Chutzpah and Heartless – The Pasadena Ticket
Chutzpah and Heartless – The Pasadena Ticket
When traveling down the deserted, darkened streets of Pasadena at 3:00am on a Tuesday you don’t have a lot to worry about, other than finishing your school project that happens to be due in class at 9:00am. That was me one school day morning when I was 21.
I thought I had only to put my mind on autopilot to make it home after a grueling three days of no sleep. Art Center was a tough school. Not because it was highly disciplined, but because the competition was so fierce among the other students. You want to know the meaning of shame and ridicule? Turn in a bad assignment at at one of the most highly acclaimed art schools in the world that is filled with uber talented people. If the instructors don’t do a good enough job of making you feel worthless, your fellow students surely will.
That’s how I came to be driving so late and so exhausted: trying to shoot the final assignments for the classes. When you procrastinate, (like I had), it doesn’t mean you save any time. It just means that you need to condense the time needed to finish a project into a tighter deadline. Your stress level shoots way up and sleep becomes secondary. So does safety while driving I guess. Because even though the streets seemed desolate, I realized that I just ran through a red light without even pretending to stop. Unfortunately, flashing red lights and a siren told me immediately that the streets were not as empty as I thought.
As soon as the officer came to the window, I blurted out, “I can’t believe I just did that”.
His response was not harsh, but did make me realize the how bad the predicament I had gotten myself into was. He said, ” I can’t believe you just did that twice!”. Twice! Really! OMG my autopilot doesn’t work so well on no sleep.
So if the ticket wasn’t bad enough, my schedule was so tight that I also forgot about the hearing or even taking care of the ticket via driving school. Now I had a warrant out for my arrest, AND a massive fine. OK, maybe not massive by today’s standards, but when you are the epitome of a poor starving artist college student, any extra fine can be the difference between eating or starving. For me, the fine would have meant not eating for a month. And since my weight had already dropped to only 125 pounds, eating was kind of important.
With the warrant out and a new hearing date, I decided I had better show up this time. But I would make certain that I was prepared.
The day of reckoning has arrived. Once I stepped into the echoing halls of the Pasadena Courthouse, it was obvious that I was in the sanctum of final judgment. At each window that I went up to all answers were scripted. I was told I had two possibilities. Pay the fine, which I did not have the funds to cover, or go to jail. When I asked about fighting the ticket or requesting leniency or a reduced fine or another chance, I received either laughs, stern stares, or even the sarcastic joke about a lack of intellect or awareness. At least I assumed it to be sarcasm. Either what, each cubed occupant had to inform me that sitting in the courtroom today was Judge William Hartford. The meanest, toughest, most hard-nosed judge in the courthouse. Also affectionately referred to as Judge Heartless.
Even an attorney that I spoke with out in the hall said that I had no chance of fighting the extra fine. I had already missed a previous court date, and hence blew any chance of sympathy from W Heartless. Best to just keep my mouth shut except to say “yes sir” when asked anything.
Well, how lucky for me. Seems like when it rains, it pours. It didn’t matter to me who the judge was. It didn’t matter if he never gave anyone a break. It didn’t matter if no one ever had gotten the chance that I was going to ask for. I still have to ask.
As I sat in the back of the room and observed, a patterned emerged. Every plaintiff that was called to the bench had a similar routine. They would saunter up, the charge was read the charge, they were then asked “how do you plead”. Usually they would plead not guilty and went on a tirade about why they were innocent, or even a victim. The parade of people consisted of everything you could consider. The obvious druggies and alcoholics. There were the expected lowlifes. People who you knew had no real life to speak of other coming to court so it would give them a story to tell their friends back on the street corner or halfway house. But there were also pregnant moms, nicely dressed business people, well-to-doers who brought in their attorneys, college students, basically all walks of life being brought right down to the same level.
Each person went up to the bench, tried to fight or offer an excuse, and was shot down by Mr. Heartless. He didn’t care. Didn’t notice them. He didn’t even look up from his bench to see who he was sentencing. He just waited for them to finish their monologue, slammed down his gavel and pronounced the fine or verdict. He didn’t like being there. Didn’t like the close association with the class of people that swaggered before him on a daily basis. Didn’t like how time passed so slowly with no reward to be had within the walls of the courtroom. Perhaps I am wrong on that last statement. He did seem to gain his reward by shooting down any hopes of reprieve that rested in the hearts of every plaintiff asked his forgiveness. And I was next in line.
How on earth was I going to make things work with this guy? Heck, some of those people had pretty good excuses. Way better than mine. And a baby belly surely should offer far more sympathy than anything I had up my sleeve. But I guess that this judge had become jaded and simply had no interest in another of the many stories he had been subjected to over the years. There was no way my story would make any bit of difference. Then it hit me. Of course my story won’t make any difference. So it has to be something else.
Just then: “MEL LINDSTROM?”
That was my name being called. It was my turn to make my way to the bench. So I did just that. Looking as cool and as confident as I could manage. The charges were read, and then . . . “How do you plead?” I then spoke in a firm, confident and tempered voice: “I plead guilty your honor, with a good excuse.” OMG, what did I just say? He has heard all of the excuses. Years of them. decades perhaps. He doesn’t want to hear another. Yet here it was, my only chance. “Do something different now or you’ve blown it Mel”.
That’s when I spoke up even louder, and perhaps more foolishly. “Before I tell my reason, I would ask Your Honor to look at me.”
Silence. Total, absolute silence fell over the courtroom. During that silence, every head, with every pair of eyes connected, turn towards me. I felt like a stripper in the most popular club in LA, with one g-strip left to remove. Surprise! I got his attention. Along with everyone else’s.
Complete surprise is what ol’ Heartless must have felt. Because the next thing he did was something I bet he hadn’t done in twenty years. Instead of making a judgment and pronouncing the fine, he looked up, right at me. I took a moment to allow the gasping and snickering to die down. Scanning the room I
could see the amazement and disbelief on everyone’s face, from the bailiff to the attorney I had spoken with out in the hallway earlier. Who now looked at me and actually shook his head, as if to say, “you just f’d up big time!”
The thing is though, the judge was the only one that mattered. For me to make a request that was so outrageous, kind of forced his hand. He HAD to look up. If only to allow him first-hand sight of me.
He lifted his gaze from the desktop and stared right at me. And then gave me the chance I was hoping for. “All right,” he said, “Let’s hear it.”
That’s all I needed. Everything else was already rehearsed. Everything else was deeply embedded in my psyche. The explanation of how difficult it was to keep up the pace at such a competitive school. The fact that I had to work at a job as well as go to school. The overload of credits I was taking: 24 units when 12 units was already a full schedule. And of course, the best line, about how all I was trying to do was be a productive member of society and that the burden of jail time or the financial hardship of such a large fine would ruin an otherwise very bright future. He listened.
Best of all, he listened as he looked directly at me, noticing that I was a human being and not just another piece of paper on his desk. When I finished, he had only one question. “Why are you taking such a heavy load of units?” OK, that was not
a question I had prepared for. So off the top of my head I simply, and sarcastically said, “I don’ t know, just foolish I guess”. To which the entire courtroom let out a load, synchronized laugh. A short silence followed. Which was then broken by the judge declaring, “Released with a $20.00 fine.”
Thank you your honor. Thank you very much.
Wow, what a relief. I did it! Convinced Judge Heartless to eliminate the jail time AND lower the fine. I have to admit, it felt great. But the best part, which truly was a rush to my ego, was the victory walk passing all the nay-sayers I had met on my way in. From the attorney who had given me such a dirty look only minutes earlier, to the bailiff with eyes as wide as ping pong balls, to the girl at the window where I paid my fine as she just sat there dumbfounded. Ah, success can’ be very rewarding. But no success happens without taking a chance. And the bigger the risk, the greater the reward.
Quite a valuable lesson.