Monday, December 19, 2011

Lording It Over The Landlord 12/18/11

Don’t rent from a private landlord; it was advice I wish I had heeded when, standing before a judge in a Los Angeles courtroom, I was suddenly The Plaintiff in a case I brought against my ex-landlord.

Never having been sued or sued anyone else, my experience of courtrooms in general was limited, and my experience of American courtrooms was limited to what I had learned from television – which, as it happened, turned out to be very far from the reality.

I am not someone who is easily scared by bullies, and compared to the Fleet Street editors I am used to, any landlord is always going to be mincemeat. But the court officials – blimey! They were a different kettle of fish altogether. When I forgot about a small can of hairspray in my handbag as it went through the X-Ray at the courtroom entrance, I thought I was going to be whisked off to Death Row quicker than you could say Judge Alex.

Why hadn’t I left it in my car? I was asked. I explained that I didn’t own a car – a crime in LA even more heinous than carrying an illegal can of hairspray.

When the official picked himself up off the floor, he softened towards me, asking about my accent. Clearly, he had consigned me to the dregs of LA wheel-less nobodies, assuming that anyone who couldn’t afford a car wasn’t going to be a huge risk in the acquisition of bomb-making supplies.

It had been a long journey to the courtroom – almost a year, to be precise. My landlord had returned a portion of my deposit when I left the apartment and retained a portion to cover some stains, which I acknowledged had been left on the carpet. After my paying $600, the stains had allegedly had not come out: the carpet company provided no evidence of this; the landlord provided no evidence of this; and, despite repeated requests over many months, no receipts were forthcoming for any replacement carpet.

Californian law is very clear on this, and to cut a very long story short, a landlord must provide evidence of work carried out. So, I sued.

To make a very boring story interesting, let’s call The Defendants The Addams Family. Morticia ran the company for Lurch, whose contribution to the whole tale is nothing more than a lurking, verbally threatening figure in the background. As Lurch owned the letting company, I had to sue him; I was also advised to sue Morticia, should Lurch prove elusive.

Serving the papers became a comedy in its own right and will provide plenty of material for my future projects. The Addams Family refused access to the sheriff and so, as the plaintiff is not allowed to serve papers, I called upon the services of my friend Howard, who was visiting LA.

Morticia, I knew, attended a yoga class close by and Howard and I went along in the hope of serving Morticia mid-position. Seventy-five sodding minutes we spent, twisting our heads left and right from Downward Facing Dog and whispering every time somebody vaguely resembling Morticia entered the room. The teacher came over to ask if we were new and that we should be careful not to over-exert ourselves – our dogs were obviously already way too over-active in the head department.

If I thought that employing a sheriff was something I would be unlikely ever to find in my life’s repertoire, employing a private detective was way beyond my wildest dreams; but it became clear that if I wanted to play The Addams Family at their own game, that is what I would have to do.

Private detectives aren’t that expensive and they get the job done incredibly efficiently. My own man, let’s call him Superspook, served Morticia with ease, making an appointment to see an apartment and serving her in the elevator. When she realised what was happening, she pretended to be someone else, but Superspook was having none of it.

The next job was to serve Lurch. Superspook suggested getting his mates together and going in as a SWAT team. Whooooah! I said. Lurch was an old guy who might collapse and die at the sight of a SWAT team at his door; then I’d be up on a manslaughter charge and . . . No, I really didn’t want the SWAT team.

Anyway, Lurch was subsequently served and Morticia represented him in court. After trying to intimidate me beforehand – “You’re inept”, “You know nothing about Californian law” etc. – we were finally before the judge.

I put everything I had learned from my favourite TV courtroom show, Judge Alex, into practice. Stick to the facts. Don't argue with the judge. Don't try to be a smart arse. Unluckily, my judge was nothing like the breathtakingly handsome and witty JA - or perhaps luckily, as I would probably have swooned before the words "This court is in session" were out of his mouth.

And guess what. My TV viewing paid off. The judge was incredulous that Morticia had retained monies and failed to provide any receipts. He concluded by saying that he thought we were both “very nice ladies” and “shouldn’t hate each other” (he was wrong on this - she isn't nice and I do hate her). He would take the case under advisement.

The letter arrived the next day: judgment for the plaintiff, and Lurch’s company was required to pay me back half of what they had kept, plus costs. For a supposedly inept person with no knowledge of Californian law, I was rather pleased with myself. I will also earn more money writing about it than The Addams Family could ever have made out of me.

So, what are the morals of this story?

Watch Judge Alex.

Take me on at your peril.

Because I won’t stop.

I’m like a dog with a bone.

And the only time you’ll ever find me Downward Facing is when I’m ripping you to shreds.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

So, Farewell, Then, Los Angeles 12/8/11

The smell of hops brings it all back. My childhood.

The excitement of coming to Cardiff with my parents, tempered by the dread of having to spend the day with my hand covering my nose: the sickly sweet smell from Brains brewery being the first sign that we had arrived in the big city from Newport, where we lived.

But I’ve still spent most of my adult life in the city in which I was born (albeit often living in other places at the same time); it has always been home to me and, I suspect, always will be.

Now, I’m back full time for real, and the smell of hops is still here, admittedly not as strong as it was to my young self but still a smell that resurrects the past with ease.

There is plenty that has not changed, and to walk through town is to remember so much and, for the most part, smile with the memories.

My first meal “out” as a child was at The Louis – still there - in St Mary Street. Its green awning with gold lettering (or have I imagined the gold?) is as glamorous as it ever was to me, and I can never walk past it without remembering my Big Day Out.

I had just been to David Morgan, where Mum bought us two coats and told me we had to hide them in the boot of the car so that she could break the news slowly to my dad. She can’t remember why she did that, as he was a placid man and certainly not someone who held the purse strings. She now wonders if she bought them on credit, of which he would have disapproved.

The coats were both cream: Mum’s had a fur (fake, of course) collar and mine was imitation lamb’s wool with brown buttons. It smothered me. It would have taken a week to shear me in order to get to my flesh, but I loved it and had never been so excited about anything as that first grown up coat.

It was rare for the whole family not to attend Mum’s shopping expeditions. Normally, she would park Dad, my brother Nigel and me by the Lancome counter in Howells and disappear for three hours, goodness knows where – other make-up counters, probably - but on this occasion it was just Mum and me. In The Louis, I had chicken chasseur and peas and thought I was the luckiest child in the world.

Howells I remember from my student years. I lasted two days working on the sweet counter, where a woman called Mrs Brown used to corner me between the truffles and the chocolate bars and admonish me for the smallest misdemeanour – breathing, topping the list.

It was the early days of credit cards and I used to dread people handing over their sliver of plastic and my having to negotiate this JCB of a machine, when all they were buying was 4oz of fudge. To escape the torture, I quietly told them to go to David Morgan, where they would find everything they wanted, sweeties included, for a darn sight cheaper. It was always the case, and I was sad to see the poor man’s Howells disappear in one of the many changes to the city.

The Philharmonic is still there, too. When I was a teenager living in Bridgend, I endured my first rugby international post-match drinking there and sampled rum for the first time. Lots of it. Rum that sprayed the fields travelling back to Bridgend, as I hung out of the train window, praying for death. I’ve never even been able to smell rum since without retching.

Wally’s delicatessen in Royal Arcade is now a much bigger and far more upmarket affair (so many lentils now. In my student days, I swear they sold nothing but red ones and white rice) and remains an institution. But the Chapter and Verse bookshop, where I bought the complete set of D.H. Lawrence letters, has gone, another victim of the Waterstone’s conglomerate.

Chapter Arts Centre is in the same place, but unrecognisable after its £3.8m makeover in 2006. It was converted from a school in 1971 and I used to watch Woody Allen films there on Friday nights. Afterwards, alone and depressed (my student days were not happy ones), I would ring the Samaritans from the pay phone on my way out. I never had enough money to get past “Hello”. One night, they didn’t even answer and I went round to their headquarters. They didn’t come to the door, either.

The Sherman, on the other side of town, is also still there. I was less suicidal at this venue but recall only that The Seven Swords of the Samurai seemed to be showing on a loop in the cinema – for four years.

So much has changed in the city. The plethora of cafes and restaurants lends a European air to the centre; the dominating feature is the Millennium Stadium, where once I stood queuing with my towel to get into the Empire Pool; Cardiff Bay is one of many jewels in the city’s crown and, on a hot day, a place buzzing with tourists and locals alike.

Change is good for us, and in Cardiff we are lucky in that the old continues to exist alongside the new – the indoor market, the Angel Hotel and, yes, The Louis. I wonder if the chicken chasseur is still on the menu. I might just pop in and find out.

People keep asking me if I am missing Los Angeles. To be honest, not a bit. I was there for nearly three years, enjoyed it, and had a wide variety of experiences. I even took an ex-landlady to court when she withheld a chunk of my deposit and provided no receipts to indicate on what it had been spent. I won my case and was especially proud, as she was a lawyer. I never got to hear the judge say “Judgment for the plaintiff”, but I can at least say that my horizons have been irrevocably broadened.

I made some good friends who I will miss and, come January, I will probably miss the sun. But as the rain beats down on my window as I write, and the wind howls, beating the trees to complete baldness as the last leaves of autumn fall, I still know that I have come home.

And it feels right.