Flavin's CornerJuly 2003

The Stand: Reloaded

Portrait of the columnist as a young salesman.

I’m facing a possible trial in which I might have to take the stand in my own defense.  The matter should and will probably be resolved just prior to the summoning of a jury.  However, an appreciable chance exists where bureaucratic and procedural commonplace may have to be exhausted, as, say, a wild child or a four and a half month old kitten must often tire themselves out.  Let them run around for awhile and decide for themselves to stop playing.

On several occasions in the past, all minor and mundane, situations have required the raising of my right hand, saying my name and agreeing to assorted pronouncements in front of a microphone.  Only once have I actually taken the stand and sat next to a judge and faced jury and justice.  Okay, I was just a character witness in someone else’s case, but taking the stand meant something.  I was four and a half months into my eighteenth year, then, and now I’m more than half way through my forty-fifth year.  It’s difficult for me to press the sequel motif much further.  The only time I’ve ever taken the stand was casual and cool and I hope it stays that way.

It was the spring of 1976 and I was driving home from work.  I had ended my third day of attempting to sell vacuum cleaners door-to-door in Chula Vista, California.  Things weren’t going well, no one seemed to want to spend $499.00, though I did have the good fortune to sample my first burrito (deservedly, a frozen bean burrito nuked at a 7-11 convenience store).  My cheap shirt and tie were dutifully soaked with sweat, I was living on chump change draws from expected future sales, but with my girlfriend waitressing a few shifts a week at Denny’s, we were able to hold down a sweet little apartment three blocks away from the Sunset Cliffs in Ocean Beach, just north of San Diego.  Traffic was brisk, elevated lanes around downtown San Diego were just like other major cities, and a hitchhiker caught my attention.  The fellow had chosen a poor, if not dangerous, location from which to hitchhike.  Also, he was a six and a half foot tall black man with long dredlocks, massive white tennis shoes, a loose, white suit, and he carried a slim leather briefcase.  Pulling over was interesting enough, though the hitchhiker proved much more so.

He named himself, thanked me for stopping, enquired as to how far I was traveling, suggested a place he could be dropped off at, and mentioned that he’d just been released from jail and that the San Diego police were not forward thinkers in the least, but were instead crude and had even lied at his booking and made claims that he was drunk and had urinated upon himself.  Any reasonable person upon hearing his calm, resonant, and confident voice would instantly appreciate his sense of measured play and love of speaking.  I expressed sympathy for his ordeal, extended a standard invitation to visit, he wrote down my name and address and I left him off at some intersection of his choosing.  It was a unique event and made for a swell story over dinner that night.

A couple of days later, during which time I sold my first (and only) vacuum cleaner, he showed up at our apartment.  My girlfriend was as impressed with his dynamic character as I was and we offered the use of our couch while he was in town.  His stories were captivating examples of narrative skill and performance art.  We were especially taken with a description of the sun coming up at Woodstock and Hendrix’s rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner.” [Note: Though we enjoyed his company, we were surprised and perplexed after he took a bath and left behind several clumps of hair, heavily matted and clumped together like little two and three inch long worms.  It seemed to be substantial shedding.]  We shared an enjoyable evening together.

The next day, my girlfriend and I had some business in downtown San Diego.  Whether it was selling blood for a few bucks or discussing botanical herblore with the sailors, I always regarded downtown as a hoot.  Just a week before we saw a crowd around Dr. Tim Leary as he was released from prison.  As we drove past a motel where we had rented a kitchenette during our first two weeks in the area, I had a sudden urge to stop and ask about any forwarded mail, as I was waiting on a new version of my driver’s license (passenger-side rearview mirror requirement, if I remember correctly) and had given out the motel's address at one point.  I asked at the counter, the clerk paused and paled, then placed a short, handwritten note before me.  It read: “San Diego Police: re. Richard Slavin and death of father.”  My family had joked for years about mail which was incorrectly addressed and the ‘F’ and ‘S’ switch was one of many.  My dad was gone in a realization and there was much to do. 

My calling home to the Midwest for the first time in a couple of months was thought of by some as a miracle.  Maybe it was.  My dad had died a few days before and would be put into the ground the next day.  An ex-girlfriend’s mother, who'd been contacted in an attempt to locate me, was a charismatic Christian and had prayed I might be found and given a chance to say goodbye to my dad.  Arrangements were made, our houseguest expressed sympathy and departed, and I returned to the Midwest with my girlfriend (who'd lost her dad several years back).  We were both 18, had been gone a couple of months to California, and though we had jobs and bills in our names, our relatives didn’t know how to contact us and the San Diego police didn’t seem to try that hard.  Anywho, it’s an example of why one is supposed to keep in touch with others. 

A work-related photo of my dad several
weeks before his passing. Hi, Dad!

I said goodbye, we reassured all concerned that Ocean Beach, California was a fine community, blinked, and went home.  Sure, the Midwest was where we were born and at the time most of our family and friends still lived there, but the Left Coast felt like home as well, and we had at it.

After a perfect alphanumeric inspired night of stars and surf, we drank coffee at dawn and called the cheapest preacher in the phonebook.  $20.00 for the marriage and $15.00 for performing out-of-doors on the Sunset Cliffs.  Our late-morning honeymoon consisted of giggles and a crashing from a perfect alphanumeric inspired night of stars and surf.  I’m unsure if our houseguest returned later that evening or the next morning.  It was soon after our marriage.  However, hospitality requires even honeymooners to do what they can.  Over the next several weeks we did what we could (and, perhaps at times, what we could get away with).  We experienced Ocean Beach as a fine (and happening) community. 

Our houseguest had righteously pressed ahead and answered claims of being drunk and smelling of urine with a suit of his own against the San Diego police.  He was understandably busy and only stayed a couple of more times with us.  As newlyweds, we inscribed the Sunset Cliffs, played weekly softball with the local hippies, and had at our community with no expectations.  Those several weeks before we realized that we needed to return to the Midwest (read: ran out of money), were a laidback and comfortable hoot.  Our houseguest telephoned one night and asked me to appear as a character witness in his suit against the San Diego police.  Not a problem.  A clean shirt and tie were hanging in my Batcave.

It’s the stand.  Perry Mason could probably get me to admit to shaking soda and candy machines, at certain weak periods in my youth, if I was before him on ...the stand.  Wood, square, hand, bible, and some simple questions about my houseguest.  I picked him up hitchhiking, he didn’t smell of urine, he later stayed with me and I found him to be of excellent character.  I took a stand in the box, stated facts to the best of my ability, and left the courtroom proud, though still nervous about meeting Perry Mason.  Exit stage right back to the Midwest, fade to black and moving on.

Divorced at nineteen occurred around the time I dropped the Junior from my name.  Now, one has nothing to do with the other, it was just that there were lots of transitions and it's a coincidental pairing.  I’d known since I was a kid that my dad was named after his uncle, a doctor, who followed two previous Richard D. Flavins, their middle name being Dagland, which (kindheartedly) was switched to Douglas with my dad’s uncle.  I began to identify myself as Rick or Richard Flavin, with the occasional Richard Douglas Flavin III or the rare R. D. Flavin V.  I stopped adding the Junior to my name and all legal ephemera soon followed my lead.  My dad was a Dick, I’m Rick, I’ve a half-brother named Rich, and I regard the tag of Junior as a birth-certificate flourish. [Note: When Social Security checks started arriving early, my mom confessed to being off with her age on my birth certificate by a couple of years.  My family seems to get creative at times.]  Never having owned a dog named Indy, I attempted to get creative after several months in Chicago and picked Boston as a Right Coast alternative.  Fast forward through years of New England charm and horror to 1983.

You probably don't know a lot about New England ABC affiliates in early 1983 and, cough, might not care, but they had a powerful impact upon me at the time.  Jennings was talking about FAIDS (Feline Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrom, a kitty leukemia) and Koppel was doing these amazing extended programs that evoked the precarious nature of early broadcast and those times when shows weren’t far removed from short-waves, just run with an overriding corporate mandate to sell ads.  Despite the maddening fields generated by passing Green Line trains on their way to Boston College, I was able to work my small television to its limits.  When it wasn’t on loan, that is.  I remember being able to watch a 6 pm early feed of ABC news out of Providence, RI and then a 6:30 Boston (and, I believe, national) version.  At times when Koppel would get carried away on Nightline with “Town Meetings,” I could watch Boston from 10:30 to 11:30 or 11:45 pm, switch to Providence because Boston had to run ads, then at 12:30 am change to New Hampshire and get ghost images of another twenty or thirty minutes of programming.  A couple of times I was left with the feeling that the programs continued without me.  It was a good time to appreciate ABC news.

One night Jennings mentioned a new Supreme Court decision and basic rights, named my one-time houseguest in Ocean Beach, and said that all Americans were now free to leave their wallets at home.  Not having identification was no longer a crime.  It seemed that my past houseguest had pursued his suit against the San Diego police, taken it to the top, and won.  I was happy and proud for him and when the story was repeated on the national feed with a promo for that evening’s Nightline and an interview with him, I genuinely felt a sense of victory.  Then, after a few beers, I got on the telephone to New York City.

ABC news division; let’s go to Nightline.  Ted was off that night, a fill-in was planned, and I was asked why I wanted to speak to the scheduled guest.  I said I was a character witness at an early court appearance and wanted to congratulate him.  He wasn’t due for a few hours, he’d had dinner and was going to spend some time relaxing in his hotel room.  The name of that hotel?  And I called.  I gave the name of the guest I wished to speak to, held the line for a moment, and some middle-aged white guy from Ohio picked up his telephone, immediately denied being the person I wanted, yet preceded to discuss Time’s Square and what a fun city the Big Apple is.  I hung up, called the hotel back and described my failed attempt to reach a guest, heard a soft gasp on the line and the operator apologized for connecting me improperly.  Near breathless, she asked, “You want to speak to the tall black guy?”  His line was busy, she interrupted, and I surprised and congratulated my past houseguest on a suit well worn and fought for.

He'd been in the middle of a somewhat important call to the Left Coast and guffawed hysterically when he realized a nine-toed youth from Ocean Beach had used some telephone mojo.  We chatted for several minutes.  He was vague about published works and performed plays, and I was worse at trying to describe my recent interests in Irish history and the possibility the Irish had managed to reach the New World before Columbus.  I congratulated him again and wished him well on his appearance on Nightline later that evening.

The appearance was great television.  Following tradition, ABC news had located a typical redneck sherif from some southern state who didn’t care what the Supreme Court had to say about vagrants and identification, he’d still run anyone in he damned well felt like.  My one-time houseguest had fun with the sherif and it was a shame that Koppel wasn’t there.  Oh, well!

Several years went by before we spoke again.  My mother had recently passed away (I was living with a girl in Chicago and, as these things go, had a black houseguest on my couch at the time), I’d spent the winter in Boston taking “Fantastic Archeology” at Harvard, had returned to the Windy City in the spring and was in the middle of celebrating my discernment of “The Karanovo Zodiac,” when one day, after a few beers, I called San Francisco.

My one-time houseguest has a very common name.  There were several listed for San Francisco, where I remembered he once said he maintained an office or, at least, a friend allowed him to use a phone and answering machine.  After a few wrong numbers, one fellow said he’d received several previous inquiries over the years and had a forwarding number.  Score!  I called, left my name and number, and a couple of hours later I got a call back.  We chatted for several minutes.  He was vague about published works and performed plays, and I was worse at trying to describe my recent interests in ancient history and the possibility ancient non-Native peoples reached the New World before Columbus.  It was a brief, albeit polite conversation, but it was unspokenly clear that we shared little in common other than my once taking the stand in his defense.  We wished one another well and that was that.

Once more, I believe around 1996, during an early push to get exposure for my outing the editor of a nationally distributed amateur history magazine as our country’s most infamous neo-Nazi and convicted homosexual child abuser, Frank Collin, I called San Francisco.  It was yet another brief, albeit polite conversation.  Maybe I should have a few beers and make another call to the Left Coast.  Then again, maybe I shouldn’t.

I wouldn’t ask for relish, if I get dogged into having to take the stand in my own defense.  To tell the whole truth, or a hole in the truth, I’ve attempted to exercise bragging rights and have mentioned participating in a Supreme Court decision a few times before, however I promise I’ll never do it again.  I swear.  Cross my heart and all of that.  It won’t happen.  Nope.  A sequel is seldom as good as the original.

Always thinking outside the box,

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