Sunday, December 17, 2017
Travel

Think you've seen it all in New York? Check out night court

NEW YORK

Jenny Baumann's itinerary for her first trip to New York City: Rockefeller Center. The Empire State Building. Central Park. Night court.

In a city synonymous with theaters and nightlife, the 26-year-old from Munich, Germany, was perched on a scarred wooden bench in a utilitarian room in lower Manhattan, straining to decode — sometimes even to hear — the methodical hubbub of arraignments in one of the nation's busiest courts.

"It's very interesting to hear real cases," Baumann said as she and a friend watched a judge decide whether to set bail for people facing charges ranging from choking a girlfriend to stealing a six-pack of beer. Each case was handled in a matter of minutes amid a hive of clerks shuffling paperwork, police taking retinal scans, defendants and lawyers conferring in a confessional-sized glass booth and court officers occasionally bellowing, "Quiet, please!"

It's one of New York's more peculiar and paradoxical tourist traditions, a place visitors extol on travel websites while many residents hope never to wind up there. To travelers, it's gritty entertainment, hard-knocks education or at least a chance to experience real-life law and order on a New York scale.

Dozens of jurisdictions nationwide hold some court sessions at night, but Manhattan Criminal Court occupies a unique spot in the public's imagination, thanks to TV's Law & Order and Night Court, not to mention arraignments of real-life notables ranging from rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs to French politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

The court handles more than 100,000 arrests a year, averaging about 70 to 90 cases during the 5 p.m.-to-1 a.m. night session — and that doesn't count people who got summonses, let alone New York City's four other boroughs.

Gritty entertainment

Established in 1907, Manhattan night court once attracted such spectators as John D. Rockefeller and the then-Duke of Manchester. More recently, it's been noted in tour books, including once in the off-the-beaten-path-prizing Lonely Planet guide.

"This is something that feels really underground and unique," said Regis St. Louis, author of the current Lonely Planet New York book.

Night court is so popular that veteran clerk Robert Smith has become an impromptu tour guide for school groups from as far away as Denmark, judges from Japan and individual sightseers he spots in the audience. "I try to make it informative" by explaining the process, he says.

Much about the experience can be foreign even to those who aren't foreigners. Some arraignments gallop by in a blur of jargon, and certain cases are only-in-New York by nature.

"To people who live in a little community in Nebraska, what's fare-beating?" asked Manhattan state Supreme Court Justice and former Criminal Court Supervising Judge Charles Solomon, referring to the practice of not paying for rides on public transportation. "It's eye-opening."

Lorraine Cheyne was surprised to see handcuffed people sitting near her in the court audience — that wouldn't happen at home in Ranfurly, New Zealand. The retired property manager was struck by the Manhattan court's unceremonious bustle, chatter and "very casual atmosphere all round" during her late-afternoon visit last fall.

If visitors find allure in night court, insiders understand why. "It is a 'just-off-Broadway show' with a cast of thousands, ever-changing story lines … real drama, as well as occasional comic relief," said Edward McCarthy, who oversees the Legal Aid Society's defense work there.

But if it can be entertaining to watch, it's fraught and serious work, notes acting State Supreme Court Justice Melissa Jackson, the Criminal Court's supervising judge from 2008 through 2012.

"From the judge's perspective and all of the attorneys' who work so hard, there's nothing amusing about it," she said. "And the stakes are very high."

Those stakes are measurable on the faces of audience members hoping to bail out loved ones or discovering they can't. Some spectators develop mixed feelings about being there.

"Had I come to learn something about the American legal system or to watch a wrestling match?" Michael Coto wrote on Triphoney, his New York travel-guide site, after a 2011 visit. But he found a powerful answer as he reflected on what he was watching.

"I started thinking about how this person's rights are protected and what protects somebody in that position, the fact that you can be in there and not have to fend for yourself," he recalled by phone recently.

Choices and consequences

Some court tourists are legal workers or law students seeking to educate themselves about New York's justice system, or parents who want to teach their children about it.

Adam Jory Waxman and his wife took their 16-year-old son there last month while visiting from the Atlanta area, hoping it would be a lesson in choices and consequences.

And it was.

"He saw that people got themselves in trouble and that there wasn't anything they could do about it until a judge made a decision," Waxman said.

After two hours in Manhattan night court, Baumann came away determined to observe a court back in Germany.

As she left, Holly Young was in the midst of her own first visit to the Manhattan court, waiting for a friend's arraignment.

Go there for fun?

She shook her head.

"That's not something I would want to do," she said.

"I don't think this is cool at all."

Comments
Exploring the incredible color, cuisine, culture of India

Exploring the incredible color, cuisine, culture of India

DELHIAs I slid my shoes off and handed the man a five-rupee note before entering the Jama Masjid mosque, I could feel the heat from the red stone against my heels. I could also feel the intense stares of the Delhi locals. I don’t know which made me s...
Published: 12/14/17
In Sitka, Alaska, food doesn’t get more natural than this, or cheaper

In Sitka, Alaska, food doesn’t get more natural than this, or cheaper

SITKA, AlaskaA hefty brass bell hangs from a rafter in the middle of the Pioneer Bar. The P Bar, as everyone calls this down-home dive on Baranof Island about 90 miles southwest of Juneau, is a smokey haven for locals and fishermen. And it could be w...
Published: 12/07/17
Exploring Alaska’s Inside Passage with the adventure, expense of a cruise

Exploring Alaska’s Inside Passage with the adventure, expense of a cruise

JUNEAU, AlaskaNaturalist John Muir didn’t have Patagonia waterproof Yulex gloves Amazon Primed to him. He did not have Gore-Tex or special wicking fabrics. His socks were probably wet the whole time.These were my thoughts as I looked up from a cabin ...
Published: 12/07/17
A guide to holiday events at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and more theme parks

A guide to holiday events at Disney, Universal, Busch Gardens and more theme parks

Instead of shoveling snow, Christmas in Florida means celebrating the holiday season in shorts and T-shirts at theme parks and local attractions. Some parks even haul in “snow” for an authentic holiday vibe. While the last two weeks of t...
Published: 12/06/17
The challenges of being a chef on a remote Alaska cruise ship

The challenges of being a chef on a remote Alaska cruise ship

James George, 49, executive chef aboard the Safari Endeavour, has the kind of resume that makes you double-take. A graduate of Johnson & Wales in Miami, he went the hotel and country club route, spending eight years at the fabled Breakers in Palm Bea...
Published: 12/07/17
Tampa Bay's most unique Airbnb rentals include the RV parked behind Ferg's

Tampa Bay's most unique Airbnb rentals include the RV parked behind Ferg's

These are some of the most unusual vacation rentals available on Airbnb in Tampa Bay.
Published: 12/05/17
Florida’s iconic offshore Stiltsville survived another hurricane season

Florida’s iconic offshore Stiltsville survived another hurricane season

MIAMI — Stiltsville, a stubborn relic of Miami’s less-glitzy past as a sun-soaked outpost, has survived Hurricane Irma’s brutal winds and waves, much to the surprise of the landmark’s caretakers and fans. Perched at the edge of sea grass flats where ...
Updated one month ago
Story of Louis Vuitton: As travel changed, so did luggage

Story of Louis Vuitton: As travel changed, so did luggage

NEW YORKAs travel changed, so did luggage. That’s the story told by an elaborate exhibition about Louis Vuitton, the luxury luggage and fashion brand. The exhibition, free to visit and on display in Lower Manhattan through Jan. 7, is called "Volez, V...
Updated one month ago
Black Friday deals at Legoland, SeaWorld, Disney and more

Black Friday deals at Legoland, SeaWorld, Disney and more

Black Friday isn’t just for stores. Many theme parks and attractions in Florida are also offering up deals that could make a nice gift or family splurge. The smaller the park, the bigger the deal, so Legoland, Gatorland and SeaWorld are toutin...
Updated one month ago
Most air travelers say taking off your shoes is okay. An etiquette expert disagrees

Most air travelers say taking off your shoes is okay. An etiquette expert disagrees

Unless you are ensconced in first class, sleeping on a plane is as intimate as dozing off in a waiting room on jury duty — everyone on the aircraft knows the decibel level of your snoring and the sad state of your socks.To gauge how passengers percei...
Updated one month ago