Day #6 – St. Valentine’s Day Massacre

A Juror dropped out today. His kid was sick and there was no one else to look after the little tyke. That was the story; as generic as it was unconvincing. This has the happy consequence of bringing into the mix the one other person in the jury-room I feel like I can actually communicate with. He was the First Alternate; one of three backup jurors assigned for just this kind of occasion. He works in the field of Corrections. His name is George and I only mention it because the Religious Lady inflects his name the way “Weezy” did on the Jeffersons. To get it just right you have to tuck your chin in to your chest, make your cheek muscles tight and thrust out your lower lip. Were these two married, it would be ample grounds for divorce.

The Religious Lady is an odd one. She reads her religious paperback but her true love is gossip. Any gossip. All gossip. She is dark, small and rather uptight in a loose way. It’s not easy to explain. She is a stereotype of sorts. She has patterned herself as an Evangelical emulating a Protestant who is satirizing a Baptist. She is full of manic energy and quick to judge; the more so if a condemnation is within easy reach. And yet she will change her tune at the very slightest sign of rational thinking. I’ve been trying to figure it out in terms of race because these issues are clearly at play as evidenced by her several hair styles. These hairstyles suggest that she is a fan of early Jane Fonda movies. Barbarella comes to mind. She wears a crucifix that has the stars and stripes waving diagonally through it. A clear conflict of the separation of church and state.

This morning we are sitting in the jury-room. One of our comrades is two hours late and so we tell stories, read and snack. Sometimes we are laughing and shouting and sometimes the time passes quietly. I’ve read two hundred pages of my book since court started. Finally we move into the courtroom and sit down. We are immediately dismissed for an early lunch because the Religious Lady has a doctor’s appointment. We are to return in one and a half hours.

The woman who was two hours late offers to drive the Religious Lady to her appointment to make sure that everything goes smoothly for the rest of the day. They arrive back from that appointment almost three hours later. It is mid afternoon and we have yet to do a thing. It feels like the group is falling apart around the issue of time. Meanwhile, across the hall another jury-room is alive with laughter and shouting and there are fast food wrappers everywhere. They are nearly out of control and their Court Officer openly keeps company with them. On the other hand, they have been here for seven weeks. I think they would make an interesting case study in group sensory deprivation.

We do finally get into court and we actually have an Expert Witness for the defense. He is eloquent and credible. In a matter of thirty minutes The Angry Fat Girl, with the help of an actual Doctor of Radiology, has completely turned the tide around. Again! The painstakingly assembled sand castle built by JFK Jr. is swept out to sea. You can feel it in the room like an ocean breeze after days of fly infested land breezes. It is somewhat thrilling. The Angry Fat Girl is wearing a heart bracelet and locket and I think to myself, “Somebody loves her.” Then I note the wedding ring on her finger, which I had noted the lack of up until this point, and I feel like maybe they are only props; a way to ingratiate herself to us. It is beyond explanation but because today is Valentines Day I indulge the idea that someone does love her.

The cross examination by JFK Jr. is all about undermining the credibility of the Expert Witness. But as the lawyer for the Injured Van Driver, I have to say, he needs acting lessons. He ends up looking mean and petty. Both he and The Angry Fat Girl use the tactic of saying things that are sure to be stricken from the record but nevertheless are heard by The Jury. The idea is to plant the seed in your brain, never mind how. I am all the way back around to where I started, which is basically to send the plaintiff home with enough money to buy a lotto ticket, but I know the rest of The Jury will not go there. At the end of the day, The Judge admonishes us, as she does every day, not to discuss the case, even with each other until the very end.

As we leave the building, George and I discuss it intensely. We walk together for five blocks; I am lobbying him and I know it. He is not fully convinced. I will give some and so will he. We are ready to take this up tomorrow after closing arguments. George and I take our leave and as I walk home alone, I realize that the plaintiff’s lawyer, JFK Jr., never brought in a live Radiologist to support his Chiropractor’s claim. The reason is obvious; he wanted the Chiropractor to be the one to interpret the MRI, not a Radiologist. If he had produced the Radiologist who wrote the report, it would have given the defense a chance to cross examine. There are some very specific rules about how to ask questions and what can be asked depending if you are examining or cross examining. The Jury doesn’t get clued in on these rules but given a little time you can figure them out. Once you know the rules, you can unravel the tactics and the tactics are everything. It is very much like chess but, given this case and these players, it looks a whole lot more like Scrabble for Juniors.

Day #5 – Can I Get A Witness

John is our Court Officer. He is assigned to us, or rather, we are assigned to him. His function is to escort us from our jury-room to The Court. John tells us when it is ok to enter The Court, and then he escorts us back to the jury-room. He lets The Judge know when we have all arrived. This is rather more involved than one might think. We, as a group, are never on time. We have an assigned hour when we are due in the morning and also when we are due back from breaks. The Judge tells us these times as we exit the courtroom and John, our Court Officer, reminds us again before we leave the courthouse. It is to no avail. We are never on time.

Because time is such an abstract concept in general, and especially so in court, this should come as no surprise. In fact it doesn’t come as a surprise. Like all the other court officers, John, our Court Officer, has all our home numbers and cell numbers. He calls us when we are more than thirty minutes late. That he doesn’t call when any one of us is ten or fifteen or even twenty minutes late only reinforces the sense that time here is not of the essence. In fact, it hardly even enters into the equation.

In the beginning, John, our Court Officer, had to lead us around keeping careful tabs on one and all because the place is a labyrinth of courts and offices. We’ve been here long enough now to know that once we leave our jury-room it is a simple right, right, stairs, left, left, right, left, right, left to get to the courtroom. John, our Court Officer, always reminds us of bathroom opportunities. There are a very limited number of things for him to say to us and no doubt he is only allowed to say those few things. His delivery is flat. He wears his uniform, coat unbuttoned, in a way that makes them look like pajamas. His face is uneventful, his boredom is infinite. He wanders away during court or dozes off in the observation area of the courtroom.

This morning John, our Court Officer, gathered his ducks and led us to the courtroom. John always enters first and tells The Judge we are here and asks if he should let us in. This morning, he should not let us in and John, our Court Officer, steps into The Court and closes the door. We are left to stand in the hall alone. Something is going on. We try to listen to The Judge through the door but it is difficult because the next courtroom down has its door open and a lawyer is doing his summation. In a loud voice, full of disgust and accusation, he is talking about the Plaintiff’s Testicles. Also about painful urination, unsatisfactory intercourse and the plaintiff’s admission that he lies under certain conditions. This guy is making headway no doubt about it. When he accuses the plaintiff of lying, even about his lying, I am completely convinced. It takes me hours to unravel that one but of course by that time The Jury had already rendered its verdict and anyway a little showmanship is always appreciated. We pretend to be repulsed as we turn our ears to this other court but it is no use. The shouting behind our own door has become audible, almost legible. Yep, something’s going on and Her Honor has lost her composure.

Then it’s quiet and John, our Court Officer, opens the door and tells us to enter the court. We file in and take our assigned seats. Her Honor has her “Gosh, it’s nice to see you!” smile on. She tells us that she can’t tell us the Robert Burns poem again because she’s already told it to us but that, unfortunately, the same reason applies. The doctor for the defense has failed to show up again. I look over to The Angry Fat Girl and she smiles like she’s holding down a furball. And that’s when I see it. At first I misidentify it because it’s so large. She must have been desperate or something. It is one more sign from a loud person who doesn’t believe she is being heard.

John, our Court Officer, escorts us back to our room. Alone with each other again I say to the group “Either she’s been working on her car or it’s Ash Wednesday.” The juror who has the tote bag emblazoned with:

“The Family That Prays Together Stays Together”

beats me with her newspaper.

Day #4 – Of Mice And Men; Ladies Too

For some reason, we were treated to the testimony of The Cabby today. At no point has it been held that he was anything but liable for the whole affair but there he was. The main idea seems to be to impress upon The Jury that the impact was, in the eloquent words of the plaintiff’s lawyer, “A Big Boom.” The defense attorney a.k.a. The Angry Fat Girl, rebutted that the “Boom” was not in fact a “Big Boom” between the offending cab and the fifteen passenger van in front of it, but a “Little Boom” in which the barely harmed fifteen passenger van crushed the front end of the Crown Victoria sedan taxi behind it.

 

Big Boom, Little Boom. The Jury isn’t really impressed with this use of time. The surreptitious passing of hard candies continues unabated. It doesn’t seem like The Court actually cares about the use of time or even about time as a general concept. After the Big Boom Theory testimony, which resulted in a lot of hard feelings and more than a little bit of cynical word exchange between The Judge and The Angry Fat Girl, (a thing which is no longer shocking to the jury, yet maintains all of it’s original entertainment value) there was to be an Expert Medical Witness for the defense.

 

The Judge, maintains a somewhat convincing facade of generosity and caring. She always bids us have a wonderful lunch or a pleasant and relaxing evening. She must have done this hundreds or more likely thousands of times but she has that way about her that seems to worry just a little about her charges. At any rate, the Expert Medical Witness for the defense is a no show because after all he is a doctor and an emergency came up and his hour or two is far more important than the eight jurors, the swift deliverance of justice and all manner of other considerations. It goes without saying of course that this emergency, whatever its nature, could be handled by him alone. In all the universe he was the only competent doctor available.

 

Does this make The Angry Fat Girl look bad? With all her weight, the balance is not tipping in her favor. The Judge is pained by this turn of events, which must be a common occurrence, and so she recalls to us a Robert Burns poem about a field mouse; reciting the first stanza from memory and in dialect. She lays out the rest of the story and then asks us why she’s telling us this mouse tale. It is a rhetorical question and even the dim among us don’t try to answer. We are in her hands and we’re kind of cozy there. The answer to her question is that the best laid plans of mice and men, often run astray. I knew that from the first and I am pleased with myself, as if we two now share a bond of understanding. I want to share with her the Robert Burns poem which answers the question; “What is the best weather for having sex?” but I restrain myself. Then she smiles her grandmotherly smile, tells us to return two mornings hence (there being a court holiday the next day) and wishes us a wonderful and lovely day.

 

She is enchanting. 

 

 

Day #3 – Expert Opinion

 

Using the horizon as a base line, the angle from the tip of his nose up the bridge to his brow is the same angle as that of the soft flesh from the point of his chin back to his neck. In profile he seems as artificial as his tan. His hair is combed back with some kind of jell or wax but it does not lie down flat. Rather, it goes straight back and each end, each point separates according to its feathered length, like a hedgehog in repose. He is a Chiropractor, and like many of his kind he is convinced of his powers as a healer and unusually sensitive to suggestions that his art is less than that of say a Brain Surgeon or a Podiatrist. This sensitivity and his Brooklyn pedigree make him a dangerous witness for the cross examination.

 

The Angry Fat Girl has not properly considered that her anger at the world is diluted by it’s many potential targets. She comes at him in such an aggressive manner that The Judge tells her explicitly and in front of The Jury to change her tone. It is a moment of censure that would be a humiliation if it were not being compared to how The Chiropractor handles her. His skills at manipulation are not confined to simple adjustments of the spine. His answers to her are full of information and sarcasm. At one point he simply starts asking her questions. Her anger causes her to respond to these questions and suddenly, though he is the one sitting in the witness box, it is she who is sweating the answers.

 

The Judge starts coaching her on how to ask questions in order to confine a witness to yes or no answers but it is too late. Her morning cross examination turns to fluff and it is plain to all. So plain that after lunch we return to find that the Young Asian Woman, who clearly has the strongest case, has settled out of court. It wasn’t even her doctor who was on the stand but the signs are clear; the defense is unraveling.

 

Our day is over. The Jury loves this and can barely conceal its glee. The lawyer for the Young Asian Woman has piggybacked his case to a successful conclusion without any more effort than an opening statement. He is the quiet one and we like him for that. He doesn’t get excited. He is just a little older than the others and does not seem to be in any hurry. Oddly enough, the only remaining case is the one that pitches the Angry Fat Girl against the JFK Jr. look alike. I think it has become a grudge match but I no longer care. Only the women in the jury seem to care and all they care about is seeing the only woman lawyer, the Angry Fat Girl, fail.

 

 

Day #2 – Cross Examination

It is apparent from the moment we enter the courtroom that I will be denied my opportunity to correct the unsightly behavior of the Spiky Haired Lawyer with the buttoning compulsion; the one representing the Van’s Passenger. He has, in the overnight hours, come to his senses and decided that any amount settled on out of court is better than going up against The Angry Fat Girl. Given the quality of his client and the exceeding unlikelyhood of her actually having sustained any injuries at all, I have to think that this caused him no loss of sleep whatsoever, except perhaps in those hours when he was busy spending his contingency fee.

 

The Angry Fat Girl must see Out of Court Settlement possibilities dancing before her like so many french fries. She has not changed her outfit, except for her blouse, since yesterday and I have to think this is a bold tactic designed to throw off the other attorneys. I let my eyes settle on her so as to take in the whole picture and I realize that her dress is not black like her jacket but rather a deep blue so very near to black that I wage a small debate with myself about it before giving in to the truth; she’s colorblind. Perhaps not in the medical sense but for all practical purposes. This is borne out by the fact of her blouse. It is a hot turquoise. So is her barrette. And the bauble hanging from her jacket that appears to be in the cephalopod family. Also her notebook. It is told of the great attorney Clarence Darrow that he would insert a wire in his cigar and light it at the beginning of the court session. The ash, thus suspended, would grow ever longer without falling, grabbing all the attention in the room for himself even as others were speaking. I’m not saying this is The Angry Fat Girl’s intent but I am not saying otherwise.

 

The two remaining plaintiffs, the Van Driver and the Young Asian Woman, take the witness stand and say their piece. They are drab and rehearsed.

 

One comes away without anything but a sense that something small has happened in their lives and they have been encouraged to pick at the scab until someone pays them not to pick it anymore. The Young Asian Woman has clearly had some kind of suffering but the extent is impossible to determine. She is not entirely unpleasant in stature or demeanor so I am inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. She was hurt. It caused a disruption in her life and studies. She was an architecture student at Pratt during this time and since architecture is hot right now I think she’ll come out of this lawsuit with something in her pocket.

 

As I mentioned, this plaintiff was in another accident; a three car pileup only ten days earlier. Does this complicate things at all? Under a withering barrage of objections and against every promise not to do so the Angry Fat Girl pressed this point. She would begin a sentence and continue while an objection was made and on through the objection being sustained until she was complete. She is angry and feels like people don’t hear her. It got to the point where The Judge told her she had to stop talking or they were going to have to take it outside. Which they did. Along with the other lawyers and The Court Reporter.

 

I am somewhat fascinated by The Scrivener and have even found myself not paying attention to the goings on in favor of watching her endlessly flaccid demeanor.        

 

I am sitting in the front row of the jury box, on the third base line, right at third base. I can see her, The Court Reporter, the true object of my interest, from the side. I am at a good enough angle to see her yawn but not enough so as to see her blouse. What color is her blouse? It becomes important because, except for her skin and hair she is a study in grey. I know her blouse is grey. It must be! It would be a failure of mythology if it were anything but grey. An unacceptable fracture in the perfection of her stereotype. I check the cuffs of her knit sweater repeatedly but nothing creeps past them. It dawns on me that she is Irish. Yes, even obviously so. I don’t know how this escaped me but then she is like wine, revealing herself slowly and only to those paying close, no not close, strict, attention. I adjust myself in my chair but really I am trying to get a look at the whole of her over the edge of the jury box. She is wearing dark sensible shoes. Grey capri pants and a grey knit sweater. They are of the same tone. It is implausible that her blouse would not be grey and I am left only to hope that it is the same grey. Lunchtime arrives and we adjourn. She remains at an oblique angle and I am left to hang.

 

Later in the afternoon, as the lawyers are taking a side bar and we are able to take a brief recess The Court Reporter stands and turns her back to me. She is talking to the Court Secretary but it is a torture. She has no idea of my interest of course but it seems that every move is deliberately designed to keep my interest and keep me from final knowledge. Finally, she stretches and turns and there it is. The blouse. It is grey. The same tone as her capri pants and knit sweater and also of her stenography machine. They are all identical. Her hand bag is there. It is grey though slightly darker. Her chair, slightly lighter. She is perfect. Then she speaks and the spell is broken. She sounds exactly like my Aunt Sheila.

 

There is a blue vase sitting next to The Judge. It has dried flowers, robbed of their color, surrounding a red silk rose. There is also a real rose; it’s head bent down poking over the lip. It was cut short and has been dead for days.

 

 

Day #1 – Opening Arguments

Today is the first day of the trial. I am Juror #5. The Judge is a dyed redhead. Under her frock, a silk or nylon leopard print blouse is clearly visible. No wedding band but a huge ring of emerald and gold on her right middle finger. I can only hope it’s costume. It’s as big as a man’s watch, which she also wears. She is in her late fifties and must have been pretty good looking in her youth. I recognize her type as a feather, sprouted from one of the more eccentric wings of my tribe.

The Court Reporter is female. I can tell because of the skirt and fingernails. There are no other indicators. She wears no makeup and no expression on her face. She is as pale as death. As soon as I saw her I thought of Bartleby the Scrivener.

In God We Trust signs, made of engraved brown plastic, are hung outside the courtroom door and over the head of The Judge. The eagle on top of the flagpole behind The Judge has its wing tips jammed up into the acoustic tile ceiling. By the time we get into the courtroom, it has already been decided that The Cab Driver was at fault. All that is left to us, The Jury, is to determine the amount, if any, of compensation for the supposedly injured parties.

Apparently they were able to determine the guilt of the defendant, The Cab Driver, by the fact that he plowed his still accelerating vehicle into a 15 passenger van, sitting at a full stop in traffic, on the Brooklyn Bridge. His cab had to be towed away. The passenger in the back of his cab, a young woman, is claiming lots of pain and suffering based on this accident and not at all on the three car pileup in which she was involved the previous week. I believe her because she’s Asian and they don’t lie about this sort of thing.

The Driver and Passenger of the van are claiming neck and back pain. MRI’s supposedly tell of degenerative conditions in the two of them. There will doubtless be lots of medical testimony. They both work for a city run homeless organization. They have both been under the care of the same Chiropractor for two years. I hope they don’t think they’re going to be getting any money out of this. I hope they’re in it just for the civic pride of lynching an Arab Cabby. This is my hope.

Each of the four upstanding citizens involved in this debacle, the three plaintiffs and the defendant, are represented by different lawyers. In essence, this is three lawsuits being tried simultaneously. The lawyer for the Injured Van Driver is the handsomest and knows it. He looks kind of like JFK Jr. His description of the enormity of the impact and the pain suffered by his client are utterly unconvincing but it isn’t unpleasant to watch him try. The lawyer for the Young Asian Woman is bearded and somewhat limp although he would seem to have the most to work with.

The Van’s Passenger, who’s pain is not an improbable byproduct of her weight and age, has a lawyer with rather scruffy hair. At first I thought he had a slightly punkish thing going on because the hair was a little too studied looking, but after seeing him several times over the last few days I am surprised that this is actually the case. It’s odd to be surprised when you’re right about something but there you have it. He has an annoying habit of buttoning the top two buttons of his suit every single time he stands up. It’s like watching one of those preachers who puts their glasses on for the sole purpose of having a prop to take off when it’s time to make a point, which is just about constantly. I have vowed to myself to tell him my feelings on the matter at the conclusion of the trial. All this is made worse by his chubbiness, which is not pronounced but is exaggerated by his hunched shoulders. His shoulders are not stooped so much as drawn up to minimize the opinion that he may have a neck. He is hopeless and should settle out of court for bus fare.

They all pale before the lawyer for the defendant. She is short, round and angry. We only had the opening arguments today and she objected constantly. The Judge, who is paying a little bit of attention, finds her course and annoying. I believe it is probable that many people feel this way about her. She is a bulldog in cheap black business dress that is screaming at the seams. Her accent would make any girl from South Philly proud. She is so distressing that I have not dared to mentally undress her. She’s just right for the job.

Sturm und Drang

Today’s post was written live and direct.

~o~

I am on an airplane, on my way to Florida. I am helping my friend Clem, a steel sculptor like myself, install some large scale pieces. We have 48 hours to accomplish this task. I think we started drinking as soon as we hit the airport but we may have waited until after checking our bags.

The plane is paid for, my meals are paid for, my own motel room is paid for and we’re heading to the beach just in time to intercept a major tropical storm. So far so good.

But let’s back up a second here. Maybe we should begin this story at the beginning.

Clem, John Clement, is my excellent friend and studio mate of over a dozen years. Whether or not it is true, I consider myself instrumental in getting him and his girlfriend on the same page that led to their successful and wonderfully good looking marriage. I did this by providing an outstanding example with my own ultra-groovy marriage as well as offering advice to both parties that may not have been stellar, but at least it wasn’t poisonous.

One of the sculptures that we are installing is Clem’s. Two of the sculptures that we’re installing are not Clem’s. One of these two sold for 450 thousand dollars. This is by no means your ordinary installation. Somehow, all three sculptures are arriving on the same truck and the other galleries involved are piggybacking our installation services. I am the go to person for this installation because I owe Clem a bunch of money and I don’t have it, so this way I am able to work off my debt. If it weren’t for the fact that I’m ten years older than Clem this trip would have none of that ever so tasty embarrassment factor attached to it at all. The other reason I might be here is because I have over twenty years experience at rigging and I can operate machinery and tools accurately and efficiently.

Clem has other people that he can use for this sort of job but they are young and prone to recklessness. I, on the other hand, am more moderate, more considered in my actions. It wasn’t always so but it is now. I may not have grown up but I have definitely slowed down and on a big job like this, where other peoples property and money are on the line, it pays to go with a more experienced hand. The more so when that hand is free of course, but still.

~o~

The trip starts where all these kinds of trips start; at the airport bar. Two rounds of beers, two shots of tequila. Did I mention moderation? Not my fault or my doing. I’m only along for the ride and this ride starts at the bar. I’m traveling with a bar owner; it’s only to be expected. By total and complete coincidence we have just run into one of Clem’s ex-bartenders. This ex and his girlfriend buy us a round, we buy them a round and it’s time to head to the gate. The plane is delayed. Back to the bar. This developing drunk seems inevitable and the fact is, I don’t like to tamper with the inevitable.

~o~

I have only just learned that our destination is Sarasota and that Sarasota is on the west coast of Florida. I like to think of every experience as a potential learning experience so I’m already way ahead of the game and I haven’t even finished my drink. This should be good.

~o~

The delay is never officially explained though I do see a lot of arm waving by the weather guy up on the flat screen. There is a hurricane passing through our destination. But never mind our destination; after more shots and beers I do believe the hurricane has made landfall at our point of origin right here at LaGuardia Airport.

~o~

We’re now in flight and I have Coltrane on the iPad; Equinox. Cool happened a long time ago now. So much music has happened; so much time; so many ears but this one song is such a concentrated dose of perfection that it overwhelms the before and after of popular music. I divide music as before and after this one song. You may not agree but that just makes you a putz.

~o~

The airline has blessed me with a free in flight snack. It isn’t just me, its everyone. It’s amazing what we’ve become accustomed to eat. A moderately salted chip made of crushed popcorn, it immediately reminds me of the coarse compressed paper of old fashioned egg cartons. My guess is that after extracting the corn syrup and fermenting the remainder to make ethanol the refiner gave the desiccated remains to a waste contractor who’s pals with a cattleman. The cattle refused to eat it and, left with tons of the stuff, he figured there was nothing else to be done but make it into a salty snack, put it in snappy packaging and tout the health benefits.

~o~

We land on the late side. We rent the car and find that no one is available to bring it around from the lot. We have 2 fifty pound bags of tools as well as duffels full of clothes and rigging so it’s actually a small problem, but there is a reasonable excuse for the poor service. The wind is blowing a steady 60 miles an hour outside the door and it’s raining horrendously. Maybe I’m just old fashioned but wouldn’t you think that this is exactly the circumstance in which providing the car at the door service would really be a ……. what’s a good word to use here….. Ah yes… Service?

~o~

If it wasn’t for the palm trees you could be anywhere in America that is prone to hurricanes. I say that because we have passed through miles of franchised businesses before we found something local to eat and there is a tropical storm thrashing around a few feet away from our outdoor table at Walt’s Seafood shack. Walt’s has kind of a grass covered tiki hut porch so we’re sitting here drinking Longboard Beer and eating alligator bites. Nothing happens without a beer or cocktail or shot in some peoples world. I am in the company of one of those people. It is both refreshing and disorienting. Very much like alcohol itself when I am able to think about it.

The wind is thick with moisture. Humidity has to be hovering around 110% as the sports radio guy would doubtless report it, because, you know, everything is bigger than life in professional sports. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Maybe professional sports are smaller than life and need to be exaggerated in order to bring them up to life size. Just a thought.

The wind keeps changing directions as the storm revolves around its quiet eye. We are obviously nowhere near that eye. The lights at the bar flick off for a fraction of a second along with all the other lights as far as I can see and it is absolutely black until someone’s Plan B trips into effect and all is bright again. Still, everyone seems made nervous by it. The fry cook kid who so lovingly dipped our alligator into a bath of hot oil comes out from the kitchen and tells us where the alligator comes from. “Out in the country”, as he calls central Florida, “or from over in Louisiana.” He has a slight look of distaste when he says Louisiana. It has always been my observation that in tall states like California, the north and south hate each other; in wide states like Pennsylvania, the east and west hate each other. A map of Florida looks tall and wide so maybe that means they hate everyone. I don’t know but it seems like everyone needs someone to hate and the go to first choice is bound to be your neighbor.

~o~

After a short drive through bands of blinding rain and flooded streets we end up at our motel. It is on a street of motels that all have similar names, mixing and matching words like Bay, Cove, Beach, Harbor, Key, Pointe, Grove, View, Club and Lagoon. Every motel complex runs into the next and they all look alike so it’s best to come here if you already live here. Otherwise, like us, you will need to pay careful attention to the bogus directions the front desk guy is giving us over the phone, guiding us in like a plane lost in a storm. None of this helped by the fact that the pilot and navigator are full of fried ‘gator and beer.

~o~

Up early. Let’s get this thing started. We stopped at the 7-11 for weak coffee and something claiming to be an apple doughnut. It has no apple in it and it is not a doughnut. First off its missing a hole. Secondly, doughnuts are supposed to be fried in oil, right?; not just soaked in it. On the upside it seems to have been submerged in sugar paste for 36 hours so “Apple Donut” it is.

~o~

 

We’re driving out to the house where we will be installing the work. The road is thigh deep in water that smells of sewerage. Our brand new GMC Equinox is not loving the water and starts flashing lighted little icons across the dashboard. The on board diagnostics don’t know what to make of seawater up the tailpipe but clearly this is exceeding some kind of warranty fine-print.

~o~

We get to the house, make introductions and I leave the group and walk the thirty paces to the beach. I want to assess the tide because the wind is going to be driving the next several cycles. I have already checked the tide tables and we are near high water. As the tide peaks, rolling waves pour over the dunes; the water running in widening channels down the driveway into the lagoon that used to be the front lawn. The howling winds try to strip foliage and siding and the rains overflow swimming pools up and down the Key. Talk turns to what’s playing at the local movie theater. We need to reassess our situation and the wisdom of proceeding with a plan that didn’t include a variety of elements trying to kill us.

~o~

We have no choice but to go to breakfast. We head to the local shopping center diner. It is huge, full service and utterly empty. We walk in and ask if they have a table available. There is something about a life threatening situation that brings out the best in people and the two waitresses are as friendly as can be. If time and desire allowed for it, I think we could arrange poached eggs and grits with a happy ending. Diner chatter usually revolves around the weather but in this case the lack of customers and the rising water in the parking lot makes weather talk a little more urgent. We finish up and leave a nice tip. I think our waitress may have four and possibly as many as eight extra teeth in her head but it gives her an exceptionally large smile.

~o~

I’m watching Clem closely for signs of our direction. I don’t have anything hanging in the balance here but I know he does and I’m game for anything; a matinee, a sculpture installation or ransacking evacuated beach houses; it’s all the same to me. I see his knit brow and I know he’s as sober as we’re going to be today. Out comes the phone and I know that he is calling in the experts. His sister and her husband live on the east coast of Florida and they are both exceptionally good looking. They are also world renowned oceanographers and climate experts but in this family everyone is noteworthy for there beauty. Their surpassing intelligence is a given.

The only question is “What is it going to be like tomorrow?” Clem’s brother-in-law, Kenny, is just finishing up a helicopter lesson. Kenny  says that if we’re going to do it, today is the day because no matter how bad it is today, even with the most advanced gadgets in the world, they can’t tell us what it’s going to be like tomorrow. Words to live by no doubt. Kenny is the National Geographic Explorer of the Year because he does insane things everywhere he goes but the fact is, we’re looking for an excuse to do this job and, as the saying goes, “Any excuse in a storm.” Time to call the truck.

~o~

The truck is parked twenty miles away because the driver has more common sense than we do. I am listening to Clem’s end of the phone conversation. “Yeah man, it’s not too bad, we’re gonna do the job. Yeah, yeah, just pull into the parking area just past the guard booth. Yeah, you’ll see the booth as soon as you make the turn unless it’s floated away. No man, the parking area is high and dry. Ok maybe not dry but not nearly as submerged as the rest of Siesta Key.”

~o~

We make our way back out to the house and the sewage smell has pretty much abated. The lagoon and the street are a single body of water with a very pleasant current running through it freshening everything in its path. The wind is blowing hard out of the Gulf and by this time it is clear that the tide will not be ebbing, therefore the next high tide will be the one to worry about as it overruns itself.

~o~

The owner is happy happy happy that we are going to do the job. He hasn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary about the weather. I think it must be typical of very successful people. You and I are always weighing the worst case scenario against the best possible outcome. For people like our client, best outcomes seem to be a given. One of us is clearly unbalanced but given that he owns two beach houses right next door to each other and that these are by no means his only properties; that he collects art and toys, and that we work for him and not the other way around I have to think that maybe it’s he who is tapped into the light fantastic. We’re all excited by the prospect of getting underway and the real possibility that we are going to regret this but it also has the prospect of a heroic adventure.

Oddly enough, now that we’ve decided to go ahead with this venture, it seems like a shame this raging tempest has been designated a tropical storm. I mean, if we’re gonna do this I want to do it in the teeth of a hurricane. Life is full of these little disappointments and there is nothing to do but turn into the torrential rains and the massive, locomotive winds and carry on. Oh well, you work with the hand you’re dealt.

~o~

We’re ready to begin and I climb into the driver’s seat of the reach-lift. A reach-lift is kind of like a fork lift with a telescoping boom, big balloon tires and a single, caged in operator’s seat. I’ve operated these in the past so it only takes a quick run through and I’m ready to go. Clem confirms the truck is en route, finds a nonlethal spot on the machine to sit, and we make our way back to the beach club parking area through a shower of waves crashing over a makeshift sea wall of rocks that are all that remains of the sandy beach. Throughout the day and into tomorrow we will be subject to repeated soakings from bands of circulating rain but the winds are so high that our clothes dry within minutes and the temperature is so tropical that there is never a threat of even a chill. Today I’m working in shorts and a T-shirt; tomorrow I think I’ll work in a bathing suit and a smile. There’s always room for fine tuning, you know what I mean?

~o~

Once committed to our course of action we are all business. And now that we have the tractor trailer here, we are eager to get it unloaded and back on the road before the sea carries the rest of the seawall into the Siesta Key Beach Club parking lot that is our staging area. Judging from the handsome beach club, tidy cabanas and palm shaded tennis court I have to believe that the beach here was pretty nice. It’s all angry water now.

Common sense dictates that we start with Clem’s sculpture. Get the learning curve out of the way on something we can at least replace should the need be. Nevertheless, we are starting with the biggest, heaviest and most fragile sculpture; sale price $450,000. If your gonna go down, go down big, right? Everyone, including the client, his house manager and the gallery director, has an opinion about how to carry out the transfer from truck to house, over a mile away. None of them agree with us. Well, we’re either gonna look real good or real bad. We decide, against the naysayers and take the piece in backwards. We’ll figure out how to turn it around when we get there. The advantage in our method is that we’re less likely to tip over. That seems like it’s important. Clem and I discuss the options but it’s only a formality. Communication between us is easy and neither one of us needs to be schooled. It’s very slow going as the roadway is invisible beneath a few feet of water. I don’t steer the reach lift so much as aim it through the overhanging palms and florals. The disappearing fire hydrants and mail boxes have pushed this whole outing to the point of epic.

~o~

The concrete pad for the $450,000 sculpture is about 60 feet from the crest of this dune. Maybe 50 feet. We’re getting splashed by wind driven surf. While we’re getting the piece rotated and into its final position there is a wobbly metallic sound. Everyone is looking at each other when I see the eaves fly off the house and head towards the mainland. Ok, so that answers that question.

~o~

During one of my trips back to the beach club to get a packing crate full of tools I end up nose to nose with a drowned 2012 Mercedes Benz SUV. The owner, a woman in her 40’s, was trying to make it out to her beach house to check on some landscaping she’s having done. Why she feels compelled to do that, in this storm, is anyone’s guess but my guess is that she’s an idiot. I had met the landscaper in the parking lot earlier and his high clearance truck was able to make the trip through the flood waters by taking it nice and slow. Aside from blowing smoke up the clients ass I cannot imagine what he hopes to accomplish today. The SUV on the other hand was being driven as if it were a Boston Whaler. The landscaper tells me she was leaving a deep wake in her tracks and when she slowed down, all that water converged on her. She is asking me to move the car with my machine. “Sorry lady but this machine will tear that car to pieces.” I think maybe I can tow her out of my way but she has fried the computer. The electronics won’t even allow her to put the car in neutral. The landscaper thanks me for even considering it. He says the car is five months old and this is the second time she’s done something like this. She seems nice enough but she is thoughtless in the way that only the wealthy can afford to be.

~o~

All good things must come to an end, of course, and as we finish placing the last piece on its concrete slab, that feeling of exhilaration and focus ebbs and we are able to take in the scene. The lagoon is in the street, the ocean is in the pool and the beach is in my underwear. No doubt about it, things get misplaced in a storm like this. I’m looking around and there are broken things everywhere. But not the things that are supposed to be here. Palm trees have shed a few fronds but that’s about all. The Mangroves, Saw Palmetto, Inkberry, Blanketflower, Salt Grass, Beach Verbena, Matchweed, Sea Lavender, and all the other salt resistant shrubs and ground cover look fine; healthy even. The rest of the landscaping is a landscapers wet dream. And I do mean wet. Ferns, lawn grass, Olive trees, northern perennials, decorative flowers and anything else that needs to be near a sprinkler are either stripped bare, knocked over (too much wind resistance I would guess) or wilted and burnt from the salt. Calm throughout it all are the birds. And not little birds either. Big lanky things, Herons, Egrets and Ibis that have been sitting in low mangroves as if nothing is happening at all and for them I suppose nothing is happening. Occasionally they poke at the fish swimming across the submerged lawns but, as a long time observer of birds, I’ve noticed that birds don’t seem to reflect on their situation very much. Sure they’re driven by the same anxiety to survive that the rest of us are but they don’t seem to sweat the details. Rain or shine, wind or calm, they really seem to be in the moment. It’s an enviable quality.

~o~

I parked the machine and we’re all piling back into the gallery directors SUV. I don’t know what this beast of a vehicle is but every idiot light on the dashboard is blinking it’s disapproval as we sputter along just barely keeping water out of the intake. Bubbles are coming out of the subaqueous tailpipe. With proper cropping and an overhead view, a picture of this vehicle could be mistaken for a fat man in a bathtub.

~o~

We’re back at the motel. I have water coming in under my door. I’ll bet Clem doesn’t have that happening up in his second floor room but if the roof blows off tonight I’ll have the last laugh.

The motel is ultra-standard. Two floors, outward facing box rooms, one big window with blackout shades and a huge air conditioner that does everything but cool and dehumidify. The bathroom is a study in mold.

~o~

We shower and change and go looking for dinner. All the high rise hotels around us have hurricane shutters drawn on every floor. They are sealed tight against the elements. It turns out that dinner is immediately next door in the form of a Gilligan’s Island themed establishment. In fact, most of the restaurants are open. It defies my expectations but the tourists are out and they’re hungry and thirsty and in need of a scruffy middle aged guy playing a guitar and singing along with an iPad karaoke app. He is the paid entertainment. The waitresses are pretty, the food is practically tolerable and the beer is beer. We are so tired that we quickly fall silent and relax into crowd watching.

~o~

Sometimes, maybe a lot of the time, I feel like I’m an anthropologist observing the primitive rituals of a culture that I barely recognize as my own. I live my days among these people but I share so little of their interests.

Everyone here is interacting in the way that humans typically do but it seems foreign to me. A few feet away, through a wall that is inches thick, there is a howling, shuddering storm. We have only just come in and I want to go back outside again. I want to soak it in; open my eyes as wide as I can. The wind is thick as water; I want it to pick me up. I want it to but it won’t. I am too earthbound. I don’t understand why no one else sees what is going on out there. But really, I do understand; it is feeding time and my species, like all species, is obsessed with feeding time.

~o~

We finished up at the house this morning, parked the reach-lift, toasted the whole affair with a beer and we are on our way. Its close enough to lunch time that we are able to find a reasonably good Mexican restaurant to renew ourselves at. Renew is shorthand for wolf down some heavy food and get on with the business of drinking Margaritas.

~o~

We’re walking around Sarasota Harbor, killing time before our afternoon flight. There are a dozen or more boats washed up onto the sidewalks and beaches, gently rocking in the shallow surf, waiting for an insurance adjuster. All the nice boats have weathered the storm, attached to their moorings by braided Samson lines. Every beached vessel is a once proud possession that has passed through too many hands and has, finally, fallen on hard times. I remember reading that, in the old days, elderly Eskimos, so as not to be a burden, would wander out onto the ice when they felt their time had come. Sometimes they even had a little help from the family if food was scarce or if Grandad was particularly annoying. The same rule applies here but the idea seems to be that when you are done with your boat, you wait for a big storm and then tie it to its mooring with dental floss or a medium quality shoelace.

~o~

The morning has been a lot like yesterday weather-wise but now, as the afternoon wears on there are occasional breaks in the clouds and the sun comes out for a few minutes of absolutely brutal heat and humidity. It is immediately apparent why this town is empty in the summer. When we first arrived Clem told me that this is a favorite destination for snow birds; elderly northerners who come here in the winter months to escape the cold. The winters here are lovely, so I’m told. A five minute burst of summer is grotesque. I finally understand that the shuttered buildings and lack of people is less about the bad weather then it is about the good weather. A sunny summer day here is a curse. It’s time to head to the climate controlled airport.

~o~

 

The airport is empty, and I don’t mean lightly peopled. Our flight was cancelled and we are awaiting the next one; the last flight of the day. We are the only ones at the bar and have been for hours. I’m drinking rum. We close the bar. I haven’t done that in 25 years. We go to the boarding area where the last bar is closing. More rum. Time to get on the plane. Clem says “No. Wait.” The final call is announced. A few stragglers wander on; the attendants are getting ready to close the gate. Clem nods his approval and we board. We haven’t looked at our tickets. We don’t even bother looking for our seats. We each pull into an empty row and spread out. Done.

~o~

That was awesome.