Wednesday, 23 November 2016

SA Law

Many years ago, when the possibility of living in the United States was initially presented to me, my first action was to stroll up the road to Dulwich library and have a look in their travel section. They had a copy of either the Rough Guide to America, or possibly the Lonely Planet version, and on the first page I read that Americans are a naturally litigious people, in more or less those words so far as I am able to recall. The information was offered just as guides to other countries might helpfully point out folky affectations like the Chinese love of tradition or the German disdain for littering. Americans very much enjoy taking you to court, was the implication. They will sue you if the coffee you have just served them is too hot, or if they should slip and fall in a puddle of your urine, or if the shape of your head has caused them to recall some long-forgotten childhood trauma. They can't help it. It's just how they are.

Despite having lived here for five years, I haven't yet been sued by anyone, and nor have I myself yet had cause to take anyone to court. Nevertheless, I could hardly have failed to miss the cultural emphasis on legal matters. Had I required the services of a lawyer in England, I would have had to look in the phone directory in order to find one, but here they're everywhere - adverts screaming at you from both television and billboard. At last I understand why almost every imported American television show of my childhood was about either cops, detectives, or mystery-fixated teenagers investigating the legitimacy of property rights claimed upon an assortment of abandoned fairgrounds and disused mines.

Anyway, as to the aforementioned lawyers, here are my favourites:

Jim Adler, the Texas Hammer. The hammer epithet serves to suggest that when it comes to law, this guy doesn't fuck about, whilst cannily circumnavigating problems which might arise were he to advertise himself as Jim Adler, the Guy Who Doesn't Fuck About - easily offended persons suing him for public usage of the word fuck, for example. Adler's promotional strategy serves to illustrate how some things just don't directly translate in cultural terms - an English lawyer advertising himself as, for example, Derek Fitzgibbons, the Gloucestershire Hobnail Boot would simply come across as weird and cranky and by association potentially ineffective in a courtroom scenario. Jim Adler's television commercial features the man himself, shouting at the viewer whilst stood on top of the cab of a huge truck, and specifically shouting about how much money he may be able to get for you should your car be involved in a wreck involving a huge truck. The most impressive thing is that Jim does not seem a particularly young man, but the fact of his being stood shouting his lungs out on top of a huge truck really helps to convey the idea that you probably wouldn't like him when he's angry.

Thomas J. Henry. I don't know much about Thomas J. Henry, but he seems to have offices everywhere so I guess he must be good at his job. Most of his television advertising seems to show him - a smart suited gent of stern demeanour and possibly in his late-fifties - walking towards the camera in slow motion with a slight frown. He may be walking through dry ice, or possibly a darkened hall with a lot of marble surfaces, and I have a feeling that Die Liebe by Laibach was on the soundtrack somewhere, although I could be wrong about that. Anyway, Thomas J. Henry walks frowning towards the camera and then executes a half-turn so as to stand in profile facing the viewer, like we're watching the trailer for The Avengers vs. Thomas J. Henry. Sometimes I wonder, if I went around to Thomas J. Henry's house to see if he wanted to come out for a game of football, would he walk down the hall in slow motion before executing a dramatic half-turn upon reaching the front door?

David Komie, the Attorney that Rocks. My wife and I passed a billboard advertising this guy's services as we were visiting the People's Republic of Austin. Presumably he represents those undergoing prosecution for violation of puff-puff-pass statutes or else found accused of harshing the plaintiff's mellow. His name came up during a conversation on facebook not too long ago, compelling some other person from Austin to opine I remember that guy when he was just some clean cut ambulance chaser in a shitty suit, or words to that effect, allegedly. I supposes this constitutes a lesson regarding what can happen if you live in Austin too long.

Tessmer Law Firm. They're probably very good, but I've personally found their billboards weird and off-putting. Most of them seem to show a businessy looking woman, presumably Heather Tessmer herself, smouldering into the camera as bold type asks ever had an argument with a woman? The question seems reliant on an understanding of women as being more or less as described by male comedians from the north of England during the 1970s, namely talkative and devious, bordering on evil. The question might almost be ever had an argument with my mother-in-law? Additionally, given that Heather Tessmer is notably easy on the eye, the advertising seems to suggest - at least to me - an additional promise which I won't specifically identify because I'm writing about a member of the legal profession and I'm not a complete fucking idiot.

Bryan Wilson, Texas Law Hawk. Bryan Wilson is based in Fort Worth and only came to my attention as I was googling for the identity of a San Antonio lawyer advertised by means of a billboard where a blown-up image of the guy is augmented by a giant three-dimensional fibreglass hand looming out of the poster as we drive past on our way to eat Mexican food. I was unable to deduce the identity of the man with the huge three-dimensional hand, but I found this guy instead. He begins his television commercial by running towards the camera whilst holding the national flag proudly aloft, followed by a slightly puzzling collage of images as our man roars that he is hungry for justice, then settling into an imagineered scenario in which four patently innocent men are busted by a cop during a game of - and I'm not making this up - Hungry Hippos. If this has ever happened to you, then it would seem that Bryan Wilson is your boy. I don't know much about the law, or anything at all about Bryan Wilson, but having watched his commercial I already like the guy.

Wayne Wright. I don't know much about Wayne Wright either, but he always comes across as being about fifty times more trustworthy than any politician you care to name whenever he's on the telly, which I suppose isn't that much of an achievement but seemed worth mentioning anyway. He wears a stetson and seems to know what he's talking about. Someone called Albert, writing on the company website says after I called Wayne Wright, he told the insurance company there was a new sheriff in town, which probably tells you more or less where the guy is coming from.

DISCLAIMER: This essay is intended for entertainment purposes only. No responsibility can be accepted by either author or publishers for occurrences arising from misuse of the above text towards any ends other than entertainment related. The author does not represent any of the individuals or organisations named above and makes no claim as to reflecting their interests or indeed having anything either useful or legally binding to say about them. The author has no money and isn't worth suing.

Friday, 18 November 2016

Buying the House

I never imagined I would buy a house. The timing of my birth led me to anticipate an adult life of smart suits, cheap rented accommodation, and meeting girls in coffee shops with Ricky Nelson on the juke box, something in the approximate tradition of Joe Meek, Billy Liar, Hancock and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. The promise of living in a socialist country seemed to be that I need not worry about having somewhere to live.

For American readers who don't actually know what socialism is, or who think they know what socialism is but don't - like my idiot neighbour with his lawn sign proposing we choose freedom not socialism - for those people, here's the short version.

If you're reading this, you almost certainly live in a civilised society by some definition, and a civilised society with an infrastructure provided for the benefit of everyone. Your willingness to contribute to the infrastructure is implicit in your choosing to remain in civilised society. Your contribution will usually take the form of taxes by which roads, healthcare, and public works are financed. If you don't wish to contribute - keeping in mind that you also benefit from this system - then nothing is stopping you pissing off into the wilderness and living in a cave on nuts, berries, and whatever you can catch. Living in a civilised society doesn't mean you get to decide the worth of the infrastructure based on what you're getting out of it, what you've decided you should be getting out of it, or what you think other people are getting out of it but shouldn't. If your main concern is what's in it for me? then you don't belong in civilised society, or at least are yet to achieve adult status therein.

Unfortunately socialism was on the wane by the time I left home. Rents were going up, wages were going up but not at quite the same rate, and the possibility of buying your own council home meant that those who, like myself, had never really seen the appeal of buying a house were increasingly obliged to rent accommodation from private landlords or letting agencies with rates dictated by the almighty market. In 1984 I rented a room in a shared house for ten pounds a week. In 2009 I was renting a tiny single room flat in Camberwell for ₤750 a month. It was the cheapest place I'd been able to find and it cost roughly two thirds of my monthly wage. By the time I came to understand the desirability of buying a house, I knew I would never be able to afford one.

The problem was eventually resolved when I came to get married and moved to Texas. My wife, who was at the time just my girlfriend in another country, lived in a first floor apartment in San Antonio. The apartment was a decent size, but too small for us as a family with myself added to the equation. She began looking at larger places to which we could relocate, preferably somewhere with a garden for the sake of the kid. Then about a month before I was due to fly, she sent me an email with the attached floor plan of a house.

What do you think? she asked.

It looks fine, I told her.

Actually it looked about four times the size of anywhere I'd ever anticipated living, which was nice. I wasn't overly bothered about where we ended up so long as it wasn't too shit and wasn't actually smaller than my Camberwell rabbit hutch had been.

A month or so later we were shown around the place by some relative of the owners with a view to renting. I'd never even considered renting an entire house, but it worked out at about half the monthly cost of what I'd been paying for my south London broom cupboard. The place wasn't perfect. The owners hadn't bothered cleaning it or fixing anything before showing us around. It could have done with a lick of paint and a couple of the air conditioning units had seen better days. The yard was a barren football pitch of sand and dead plant matter. A few of the doors didn't quite close or wouldn't stay closed, and a hole had been punched in the kitchen wall for some reason. Best of all was the knackered metal frame of a large glass-topped table rusting away in the garden, the sort you can buy at Walmart for about twenty dollars, but with no glass in it.

'You could have a circle of glass specially cut for that,' our man suggested optimistically, because that shitty rusting frame of a cheap piece of crap from Walmart was - you know - such a lovely piece.

In spite of everything, I loved the place. It seemed huge to me, and owing to the way San Antonio sprawls across our corner of Texas, it didn't even feel like it was in the city. We said yes, moved in, and got married.

Over the next five years I transformed the yard back into a garden. We made little improvements here and there, rolled the skeletal Walmart table around the side of the house along with the corpse of a propane grill so as to present an impression of having nothing worth burgling. We acquired cats and paid rent.

Eventually, once we noticed how settled we'd become, my wife suggested that we might like to see if we can buy the place from the owner, reasoning that it wouldn't be significantly more expensive than renting, and it would mean we could make our own improvements. This seemed desirable because getting our landlady to fix anything - like what a landlady is supposed to do - was never easy, and it was getting ridiculous.

Her name was Mrs. Species, which is as close to her actual surname as is practical for the purposes of this essay.

Our kitchen sink developed a drip which eventually turned into a steady trickle, and the pipes beneath the sink had seemingly fused solid meaning that repairs were beyond my admittedly limited powers. My wife phoned Mrs. Species, who seemed mainly concerned about the terrible expense of getting a tap fixed, apparently missing the point that this was her job regardless of how much it cost. When a couple of blokes finally came to effect repairs, an undertaking which took all of five minutes, I noticed that the plumbing company was actually owned by Mr. and Mrs. Species with their name on the side of the truck and everything, which really begs the question of why all the whining over expense. Mr. and Mrs. Species weren't the worst of landlords, but they were nevertheless pretty crap, and her phone manner suggested that she seemed to believe we were living in a mansion for which we should be eternally grateful, the sort of dwelling in which one might reasonably expect to encounter Trump or Liberace or Puff Daddy.

The gold-plated taps were fixed, but we knew the air conditioning units weren't going to heal of their own accord, and so my wife made Mrs. Species an offer based on other houses of similar size and repair in our neighbourhood: ninety-thousand dollars.

Mrs. Species said no.

One year later, my wife tried again.

This time it turned out that Mr. and Mrs. Species had indeed been thinking of seeing whether we might be interested in buying the palace from them. They couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So the wheels were at last in motion, and they took us to the figure of one-hundred and twenty thousand. We didn't bother replying, it being thirty thousand more than the place was worth; and then came a reminder pointing out that they had always intended to sell the house, and would be selling it soon, and it would be nice if we could buy it seeing as we were already living in it, and maybe we might like to think about getting around to accepting their generous offer before the place was sold to some other lucky couple - no pressure or anything.

My wife paid an independent appraiser to take a look at the house. The independent appraiser valued it at ninety thousand dollars.

Mr. and Mrs. Species couldn't possibly accept ninety-thousand dollars, but we'd work something out. So they paid for a second independent appraiser to come around and take a proper look at the place. By amazing and happy coincidence, this one valued the house at one-hundred and twenty thousand, the very sum which Mr. and Mrs. Species had been hoping for. The first appraiser must have been mistaken or something, but to be out by thirty-thousand dollars - gosh! What a silly goose!

We went along to where Mrs. Species worked as some sort of guidance counselor. Mr. Species turned up, and we all spent a couple of hours signing forms. We had the usual conversation about my being from England, and how they once went to London.

A month later we signed another load of forms, failed to get the thousand dollar deposit returned as our rental period ended, and  became owners of the house. I looked up Mr. Species on the internet and learned that he was a high court judge of some description and considerable reputation, recently retired to sit on the board of some massive company. He's buddies with the governor of Texas and all sorts of important people.

One way of looking at it is that we were seriously ripped off, and that the massive coincidence of the sum produced by that second appraiser doesn't say much for the legal system here in America, nor the worth of your average high court judge. My wife reasoned that whilst ninety-thousand dollars might have been a fair price, we might reasonably have expected to pay another ten on top of that, and we've saved the expense of having to move, and we're also paying for never have to deal with Mr. and Mrs. Species ever again; so that's the way we've chosen to look at it for the sake of a quiet life.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

The Second Gun

We're in Fredericksberg, a town founded by German settlers in 1846 and built with local limestone. Owing to the parallel time and material, the place bears a disconcerting resemblance to Moreton and Stow, English market towns in the Cotswolds just down the road from where I grew up; and Fredericksberg is likewise given over to gift shops, the sort of labyrinthine indoor mazes which would be termed arcades if it didn't lower the tone.

They sell objects of the kind which you pick up, examine, will probably describe as neat if asked, and then set down again - some quite nice in their way, some pretty crappy, and all with the same folksy handcrafted quality. We browse key-rings, polished rocks containing fossils, ceramic farm animals, slightly bewildering paintings showing assembled presidents Kennedy through to George W. enjoying whisky and cigars together, even rusty old horseshoes presumably dug up from around the surrounding country and signifying the old west. Punchlines to old jokes or corny observations made as guests depart were once limited to spoken media and other features of the moment, but one can now find such phraseology painted, stamped, scored, printed, embossed, and even branded onto tidily stressed rectangles of wood suitable for hanging around the family home: don't let the door hit ya where the good lord split ya, or everyone is entitled to my opinion, or always kiss me goodnight - which someone other than myself gave Bess one Christmas. We considered the thing as it emerged from its wrapping, exchanged a shrug, then left it to gather dust on top of the display case in which my wife's running trophies are roughly assembled if not actually displayed, and there it has remained ever since as a monument to good intentions, poor judgement, and the guilt generated by tacky presents.

On the other hand, my dad very much seemed to enjoy the rusty horseshoe I gave him a few Christmases back, presumably through having grown up with tales of the old west as the most commonly available form of entertainment. With this in mind, here we are back in Fredericksberg with just a couple of months to go to Christmas - time enough to have something packaged and sent off.

The woman behind the counter is called Brandy, going by her name tag. 'Well, I can tell where you're from,' she chuckles, taking my purchase and hunting for the price sticker.

As usual, I'm wearing a stetson because the sun in Texas is hot and I burn easily - should an explanation be necessary. I'm also wearing the shirt I bought from Victoria's Thrift Mart on the Blanco Road - short sleeves, red, white and blue with the lone star of the state flag. It's one of my favourite shirts. They had a job lot of them when I bought mine, and my guess is they originated either with some steak joint or a gas station that went out of business.

'I'm not really from Texas,' I confess, feeling suddenly as though I've been caught trying to pull a fast one. 'I'm from England. I'm just trying to blend in.'

Brandy seems delighted and amazed. 'Where are you from in England?' My wife later tells me that she added we get a lot of Australians in here, but apparently I missed this particular footnote.

'I'm from London,' I say, 'sort of - well, I lived there for twenty years.' Every time someone asks, I have to take a moment to work out where I'm from, and answers might legitimately include Coventry, Kent, London, or Stratford-upon-Avon depending on which seems least likely to invite further questions.

Meanwhile, the other cashier has finished giving a demonstration to a fellow customer. The other cashier is a little guy. He looks vaguely Latino and wears a device of moulded plastic across his knuckles. He squeezes his fist and tiny sparks dance around the metal strip along the front, repeating the demonstration.

'What is that?' I ask.

'It's a stun gun.'

'I could have done with something like that when I was a postman.'

Brandy is similarly impressed, and gets to talking about guns, how it might be safer to carry one of these things than a firearm, then turning back to me to offer something sounding like an apology. 'It must be kind of weird, I mean with the guns here—'

'It's no big deal,' I say.

'I mean you don't have them in England but, we—'

I've already heard the disclaimer, and I always recall the testimony of my friend Stuart from Scotland. He has relatives in Dallas and whenever he comes over to visit it seems they're queueing around the block to show him their assault rifles. I've a sneaking suspicion he may be paying for some offhand remark made many years ago expressing reservations about the NRA.

'I've been here five years,' I tell Brandy, 'and I've seen one openly carried gun in all that time.'

It was a guy I passed on the Tobin Trail. He was cycling along with a rifle of some description in one hand. I didn't find the encounter scary, just weird. I've seen cops with guns in holsters of course, but I'm not sure they count in the same way.

Stun gun boy raises the front of his top so we can both see the handgrip of a small pistol protruding from his pants.

'Well, now I've seen two,' I say.