A Gift in the Park
I watched the choreographed, synchronized mehndi dances as the medley of Bollywood music blared throughout Lake Cunningham Park in San Jose. Hundreds had gathered on this sun soaked Saturday afternoon to celebrate the upcoming wedding of my friend and fellow public defender Mahira Siddiqui to her fiance Mohammad Ali Mir.
As the dancers adorned in colorful, Desi garb drew my attention, Shakur, my 1 ½ year old son we affectionately call the “bandit,” took off again. He scampered toward the parking lot, looking back as if to taunt me. I chased the croc-wearing little being. As I caught up to him, I saw a group of teenagers, four boys and one girl, walking in the opposite direction. I locked eyes with the young lady. It was Ruby, my former juvenile court client. Little Ruby who traversed in and out of juvenile hall, struggled with drugs and endured a complicated relationship with her Spanish speaking single mother. No doubt with a huge smile on my face, I shook her hand and made small talk, asking her how she and her mom were.
As we talked, one of the young men interrupted and exclaimed that I had represented him, too. He told me his name (Brian) and said, “You probably don't remember me.” He looked different; broader shoulders, a thicker voice and fuller facial hair. I looked closer and beneath, and I recognized the little boy I once sat next to in court, the little boy with no father present, the little boy who dabbled in weed, gravitated to gangs, missed school and inevitably ended up in juvenile hall.
Ruby and Brian said they were well and expressed intrigue about the music and the party. I proudly proclaimed that it was a public defender friend getting married. I introduced them to Shakur and then exchanged goodbyes. I told them how happy it made me to see them out and about, enjoying the sunshine.
After a 2 ½ year stint, I left juvenile court in 2015. Since then, I dreadfully click San Jose Mercury News links about local criminal cases, nervous that a former juvenile client's mugshot will pop up in connection with the latest homicide or violent crime in the area. So often, the dread has become grief as I've seen mugshot after mugshot of my former clients that have “graduated” to adult crimes, courts, jails and prisons.
Other days, I march into adult courtrooms to appear with clients only to stumble upon a former juvenile client sitting in the jury box, handcuffed, waist chained and shrouded in county jail clothes waiting for their case to be called.
My little, broken juvi beings once filled with hope and marked by promise so commonly consumed by their traumas and addictions, succumbing to criminality, lost to the machine of mass incarceration. Their mugshots and their jail clothes tattooing and scarring my heart.
But the universe gifted me this Saturday afternoon surprise, my chance encounter with Ruby and Brian basking in the San Jose sunshine. Them walking free, breathing the cool California air, smiling, warmed my soul, buoyed my public defender spirit, and healed, at least for a moment, my injured heart.
I picked up Shakur, hoisted him up onto my shoulders and made my way back to the party. I saw Mahira on a break from the dance floor and recounted my brush with my former juvenile clients. In true public defender form, Mahira said, “you should have brought them to the party and had them eat!”
Alhamdullilah (All thanks to God).