creative writing 4/24

The south side of the Missoula County Courthouse is a regal piece of architecture. Three stories of sandstone blocks fronted with proud Roman-style columns and crowned with a dark bell tower. This neoclassical building, built in 1910, projects power. Looking at it you might expect the local judges to still be wearing powdered wigs and blush over thick white corpse paint while a bellman cries out, “Hear ye, hear ye.”

But, the north side of the building, not so much. This annex was added on in 1966 and looks like a Soviet-era East German factory. The sidewalks are in perpetual shade. At this entrance you see bureaucrats wearing power ties, sheriffs in black and yellow Kevlar, defendants in sweat pants and city employees in blue canvas and work boots coming in and out of court.

Just inside the north entrance is the Liquid Planet coffee shop and cafe. Liquid Planet’s catchphrase is “A journey in every sip.” It’s not meant to be ironic, but it’s more the kind of spot where you order a coffee and a sandwich on your journey to plead for leniency in front of Judge Holloway or to register a vehicle with the county clerk.

The food isn’t as bad as going before the judge for your third DUI or serving two nights in jail after an unpaid jaywalking ticket turns into a warrant and some asshole cop stops you for no reason whatsoever and runs your name and then acts as if he feels bad as he cuffs you and puts you in the car. But it isn’t great either.

There are yogurt parfaits, prepackaged salads, cold club sandwiches (The Montanan: beechwood smoked ham with roasted turkey, bacon, and cheddar), hot paninis, with clever, court-appropriate titles (The Judge, Plaintiff, Defendant) ,as well as some local pastries and snacks. The Defendant, a turkey, bacon, Swiss, panini with pesto aioli costs six bucks and fits in the palm of your hand. It’s prepared off site at the Liquid Planet Warehouse and delivered weekly to the shop. Once ordered, it is microwaved and grilled for just a moment and then served in aluminum foil or on a paper plate with a very thin dill pickle and potato chips. The hope is that you’ll either be too distracted with stress and hunger before court or too elated at finding yourself free to notice that the sandwich has little to no distinguishing flavors. It just tastes warm.

The bagels, also made at the warehouse, come in the usual variety of flavors (everything, poppy seed, etc.) and run you about a buck fifty plain and two bucks with cream cheese. Asked how the bagel tasted one court-goer said, “I didn’t even notice. I guess the Philadelphia cream cheese was good.”

While the food is underwhelming, the espresso is strong and locally roasted. You can get a Tsunami — a coffee with two shots of espresso — for under three bucks that will keep your heart pumping while you wait outside the county treasurer’s office or for your significant other to pay off their court fines. The baristas are nice and willing to listen. Asked about the clientele, one remarked that her customers are great.

“Everyone’s always relieved to get coffee from us. We’re kinda like their therapists. We hear everything that goes on in there,” she said, motioning toward the courtrooms. “We listen and get them their drinks and help them get on with their day.”