TWO SHIPS PASSING IN HARASSMENT COURT

When neighbors, lovers, or friends quarrel, they sometimes ask for intercession from the Hennepin County harassment court.

           In harassment court passions run high even if legal drama does not. The plotlines are meager: neighbors who throw eggs, ex-lovers who leave rambling and vaguely threatening messages on answering machines.

           Harassment court is an informal affair, conducted every day but Wednesday in whatever courtroom happens to be empty. On a recent visit, we found Paul Gilles presiding. Gilles wears judicial robes and sits behind a judge's bench, but he's not a judge. He is a referee, semi-retired and paid by the day for his services. His job consists of handing out restraining orders and giving the same speech time and again. "If you're walking down the sidewalk," he says, removing his glasses for emphasis, "and one of you is going north and the other one is going south, you're like two ships passing in the night. And the same thing goes if you meet in the grocery store. You simply ignore each other."

           The restraining order is the main tool at Gilles's disposal--well, the only tool. Based on what he hears in court, he is empowered to issue restraining orders of varying duration up to two years. Or he may call for a hearing before a district court judge, or a professional mediator. Or he may dismiss plaintiff and respondent from the court without taking any action at all. When Gilles denies requests for restraining orders, he does so the way a father waves a whining child from the dinner table, with equal parts disappointment and impatience.

           During our visit, a dozen disputes are on the docket. The first case Gilles hears involves a young man who complains he was called "scum" by his girlfriend's stepfather, who in turn complains that the young man is scum. Both get restraining orders.

           Isaiah Lewis isn't so lucky. Lewis and his respondent, Charles Viebahn, are both old friends of the court. Their files are dense folders stuffed with motions and counter-motions, forms and complaints. Their dispute, as recorded in these files, appears to have something to do with Viebahn's hair, or lack thereof. Years ago, when the pair first appeared in harassment court, Viebahn (as plaintiff) alleged that Lewis consistently and repeatedly made "comments about the petitioner and his hair."

           On this day Lewis (as plaintiff) complains of Viebahn's alleged predilection for popping out of dark alcoves and basement stairwells in order to snap pictures of Lewis. He claims Viebahn lay in wait at his apartment door one night to do just that. "He knows how I feel about my picture being taken, and I shouldn't have to have my picture taken," Lewis tells the court. "But he just pops up out of nowhere!" To buttress his case, Lewis calls a witness named Donovan Johnson who, looking uncomfortable, admits under questioning that he saw nothing, though he did hear a door slam.

           Gilles removes his glasses at this point and cries: "When is this going to stop?" Nobody speaks for several seconds. "I'm not going to grant your motion. You gentlemen can go."

           The Gaspers and the Knezeviches are next on the docket. Their dispute stems from "just your everyday ordinary kid fight," according to Knezevich, but it's no ordinary feud that's been raging between the neighbors in the years since: nasty messages in the mailbox, rotten eggs lobbed over the back fence, retaliation at the school bus stop. The middle-aged couples arrive in court well-dressed; unlike most petitioners, the Gaspers bring along their attorney, Dick Sliterman.

           "I've read the petition," Gilles begins, addressing the couples, "and it sounds like you're not having a very good summer. Spring. Summer. Fall. Whatever." The petitions offer two versions of a recent afternoon that culminated in a front-lawn brawl between Ted Gaspers and Sharon Knezevich. Ted grabbed Sharon by the ponytail and threw her on the ground. Sharon threw Ted's glasses down the alley. Dick Sliterman introduces his investigator (ex-FBI) and hints at further action. Gilles suggests a restraining order, and after some discussion that's just what happens.

           "I hope you're going to tell your children, as tactfully as possible, not to have any contact," Gilles sighs. "Can you folks talk to your children?"

           The question hangs there, assuming significance. "All right," he says, "what this restraining order means is that if you're walking down the sidewalk and one of you is going north and the other one is going south, you're like two ships passing in the night..." The Gaspers and the Knezeviches do just that.

           At the end of the day, Gilles seems tired, but satisfied with his work. "You have to understand what you've got here. A lot of these people just don't have a lot of skills to handle conflict. If you've got a problem you can sit down and say to yourself, 'how do I handle this?' That's called being able to handle conflict. These people can't," he shrugs. "You feel sorry for people like that."

--Joseph Hart

PUBLICDOMAIN

           If you spend any time in a local museum or gallery, sooner or later you'll stumble on a plaque offering humble thanks to one or another corporate donor. Art with a corporate toe-tag is everywhere. It's enough to make us wonder who isn't getting arts grants these days. We turned to the MINNESOTA STATE ARTS BOARD for the answer. What follows are verbatim excerpts from grant applications that didn't muster financial support...this year, anyway.

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