Attention Dog Owners in Forsyth County

Terrie and I, not to mention Nilla, found ourselves beyond disappointment today when we headed to one of our favorite weekend activities, taking Nilla to one of downtown Winston-Salem’s six dog-friendly breweries. Why? Because apparently, a week ago, the Forsyth County Health Department began enforcing a little-known aspect of health law forbidding establishments that use glassware from allowing dogs inside, even when no food preparation is being done on the premises.

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As dog lovers know, breweries have become a big part of the renaissance of Winston-Salem in recent years, with the newest, Incendiary, opening Labor Day weekend in the old Bailey factory building. Nilla enjoyed this newest spot much as for years she has enjoyed Fiddlin’ Fish, Joymongers, Wise Man, Hoots, Foothills Tasting Room, and even some non-brewpub bars such as Rec Billiards and Juggheads, Growlers & Pints.
An article we read indicated brewpub owners hope to push state legislators to pass a law allowing these kinds of establishments an exception. I challenge everyone to support this, and I want to know what else I can do to help. In Winston-Salem, these inevitably locally owned brewpubs have helped bring people out on weeknights and weekends; they are filled with families–parents, grandparents, kids, and, yes, dogs. I’ve never once seen an accident or problem as a result of a dog in one of these establishments, and all dog owners obey logical rules such as keeping their pets on a leash.
How the Forsyth County Health Department can decide on the arcane logic of enforcing this particular codicil at this time to take a bite out of these businesses that have helped provide new tax income is beyond me. What pet-hating, joy-killing bureaucrat is behind this and why now?
It’s outrageous, and I ask you to write to Forsyth County (see below) and tell our elected officials and county staff that when there is no food preparation at an establishment, there is no reason to try to enforce this particular law, which is aimed at keeping dog hair from creating a health hazard. No such situation exists at these breweries.

For shame, Forsyth County!

Let our families enjoy the weekend! Support your local businesses!

Write to: Forsyth County Government Center, County Manager J. Dudley Watts, 201 North Chestnut Street, Winston-Salem, NC 27101. For those inclined to call, the phone is: 336 703 2020.

News Alert: Verdicts Don’t Equal Truth

A couple of weeks ago I caught the tail end of a news report in which the reporter was getting reactions to news that a criminal defendant who had been convicted was seeking a retrial. Both people quoted by the reporter were dismissive of the action, saying something along the lines of, “well, he’s not innocent. A jury found him guilty.”

It bugged me enough to write about it.

scales of justice

In this day and age, why would people automatically assume that juries get verdicts right 100 percent of the time? We’ve sure piled up enough wrongful convictions on some of our most serious crimes. I’d hope by now that people would recognize just because someone is found guilty by a jury, A) It doesn’t always mean they are guilty and B) Even if they are, they have a right to appeal. It doesn’t mean they’ll win, but they have the right.

What really bothers me, though, is that it’s not a two-way argument. What I mean is that we hear so often in this country that people are willing to call someone guilty when a jury finds a person innocent (O.J., anyone?) or there’s a hung jury (Bill Cosby’s first trial).

So much about our adversarial justice system is based on emotions, or rather, the appeal to emotions by prosecutors and defense attorneys, much less the police ahead of them when interviewing witnesses crimes. Despite what we have seen over the past generation via CSI and other police procedural television shows, an extremely small percentage of criminal cases are decided based on forensic evidence.

The predominance in the use of emotions has resulted in two indisputable facts about our justice system.

  1. It is not set up to always discover the truth.
  2. Race rears its head in nearly every aspect of the legal system, often to the detriment of fairness.

The result: The continuing stereotype that people accused of a crime “must be guilty of something.” I hope to live to see a justice system—starting with criminal investigations by police and continuing right through trial—that does a better job of deciphering the truth.

Les

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A Courtroom Tale

 Some tales can be told in 400 words. Not this one. I hope you’re rewarded if you hang with me.

The envelope came one recent afternoon and I knew as soon as I saw the Forsyth Superior Court return address—report for jury duty on June 20.Les at 20

I immediately flashed back to my long-haired 21-year-old self, newly graduated from New York University and getting ready to move to Southern California to start life as a journalist.

*

Three weeks before I was to depart, I was mandatory invited to Queens Supreme Court as a juror. After a couple of days of waiting around in a cavernous basement room with several hundred other juror candidates, my name was called among a cohort of 40 potential jurors. Upstairs we went to stand around in a hallway just outside a courtroom where jury selection was under way for an attempted murder trial. Two men were accused of shooting at a merchant one evening outside of the man’s business in Jamaica, Queens. No one had been hurt.Queens-Sup-North-796895

Another day later, the attorneys for both sides had ruled out enough jurors that half of our cohort was called inside the courtroom. A big wheel with all of our names—call it courtoom jury bingo—was turned and a bailiff announced the name of the juror candidate to be questioned. Each of the two defense attorneys took turns inquiring about the candidate’s background, lots of different kinds of personal and general questions. Eventually, they each got around to asking whether the candidate would be prejudiced against someone brought into the courtroom in prison garb. I didn’t get why both men performed this function when they were seeking the same answers.

Then came the prosecutor. He spent his time working up to asking if the potential juror would be prejudiced if someone who was a prisoner testified against the accused. But my how long it took each of the three to get to those “magic” questions, after which, inevitably one of the three men would ask the judge to dismiss that juror! Mind you, each potential juror was being quizzed for about an hour all told, some even longer. At the time in New York, defense attorneys had unlimited voir dire; they could eliminate as many potential jurors as they wanted to. The results have since been changed to limit juror challenges.

At the time I had trooped inside, all but one of the 12 jurors had been seated. I had to put the book(s) I brought aside; you can’t read in a courtroom. Although interesting at first, the tedium of the routine became excruciating. Just ask the damn magic question, I screamed inside my head!

Another day passed and they brought in 20 more potential jurors inside. Suddenly, in the afternoon of my second day inside the courtroom, my name was called.

In my post-NYU outfit (actually, it was my NYU outfit, too) of jeans, t-shirt and sneakers, I was far younger than anyone else on the jury. The first defense attorney asked if I was in college, and I told him I’d recently graduated. He asked where? As I recall, he was impressed. He asked what I hoped to be in life. I told him journalist and it didn’t scare him off. Then he asked if I would be prejudiced against someone who appeared in prison garb. I told him no. “I have no problems with this juror, judge,” the defense attorney said. It had been about three minutes.

A minor buzz as those who’d sat through this jury selection hell looked up to see who’d passed muster with one of the attorneys so quickly.

The second defense attorney rose. “This juror is acceptable, judge,” the second defense attorney said. This time the buzz was louder.

The prosecutor, a small, 40-ish man in rumpled tan suit (yes, I remember the detail 37 years later; he also had rumpled navy and gray suits in his repertoire, and though I can’t remember which color was pinstriped, I am positive one of them was) stood and immediately asked his key question. No, I told him, I would not have a problem believing a witness who was already doing time. “I have no problem with this juror.”

This time there really was a buzz. The process to seat me had taken five minutes. As the newly empaneled were shepherded to a back jury room, I could feel my fellow jurors’ eyes on me. Who the hell was this kid who made it through so quick?

Today, with a fair knowledge of criminal justice issues and a lifetime of observation skills, I think I know my attraction to the defense. My youth and my education stood up to the defense for fairness and a lack of world-weariness or prejudice. As to the prosecutor, well, maybe he just wanted to get on with it. He also might have thought that as someone 10 years younger than the other jurors, I might have been more inclined to go along with the majority. Yeah, he didn’t know me very well.

*

The summer of ’81 was a time of unrest in the city. Four years earlier, during the great blackout of ’77, looting had opened a racial rift that hadn’t healed. In Brooklyn, a judge named Bruce Wright had earned a nickname of “Turn ‘Em Loose Bruce’’ based on, according to the conservative New York Post, an affinity for giving light sentences to black defendants accused of crimes against white citizens based on his sense of injustice in the system.

Our trial was conducted in the courtroom of another black judge, who, coincidentally in the immediate trial before ours had similarly given what was deemed a light sentence to a black defendant found guilt of murdering a white suspect (the black suspect had been confronted by members of a white gang and claimed the crime was self-defense; the jury found him guilty).

We didn’t know it at the time, but threats against our judge led to many delays and slowdowns during our trial. One day we didn’t convene until the afternoon because of a bomb threat, which we learned about in the newspaper. This trial was of less interest in tabloid world, however, likely because all four people involved were black.

The two young men on trial had been identified by the “witness,” the man now in jail on different charges. He said they tried to rob the merchant as he left his business late at night. The merchant had defended himself by pulling out a gun and firing several shots as the culprits fled. The only shell casings recovered at the scene came from the merchant’s gun.

Two things became the centerpiece of the trial:

  1. The witness, when he finally made his appearance on the third day of the trial, did not testify that he saw the suspects running from the scene as had been expected. In fact, the prosecutor was clearly surprised by the witness’s about face. Try as he might, over the course of 15 minutes, he couldn’t get the jailhouse snitch, as it appears the “witness” was, to cooperate.
  2. Given the witness’s inability to identify the suspects, the prosecutor seized on what the merchant said he’d heard from one of the suspects as he locked his door that night: “Stop. Freeze, you m—–f—–.” From the time the merchant first used that phrase, the prosecutor, who was of Filipino descent, seized on it. I mean, it became a talisman to the prosecutor. In his sing-song accent, it came out as “Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah.”

Whenever there were breaks during the trial—and they were frequent—we would retire to the jury room. Though we weren’t allowed to talk about the trial, we couldn’t help but amuse ourselves with the characters, in particular the prosecutor. “Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah” became our go-to phrase. So much so that whenever it was repeated after that in the courtroom, we had to bite our lips to keep from laughing out loud.

*

In the end, without his star witness, the prosecutor had no case.

When we opened our jury discussion, I recall being the first person to say, “Well, this shouldn’t take long.” In fact, the only thing that had been proven during the four days of trial was that a merchant had fired his weapon wildly in the street late at night.

Yet our first jury vote was 10-2 to acquit. The two holdouts expressed the attitude that, “well, something had to be going on that night.” In other words, this trial hadn’t happened just because some jailhouse snitch had made up a story; the police and prosecutors wouldn’t have gone after these two guys if they were totally innocent.

I’ve thought about our jury, and juries in general, a lot in the years since. How even when there was not a shred of evidence against our two black suspects, a percentage thought they had to be guilty of something.

We wound up having some testimony reread to us, spent another half day in deliberations and eventually the two holdouts came around.

Not guilty.

The judge stopped by the jury room before we were released. He congratulated us for serving and told us he believed we’d made the right call. There was only one thing he wanted to know: “What took you so long?”

*

My favorite part of this jury tale came a week later. I was shopping in Flushing, picking up some last-minute stuff I needed for my journey to California. As I walked down the street, I looked up and saw a 40-something red-haired woman approaching me, and she caught my eye and smiled.

I had a momentary blank moment, the kind where you simply can’t recognize someone’s face out of context. And as I looked up, I saw her recognize my blank moment and she smiled even wider. As we were about to pass each other, she said, very low, so only I could hear, but in exactly the correct accent,

“Stop, uh, freeze, you muddahf—ah.”

The thrill of our shared jury experience has made me smile for 37 years.

*

Though I’ve gotten those envelopes beckoning me to duty many times during my years in California, Connecticut and North Carolina, the trial in Queens is still the only time I’ve sat on a jury.

I don’t know whether I’ll get picked for a trial when June 20 comes along. I do know I consider it a privilege to be called.

Coming next blog: More thoughts on our justice system.

Les

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Road Trip

I took a weekend trip to Boca Raton to sell my mother’s car. It was a 2003 Toyota Corolla.

Green ChevyMom piled up 31,000 miles on that car in 15 years. Not dissimilar for our first family car, a 1956 Chevrolet sedan that we finally unloaded in 1974 after 18 years and 39,000 miles.

Unfortunately for my oldest sister, she had to learn to drive on that old unair-conditioned, non-power steering warhorse (Note, the car pictured is not ours, but a reasonable facsimile). Of course I had to learn on our next car, a used Ford Maverick (image another facsimile). Maverick imageWhich, as car afictionados can attest, could well be the worst American car of the latter part of the 20th century, right down there with the Pinto and Gremlin. So we had, in essence, two of the ugliest and difficult cars around.

But I digress.

Mom had a small fender dent on the rear driver side. She had no clue how it got there. Had she backed into something (hopefully not someone)? Had someone struck her car? It was a documented flaw in my mom’s driving record; she was quite proud of noting that in her 65 years of driving she never had a moving accident or ticket.

Again, I digress.

While driving my own rented Ford Focus (excellent small car!), I once again encountered the great South Florida driving phenomenon. The phenomenon where half the population, like mom, drives slowly and unsteadily, while the other half drives Boston crazy to escape them.

In South Florida, you simply never know when you’re going to encounter something like I did Sunday as I pulled into a shopping center nearly being struck by a car on the way out (older driver) and thought, “Man, that car was pretty close.” Then I realized as I turned around to look at her. Yeah, she was on the wrong side of the median.

Another trip a couple of years ago, a person decided to park in the Target parking lot, Just randomly park, the heck with those parking space lines. Driver just left the car right in the middle of a row. car image

As I write this blog, I’m at 33,000 feet on the flight back to North Carolina. I’m wondering how many trips to South Florida are left. Crazy to say, but I think I’m going to miss those driving adventures. Hazard or not, they were fascinating, amusing and a reminder of my mom’s world.

Les

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Put ’em Up!

OK, right up front I’m going to admit plagiarizing myself for this blog post. A few years ago, I wrote a Facebook “Note” about things I’ve not done in my life. One of those items was the fact that I’ve never been in an intentional physical altercation with another person as a kid or adult.

It seems timely to talk about this subject given the current political climate—you know, the kind where we recently saw a 75-year-old former vice president bait our 71-year-old current president with a barb about who’d win a schoolyard fight.

Gentlemen, most of us don’t care about the outcome, nor would we want to watch (other than the inevitable SNL parody). The Biden-Trump exchange made me recognize the common ground I occupy with our president. Despite his words, I doubt he’s has had a fight in his life, either.

Not being a blueblood, I’m quite certain I’ve more opportunities than DJT. After all, I did:

  • Spend my first 22 years in New York City (and one year of graduate school later on) with a sarcastic sense of humor and a righteous streak.
  • Work nearly 30 years as a journalist building a social justice and story sense for alienating cops and prosecutors.
  • Make a pool hall my primary social hangout the past 16 years.

And yet, no fights.

I’m better at being the “can’t we all get along” type. Going all the way back to high school, as noted in a yearbook message from one of my peers at Newtown High School (The Tower was the school newspaper, where I was co-editor).Mediator pic

Unfortunately, being a mediator is the rarity these days. Rather, our current national discourse is always predicated on sidedness—Biden vs. Trump, Republicans vs. Democrats, Fox vs. CNN, us against them. In other words, there are only two sides to anything so choose yours and God help you if use the modern-day cuss words “compromise” or “pragmatism.”

I remember years ago watching an I Love Lucy episode in which Lucy writes a “novel” mocks everyone in her life while showing herself to be the hero. A publishing house tells Lucy it wants her story for a book about writing and she is ecstatic. Until the agent discloses her story is being used in the chapter titled, “Don’t Let This Happen to You.”

That’s a perfect metaphor for our political state right now. And you know what? I’m fighting mad about it.

Les

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16 Years in ‘The South’

An old friend of Terrie’s last year highly recommended a seafood place where there was going to be a wine dinner featuring product he distributes. The wines were great, but the best part was discovering a remarkable seafood restaurant here in the South.

It was the one remaining thread I had left in my bag for missing my home state for 19 years, Connecticut.

Thanks to Reel Seafood,  I’ve pretty much got my bases covered in things I no longer miss. Great seafood was about the last thing on my list.

  • Do we have as great a pizza joint in Winston-Salem as my old neighbor Bill Pustari’s Modern Apizza or other pizza haunting grounds from my original home, New York City? Maybe not, but there’s some very fine pizza here.
  • Do we have snow and cold? Snow picSome, but not much. In fact, I kind of like the one storm of 4 to 6 inches we get every year and corresponding three to four days off work because A) we don’t have snow removal equipment here and B) we don’t know how to drive in the snow here.
  • Do we have a bunch of backward thinking, Confederate-flag loving crazies? IMG_1580Sure we do. But the most harmful ones are mostly in the state legislature. In actuality, I’ve always been surprised by the moderate nature of the majority of folks in North Carolina.

In other words, as I approach my 16th year living in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, I am perfectly happy living in the South and proud to state it, for a fact, to anyone who asks. Heck, I didn’t even really learn to shoot pool IMG_2513despite playing it over the years until I moved here. I’ve even recommended to old friends considering a change in scenery to check out our state.

What do y’all think of that?

Les

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Tre, Three, Thrice

I’m not Carnac the Magnificent, so I can’t predict important events. I do know that 2017 contained three major life events for me: I changed jobs, I got married and my mom died.

I also know Terrie and I will attend three concerts in 2018: Rod Stewart/Cyndi Lauper, James Taylor/Bonnie Raitt and Billy Joel. (Come to think of it, last year, we also attended three concerts: Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, John Mayer and the Eagles.) And to those of you loyal readers who said, “Hey, you said you were going to see Springsteen on Broadway, so that’s four,” my answer, because it’s my blog, is the Bruce event is a show, not a concert.

So let’s see. In the first three paragraphs, I talked about three major life events last year, three “starts” this year and three concerts. Sounds like three is a trend.3 art

As it turns out, there’s a reason for that. It’s the Rule of Three, which says things work better in threes for effect, whether it’s writing, speaking or doing. Just think of our grand, old flag. Or red, white and blue. Or U.S. of A.

Sometimes, it’s just how things work out in general, for no known reason other than coincidence. Except, of course, I don’t believe in coincidences.

Which is why I am absolutely not shocked that I will be flying three times this year (to Florida, California and New York).

I learned the Rule of Three so long ago that I can’t even credit who passed it along. But the concept has worked its way into my subconscious so that I am frequently aware of it.

And so I pass it along to whoever reads this blog. You, you and you. Did I get everyone?