The Chow

“You couldn’t see inside the vans, because their windows were covered by a heavy wire mesh. Kramer didn’t have to look. Inside those vans would be the usual job lots of blacks and Latins, plus . . some stray who had the miserable luck to pick the Bronx to get in trouble in. 'The chow,' Kramer said to himself. The Bronx crumbled and decayed a little more, and a little more blood dried in the cracks… Only one thing was accomplished. The system was fed, and those vans brought in the chow.”

Tom Wolfe wrote this passage in his 1987 bestseller Bonfire of the Vanities. Wolfe’s juxtaposition of the thrusting money markets of Wall Street with his sharp observations of the desperation of the Bronx Criminal Courthouse are as relevant today as they were nearly 20 years ago.

Wolfe explores the court with well observed wit, anger and fascination through the eyes of dispirited Assistant District Attorney Larry Kramer. A former journalist, Wolfe took great time investigating the world of the court, spending many hours observing court procedure and practice.

Because of the author’s detailed investigative work, the novel produced many wry smiles of recognition for me. Wolfe’s accuracy in describing the atmosphere of the court process is impressive: not so much his descriptions of the physical environment but of the cultural atmosphere - the embedded cynicism of court players that nothing they do matters a damn.

Cynicism is the common language of the court, shared by everyone from prosecutors to defense attorneys, judges to property clerks. In my experience, this world weariness does not represent abandoned hope or ideals but acts as a shield against the realities of the day-to-day grind of working in a large, impersonal bureaucracy.

Wolfe's passage serves as a reminder of our goal at Bronx Community Solutions: to apply a kind of practical idealism to our work that takes into account the realities of the Bronx while showing that the court can make a positive contribution to the community.

Two passages struck me most. In a vivid account of the arrest, detention and arraignment of Sherman McCoy, Wolfe skillfully if luridly describes the dehumanizing process of finger printing, metal detection and being held in the court holding cell that accompanies the suspicion of criminal guilt in the Bronx. McCoy’s descent into this purgatory strips him of the advantages he has accrued since birth and the novel’s denouement in court exposes the completeness of that fall. It's a grisly procedure has not become anymore pleasant in recent times.

In the second passage, Wolfe cleverly describes the obstinate, masculine loyalty of the defendants, strutting into court in their oversized sneakers and black jackets effecting their Pimp Roll, in the naïve belief that their machismo will save them. Kramer labels these defendants ‘the chow’. He describes lucidly how defendants enter the courtroom “full of juice . . ready to defend the honor and… hides of their buddies against the System. But soon a stupefying tide of tedium and confusion rolled over them all”.

This sense of bewilderment and subdued anger at the process is an issue we face every day. At Bronx Community Solutions, it is our job to handle the confusion felt by many of our clients, in large part because of the emerging evidence that individuals who believe they are being treated fairly are more likely to comply with court orders.

Wolfe’s New York is horribly divided by race and class, boiling with anger that destroys the main characters in the book. For my part, as an outsider, I perceive a city more at ease with itself than that Wolfe illuminates for us. However, the stark images of the Bronx that Wolfe weaves, with its injustices borne by the dispossessed and desperate, while fictionalised, still seems to hold largely true. The book serves as a good starting point for reviewing the challenges the Bronx courts face.


Anonymous said…
Where did you find it? Interesting read » » »