Sunday, February 27, 2011

Question on Oscar Day

What was is the best L.A. movie? (I've asked this question in blog form in the past, but got little response.)

For me, I'd say L.A. Story. All the embarrassing things Steve Martin had to say about L.A. were essentially true.

Also, the L.A. sequence in Annie Hall.

And your favorite? I wanna know.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

100th Birthday -- and no cake?

Today, Van Nuys, the unincorporated center of the mostly unincorporated San Fernando Valley, turns 100. Like most 100-year-olds, it looks a little worse for wear.

I wish I could say that I was anticipating this day, but I didn't even realize today was the day until I chanced across this story yesterday:

(Note that the Daily News has it under "Breaking News.")

My opinion: The town's biggest improvement, if the article is correct, is that Van Nuys is no longer a dry town. Could you imagine?

This Saturday, there is apparently a celebration of sorts at the Orange Line stop in Van Nuys, which is just about in the heart of what we called BVN as kids, or Barrio Van Nuys. It says a lot about a neighborhood when its blight is somewhat ameliorated by the presence of government buildings and car dealerships.

In fact, a little research has revealed that the party began six months ago, or was at least scheduled to start then:

For those of you who don't read the press releases, I'm from Van Nuys. Born, raised, and latchkeyed. So this whole 100th birthday should mean something to me. I'm having a spot of trouble finding the excitement. I think that's indicative of one of the facets of L.A.: There definitely is a sense of community among Angelenos, but it takes more work to realize it than it does in other parts of the country.

Or maybe I just don't care about my hometown that much. I mean, I can go home again. Hell, it's only about 10 minutes from my apartment. I suppose the urge to go home has never materialized because I've kind of never left. Also, Van Nuys is still in its economic downstroke; the redevelopment hawks haven't swooped in yet. It won't be cool to visit Van Nuys again for about another decade, I'd guess.

I also can't go home again because it's not home. And I don't mean because my mother moved out of town. I mean because communities, in L.A., anyway, have a temporary quality to them. If the people cycle through Los Angeles as often as it seems, is it any wonder communities here don't feel the same as they did even five years earlier?

Makes me wonder what the next generation is going to think when Van Nuys celebrates its 125th anniversary. "Doesn't feel like home to me -- ever since the guppies (green yuppies) came in and turned the fast-food joints into lofts. The economy turned around, and all those quaint check-cashing legalized-loansharking places went out of business. Hell, the billboards aren't even in Spanish anymore."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Jury Duty coda

Another aspect of the courts that works. This came in the mail about a week later.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Jury Duty, part three

(If you missed part one and part two, click the links.)

I was actually looking forward to the second day of the trial, namely because I wanted to visit Disney Hall's "hidden park" at lunch. But before I could, I had to endure another morning of Mr. Hart eliciting inane testimony like an armless man steering a laden tugboat.

The plaintiff's absent witness from yesterday showed up for day two of the fun. It was her chiropractor, another Korean woman who was good at offering evasive, meandering answers. It took over an hour for Mr. Hart to get her to tell us that in her medical opinion, the plaintiff was in 7,000 different kinds of pain when she moved her arm, but thanks to her expert application of the chiropractic sciences, the woman was much better now.

A word about the defense counsel. This guy, I liked. He clearly had his shit together: kept his interrogations quick, made his points, never stuck for a question or an answer. And maybe this is all part of Litigation 101, but he kept making faces and inflections that clarified his positions. His unsubtle interrogation of the chiropractor, for instance, implied that since she provided services on a lien basis (i.e., the plaintiff hadn't paid a cent for any of her fifty-one visits), she'd padded the bill so as to collect a fatter cut of the inevitable judgment. "Twenty dollars for applying an ice pack?" followed by a look at the jury with his Whoopi Goldberg face: eyebrows raised, noticeable frown, chin dropped in disapproval. It made me want to be a lawyer. A little. Barely. For a nanosecond.

After a brief confab with the judge, Mr. Hart borrowed a witness from the defense. The witness was the defense: the restaurant manager, a nice Korean man who, after about an hour of testimony, barely told us a goddamn thing that we didn't already know.

At about 11:00 a.m., we were asked to excuse ourselves into the jury room again. By now, some of us, chiefly me, were having a hard time hiding our boredom with the whole thing. Since we weren't allowed to talk about the case, and since we'd already exchanged notes about the morning commute, we were stuck for topics. This may have been the time (we were sent into our chamber so many times that they've since blurred together) when I talked to a juror from Winnipeg. She said it gets so cold there that people have to use block heaters, these special appliances designed to keep car engine blocks warm enough so cars can be started the next morning. Or maybe so engine blocks don't contract to the point of cracking. Either way, it was like real-life science fiction to a boy from Los Angeles.

We moped back in a few minutes later, whereupon the judge began to explain to us a court procedure called a "directed verdict."

I knew what that meant.

As soon as I heard the words, I restrained myself from doing a little fist pump.

A directed verdict is something the judge issues instead of letting a jury decide a case, essentially because the case is so one-sided that no jury with its head out of its own ass could possibly see things any other way. It's like the ten-run rule in little league, where one team is slaughtering the other one so badly that the ump calls it. In this case, the defense was winning by a score of about 29 to zero, because the plaintiff had proven essentially nothing -- at least, nothing the defendant could be held liable for. Judgment for the defendant. The end.

We were thanked for our service and we left. I was so grateful for the no-nonsense way the judge had conducted the whole trial that I decided to send him a thank-you card as soon as I got home. (And I'm gonna. Soon.)

In the jury room as we gathered our things, I forgot to conduct a mini-survey about how we would have ruled if given the chance. But based on the chatter, we did not appear to have our heads up our asses.

In the hallway, Mr. Hart and the defense attorney stood there to soak up whatever feedback they could get from us. I didn't hear much of it because I was too intent on getting some satisfaction out of this whole farce. I'd been harboring the determination to let Mr. Hart know to his face what a clown I thought he was and how this cost me wages and was a waste of taxpayers' dollars and maybe even that he should take up a new line of work.

But I had only remnants of my original outrage. All I said to him was, "No one's happy this woman's injured. But she didn't look where she was going, period. It's a simple case of common sense. I'm sorry, but you had nothing." He stood there, taking it all graciously enough. Even his client stood there with a polite grin on her face. I don't think she knew she'd just lost. Mr. Hart was so nice about it all that I'm not sure he knew he'd just lost. 

In an instant, I no longer cared about exploring downtown. I didn't even care enough to ask if the plaintiff was going to be liable for the defendant's legal bills. I wanted to get back to my life. I stomped out of the building and down the block for the nearest subway car, which I ended up sharing with three other jurors. We exchanged variations on our amazement that Mr. Hart and his client somehow thought they had a chance. One noticed, sadly, that not only had Mr. Hart worn the same suit every day, but his coat was fraying. The conversation made me not want to be a lawyer anymore, not even a little, barely, for a nanosecond.

We seemed to run out of trial crap to talk about just as we were hitting our subway stops. We finally introduced ourselves -- and said our goodbyes.

Friday, February 18, 2011

I Wasn't Even Wearing Axe

Jamal: Women will sleep with you if you write a book?
Forrester: Women will sleep with you if you write a bad book.
--Finding Forrester
World traveler, all-around fabulous babe, and mayor of parties' asses, Janice MacLeod has mastered this whole writing thing.

She's written TWO books -- and hers have actually sold a bunch of copies. She's been blogging a helluva lot longer than I have and is better at it than I am. And as for a career as a writer, she's conquered that and recently walked away from it, in search of bigger challenges. (I find that incredibly admirable. My writing career, at present, couldn't afford me a middle-class lifestyle any place nicer than Burundi.)

I don't want to risk babbling, so let me end by saying that yesterday, she honored the shit out of me with this:

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day in Los Angeles

I've decided that if I were mayor or Eli Broad or whoever is in charge of Los Angeles, I would make Valentine's Day illegal within city limits.

Nevermind its obligatory aspects; those are universally regarded as repellant. I'd outlaw it because this town is already filled with alienated, lonely singles who are too proud to ask for company today and too mentally ill to ask for help. The last thing they need are public reminders of all the happiness they think they're missing out on today and strongly suspect they won't have tomorrow.

As an alternative, I'd devote 24 hours of public access cable to true-life video clips of couples who are miserable: public fights, recycled news items of celebrity divorces, reruns of Cheaters, all the evidence I can come up with that the grass is sometimes browner on the other side of the fence.

If anyone wanted to celebrate Valentine's Day, they'd have to do it privately, in a certain room, like that one room at parties where people smoke pot.

I'm not saying this out of bitterness. It didn't even occur to me until I checked my facebook page this morning that today is VD. (All these years later, I still take juvenile delight in its initials.) I'm saying this because the isolated misfits of this town need all the help they can get.

I'm also saying this because I'm no longer an isolated misfit. Yes, I'm single, but I'm rather proud of the fact that I'm pretty damn immune from lapsing into the dark side every time there's an invitation.

It'd be easy for me to tell miserable lonelyhearts some witticism like, "The greener the grass, the more fertilizer it's marinating in." But that's bitterness in disguise. Happiness is a state of mind -- whether you're in a relationship or not, whether it's February 14 or not, whether your dreams have come true here or not. For you see, Los Angeles, like money, does not make people happier. Our weather simply makes life easier.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Jury Duty, part two

Mister Hart, here is a dime. Take it, call your mother, and tell her there is serious doubt about you ever becoming a lawyer.

The above line was spoken by John Houseman, playing a law professor in The Paper Chase. He was addressing a student. I think that student was the plaintiff's attorney in the case I was on.

By late afternoon on the jury selection day, the defense attorney was done questioning prospective jurors because he was satisfied with the jury. Mr. Hart was done because he had run out of turns to cast off prospective jurors. The 14 of us were told to show up at 8:45 the next morning. All I could think about was how this goddamn thing better be worth it because every day I was stuck here would cost me a day's pay, save for the daily $15 the city so magnanimously offers jurors.

The next morning, we were treated to the story of the case: A woman tripped in a restaurant in Koreatown and was suing the restaurant owner for medical bills, pain, suffering, misery, anguish, humiliation, croup, colic, bad hair days, a burning sensation during urination, the war in Iraq, and anything else she and her ambulance chaser could think of. She claimed it was due to unsafe conditions in the restaurant. We all knew it wasn't. We all knew it wasn't because there was surveillance video of the event, which they played in court. It showed that a corner of a rubber mat accidentally got turned over, she didn't look where she was going, she stuck her foot under it, and took a header onto a wooden chair. While we felt bad for the woman, we would have felt worse if her own adult daughter hadn't been the one who accidentally flipped the mat over just a few seconds earlier.

We also would have felt worse for the woman if she weren't such a pain in the ass. Right after the opening statements, she took the stand, and her lawyer asked her how she was doing. She pointed to the defense attorney and said, "I'm still shaking over those rotten things he just said about me." She admitted she'd been to the restaurant about 50 times in the past, but on the night in question, it was the first time she'd sat at that particular table, as if that made a difference. When the video was played in court for all of us to see, she said that the fact that the mat wasn't perfectly aligned like the others contributed to her fall, clumsily tacking on that bit of keen analysis as if it had just occurred to her. Her version also included spilled liquid on the floor and maybe poor lighting conditions. But it had nothing to do with her not looking where the hell she was going.

Mr. Hart wasted a hell of a lot of time asking about all the pain she was in. This was compounded by the fact that she was Korean and needed an interpreter, making every question and answer take twice as long. They took even longer because she wouldn't answer questions directly, which the judge had no way of realizing because her ramblings were in Korean. (The judge did cut her ramblings off more promptly, however, when she'd been asked a yes-or-no question.) They took even longer still because her lawyer didn't know how to phrase a question. The defense attorney objected literally every other time Mr. Hart tried to formulate a question: "calls for speculation," "hearsay," "hypothetical," and so on. The judge sustained almost all of the objections. Then Mr. Hart would rephrase and make the same mistake. Objection. Sustained. Sometimes, it'd take him three or four tries to get a question right.

Mr. Hart didn't even know when he could object. At one point, after the defense attorney asked a witness an objectionable question, there was a pause, and the judge looked at Mr. Hart and asked, "You gonna let that go?"

Sometime after lunch, the plaintiff's daughter took the stand. All she succeeded in doing was admitting to the defense attorney that her mother could have looked where she was going.

At about 3:00, Mr. Hart's last witness wasn't available, so in the interest of time, all parties agreed to let the defense begin its case. He called a rep from the company that rented the rubber mats to the restaurant owner. "Yes." "No." "Yes." "No." The best witness I've ever seen in my life. He was in and out in 15 minutes, cross-examination and everything. I speak for the entire jury when I say that we wanted to run up and kiss the guy.


Our city's downtown is textured and layered and rich, and I talk about exploring it like most people talk about exercise: We don't do it enough. Being forced to show up downtown indefinitely under threat of arrest by the sheriff's department, I figured I'd make the best of it. During lunch, I used my free court-issued-in-lieu-of-mileage-allowance rail pass to go one stop northeast to Union Station, whose architecture rivals that of any in the country. It's the 1930s all over again in there. The chairs are these capacious, wood-and-leather affairs, reeking of old money's den. The interior design remains uncorrupted except for a few modern food stands and rail timetables. It's the kind of place that you'd want to arrive in when arriving in Los Angeles for the first time. In fact, if you've never been to L.A. before, might I recommend flying to Ontario or San Diego, then taking the train the rest of the way. Union Station makes our international airport seem like Ellis Island, minus the hope.

I wandered two blocks up Alameda Street to Philippe, the Original French Dip sandwich place, which has been in business since 1908, which is the Pleistocene as far as Angelenos are concerned. The portions aren't as I remember them, and the prices aren't what they used to be, except for coffee, which has been nine cents a cup since 1977. (Decaf is 60 cents. Go figure.) Even though I was only making $15 a day, I splurged on a seven-dollar lunch: beef sandwich with sweet dill pickle and pickled egg. Then I scarfed it on one of the benches in one of the doorless chambers upstairs, walls and flooring reminiscent of a school cafeteria. Couldn't eat here every day, but I'd take it over a chain restaurant any day.

The walk between Union Station and Philippe is not a throwback to anything. It is hot and dirty, clogged with cars, victims of signals that are impossible to synchronize in these parts. A DASH bus stopped by. I considered improvising my way back to the courthouse by jumping on the bus and figuring out where to get off later. But a flock of tourists jumped on and filled it. I took the train back and arrived outside the locked courtroom door with half an hour to spare, the afternoon of aforementioned thrills still to come.

The halls of superior court are clean but undecorated since at least the 1960s, an interactive museum of hard-boiled civics. The benches are hard, featureless, simple things. Half the drinking fountains don't work. Still mid-lunch, few people were walking around. It took me a while to realize what I found so strange about it all: It's the first place I've been in a long time where I've had to wait that didn't have a television. Maybe it's an elementary observation, but the exclusion of TV and all other things unrelated to the business of justice gave me a sense of peace. All trial business happened behind thick doors, never in the hallways, and any potential tension my role entailed hadn't manifested. This made the antiseptic hallways of superior court relaxing -- and comforting, knowing that my city's court was uncorrupted, at least outwardly, by commerce and its related postmodern crassness. For all its distasteful elements, court appears to be working.

My thoughts were not placed, however, on how swiftly justice's engine could turn.

Next: the verdict.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Jury Duty, part one

(My first instinct was to make a play on the word "duty" with "doodie," even though actual poo is no part of this story. Just so you know what kind of writer you're investing your time with here.)

The groans of anguish that are emitted when one gets a jury duty summons aren't unique to L.A. Although, I remember reading an article years ago that in-the-know celebrities could call a certain number and weasel out of service. I believe that practice has been eliminated. A crude google sweep shows a few who've had to serve recently.

I had to show in October, but when the jury pool clerk offered forms for people to delay service, I filled one out and gave a flimsy reason just to see if they'd let me out. Sure enough, they did. Perhaps I was hoping that they'd forget to summon me again. But if A-list celebrities can't evade service, marginally successful authors sure as hell can't. I don't know what I was thinking, actually.

Which brings us to last week. After receiving my summons two weeks earlier, I was instructed by a very nice phone prompt to appear at the superior court in downtown L.A. Tuesday morning for possible jury selection. Naturally, I took our subway down there. Traffic to downtown eats ass in the morning, but for $1.50 you can get a ride there in about half an hour and arrive at a station that's about a one-minute walk from court. I hear it cost $300 million per mile to build the subway. If you ask me, it was a goddamn bargain. The 101 freeway between Hollywood and downtown should be shot.

When you arrive at the superior court,  you have to go through a metal detector. And this is civil court, not criminal. Then you go up an escalator and walk about four miles to the jury pool room, where a woman explains the ins and outs of what you are doing there today. I've decided that unloading the same speech every morning to a room full of strangers who don't want to be there is probably worse than any job I've ever had and I wouldn't want it, even with government benefits.

Part of her spiel goes on about how all citizens have a duty to do this, regardless of status. Why, a sitting judge showed up in jury duty just last week, she explained. And on the wall are a grand total of four pictures of celebrities who've served: Harrison Ford, Camryn Manheim, Weird Al Yankovic, and someone else I don't remember. I'm thinking the fourth pic may have been of our mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, but I may be confused on that count because I was still kind of tired -- and we always see him all the damn time anyway. Angelenos see Antonio Villaraigosa's maniacally happy grin more than Orville Redenbacher, Paul Newman, and the Quaker Oats guy combined.

After a couple of hours, about 30 names were called for the first group to go to a courtroom for possible jury selection. I was one of the 30. We headed up to the fifth floor and were treated to several hours of lawyers asking us questions about frivolous lawsuits, looking where you're going, and rugs with corners that get turned up. But the lawyers were not allowed to mention particulars of the case. Gee, I wondered, what ever in the world could THIS case be about?

The judge admonished potential jurors for trying to get out of service merely by saying they couldn't be impartial if they didn't mean it, and I'm the kind of person who's easily cowed by such things. So when my turn came, I answered some of the earlier questions the lawyers had with as much brutal, one-sided honesty I could engineer: I think we have too many frivolous lawsuits, I think we're a nation full of finger-pointers, I'm a big believer in personal accountability, I look where I'm going, and I have a rug in my bathroom so I don't slip when I step out of the shower. Naturally, the defendant's attorney had no objection to me being on the jury. I figured the plaintiff's attorney would bounce me off if (a) he weren't an idiot, and (b) all the other jurors weren't declaring the same things. I lost on both counts. I was on the jury.