of the intersection to which she expertly referred during her terse description of my misdeeds.
The judge asked me to draw the position of my car on the officer's diagram. Looking at the vexing grid of lines and squiggles, I knew I was finished.
"Your honor," I said, "I'm not good with...spatial relations."
After some pathetic attempts to place my car in space with a red marker, I could see my case weaken like a soggy grocery bag giving way to a spent jar of Ragu. Looking back, I'm pretty sure my rendering had the vehicle hovering above the street like something out of "Blade Runner."
"The citation stands," the judge barked. When I tried to inquire as to her reasoning, she banged down her gavel, and that was that.
I left court in tears.
I had heard stories, which I now think of as urban myths, of people beating the system. All I could think, as I sat on a nearby bench, staring at the ocean and choking down a melted ice cream sundae, was that my fate had been sealed before I walked through the door. I never had a chance. I felt like an idiot for even trying, and I felt even worse for crying over a stupid ticket. Why had I bothered?
My friend, who had come along for moral support, tried to cheer me up, singing, "I fought the law and the law won," and referring to the People's Republic of Santa Monica. I just wanted to drop out of society, hole up somewhere and write my manifesto.
Bureaucracies are a notoriously frustrating fact of life. We all have to deal with the IRS, the DMV and countless others.
The other day, I heard a scientist on the radio talking about his concept of "fuzzy logic," the idea that logical conclusions aren't always binary. I thought about traffic court, how the function of a bureaucracy is to draw a black-and-white line through what's often a gray and fuzzy place.
That same day, I noticed an instructional video at the store, "How To Fight a Traffic Ticket." The cardboard box was worn from so many rentals. I picked it up and realized that there must be a universal appeal to beating the system, to getting the black-and-white line to fall in your favor, to gaining some small measure of control over something unwieldy.
I also realized that there's not much point.
There are people who devise schemes to ascertain their officer's day off and hack through the required paper work to schedule their trials for that day. Others exercise a defendant's right to recuse their judge, claiming bias and winning a new trial on a new day. One can win, I suppose, but it's a lot of trouble for a little satisfaction.
You have to choose your battles. There are important issues to fight for, causes to champion, occasions to stand up for yourself when you know you're right. Traffic court? Suck it up and write a check. Case closed.
Teresa Strasser is a twentysomething contributing writer for The Jewish Journal.
Read a previous week's column by Teresa Strasser: