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I Was Scared Straight by Judge Judy’s Bailiff
In a former life, Mr. Byrd was my high school narc. This month, I flew to Los Angeles to thank him.
There was a moment, during my sophomore year of high school, when I grew up.
By my 15th birthday, I’d already dropped acid, been busted for shoplifting from JCPenney, and lost a friend to a heroin overdose — all while enrolled in one of the most prestigious public high schools in the country: Monta Vista High School in Cupertino, California. I was on a bad path and determined to stay there, and I had a nemesis who kept getting in the way. His name was Mr. Byrd.
Mr. Byrd arrived at Monta Vista High in 1993 by way of Brooklyn, tasked with keeping the kids who were on the margins of our nationally ranked school from falling off the page completely. Our town was a suburban idyll, its leafy streets lined with modest midcentury ranch homes. It was affluent even before the dotcom boom, but it was decaying from within, and you could see it in the student body. Friday nights were for house parties, where there was always someone in a back bedroom selling nitrous balloons for a buck from a tank they swiped from their dad’s dental practice. Senior year, a bunch of jocks got busted robbing a string of local banks, and just before Byrd was hired, one of the most popular girls at school was murdered by a jealous boyfriend on Super Bowl Sunday.
Mr. Byrd had his work cut out for him. We used to call him the “narc,” even though he was a grown man and nothing at all like Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street. A six-foot-four, honey-voiced black man in his thirties, Byrd was different from the other vice principals and school administrators, who were so hopelessly unhip that it seemed like they were born old. Byrd got it; he was someone a kid could confide in about that racist comment they heard on the bus or that hookup last weekend that maybe wasn’t quite so consensual. Despite his nickname, Byrd rarely narced us out or even punished us for our transgressions. His style, as I remember it, was softer. Often it was just a look that said, “I see you, and you’re making a bad choice.”
The Day When I Grew Up was Career Day 1994, which, naturally, I ditched. When I was two blocks away from school, Mr. Byrd’s broken-down Plymouth Volare station wagon pulled up beside me. What I did next still makes my cheeks go red: I took off running, like Harrison Ford in The Fugitive. I got away with it, but the next day at school, Byrd gave me The Look. He treated me like someone who oughta know better, and pretty soon I became someone who did. I quit smoking weed, studied harder, went to college. By the time my 20th high school reunion came around last year, I’d grown into a well-adjusted, sober, employed adult.
I felt compelled to go find Mr. Byrd and tell him about how he affected me and all those other punks whose lives he touched all those years ago.
I’ve been thinking about Mr. Byrd a lot lately. And not only because I’ve started smoking again. I’ve been wondering how my life might have turned out if he hadn’t been there, standing in just the right place at just the right time. This nostalgia usually strikes when I’m in, say, an airport or the waiting room at my doctor’s office, watching daytime TV. If that seems like an unusual time to think about my narc, it’s because Mr. Byrd is actually a very famous man these days. He’s Judith Sheindlin’s long-serving bailiff on Judge Judy.
I felt compelled to go find Mr. Byrd and tell him about how he affected me and all those other punks whose lives he touched all those years ago. To tell him I’ve been smoking, in the hopes that he’d give me that disapproving look like he used to and smack the cig out of my mouth. But mostly to find out what we meant to him, this man who meant so much to us. So I booked a flight to Los Angeles.
“Order. All rise.”
I recognize the voice right away. It’s the first day back on set after Judge Judy’s summer hiatus, and Petri Hawkins-Byrd, now 60, has spent the past several hours on his feet, filming 11 cases in a row while the judge delivers her raptor-like justice to a series of hapless small-claims litigants. Byrd says maybe 25 words per episode, but the show’s 10 million viewers live for his expertly timed cracks and banter with the judge. Their chemistry is a major part of the show’s appeal, despite the fact that Byrd spends the other 95 percent of his time scowling at the plaintiffs and defendants and looking down at his clipboard, surreptitiously doing a crossword. For this, Byrd says, he rakes in somewhere between $500,000 and $1 million per year.
When one of the litigants in a case involving a broken fish tank admits he doesn’t have a key piece of paperwork, Judy grimaces.
“What does that sound like to you, Byrd?” the judge asks.
“Sounds like he’s screwwwwwed,” Byrd replies. They’re like an old-fashioned comedy duo: She sets ’em up, he knocks ’em down. Sheindlin and Byrd’s rapport goes back to their pre-Hollywood days, when he was her actual bailiff in the family court system in New York. But for a few years between their real-life courtroom relationship and their made-for-TV one, Byrd’s circuitous career path crossed mine at Monta Vista High School. Sitting in his dressing room after shooting wraps, he tells me, “They used to call me the velvet hammer: so smooth, and then, all of a sudden: Bam!” Byrd says. “I’m from Brooklyn. We don’t take any shit.”
Byrd mentions his rough Brooklyn upbringing a lot, maybe to burnish his rep as the courtroom enforcer. He started smoking at 11, drinking at 12. But behind the tough-guy facade is a man who always dreamed of being in the arts. “I remember my father taking me to see the New York Philharmonic,” he says. “Mind you, my father was a drug dealer and an intravenous drug user, but he always had the presence of mind to think that you should aspire to better than your situation.”
Byrd’s mother was the practical one and probably the reason he pursued a degree in criminal justice, even though his true passion was for the stage. “In New York, I’d done stand-up comedy, I’d done off-Broadway — like so far off-Broadway you couldn’t see Broadway,” he says. We had no idea when we were kids, of course, but it went a long way in explaining his frequently deployed Kramer impression.
I brought up his nickname. “I wasn’t sure why they called me ‘the narc,’ because a narc is someone that gets you in trouble so you get arrested, and that wasn’t quite my job,” Byrd says. “My job was to figure out what was keeping you from realizing your maximum potential as a student, and I took it seriously.”
It’s the kind of thing that got my life back on track when I was a kid.
For all his Brooklyn worldliness, Byrd was still surprised by the trouble he found brewing in Cupertino. “I realized then that there’s more stuff going on in the suburbs than in the ghetto,” he says. “I didn’t find out about Ritalin and — what were they sniffing? antifreeze? — until I got out there. The inner city is nothing compared to the suburbs, because there’s denial, there’s entitlement, there’s privilege.”
What I didn’t know at the time was that Byrd was being paid around $25,000 a year to make a difference in our lives and delivering for Pizza Hut on the side to make ends meet during summer. He drove to work every day in that beat-up Volare, purchased at salvage for $650, passing by a student parking lot filled with BMWs — Sweet 16 gifts so new they still had dealer plates.
One day, Byrd took a rare coffee break. He picked up the newspaper and read in Liz Smith’s gossip column that his old pal and fellow Brooklynite Judge Sheindlin was getting her own TV show. He wrote her a letter to congratulate her on the new gig and jokingly asked if she needed a bailiff. Sheindlin called him back and said, “Well, actually…”
Byrd went down to L.A. to shoot the first few episodes of the show, even crashing with a former Monta Vista student. Byrd’s ad libs with the judge secured him the part. Asked now whether he considers himself to be an actor or a bailiff, Byrd doesn’t hesitate. “I’m an actor and have been since the first day I started,” he says. “I’m an actor who happened to get his role from having been a bailiff.”
Much like my Career Day bust was for me, that coffee break was Byrd’s sliding-doors moment—the one that would change his life forever. Today he enjoys a steady gig as “the richest bailiff in the world,” he says, and has a glamorous young fiancé and thousands of fans. “If I had really thought about it, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” Byrd says of deciding to join the show. “Imagine that you go from obscurity to you’re on TV every day, and people are looking at you, they know what kind of jewelry you wear, they know if you have a cold.”
But performing was always the dream, and Byrd knew his law enforcement days were long over. “I was not the law enforcement type,” he says. “I don’t have that doubt — that hard-edged, hard-boiled, skeptical sort of attitude towards people. I think that, at heart, people are fundamentally good, and they just find themselves in circumstances where sometimes they make poor choices.”
He continues, “Black or white, rich or poor, whatever the circumstances people find themselves in, everybody wants to feel loved, to feel secure, to feel valued, to feel like it’s a team. America in particular has to become a team player. If we marginalize people and don’t use their talents, if we don’t allow them to fulfill their sense of purpose in this world, then we all lose. So let’s stop being losers, and let’s be winners.” It’s just the kind of pep talk I was hoping for from Mr. Byrd. It’s the kind of thing that got my life back on track when I was a kid.
Honestly, I don’t think he remembered me; my little run-in on Career Day was nothing special for a guidance counselor charged with wrangling 2,000 kids. But I sure remembered him and the gift of knowing that I wasn’t invisible when I was fucking up. That’s all anyone really wants, isn’t it, to be seen?
Before I go, I reach into my pocket and pull out the lighter I’ve been using lately to light those Parliaments. I tell him I’ve been trying to quit, and it would help me if he could confiscate my lighter for me one last time. “I’m going to take this,” Mr. Byrd says, grinning. “And I want you to take it as a sign that you don’t have to smoke.” As I walk off the lot and into the L.A. sunshine, I get the sense that this time, it just might stick.