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Thursday, September 29, 2005

Just another day of problem solving

First Problem:
The bailiff’s name is Estevez, says everything as if it’s a joke set-up. “Mort, the judge wants to see you guys in chambers.” “About instructions?” “No, something else.” “What’s up?” “A juror overheard something in the hall.”

Groans all around. BC mumbles, “We were doing too well, something had to happen.”

I’ve got a bond with the judge. He was a DA I opposed in a murder case years ago. I won, now he’s not happy again. We’re almost done with this misdemeanor trial and this comes up. Some cases just have a cloud over them.

He brings the juror in. She is #1, the plus size gal in the back row. My post-it reads: “Ms. S---, Encino, works at home, husband a ‘director,’ two children, no prior jury service.”

She was in the hall after the noon hour. My client was standing nearby with a man. She heard him say, ‘So I just say I don’t know her.’ “I didn’t think too much about it but then I saw him testify and when he was asked if he knew the other defendant, he said ‘I don’t know her.’ And so ...”

So she inferred that he’d been told to lie about it. She insists she didn’t tell any of the other jurors. The judge smiles weakly and asks her to wait outside.

The witness was my client’s husband. I had put him on to corroborate a small part of her defense. He’d been nervous but okay for a defense witness. The few relevant points had been made. The jury might disbelieve him because he loves the defendant, but then again they might not.

Whether he knew the other girl charged was not really that material. Just a minor point. Why’d they have to lie about it? Borenstein’s Law is the only answer. No matter how well you do, the client will find a way to screw it up.

The judge looks to the prosecutor. He’s a City Attorney, looks about my son’s age. He wants to win. He wasn’t, now he’s perky. “Well, I think this juror is now a witness. Replace her with the alternate and I’ll call her in rebuttal.”

The judge’s look is priceless. I’m in stitches. I can see the juror taking the stand before her former fellow jurors. A new “I-thought-I’ve-seen-it-all-in-thirty-four years” story.

The judge speaks with temperate understatement for the record. “I think that would be inappropriate, counsel.”

The City Attorney is flustered, wants to ask his boss what to do. Can’t piss without approval.

Judge to me: “Mort, it’s your call. I’ll declare a mistrial, but if they want to re-try and they call the former juror as a witness, you’re cooked. If she pleads now, I won’t hurt her, but if she goes down, I’ll have to punish for the apparent perjury.”

We chew over my ethics. Won't put on knowingly false testimony, but it isn’t perjury if it isn’t “material.” Maybe they can explain it, maybe not. But it would hurt bad either way.

We go round and round, eventually the client takes the deal, gets a fine, 10 days CALTRANS, probation. Risks immigration consequences. But her marriage survives. She apologizes to me in bad English: "Sorry, you gave me good chance, but I lost it."

I walk out feeling empty.

Next Problem:
“Plead it or try it, Counsel. Simple as that.” The DA’s made a “final” offer. Strike a Strike, plead to one count. The judge is like the closer in the car dealership. “It’s a good deal, counsel. Gotta decide now, before I call in a panel. And, if you lose ...” He shrugs volumes, or at least years.

Real simple? Not really. Fine choice: pleading guilty is a rock that sticks in the throat ... or go to trial and end up in a hard place. My guy asks for advice. “What are my chances in trial?”

Also not simple. I launch into speech 14.2.1. “You could win or you could lose, you know? It’s a crap shoot. Twelve strangers make the call. Do they understand life on the street? You tell me. It’s the cop’s word against yours.”

“But what do you think? Can you beat it?”

I’m fighting the Cochran Effect. “Look, I’m good. I think I’m good, but I can’t do miracles. You could walk, and you could go down. I’ve seen it go both ways.”

He examines my eyes for sainthood or at least genius. “I don’t know, man. I can’t do life.”

My head remembers grandpa’s old gag: “But judge, I’m 60 years old, I can’t do 20 years.” Judge: “It’s okay. Do as many as you can.” I say, “It’s got to be your call. I’m not doing the time. If I lose, I go home. You don’t.”

We go around like this. At one point, he might ask, “What would you do?”

What a stupid question. Makes me feel nasty, superior. I indulge myself, say, “I take the deal if I’m guilty. But if I’m not, I fight it.” I watch his face, then add the tester. “Even if I did life, I’d know I went down fighting.” Cheap trick. He nods, but avoids my eyes. It was a low blow right in the gonads. Couldn’t help myself.

I still don’t expect him to make the “right” call. He wouldn’t be my client if he did that. But I won’t make the decision for him. I could do it, though, either way. I could tip him over into a plea or a trial with a few words. Some do, think it’s their province. Some for selfish reasons, ego, don’t care much if they lose. Others fear trial. I’ve tried it both ways – took too much out of me. What is the “right call” anyway?

If you force it, where’s the satisfaction? Either way you’ll be blamed. Not the system, not the facts, not the cops or DA or judge. You failed him. Gives him something to share with his cellies over the years, that’s nice for him.

There’s hundreds of decisions. I’ll make mine, you make yours. We’ll each live with the consequences. Yours may be an 8' by 8' consequence. My hell may be smaller. Inside my head festering with all the other regrets.

Last Problem:
More than once she asked, “Why don’t you tell me about your day?” She talked plenty about her problems, subtle choices, social politics, little dilemmas. But not problems for me to solve. I learned that lesson long ago. The mantra echoes: “Don’t solve it, just listen to me, okay?”

So all day long I’m in the problem solving business, but when I come home, I drop it.

“My day? Baby, don’t ask.” But she does ask. The trouble is, I don’t want to re-live the day. Left it on the freeway, near Pico, and now there’s the cats and a warm bed, music, maybe even sex if I can stay awake.

There have been times when I took it home, still seething, or bursting to share a laugh. But how to get her to get it? “... This DA, well you gotta know this guy, he argues this motion to the judge? Well, she’s weird, too, you know? She tried the Whatsis case with Adelson when that thing happened? Anyway, she’d denied the 995 motion and now the DA wants her to grant the 1538.5. I didn’t really expect any crumbs, but was setting it up for a 402.”

“Uh, yeah?”
“Don’t you see the irony? It’s hysterical.”
“It is?”
“All the guys in the office thought so.”
“Okay. What’s a 995, again?”

It’s really quite hopeless. Usually, I tried to hide the horrors from her. I’d come in, frayed at the edges but tightly wired at the heart, efforting loudly to divert, to conceal, nimble in the dodge.

Over time, I realized that she didn’t ever have to ask. She figured me out anyway. How? I have a theory, but it is sort of sexist, though I mean to say Iwas in awe. She had a vocabulary of emotions that made the OED seem like a comic book. She understood how everything related to feelings. How you walked, dressed, spoke, combed your hair, drove, held your fork, made love. Every word, phrase, tone, tic, scratch went into her data bank.

And in the end, she knew. It might take time, she might reach some premature conclusions. Might even force you to admit it before she could articulate it. But she would get there, and take you with her.

You couldn’t hide anything from her.

Her friends knew it before I did. They used her like a witch. They’d call, talk for hours, and they’d feel better. She collected dysfunctional pals the way some girls collect dolls.

When she got really sick, they’d call her - ostensibly to make her feel better - and end up talking about themselves so she could comfort them. Right up to the end.

I never solved her problems either.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Journal / Greece: 20 Oct. to 30 Oct. 1974

20 October Sunday Athens to Aegina
Today we began what was supposed to be a three day weekend trip a day late. Jon had business to attend to on Saturday, so we had to wait and shorten our sights a bit. Last night was the usual late one and we got our usual late start with a big “brunch” of pancakes at Dorothea’s. We arrived at the Piraeus pier at 4 o'clock and waited for the ferry.

We were almost alone on the ferry. Jon’s VW bus was the only vehicle on board. Aegina is one hour or so from Piraeus, thus a busy weekend spot for Athenian tourists. The sky was moody and the air cool without the hidden sun. We strolled along the thoroughfare lined with cafés, restaurants and souvenir shops facing a small marina. We ate some octopus and shrimp with ouzo and found a small hotel for Bijou and myself.

After a walk up winding streets, ogling the old white washed houses with their fascinating styles of shutters and eaves and clean lines, we drove out of the town and found a small taverna open. We had dinner and a couple of liters of retsina and were in a talkative mood. Dorothea warmed up considerably and we ended the evening giggling and joking while talking to one of the owners – feeling far superior to mere tourists.

21 October Monday Aegina
Our hotel (where the woman spoke good English after 10 years in Australia) was on a back street but our rooms on the third floor had a lovely view of the marina and the large church across the street with a quaint steeple with a very loud bell that gonged every half hour. We were awakened by the sound of hammering above our heads at 8 a.m.

Finally we went exploring the island – up a hill to a small church and a view of Athens – even to seeing the Acropolis in the distance and the sea (where the Athenians defeated the Persian fleet ... before we arrived) – then to the ruins of the local temple. We all got along well and had a splendid day.

Back in the town, the wind had whipped up tremendously and the little sailboats and even larger ones were bobbing at their moorings, halyards clanking against swaying masts. We discovered that no car ferry could cross in these heavy seas, so Jon & Dorothea & Meg took the people ferry back. Bijou and I bought food and parked the bus in the most sheltered spot we could find, ate, played scrabble by the light of the lamp post and snuggled to bed by 8 p.m. The wind whipped trees and whistled and rocked the bus, we made love to the rhythm, slept in our arms like infants.

22 October Tuesday Aegina to Athens
We awoke at 8, to find a line of trucks waiting for the ferry. It came on time and we were the last on – after the ride back – the first off. We made our way from Piraeus to Athens and crawled in the traffic making our way back by our simple (printed) map, unreadable street signs and looking at the Acropolis as a landmark (the Parthenon faces exactly East / West).

Somehow we made it back to Jon's flat in Aghia Paraskevi, bought some food and ate it, and spent the rest of the afternoon washing clothes and listening to the wind as it blew our clothes off the roof top wash line.

Jon & Dorothea finally arrived and we went out to yet another new taverna, the Rocky Mountain Oyster Taverna. The Americans living here have not mastered Greek names, so streets and restaurants are known by their characteristics: The Flukes Taverna on Aegina is decorated by fish fins; Pepsi Road is a main drag which has a Pepsi billboard. Democritus Road I did not catch why. As Dorothea said, it is somewhat shameful they have not bothered to learn the language, living in Greece for two years and not learning more than a few phrases; all the Americans here denigrate the locals for their laziness, the silly bureaucratic regulations, their “un-American-ness.”

23 October Wednesday Athens to Korinth to Mikini to Napflion
Freedom at last. We picked up our rental car last night, a Bug, and after a false start and detour to obtain our (forged) student cards we were on our way. We made it through Athens along the coast of the Aegean on the other side of Piraeus, ugly with oil refineries and junk yards and beautiful with glistening blue water and winding road through olive orchards. We wound through small towns and over the Korinth Canal – just a very deep ditch – and into ancient Korinth with its lively ruins of the ancient city.

After moaning over the high prices of a few tourist shops, we drove again, through green country to Mikini (Mycenae) and up to magnificent, darkly primitive ruins of the Mycenaean civilization that flourished 800 years before the Parthenon was built. The entire Argolis valley lay below. We continued on to Napflion and ended at a youth hostel which is new, modern, with fine facilities --- and empty. As is the town – more so because there is a football (soccer, of course) game which many locals watch in the tavernas around the town. Summertime the place swings, I’m sure, but now it is like a ghost town, eerily still.

Seems like throughout our trip we either hit big crowds or empty towns. Somewhere there must be a happy medium.

24 October Thursday Napflion to Epidavrus to Napflion to Tiryns to Argos to Olymbia
It has been a perfect day, filled with wondrous surprises. First, we went to the theater of Epidavrus and picnicked in its stadium. We then visited ancient ruins at Tiryns, as old as the Mycenaean, marveling again at what they had accomplished. On to Argos, still more amazing ruins – Roman on top of Greek and a theater even bigger than the first one. From Argos it was a long upward climb through the Arcadian mountains with the fertile green farmland below. Finally a brief stop in Tripolis and then a tortuous, but breathtakingly beautiful three hour drive to Olymbia.

The images came fast and dazzling: sun over pine mountains, terraced farms on the mountainside, deep gorges between mountain ridges, all green and autumn orange and yellow. Villages set in steep slopes, its people apparently mountain goat nimble. White washed houses with red tile roofs, churches, bridges, a herdsman, or boy or woman with sheep or goats, horses, mules, donkeys, dogs all rushing or sauntering alongside the road, chickens trying to get to the other side; the sun behind the mountains, the sky darkening blue, the mountains green becoming gray, a river in dusky outline. The road then black and winding, through one-road towns and finally to Olympia, where it was said man’s form was the most perfect and beautiful.

Bijou caught a snapshot of my perfect form as I entered the arena, waving to the adoring crowds, and took my mark on the track and ran The Olympic Track. I won, of course.

25 October Friday Olympia to Patras to Arta & 26 October Saturday Arta to Ionnanina to Metsovon
... A land of contrasts ... picturesque ... breathtaking ... verdant ... West meets East... Travel brochure lingo with which we have been drenched. Clichés to be sure but so often accurate. The superlatives seem to be true and as we bend away from the latest mountain zig, leaving us only able to gush “beautiful ... incredible ... fantastic...” Bijou scarily terrified at my constant “Look at that” while I steer past the incredible, fantastic and beautiful scenery, the verdant mountain slope with the picturesque quaint village houses clinging at breathless angles above the ... verdant farmland ... etc. as our rented VW Bug ticks around the next zag ...

As for the land of contrasts, how about this: as I am writing this we are in Metsovon, a picturesque town (of course—there aren’t any other kind in this travel land) 5000 feet up in the Pindus Mountains in Central Greece. The wind whips around the side of the mountain on which slope our room in a private house clings at a breathtaking angle and we can’t wear enough layers of clothing to keep warm—we have some sweaters and light coats and wear all of them and are still cold. Two days ago we sweated our way across the archeological ruins of the sun drenched Peloponnese.

On Friday we left Olympia and drove to Patras, then cross on the ferry to Arta, stopping only for food, gas and a misadventure over textiles in a small swampy coast town, Etolikan. Arta was up in the hills, reached by coursing more scenic, if not breathtaking (as was the road to Olympia truly b/t) country. Another cold water shave and we hopped to Ionnanina, in the hills, but warm at midday, a bustling city, modern in a provincial way.

We toured a cavern at Perama, picnicked overlooking a lake and continued through mountains on a rocky, winding road, climbing steeply past verdant valley after picturesque village. Finally a last squirmy climb and we were here in Metsovon where the ski season is one month away, where women wear Swiss or German costumes, men wear alpine gear; where Oriental Turkish and Venetian style architecture and Byzantine churches can be found—that’s right, East meets West— and where every hotel in town is full up, and where we lie huddled in a picturesque non-insulated room, our breath taken, incredible-ly cold, our noses a beautiful shade of red.

27 October Sunday Metsovon to Meteora to Trikkala to Lamia
Our weather, which held firm, sunny, even as we climbed to the frigid air of Metsovon, broke. We shivered as we dressed in all our warmest clothes and left our room to greet a cold, rainy morning.

We climbed the slippery rock steps to our car and drove through the village, stopping only to buy a piping hot fresh bread and salami. We carefully threaded through the streets filled with church goers. The road wound back through the mountain still rising snakily through the morning fog. The rain became sleet and coated the windshield of our heaterless car. We munched on the moist hot bread which Bijou kept on her lap for its warmth.

In an hour the road twisted down into another valley and soon the rain eased, though the day continued gray and cold. The view maintined its beauty, though, the fall colors startlingly vivid, saturated under the gray light. We went on and by midday were crossing the plain to the Meteora Rocks. The monastery clings to the tops of the towering pillars arrogantly and independently.

On to Trikkala on a sleepy Sunday afternoon where we bought a long haired wool Flakati rug, which has yet to be made for us—trust and trepidation. Across a flat plain we headed south to Lamia. The town was jumping and we joined the strollers and watched a movie.

28 October Monday “Oxi Day” Lamia to Delfi
It is “Oxi Day” (x pronounced “ch” as in “la chaim”), a national Greek holiday, celebrating the 1825 war of independence against Turkey in which a Greek general when asked to give up said “Oxi, No.” Sort of like the WWII American general, McAulifffe, who answered a German surrender demand during the Battle of the Bulge: “Nuts.”

All during our trip, flags have been draped and signs of celebration appeared. This morning I awoke to sounds of band music from the square. When we got there it was jammed with people around the statue of a soldier. Officials, dignitaries and their wives, a priest and soldiers held a prayer and laid a wreath. A parade began.

The sun once again was warming and we started on our way to Delfi. On the way through mountains we wended through the Pass of Thermopylae and crossed the Plains of Thessaly and onto the Sacred Plain, olive groves stretching across its broad valley between the mountains.

Again, for the umpteenth time the road began to twist upward into mountains, lush green slopes. Finally we crossed into the town of Delfi. We found a room and walked to the museum, crowded with Oxi Day weekend tourists. Its gem, The Charioteer, impressed us as Olympia’s Hermes / Dionysus had not. We coursed the ruins of the treasuries and temples again marveling at the complex richness of what was. We asked the Oracle about our future and kissed to seal a promise of what will be.

29 October Tuesday Delphi to Athens
We awoke to another dreary rainy morning, the type of chilled to the bone days we had better get used to this winter.

We returned to Athens and Jon’s house as if it were our own, anxious to wash ourselves and our clothes. I was also desirous of reading a newspaper. Though not reliant on my daily dose of news and sports, I do find I miss living without some news. Tonight Jon and I buried ourselves in the last few days’ Stars and Stripes for an hour while Bijou played with Nike, Dorothea's cat.

Picking up political and sports news as rumors or as follow up news stories is somewhat disconcerting. You pick up a Tribune and an article headlined “Former President Nixon Recovering After Surgery” stares at you. This can be quite a shock if you hadn’t heard about his resignation or blood clot. On the sports page you see “Ali May Forestall Retirement To Defend His Championship.” If I hadn’t been lucky enough to conquer the static for a few minutes and get Armed Forces Radio, that would have been indecipherable. It has been three months. But I guess some things do change.

Did they ever find Patty Hearst?

30 October Wednesday Through 6 November Wednesday Athens 30 October: There was a full moon tonight at exactly 2100 hours Athens time.

For the two weeks we have been in Greece I have carefully studied the phases of the moon, my heart quickening as it showed first a sliver, then a crescent, a quarter, a half, then gibbous. Last night watching it rise, almost full fledged and I knew tonight would be the night.

Today while chore-ing in Athens: returning the rental car, changing money— I dropped in at the National Tourist Office and confirmed what I knew: the full moon was tonight and so the Acropolis would be open to allow visitors the monthly pleasure, if cloudless, to trod the stones in the full moon light.

So we gobbled 3 pizzas and drove downtown. We climbed the hill and arrived at 8 p.m., long after dark, the moon a perfect round silver plate above the sacred hill which the Gods aimed down so its light would bathe the white marble and cast long shadows of the Parthenon’s columns. As we reached the top, we found the entrance gate inexplicably closed. The others shot accusing glances toward me—it was my information relayed from the Ministry of Tourism relied upon.

Dumbfounded I merely pointed up to the moon, which seemed to be grinning mischievously. We scrambled toward the side entrance, still further up the hill. Its light was on, a guard inside. I heaved a sigh. But as we neared, we saw the gate was locked. Dorothea conversed in Greek and came away shaking her head. “He says the full moon is not until 9 p.m.!”

We stared upward, disbelieving but resigned to wait an hour after this latest example of bureaucratic brilliance. When finally let in, it was worth it and quite indescribable.

Meg cavorted over the stones, cartwheeling in the moonlight in the long shadows of the Parthenon. I wonder whether she will remember this distinction later in her life.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Day In My LIfe ... Or ... Why I Kvetch ...

I drive for an hour (listening to the Roberts confirmation hearing) to get to the law office where my client is waiting. When I get there, BC is wearing a bilious face like someone going nowhere on a wobbly carousel.

He sums for me. Our clients have a new version of their story. They were still going to do "massages," but crucial details have been altered. The wits they had promised aren’t there. No phone numbers, no last names.

I hop onto the carousel for a while, but get queasy in a hurry, so I try a little cross-exam, which is another kind of ride, what with the need for interpreters. Like a Jerry Lewis skit, I ask a five word question, and the interpreter rants for ten minutes, then the client answers for another ten and the interpreter translates: “She says, ‘No.’”

In the end, I sum up the defense, speaking slowly for translation. “So you were wearing sleep clothes? ... waiting for your boyfriend? ... You got a call from a guy you didn’t know? ... who sent a taxi to pick you up? ... to take you someplace to meet a man? ... to get money for a massage? ... and you didn’t change? ... and two condoms were in your pocket? ... and K-Y jelly?

Even the interpreter laughs. She translates the client’s answer: “Would it be better if I said something else?”

BC lectures on ethics and the role of defense lawyers, sounding like Judge Roberts explaining stare decisis to senators from Kansas. He goes on for about ten minutes before telling the interpreters to translate.

This time I laugh. Trial is supposed to start on Monday.

BC and I go out for dim sum and remind each other of nightmares --- hearing client’s testifying to completely new stories on the witness stand. When it happened to me the first time, I had looked down at my notes, found nothing there to help me. So I had done what DA’s always did with their witnesses, “What happened next?” I kept asking, trying to sound as if I knew the answers, ignoring the sweat dribbling down my spine.

I drive to the jail, hand in two request slips. AV comes first. He’s pro per, facing the death penalty and I’ve been appointed as advisory counsel. I don’t like the role - my name on the docket that judges can point to as an excuse to affirm the sentence. I see my real job as trying to persuade him to go back to his previous lawyers. He fired them because their advice was daunting.

He’s worked a week on a motion to continue that a lawyer would do in a half hour. I ask him if he’s read the discovery material I copied for him. He nods.
“Have you thought about your defense?”
“Yes,” with a very serious face. “I didn’t do it.” Then an embarrassed smile.
“How are you going to explain your DNA at the scene?”
“I’m working on that.”
“And your taped confession?”
“Are you on my team?”

I explain that I’m there to advise him, not make him feel good.
“I heard you say that I’m sticking a needle in my arm.”
“Yeah, I told your sister that in my opinion anyone defending himself on a capital case might as well stick the lethal injection in his own arm, because he’s committing suicide.”

“I need somebody on my team.”
“Not if your team is gonna be executed.”

He smiles as if nothing more needs be said. But it does. “If you want to ask the judge for a different advisory counsel, that’s okay with me,” I say.

He’s sullen now. “Maybe I will. I’ll call you.”
“Make it collect.”

I give him more discovery he won’t understand and go on to the next client who is sitting in another row.

The client called me so I can put more money on his books. I’ve been doing that each month for about a year. He's worried; one of the three psych experts I’ve retained got him scared by asking what his defense is.

“We’ve talked about this a lot,” I remind him. “You confessed to both murders - on tape. On each, you began by denying the crimes, but eventually admitted when you were confronted with the evidence by the cops.”
“I didn’t know they were taping. They tricked me.”
“Did you tell them the truth?”
“So they tricked you into telling the truth?”

Mercy is what I need now, and finally it comes - a stay of execution. The desk deputy calls out, “Lock down is now in effect. The attorney room will be cleared.”

The client understands. I’ll go and put the money on his books and we’ll talk the next time. It’s an amicable parting, my first of the day.

I walk across the street to the twin towers and up the stairs to the property area. I curse because there is a long line of mostly women carrying babies there to deposit money for their jailed loved ones. I stand in the back of the line and peer to the front. All three windows are dark.
“Where’s the lady who takes the money?”
“Computers are down.”

I can go home now and prepare for the trial set to begin tomorrow. In the car, I listen to Judge Roberts explain how lawyers can advocate without believing as their clients do.

My cell phone rings. The court clerk. The trial now in progress is going long, my case will be delayed. Another stay of execution. I can sleep tonight - if I don’t think about today.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The Gulf Wars

Q: What is the president's position on Roe v. Wade?

A: He really doesn't care how people get out of New Orleans.

Blogging about current events is not necessarily my goal. But this is too much. My tendencies to pun and to find connections among disparate events flood beyond my control in times like these.

I can’t avoid seeing deep meaning in the “Gulfs” which are in the headlines. I see too many of them. We have been at war in The Persian Gulf for more than a decade. Now nature dumped The Gulf of Mexico into the Mississippi Delta, exposing more gulfs — like the chasm between middle class Americans and the permanent underclass of African Americans, Hispanics and other poor; and the ever widening gulf between our government leaders and the people. We are losing all the Gulf Wars. Maybe it foretells a sea change in American politics.

David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, sounded Friday night like an alarmist Socialist on PBS’s “Jim Lehrer Report::”

“...What you get is meteorological storms and then political storms because in moments of extremis people see who's up and who's down, who's at fault and who is suffering. So, for example in 1897 there was the famous Johnstown Flood, a pond owned by millionaires including Andrew Carnegie flooded the town of Johnstown. The public anger over that helped spawn the Progressive Movement.

“Then in 1927 you had the great Mississippi Flood, which flooded New Orleans. And there you have first of all, great demand for the government to get involved in disaster relief which had not happened much before then. And that helped lead the way to the New Deal. The town fathers flooded some of the poorer and middle class areas to relieve some of the pressure on the rest of the city and then reneged on their promises for compensation for the people who had their homes destroyed. The anger over that helped lead to the rise of Huey Long, the populist governor.

“So in moments of extremis, people see the power inequalities, the poor suffering, the rich benefitting and then they react. And so you get these political reactions.

“... I think it is a huge reaction we are about to see. I mean, first of all, they violated the social fabric, the moments of crisis you take care of the poor first. That didn't happen; it's like leaving wounded on the battlefield.

“In 9/11 you had a great surge of public confidence. Now I think we are going to see a great decline in public confidence in our institutions....”

In his NY Times column, Sept. 1, 2005, titled “The Storm After The Storm,” Brooks concluded:

“What's happening in New Orleans and Mississippi today is a human tragedy. But take a close look at the people you see wandering, devastated, around New Orleans: they are predominantly black and poor. The political disturbances are still to come.”

When I look I see President Bush offering prayer and private charity as the solutions to the stench. No doubt our President, a man of deep religious faith, will call the event an “act of God,” another Biblical Flood, perhaps even privately think it retribution for sins - not his sins, of course.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

What's It All About?

The boy looks the same, hasn’t changed at all since I first saw him — what was it, 17, 18 years ago — walking toward me in the same attorney room at the county jail.

Back then I had the usual creeping sensation up my neck, the familiar shock to be suppressed when meeting a new client who had killed and who might well be condemned to die on my watch.

He was barely 18 when I first introduced myself to him as his public defender. He was just a skinny, shy, Chinese kid with glasses, who looked about 14. His face was hairless and already jailhouse waxy. His grasp of English was so elemental that he seemed younger still. At the arraignment, the hard-nosed head deputy D.A., Dino Fulgoni, had cracked, “Jeez, it’s gonna take a real S.O.B. to put this kid in the gas chamber.” They tried their best to do it, too.

He smiles as he sees me and walks toward my stall. I move out of the room onto a row stool so I won’t have glass between us. He’s doing okay, and I tell him so am I. He says I haven’t changed, but I correct him. I know my own face, my gray hair, I feel my age. I’m 62, he’s 37 years old now. A man, but he still looks like a kid. There is no hardness to his face, nor in his eyes. His English isn’t much different than it was back then, and his manner is just as respectful, diffident, polite.

He’d cooperated, confessed 4 times. After he’d shot the two men, after the car chase, after the car and he’d been shot full of holes, after his companions had been killed. He’d been taken to the e.r., gave a “dying declaration” before surgery. Confessed again to a faulty micro recorder and then again to help out the embarrassed interrogator, who was so grateful that he felt sorry for the kid who’d killed two cops. A couple of days later he confessed again to an F.B.I. agent, who didn’t feel sorry for him and did his best to finish him off.

The scars are still there, on his forearm, his neck, and his jaw where the bullet went through his face. He’s been to Pelican Bay, The Shoe for 10 months, Calipatria, Corcoran, Susanville - High Desert. He’s worked in the kitchen, then as a barber. He’s learned how to avoid trouble, but its hard in Level 4 institutions. “There’s a lot of trouble going on,” he says with his characteristic understatement, a little half-smile, mostly keeping the joke to himself, a bit embarrassed that he made one.

For his first 18 years, he’d known his grandpa’s home in Taiwan, a restaurant kitchen in Kansas City, his stepdad’s home in Monterey Park. He was used to keeping a low profile, keeping his eyes averted. He’d spent his childhood that way, the family’s forgotten kid, who never asked for anything.

He tells me his grandfather - the one who’d raised him after his father and mother had left him (and each other) for the U.S. - died. That was hard. He hears from his sister, his mom, his dad. His dad, whose been very ill, came to visit him now in county. They get along better now, but don’t say much to each other. Everyone asks if he needs anything, but he tells them he doesn’t, thinks “they ask to be polite.”

I tell him, “Hey, let them help you. It’ll help them more to know they can do a little.” He nods, but I don’t think he will. I ask him the big question, the reason I’m there after so many years. “Was it worth it? Are you glad I saved your life so you could spend the rest of it behind bars?”

He hesitates, been thinking about it, too, I think, maybe a lot more than I have. “I don’t want to depress you,” he says, ever the considerate kid. “But I think maybe I wish not.”

I try to say something profound and uplifting about hope and the future. He sees the look on my face, lets me off the hook. “Maybe I’m depressed. Here, I see my family and it makes me sad and ashamed.” There’s a bit of feeling in his eyes behind his glasses. We’re both embarrassed and I didn’t come to make him feel sad.

We talk about other things, how maybe I can help a little now. My neck and back are hurting after an hour. I stand up, extend my hand. He shakes it with a little smile. He thanks me “for everything.”