"When I Get Locked Up, I'm Already Tired and [Effed] Up Anyway"

Broadway is out on strike, TV 's at a standstill, and I'm under orders from my acupuncturist not to drink, so lately I'd been at a loss for what the hell to do. But then I discovered that the best real-life unscripted drama is available to the general public for free, until one a.m., all week! Welcome to the off-off-off-Broadway show that is Night Court.

I went at showtime, 'round eight, and purchased a snack from Manhattan Criminal Court's old-timey concession stand.

The first case I caught was about an incident that happened up on West 140th, regarding the "endangerment of the welfare of a child." Heavy stuff, to be sure, but aren't dysfunctional families the plot of every single Eugene O'Neill play?

Earnest young lawyers, policemen, and security personnel swarmed the front of the room, their chatter maintaining a low hum over the proceedings. Families and children slouched in the wooden pews. The real action was in the peanut gallery. Two men seated behind me were providing color commentary on each case, with frequent "Goddamns!" and "Five hundred bail in cash, that's some booollshit." They were well-versed in the intricacies of what they called "the system."

A young woman on the stand, charged with assault in the third degree, wiped away tears as she was led back to the holding pen.

"In the third degree," the man behind me says. "Two kids and two jobs, no criminal record." August Wilson couldn't have said it any better.

Night Court runs 'til one a.m. these days. It hasn't run twenty-four hours since 2003, when the one to eight a.m. "lobster shift" was eliminated. "When I get locked up, I'm already tired and fucked-up anyway; I sleep right up until they bring me out there," the man added.

"You been to Rikers?" asked his companion.

"Naw, I don't like goin' to Rikers."

The grim parade of humanity marched on: lots of assaults—mostly by women!—but also minor driving offenses, drug possession, and something about "she took my girl shopping without permission." All the defendants had dark skin. Maybe white people are just really, really well-behaved in this city? Or was this a tragedy so broad that it was bordering on farce?

Or maybe, as the man behind me put it: "There's some terrorist shit goin' on at the courthouse."