Everybody at the courthouse—the judges and the officers and the reporters and the stenographers—speak excitedly about the tightrope walker. Judge Soderberg considers to himself the way that New York has a way of presenting extraordinary events that help make sense of the otherwise straightforward drudgery of life. His theory is that New York is a city so uninterested in history that it lives in “a sort of everyday present,” and this makes it possible to still be surprised about the occurrence of some wild event. Soderberg believes that, since New York is so unconcerned with the past, there are very few meaningful monuments throughout the city, which is why he comes to respect the tightrope walker’s performance: the walker, he believes, has made a monument of himself in a perfectly New York manner, one that is temporary and brash.
Soderberg’s theory that the tightrope walker has made the perfect New York monument of himself shows his own complicated perception of the city—he simultaneously craves some sort of order within the city while also appreciating New York’s squalor and ephemerality. To him, the tightrope walker represents a mix of these things, for it is a recognition of the city’s greatness by way of a brazen insanity.
Judge Soderberg does not witness the walk, which upsets him greatly. He misses it by the smallest margin, noticing people leaning out of their windows but paying them no attention, figuring that they are looking at a car crash or a fight. Shrugging it off, he goes inside. As he settles in at his desk, the door opens and a fellow judge starts talking about the tightrope walker. Soderberg rushes to the window but can only see the north tower, and his friend informs him that he missed the show.
Because Soderberg missed the actual walk, the event must remain for him entirely theoretical, which is perhaps why he intellectualizes it so much by considering its message. Rather than being able to experience it, he is left to piece it together in his mind.
The two judges start discussing the possible charges and sentences that could be leveled against the tightrope walker, who has been arrested and will be tried in their precinct. Much to his delight, Soderberg is on duty for the day, and it is possible he will receive the walker.
Despite his appreciation for what the tightrope walker has done, it appears that Soderberg may very well be put in the difficult position of having to sentence him—he is, after all, a judge. That he hopes he will have the chance to do so suggests that he craves a certain amount of excitement.
For the most part, Judge Soderberg’s days are dreary and discouraging. He feels beaten down by the constant flow of criminals unable to learn their lessons. Despite the respect the job has earned him, being a judge feels altogether unglamorous. When Soderberg was a young man at Yale, he was sure that he would have a profound impact on the world, but now he has resigned himself to the simple pleasures of life: going home to his wife, smoking cigars after a long day of work, occasionally making love in his fine sheets. Sometimes in the middle of the night he wakes up desperately grieving the loss of his son Joshua, and he goes to the kitchen to make a cheese sandwich. Reasoning through the pain, he tells himself that things could be worse: at least he’s eating a cheese sandwich on Park Avenue.
Soderberg’s method of coping with his son’s death seems to be one borne of general evasion: rather than allowing himself to feel the import of his own sadness, he bargains with himself, saying that, rather than despairing, he should count himself lucky on the whole. This paints a picture of a man unwilling to let himself truly experience his own emotions, a man who has invested so much into his status and career that he uses them as an excuse to avoid the process of grieving. It seems he approaches his marriage with a similar withdrawn attitude, not allowing himself to fully open up to Claire other than in bouts of occasional lovemaking.
Judge Soderberg considers how he used to think he would be a “paragon of virtue” in the court system. But he slowly learned he was just another part of a backed-up, ineffective system, and now he knows that it is all he can do to stay afloat, to keep up with the constant flow of criminal behavior and never-ending charges.
There is certainly an element of disillusionment active in Soderberg’s general outlook on life. The fact that he contemplates the determination of his earlier years indicates that he may feel a sense of disappointment, as if his current life doesn’t quite measure up to the one he had in mind for himself.
Judge Soderberg is sure he will get the tightrope walker, but he calls the D.A.’s office to try to ensure that he will—he figures he can call in a favor, but nobody picks up the phone. Soderberg hangs up and makes his way to the courtroom, where he begins hearing cases one after another. After hearing twenty-nine cases, it is still only late morning, and he asks his court officer if there is news about the tightrope walker. He learns that the walker will most likely appear in the late afternoon; if Soderberg is able to get through enough cases, it is likely that he’ll get the walker. He calls a break for lunch.
The fact that Soderberg tries to call in a favor is an insight into how the inner world of the court system works. Soderberg, it seems, is used to a certain amount of respect, and there is a natural complacency or entitlement that comes with this kind of thinking. Here is a man with power who knows he has power—in this way, we see the difference between someone like Soderberg (a white man who takes his power for granted) and someone like Tillie (a black woman who has to fight nail and tooth for respect).
Judge Soderberg goes to Harry’s, his favorite restaurant, where he orders wine and talks to Harry, the owner. The two men talk about the tightrope walker. As he drinks wine, Soderberg thinks about the balance between recklessness and freedom that the walker so beautifully achieved. He considers the fact that he himself constantly strives for this balance as a judge, and this line of thought mysteriously leads to his son. Soderberg doesn’t often like to think about Joshua; he usually hides his grief, sometimes weeping in the bathtub while the water runs, the constant splash of its fall drowning out his sobs. He frets over whether or not he somehow taught his son to gravitate toward the military by giving him toy soldiers as a child or by insisting that he learn to play “The Star Spangled Banner” on the piano.
In this moment we witness a striking bit of introspection as Soderberg tries to rather circuitously blame himself for his son’s death. As such, he becomes a somewhat more sympathetic character, a character capable of emotion. It is tragic, in fact, that he is able to feel such difficult emotions and yet remains incapable of expressing them. The fact that he hides his sobbing from Claire further humanizes him and makes their situation more tragic, for we know that Claire is also deeply in need of an emotional outlet. Although their marriage is functionally adequate, it seems they are trapped in a pattern of silence that is eating away at both of them individually.
At the same time, however, Judge Soderberg believes in the Vietnam War, maintaining that it was started in order to protect the very tenets of freedom that he himself works so hard to uphold in his courtroom. Soderberg knows that Claire disapproves of war and violence of all kinds, and he finds himself often agreeing with this outlook despite himself. But he does not express these feelings to her because he thinks that he must be strong. Soderberg feels himself, in this moment, wanting to talk to Harry about Joshua, but he doesn’t let himself. He starts to think that perhaps he doesn’t want the tightrope walker to come into his court after all.
Yet again, Soderberg stifles his emotions and refuses to confide in his wife. Even more complicated is his belief that, as a judge, he cannot criticize a war that stands for order and justice. It is apparent that—despite his original aspirations to be a “paragon of virtue”—he doubts the goodness of the Vietnam War, a sentiment that is perhaps reflected by his delight in the tightrope walker’s exciting form of dissent.
When Soderberg returns to the court, a line of defendants walk through the door. Among them is the tightrope walker. He is smaller than Soderberg imagined, but he emits a confidence that the judge finds appealing. He looks, Soderberg thinks, like a smaller version of Joshua. Soderberg accidentally makes eye contact with the walker, breaking one of his general rules to never look a defendant directly in the eye. Soderberg grows nervous, wondering what he can possibly sentence the man for; he doesn’t want to be too harsh on the man, but he also doesn’t want to let him off without anything—the public, he knows, is watching with anticipation, and there is pressure to make sure the court system receives good press.
It is significant that Soderberg feels there are certain expectations placed on him regarding how he will sentence the walker. In a way, these expectations represent an internal dialogue that he already indulges, a hidden argument between what he feels he is supposed to believe as a judge and what he actually feels and believes as a childless father. Just as the press and the court system watch him and expect him to act a certain way, he watches himself, holding himself to a certain standard and not allowing his true emotions to dictate how he acts.
The first defendants on Judge Soderberg’s list are Jazzlyn and Tillie Henderson. He observes the two prostitutes as they come to the front of the room, finding Jazzlyn’s swimsuit outfit ridiculous. Tillie looks over her shoulder and blows a kiss at a white man sitting in the audience; he blushes and bows his head. When Soderberg scolds her, telling her that his courtroom is not a nightclub, she responds by saying, “Sorry, Your Honor—I’d blow you one too ’cept I’m all blowed out.” Laughter goes through the room and Soderberg calls for order. He thinks he hears Tillie call him an asshole and wonders to himself why people like her always make it so much harder for themselves by acting disrespectfully in court. Looking at their rap sheets, he sees the number of charges each woman has. He knows Jazzlyn will continue to wrack up offenses as she grows older.
As Tillie acts out in the courtroom, Soderberg views her not as an individual, but as a representative of all lower class criminals. To him, she is an amalgamation of all the people he sees come through the courtroom, an outlook that effectively strips her of her individual humanity and plays on prejudiced stereotypes. Unfortunately, Tillie only plays into this embittered perception by aggravating Soderberg further.
Judge Soderberg begins reviewing the case, proud of his sharp efficiency. He hopes that the reporters in the courtroom—who are there to watch the tightrope walker’s case—are taking note of his prowess as a judge. As he proceeds, however, Tillie and he get into several light arguments, resulting in him asking her to refrain from speaking. He realizes with surprise that Jazzlyn is Tillie’s daughter.
Soderberg’s double consciousness surges in this moment, especially as Tillie challenges him, an obstacle he must overcome in order to satisfy both himself and the observant reporters.
Because Tillie has decided to take full responsibility for the robbery that she and Jazzlyn committed, Judge Soderberg dismisses Jazzlyn’s case, and she is free to go. She kisses her mother on the eyebrow, and Tillie touches the side of her face in return. Although he is depressed by the twisted mechanisms that might create a mother-daughter crime duo like this, Solomon can’t help but feel touched by the love between them. He watches as Jazzlyn whispers in her mother’s ear; Tillie laughs and waves over her shoulder at the man sitting in the audience. On her way out, Jazzlyn takes off the black shirt she had been wearing, so that now she is in only her neon swimsuit.
Finally, Soderberg’s human capacity to feel empathy surfaces when he recognizes the power of the tragic but touching relationship Tillie and Jazzlyn have. This moment of fellow-feeling keeps us from forgetting that he does, in fact, possess the ability to feel an emotional response that is unrelated to his self-interested aims.
Judge Soderberg orders Jazzlyn to put the shirt back on. She refuses, and then Soderberg asks the white man she’s with whether or not he’s related to her. Corrigan responds in his Irish accent that he is her friend, and Soderberg thinks he is a strange kind of pimp.
In this moment, Soderberg makes the prejudiced assumption that the only reason a white man would care about a black prostitute is because he is her pimp. Of course, this counterbalances his previous moment of empathetic thinking, in which he was touched by Jazzlyn’s relationship with her mother.
As the hearing continues, Judge Soderberg turns his attention to Tillie, the remaining defendant. She mouths off to him, calling him “babe,” and this makes him uncomfortable. After all, the reporters are watching. He wonders if he should pretend that he didn’t hear her or if he should call her up in contempt. He decides to move past it. As they continue talking, she again refers to him informally by calling him “pops.” Soderberg stares at her and for a brief moment, as he looks into Tillie’s eyes, he understands how she might be attractive. Before sentencing her, he asks if she has anything else to say. She states that she would like to be put in prison at Rikers Island in order to be near her grandchildren. He agrees to do what he can, and then he sentences her to eight months.
When Soderberg understands—however briefly—how somebody might find Tillie attractive, he indulges two lines of thinking at the same time: the first is empathetic, for he is appreciating her and considering her outside the context of the courtroom; the second is more complicated and potentially problematic, for he experiences the same thing that Ciaran felt when he decided to pay her for sex. Inherent in his thought process is both an acceptance of her and a sexualized judgment of her appearance.
Tillie is upset and surprised by the fact that she is sentenced to eight months in prison rather than six (the length of time her lawyer had estimated she would receive). She speaks up but Judge Soderberg threatens to increase the sentence to twelve months. Meanwhile, Corrigan tries to make his way to the front of the courtroom, but an officer stops him. Corrigan asks if he can say something and Soderberg says no. Corrigan yells to Tillie that he will be back later.
In a way, this scene allows Corrigan to live beyond death, since we thought we had seen the last of him when he died in the car crash. This is a satisfying resurrection of his character, as he is in top form, once more lobbying for the unfortunate despite everything telling him to leave the matter alone. Knowing that this is his death day, though, it is rather tragic when we witness him yelling to Tillie that he will be back later.
Judge Soderberg waves the court officer over to him and whispers about getting the tightrope walker up next. As Tillie is being led out of the room, Soderberg watches her and feels as if he is seeing her for the first time. He detects something “tender and carved” about her face. For a moment, he finds her beautiful, and then she moves forward through the door and is lost to him forever, “vanished into her own namelessness.” Soderberg then leans over to the court officer and says it again: “Get the tightrope walker up. Now.”
Finally, Soderberg completely sees beyond his own prejudices when he sees the beauty and individuality of Tillie’s face. This moment of clarity, however, is quickly lost to the court system’s unrelenting pace and schedule, and Tillie becomes yet another unfortunate “nameless” soul passing through the slog that is Soderberg’s day job.