Friday, April 22, 2011

Law and Disorder

I am not a lawyer.

Nor am I a judge, paralegal, court clerk, or courtroom artist. I have never even been a juror, although I was once called for jury duty. Their mistake.

Despite having no direct professional connection whatsoever to the criminal justice system, I get a surprisingly large volume of mail from the court. The Superior Court of California, County of Los Angeles, Traffic Division, to be specific.

The reason for the constant stream of missives from the judicial branch of my county government? The official reasons cited by the court vary with each letter, and are worded so convolutedly that even someone like me who enjoys convoluted wording can't make heads or tails of the actual charges. But after more than a decade of meeting the esteemed members of our highway patrol and receiving very civil letters on their behalf, via the court, I have figured out why I am so lucky to garner so much attention: I Am A Boston Driver.

I owned my first car--a vintage BMW 2002 I named "Mardou," after a character in a Jack Kerouac novel (doesn't everyone name their cars?)--while living in the even more vintage neighborhood of Beacon Hill in Boston. The streets were barely paved former cow paths, usually further narrowed by snowbanks or recycling bins. Driving in a congested, centuries-old city requires a sense of adventure, artistry and particularly good insurance coverage. Traffic lights, while very pretty with their flashing colors, are a mere suggestion, and parallel parking requires using bumpers for what they were named: bumping other cars. We do not bother with car washing, vanity license plates, or cars with multisyllabic names. Count Bostonians as the only people outside of Scandinavia who have ever seen an actual Saab.

I provide this brief overview to give the non-New Englander an understanding of the etiology of my apparently criminal behavior. I will note that in the several decades before I moved to Los Angeles, I don't recall ever receiving a traffic ticket. Sure, I had to slip the service station manager an extra $20 so Mardou would pass inspection. And, yes, I may have gone extended periods of time unknowingly driving on an expired license. But for the most part my driving record east of the Mississippi was untarnished.

Los Angeles has a reputation for being a laid-back, accepting bastion of diversity. In my experience, this has not been the case, at least when it comes to drivers. Though the L.A. justice system may be lenient to the wrongdoings of many of its flashiest citizens, I have found the LAPD and its brethren to be far less accepting of the personal and stylistic differences of some of its more humble folk.  It is the hard-working, well-meaning of us who suffer every time a man or woman in blue takes issue with an expertly executed U-turn on a one-way street, or an efficient left turn on an arrow that turned red with little warning, or an inability to immediately locate registration documents when opening the glove compartment yields a torrent of Pepperidge Farm Goldfish bags. Just because you have a gun and a shiny badge doesn't give you the right to interrupt my journey. Well, maybe it does in the letter of the law, but not so much in the spirit. I have places to go. Can't we all just get along?

The sum of my involuntary donations to the "Superior Court of Los Angeles County, Traffic Division" might make a hefty downpayment on a new car, and the number of "Certificates of Completion" I have earned from the court's online "Home Study"program would surely be at least a master's degree. However, I have to say that my all-time record for traffic citations actually occurred 3,000 miles away from Los Angeles--in Staten Island, NY, of all places. This was during the year we lived in New York. What I was doing on a highway in Staten Island has mercifully been blotted from my memory, but I was stopped for some infraction that was not articulated to me in a way that I could understand. Did I mention that I had the misfortune of being a female driving like a Boston driver in Staten Island with California license plates and a Boston Red Sox bumper sticker? That must have confused the hell out of the SIPD. He wrote me two tickets. For the same traffic stop. Is that even allowed? Luckily, I was moving out of state shortly after that anyway.

Lest you think that all my encounters with traffic law enforcement personnel have been negative, let me end with a heart-warming story. Not this most recent ticket, but the one before came just moments after a stare-down with the crossing guard at my son's school. It appeared to me as if he was allowing an entire busload of dependent-free elderly people to cross while we parents semi-patiently waited to make a left turn. I was so busy giving the guard (who I imagine is named Clyde or Gus) the evil eye that I did not notice that our town's PD was out in full force, ready to ticket hapless homeowners to increase the town's cashflow. I finally made my turn, wedged the car next to a parked one, and opened the driver's side backdoor for my son. Of course, being the neurotically safety conscious mom that I am, I wildly flailed my arms and did my best NBA pick defense to protect my son from any pedestrian or automotive activity. No sooner had I yelled "I love you" and revved up the engine than I heard a tap on my window. My preschool daughter was still in the car, so I had to be on good behavior. No, officer, I had not realized the crossing guard's orange flag was still up. No, officer, I didn't know I was impeding traffic. No, officer, I had no idea that was a moving violation. But, officer, I was protecting my son's safety with a mom-body-block. He remained unconvinced. Oh well, another triplicate to file in the glove compartment.

The good news is that this all went down on the very last day of "Community Helpers Week" at my daughter's preschool. Yay! In case you, like me, assume a "community helper" is either an urban planner or a municipal attorney, I recently learned the term includes any professional, paraprofessional or volunteer who does virtually anything identifiable in a community. You, too, may be a community helper and not even know it! Anyway, when I dropped my daughter off at school she was very excited to report to her teacher how mommy was stopped by a community helper on the way to school. What a happy coincidence!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Opining Day

Ah, yes. Baseball season is officially upon us.

For those of us who are die-hard baseball fans, the 150 days between the last game of the World Series, and Opening Day might as well be 150 years. In fact, anxiety starts to build up early on in the playoffs, not because of any concern about who will win (statistically speaking, one’s favorite team was probably eliminated before the regular season even ended), but because the countdown to baseball hiatus is on in earnest. Five months of no baseball to obsess over means a whole lot of down time with nothing to do.

Luckily, in this era of the 24-hour news cycle, and competition for news coverage, the off-season no longer means one has to go cold-turkey. There exists a parallel universe of “Baseball in Theory,” consisting of endless websites, sports channels, publications, blogs, listserves that help keep the baseball addict from experimenting with football or basketball. No sooner is the Major League Baseball season officially over in early November—yes, November!—than the recapping of the season begins. Then the speculation over who will win the annual player awards. Then the actual awards. Then the breakdown of who won the awards. Then the discussion of how the winning or not winning of the aforementioned award will impact the player’s ability to negotiate a better contract. Then coverage of the “Hot Stove” winter meetings where owners sign free agents, which may or may not include the aforementioned players who may or may not have won the aforementioned awards. Then analysis of each deal that was made or not made. And this barely gets the baseball fan through the winter holidays.

Seventy five percent of our family loves baseball. Since this constitutes a Super Majority in our household, and includes 100 percent of the family’s planners and financers of family outings, we tend to gravitate toward baseball-oriented activities. Annual treks to Spring Training in Arizona, a trip to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, Major League Fan Fests, baseball and memorabilia stores. Of course, we do not endorse a mob rule mentality. Hotels for such trips are chosen to be amenable to our family’s token non-baseball fan, so in those moments when she is not being dragged to a baseball event, she can briefly splash in a nice pool or get dropped off at a resort’s Kids Club, while the rest of us go to a game.  

Our statistical outlier offspring aside, I have to say, as a family, we are collectively well-informed about baseball goings-on. My son in particular is a marvel of historical and strategic information, spanning 100 years of the sport. He has classmates who like the sport, and they trade stories about games and players. But, to be honest, the depth of my son’s understanding of the intricacies and mechanics of the sport are beyond even most seasoned adult fans. To the untrained eye (and ear), my son and his classmates probably seem to be having typical 4th grade banter about the outcome of the previous night’s games. However, in my mind I imagine it is like Stephen Hawking making small-talk with a second grader at an elementary school Science Fair. Sure, they are both technically talking about the same subject…..

Recently we have had reason to be optimistic that our lone baseball holdout seems to be coming around. We signed her up for T-Ball softball with her friends and, thankfully, their uniforms are a color (red) that she would tolerate wearing, even though her preference would be for a pink dress rather than pants, cleats and a visor. She has proven to be an enthusiastic fielder, dutifully squatting in “ready position” before charging at any ball that dribbles toward. The “No Child Left Behind” philosophy at work in 5-year-old T-Ball means that the inning is not over until every child has “batted” and reached base. This can take a very long time, especially when there are shoes to be tied and ponytails to smooth and stuffed animals to wedge out of children’s hands so they can hold a bat. So by the third or fourth batter, my husband, son and I have to turn a deaf ear to groans of “Is it over YET?” But that is not to say her interest in baseball is not growing every day. By the second game of the season, she cheerfully bobbed around the bases with nary a peep, her hands clutching the top of her batting helmet, which did not fit snugly over her head because of a fashionably large scrunchie keeping her hair in place. She stopped at third, caught me eye on the sidelines, and asked: “Can I have a snack now?”