Robert Smith has been working the night shift at the Manhattan Criminal Court for the last 34 years. In that time, he’s come face to face with some American icons, from rapper Tupac Shakur to mob kingpin John Gotti Jr., and he’s seen things inside the courthouse on 100 Centre Street that you wouldn’t believe.
“It’s a wild place,” says Bob. “I’ve had people defecate in front of the judge. Spit, urinate in the courtroom. You would think two, three guys could keep a person down. I’ve seen a guy rip off the sink in the cell.”
A deaf-mute man cycling through Times Square in a pink bikini, who was hauled into court after exposing himself to a family? Yep, he’s seen that. In fact, Bob’s knowledge of the building is so extensive, his stories so enchanting, that he started offering impromptu tours to anyone willing to take a walk and listen. He calls it “The Bobby Tour.”
My version of “The Bobby Tour” starts in Bob’s office, tucked inside the bureaucratic bowels of the courthouse. The 57-year-old is seated at his desk, thumbing through a red folder that he keeps in his filing cabinet. He’s wearing a pink dress shirt and a dark tie adorned with little Venetian gondolas, and his grey-blue eyes are slightly magnified by his rimless, oval lenses. The cover of the folder reads:
As the title suggests, it’s filled with old articles and photos that document the history of night court. Bob put it together for occasions like this one, when a curious person asks about the comings and goings of his domain. The first page is an article from The New York Times, published March 15, 1907, indicating the beginning of night court.
NIGHT COURT MANDATORY.
Amendment to Bill in the Assembly
Will Make it So.
“I’m just like the local historian. I’ve been here a long time,” says Bob, as he flips through the pages, reflecting on some of the major events that have happened over the years.
“We have stories in here about the Republican National Convention. The bombings that happened on the fifth floor. Shootings in the courtroom. Just all these stories that made the papers.”
When he’s not playing the part of archivist and tour guide, Bob’s official title is Deputy Chief Clerk of Arraignments. Basically, Bob’s job is to make sure everyone sees the judge in a timely fashion. He’s notified when a perp enters the database, and is responsible for overseeing all of the moving parts of the court system – judges, lawyers, interpreters, etc. – until their case is heard.
But as night court has become somewhat of an international phenomenon, with articles in The New York Times, The New York Post, Business Insider, and The Observer, Bob’s role as the expert on the inner workings of the system has evolved. If someone in the building needs information, they’ll be sent to Bob, because he’s naturally talkative, savvy about the court process, and always willing to lend a hand.
Justine Tribune, a social worker with the CASES program, says that Bob is known for his warmth and enthusiasm, “For somebody like him to work in a system that’s very punitive and vampire-like – it’s not exactly the most friendly or warm place – his passion, enthusiasm, and understanding of the procedures are what make him your go-to guy.”
“It just grew,” says Bob, who hosts students from schools like NYU, Columbia, and Pace University, and some far-off universities in Denmark or the Netherlands. He’ll take them through the building, teach them about the court process, and share some stories along the way. One of his favorites is about the time when he interviewed Tupac Shakur. It turns out the rapper got in a little trouble with the law, and when the judge issued Tupac a bail bond, it was up to Bob get the rapper’s information.
“When the judge sets a personal bond, you have to interview the person on their income, where they live, if they have any debts,” says Bob, who added that Tupac didn’t know how much money he made, and seemed to have houses all over the country for which he didn’t know the address.
“He couldn’t tell me anything.” So, as Bob tells it, he needed to find Tupac’s agent in the audience to get the correct information. He also once got an autograph from 50 Cent for his daughter.
Bob, a born and bred Brooklynite, started as a court officer at the same building in 1983, while also working as a butcher in the daytime. A job on the night shift gave the Hunter College graduate flexibility, and he liked being able to live a sort of double life.
As his family grew to include a wife and daughter, Bob ditched his day job started volunteering instead, whether at his church or his daughter’s school. These days, he usually works from 3:30 to midnight, riding a Citi Bike to the courthouse from his home in Stuyvesant Town. He paints the picture of a quiet life, “I have a few neighbors I help, nothing spectacular.” He exercises, goes to the beach, and gets his 6-7 hours of sleep a night. But even Bob’s coworkers comment on his high levels of energy.
“They always say around here, ‘No more sugar for Smith.’ Because I’m pretty active,” says Bob.
“I might be a bit older than some of the people I work with, but if they ever give me a hard time, I’m always challenging them to do the staircase up to the 17th floor, because I know I can do them two by two in two minutes and 34 seconds. I’m ready to do that anytime, and nobody takes me up on it.”
It’s all light-hearted, told with that vibrant I could still kick your ass attitude the baby-boomers seem to covet. Bob’s seen it all at this point, so that’s probably why he didn’t shirk when he came across John Gotti Jr., the former head of the Gambino crime family, in the Lower East Side.
Back in December 2009, when Junior Gotti was on trial in Federal Court, Bob was selected for jury duty. He was even elected by his fellow jurors to serve as foreman, the person that orchestrates group discussion, probably owing to his reputation as the in-house authority over at the Manhattan courthouse. Initially, he declined protection from the U.S. Marshalls on his way to and from the trial, but ultimately changed his mind.
“Learning through the trial about jury tampering, I started looking over my shoulder as I was going through Little Italy, wondering if I was being followed. So, I let the marshalls pick me up and drive me to the courthouse.”
There was ultimately a mistrial, with the jurors unable to come to an agreement. That, famously, was enough for Junior to invite every member of the jury to his house for Christmas dinner that year.
“Nobody took him up on his offer,” says Bob, “But I had thoughts about it.”
The headline in the NY Daily News on Dec. 25, 2009: Merry Junior Gotti celebrates Christmas – without any jurors from latest trail
“The odd thing was, maybe six weeks after the trial, I’m on a bicycle in the Lower East Side, and I hear, ‘Hey, juror number one.’ And I stop and I look over my shoulder, and it’s John Gotti Jr. with his lawyer. I’m like Oh my god, what do I do now?”
Of course, Bob went right over to the mob scion, and as he tells it, they had a pleasant conversation.
“He was very social, very nice. He described what he endured in solitary confinement, being in the hole and what not, when his father was dying in Marion, Illinois, maximum security penitentiary.”
Then he turns and says, referencing the absurdity of his world, “Why go to Broadway? “You’ve got drama, tragedy, and comedy here every day.”
Bob shares his office with a fellow named Tony, the daytime Deputy Chief Clerk of Arraignments. Most of the walls are white, except for the one behind their desk, which is painted a horrendous, puke(ish) green. It’s tough not to notice. Tony has one of his photos on the wall, but beneath it, there’s an “Employee of the Year” plaque from 2008 with Bob’s name on it.
It’s noteworthy because Bob has very few of his personal effects in the office. The dog pictures on the desk are Tony’s, so too are the goofy souvenirs that decorate the shelves. True to his form, Bob underplays the importance of the award, “They pick someone that exemplifies service, diligence, and hard work, I guess.”
“We had a little celebration, luncheon, bagpipes, a ceremony, very nice,” says Bob, with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm. Instead, he’s focused on a stack of 26 freshly printed articles. He lists off the headlines in rapid-succession, taking great pleasure in memories of the colorful characters that he’s worked alongside.
“Look at this,” he says, referring to the headlines, “It never ends.”
Then he lists off the celebrity judges that have come through his court. There was judge Bruce M. Wright or “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce,” who always seemed to let perps go on bail; judge Edwin Torres, who wrote Carlito’s Way and earned the nickname “The Time Machine” because he liked to slap criminals with maximum sentences; and the “Prince of Darkness,” Harold J. Rothwax, who earned a reputation for his authority in a courthouse that “overflows with the darkest side of criminal life.”
And the famous criminal cases; there’s Darryl Littlejohn, who murdered a woman and left her body on the Belt Parkway; Joel Steinberg, who beat and murdered his six-year-old adopted daughter; the Central Park jogger case; and who could forget Bernie Goetz, “The Subway Shooter”? The list goes on.
“You can’t make it up,” says Bob with a smirk.
Bob plans to take me through a couple specific places in the building: the hallowed law library, the rooftop basketball court, and the place where he interviewed Tupac. There’s a lot to see, so we head out through the offices, a couple locked doors, and into the hallway. He’s got a gaggle of keys dangling from his right hip.
Bob explains that most people don’t understand the court system, so he does his best to help as many people as possible.
“If I see a 90-year-old grandmother dressed in her Sunday best for her grandson who might be charged with murder, I’m going to help that lady,” says Bob.
Bob is incredibly conscientious, reports Ed McCarthy, an arraignment supervisor for the Legal Aid Society. “He does it in the spirit of being a public servant, who’s clearly sensitive to the issues of families waiting to see their loved ones,” says McCarthy, who also compared Bob’s role to that of a surgeon reassuring families at a hospital.
As we stroll through the courthouse, Bob seems to greet everyone.
“Hi Bob!” says one woman.
“Hey Bobby!” says another close behind.
He greets them in his typical friendly manner and walks around the corner to the elevator. The doors close, and as the elevator begins to ascend to the law library on the 17th floor, Bob turns and says, “Everybody knows me.”