Life, Love and the Proverbs of Judge Judy

Illustration by Lior Zaltzman

When I was eight, my mother gave me a little yellow book of Jewish folk sayings: “If Grandma had Wheels.” A strange gift for a Black child, but that didn’t stop me from reading and reciting the wise and witty one-liners. I ate and slept with the tome. So at 35, I’m not surprised that I’m addicted to the Jewish queen of smart and biting remarks, Judge Judith Sheindlin.

A New York prosecutor and judge with over 20 years in the courtroom, she has dominated the Nielsen charts since her daily court show “Judge Judy” debuted in September 1996. The Emmy Award-winning show remains in the top ten today, famous for her ability to sift through litigants’ dirt and root out the truth, but not before silencing a babbling defendant with a stern, “Don’t tell me what the judge said. I just read what the judge said. Sit down,” or warning a plaintiff, “If you’re winning, keep your mouth shut.”

Judge Judy doesn’t just dole it out from the bench. She’s the producer of the new show “Hot Bench” and author of four bestsellers including “Don’t Pee on My Leg and Tell Me It’s Raining.”

This month she released a free e-book, “What Would Judy Say: Be the Hero of Your Own Story” is part-memoir, part self-help, featuring ten of Judge Judy’s original principals for success based on her life experiences. It’s not a guaranteed life changer, she writes in a short intro, but hopes readers “take away an idea, an incentive, a new way of looking at yourself and the people who surround you.”

After watching umpteen DVR’d hours of the show, I’d already begun to jot down many of Judge Judy’s takeaways, poignant commercial-worthy one liners that probably meant more to me than they did her litigants. I realize if I’d known them sooner, her wisdom would have saved me from many a kerfuffle. (In full disclosure, I learned the word kerfuffle like the four proverbs below, from watching Judge Judy.)

Proverb One: “Whenever you give money to a guy you get the short end of the stick.”

And I’ve got a bunch of short-end sticks in my back pocket. At 18 on a part-time salary of a full-time college student, I bought my first boyfriend a $300 Bulova watch, countless pairs of $60 FUBU jeans, $150 Timberland boots, and a $200 Palm Pilot. During one of many fights, he pawned the electronic organizer for fifty bucks and told me there was nothing wrong with the clothes he already had so I could have saved my money.

In 2003, I met a neighborhood bad boy who called me “Shorty.” Without the credit to purchase a car, he asked that I sign a rental agreement on his behalf. I obliged. When he complained about his prepaid cell service, I got an extra line on my account.

“Shaaawty, that’s why I like you,” he drawled. “You always got mah back.”

When we broke up, the only thing I had was a $1200 cell phone bill.

I hadn’t yet heard Judge Judy say, “Women do stupid things for stupid men.”

Proverb Two: “You can’t break the law and expect the law to come to your defense.”

In my late teens, I was pulled over by the police. A male crush and I were on our way back to Connecticut after a night of aimless driving in Manhattan. (We had no real business in New York but if you’re a teen with a car and a license, that’s business enough.) Somewhere on I-95, he lit a blunt. After a few rounds of puff-puff-pass, I saw an approaching state trooper’s vehicle and decided to change lanes to get out of his way. As soon as I made the move, he pulled me over.

“Who’s been smoking dope?” he yelled when I rolled down the window.

After an unsuccessful search of the car (my friend had swallowed the weed), he gave me a ticket for an unsafe lane change which I contested in court with my best defense: I had observed the other car. I put on my blinker. I had a 3.5 GPA. The prosecutor called me over and pointed to the cop’s scrawled notes: “Car smelled like marijuana.” I pleaded guilty.

Proverb Three: “If you didn’t eat the meal, you don’t have to pay for it. If you eat the meal, you have to pay for it.”

Once, I visited a Chinese restaurant with a friend. When the drinks arrived, she didn’t like her sake so I suggested that she return it and order something else.

“No, it’s alright,” she said taking another reluctant sip. “Chinese people don’t like that - when you send stuff back. They’re gonna get mad.”

“You’re the customer. If you don’t like you it, send it back,” I said. “This is America.” My Chinese Brooklyn-born friend knew very well this fact.

Undeterred, I called the server over and made our demand. She returned with a new better tasting drink, though not before stepping to the side to have an angry sounding conversation while pointing at us.

When the bill came my friend said, “Oh wow, they didn’t charge us for that other sake.”

“Damn right,” I said. “Damn right.”

Proverb Four: “Stand up at your own two feet and put your hands at your side.”

In 2004, I started dating a honey-caramel complexioned cartoonist. A few months later, high off of this-must-be-love, we moved in together. He was recovering from an abusive relationship; his ex-girlfriend had thrown fans at him, spat on him, dumped his clothes on the street, punched him, and bit him. Taught never to hit a woman, he simply held the five-foot furor down until her fits subsided. Her nonviolent attacks were mental. One day as we went through some of his old drawings, I unfolded a large sketch paper. The word “dummy” was scrawled in red lipstick across the unfinished superhero.

Trying to nurse him back to emotional health, I got him to see a counselor and our future began to look hopeful. He landed an opportunity to draw some sketches for a Marvel editor, but months went by and the only thing he did with any fervor was play Medal of Honor. All. Night. Long.

When Judge Judy tells a litigant to stand up and stop slouching, it’s not just because it looks better on TV. She’s really saying that we need to be engaged in our lives and assume a posture that’s ready to respond to anything. “I think you just need time to get yourself together. You need to get your own place, stand on your own two feet,” I said to him. “Then maybe we can date again.”

He did.

Four months later he was standing at his own two feet next to a new fiancée.

I’m not the only person who lives by Judge Judy’s morsels of truth. My friend owned a catering hall. A customer asked her to write in the contract that pitchers of water would be on the table. “Because,” the lady said, “Judge Judy says to always put everything in the contract.” And Judge Judy’s always right. Well except for that one time, she admits, in 1947. Today, Judge Judy has replaced my little yellow book, and I cling to her just as fiercely. Besides, everyone knows if grandma had wheels, she still wouldn’t be as fast as Judge Judy.

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