Tipping the scales of justice. by John Cunningham
The receptionist at the architectural firm on Page Street with the three story glass windows and doors told me the Fed Ex package would be ready in 10 minutes. I sighed,
"Is it East Coast?" I asked.
She looked at the empty tube and said, 'No, its going to Oregon." I was relieved and walked to the other end of the spacious ground floor office and called Tom, my dispatcher on my radio to let him know quietly the 15 minute messenger tag due at 5:45 PM, now had 2 1/2 hours to get to Harrison street.
"Just sit tight 81, its still going to be a rush, keep track of your waiting time and when you clean up, come by here."
Waiting time is music to the bicycle messenger's ears. A dollar a minute to the client and 47 cents a minute in my pocket before taxes to sit on a couch. I sat down on a plush leather chair, picked up a magazine, read the table of contents and glanced up to see nothing leaned up against the glass window. My beloved bicycle was missing, I howled with anguish and ran to the glass door. The door was locked, being clever architects they had a dead bolt with a counter clockwise rotation that I had opened 50 times but now struggled with. Once free, I ran down the middle of the street, looked around and then slowly walked back towards the client's office.
"81 to base, 81 to base, problem" I said,
"Go ahead 81, what's wrong with you now" Tom.
"My bike was stolen"
"Did you lock it?" Tom
I counted to ten in silence before responding,"No, I don't see how thats relevant right now."
"You should always lock your bike.....I'm sorry to hear that...Wait for the package, I'm sending a driver to pick you up, give him the Harrison street, Folsom street, the Claire and he'll drop you off at the office.'
"F*cking Great, so I lose the tags and I still have to come by.' I said not masking my annoyance.
" Wathc the language 81, I'll take care of you, you know you still have to complete your manifest and turn in your radio."
"i guess....... I couldn't just do it in the morning, couldn't I give the driver my radio?" I was pissed.
'81, you have do it tonight. Are you going to be at work tomorrow of what' Tom
"Yeah, yeah, I have a second bike, not with those pedals but whatever, I'll be there in the morning."
"10-4, 81, he's on his way" Tom
I returned to the architectural firm, apologized for screaming and picked up the package. A driving messenger came along, picked me up and displayed complete unconcern about my significant financial loss. Drivers and bikers were different though still part of the same working poor class. He dropped me off at the Speedway Delivery garage On Tehama Street in the heart of San Francisco's Tenderloin South of Market district. City Hall and the real estate developers were calling South of Market Street, SOMA but in 1996 it was still swimming with crack heads, drunks, petty thieves and paroled child rapists who were confined to the area due to its lack of schools. As he promised, Tom put jobs or Tags in my box that paid well that I never handled. He likely took them from one of the several middle aged walking messengers who where paid hourly and mostly picked up for out of town drivers. I filled out my paperwork and left the office with a feeling of acceptance, resignation and a strong desire to get liquored up.
Slowly rolling down the Sixth Street sidewalk a hundred yards from the Speedway Delivery office was a tall African American man sitting on my bike next to a tall white man on foot with stringy blonde hair and peeling skin from too much exposure to the elements. I froze in my steps, mouth agape and observed my water bottle with the red, white and blue, USA Cycling federation sticker was still in its bottle cage.
"Are you looking for a bike?" Stringy Hair queried.
'Maybe, thats a nice bike." I said, sizing the two men up, my mind searched for options. They both had 30 pounds on me but I was martially trained. I could take on one of them but not both and not on this god forsaken street with too many variables.
"This is a really great bike, its a Trek 7000, aluminum frame, clip-less pedals, its light, its got a computer, nice saddle, rapid fire shifters and it looks to be your size.' stringy Hair said.
" Cool dude, can I see how it rides?" I ask
"No" the man on the bike said flatly.
"Hey man, it can be yours for 80 bucks, its like a thousand dollar bike.' Stringy Hair said .He was only under by 200 dollars, not noticing the handlebar and stem upgrade with titanium screws, and the after market racing wheels with sealed bearing hubs..
'80 bucks, its a good deal I'll do it but I don't have the money on me, I have it at my apartment, its a walk but its not too far.' i said looking appreciative and earnest.
'You don't have an ATM card?" Stringy Hair asked
'I don't have a bank account, I get paid in cash under the table" I said, which was not true on all accounts but I did have money at home.
"Alright, where's your place" , the man on the bike said.
'300 block of South Van Ness, by the overpass., we just follow Howard street."
"Hey thats not bad, we can do that right?" Stringy Hair asked.
"Yeah" he said, rolling about 5 yards ahead of us.
We walked fast, my bicycle always ahead of me. Stringy Hair talked continuously like Neal Cassady on Nazi speed about finding computers in the garbage and other dumpster finds. I kept a fast pace and looked out for a police car while saying things like "cool" and "thats great". The three of us waited for a light to change and as if seeing me for the first time, Stringy Hair noticed I was wearing yellow and black Italian Sidi mountain bike shoes, a large company Timbuk2 Gravy Dog (gravy is high paying tags) messenger bag with a radio holster, black lycra tights under my cargo pants, a Speedway Delivery shirt and synthetic blend arm warmers.
'Where's your bike?" Stringy hair asked.
Without missing a beat I said, "I dropped it off at my company shop, my bottom bracket is shot and I don't have the tools to fix it, its a piece of crap bike but its my work bike and I get vouchers for it" Did I oversell the idea or am I kosher? The light changed and we walked on, my bike always ahead. We were a block from my house and Stringy Hair leaned in and whispered, "Can you give me 20 and give him 60, I don't think he's going to give me anything."
'Sure man, I don't have a problem with that." I said in the hushed tone of a co-conspirator.
We arrived at the door to the rented over priced one bedroom second floor apartment I shared with my friend Craig. The place was a post 1906 earthquake, hastily built dump but its all we could afford. Planning a ruse I said, "My roommate is a little crazy, he'll freak out if you come in, can you wait here while I get my money?"
'Sure, no problem" Stringy Hair said
"What, he has a problem with black people?"
"No, he's got problems, thats all, personal problems " I said. I jogged up the stairs.,"Wait here"
I stepped into the apartment, locked the door and saw Craig on his bed reading The Painted Bird by Jerzy Kosinski. "Dial 911, these guys stole my bike and I lured him here, I'm going to stall them'
"Are you serious? You brought them here?"
" Craig, dial 911'
While Craig made the call I got four twenty dollar bills from my money box and grabbed a steak knife from the kitchen and put it in the side pocket of my cargo pants.
'They are on their way, what are you going do?"Craig asked
"I don't know dude, but I don't plan on buying my own bike" I said.
I counted to 90 Mississippi's and walked out the door. The two of them were standing with my bike looking desperate. 'Hey..um..So, there's two of you, right and um I was wondering if, I could bring the bike into my hallway and then pay one of you.'
'No problem man" Stringy hair said
"What! , you think we're going to rip you off after walking 8 blocks, is that what you think?" The African American man said incredulously
"He's nervous thats all!' Stringy Hair said
'Shut the hell up! "
'I'm getting twenty, right.' Stringy Hair said looking agitated.
"I set the deal up, he's just nervous' Stringy Hair said, almost pleading with him.
This was working out like one of those cartoons where Bugs Bunny tricks his adversary into giving him all their money or choosing to pass on rabbit stew in favor of a vegetable goulash.
"You'll get your money, lets get this over with" he said
"Yeah ahh...ok, just you alone then." I said. I could feel my heart pumping and a surge of adrenaline. I took my time unlocking the door, walked in and held it for him as he carried the bike up the stairs and into the hallway.
'Alright, its in the hallway like you wanted" He said
Two bright beams of light bounced up the stairs and Stringy Hair tried to get in with two officers close behind. I stepped in close, used my foot as a door jam keeping the door open and said. "I'm sorry, its my bike, your both busted.' They were shocked and dismayed but offered no resistance.The two men were placed in cuffs and a second car arrived moments later. An officer walked with me inside. I retrieved a photo album with a shot of me racing on the Trek 7000 in the Cycle Messenger World Championships . While the officer examined the photo I sat on my bed and watched him carefully while I slipped the knife out of my pants pocket and ditched it in a pile of laundry. I told the officer the tale and the officer laughed while taking down the details in a notebook. He peppered his questions with "oh man" and "really"'. That's what happened, I said.
"That was a great piece of police work, of course those guys are not too bright but what luck finding your bike." he said
"Yeah, I would have paid them if I had the money on me. What's going to happen to them?'
"They are going to jail and then its up to the DA's office.' Officer
A week later I got a call and speak with someone from the DA's office and they explained that I need to go to a preliminary hearing. I have to take the day off work and spend four hours at the courthouse. I meet with a man and a woman dressed in professional attire from the prosecution and they ask me questions about the bike and its value. We go over the story. I am called to testify briefly and its determined that the African American Man, James was the man responsible for stealing the bike and that Stringy Hair, Robert was an accomplice after the fact. Both men are to be held. A second hearing is scheduled in ten days.
Ten days later I arrive at the courthouse and meet with prosecution. The same man and woman have me sit down in a small room. The woman spoke, 'There's been some developments, because of the value of your bike this is going to be a felony case, in addition to that, under the new California law, this is going to be a Three Strikes Case.'
I feel faint, the Three Strikes Law was a new California law that gave mandatory sentences for anyone convicted of three felonies, with a minimum sentence of 25 years to life. When I arrived in California I found this law to be evidence that the population of California was woefully ignorant, stupid and reactionary. Some would call that arrogance but I call it the product of a New England private education paid for by a USMA graduate.
She continues, "James committed a very serious crime and served a ten year sentence on two felony charges.'
'What did he do?" I ask.
'It was a very serious crime." She said
'I'm sorry, you have to tell me what he was convicted of' "
"He broke into a home and raped a 15 year old girl in her bedroom in the middle of the night" The man said.
"Thats awful...... thats horrible!" I said, feeling that awful was not a strong enough word.
"Robert is going to be released in a couple days. He has a history of misdemeanors but nothing serious. Just be honest on the stand and you can get through this" He said. Rape is a personal violation above all others and to occur in the sanctity of the American castle or home gives the victim a feeling on non-permanence and a life-time of fear. Its intolerable unless its committed by someone of the upper class, than its called tomfoolery , unbound lust or follies of youth.
The hearing was brutal. The Defense for James cross examined me several times asking me about the value of the bike. I methodically listed every upgrade and reminded him that this bike was my work bike and had new tires, new brake pads, a new titanium rail Flite saddle, new pedals, handlebars and racing wheels with titanium screws that put its value at 1200 dollars. I was nervous and felt like I was being attacked. I was happy to get out of there.
It was two weeks later when I found out it was for sure going to trial as a Three Strikes case and that if convicted James would receive a mandatory sentence of 25 years to life . I have a problem with mandatory sentences in general but the three strikes law seems completely incongruent to the rule of law. I also know that before the court people are not treated equally. Howard Zinn, or as my father like to call him, "that BU Pinko Professor convinced me and thousands of other spoiled brats that the rule of law operates within the socioeconomic class system. On the other hand I believe James is a dangerous man and what he did to that woman was in-excusable.
Four day later on a Wednesday evening a 45 year old portly man wearing a beige suit walked into the Speedway Delivery garage and asked me, "Are you John Cunningham.
I said "Yes, who are you"
"My name is Frank, I'm an investigator working with the public defenders office. Can I have a little bit of your time?"
"Are you allowed to ask me questions, this seems unusual?"
"Well, you know this is a three strike case and James is looking at the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison"
'Yeah, did he rape that girl?"
"Yes, he did, he was 17 and he was tried as an adult and he served ten years. He's 32 years old now and his record has been clean since. This is the first time he has been in trouble since he got out' Frank said.
'its the first time he's been caught...Look i've been in trouble before." As I said those words I instantly regretted them. I just showed him part of my hand I can never take it back.
"You have?" Frank looked surprised.
"Yes, but ah this is, this is something else, its not about me' I said
"Let me ask you this...Do you think its just to sentence a man to 25 years to life for stealing a bicycle.' he asked
"I need to think about this, I'm tired, I rode 60 miles today, I'm hungry. I need to go home."i needed to get out of there.
"Can I call you later?' Frank asked
"'Call me, no" I said
"Did you hear what happened to James?" Frank asked.
"No, what happened" I said
Frank went on to explain how James and Robert got into a fight in county lock up and that James has now been sent for psychological testing and observation for various behaviors. 'He's mentally ill." he said.
This is too much with depleted glycogen and inner conflict. "Come back tomorrow, I'll be here, we can talk again.' I said, I hopped on my bike and rode home. At home I ate a half pound of pasta with the sauce poured straight from the jar on to the boiled strained noodles. I recalled my unlocked bike leaning against the glass wall of 165 Page Street and realized that James likely just walked upon the bike and rode it away. I decided what to do and went to sleep, mentally and physically exhausted.
I called my work in the morning and told them I had to spend some time speaking with the DA's office. My dispatcher, Tom was annoyed with me and his mood had a direct correlation with my wages for any given day. Oh well, screwed again. I called and spoke with the woman from the DA's office who met with me.
"I thought about this and...uh..its just that ah..,considering the bicycle was unlocked, there was likely no pre-meditation, it was there...he uh..look, I won't testify and If I have to, I will leave the state.' What am I doing? Who talks like that? Certainly no one earning 600 dollars a week. She was quiet for a moment, "Its not the best case for Three Strikes' she said. She sounded relieved. My head was spinning.
"I would like him to be punished but I don't believe any longer than six months is fair." .She said, "Thats fine, I'm sure the defense will agree with that, if thats what you want.".
"I do, Thank you" I was shaking when I hung up the phone.
I went to work and Frank was waiting for me when I got off. "I found out what you did, and it was the right thing to do"
"I think so, I hope so. Make sure he knows what I did for him, he knows where I live,' I said. This has bothered me since the incident and my family has urged me to move.
"I'll be sure to let him know that the only reason he is getting out is because of you" Frank said.
'Good, do that. Look I have to fill out my manifest' I said and went upstairs to the office. I never saw Frank again.
A year later I was out in North Beach on a Saturday Night doing some bar hopping when I stopped to look at a blanket on the sidewalk with packages of new pens for sale. I could use these for work, I thought to myself. I looked at the man sitting next to the blanket and there was James. I tensed up but noticed he had a hand in a cast.
'I know who you are. You're the bike messenger. Take a pen set, take two, I want you to have them." he said
'Thanks, I took the pens from him. You take care of yourself., take care of that hand' I said. I wanted to get away.
James looked me in the eyes and said, "Thank you for everything."
I walked up Kearny street to Broadway and felt a sense of relief.