Tales from the Bench

They Tell the Story to This Day in Des Moines

by Agatha Hoff

People often told wonderful stories when they appeared before me in traffic court. On taking the bench, I would look over the sea of faces of those who came for "Instant Hearing Parking Ticket Protest" and often could pick out just who would be the teller of a pathetic tale.

On one particular afternoon, I spotted a middle-aged couple, nervously holding hands: Mr. and Mrs. Watkins of Des Moines, Iowa. Their car had been ticketed for parking in a tow-away zone. I motioned to them.

The man nudged the missus and whispered: "You tell the Judge, Mary."

Mary, whose hair was pulled back in a bun to reveal a face gleaming with nervous perspiration, glanced from side to side.

Too much time spent in downtown San Francisco, I thought. When she caught sight of the bailiff sitting to her right, she looked visibly relieved and launched into her story:

"Your Honor," she said, "we was booked into the San Franciscan Hotel at 7th and Market. Our travel agent in Des Moines told us the location would be okay since we wouldn't be in the hotel much anyway. Well, Judge, it was not okay. Every time we went out the door we was accosted. When we walked north, there'd be the prostitutes, west the drug dealers, south..."

"The judge don't want to hear all that, Mary," Mr. Watson interjected.

"Anyway," Mary continued, "we had a miserable first week and when we complained to the hotel manager, he said, 'I tell you what, I'll cut the rate in half over the weekend. You book yourselves into the Claremont across the Bay, leave your gear and the car here and just take BART over and have a good time.'"

"So, that's what we did. And that sure was a grand place..."

"Stick to the point, Mary," Mr. Watson again quietly interrupted.

"Anyways," Mary went on, warming to her story, "on Sunday we took BART back, and Judge, you won't believe it, but we was coming up the escalator from the station," and here her brown eyes widened considerably, "and there was these nuns, but they weren't nuns," she grimaced and screwed up her face as her husband turned beet red next to her. "and then there was these men on motorcycles, but no Judge, they wasn't men..." Here her eyes opened to their widest, "They called themselves Dikes on Bikes."

In the courtroom, tittering became audible. I tried hard not to smile as it became evident what had happened: the Watkins of Des Moines had resurfaced on Market Street in the middle of the Gay Freedom Day Parade.

I told them they need not tell me the rest of the story; that their ticket was dismissed.

"You must have parked on the parade route before the tow away signs for the parade were posted," I told them.

"Why, how did you know, Judge?" Mrs. Watkins sounded astonished. "We're going back home today," she added and her voice trailed off.

I smiled but said nothing and she smiled back.

"I never seen such goings on in Des Moines, Judge," Mr. Watkins remarked as he took Mary's hand and led her from the courtroom.

Agatha Hoff started in poverty law where clients often abandoned her for a "real lawyer" (meaning someone they paid); when she became a real lawyer, her P.I. clients termed it "the armpit of the law"; when she was appointed a court commissioner, her favorite moniker was "fascist terrorist cross-dressed in the cloak of justice"; when at last a British tourist called her "your worship," she thought she'd retire before it went to her head. She celebrated her retirement by going skydiving.

This story is published with the kind permission of the San Francisco Attorney, a bimonthly publication of the Bar Association of San Francisco. This story appeared on page 35 of the April/May 1999 issue. Copyright 1999 San Francisco Attorney Magazine, Bar Association of San Francisco. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.