“Sure you can’t assault a bus driver,” my client said, reading the sign over the driver’s seat as we got on the bus. “Because that’s a felony. But if anyone assaults me that’s nothing.”
Considering his size and aggressiveness, in reality the punishment for assaulting him was probably the death penalty, but I wasn’t about to disagree with him.
For one thing, I could see how it’s not the same when you have to mete out the punishment yourself without any assistance from the state. It’s like having to self-publish a book because you can’t get a real publisher interested.
But besides that, Sam took a more personal view of assault than the legal system, which prescribes a coldly objective approach without taking into account the particular sensitivities of the victim.
In Sam’s case even an inadvertent tap on the leg with a briefcase by an otherwise law-abiding businessman was an assault. But the system wouldn’t allow him to do anything about all the people who happened to assault him in the course of a typical day.
“These buses are run by Communists,” he said, apparently still itching to hit the driver in revenge for the briefcases. “They don’t care about nobody’s rights.”
The driver sat at a red light, chewing gum obliviously, while Sam continued, his huge back and neck tensed, as he ran his hand angrily over his gray crewcut like it was a feathered headdress.
“The difference between America and China is in America we’re all number one in our own lives. In China everyone’s number one hundred billion in their own life.”
He was a little off on the numbers but I got the point.
“Plus if you even so much as curse out the driver, you have to stay on the bus and wait around with the doors locked while the cops finish checking out the girls and head over to throw their weight around.”
That certainly did sound inefficient, especially for the passengers who didn’t even have any political issues with the driver. But my half-hearted nod wasn’t enough for Sam.
“You think cops don’t stand around talking about girls all the time?” he asked.
I hadn’t even spotted that as the key issue, but I had no reason to doubt him.
“That’s why gays don’t try out for the cops,” he said. “Because there’s no conversation. They’d rather eat their donuts elsewhere.”
Which seemed a little oversimplified, but I kept my mouth shut.
“What’s really amazing is that the government hasn’t destroyed everything,” he said.
He motioned to the wharves, where three fishing boats had just come in with their catch.
“Look,” he said. “This just shows you Portland’s importance in industry as far as having a location.”
Then we got off the bus and he went down to the wharf where he’d been a big shot until the Chinese shipping company that absorbed his family’s business during the recession had accused him of embezzling some expensive cargo. Considering Sam had gone around telling everybody it was all rightfully his anyway, his prospects didn’t look too good.
“It’s this simple,” the prosecutor said. “There were 56 cartons delivered and there were 48 in the storeroom. You do the math.”
Meanwhile I walked over to the offices of the law firm I’d joined when my own practice couldn’t meet the bills anymore.
“What do you think of Sam?” I asked the young associate I’d been told to bring along with me.
Since Kevin was straight out of the box, he always looked fresh and clean and wore a nice suit and tie. But I wondered if he’d spent too much time in bubble wrap to make a decent criminal defense lawyer.
“He seems to have a persecution complex,” he said.
“It’s not that complex actually.”
But he didn’t get my meaning. Apparently he hadn’t paid enough attention during our chat with Sam.
I sensed he’d spent more of the meeting worrying about keeping his briefcase away from Sam’s legs than trying to figure out what Sam was really talking about between the lines.
But he tried to make up for it an hour later as we drove up to an apartment building outside Portland to pay a surprise visit to one of Sam’s former colleagues.
“How lucky is this,” Kevin said. “There’s a free space in front of the building we can pull into.”
“No,” I said. “Go past the building and park around the block.”
Then he tried to help out again in the vestibule.
“It’s 3G,” he said, checking his notes. “I’ll press his buzzer.”
“No,” I said. “You press everyone else’s buzzer.”
We went up to 3 but there was no sound inside Ron’s apartment.
I barely stopped Kevin from pressing the doorbell.
“You don’t ring the doorbell,” I said. “You call him.”
Ron answered and we hung up.
“What about now?” he asked, with his hand on the bell.
“No,” I said. “Now you knock loudly.”
So Ron let us in based on his mistaken impression that we were with the police, which he must have picked up from something we didn’t say.
But I tried to put him at his ease with some casual conversation.
“Let me ask you something,” I said. “What do you think should happen to someone who steals from the storeroom at your company?”
He gave it some thought while biting his nails.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Maybe just dock everybody on that shift a day’s pay.”
So I knew it was him. If he’d said the punishment should be ten years in prison I would have picked Kevin up and left.
“That seems a little light to me,” I said. “It’s worth a lot of money.”
He removed his pinky nail.
“Maybe it was just an accident.”
“The cops say Sam did it.”
Apparently that was news to him because he tore off his thumb nail and needed a tissue to staunch the blood.
“You’ve got to stop biting your nails like that,” I said, trying to keep the pressure on him. “You could get germs.”
But he made a last ditch effort at a defense.
“You bite your nails too,” he said, looking at my nails, which were in fact shredded on the edges.
“Sure, but I just rip off the stilettos,” I said. “I don’t perform epidermal surgery.”
Of course that little bloodletting was nothing compared to what Ron was going to get from Sam, if Sam knew Ron was sitting around biting his nails while Sam took the fall for the theft. After all, Sam was already pretty angry without even knowing who to be angry at. If the anger he felt toward a hundred billion Chinese people came down directly on Ron, it would be a bad day for Ron.
But I kept quiet about all that because Ron needed to find himself on his own.
“Well I didn’t do it,” he said, as we picked up our coats to leave.
“Okay,” I said. “I always take things at face value. If you say you didn’t do it, you didn’t do it.”
Then for some reason he started crying like he’d spent his last dollar on a lottery ticket and lost.
“If you see Sam,” he said. “Tell him I turned myself in.”
I nodded and we left.
“What’d you think of that?” I asked Kevin, as we were driving back to the office.
I expected one of his usual canned responses, but for once he came out of his suit and sounded like a real person.
“It was not fun. I might quit this stuff and do something else. Life should be a journey.”
I wasn’t sure if he was sorry for Ron, annoyed at feeling useless, or just tired of having to tag along with me. But I had some advice for him regardless of what the problem was.
“It’s still a journey even if it’s not fun.”