By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by Jim Frise, January 31, 1948
“See,” snarled Jimmie Frise bitterly, “what I’ve got!”
He held up a blue paper.
“A summons!” I exclaimed. “You haven’t had one for years.”
“For 10 or 15 years!” barked Jim. “I’m the most cautious driver in the city. In the province! I always drive the same. I’m the sample of the good, steady, law-abiding citizen…”
“What’s it for?” I interrupted.
“Speeding,” protested Jim. “Travelling at a rate in excess of 30 miles an hour. Approximately, it says here, approximately 40 miles an hour. What is approximately? See? The guy couldn’t even figure out what speed I was going.”
“Where was it?” I interrogated.
“You were with me!” cried Jimmie. “You’re my witness. It was last Thursday morning. Remember? Going up that slight slope along the Lake Shore Drive near the canoe club. Remember?”
“By golly, Jim,” I said warmly, “nobody would speed there. Everybody in town knows there is a speed cop at the top of that hill.”
“Everybody but strangers,” agreed Jim. “All of us who live in the west end know that speed cop. He’s been stationed there for the past eight or 10 years.
“Certainly,” I confirmed. “Do they think we west-enders are crazy? That speed cop is put there to catch strangers from out of town and people who live in other parts of the city. Jim, there must be some mistake. No resident of this part of town is going to deliberately speed past a cop he knows as well as he knows every traffic light on the route!”
“As a matter of fact,” ruminated Jim, “if you’ll think back to last Thursday, we did put on a little burst of speed going up that slope. I remember now. In fact, I recall looking at the cop, when we passed him, to see if he had noticed.”
“You did speed?” I questioned.
“In the interests of good driving,” declared Jim. “In the public interest. In the interest of traffic itself, which this cop is supposed to superintend. Don’t you remember? There was an old schooner of a heavily loaded truck struggling up the slope. At about 10 miles an hour…”
“Ah, yes, I do! I do!” I cried. “An old, lobsided truck, with ramshackle furniture piled on it.”
“That’s the one,” concurred Jim. “It was obstructing traffic. It was holding up the whole stream of businessmen traffic, heading downtown. So all I did was move out and pass it, at the speed necessary to keep the traffic stream moving and close up the gap created by this anti-public-interest truck.”
“Then,” I announced triumphantly, “the fault is not yours. The fault lies with that speed cop for failing to observe the circumstances surrounding the incident.”
“We’ve got him,” gloated Jim. “That cop is a robot, an automaton. He doesn’t use his brains. He doesn’t observe anything. He just fixes his mind on a car and times it with his stop-watch…”
“How could he?” I cut in. “Even there, we’ve got him! To time a speeding car, he has to pick it up with his eye at a certain spot, see? And then clock it until it passes him. You didn’t start to pass that truck until we were part way up the hill. Okay: he simply saw you going faster – for that 100 yards necessary to close up the traffic gap – and make a wild guess that you were going 40. That explains the ‘approximately’. He could see you were going more than the standard 30. So he just guessed…! Jim! Let’s fight this case! Let’s go to court. Let’s make an example of that speed cop!”
“Aw,” said Jim wearily.
“Come on,” I pleaded. “Jim! I’m your witness. I’ll go with you. We’ll fight this case. In the public interest!”
“It takes so long,” groaned Jim. “A whole afternoon wasted. It’s so much easier just to go and pay the 10 bucks, in the lineup.”
I studied Jim in shocked silence.
“So much easier,” I breathed bitterly. “A whole afternoon wasted! My dear man, is justice and freedom to be flung away, all for the sake of convenience? Are the things our fathers fought for, across 100 centuries to be chucked away by us for the sake of an afternoon? Are we to submit, without a struggle to the imposition of a police state upon us?”
“A police state?” demanded Jimmie.
“A police state,” I assured his gravely, “is already well established upon us. It already exists. And unless we rebel, it will gradually enlarge its hold over us.”
“Police courts,” complained Jim, “are so long and dreary and dragged out.”
“Precisely,” I triumphed. “That’s part of the scheme, don’t you see? They make it so unpleasant to attend court that the public gradually falls into the habit of accepting every summons, no matter how unjust, pleading guilty, throwing away their hard-bought liberty, in order to go and line up in the police court clerk’s office and pay the fine automatically. In other words, we are suborning INJUSTICE!”
“You can’t beat the cops,” sighed Jim.
“We’ve beaten the cops,” I cried, “across 2000 years of British history! What were the cops, 1000 years ago but the bailiffs and bullies of the local lord? What were the cops, 100 years ago, but the semi-military hirelings of the gang in power?”
“The cops today,” corrected Jim, “are the employee of the municipality – of us.”
“Yet,” I vociferated, “you are going to line up at a wicket and pay 10 bucks because some robot of a speed cop – who didn’t use his own eyes – issues you a summons? Your employee!”
“If we go to court,” argued Jim, “and don’t win, it will be 10 bucks and costs – maybe 14 bucks.”
“Jim,” I said, restrainedly, “sooner or later, somebody is going to lead a revolt against this vicious and dangerous system of making it easy to pay your fine and hard to plead your case. I tell you, if you’ll come in on this with me, we’ll make history with this case. We’ll lead the revolt. When I’m called to the witness stand, I’ll make a speech that will ring all over this country. The reporters will take it down…”
“They’re tough in police courts,” interrupted Jim. “They don’t go for speeches.”
“I’ll make a speech,” I exulted, “that will wake the people of this country to the danger they’re in. We’ll inspire thousands of our fellow-citizens to fight their cases in court, instead of tamely lining up at the police court clerk’s wicket. We’ll jam the police courts so they’ll have to hold night sessions. We’ll have every police magistrate in the country yawning. We’ll force all these frisky speed cops to have to come and sit in court, hour after hour, waiting their turn, like us. We’ll upset the whole apple cart. There aren’t enough magistrates or enough cops or enough court rooms in the whole country to handle the traffic, if once we poor dopes wake up and start calling the bluff.”
“It would be kind of fun,” reflected Jim, cautiously.
“They’ve built up,” I pointed out, “a very handy little system of taxing the public through summonses that are never contested. If everybody, in the name of justice, demanded a hearing, instead of tamely lining up at a wicket, by George, it would create a situation that would make a cop pause and reflect before he starts flinging his summonses around!”
“Let’s see,” checked Jim. “I haven’t had a summons of any kind in 12 years or more. I am, by that fact, demonstrated to be a law-abiding citizen. On this occasion, in order to close up the traffic, in the public interest, I …”
When’s the summons for?” I cut in. Jim studied the blue paper.
“Tuesday,” he said. “That’s today! This afternoon. 2 o’clock, it says.”
“We’ll probably have to sit,” I admitted, “until maybe 5 o’clock. But we’d better be there on time, just in case.”
I stood up and buttoned my coat, loosened my shirt collar and tried out my vocal cords for public speaking.
Jim and I had a quick lunch, during which we went very carefully over the case, confirming various points of evidence, such as the time, the kind of day it was, the curve of the road, the absence of any other traffic moving against us at the time.
We arrived at the City Hall well ahead of 2 o’clock, and just for the sake of inspiration, passed down through the lower corridor where the police court clerk’s office is located. There, as usual, was the melancholy queue of citizens, lined up to pay their fines without protest, without argument, with no consideration of justice. There were well dressed men and poorly dressed men, and of all styles and characters. And I thought: what a tragic thing this is to submit so tamely to impositions and outrages to spare us which our forefathers gave their very blood.
Convenience! Comfort! A little time saved! Ah, for trifles have the mass of men so oft peddled their birthright!
“Just look, Jim,” I muttered, “how gloomy and sullen they all appear. I tell you, they are ripe for revolt. We’ll lead them!”
Upstairs, the gloomy, battered old police court room was already pretty well filled by the time we got there. A constable guarding the door asked us our business.
“We’ve got a summons for speeding,” I informed him calmly, “which we are going to fight.”
The door constable looked at us as if we were lunatics, but let us pass. We selected a seat in the second row of the gallery and took off our overcoats for a good long stay.
Already, the court room was filling with police, clerks and lawyers. Its dingy expanse, decorated with massive bench and oversize brass lighting fixtures of a more pompous bygone day, seemed heavy with much lost breath over the years. I noticed that by far the majority of my fellow-citizens in the benches around me were shabbily dressed. There was hardly a well dressed per son in the whole company. Where were the well dressed? Ah, out there in the lineup at the wicket, I suppose. Who, I thought to myself, who will rally the well dressed? It is they, they, who are treasonable to our liberties. I recollected the retreat to Dunkirk, in 1940, and how, as I fled from village to village and town to town, all the well dressed had already gone, leaving only the shabby behind. My most tragic memory …!
The court room stirred; and a ringing voice cried “Order!” A magistrate, gray and patient and small, took his seat high on the bench. And then began, like an auction sale, with all the haste and loud calling and sudden silences of an auction mart, the grinding of the mills.
For 15 minutes, Jimmie and I were entranced by the drama. But after half an hour, we were weary of the same old routine; the public health cases, the chicken yards kept in restricted areas, the dog licences, the boys playing shinny on the public streets. We looked at each other. Jim furtively glanced at his watch. After an hour had passed, I had the boldness to get up and thrust my way past the crowds up to the police court clerk’s small desk – the lad who calls out the offenders’ names – and I whispered to him.
“Can you call Frise now? F-r-i-s-e?”
“Others,” whispered the clerk, “are just as anxious as you are to get out of here. Keep your turn!”
I tiptoed back and sat beside Jim.
“Not much speechmaking here,” remarked Jim, in a barely audible whisper.
But though the court was a rumble and hum of noises, a mighty voice yelled “Order in the court!” and sundry hostile glares were levelled at us.
Three-thirty. Four pm I glanced at Jim, to see that he was asleep, his chin on his necktie. I nudged him. He woke with a grunt.
“Order!” roared the minion. “Order in the court!”
Dimmer grew the big dingy room. Fewer grew the crowd, of civilians, of police, of lawyers. Four-thirty boomed on the City Hall tower clock.
Again Jim dozed. But I kept alert, clearing my vocal cords, and running over in my mind the things I wished to say about the well dressed, the police, convenience, lineups at wickets …
“This court,” roared the minion, “now stands adjourned until 2 o’clock tomorrow afternoon!”
I jerked Jim awake. The magistrate fled from the bench. All others were streaming for the doors. I hustled Jimmie to the clerk’s small desk.
“We weren’t called!” declared Jim with the anger of the newly-wakened.. “What’s the idea, keeping us sitting here all afternoon, and then …”
“Let me see your summons,” said the departing clerk wearily.
He studied it briefly.
“This,” he said disdainfully, “is for Thursday. Day after tomorrow.”
“It says Tuesday!” cried Jim, snatching the blue paper. After a close look, he snorted: “Why, the lugs can’t even write plainly!”
“Some people can’t read,” remarked the clerk, vanishing.
So we went downstairs and got in the lineup that was dwindling, too. And in about seven minutes, Jimmie paid his $10. And reached through the wicket and silently shook hands with the astonished tax collector.
Editor’s Notes: In the days before radar guns, police would use a stopwatch to measure the time a car would travel between two fixed points on the road that were a known distance apart. The car’s average speed was determined by dividing the distance travelled by the time taken to travel it.
Greg, as a war correspondent, was personally witness to the Dunkirk evacuation.