Monday, February 02, 2009

THE FORGETFUL TOURIST

Observant readers of the Daily Journal have noticed that my column has not appeared in the last few months. In November of 2008, my wife, Barbara, and I took an around the world odyssey to glimpse the wonders of the world. My colleague Justice Richard Mosk and his wife, Sandy, persuaded us to join them and 80 other inquisitive types who, like us, did not see the economic crises coming when they signed up. The plane was a private 757 jet, the interior of which was reconfigured with 88 first-class lush leather seats. So November was shot, and then December was spent sleepwalking in the fog of jet lag. The fog sat on silent haunches, but did not move on until January.
I could tell you about the “House of the Sun” at Machu Picchu; the towering moai of Easter Island; snorkeling off the coast of Australia at the Great Barrier Reef; the elephant ride around Angkor Wat in Siem Reap, Cambodia; the spiritual aura of the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet; the stunning beauty of the Taj Mahal in Agra, India; the giraffes and zebras stopping by our van for a visit in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania; the colossal grandeur of the Temple of Karnak in Luxor, Egypt; the walk through the gorge known as the Siq in Petra, Jordan, where one comes upon the intricate fa├žade of the Treasury, the temples and brilliantly conceived dams and waterways built by the Nabateans more than 2,000 years ago; or the bewildering maze of cobblestone alleyways, as they were hundreds of years ago, twisting and turning in all directions in the Medina of Fez, Morocco.
But I won’t. A more edifying story concerns the relationship between me and Fred, my backrest. It was similar to that between Tom Hanks and “Wilson,” the volleyball, who (yes, “who” is the appropriate word) was Hank’s best friend on a deserted island in the film "Cast Away." As the story unfolds, discerning readers will detect the principles of negligence, and issues of excusable neglect and guilt bubbling below the surface.
Our tour was scheduled to leave from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. But to get to Florida, we flew steerage class to Miami from LAX, we being my wife and my friend, Fred, who gave much needed support for my lower back. Fred was there to prevent my back from "going out," which could render me incapable of climbing the 350 steps of the Potala Palace in Lhasa, Tibet, or of surviving the lurching of our van as we accelerated to avoid a charging elephant in Tanzania.
To ensure that I would not forget to take Fred from location to location, I wrote in the first page of my travel journal - "DO NOT FORGET FRED." We landed in Miami, and I grabbed my "things." To be specific, my windbreaker, carry-on bag, and, of course, Fred.
We disembarked and squinted in the glare of the terminal where the Mosks were waiting for us. First class disembarks first. I placed my “things” on a dark-colored chair and excused myself to use the restroom. I returned and grabbed my "things" and we proceeded towards the exit. At the end of the terminal was an elevator that opened onto a platform where we boarded what appeared to be a subway car that transported us along tracks to the baggage area.
The Mosks accompanied us to the baggage area even though they had no luggage to collect. Out of an abundance of caution, Richard, known for his carefully crafted opinions, sent his luggage on the week preceding our trip to the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale. Months earlier, he had cautioned me: "Should the airline lose your luggage, you and Barbara would be in big trouble without luggage for a month." (The foregoing sentence is the expurgated version.) However horrific this would be, gathering all that was necessary the week before departure, rather than the night before, was a task beyond my capability. After several warnings, I said, "Richard, don't worry." (Another expurgated version.)
Yet, the Mosks accompanied us to gather our luggage at carousel #23. We had planned to share a cab for the half-hour drive from Miami to Ft. Lauderdale. We waited and waited; our luggage did not appear. A young lady wearing an American Airlines uniform announced in an indifferent tone, while she popped her gum, that there would be no more luggage arriving on that flight. I deserve congratulations on the manner in which I conducted myself after her insouciant announcement. I did not actually strangle her. I do not believe the virtual strangulation played out in exquisite detail in my mind's eye counts as even a misdemeanor. I also had the presence of mind to say in a cool, quiet tone, before Richard could utter a word, that I appreciated his not saying, "Didn't I tell you so ----." Dear reader, I leave to your discretion what word to place in the blank.
It was close to midnight and I suggested to Richard that he should go on to the hotel in Ft. Lauderdale while we tried to straighten out the luggage problem. "Are you sure?" he said as he grabbed Sandy's arm and walked out of the terminal.
As I seethed over my misfortune, I took solace in the knowledge that we had the entire next day in Ft. Lauderdale, time enough, I hoped, for the airline to locate our luggage. Minutes later, the young baggage lady announced with a barely discernible lilt in her voice that in fact more baggage from our flight would be arriving shortly on our carousel. Our bags emerged from the cave of darkness and landed side by side on the carousel which took them on the short journey to our eagerly outstretched hands.
We dashed out of the terminal, but the Mosks had already left. We hailed a taxi and loaded our luggage in the trunk and our other "things" in the back seat. So what if we had to pay the full fare and not share it with the Mosks? Things were working out. Just as the cab began to pull out from the curb, I realized things were not working out. Fred was missing. The episode that immediately followed this discovery I dare not relate. I am not a large person, but I became King Kong on the tower of the Empire State Building.
Let's just leave it at this: Barbara talked the cabby out of calling 911, and the back of the cab is now in reasonably good condition. I did make a significant contribution to the 2009 edition of the Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo. The cabby suggested I go back to the baggage area to see if I could locate Fred. I leapt out of the cab and raced back to carousel #23, now empty, but still snaking around on its journey to nowhere. The young woman was still there chatting on a cell phone and still popping her gum. “You didn’t happen to see.…” I said, but then caught myself. Of course she hadn’t. I had left Fred in the terminal. His color is dark brown and I had set him on a dark brown chair. He had blended in with the chair. How would you have ruled on my motion for relief because of excusable neglect?
To get back to the terminal I would have to go through security. I could imagine how smoothly that would go. I had no baggage and no ticket. Assuming I could pull that off, I would then have to wait for the little subway train to take me to the terminal. It would take forever. And it was quite likely that someone had flagrantly filched Fred. Forget it. Dejectedly I walked out of the terminal and looked for the cab. It wasn’t there. Cabs are not allowed to park for more than a few minutes at the curb where passengers are picked up and dropped off. For the past fifteen minutes, my wife had been in the cab with its meter on, circling the airport, in a strange city. I paced back and forth trying to remember where the cab had been parked.
Then I saw Barbara waving frantically from a cab. I ran to the curb that goes along the outer circle and the cab came screeching to a halt. I climbed in without Fred. Barbara took my hand and reassured me that someone who needed Fred had found him and would put him to good use. That provided a modicum of comfort. Yet, I couldn’t help but feel that I had betrayed my friend. I knew how painful it had been for Tom Hanks to leave his buddy Wilson bobbing around in the ocean.
We arrived at the hotel at Ft. Lauderdale and popped into bed exhausted. The next morning we bumped into the Mosks who had just retuned from a stroll into town. Sandy told us about a medical appliance store a short ten-minute walk from the hotel. They had an assortment of backrests. I bought one, Sylvia, who accompanied me on the trip around the world. She was a congenial companion.
I am not sure there is any moral or lesson to be learned from this unremarkable story of loss and recovery at the outset of an extraordinary trip. Maybe it teaches us about the whimsy of fate. Negligence leads to a loss, and fate steps in with a solution--sometimes. Fate also could have given any one of us the life of a child struggling to survive the harsh streets of Agra, India. These children, who surrounded us with trinkets to sell as we entered the grounds of the Taj Mahal, would likely never escape from their hard gritty lives so graphically portrayed in “Slumdog Millionaire.” The unrealistic ending of the movie seemed to satirize a romantic "Bollywood" ending that these children would never experience.
The loss of a backrest is no big deal. By the end of the trip, I learned that losing Fred taught me not to beat myself up for my negligence. I pass on this advice. Lose a summary judgment motion? Don't fret, just learn from the experience to do better next time. This philosophy works—most of the time.
Last week I was on a panel at a lawyer’s convention in San Diego. I got a ride and took Sylvia with me. I thought I might write at the top of my notes not to forget her when I leave the hotel where the convention was held. I wonder if it would have mattered if I did. I could go on, but this story is more prosaic than edifying. No point in again submitting to you a motion for relief. On the plus side, there is always next time. Wait till you see the 2010 edition of the Dictionary of Obscenity and Taboo.