I just spent a beautiful morning in traffic court. This blog is mostly to describe the experience, but let me get this out of the way first. I was guilty as charged. A couple months ago I ran out of money, which is not an unusual occurrence for a freelance musician. Unfortunately, I ran out of funds right around the time my car insurance payment was due. I chose groceries over car insurance and allowed it to lapse for two days. I caught up on my insurance policy, but then I received a bill from the Georgia Department of Motor Vehicles for letting my insurance lapse, and I didn't have the money to pay that fine. (It felt like my penalty for being poor was to have to give up more money.) One thing I miss about Chicago is the mass transit system. I didn't even need a car. Atlanta's mass transit system is severely lacking, and if you need to get to a gig to make money to, say, pay a fine, you're going to need to take a car. I got caught driving on a suspended license from not being able to pay the lapsed insurance fee, which meant that today I had to go to traffic court to pay the very expensive piper – again. Fortunately, by some miracle, I had the money to pay today, so the issue is resolved.
There will be those who read this blog that say, being a deadbeat poor person and all, I got what was coming to me. I agree that I was guilty as charged, but I'm far from deadbeat. I just happen to be a musician, and it's difficult to find good work. If you could see the 12-16 hour days I spend engraving, practicing, rehearsing, gigging, working on publicity, scaring up gigs, teaching lessons, etc., you'd find me anything but lazy. Poor means you have no money. Poor does NOT mean you're lazy. There's a certain segment of our society (rhymes with Pee Farty) that seems to equate being poor with having no moral compass or ambition. Sometimes being poor simply means you're poor.
Back to my experience today at traffic court. I didn't dispute anything I was charged with. All I wanted to do was show up and pay the fine. On the back of my citation, there was a number to call if I wanted to pay my fine over the phone. Sounded good to me. After listening to many options from the automated voice, I was finally able to enter my citation number, only to have the voice tell me that I had to be at court. I thought there must be some mistake, because all I wanted to do was pay my fine. On the phone, the magic voice rattled off a website I could visit to pay my fine. It was a really long website url, the magic voice gave the information too quickly. There was no option to have the magic voice repeat the web information, so I had to keep navigating back through the menu until I reached the web info again. After listening to the magic voice repeat the web info for the fourth time, I was confident I had the correct website. Once I got on the website and entered my citation number, I was once again informed that I had to show up in court. Oh well.
I showed up early today. On the first floor, just after the entrance, was a row of cashiers. Perfect! I walked up to a cashier and asked if I could pay my fine. Nope, I had to go upstairs to court. The deputy telling me where to sit had such a thick accent that I couldn't understand him. I thought he told me to sit in the front row, which I did, until he told me to move to the fourth row. (I was wondering why no one was sitting in the front row!) It was just before 9 a.m. Down by the cashiers, the clock on the wall read 6:25. Up in the court room, the clock was stopped at 2:15. I'm surprised they had clocks at all, because I think that while you're in court, space and time is suspended.
Someone came out and started quietly giving instructions to the crowded room. We were indoors, but he really should have been using his outdoor voice. I was close enough to hear most of what he was saying, which was if you're here to plead guilty and pay a fine, then please line up along the wall. Perfect! When it was my turn, the clerk looked at my citation and said I had to wait for the judge, so I once again sat down. Later, the quiet announcer passed out a form for us to fill out and sign. The form was to let everyone know that yes, we understood our rights, and we would like to plead guilty, not guilty, or no contest. The problem with passing out the form is that no one knew we needed pens! There was a flurry of "can I borrow your pen?" I had a pen with me, which I lent to three other people. When it was finally my turn to stand in front of the judge, I had trouble hearing him. His honor was even quieter than the original speaker. Someone needs to either install a microphone in the courtroom or teach these folks how to project with a good stage voice.
After pleading guilty, the judge told me the fine and instructed me to go back down to the cashier, where the clock still read 6:25. I misheard the amount, because the judge was kind of mumbly. I thought he said $128, but no, it was $328. Ouch! By the way, even though you can theoretically pay with a credit card over the phone and online, if you pay the cashier in person, it's cash or money order only. There was an ATM conveniently located away from the cashiers, so at least I didn't have to leave the building to get cash. I also found it very difficult to hear the cashier, who was behind thick glass with no microphone, using a delicate "indoor voice." The crowning glory was watching my receipt being printed on an old fashioned dot matrix printer.
Now, I realize traffic court is not supposed to be fun. I wasn't expecting the judge to be handing out balloons and lollipops. I had committed a traffic-related sin, and I was there to pay up. There are so many ways this operation could be improved. On the other hand, maybe this soul sucking experience is part of the punishment.
In the future, if I once again have to choose between insurance and groceries, I may just choose insurance.
- Tom Godfrey
- Atlanta, GA, United States
- When I suffered a lip injury that ended my career as a classical trombonist, I thought my life as a musician was finished, but I fell in love with music all over again when Santa gave me a guitar for Christmas in 2003. Even as I was struggling with my first chords, I was planning a new performance career. As a trombonist, I performed with the Heritage of America Band at Langley Air Force Base, the Ohio Light Opera, and in pick-up bands for touring acts that included Rosemary Clooney, George Burns, and the Manhattan Transfer. Reborn as a jazz guitarist, I sing and play my own solo arrangements of jazz classics, am half of the Godfrey and Guy duo, and hold the guitar chair in the Sentimental Journey Orchestra. I have been a freelance music copyist since 1995, served as Director of Music at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation from 2011 to 2017, and currently serve as Contemporary Band Director at the same congregation.