Sometimes you’re up and sometimes you’re waiting in line to be in the audience of Divorce Court.
It's stupid early and I’m standing against a concrete wall doing nervous kegels, wondering whether the people chatting in line know each other already or are just more fun to talk to than me. It could be both. One kegel makes me full-body twitch, which is gross, and I remember that a life spent on the sidelines is necessary for those with weird animal compulsions.
I’ve worn this same dress to an internship, the job interview to my highest salaried job, and now to the courtroom of Judge I Forget, who I’m still not convinced has any legal power but definitely has a lot of necklaces and a command of the hard consonant.
There are exactly forty of us because this courtroom is not run by chairs, not people. You can tell who the new ones are based on the mad rush to the coffee urn - the others hang back in the same pantsuit for the fourth time that week, biding their time. I’m asked to swap my shoes for something a little more professional - “like a night secretary,” a production assistant explains. The coffee is terrible.
The pop-up courtroom is lined with oil paintings of other TV judges I vaguely recognize from other people’s hospital rooms. Upon closer inspection, they’re badly Photoshopped, oversized prints from Walmart. I vaguely remember seeing episodes here and there when I had fevers in elementary school, but always preferred the ones where people beat the shit out of each other that are filmed in Connecticut.
I select a chair on the aisle for no particular reason and a PA begins to shift us for reasons she says has nothing to do with “face or race,” a lie I don’t know why she bothers going through. I’m moved back a row, back another and finally into an unseen corner.
“Damn long torso-ed in a print dress,” she mumbles to herself, placing a plump Scottish woman who tried to talk to me about a Food Network show she’d sat in on the day before where I’d just been. The courtroom bristles with jealousy for Long Torso Print Dress - people are here for the checks, not screen time, and being assigned to a camera’s blind spot means you don’t need to pay attention to the show.
A Russian girl with a name I can’t pronounce tries to guess my age, and confirms that the majority of the audience knows each other and does this all the time, calling them her “court buddies.”
“You can come to lunch with us if you want,” she offers. “We go to the Starbucks but we don’t buy anything.”
Paid audience work a sub-sect of the working poor that couldn’t exist in any other city, but bad money is good money when it’s handled under the table, so the room is crowded with Russian immigrants and actors trying to make rent. I’m neither of these things. I am Long Torso Print Dress, and I am Running Out Of Money.
Now that we are seated, we can be threatened.
“No more second chances, guys,” a gray-bearded assistant yells, touching a yawner on the shoulder. “You fall asleep, we kick you out. No pay.”
Everyone rolls their eyes - clearly this has been said before and will be said again. The assistant doesn’t notice and tilts his head back, narrowing his eyes to slits. It’s a little bit racist but it’s also early, so I forgive him.
“And this,” he says, gesturing to his racist face, “does not count as awake.”
I fall asleep during the first case.
These court shows shoot an entire week of episodes at a time, and we sign up to “ooh” and giggle through ten different cases (marked by the judge’s necklace changes) that may or may not be real, but none of which result in an actual divorce. A sharp jab hits my thigh, attached to a different Russian girl.
“The trick is to drink coffee before you get here,” she says out of the side of her mouth. “Then just empty your mind of everything. Pretend you are nobody, a little bit.”
Two people in the row ahead of us furiously make out between cases, and I’m informed that they met here. In the audience of Divorce Court. They met in the audience of Divorce Court and here they are, in the audience of Divorce Court, celebrating this love that they found here, in the audience of Divorce Court. I need to lie down but I can’t because there’s a really compelling case about a fourth wife and a gambling addiction next.
"Sit up straight!" shouts a voice from nowhere to no one. My ass is numb, and we all shift a little bit. To the untrained eye, it looks like forty people have shit their pants in unison.
For reference, here are the three best cases, which the PAs suspiciously refer to as “stories,” that my weary eyes witnessed:
- A woman is angry that her husband is cheating on her. Says husband, she does not understand how much pussy is required when one works hard. He makes scaffolding, and therefore needs more pussy.
- A man tries to get his girlfriend to forgive him for cheating, but it turns out she’s been Catfishing him.
- Not sure what happened in this one at all but I do know that there was a triple negative phrase used in it, “wasn’t not disencouraging her to have sex with other dudes,” please write that one down.
Are the people on this show real? I don’t know, and the audience members don’t seem to either after weeks or months of observation. Some struggling actors recognize other strugglinf actos on the stand, while other litigants seem genuinely upset. We decide it’s probably somewhere in the middle, and that Judge I Forget's necklace game is strong enough to forgive any other production hiccups.
After six long cases, the Russian women and I go to the Starbucks and, as promised, they don’t buy anything. I buy a sandwich, which is the Wrong Move. We eat in silence.
“This was fun,” one of them says twenty minutes later. But was it?
When we return to the great plastic courthouse for the final four cases of the day, the two Russians are still making out with equal vigor. We’re instructed to sit on the other side of the room after lunch, and I’m nudged back into the blind spot once more.
“Oh, [Russian female name] and [Russian male name],” one audience member smiles to themselves as the two continue to dry fuck. “Only at Divorce Court.” It must be the air. There’s no air in this building. I almost want to cut my arm open to see if I can clot.
The latter half of the day comes with a series of painful pangs in the front of my head, making harder to focus on all the drama unfolding onstage, sorry, on court, sorry, they’re actually recycling stories at this point. Sandra, the first non-Russian person I’ve been seated next to today slips me a pill. Apparently, extended audience work gives those brave enough to do it brutal migraines, and I notice several others popping something or other in the last few hours of the day. It could be the lights, but I like to think that human stupidity can physically hurt you.
It’s almost five o’clock and as the final ten-second commercial spot - something about a sweepstakes - is read by Judge I Forget one last time, all thirty-nine of us pour out into the street and wait for our checks to be cut. Thirty-nine, because one idiot fell asleep during the three o’clock case. It’s only nine hours into my new and worst career, but I am already of the mind that she deserved it.
“I’m doing Judy tomorrow,” a guy in a ponytail tells me as we wait against the same concrete wall as before, but it’s absorbed all the heat of this bullshit day so you can’t lean anymore. Judy, Judge Judy. He asks for my number, but I give him the number of my ex-boyfriend’s mom. I nod slowly.
“She’s a bitch,” he says, then scurries away.
I hold my check for $70. Do a few more kegels. Spend $6 on migraine medication. Things could be worse. I could be fucking someone I met in the audience of Divorce Court.