Thursday, June 09, 2011

Democratic Address

Who are we? Are we our titles? Not if your name is Dr. Jekyll. Some of the time he's Hyde, the persona hidden under the doctor's respectable patina.

Titles impress some people and turn others off. Often it is better to avoid your professional epithet when not engaged in your profession, unless you're trying to book a good table at Spago's. Of course judges never do that, so I wouldn't know if it works. Titles are passé. No matter what appellation precedes our name, we are usually on a first name basis with people in most circumstances. However unequal we may be to one another in certain respects, we spread the illusion of equality in the way we address one another.

In the gym locker room, guys of all ages and backgrounds often address one another as "Dude," or with a misspelled canine moniker. "Hey, Dude, can you move your gym bag out of the way of my locker?" "No problem, Dawg." Civility and equality cohere in the locker room.

I am in favor of this informality. Picture me in the waiting room of my doctor's office. The 20-year-old receptionist who surfs in the ocean and on the web calls out for all to hear, "Arthur, the doctor is ready to see you about your prostatic hyperplasia." No one in the waiting room will pay attention, but imagine the looks I would get if she calls out, "Presiding Justice Gilbert… etc."

The informal address is now de rigueur in the most exclusive restaurants. A young man will approach your table with a greeting, "Hi, I'm Nick and I will be your server." "Waiter" is an English colonial anachronism, no longer acceptable. Implicit in the greeting is, "I may serve you, but I don't wait on you." Nick will be our server. How true. There isn't even bread on the table yet. But after we place our order, will he then serve us? Not necessarily. He may serve us by taking our order, but someone else may in fact serve it. To get in the spirit, I may respond, "Hi, Nick, I am Arthur and this is Barbara, Marc and Stephanie." Sometimes I ask a question, "Are you an actor, Nick?" "No," responds Nick, "I'm going for my Ph.D. in medieval German literature."

Some servers in one restaurant are more formal and eschew the first name. At the famous Lawry's Restaurant on La Cienega, a neatly dressed woman approached our table and introduced herself. "Hello, I am Mrs. Green, and I will be happy to assist you in making your selection." Mrs. Green and all her co-workers were dignified, yet friendly, and they could empty a bottle of Lawry's salad dressing from a bottle held high above their heads while the salad turns in a revolving wooden bowl on the table below, a feat I could not accomplish if certain death were the penalty for failure. So she deserves to be called Mrs. Green. But this is the exception.

There is such a bias against using titles that even when its use is appropriate, people often get it wrong. I performed a wedding for two actors. At the conclusion of the ceremony, I pronounced the couple husband and wife, "by the authority vested in me as a Justice on the California Court of Appeal." Some of the guests offered congratulatory words at the end of my ceremony. The famous actor John Carradine rose from his seat and, in stentorian tones befitting a Shakespearean sonnet, spoke of love, commitment and acting. He then quoted a few words I had said in the ceremony with this opening, "As the Justice of the Peace said …."

But sometimes it might be a good idea to use your title when it is necessary to distinguish you from another person with the same name. Some time ago I made a reservation for lunch at The Bistro Garden in Beverly Hills. I made the reservation over the phone, for two, under my name, Arthur Gilbert. I arrived a few minutes early. The maitre-d' was away from his "lectern" for a moment, and the head waiter, I mean server, seated me at a perfect table on a slightly raised level in the outside garden section of the restaurant. It looked out over the other tables on the flagstone patio where I had an unobstructed view of the stunning patrons spending a fortune for lunch.

While I was waiting for my friend to arrive, I ordered an iced tea. Shortly after the server came with my tea, the maitre-d' approached the table.

"I'm sorry, sir, but I am afraid you will have to move. This table is reserved for Arthur Gilbert."
"Yes, I know," I replied.
"I am sure I can find you another table," he said with a smile.
"Why would you do that?" I asked.
He looked at me quizzically. "Because, as I already said, this table is reserved for Arthur Gilbert."
"Yes, I know," I said.
"So, would you please move?"
"Why would I do that?" I asked. I allowed for a series of dramatic pauses, "when I… am… (increasing volume)… Arthur Gilbert!"
He replied, "Oh no, you are not."
Taking advantage of one of the few times in my life I was absolutely sure of the accuracy of my assertion, I answered smugly, "Oh yes, I am."
"Oh no, you are not."

The swiftness of his response and the certainty of his tone caused me to doubt whether the Cartesian axiom, "I think therefore I am," applied to me. Could I be and not be me? And that led me to question the thinking part. To prove to the maitre-d' and to me that I was me, I whipped out my card. It has my name on it. I handed it to the maitre-d'.

He glanced at it and smiled. "Come," he said with warmth and good cheer. "I have a wonderful table for you." I followed him to another table, good, but not quite as good as the one I was sitting at a few seconds before. My card proved nothing. It was so obvious. I was not Arthur Gilbert. The maitre-d' knew it and so did I. I did not have the priceless silver collection that had been housed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and then moved by Arthur Gilbert to the Tate Gallery in London, where Arthur Gilbert later was knighted Sir Arthur Gilbert in his native England.

I was not and never will be the extremely wealthy Arthur Gilbert, now deceased. Note-the preceding sentence is correct. It is certain I will be deceased, but right now I am not. Of course, I do not know when you will be reading this column. I will go out on a limb and assume I am not now deceased. I do not have vast holdings in large buildings and an impressive art collection. I have no foundation bearing my name that supported cultural television programs on PBS. I won't go into the mix-ups we have had in the mail.

The point is there is a time and place for titles. When in court it is advisable to refer to the judge as "judge" or, better yet, "Your Honor." This upholds tradition and avoids contempt. There is no need to be so formal out of court, as is the case with a neighbor of mine, who, when walking her dog early in the morning as I jog by, yells, "Good morning, Your Honor."

But here's a practice pointer for lawyers. Do not do what an opposing attorney did with me when I was in practice and we were in chambers trying to settle a case. He kept referring to the judge as "Dick." When I became a judge, a lawyer referred to me by my first name during a settlement conference in chambers. I responded by referring to him by his last name, Mr. Skimpole. I think he got the message.

It comes down to this. It is the quality of the work we do that matters, not our titles. There is a time and place for formal address and informal address.

I have been thinking about writing a novel along the lines of Moby Dick. Like Captain Ahab, the pivotal character in Herman Melville's epic, my central character also will be in quest of a creature of gargantuan proportions. Just as the whale may be a symbol for fate, or the incomprehensible nature of existence, so too the grand creature in my novel will be a symbol of the illusive ideal of justice. The novel will be told from my perspective, but I am not sure how to begin. What do you think works best, "Call me Arthur," or "Call me Presiding Justice Arthur Gilbert"?