A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early October, 1990

Monday, October 1, 1990

Today I was a spectator at the trial of Charles Freeman, supposedly the first American ever to be charged criminally with the selling of a record – on the very Friday, June 8, that I launched my Radio Free Broward idea. I got to the courthouse at 9:30 AM, and I was able to get a seat in the last row.

The court was filled with prospective jury members and the media: the usual young, bright types who work for the papers and TV stations. Yet I seemed to be the sole spectator not from the media, Freeman’s family, the courthouse lawyers’ community or defense counsel Bruce Rogow’s Nova Law students.

The judge, Paul Beckman, seemed intelligent and funny, and by the end of the day I figured that even if the jury found Freeman guilty, the judge would give him only a small fine. Still, even without a jail sentence, the trial was a chilling exercise.

The prosecutors, a Hispanic black man and a woman with a British accent, are both young, and while they seemed competent and at ease, clearly they’re not brilliant. For the defense, Rogow let ACLU counsel Hirsch do most of the talking, and he was okay but didn’t object at times when I think he should have.

The judge’s opening remarks were folksy but standard, and of course nearly every potential juror had heard of the 2 Live Crew controversy. I heard the lawyers’ voir dire of the first panel of twelve and left the courtroom while the attorneys were talking to individual members.

After eating lunch at Wendy’s and in the car – and getting a copy of Jakob von Gunten at the Fort Lauderdale library (the old East Regional branch, where I used to go often) – I tried to report to the Unemployment office on Federal Highway, but the line at the information desk had 45 people ahead of me.

That was more than I’d ever seen, so the economy must be pretty bad. (Though Bush and Congressional leaders announced a budget deal in the nick of time last night, the deficit reduction plan, liked by the stock market, may not pass.)

On the car radio, I heard that the jury had been chosen and that the trial would start at 1:30 PM, so I went back to the courthouse.

Last week the judge had already ruled that the prosecution couldn’t bring up Judge Gonzalez’s obscenity ruling nor hand out copies of lyrics to the jury (the work had to be taken “as a whole” to be judged obscene), and looking at the jury of five women and one Hispanic man – no blacks – I’m betting on a verdict of not guilty.

One Jewish woman in her twenties caught my eye a couple of times, and she seemed unlikely to vote for a conviction.

After the opening arguments – the prosecutor kept objecting to Hirsch’s broadly attempting to make this an issue of free speech, and there were several times when counsel approached the bench for conferences – the first witness was the undercover cop, a black man, who bought the record.

During his testimony, there was a big discussion with the jury away, about some new evidence the prosecution had just learned about yesterday – that Freeman had played a portion of the tape for the detective the first time he’d come in the store in late May (the arrest took place on his third visit) – but the arguments were too technical for me to fully understand. It was something about a “Richardson hearing” and other legal terms.

At 3:15 PM, they began playing a tape of As Nasty As They Wanna Be, and the courtroom scene suddenly turned into a theater of the absurd as the refrain “Me so horny” was repeated endlessly in a room filled with staid, well-dressed people looking very serious.

Spectators began leaving as the playing of the first side of the album dragged on. I lost count of the fucks and sucks and other juvenile words.

People were going out because, like most pornographic films I’ve seen, the music played was deadly boring. I thought the lyrics were plain stupid and gross, the kind of thing an annoying 14-year-old boy would say.

I studied the faces of the jury and thought I detected boredom, too; certainly, unlike some of the spectators, they didn’t crack even a slight smile.

During the playing of the album, the judge seemed to be reading; the lawyers and defendant put on solemn faces – though earlier they’d cracked lots of jokes, as when they said the court reporter didn’t need to take down all the words “but she should bop a little.” The bailiff fell asleep.

After the first side ended, I couldn’t take it anymore. I came home, where I got my LSAT ticket in the mail. The law is pretty fascinating, and I think I’d like to learn more and go to law school.

Tuesday, October 2, 1990

9 PM. I know I wrote badly about the trial yesterday, and if I tried to do it the same way tonight, I’d again write just as badly. I was in the courtroom today from 9:30 AM to 11 AM and from 1:30 PM to 5 PM, utterly fascinated by the trial.

It’s one of the most interesting intellectual experiences I’ve had, the equivalent of the courses I’ve taken in the summer at Teachers College. Like those intensive all-day workshops, I can’t write about the trial effectively because of space and time constraints.

I also need to process what I’ve experienced.

I’ll just say that today’s news briefs would be that the judge ruled the defense couldn’t admit into evidence comparable material that can be legally bought in Broward County, and the defense called three expert witnesses: a psychologist and two music critics, from Miami’s New Times and from Newsday in New York.

What will stay with me are images, phrases, jokes, exchanges in cross-examination, expressions in front of TV cameras.

I’ve talked to a lot of people there, including attorneys, the defense attorneys’ wives, witnesses and reporters (including columnists like Gary Stein and the Herald‘s Bill Braucher), and I’ve gained a lot of insight into the personalities and backgrounds of the principals: the judge, the lawyers for the prosecution and defense, the defendant and his wife, the media people  – most of whom also covered the June trial in Judge Gonzalez’s federal courtroom  – and even the bailiffs.

I now understand, thanks to John Leland, Newsday‘s music critic, that hip-hop music is an important, distinct, and even revolutionary genre that began in a West Bronx basement two decades ago, evolved into house music and breakdancing, and is now the most significant current in pop music  – one with similarities with the fiction and visual art I enjoy. It uses appropriation, collage, repetition, parody.

The reason I think Nasty is boring is the same reason my college students think Joyce and Kafka are boring: they have no way of evaluating it, no frames of reference, and rather than face the difficulty of learning how to read a different kind of literature, they dismiss it as not worth their time.

God, this trial would make a great opera by John Adams (Nixon in China and the forthcoming The Death of Klinghoffer), maybe even a rap opera (“Hip-Hop on Trial” – which the prosecutors say is what precisely is not what is happening). Or a movie by John Waters, the way he portrayed the music controversies in Hairspray and Crybaby. Only it would have to be done 25 years from now.

I’m convinced this trial is important, maybe not the Scopes trial (that was a media circus, too)  – God, but I just thought of Inherit the Wind, making me wonder if I could write a play out of this.

It has great characters and reverberations: Freeman, a free man, an African-American, on trial for going against “community standards.” (Charlie told me, “My ‘community’ isn’t the same as the jury’s.”)

All these parentheses and dashes, even yesterday, show I can’t write this in a linear way. Maybe I need to rap it:

New York critic takes the stand
He’s so nervous he gets three cups of water on demand
The prosecutor messes up her case
Tangling with the shrink
Won’t call her “doctor”
To her face
Her partner knows only M.C. Hammer
And thinks to a music critic you gotta draw a diagram-a
Grammar grammar
They can’t pronounce “prurient”
They want to think luxuriant
Sex exists only outside the county line
But I’m betting 2 Live Crew is fine

Okay, you get the point. I’ve got to get a transcript of this trial or at least sit down for hours and freewrite like crazy  – though I’m glad I didn’t take notes and instead let the whole thing wash over me.

(See, the pull of the rhymed beat is so strong I wanted the last line to end with a word that rhymed with crazy.)

This evening I went to the BCC-South library for Talkin’ With Lawton, a “town meeting” covered by radio in which candidates for governor and lieutenant governor Lawton Chiles and Buddy MacKay answered questions from citizens. They actually seemed as if they were trying to learn something in case they get elected. This is revolutionary in American politics.

I saw Betty there, and after kissing her hello when the hour ended and the candidates went on a tour of the library (I saw them learning about the newly-installed online catalog, the same system Queens libraries have), she and I both expressed the hope that Chiles can overcome Governor Martinez’s huge campaign war chest (the Democrats are still limiting donations to $100) and negative ads, but we doubt they will.

Betty promised two Saturday classes to other people but said if the third one registers, I can have it. Today I also stood in line at noon at Unemployment and got my address change straightened out.

Wednesday, October 3, 1990

7 PM. The guilty verdict for Charles Freeman led the CBS Evening News just now, so I was proven right about the trial’s importance.

However, I was shocked at the outcome, and right now all I want to do is make up for the sleep I’ve lost this week.

The trial was on my mind all last night, and I woke up at 6 AM so I could get to the courtroom for the start of arguments. More and more, I saw this trial as a three-act opera, with arias by attorneys, witnesses, bailiffs, reporters and jurors.

This morning was stunning. I sat in the second row with the Sun-Sentinel reporters. (Gary Stein quoted me in his column today on the trial being “an unreal waste” and he mentioned Radio Free Broward.)

Perhaps I should have gone back to taking notes during Leslie Robson’s closing for the state and Bruce Rogow’s eloquent defense of the First Amendment in his closing arguments, but I wanted to experience the trial, just let it wash over me, sort of the way an opera does.

The judge’s instructions to the jury were a great solo, too. He seemed bemused and detached from the process during the entire proceedings, as if he were merely an onlooker.

When Sheryl Solomon, the weight-loss consultant, was told she was the alternate juror and released, she decided to stay. I spoke with her, as did the reporters.

“Unfortunately, I would have voted not guilty,” she said, explaining that while she found the album disgusting, there was a reasonable doubt in her mind that it would be obscene to everyone, your average person/responsible person. (There seems to be a distinction in two of the prongs of the Miller test).

Sheryl added that some people might think it had artistic value because of the music.

I should have realized what the verdict would be when the jury immediately asked to see the album, but like John Leland of Newsday and most of the other observers, I was convinced the jury would be won over by the defense’s arguments.

At 11:30 AM, figuring I had a couple of hours, I went out to lunch and then to the Job Center on Broward Boulevard for too long.

When I returned and reporters outside the courthouse told me that Charlie had been found guilty, I completely lost it.

I took out the CD of the album from my bag, and in front of the TV cameras I started ranting about the unfairness of the verdict and how I was disgusted with the censorship.

I even offered to sell the album to people, daring sheriff’s deputies to arrest me.

Luckily, the local NBC station ran just a portion of the tape tonight, with me identified only as “Concerned Citizen” and saying that no matter how vile the language or subjects, the album has a right to be sold in America.

Driving home, I must have had sky-high blood pressure, and I could only think this was the last straw, that I have to leave backward Broward County forever.

I’ve calmed down since, but I really have to think about the implications of what I witnessed the last three days.

I thought earlier I might try to get a nonfiction book out of this, but today proved I couldn’t be a disinterested observer.

Thursday, October 4, 1990

Noon. Dad had an appointment, and Mom and Jonathan are working at the flea market, so I’ve had the luxury of privacy this morning. I woke up at 4 AM and couldn’t get back to sleep because I kept ruminating about the trial and the jury’s decision.

Am I neurotic to get so involved? I think I’ll avoid the trial of 2 Live Crew next week. I don’t have as much rapport (no pun intended) with them as I do with Charles Freeman because, after all, they’re celebrities, and a guilty verdict will just increase their fame.

After yesterday, I’m sure they’ll be convicted, and so will the Cincinnati museum director in his trial for obscenity over the Mapplethorpe exhibit. I wish I didn’t take public issues so much to heart. After all, nothing I write is in danger of being censored. Literary writers are so irrelevant, nobody would bother.

But I feel Charles Freeman is a hero, and I identify with him because, like Rosa Parks, he stood up and decided he wouldn’t take shit anymore. There’s a cultural war in this county and throughout this nation, and part of me wants to wade into the fray, appropriating tactics of ACT-UP and other activist groups, while another part of me thinks this is a propitious time to go to Europe for a while and wait out this glum period in American history.

Well, I don’t know what to say. I’m going to avoid the media – looking at it, I mean – for the next day, at least as far as this issue is concerned. (I’ll watch the German unification celebrations.)

I still feel spent and I have yet to process and assimilate all that I saw and heard at the trial. But at least I know now I’m probably in no danger of crashing into the kind of self-pitying depression I feared back in New York, if only because of my tendency to get involved with the world outside myself.

Saturday, October 6, 1990

8 PM. I dozed off at about this time last night, and a good thing it was, as I’d missed so much sleep this week and needed my rest for the LSAT.

Up at 6 AM, I felt refreshed despite a slight headache, and after a bigger than usual breakfast, I drove to St. Thomas University’s law school, which isn’t very far away in northeast Dade.

About 180 people were taking the test there. We lined up to have our IDs and tickets checked and to have thumbprints taken before we were assigned rooms.

I sat in the first row in a pleasant, modern classroom. Listening to the other test takers, I realized how I had the luxury of not taking this as seriously as they did: unlike a college senior, I recognize that one test isn’t going to affect my life all that much.

Most of the people there seemed quite young (by which I mean 22 or 23 ), and some talked about their extensive preparation, like courses and practice tests. All I did was look at the LSAT booklet last night.

We began late and started with the writing sample: I wrote my essay in about half the 30 minutes allotted and filled up the page.

The first part of the LSAT itself, the first of four 45-minute sections, also went quickly.

It was reading comprehension, and here I could see where general knowledge can help because the first essays were about Phillis Wheatley’s poetry and Fitz Hugh Lane’s paintings, and being familiar with both gave me a leg up in answering questions.

I knew logical reasoning would be the toughest part for me, and I had to guess on five of 35 questions. (Because they count only correct answers, it pays not to leave any question blank.)

But after the break, I saw that I had another reading comprehension section – probably the first one was experimental and didn’t count – and I relaxed.

The final section, questions of analytical reasoning, wasn’t too bad. But I have a speed reader’s tendency to miss a word here and there, and I didn’t check back, so I probably screwed up some questions.

Well, I’ll get my score in about six weeks and then see what law schools, if any, I want to apply to.

I’m going to start getting my undergrad and grad school transcripts sent to LSDAS.

Perhaps some school hungry for someone who has good grades and hopefully a good LSAT and where “family income” is under $20,000 will contact me after seeing my credentials on the Candidate Referral Service, and I’ll be offered a scholarship. But I’d probably need to be a minority for that.

Intellectually, I feel confident, and I have no doubt I could succeed in law school. Certainly I’m too good for a law school like St. Thomas or Nova.