The bumper sticker stuck to the refrigerator door behind the bar reads, "It ain't justice, it's just court." It's always the first thing I see when I walk in.
I generally go over to the bar every afternoon about four and order a pitcher of beer. The Lakeside Resort and Trailer Park was a hotspot during WWII. No more. The bar is a black hole in the daylight, smoky and stinking of human bodies and cigarettes and booze; light comes from the jukebox and the pool table and the television set that nobody ever turns off. The park itself isn't any better. The road is dusty and potholed and lined with tall weeds, water pipes leak, sewers stink, and wires dangle down from the maze overhead. The place is a dump. I like it because it is cheap and because I have a million-dollar view of the lake and the mountains from my old travel trailer and because the people who live there are, well, different – honest, you might say.
Depending on how hot the day has been, the rush hour into the parking lot begins about four. The pickup trucks roll in and big guys dressed in dirty jeans and sweaty tee-shirts and thick-soled boots stomp in and start yelling and drinking and shooting pool. The bartender turns up the jukebox and turns off the sound on the television. Wives and girlfriends show up from town and the park residents drift in one by one. Pretty soon they're three-deep at the bar and the place is packed. Everybody is smoking cigarettes.
Smoking in a bar would not have been a remarkable observation a few years ago and it still isn't in most places around the world, but in California today it's illegal. Who better understands how working people ought to live than Rob Reiner and his funny colleagues in Hollywood? Is it any mystery that this tiny minority has much in common with politicians? Or that they have uncommon clout in politics? Of course, they can afford the new fifty-cent per pack sin-tax on cigarettes and they can smoke and drink and snort what they like in their own bars, so what does it matter if they screw the underclass? I mean, if the working stiff is stupid enough to watch their movies, they're stupid enough to take orders from them too, right?
Wrong. The folks at the Lakeside Resort and Bar don't take kindly to being told what to do or what not to do, so the Hollywood master plan isn't working out too well there. The cops who like to prey on them individually on the streets in town are at least smart enough to leave them alone as a group in a bar. But what about that sin-tax? Would you believe that some folks will go through the trouble of buying their cigarettes out of state? You might even call some extremists smugglers. I noticed that some of these people would sometimes go to nearly any length to do what they were told not to do.
And vice versa. Common people can be stubborn. Several folks refuse to pay taxes. Maybe quite a few. It's not that they have some high moral purpose in refusing to pay taxes, they simply hate the system that collects the taxes. You see, most of these folks are ex-felons. Felony drunk driving, felony drug sales, felony this, felony that; no robbery or murder, mind you, nothing bad like that. One guy was taking a piss in his own front yard when a school bus drove past and he was arrested and convicted of public exposure and felony child abuse. Stuff like that. (Sure he was a jerk, but he wasn't a criminal.) So these people could not get a good, honest, payroll-tax kind of job if they wanted to because they are ex-felons, so each one has to find a way to make money under the table, which they do adroitly and quite admirably.
I was astonished by the many clever ways people contrive to make money, but I will not list them here for fear of exposing them to the enemy. Suffice it to say that the underground economy is alive and well in this country and that the good old American can-do spirit still thrives.
Okay, I suppose that some readers are thinking that this bar was a den of drugs and that the dirty, sweaty guys with thick-soled boots were all dealers, the sort of thing Hollywood likes to dream. Nope. These guys got dirty putting up sheet-rock or framing or plumbing or roofing or digging postholes or fixing engines. They are actually the buyers of certain drugs, like alcohol, nicotine, caffeine, and marijuana. There is a dealer living in the park, however, no surprise, under the remote supervision of the cops. The cops run the market for drugs in this town and woe to any enterprising interloper from the big city who tries to sell dope without a license.
I'm not making this up. Why would a rural resort and retirement community of thirteen-thousand residents need forty-two police cars, a fortified police station, a half-dozen cops on patrol day and night, and a barely literate police chief who owns twenty-two houses on a salary of a hundred-and-twenty thousand a year? Big-time money pours into and out of this city government and it doesn't come from little old ladies selling cookies. Residents joke about it. One resident, a tax-payer, by the way, and a good friend of mine, was shot by the cops for joking about it. So much for loud-mouthed Italian electricians; he won a substantial settlement from the city's insurance company in private arbitration for this crime. The cop went free.
One might think that a mild-mannered, middle-aged medical-technician and writer might feel threatened in such a rowdy low-life environment. Indeed, I will slink out the back door when the pool cues start flying, but I never feel like I am in danger of being robbed at home or mugged in the parking lot. I've lived in this town for twenty-years and I know almost everybody who lives in the park or who visits the bar. Some I have known as patients in the hospital. One of the first new friends I made was a gentleman who looks exactly like Santa Claus – except for the tattoos on his arms. He is, in fact, a retired machinist and a Hell's Angel. He is seventy-two and he likes my writing. Sometimes total strangers dressed in leathers and chains are buying me a beer at the bar. Somehow I feel safer here than I've felt in the San Francisco Hilton.
Some years ago, a physician with whom I worked in the emergency room, a man I truly respected, was accused of murdering a Native American child. Nine months after the alleged event, the cops and the feds arrested him in the emergency room and led him away in irons. Newspapers and wire services and television publicly convicted him then and there, just as the Grand Jury had done already in secret.
The legal ploy was transparent. First, a routine malpractice suit would have been settled out of court for peanuts, maybe a hundred-thousand, while millions were there for the taking after a murder conviction. Second, it was an election year and the State Attorney General needed a popular hit. Third, the feds wanted to destroy the secrecy of the medical peer review process mandated by the feds themselves.
The legal shift of focus from malpractice to murder had begun earlier in Denver, where nurses were charged with murder after a fatal medication error (the mistake was made by a pharmacist – who was not charged). It didn't take a genius to see that lawyers had discovered a new Mother Lode. Thousands of nuisance malpractice suits could be worth a fortune. Needless to say, we in the medical business looked at it a little differently; if they can spin malpractice into murder, then we're all in the wrong business and it's time for us to get out.
Down at the Lakeside Resort and Trailer Park, the trial of our local doctor was a brisk topic in the bar. Many of the patrons knew him from past visits to the emergency room. I was prepared to defend him, but I didn't need to. These folks knew the score, they just weren't quite sure about the game. They were trying to figure out why the state had decided to persecute this man, they knew he wasn't guilty from the start.
After over a year of legal bickering in court, the now bankrupt doctor won over his tax-supported attackers and the case was dismissed, but not before the feds destroyed the privacy of medical peer review – any advice or censure doctors may offer their peers in these meetings is now a matter of public record in court. So they won't do it, of course. They'll hold their required meetings and they'll say nothing incriminating about anybody.
I drink my beer at the bar and I look at that bumper sticker on the refrigerator and I wonder where in hell do these lawyers think their world is going? The common, ordinary, working people of this country have no faith in the system and have no respect for the system; in fact, they hate the system. I sit and I wonder, why don't we change the system? Yes, indeed, why don't we?
I suppose you could interpret my point of view as a lawyer-bashing, a popular if futile gesture of rejection. I really don't feel that way, despite having been bashed myself by a couple of lawyers. I was favorably impressed by what happened to my gut-shot buddy in private and secret negotiations between lawyers representing different insurance companies in front of yet another lawyer representing neutral arbitration. I think he got a fair hearing and a decent settlement. I don't think that criminal prosecution of the cop who shot him would have accomplished a thing, aside from forcing the cop to search for honest work. We're not going to beat cops in court anyway, it's their system. Private arbitration is something different and more and more people are seeking it. It isn't perfect, but I think it's better than court. Sometimes it's almost like justice.
April 16, 2001
Robert Klassen is a medical technician and writer now living in north-central Florida, where it’s legal to smoke in bars.