The Life of Johnston

Awful But Cheerful

18 March 2020

Dear Max,

Would you like to hear my plan to save the world? I’ve even thought of a name for it: RCI (Rolling Controlled Infection), and it’s basically a worldwide program of low tech vaccination. I’m sure others have thought of this before, but I refuse to Google it. I want to prolong this cheerful period of feeling that I really have thought of something useful and new.

I’m starting with these facts (I hope they’re facts) in mind:

  1. Infection confers immunity (if you survive).
  2. Most people do survive.
  3. An actual vaccine won’t be available for at least a year.
  4. Almost all of us are going to get this thing eventually.

I also have in mind that story from The Great Brain where one kid comes down with the mumps, and Mama puts her other two sons, who are still well, in bed with her sick son, so as to get the infection over with all at once, for all the kids. It’s all done under Mama’s watchful eye, and of course she takes wonderfully good care of them.

In my scheme, Mama is the Federal Government of the United States of America, and her sister nations around the world. The program would deploy mama’s tactic of deliberate infection, but instead of getting everyone sick at once, the idea would be to take turns. In other words, since almost all of us are going to get infected sooner or later, we might as well try to do it in a controlled way that gives the old and vulnerable their best chance.

Here’s how it works. A group of volunteers (young, healthy and childless–in other words, not me) gets deliberately infected and then quarantined. They get sick. Almost all of them get better, maybe even every single one. They are now immune and (just as important) known to be immune. Their job is to provide whatever services are needed for people who must remain isolated in their homes because they’re old or otherwise vulnerable. The next wave of volunteers goes. Most survive and now they’re immune too. They go back to work and school and shops and restaurants etc. Their job is to resume normal life and spend money. The next wave goes. And the next. And the next. 

Some people would die, but of course that’s going to happen anyway. And there would be fewer deaths than if we wait for some price-gouging vaccine. And for the volunteers who do die, there would be a huge cash payout for their surviving families, plus the thanks and praise of a grateful nation. 

Some people wouldn’t want to take the risk. That’s fine. As Grandma Clara used to say, “The many protect the few.” Meaning, as with any vaccination program, they could opt out and still have a low risk of infection because almost everyone around them would already be immune. No judgment. (You selfish assholes.)

If this plan, or anything like it, gets implemented and I don’t get credit, I’m going to be so pissed. Not that I really think it’s original. Didn’t Edward Jenner do this–or something like it–with smallpox?

18 March 2020

Dear Max,

All right. I can see some challenges. Like what about kids? I’ve read that kids who get infected don’t seem to get that sick, and I cling to that. But still. I’d want other people’s kids to go first, and I’m pretty sure everyone else would feel the same way.


I just read over my last few days of diary entries, and I can imagine that the cheerful tone I’ve been taking will soon sound pretty off-key. Maybe it already does. I’ve gotten in trouble before when writing about catastrophes. They just don’t seem to bother me that much. But I heard on the BBC World Service that 500 Italians died yesterday. In one day. It’s awful, that’s all. 

Today is my day to go into the office. We’re all taking turns. By “we” I mean the lawyers and paralegals. The secretaries and custodians and security guards still have to show up every day. I feel sheepish and grateful, slinking in. What’s more, I have a really good face mask. Teresa had it out in her studio. Most people can’t get masks. And the question is, can I live it down?

The Shiny Sheets

14 March 2020

Dear Max,

Have I really not mentioned the Corona virus? Enzo’s school is cancelled for the next two weeks. Starting on Monday, I’ll be working at home four days a week. We’re not going to the Y. Movie theaters are closed. It still feels a bit like a holiday, a whiff of excitement, news to keep up on, but I’m pretty sure that by the time it’s over, Enzo, Teresa and I will be running out to get a three-way divorce.

I’ve had lots of ignoble thoughts. Like, I guess there’s hope for the Social Security Trust Fund after all. (But of course I don’t want my old people to die.) Or, Maybe all the doddering old men still running for President (especially the incumbent) will get infected, and we get back to Elizabeth Warren. (But, oh, she’s old too.) These are the kinds of thoughts that the gods tend to notice. And their punishment is swift. 

I just read in The New York Times that Italians stuck at home are out on their balconies singing. Bless them. 


17 March 2020

Dear Max,

On Sunday, Teresa worked out Enzo’s home school plan and pitched it to him. (Math, reading on his own, handwriting practice, violin practice and maybe typing.) All this happened while I was at the office, doing all the work you have to do in order to work at home for a few days. So I wasn’t there for the pitch, but she said he accepted it. Barely. (Good thing Teresa has kept up on his math this year.)

Enzo and Teresa also found a show to binge on together, after home school. The Walking Dead, nine seasons, plenty of violence. Yesterday they watched three episodes. I asked Enzo how our current situation compares to a zombie apocalypse, and he said so far it’s not as bad.

Our attempts to comfort ourselves by shopping have yielded mixed results. We don’t have a thermometer, so last week Teresa went out and bought two, one from Target, the other from Walgreen’s. Each was the last one left, sitting alone on a bare shelf.  When she came home, she wondered why these particular thermometers were still available when everything else was sold out. She read some product reviews and learned that she’d just purchased two pieces of trash. Since wrong information is worse than none at all, we haven’t even opened the packages, and the receipts are rubber banded around them for eventual return. And we still have no thermometer.

So I decided to take my baseline temperature with the Thermapen, an instant-read kitchen thermometer. I hope it goes without saying that I didn’t actually stab myself in the flesh. (I am not a rump roast.) Nor did I stick it up my ass. I put the metal sensor in my armpit. It was cold and sharp. The digital readout said 94. I did it twice and got the same answer both times. So assuming that my current normal temperature is about 98 degrees, we can surmise that the Thermapen-in-armpit result plus four is the patient’s actual temperature. I can’t wait to explain this on the phone to the advice nurse if we get sick.

I tried to get Enzo’s baseline Thermapen temperature. He let me put the sensor in his armpit for a few seconds but then squirmed away. “You’re scaring D-Day with that thing.” It was true. D-Day was curled up in front of the fire, eyeing me warily.

And then there’s the run on toilet paper, absurd, of course–but what if they’re right? And it’s not like it goes bad. And a bail of toilet paper can double as a little side table or a low TV tray. At any rate, Teresa ordered some online. The only kind left were those big rolls that you see in public bathrooms. I’m not sure how many she got, but I assume we’ll use it all up eventually. As for a dispenser, I have a vision. Just stay with me on this. First you have to picture our bathroom. The toilet is in its own little alcove, almost like a tiny closet with no door. So we get a short but sturdy tension curtain rod, thread the rod through the cardboard cylinder at the center of the toilet paper roll and then position the curtain rod between the two side-walls of the alcove, just over head-height. The user simply reaches up, grasps the tail end of the roll and gives a gentle tug.

I think we’re all going to learn a lot from this crisis. Like how to make do. Maybe improvisation and is more fun than infinite choice and instant delivery. And if my toilet paper contraption comes crashing down on my head, so what? It’s unlikely to kill me.


Teresa got an email from Amazon. They cannot fulfill her order of industrial sized toilet paper. That’s all right. I have a secret plan: switch to a French press and use coffee filters. Also, Teresa has assigned us each our own bandanna to use as a cloth napkin so that we can save the paper napkins for the other end. My assigned bandanna has the American flag on it. Teresa showed it to me and then gave me a quiz: which one is yours? I placed my hand over my heart.

Happy Ending

14 February 2020

Dear Max,

Teresa says I should complete the story of the shit. 

After we got back from the vet, Colin retreated to his crate for a while. That afternoon, I took him for his walk. He was still moving with a sort of frantic quickness, as if trying to escape from something inside himself, but he gradually slowed down, sniffed a few times, peed a few times. He tried to head home, but I persuaded him to keep going. We visited all his favorite poop spots. I played it casual–looking around at the beautiful day, no pressure–but I did get the poop bag out of my pocket and sort of rustle it, hoping that the auditory cue would stir him to action. Finally, at one of the last poop spots on my list, it worked. He started to circle around in a purposeful way and then went into his squat, assuming a look of remote concentration. I looked away, giving him privacy. The elm trees along the street were perfectly bare, every twig distinct, with a pure blue sky behind them.

The poop was big but not monstrous, gleaming in the late afternoon sun. I took several pictures and had a brief fantasy of dropping my phone in the poop and then explaining to the tech support people at work how that came to be. And I wasn’t even using my work phone. My mind just does that, it flies to problems. I texted the photos to Enzo and Teresa. Then I bagged up the poop and had a big pet session with Colin, behind the ears and jaw the way he likes it.

 “So brave! So good! And so good-looking! Even your poop is good-looking!”

When we got home I weighed the poop (in the bag, of course), took a picture of the bag on the scale and then a close-up of the number: 198 grams. Teresa had answered my first text with three different happy faces and three thumbs up. I replied with the photos of the poop on the scale, sending them to Enzo as well. They didn’t text back, but later Teresa told me that Enzo and his friend were in the back seat of the car after track practice, looking at the photos and discussing the strange obsessions of grownups.


February 6-9

Dear Max,

Remember the old lady at the Y? The one with the walker? I saw her again in the locker room yesterday, and it turns out she has a cane. In this diary of record, I feel an obligation to issue this correction. And I wonder how many other facts I get wrong and then put in the center of a bunch of big thoughts? Oh dear, oh dear. Johnson would not have this. 

I noticed the cane because she was standing at the counter steadying herself with one hand and bending down to pick it up from the floor where it had fallen. It took her a very long time, like a crane going down, down, down, all the way down to pick up an I-beam. I watched,  wondering if I should go over there and pick it up for her. There was plenty of time to get there, but I had zero clothes on, and she was fully dressed, which would be awkward, even in a locker room. Besides, she was doing it on her own. Success wasn’t in question. It was just a matter of how long it would take. She recovered the cane and got underway. 

But back to the problem of wrong facts. I once told Teresa that, before they were famous, A Flock of Seagulls played at one of my highschool dances. She knows how old I am, when I was in high school, and when that band was big. And she said, “That’s not possible.” She laid out the timeline, and we concluded that it must have been a cover band. But even after having learned the truth of the matter, the ghost of that wrong belief still sometimes inhabits my mind, and I have to re-correct myself. It was A Flock of Seagulls, everybody said so. But no…

I’m trying to figure out if there’s a relationship between the sturdiness of wrong facts and the long life of bad ideas. I wrote a bunch of stuff trying to answer that question and got all tangled up in bad ideas–who gets to decide–bad for whom?–what qualifies as a long life?–and now I’ve lost interest. 

Let’s stick with wrong facts. They’re not harmless, and even trivial falsehoods are worth guarding against, because who knows where they’ll end? You start with A Flock of Seagulls at a high school dance and next thing you know half the country thinks Barack Obama was born on the shores of Lake Victoria.

(I wish I could find the spot in The Life where Johnson says that so much better…)


I took a day off work last week because Colin wouldn’t eat, and that’s never happened before, and I wanted to be there when Teresa took him to the vet. Four ears are better than two for medical explanations. And I was worried. He’d been trembling all over and had yelped in pain a few times. He wasn’t himself. Sick animals are harder than sick people because they can’t talk and because with anything life-threatening, you have to think about money, which is horrible and intrusive and confusing.

The vet did some blood tests and X-rays and concluded that he just needed to take a giant shit, which would clear that way for the giant fart that was trapped behind the giant shit. She showed us the shit on the X-ray, and it did look uncomfortable. 

On the drive home I recounted the story of Grandma Clara, who was taking some medicine that stopped her up, and said, of her need to shit, “That is my number one priority!” When it came to the final line, Teresa silently mouthed the words along with me, to which I replied that if she wants to hear new stories, she can get a new wife. And who knows, maybe her stories will be boring the first time.

A Few Extra Yards

Superbowl Sunday

Dear Max,

Lap swim at the Y comes right after a water exercise class that’s attended almost entirely by old ladies. I’d better define old, since that number keeps increasing as I get closer to my previous definition of it. Old used to be sixty and up. Now it’s about eighty and up. (Pretty soon it will be dead and up.)

Anyway, most of these women are probably between sixty and ninety, and when I’m changing into my swimsuit, they’re showering and changing into their clothes. It takes some of them a very long time. The other day, after I had swum for half an hour and showered and gotten dressed, there was still one woman there. She had a walker. She was neatly dressed. She was making her way across the locker room toward one of the exits, but her packed bag was still sitting on the bench.

I asked her if I could carry her bag, thinking she would reply something like, Oh my goodness, I almost forgot it! But she said she wasn’t leaving. She was going over to the sink, all the way across the locker room, to wet a bit of her hair. She had blow-dried it, but it hadn’t turned out right, and she was going to re-do it. As she spoke, she stopped and took one hand off her walker and touched her hair. I packed up my stuff, and when I left, she was still moving slowly across the long expanse of empty locker room toward the sinks. 

Riding home, I couldn’t figure out if that was useless vanity or dazzling courage. I’m going with courage. It’s strange to think how common it is and how invisible. You think you’re looking at a nicely turned out old lady, and really it’s a comet blazing across the sky. If you only knew.

My mind keeps going back to that play by George Kittle in the Niners-Saints game a few weeks ago. You know the one I’m talking about, they keep playing it on TV. (Or maybe it’s just Enzo who keeps playing it on YouTube.) I don’t know football language well enough to use it correctly, and most of the readers of this blog wouldn’t understand that terminology anyway, so I’ll just say that this play occurred at a point in the game when getting a few extra yards was the difference between winning and losing.

(later) I just watched the end of that game again. Here’s my play-by-play:

When the officials called the two-minute warning (meaning two minutes to the end of the game), the score was Niners 45, Saints 40. I was starting to feel pretty good. The Niners had the lead, and the game was almost over. Surely it was just a matter of not blowing it. But Teresa was uneasy, and more than uneasy, because the Saints had the ball and were advancing down the field in excellent style. (If Enzo were writing this, he inform you that the Saints’ quarterback is one of the greatest of all time.)

Niners: 45, hopes sinking. 

Saints: 40, hopes rising. 

And indeed with 53 seconds left to play, the Saints scored a touchdown.

Niners: 45

Saints: 46

The Saints tried for a two-point conversion, which would have put them up by three. That fell flat, but they still had the lead, and now the game was really almost over. 

The Niners started on their own twenty-five yard line.

First play: eight yards forward.

Second play: Nothing.

Third play: Nothing. 

Ordinarily this would be the time to punt the ball back to the other team, but this was the end of the game, so that didn’t make any sense. The Niners went for it.

It was a short pass to Kittle. He caught it. He got tackled. But he did not go down. Another Saints defender joined the tackle. And still Kittle did not go down. A third Saints defender joined what was now a sort of mosh pit around Kittle, who kept moving down the field, a kind of lurching, lunging progress. By the end of the play, the Niners were in field goal range. They ran another few plays, to little effect, then, with two seconds left to play, kicked a field goal.

Niners 48

Saints, 46. 

All this to say: Heroes. They walk among us. (And some of them have walkers.)

Magic Show

31 January 2020

Dear Max,

When I was in grad school, there was a woman in the program who had this whole writing ritual. She’d burn incense and play music and light candles and conjure up this atmosphere, and when everything was just right, she’d Create. And the most  irritating part was–her writing was good. 

At the time, good or not, my contempt was almost without measure. I brought up Trollope crossing the Atlantic, writing and barfing, finishing one book halfway through the voyage and starting the next book the next day. And I always turned in a lot of writing, usually managing to work in a boast about how I wrote it on the BART, or similar.

Oh how the proud are punished.

Because I, who don’t believe in stuckness, am stuck. 

And I keep casting about for just the right set of circumstances to get myself unstuck–a different computer, a better chair, fewer dogs, no family, a competence. I’ve even fantasized about a legal pad with nice thick paper and a pen with a nice thick nib. Wouldn’t that concentrate the mind wonderfully? And I don’t even write on paper. And of course it’s my own dear self that has to be different.

Maybe I should go the incense route. I’m perfectly willing to chant, mutter incantations, turn around three times and stand on my head. I’ll propitiate whatever gods you’ve got. But I don’t know what they want from me. 

I’m trying to draw on what I’ve learned from my lifelong battle with my ass and apply it to my writing. You might not know to look at me, but I have actually triumphed over my ass, and now we’re friends. Anyway, lessons learned:

  1. You have to put in the time. Dang it.
  2. Lowering your standards is a big help.
  3. No one is paying any attention. Do it for yourself.
  4. Don’t set up your life in a way that guarantees failure. Give yourself a half a chance.

When I say I’m stuck, I’m referring to my alleged book and the fact that I don’t know how to write a plot. Turning that crank that makes the next thing happen is just so hard for me. Clunk, clunk. I’m a mechanic trying to do the job of a magician.

He Started It

Quick Note. I’m trying to write a longer thing about a case that I worked on many years ago. See recent posts Abandoned Heart and What Happened. To distinguish the blog posts that are part of the long law project, I’m going to make them purple. So, in purple, read and discover…

When we were kids, ratting each other out to the local authorities, we’d say, “She did such-and such, on purpose, for no reason!

And the usual retort was, “She started it!”

How well we understood the elements of a crime: act, intent, no justification. On purpose for no reason! And the retort, she started it! covers the last element: causation, which looks at who set the whole thing in motion and who was just reacting and whether that reaction was reasonable and foreseeable. 

A few years ago, Enzo and I got to talking about violence and justice, two of the very few interests that we share, and I explained all the different kinds of homicide, from first degree murder all the way down to justifiable homicide, where you kill someone in self-defense, to save your own life or the life of another person. And even at nine or ten years old, he completely understood that intent is everything. Your heart has to be in the wrong place, or it’s not a murder. 

So I was thinking about all this and about how nicely criminal law corresponds to our natural sense of justice, and to test the theory I told Enzo and Teresa the facts of the case that I’ve been trying to write about. Then I asked them what they thought each of those guys was guilty of.

Enzo said, “The guy who shot first. It was his fault.” (He somehow missed that there were two shooters, but put that aside for now.)

“What would the shooter be guilty of?”

After a few seconds he said, “Attempted murder and manslaughter.”

Teresa said, “What about the guy who started the whole thing? If he hadn’t been in a gang and out causing trouble, that three-year-old boy would still be alive.”

I asked Enzo what he thought about him—the guy who started it all and then got shot at—was he guilty of anything?

After a few seconds he said, “Manslaughter.”

That’s not the answer I was hoping for, but it’s pretty much how the case ended up, at least for Julio, who pled to a vehicular manslaughter and a felony hit and run for seven years and four months is state prison.

It’s too bad he didn’t go to trial. That would have made a much better story. And he had a good chance of walking—all he did was say stuff! But Teresa and Enzo’s reaction shows how risky that would have been. Because once you accept that just saying something is an act, it’s almost as easy to get to murder as it is to get to manslaughter.

So I get why he pled, but it still sticks in my craw. Normally, when someone shoots at you, you can shoot back and kill them and still be on the right side of the law, as long as you were acting in reasonable, good-faith self-defense. (See justifiable homicide, above!) And if your bullet goes astray and kills an innocent by-stander, it’s the original shooter who would be charged with murder. Enzo’s first response was right. The guy who shot first, it was his fault.

And Julio didn’t even shoot back. He ran away. It’s as if all the usual rules went out the window because he was in a gang. The hit-and-run charge seems especially crazy. Are you really supposed to stay at the scene of the accident and exchange insurance information when people are shooting at you? 

But he started it. 


Clickety-Clack, Don’t Talk Back

21 August 2019

Dear Max,

I’ve long dreamed of writing on a typewriter, lonely and free, like a writer in a movie. And here I am. It’s a ten-year-old laptop with sticky keys and no internet. It instantly shuts down when you unplug it, which means that it stays in one place—on the desk.

A message just popped up on the screen. Warning: This Mac has not been backed up in 2059 days. The screen’s a little blurry, so that warning looks like waming in Times. I just switched to American Typewriter Light, 16-point type. Double-spaced. No, space-and-a-half. Perfect.

All this because I put my laptop in the same suitcase as a glass Tupperware filled with chard, beets, red onions and yogurt. I always bring food when I travel for work. And yes the container was in a plastic bag, but not the double-layer of sealed plastic bags that I usually use. The glass didn’t break, but there was lid failure.

And oh dear. I managed to scrape most of it off my suit and make it to my hearing. And I thought only a tiny bit got on one corner of my laptop, but then when I got to the hotel, it wouldn’t turn on. I clung to the hope of a coincidence. Maybe it was the battery. Or the power cord.

When I got home, Teresa took it to the shop. A few days later a man called with a diagnosis. He spoke with a strong accent, and it was hard for Teresa to understand him over the phone, but she was able to make out the words Spaghetti and Explosion and No Charge.

My defense—it wasn’t spaghetti!—wasn’t very convincing, even to myself. I don’t want or deserve a new laptop. And this is my chance to go low-tech.

I hasten to add that my backup system worked so beautifully that it was almost a pleasure having my data wiped out. I lost an expensive device, but no work. And how often do you get to cringe and gloat at the same time?

My new system goes like this. At home, I’ll type on my new Mac typewriter and save to a jump drive. For backup I’ll take the jump drive to work, where I have another slightly less old Mac laptop that backs up to Dropbox and a portable hard drive.

(Later.) I just wrote and then deleted a long and literary comparison between Ulysses tempted by the Sirens and Myself tempted by the Internet and how, with my new system, I’m free from all that. I had myself chained to the mast of my laptop, and the Sirens were named Google and Amazon and NY Times Cooking. It was elaborate and unsustainable, and it took me a long time to figure out the NY Times Cooking didn’t sound plausible as the name of a beautiful deadly monster. But while I was writing it, still thinking it might work, I wanted to ask Google what Ulysses’s ears were plugged with in that story, but I couldn’t, because I had no internet.

Ha!’ I thought. ‘It’s working!’

I asked Enzo. He thought it was wax. I’d been thinking it might be pitch, which sounded right for a ship, but messy.

I asked Alexa, and she summarized the plot of Joyce’s Ulysses. (What plot? But she didn’t say that.) Then she asked if her answer had been helpful. I said, ‘No, but it was interesting,’ which wasn’t true, and she thanked me for my feedback.

So. We’re not out of the straits yet.

What Happened

Here are the facts, as I remember them, with a little help from the published case.

Julio Covington and Emilio Osorio were cousins, both in their early twenties. They belonged to a gang called the Norteños. Julio was driving a red Pontiac Firebird. Emilio was in the passenger seat. They were at the AM/PM mini-mart on the corner of Norwood and Jessie Avenue, in an area roughly north of downtown Sacramento.

Carlos Zarazua was nineteen. His brother Sergio was fifteen. Their friend, Jorge Ramirez, was sixteen. They belonged to a gang called the Sureños. They were at the gas station/mini-mart too. Carlos was driving a blue Toyota.

Julio yelled at Carlos “Norte,” claiming his own gang. Then Julio said to Carlos, “Scrapa,” insulting Carlos’s gang. Julio didn’t know Carlos, but he recognized him as a Sureño by his clothes. Carlos said, “Fuck you.” Then Julio and Emilio drove away in the Pontiac, east on Jessie Avenue toward Rio Linda Boulevard.

Julio is the guy whose case I ended up working on, and even though I want to write about this as a reporter, not a lawyer, I can’t help sticking up for him. At that moment, driving away from the gas station, he had done wrong everything he was going to do wrong. He had acted like a jerk and then driven away. He didn’t have a gun and neither did Emilio. He didn’t know that the two teenagers in the Toyota had guns. He was done.

On the other hand, he started it. And he knew who he was talking to. And maybe it wasn’t up to him when he was done. He might be done, but the natural and probable consequences (to use the phrase from the jury instructions) were still unfolding.

Back to the scene—and the cars. The red Pontiac is on Jessie Avenue driving east toward Rio Linda Boulevard. The blue Toyota is still at the gas station. And a little ways to the north is a Honda, driving south on Rio Linda. In the backseat of the Honda is a little boy.

Now the red Pontiac takes a detour. It turns off Jessie and drives around a neighborhood for a few minutes. Then it comes out of the neighborhood and stops, waiting to turn onto Jessie again. Now the blue Toyota has left the gas station, heading east on Jessie. Carlos is driving. Sergio and Jorge are passengers. About forty feet from where the Pontiac is stopped, the Toyota stops. Gunshots from the Toyota. The Pontiac peels out and turns east on Jessie with the Toyota in pursuit. The Honda is still on Rio Linda, still driving south. All three cars are moving toward the T intersection where Jessie and Rio Linda meet.

More gunshots from the Toyota. The Pontiac blows through the stop sign and hits the Honda as it passes through the intersection. The Toyota drives away. Julio and Emilio bail out of the Pontiac, jump onto a boat that’s being pulled by a truck, and then jump off of that and escape on foot. In the Honda, Rocky Duoangmala’s uncle and father are both unconscious, and Rocky is dying.

Later that night, Julio went to the cops and told them what happened. The case was on the news. His car was at the scene.  One thing I’d like to ask Julio, if I can find him after all this time, is how scared he was when he went to the cops. Did he think of himself as one of the killers? Was he turning himself in? Or did he think of himself as a victim and a witness? Or did think he might be both?

Abandoned Heart

11 August 2019

Dear Max,

I’ve decided to try something new. Here it goes:

I only met Julio once, on the sidewalk outside the jail courts. He was out on bail, in his early twenties, tall, good-looking, light-skinned. English was clearly a first language. I don’t know if he spoke Spanish. His mom was there, taking time off work, middle class and out of place and worried. Her son was charged with murdering a three-year-old boy. And other people, teenagers with guns, were charged with trying to murder her son. And those same teenagers were also charged with murdering the little boy that her son was charged with killing. How could Julio be a murderer and the victim of attempted murder in the same case? Especially when all he did was say stuff?

That’s what the Public Defender wanted to know. That’s what our motion was about.

This was almost twenty years ago. I’d been hired as an intern in the research division of the Public Defender’s Office in Sacramento. My first assignment was to write the statement of facts for a 995 motion—a motion to dismiss that comes after the preliminary hearing and before the trial. At the prelim, which I wasn’t there for, Julio had been held to answer for murder on an abandoned heart theory. I was supposed to read the transcript and summarize the testimony, with citations to the page and line number.

I worked and worked and worked. In the transcript, witnesses were drawing pictures and pointing at maps and testifying about them, but I didn’t have any exhibits, I only had the words to go by. At home, I looked at a map of the neighborhood where it happened. What were they talking about? Finally I drove out there and looked around. At the AM/PM Mini-Mart on the corner of Jessie Avenue and Norwood, I reset the trip timer drove down Jessie to where it ended in a T intersection with Rio Linda Boulevard. That’s where the accident happened. Or the murder. The trip timer still said 000. It wasn’t even a mile. I already knew that from the transcript, but I wanted to know what a half mile felt like, when you paid attention. It felt quick. It felt like nothing. That was bad for our motion, bad for Julio’s chances at trial.

Afterward, I was even more confused. I could only write what was in the transcript. I couldn’t write about what I saw or felt—and even if I could, why would I want to? It was bad for us.

Finally, I gave my new boss a draft. He had a reputation as a brainiac, and I already knew that I wasn’t the only one who was afraid of him. For a day or two I sat in dread. Finally he came out of his office and walked out to my cubicle. He was short and slightly built with sparse white hair and very blue eyes. He was holding my draft, and I could see that it was covered with red ink. He pulled up a chair and sat. He looked terribly weary and old, and I knew I was a burden to him.

“Well,” he said, “At least you can write.” I’m still grateful to him for that. Then he told me everything that was wrong with it. When it was over, I didn’t know if I should glow or cry. I worked on it some more. Later, he even let me write some of the law part.

The motion was denied—and by a good judge too, Tani Cantil, who’s now the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court. At her confirmation hearings one of the legislators was dumb enough to say something undeniably true—you are some foxy judge! It’s impossible not to notice it. But after you get over how pretty and warm she is, you can’t help but notice how smart and fair she is, and if she denied our motion, maybe we were wrong. Maybe Julio really did have an abandoned and malignant heart. And maybe he did act with reckless disregard for human life. And maybe it was reasonably foreseeable that Rocky Duoangmala would die in a car crash because he taunted a rival gang member at the mini-mart.

I’ve decided to write about the case now, partly from memory but mostly as a reporter. And this time I won’t be limited by a transcript. I can talk to people and drive around and look at stuff and try to make my own sense of it. I can find out how people’s lives turned, and what it was like for them back then, when things were so scary and puzzling.











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