We could begin with Dickens, Charles, he of the high school reading list, and particularly, his novel, "Bleak House," and the legal case of Jarndyce and Jarndyce - a case that droned on for so long in chancery court that no one could remember what it was about. We shall begin instead with Stephen Janger of McLean, Va., who took the witness stand at superior Court in the District of Columbia ot discuss, among other things, his two great pyrenees dogs and how they relate to a landlord-tenant dispute that is now in its fourth year and may, like Jarndyce and Jarndyce, never end. But first Mr. Janger.
"Did you," the lawyer asked,"leave the premises in less than good condition?"
"We had dogs. Great pyrenees, and they weigh between 90 and 100 pounds. They were not quite full grown ...
They used to eat the mail everyday."
"Did they," asked the lawyer, "scratch the door?"
"I don't know. They would hang around the door waiting for the mail. They were very active dogs. One time they were on the third floor and came down three flights of stairs on the run and went right through a plate glass window. We were lucky. It was a miracle one of them was not decapitated.
"We put a dutch door in the recreation room so the dogs wouldn't feel closed in and we came back one day and the dogs weren't there, That was strange because we had left them in the room. What they did was eat through the walls. They d had a ring of white plaster around their necks."
This goes on. No one laughs. The humor has gone out of the case a long time ago. We are in Courtroom 14 of the new Superior Courthouse - a palace the taxpayers have built for the greater glory of the legal profession. The courtroom is all wood and recessed lighting and looks like a Scandinavian furniture shop. The unsmiling judge is Samuel Block. The trail is now in its second day. When it ends, Block will have 26 pages of notes. Forty exhibits will have been tagged, examined and passed from lawyer to lawyer. There is a bailiff and a stenographer and, yes, the principals in the case. Let me introduce them.
The first is Betty Daughtridge. She is the landlady, the owner of a town house at 625 G St. NW. She is sometimes the defendant, sometimes the plaintiff. At the moment, she is the plaintiff. She is a blonde woman, a schoolteacher who wears her glasses on beaded strings and speaks with wonderful diction. When I met them, they were the plaintiffs.
Let me introduce myself. I am Richard Cohen. I am now a columnist, but once I was a reporter and in the course of my reportorial duties, I wrote a two-part series on rent control. That's when I first encountered this case. That was 1975, and the clipping from the newspaper has started to turn yellow with age . I, myself, have more gray hair. The women no longer live together, and their lawywe, David Beckwith, a journalist cum member of the D.C. Bar, has gone from Time magazine to the Legal Times of Washington. The case, though, drones on.
It is a complicated case. Never mind the details. It began as a simple rent control matter, a matter of raising the rent, and it became, in due course, an eviction hearing, and now four years later, it is a suit and countersuit in which much is alleged - damages and harassment and mental anguish. There are legal rights involved, everyone says, and a question of justice, of that certainly, but there is the smell of your basic landlord-tenant swingout about the case and it is a smell I know well.
I have been there myself - I, the master of the poison pen letter to landlord, the practitioner of the I'll - see-you-in-court-telephone call, the man who can stare at some chipped painy until it looks like a certifiable health violation. I know this smell.
Anyway, I have come here because I think the case makes a point about rent control. It really doesn't. I stay because I am there already and because Janger and his dogs keep me enthralled. When he is finished, the lawyers go into their final arguments and the judge says he will take matters under advertisement. He is a fair man, this judge, and there is no telling from what he says from the bench which way he will rule. He is also a judge with a sense of his place in history. He keeps mentioning how long this case has been going on.
Later, everyone goes out into the hall to talk and one of the lawyers again mentions Dickens and Jarndyce and Jarndyce. I read "Bleak House" once in high school - read about the legal case that lived longer than its principles, that was so complex no one could understand it, that consumed the estate of Jarndyce himself, that went on for so long that "fair wards of the court have faded into mothers and grandmothers . . ." I read it as a kid. What did I know.
I thought it was fiction.