The Consummate Professional (originally published January 13, 2007)

In 1997 I was the sole public defender assigned to man the small office in the Corona courthouse. We had court on Mondays, motions on Fridays, and trials sent from the county seat, Riverside, the other days of the week.

Small town courts are really something. Everyone knows everyone. One day the generally impassive deputy, Brian, looked excited. “Commissioner Glickman’s wife fell down walking into the Norco DMV. Broke her ankle, even!” Another commissioner had to recuse himself when he found his favorite Sizzler waitress before him for driving on a suspended license.

One of my all-time favorite courtroom interpreters is from that era (the other, from downtown LA, did many of the SAP newscast voiceovers and prided himself in his ability to always come up with suitable, culturally appropriate puns for the cheesy jokes newscasters make. So when Woodland Hills homeowners find a bear in their backyard hot tub, and the newscaster says, “He ‘bear’ly made it!”, the SAP translator changes it to “Que oso fabuloso!” It seems like it would take a lot of talent.)

Interpreters occupy a strange space in the courtroom. They aren’t advocates for either side. The interpreter is viewed, legally, as a machine, like a microphone, or, more accurately, one of those little pocket translators (or Linguo from “The Simpsons.”). Yet, it is hard for them to remain neutral when they are in such close day-to-day proximity with the defendants and their families sitting in the courtroom. The interpreters also get to know the public defenders very well, since they translate for them. The DAs and judges aren’t present for these interviews, of course. Interpreters also develop a cockeyed sense of knowing bits and pieces, sometimes inaccurate, of the law. Often they are surprisingly spot-on in their legal analysis and, even more so, their prediction of what the DA will offer and what the judge will do.

Interpreters tend to feel a lot of allegiance to the “common man,” the average Jose, if you will. Ted, longtime interpreter in department 22, crept up beside me one day and whispered, “I only look like I’m part of the system. I’m not.”

Victor was the Corona interpreter. His last regular gig had been in federal court, which is extremely formal, and he was in the habit of wearing impeccable suits, stylish, coordinating ties, and pocket squares. One day a crazy man with chest-length dirty grey beard blew into town on a motorcycle and was promptly cited by the local police for a variety of offenses. He was fined something like $600, which he wanted to pay over 600 days ($1 per day.) He also wanted to go back to his home state of Georgia, and for this he demanded “safe passage,” in the form of a letter from the judge. Brian, the deputy, reluctantly locked down the “Revenue and Recovery Office” (i.e. money collection window) when the Georgia biker pounded his fist on the counter in frustration when they told him he could not, in fact, pay the fine in one dollar daily increments, and Victor and I ended up sitting in my office together for two hours, chatting about our lives. We ate the better part of the box of glazed doughnuts I brought to pacify the crowd each week, and we worked ourselves up into an almost giddy state of admiration.

“Victor, you are always so professional,” I told him. I liked how he properly translated everything. With the other interpreters, the defendant would say three or four paragraphs worth of words, which would be translated in a single, grudging sentence.

“And you, Mrs Drucie, it’s not true what they say about public defenders. You are good. You are hard working. You are the consummate professional. Can I interest you in a business opportunity?” Victor told me about his Herbalife business, which most of the interpreters seemed to be involved in (including the two savvy businesswomen, themselves interpreters, who ran the company that contracted with the County to provide interpreters in every language to every courtroom.)

I drove through Corona this morning on my way to a continuing education seminar in Anaheim. I drove right past the run down apartment building where former colleague Joe lived. He knew the building was pretty bad when his upstairs neighbor turned out to be one of his drug possession clients. She gave him a tie for Christmas and our supervisor said he had to give it back, even though the value was probably actually de minimis since it was from the flea market. And possibly even stolen from the flea market.

A consummate professional constantly updates her legal skills. Or, in my case, she opens the legal newspaper on January 2nd and realizes she has 29 days to complete 14 additional hours (1.5 of which much be “live” as opposed to online or by correspondence course) of Mandatory Continuing Legal Education, or MCLE. I enrolled in a course about setting up LLCs, since that is second only to “I had this car accident…” which I am asked for legal advice from friends, family, and even mere acquaintances.

The course was given as part of Continuing Education of the Bar’s winter MCLE Fair, and took place at the Sheraton of Anaheim, a large, blocky building in faux Tyrolean style (sort of like the gift shops around the Matterhorn at Disneyland, which is one block away.)

I left early enough to pick up poppyseed bagels (now confirmed by the Mythbusters crew to cause a positive blood test for opiates) at my favorite bagel shop, get caught in a detour, confuse both the 55 and 57 and 90 and 91 freeways, and only arrive five minutes late.

On the way, my car pinged at me every few minutes, warning me of dangerous levels of frost. Being a native Californian, I can only imagine why my car would have a warning system like this. Ice, maybe? This Southern California day was indeed cold. The radio newscasters were advising people to “bundle up, especially the extremities, which means your fingers, toes, and face” and also explaining what “wind chill” means. And that’s NPR. I can’t even imagine what channel 9 is doing: colorforms of stick figures huddling together for warmth?

As I headed into the heart of Orange County, I drove past the hospital where my high school classmate, Donna Bargetto (whose family owned a winery, so she got to work part time in the tasting room), was paralyzed during the Soquel High senior class trip. None of my friends and I went on the trip. One of my college roommates, Michele, told me a horrifying story of her high school’s senior trip: a classmate was beheaded while leaning out the window of a double-decker bus in London. Winery Girl’s paralysis notwithstanding, I doubt anything that exciting happened when the SHS Knights hit Disneyland in 1987 (our 20th is coming up; Diana emailed me: “I was thinking about our 10th because I just saw ‘The Queen,’ and remembering how Princess Diana died that night.” Class of 1987 are such flakes that the 20th reunion possibly might not ever materialize. We’ll see.)

I arrived five minutes late and settled into the back row. I am probably annoying to sit next to in a seminar. I fidget a lot, and always bring my own thermos, filled to the brim with scalding hot tea, which sometimes (unpredictably, though) pops or splashes when first opened. I never can decide which pastry to have, yawn a lot, and visit the bathroom to refresh my lipstick, make a phone call, or check my teeth for stray poppyseeds. I put on fragranced hand lotion and jot memos to myself in my Moleskine notebook.

While going through my personal neurotic tic sequence, I checked out my fellow students. The class, “Forming and Operating Limited Liability Companies,” attracted a boring crowd indeed. It was about 80% men, a surprising number of whom were wearing sportscoats or even actual suits, despite the fact that it was a Saturday morning (the remainder were wearing Oxford shirts under heather or cashmere sweaters, or golf shirts and Dockers.) About one third of the room was Asian, and the rest were white. The entire room only had seven women (every single one of whom, except me, was Asian.) During breaks, the Asian students mostly gathered in knots of six or eight, discussing real estate deals and 1031 exchanges.

The woman sitting next to me ate a large Rice Krispy treat from a ziploc baggie while scribbling furiously in Vietnamese. A woman in front of me, dark hair pulled into a Burberry scrunchie, crunched numbers on the calculator function of her cell phone.

About five minutes after me, a small, trim woman in her late 70s arrived. She had white hair in a sleek bob. Her hair had a purplish, rather than bluish, rinse (purple is probably more expensive, or at least looks that way.) Her tailored jeans were perfectly cuffed over Tod’s loafers, and she wore a cashmere turtleneck. Her buffed fingernails were perfect, and on one finger, she wore a large sapphire ring. She carried an impossible-to-procure Birkin bag. I was transfixed. She reminded me of an elegant, perfectly soignee Englishwoman (now living in New York and wintering in La Jolla) Bits and I sat next to on an airplane. That woman carried a Birkin bag the color of butter and just as soft, and midway through the flight, she pulled out a cashmere throw and draped it over her knees.

I stared at the woman’s perfectly tended detailing for about thirty minutes, the way as a kid I took in every detail of my teacher’s earrings and the hem of her skirt. She asked a question about venture capital, then sat down and ate a muffin with a fork. She left at the break, so I spent the rest of the session reading “Murder at the Vicarage,” before heading back under brilliant blue skies to Temecula.

“Mom, did you know jia jia means ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in Chinese?” Eva asked later in the day. “Lori told me.” Lori is Eva’s Montessori classmate, recently back from a monthlong trip to China. Lori’s mom is the one who told me about “study hall” (for four year olds!) where the teachers stay late to help the kids finish their homework. People think there is a Jewish network of secret handshakes and Swiss bank accounts, and I laughingly say they forgot to tell me my password, but I half believe there might be some Asian network, of information sharing, at least. I know I sound crazy, sputtering, “But study hall! How do they know about study hall?!”

When I grow up, I want to be soignee like the Birkin bag muffin-with-fork woman, practical and savvy like the Herbalife-interpreter women, and into lucrative deals like the Asian MCLE women. I can’t say I lack for role models, even if they are sometimes complete strangers. If I can just be 78, happily working on a venture capital deal while draping a soft cashmere throw across my shoulders as the light glints off the ring on one perfectly manicured hand, I will consider myself a complete, unqualified success.


3 responses to “The Consummate Professional (originally published January 13, 2007)

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