The judge is exasperated. “I have trials scheduled through December,” he says. “I just scheduled my first one in January. Every half hour I’m not doing a trial impairs my calendar even further.” It is 40 minutes after the case was supposed to begin.
The attorney for the tenant apologizes. He was on the phone with his client, he says, and as it turns out his client won’t be coming to court today. “I have no client,” he says, looking a bit lost. The attorney for the landlord has four witnesses, and the trial will continue without the tenant, because it was scheduled for today, and that is how things work.
This is New York City Civil Court, in the Trial Part of housing court. The general function of housing court is to resolve disputes between landlords and tenants. Often, as in this case, the question has to do with whether the tenant gets to keep being a tenant.
In this case, the landlord is arguing that the tenant has not been living in Apartment 2 for some time. There are people living there, but they aren’t the tenant. The landlord wants them out. The tenant is arguing—or his lawyer is arguing for him—that he has been living in Apartment 2 all along.
Those are the broad strokes. What follows, for the next few hours, are the grindingly slow wheels of legal bureaucracy and a lot of talk about calendars. Calendars are key here, and everyone seems to be getting them wrong. The courtroom next door is part of the Resolution Part of housing court—a pretrial place where landlord-tenant disputes can be settled. Mostly, this seems to entail the filing of papers and issuing of new dates. People agree to return on November 1. Watching this, I find myself wondering: How does anyone know where they will be on November 1? I am not personally a keeper of a calendar.
The judge in the trial room likes Google calendars. “If it weren’t for my Google calendar, I wouldn’t know where I am,” he says, after scheduling a trial for January on his. He likes Google in general; at one point someone named Norman calls the courtroom from the IT department to tell the judge he can access a particular file on the Google Drive, and the judge is very pleased to hear it.
These details aren’t particularly relevant to the trial at hand, but they also are, because the appointed date, time, and room number are sacrosanct. Calendars are the engine driving the whole machine of the courts. They are also the reason things happen at a glacial pace. The trial I’m watching has been going on, in some form or another, since 2016. Many of the facts at hand are several years old.
The attorney for the landlord calls the first witness, a woman who works in the office that tallies rent. She raises her right hand and swears to tell the truth on the penalty of perjury. She confirms the balance of rent paid by the tenant and is dismissed from the stand without being cross-examined. The next witness is the property manager, who confirms that he had been asked to serve the resident tenant with papers saying that he was “no longer desired in there.” The tenant did not, he says, surrender the keys and vacate the apartment. In fact, the property manager never met the tenant, which is why we are all in court to begin with.
The third witness is the superintendent, who visits the building several times a week. He has met the tenant, he says, but hasn’t seen him since 2015. The tenant had mentioned he’d be traveling to Florida, and the superintendent says he never saw him again. Since then, the superintendent has visited the building several times a week, usually in the mornings, to clean the building. He vacuums the carpet on the second floor, where the disputed apartment is located. He does this for varying lengths of time, depending on the condition of the carpet. The lawyer for the tenant asks him whether it’s possible that he’s just missed the tenant every time he’s been there. He says yes, it’s possible.
The fourth witness is a private investigator, hired by the landlord. He installed a surveillance camera, without the knowledge of the tenants, and it filmed all the comings and goings from the apartment during a particular period in 2016.
Is that legal? I wonder, and then realize I’m in a venue where that can certainly be determined. The judge doesn’t react, and neither does the tenant’s attorney. Then I remember, of course it’s legal. The landlord owns the property. They can do whatever they want—or rather, not whatever they want, but whatever this court permits them to do. Video surveillance, it seems, is A-OK.
Evidently, the people captured on video entering and exiting the apartment were not the tenant. There is protracted discussion about how, exactly, the surveillance camera and recording devices work, and how screenshots are captured, and how the video will be entered into the record as evidence. The judge decides the tenant’s attorney needs to watch the video before it’s entered, so the two attorneys and the private investigator go into the hallway to watch the video together on the private investigator’s laptop.
We wait. Housing court is boring theater. These kinds of disputes do not lend themselves so well to hero-villain narratives, or at least those narratives become very diffuse. The absence of the tenant from court creates an air of mystery, which adds to the central mystery of the case, also about his absence. I wonder: Is he in Florida, still? I picture him on a beach. No, he probably isn’t on a beach. Is he in the hospital? No, he probably isn’t in the hospital. Who else is living in his apartment? Or does he really live here, as his attorney claims, and the landlord and the private investigator and everyone else are powerful forces trying to evict him from his home?
The attorneys return after the break, and now the judge watches the surveillance video—some minutes of it—and I watch them all watch the video. There’s no sound, so it’s a kind of tableau of four men turned toward a laptop. For purposes of the record, the private investigator reads out a tally of people coming and going from the apartment, which has the cadence of a police blotter. “An African American gentlemen entered the apartment at 12:00 a.m. A child exited at 12:08:53. A child entered at 12:10:31. An African American male entered at 12:15:23. A male child exited at 12:15:37. A female exited. . . .”
This goes on for some time. There is no decision today; the case rests; there is a break. The judge takes time to hear a motion for a postponement in a different case. A man who has scars on his neck owes $15,200 in outstanding rent, but he has asked for another week to pay it, pending an application for a loan shark deal. He says he’ll have an answer within a week.
The landlord argues against it, on the basis that he doesn’t believe the deal will come through. The judge gives the postponement to the tenant. They will return in a week.
The trial, too, will go on to another date, to be scheduled and entered into courtroom calendars.