A Sad Simple Truth
as always, for Marcia
The last time I was summoned for jury duty a sad simple truth got me excused.
Arriving in the jury holding room, my number is selected and I find myself in a pool of twenty or so prospective jurors that is to be whittled down to twelve. The judge addresses us with a seriousness befitting the case: “This trial concerns heavy-duty narcotics trafficking. You will be hearing the testimony of police officers and confidential informants who the defense might characterize as liars. So before we begin jury selection, I have a question to ask of you all. Do any of you believe a police officer might lie while testifying?”
I scan the room. Everyone’s eyes are darting nervously as they look around the room. All are wondering: Is this some sort of trick question? Does the judge really want us to answer? I raise my hand and am called upon to speak.
“Your Honor, not only do I believe a police officer might lie while testifying, I know for a fact that they do. I was a defense witness in a case here in Denver back in 1979. One Charles Ross was charged with assaulting a police officer. I was at the scene, not ten feet away. Two police officers testified. As did I. Their accounts which dovetailed perfectly were entirely fabricated as I had witnessed the event, and I know what I saw happen. Based on my testimony and other inane assertions on the part of the prosecution, the jury acquitted Mr. Ross of all charges. As I said: I don’t believe a police officer might lie, I know they do.” No surprise here: the prosecution dismisses me. But before I am escorted from the courtroom seven other jurors raise their hands to assert their belief that officers might lie while testifying.
Here is the simple sad truth of Charlie Ross and his acquittal.
Charlie Ross was a student at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University in Boulder and Allen Ginsberg’s personal secretary. Poetry was our connection as I was heavily involved in producing Denver Poets Day in August of 1979, an event that brought together scores of poets from Denver and Boulder. I collaborated with the bassist Rich Sallee that day and I must say we rocked, as did scores of others including Allen Ginsberg, Larry Lake, my wife Marcia, Ann Waldman, Ken Babs, Andy Clausen, Eileen Miles, and Charlie Ross. It was an exceedingly hot eight hours in the sun as the event ran from 11 AM to 7 PM in Denver’s Civic Center Amphitheater. It was a very emotional day as well. The previous Denver Poets Day in 1978 had honored the notorious Colorado poet James Ryan Morris who had died soon thereafter, and his widow, Diana, her presence at this year’s event – a memorial of sorts for Jimmy - kept the specter of human mortality in play. Tensions between poet egos – academic and street – combined with shade-less triple digit temperatures also contributed to everyone’s exhaustion at day’s end. Wrung out we were. To recuperate many participants decided to head to the Satire Lounge on East Colfax for Mexican food, refreshment and more poetry shoptalk, myself and wife included. Diana Morris asked if her seven-year-old daughter Pagan could ride with me and Marcia as Diana planned on spending a little adult time with and giving a ride to a group of her deceased husband’s friends. Marcia and I agreed to look after Pagan until Diana regrouped with us at The Satire.
Now it’s approximately 8 PM on a summer Saturday night and Pete’s Satire Lounge is packed tight as an unopened pack of Camels. Marcia, Pagan and I are among the first dozen to arrive, and we are seated at a large corner table and the hostess is made aware that another dozen or so are likely to join us. We agree to make the best of the crowded accommodations, assuring the hostess and our waitress that we will stand and sit as need be. Charlie Ross and I are more or less co-hosting this gathering, with Charlie welcoming late arrivals from Boulder and me those from Denver. Pitchers of beer and plates of nachos fill the table as people talk up a storm. A half hour or so into the this impromptu poets rendezvous, above the din, I hear the agitated voice of Diana Morris and I immediately leave the confab of poets and make my way in her direction. A waitress, not ours, is telling Diana that she will have to wait to be seated. When Diana, ignoring the request of the waitress, makes a move in my direction, the out of the loop waitress with her body’s shoulder blocks Diana’s path. She even stiff-arms Diana with her right hand while holding a cocktail tray of drinks in her left. Both the body block and stiff arm prove to be foolishly provocative moves, for Diana asserts with almost divine authority, “No one keeps me from my daughter, bitch,” and throws a mean right hook, knocking the waitress, the cocktails, and civility to the floor. The crowd around the front door dissipates and Diana looms over the stunned waitress. I spy the bartender picking up the phone and whisk Diana out the front door and beg her not to reenter as I step back inside and tender an apology to the waitress: “I’m sorry for what happened. You’ll never know the circumstances surrounding this day. That lady just left a memorial for her dead husband after eight hours in the sun, and you stood between her and her seven-year-old daughter. Again, I apologize and am sorry. Here, please accept this for your troubles, and I hand her a fifty-dollar bill, before exiting to attend to Diana who I find on the sidewalk, contemplating the use of her gun. Her right hand, inside her fringed vest, its fingers fondle the steel of her thirty-eight that hides there. I know she never leaves her cabin in Wondervu without it.
“Diana, you have to leave. The police are on their way. I saw the bartender dialing. I’ll bring Pagan to you later. Please, I am your friend and I’m begging you. Go, Pagan will be fine and we’ll meet up at Jesse’s later.” Keep in mind; I am speaking to one of the most intense persons I have ever met. Fierce, addled, capable, agitated, mean, gun-totting, upset, angry, grieving, vindictive, vengeful, crazy, and on the verge of mayhem are but a baker’s dozen applicable descriptions of the present and imminent danger with which I am confronted on this hot summer Colfax Avenue sidewalk Saturday night. Distant sirens grow louder as Diana contemplates her next move. “Diana, Pagan does not need your being arrested. Please go before it’s too late.” Mention of Pagan brings common sense into the mix and Diana thanks me as she gets into her Subaru, which is parked illegally, blocking as it does the Colfax entrance to the Satire parking lot. But instead of heading east Diana accelerates into the parking lot at a high rate of speed and purposefully smashes into a Cadillac parked diagonally on the west side of the lot, twice, seriously damaging the rear quarter panel and rear end of the formerly cherry sedan. Then without assessing traffic she backs out haphazardly onto Colfax and races east right through red lights at Race, Vine, Josephine and York. I’m not sure if I am dreaming given the last three minutes of my life. But, guess what, the craziness is just beginning.
Back inside, I realize that I don’t want to be here when the police arrive so I gather up Marcia and Pagan and suggest that Charlie and his intimate crew (he’s got four Boulder poets and two children riding in his van) follow me, as we had originally planned to convene back at Drew Becker’s house after dinner to listen to recordings of the day, and Charlie did not know where Drew lived.
Now both Charlie and I had parked our vans in the Satire parking lot on the east side. Since we were going to head towards Elizabeth Street where Drew lived and because the south east exit of the parking lot was now awash in police activity, there were two squad cars and a couple of police motor cycles clogging that end of the lot, I suggest to Charlie that we simply back out onto Colfax and avoid the boondoggle at the Race Street exit. It will be a hard maneuver so I tell Charlie I’ll guide him backwards when it’s safe to do so.
I am behind his van guiding him rearward when a voice out of nowhere that brooks no dissent barks out orders: “Stop right there. You just backed into that Cadillac. Exit your vehicle with your hands up.” Now only two people on earth know the circumstances surrounding the damage to Pete’s -the owner of the Satire Lounge - Cadillac, and I am one of them. Furthermore, not only does the officer ordering Charlie out of his van not know what I know, he also is apparently unaware I am even present, standing between Charlie’s van and the damaged goods that is Pete’s Caddy.
I make my presence known by stepping into plain view of the officer who has come out of hiding and is now standing by Charlie’s door and announce, “If this van just hit that Cadillac, I guess I’m an unsubstantial and invisible man, a ghost, because it would have had to run me over in order to hit it, seeing as how I’ve been behind it guiding my friend the whole time,” an assertion to which the officer has no reply or rebuttal. It is apparent to him that I am giving lie to his charge that Charlie hit Pete’s car. The silence is as deafening as the situation is volatile. The electricity in the air has my neck hair standing up. Where can this conversation possibly go from here? The cop needs an out but can’t come up with one, so I do. Not pressing my knowledge that I’ve caught him in a lie, I ask the officer politely to help us back both of our vans out onto Colfax so Charlie can follow me, a request the cop takes up without any further talk of Charlie having damaged the Cadillac. The officer steps out onto Colfax blocking the right lane. I back up out onto the Fax and head east with Charlie doing likewise. We do not run the red lights at Vine and Race, as had Diana, but before reaching York I notice a police car in the left hand lane motioning with siren and lights that Charlie (whose van is immediately behind mine), that Charlie pull over to the curb. I do so as well and exit my van to see what’s going on, as I fear further police inappropriateness. I just caught one lying and can’t imagine any reason why Charlie’s been made to pull over. I am all ears and eyes as I approach the scene.
Charlie is clearly upset and bewildered. Angry as well. A huge cop exits the shotgun side of the squad car and tells Charlie to exit his vehicle. Charlie’s window is down and he asks, agitatedly, why he’s being stopped. The officer provides no answer and again tells him to exit his vehicle. Charlie hesitates. Given that another cop had tried to pin an accident on him less than two minutes ago Charlie is hesitant, reluctant, fearful, wide-eyed, and not ready to comply. He is not about to simply roll over. Again, he asks why he’s been pulled over and this time the cop comes up with a reason: “the George Carlin poster in your rear van window is blocking your view and that makes this an unsafe vehicle,” to which Charlie replies with unfettered disbelief and exasperation, “Jesus Christ, I sometimes sleep in my van and the poster affords me privacy. I live in Boulder and have been stopped for traffic violations and no other officer has ever mentioned the poster. Hell, commercial vans have spray painted rear windows, so thieves can’t see what’s inside and semis have only side view mirrors” a retort which seems to infuriate the cop if his next actions are any indication.
In one deft move the cop reaches though Charlie’s open window with his left hand, depresses the handle and opens the van door. With his right hand he grabs Charlie by his long hair and the back of his neck, forcing Charlie to exit and move rearwards along the side of the panel van, out of sight of Mary Lu, Charlie’s girlfriend, who rides shot-gun. Once Charlie is toe to toe with him, the cop exclaims, “Well this ain’t Boulder, punk, and your hippie van ain’t no big rig” and then the six foot six, two hundred and fifty pound cop slams the five foot six, one hundred and twenty pound Charlie face down across the hood of the patrol car, following up the slam down with a half a dozen whacks to the back of the skull with a night stick he removes from his utility belt. A bloodied and broken nosed Charlie is then handcuffed and taken away in a second police car that has arrived because there already is a shadowy third person in the back seat driver’s side, someone not in uniform, an earlier arrestee, perhaps. This is the second act of utter bizarreness that again I seem to be the only witness to, as neither the people in Charlie’s van nor the officer driving the cop car, given his sightline, could see what actually transpired. Only me as I stand in the street on the driver’s side of my van, not ten feet from where Charlie was assaulted.
Later that night I bail Charlie out of jail. He’s been charged with numerous offenses, crimes such as resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer, disturbing the peace, but I note, not with driving with an obstructed view. Well, to make a long story short, Charlie is offered a deal. Plead to disturbing the peace or some such nonsense and all the more serious charges will be dropped. Sounds easy, but poets are not a simple lot. Many, you might say, are principled. And as Keats wrote, truth is beauty. Thus, Charlie poetically tells the DA to take his deal and shove it up the ass of the officer who attacked him, one Officer Brooks. Charlie wants a jury trial and he eventually gets it. His girlfriend’s brother-in-law, a Denver lawyer, represents him. I am to be the defense’s primary witness, along with my wife who can place me at the scene. The DA is annoyed that Charlie did not take the offered deal and so he plays hard ball, going as far as to sequester me away from Marcia during the trial, as if a husband and wife would not be on the same page. The DA has never bothered to depose me because, after all, he has two officers who will testify that Charlie came out of his van swinging and that Charlie’s injuries were a result of Officer Brooks having to subdue him. A third prosecution witness, a wanna be cop police dispatcher, who was doing a Saturday night ride-along in the back seat of Brook’s cruiser, will also testify that Charlie came out swinging. This means that when I take the stand only Charlie’s attorney is in the know as to what I will say.
First defense council exposes my background. A Jesuit educated prep-ster, with a Bachelors Degree in Humanities and Technology from Drexel University in Philadelphia, my recent six year stint as an English teacher and president and contract negotiator for the Woodbury Teacher’s Association present me as someone quite different from the long-haired sleeping-in-his-van Texas hippie that Charlie appears to be. My testimony, along with the rehearsed pat testimony of law enforcement, not to mention the unbelievable assertion that skinny little Charlie would attack the hulking buff Brooks, left little doubt that this hot Saturday night altercation was nothing more than a machismo cop taking out his dislike of the brazen and long-haired (and possibly of George Carlin as well) on an innocent kid who had the audacity to be upset at being harassed. The cops’ rendition was perceived as the utter fabrication it was and a jury of his peers exonerated Charlie on all counts. It’s hard to believe that the DA had ever bought it; chances are he simply resented Charlie for telling him to take his deal and shove it. And Charlie Ross didn’t stop there. He later filed a civil suit against the officers involved, alleging false arrest and assault, a case that would drag through the courts for years. Unfortunately, during the time Charlie’s civil case snaked its way about the legal system, we had a falling out – a separate story in itself having to do with Gregory Corso, LSD, and a female black-belt bouncer at the Blue Note on the Boulder mall – and we lost track of each other.
Then one day in late 1984 I get a call from Charlie on a Sunday night. He informs me that earlier that afternoon he had learned that his civil suit is going to trial on Tuesday, after having been postponed almost ad infinitum. After all this time, after having been falsely arrested and beaten by a Denver cop, not to mention, abused by a legal system that forced him to go into debt to his lawyer, that he might win some satisfaction, not to mention money, was a godsend to Charlie’s impoverished family. I mean poetry is truth and beauty but it is neither food nor clothing nor rent. He was calling to see, despite our differences surrounding the Gregory Corso affair, if I would testify again. He was hoping to scrape up airfare from others in the commune where he lived with Mary Lu and their four children.
“Of course” is my response. “Let me know when you’ll be landing and I’ll even pick you up at Stapleton. You can stay with me and Marcia.” He tells me he will call back in the morning once he knows his flight info.
Now personally, I’m looking forward to Tuesday as I’ve always wondered whether Officer Brooks ever came out of the S&M closet that was his police uniform. My gaydar, no matter how inexact the science behind it, had led me to believe that the police dispatcher in the back seat of Brooks patrol car that August Saturday night had more than a love of blue in common with the cop. At trial I had surmised that Brooks was showing off his sadism for the benefit of someone, most likely his buddy in the back seat, who, along with his partner in the front seat, had lied about Charlie’s beating and arrest. I know that neither could see what went on between Charlie and Brooks given their sight lines from the driver’s side of the patrol car. Yet testify they had!
Well anyway, Charlie never does call on Monday morning to let me know when he’ll arrive in Denver. So Monday night I call him back to find out the system had screwed the hippie in him once again. Apparently, his lawyer, after all this time wanted money. For himself! The City of Denver had offered a deal: settle for attorney’s fees, the city’s and Charlie’s, or risk winning nothing. Charlie’s lawyer, now divorced from Mary Lu’s sister, told Charlie that if he didn’t accept the deal, attorney’s fees without any compensation to the plaintiff, he’d drop him as a client and sue Charlie for payment of his fees, a situation Charlie couldn’t afford, given his alternative communal lifestyle. Besides, Charlie admitted he had not been able to scrape together airfare to come to Denver. Thus he took the deal, and everybody got paid, everybody except Charlie, a lamentable and simple sad truth.