Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sam Spade

In my foolish youth, I was a private eye, first in Los Angeles, then in Louisiana. In SoCal, I worked as an op for a large agency, and much of our meat-and-potatoes biz was for insurance companies and worker's comp cases. Back in the day, somebody injured on the job could get a hefty settlement for a major injury, and there were special courts and judges who ruled on such things.

Shortly after I went to work there, we had a case come in. Guy, call him Henry, working for a big construction firm as a driver had somehow managed to put a cement truck onto its side. He had a list of injury claims -- he couldn't bend over because his back was messed up; couldn't turn his head through any but the narrowest range of motion, because his neck was wrecked; couldn't walk very far or fast, because his hips and legs were all sprained.

He had been injured during the accident, no question, but the insurance company suspected he was dogging it. That he wasn't hurt as badly as he claimed.

In such cases, the deal was, when we were hired, that we went out and tried to find evidence yea or nay. If the claimant was injured and we saw that, the insurance company would offer a settlement. If he was faking it, we were supposed to come back and report it, backed with something that would show it in court, if necessary.

Generally, by the time we were hired, the companies were pretty sure they were dealing with malingering or outright fraud, and mostly, that proved to be true.

We were armed with an array of cameras, some of them disguised, and this was in the late sixties, well before electronic media were common, so mostly we used 16 mm Bell & Howell triple-turret cameras, spring-powered, with the frame rate locked at 24/second. Smaller than a breadbox, fatter than a hardback book, wind and shoot, not even reflex viewing, each lens had its own viewfinder -- you could be looking through that and the lens could be covered, and you wouldn't know.

Thing with Henry was, he was a black guy, living in Watts.

We had a range of ops at the agency, men, women, white, Latino, black, old, young, and generally, the person best suited to a particular case got the assignment, somebody who could blend into almost any neighborhood. About a dozen of us, more or less.

The black operatives were busy when Henry's case came up. Did I want to take a shot at it?

White boy cracker, in Watts, the sixties, where, in the hot August four years earlier, there had been riots that burned down half the city. Six days, thirty-some people killed, a thousand injured bad enough to go to the hospital, fourteen thousand National Guard troops moved in. A mess. Touched off in earnest when the police stopped an unarmed black guy rushing his pregnant wife to the hospital, and somehow shot and killed the man.

DWB -- driving while black -- was a common reason for Chief Parker's LAPD to pull somebody over, but it didn't usually involve a death sentence.

Watts erupted.

Four years later, there were still a fair-number of burned-out buildings that hadn't been repaired or knocked down, and still plenty of simmering hatred in the city. You didn't see a lot of outside white folks who were comfortable going there.

But I was young and foolish and full of myself and I had a green belt in karate and neither Achilles nor Superman had anything on me.

I put on my rattiest pair of jeans and tennis shoes. A jacket I had kept under my motorcycle to keep the oil from leaking onto the driveway. I put the camera on a strap over my arm under the jacket, got a bottle of 7-Up and put it into a brown paper bag. Let my beard grow -- such that it would -- greased my hair down, and became an instant twenty-two-year-old drunken bum. I went to where Henry lived, sat in a doorway across the street, sipped at my 7-Up, and commenced surveillance.

Nobody bothered me. How sad was I, a homeless, drunk white boy so out of it I didn't even know nor care where I was?

Over the next three days, every time Henry came out of his house, I was there watching.
I shot maybe eight minutes of film during that time, but all of it showed Henry doing stuff he supposedly could not do.

First, he played touch football with a few friends. Nice scenes of him running.

Later, he worked in his yard, bent over 90-degrees at the waist, and pulled weeds along the sidewalk. Did this for most of an hour.

He went to collect his unemployment check, and in a happenstance too good to be true, stood in a line outside a temporary building between two attractive young women, and tried to talk to both of them at the same time. With one fore and one aft, he was swiveling his injured neck like somebody watching a tennis match. Not quite as much as the little girl possessed in The Exorcist, but enough so that his injury didn't seem to be bothering him.

He jogged down the street to catch a passing friend ...

After three days, I stopped being a homeless drunk. I went to the office, wrote my report and turned in my film.

I still consider that one of the less clever things I have done, that case. I recall going to use the phone once, next to a trashed laundromat, and seeing "Kill Whitey!" scratched into the glass of the booth. There were still a lot of militants around, and being in the wrong neighborhood with the wrong skin color could get you thumped on either end of the spectrum. Didn't worry me a whit. I was bulletproof.

Truly there must be angels who watch out for fools and children. I must have had a platoon working shifts to keep me alive.

As for Henry? Well, come his day in court, he showed up in a wheelchair, wearing a neck brace, and in much apparent pain. I testified as to what I had seen. Henry stared at me as if I were the biggest liar who ever lived.

I set up my projector and screen and ran my film. Only eight minutes, but not a frame of it was of Henry standing idle.

After it was done and the lights came up, the judge -- no jury here -- looked at Henry. You move pretty good for a cripple, he allowed. (This in the days when such a word was still used in polite company.)

Henry said, "Well, your honor, yeah, I was feeling better for while. But, you know, after I did all that? I had to go and lie down."

The judge shook his head.

Henry did not receive a large settlement. He was lucky he got to keep what he had already collected.

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