"The Commute"

The Commute - By Thomas Johnson

Episode XII

While there is good reason to lament your misfortune at being forced to sit for hours each day in your vehicle on your way to just trying to make a buck, there is solace (Not Much but some) in knowing it could be worse.

You could be on a BART train.

BART has been in the news quite a bit lately. They recently got a large infusion of funds which after it is stripped for bonuses, salary increases, pensions and the like might even be applied to improving the system. The we found out that for years, cameras on the trains were dummies blinking their little red lights at all the dummies who though it made them a little safer.

But now we know that they are going to replace all those cameras at great expense only to junk them when the new cars are put in service. Then came the rains, causing daily pandemonium, delays and disgust among the ridership which for some reason seems to be on the decline.

I wonder why.

Reading about the daily snafus in the paper is one thing but to really see what’s going on you have only to get on a train as I did the other day while heading to an appointment in San Francisco.

I boarded an already crowded train at the El Cerrito Plaza Station. There are only two stops on that line before El Cerrito Plaza and the train was already close to capacity. It wasn’t an ideal time for going to the city but I didn’t want to go too early and find myself with too much time in the city.

I live in the East Bay for a reason. If I step in some poop in my neighborhood, it’s dog poop. No guarantee of that anywhere in San Francisco.

Within two stops the train was at capacity.

Undeterred, the train operator kept opening the doors at each stop, admonishing riders to “move away from the doors” an action that was increasingly less possible. For some reason at each stop he kept announcing that “the train is really crowded” even though no-one outside the train could hear him and we sardines were already aware of the fact.

People have different methods of dealing with the discomfort of their train ride. The gentleman positioned a couple of squished people away from me had his headphones on and had taken to singing along quite loudly to what I suspected was some form of gospel music. However, what was emanating from his mouth sounded more like the death wail of some ancient, lost culture.

During a ten-minute delay cause by “some switching problems” he was the oblivious recipient of numerous death stares.

During the delay, I realized that packed-in and compressed as we were, had there been any emergency people would have been seriously injured if not asphyxiated to death. Had there been the heat of summer as well, the ‘death wailer’ would have been rudely told to STFU and it would not be long before tempers flared.

In the 20 or so years that I have been riding BART I have never seen a train that packed during normal commute hours. So packed that the doors were shut by the time the few disembarking riders could even get close to them.

Rather than running the car with ridership so compressed there should have been a delay. It’s unsafe and BART management is well aware. With ridership down they’re packing everyone onto as few trains as possible. Making money seems to be more important than safety.

Episode XII

I came to a stop at the South bound end of the Gilman street off ramp in Berkeley one morning last week and the scene was chaos. An army of CalTrans workers were walking amid the debris in hazmat suits while Officers from the highway patrol standing next to their squads watched.

There had been a significant number of homeless people camped under that ramp and now they worked in the rain and salvaged what they could from the exploded scene. Sweat and grime mixed with rain ran down their faces displacing any tears as they grimly picked through tattered, soaked clothing and tents strewn in the mud.

Many had chains of shopping carts roped together pulling them up the road while others with a single cart or repurposed baby stroller grabbed a few items and went down the road. They scattered in all directions.

In Oakland, last week another homeless camp suffered a similar fate, the swift and direct result of trying to look too permanent by building wood structures, moving-in porta johns, a hand washing station and trying to provide (Gasp) “services.” This camp had a name, “The Village.”

I drive all over the bay area on my route for work. I see encampments popping up in all sorts of places, in bushes and dense tree cover next to the freeway, at the edge of grape arbors, empty lots. Sometimes it’s just one tent, or three, sometimes a dozen or so. As the rents go up and buying a house has become hopelessly out of reach for an increasingly large number of people we are going to see more of this.

The people with the power to help don’t care. There may be no solution anyways. It may come to a breaking point where rich people will finally realize they can’t get their food cooked, kitchens cleaned, cars worked on or kids looked after when the people who perform these services can’t afford to live within a hundred miles of the cities surrounding The Bay.

There are those of us who know, and can feel the proximity of the street. All it takes is a couple of missing paychecks, losing your job and you’re out. You could get notice that your landlord needs to make room for his nephew’s growing family, or that he or she is cashing out and moving to a retirement community in Arizona; getting tossed-out doesn’t have to mean you did anything wrong. It just means you’re too poor.

Some people have family or friends they can turn to, others don’t. For some, their only friend is their car because once you are out of a place to live, even if you have a job, locating a new place takes time, deposit money, references, good credit. Suddenly you live in a fragile environment and one wrong move will leave you permanently on the street.

As you drive to work in your clean, dry car count yourself lucky that you are not out there on the street watching the cars indifferently go by and realize that it could be you one day. Don’t be shy with a buck or two, it helps them a lot.

Episode XI 

If you spend several hours per day in Bay Area traffic I feel your pain. Or rather I felt your pain because these days I spend lots of time in traffic but I drive a company vehicle and they pay for my gas and I’m on the clock. 

My work takes me all over the area and I see a lot of interesting things. Like how the Redtail Hawk population seems to be thriving up around Brentwood and the lower Delta and how with all this rain we’re getting the cows actually do look kind of happy. I see how almost everyone has a phone in their hand, even moms with “baby on Board” signs. It seems everyone thinks they can do it and not have an accident. They are wrong. 

I can afford to be smug since my company vehicle has a phone disable feature. I couldn’t get on the phone if I wanted to. 

My early career goals did not include driving all over the place, going to homes and repairing appliances, gym equipment and lawn tractors. Like many young males my plan was to become Tommy Fast Fingers guitar Icon. I imagined myself doing power squats on stages bigger than football fields while swarms of females alternated between screaming and swooning. 

As luck would have it, I was far better at purchasing guitars and guitar equipment than I was at playing it. No amount of practice could change the fact that I am as tone deaf as a boiled cabbage. Many of you are aware that such a condition has not stopped many so-called musicians but it stopped me and one day I took pictures, posted the whole mess on Craigslist and ended my musical ambitions.  

I never regretted it. 

Do I want to ride around the bay area repairing stuff forever? Not for what they pay me. Like many of you the years since the recession that kicked-in solidly near the end of 2008 have been a challenge. I was laid-off from my investigator position with the public defender in Seattle. A short stint in San Francisco did not result in a job with the local public defender. In this country they will spare no expense to jail people but when it comes to defending them every state comes- 

up short. So I started a livery service, but it didn’t take long for the ride hailing companies to come along. 

I didn’t have an app so I got killed. 

Over the last few years I’ve often had to get plenty creative in generating income. Many of the services I provided via ads on Craigslist: Mobile auto repair, Mobile appliance repair, Dump runs, drain cleaning and such are all now provided by companies offering these things via an app on your cell phone. You may even work for one of these outfits. 

I’m not complaining. It’s forced me to move-on, expand my horizons, write more and learn new things; like Python, JavaScript, Go-Language and how to make quality small dog clothing that doesn’t cost a fortune and can actually handle a few trips through the washer without coming out like an old rag. 

Here’s to everyone getting closer to their goals this year. 

Episode X

While I’m well aware that recreational marijuana is now legal in California and ‘‘tokin’ on a number while ‘diggin’ on the radio’’ is a favorite California tradition I wish people would quit doing it while driving on Bay Area Freeways.

It doesn’t make you a better driver.

It might ease the trauma of your hour-plus commute but it puts you (and others) at risk. Not just from the risk of poorly coordinated reflexes and delayed reaction to common commuting events creating a collision hazard: But from the emerging California marijuana enforcement scheme which is about to turn many drivers into legal guinea pigs.

Marijuana is known as a gateway drug, primarily by those in law enforcement and the drug treatment industrial complex. From another standpoint its gateway function was to offer an excuse for cops to seize your person, possessions and gain access to enter your home and trash your house. Now that it’s legal some of these excuses are either gone, or limited.

Cops hate that.

So if you think that the legalization of recreational pot is going to keep the cops off your back you’re sadly mistaken. They are going to step-up enforcement of pot related DUI’s. The smell of pot might not give them a reason to bust down the door to your house but you better believe if they smell it coming from your car they will aggressively pursue a conviction.

Take the following scenario for example:

Driver [A] is cruising down the road on a sunny day smoking a fat joint; his large clouds of smoke and the thick aroma trailing behind him as he drives.

Driver [B] who only smokes pot occasionally in the comfort and safety of his home is behind driver [A] when he hits the smoke and aroma stream, causing the interior of his car to smell as if he had just smoked it.

Officer Smith who has just merged onto the freeway from an on-ramp did not see driver [A] at all but certainly smells the marijuana.  He pulls over driver [B] who vehemently insists “it was that guy in the car in front of me.”

However, Officer Smith is unimpressed because he knows he smelled weed in driver [B’s] vehicle and now this driver will have his car searched and be subjected to some tests, like a very cheap and unreliable field breathalyzer unit, known to produce false positives and possibly a cheek swab which has yet to see court acceptance; but it will. He may also be subjected to blood and/or urine tests.

Driver [B] under the above circumstances would still be subjected to these events even if he never smoked pot. But the occasional use could be a problem for him if it was recent. There’s still no set standard on what amount of THC in the blood makes you too impaired to drive at any given moment under California law. He could still be arrested for it even if it was the day before just because trace amounts are in his blood or metabolites of THC appear in his urine.

Driver [A] would be pretty much toast if Officer Smith got behind him instead of driver [B]. The cop would likely arrest him immediately and take him in for a blood test.

If you think that marijuana doesn’t linger long enough to leave a cloud of smoke and aroma as I described you may be new to California, unaware of what pot smells like or you drive a hundred thousand dollar car with the windows up and climate control engaged. The weed available today is potent and smells strong whether burning or not.

The rest of us roll with our windows down most of the time when weather allows, we smell plenty of weed we ain’t smoking.

Smoke your weed at home if you have to smoke; do us all a favor.

Episode IX

Have you ever felt as if your entire life has a “Check Engine” light? Traffic can make you feel that way.

For those on a set schedule you see your commute from that vantage. It looks basically the same every morning on the way in and the same every evening on the way back home; barring any serious accidents. For those who may drive for a living or work a non-traditional schedule the commute takes on many different forms.

But that is changing.

Soon, it seems any commute no matter what time of day or where you are in the Bay Area will look the same; slow and congested with no relief in sight. Gone are the days of reasonably traffic free windows such as the one formerly after the main commute which happens from about 5am to 10am. This luxury can still be had in many parts of the area after 8 or 9pm but during the daylight hours it has become quite extinct, as I discovered this morning while commuting on I-880 south to Hayward.

I was only going about 27 miles and stupidly thought that an hour and a half was plenty of time given that I left at 10am, a time which used to signify the end of the serious morning traffic congestion. It also signifies the daily decriminalization of driving in the HOV lane if you are the single occupant of your vehicle; something that is supposed to help traffic move faster.

I was horribly mistaken.

For a distance of less than 30 miles it required nearly a two hour head start to reach my destination on time. No amount of lane switching, steering wheel pounding and rubber necking to see why we were not moving helped in any way shape or form to propel my Jeep more rapidly to its destination. Luckily the person I had an appointment with was also driving in Bay Area traffic and misread traffic in a similar manner so I was spared the frustration of spending all that time for nothing.

Soon traffic will be far worse due to the shopping frenzy that appears from the Thanksgiving holiday through New Year’s Eve. There will be more accidents, more traffic, more people driving with alcohol in their system and fewer parking spots.

I understand that little Billy needs that ultra-cool new video game console and Uncle Bob has made many a hint of how much he would enjoy a bottle of that artisan small batch rye whisky he has been raving about. I understand that you only have a 45 minute window from the time you get off work ‘till the time you have to pick the kids up from school and drop little Sally at ballet; but please be watchful and considerate out there so we can all make it to next year.

Happy commuting.

Episode VIII

I’m on I-80 just at the Carlsen  Blvd exit in El Cerrito when I observe a recently erected, very brightly lit traffic sign informing me that the exit for Highway 24 is a mere 8 minutes away. It is about 6 PM on a Tuesday.

I’m not heading that way but since I do write about the commute I figure I should test it out even though from the traffic I’m in it is laughably inaccurate. 18 minutes later I’m passing through Emeryville where another sign wrongly informs me that it will only take 20 minutes to reach the Oakland Airport. Total time to the Hwy 24 exit is 23 minutes.

The new sign informing me of the time to Hwy 24 is part of the so-called SMART system [Safety, Mobility, Automated, Real-time Traffic Management] AKA, the I-80 Integrated Corridor Mobility Project that Caltrans thinks will speed things along for the roughly 270,000 motorists who use the stretch of Freeway between the Carquinez and Bay bridges. It consists of a number of signs positioned at the side and on trellises over each lane of the Freeway. It costs about $79 million dollars depending on who you ask.

The first official test o the system was on or about September 3rd of 2015. The system is made to operate in an emergency with arrows over the lanes indicating whether the lane is clear or to move over or if the lane is closed ahead.

$79 million dollars to accomplish what watching the lanes in front of you or your GPS was already capable of doing is a waste; especially if the signs are not accurate.

 The sign I passed giving me the wrong time to the airport is an older sign that has been giving wrong information for years. Anyone who takes that route regularly knows that from Emeryville to the Oakland airport is only 20 minutes if there’s light traffic. The signs are operated by “engineers” in the Oakland traffic control center who are monitoring progress via the cameras mounted on long poles, sensors and signs on the Freeway. To be fair; occasionally the signs are correct, or nearly so. But for that price tag they should be spot-on.

Apparently there are some new signs on San Pablo Avenue which is a known escape corridor but only if you have a destination somewhere from San Pablo to Emeryville but it’s not clear what the signs accomplish. Are they to discourage motorists from leaving the freeway? Once you get on San Pablo Avenue during the commute rush and see that it’s not going to help you a bit that’s discouraging enough; no sign needed.

Elsewhere other attempts at moving cars along faster haven’t panned out. The new “Pay to Play” lane between Dublin and Livermore on I-580 which allows single occupancy vehicles to use the diamond lane for a fee added to their Fastrack account doesn’t amount to much, because the diamond lane often moves only slightly faster than what us poor folks can afford; especially at $7.50 a pop for when traffic is at its worst.

I hate to leave out BART but the funding measure on the ballot this month if approved will only serve to keep it on life support. It’s a great system but how long is it supposed to last if we don’t give it a serious infusion? I read recently that a BART janitor made around $276K in salary and overtime last year and this is the third year the guy has made a six figure salary. That’s just one guy. There have been plenty of similar stories over the years and this seriously discourages people from wanting to fund the system. Especially if you consider that it’s just the tip of the mismanagement iceberg.

You don’t need “engineers” to see that fewer cars or more lanes are the only solution to gridlock anywhere in the Bay Area. $79 million would have been a great start for a viaduct project. Throwing band-aids at it will just nickel and dime us to death. We need a big, serious solution. If the people collecting fat salaries tasked with the job of coming-up with solutions can’t do it; it’s time to cut some fat salaries.

Episode VII

I’m on my way back from Foster City on 1021 north when a loud knock on my windshield has me scanning for the telltale star shaped crack. I don’t see one but suddenly another rock hits…I try to get out of the lane but I have to wait a few moments before a spot opens up.

The offending gravel truck in front of me has a warning printed on the back side:

WARNING Stay Back 60 feet. Owner not responsible for windshield damage.

This is a dubious legal claim. People make them all the time; it does not mean they have any basis in law or fact. The truck is a good 30 feet long plus the trailer it’s towing full of gravel is at least another 20 for a grand total of 110 feet. The owner of this vehicle is making the claim that every time this truck gets on the road it gets 110 feet of roadway all to itself and if some gravel from the battered, leaking trailer damages your vehicle it’s too bad for you.

That’s why I have a dashcam. The legal claim on the back of these trucks is false but it’s too bad for you if you can’t prove that the truck in front of you caused the damage. I was doing okay without a dashcam then one day as I was coming up the freeway off ramp heading home after picking up a little Chihuahua pup who I was sitting for, some guy suddenly swerved into the space I had left between me and the car in front of me then slammed on the brakes.

I wasn’t driving fast, and I reacted quickly but still knocked his bumper off. The impact wasn’t even enough to knock the puppy from her perch in the front seat but on these new hybrid cars that’s enough to cause significant damage.

The guy’s car was still at an angle when my car hit him so I opted to wait for a cop because anyone could see that he had cut into my lane. I took plenty of pictures. Cops drove by us but never stopped. The jerk who cut me off called the cops but they never came. The guys wife, the passenger, his wife apparently got out of the car and grandly staggered over to a bush , dropped to her knees and began to holding a very loud prayer session thrusting her arms to the sky and crying.

I’m not making this up.

The cops never came. The guy refused to give me his insurance info but that’s actually against the law so I gave him mine anyways. Then, according to my insurance company the pair went doctor shopping. However, they couldn’t find a doctor who would say there was anything wrong with them and my insurance company was willing to fight it in court if I wanted to but the pay-out wasn’t that much and we settled out of court.

Had I had a dashcam in the first place they would have been paying me; although I just had a dented bumper and one cracked signal lens. Since then, I always have one running. I started with a pair of GoPro’s. One on my dash and one aimed out my back window. They have good resolution and can handle an impact. However, they only run on batteries, there’s no way to use your cigarette lighter power outlet and the batteries were giving-out three quarters of the way through my 42 miles to and from work. I got a cheaper dashcam with 1080p resolution that runs off my lighter outlet and it’s on whenever my engine is running. A 30 gig mini memory card holds plenty of video.

It’s less than a hundred bucks plus shipping; well worth the investment. I don’t endorse any particular brand; do a little research and you should be okay. 

Episode VI

Last week I concluded my experience with a bogus ticket and subsequent victory via failure to appear in court by the citing officer. This week one of the local fish wrappers published a list of the things cops look for to pull you over, and possibly search your vehicle.

Let’s be clear, if a cop wants to pull you over he or she can easily come up with some fallacious pretext and unless you have video admitted in court showing otherwise the stop will be viewed as good. But let’s look at this list:

Driving under the speed limit is supposed to be a sign that the driver may be hiding something. Keep in mind this list is created by cops so anything that a non-cop does is suspicious. Driving under the speed limit might simply mean you slowed down because you are driving through one of the Bay Area’s notorious patches of pothole ridden freeway and you choose not to shred your tires or beat your suspension to death. There are a lot of reasons to drive slower than the limit; it’s not suspicious unless maybe you had a few shots of tequila but then you’d likely be swerving all over the road as well.

Cops say having “specialty tools” that can open up interior panels where drugs might be stored during the smuggling process is a good reason to search a car.


The same goes for multiple cell phones. Unless you are a cell phone sales person or a complete electronics junkie it’s hard to see why you would need a bunch of them in your car. However, I have several now outdated phones floating around my house that I haven’t got around to tossing out; would that look suspicious to a cop?

Perfect driving is suspicious, as is driving the speed limit. Courts all over the country have made these types of outrageous rulings. In 2014 the Tenth Court of Appeals ruled that driving with good posture and hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel were grounds for suspicion and upheld a traffic stop.

I drive the limit and usually engage my cruise-control to maintain it; there is nothing suspicious about it. Being polite to an officer during a stop is viewed as suspicious. Believe me when I tell you I want to be belligerent to a cop when I’m pulled over because I take much care to stay legal and drive safe. So when I get pulled over I think it’s bullshit and want to say it.

I also like not getting shot, tased or pulled out of my car by the cop and his backup and/or arrested tossed in jail then charged with assaulting their fists and boots with my face and body parts; so I am polite.

Another thing that cops say is suspicious is a car heavy on religious symbols such as crosses, Jesus fish emblems and bumper stickers. Apparently having faith is now an indicator of illicit behavior. Cops also say that if you have an older car with new tires and a shine that you might be trying to blend in with normal traffic to smuggle drugs. So now taking care of your things, or not being able to afford a new car and replacing your bald tires because they are not safe are suspicious.

Also, don’t get caught with air fresheners or potpourri because that could indicate you attempting to mask the odor of the drugs you may be smuggling. It could also be an attempt to mask the odor of the Great Dane slobber your dog graciously deposited on your passenger seat but you are not a cop so you are suspicious.

What happens when a cop pulls you over based on one of these purely manufactured pretexts searches your car and finds no drugs or contraband? They hate to go away empty, so you will get a ticket for something.

Coming soon: Staying home because you don’t like getting pulled over for bullshit reasons? That’s suspicious.

Also there’s bad news if you’re a cop apologist with a bunch of pro-law enforcement stickers on your car; that’s suspicious.

I can agree with that one.

Episode V

By Thomas Johnson

In episode IV, I told the aggravating tale of a crap ticket for a peeling license plate. This time we go inside the courthouse and see what they have in store for Bay Area commuters.

You might not know this but not long ago Alameda and many California counties were engaged in a pay-to-play racket exactly like the one that caught so much attention in Ferguson Missouri. Simply put, if you got a ticket and wanted to fight it in court you had to pay the entire ticket amount. Once they have your money how likely are you to get it back?

After riots and unrest in Ferguson the pay-to-play racket was exposed and many counties in California rather quietly phased out that system. If you want to fight the ticket via mail you still have to pay the full ticket, so we still lose either way. To fight it in person you have to take time from work.

On my arraignment date I went to the courthouse in Oakland and waited outside traffic court until the door was opened by an elderly bailiff who immediately began issuing instructions in a low, mostly inaudible monotone with no pauses between words. From working in public defense I know my way around the courts so it wasn’t a problem for me. But I heard others saying things like: “WTF?” and “What did he just say?” One miffed young woman spoke-up in a loud voice: “Excuse me; no-one here understood a word you just said.” She was ignored.

This is the general attitude of court personnel. They are not burdened with any concerns for anyone who does not work in the court or in law enforcement. Their behavior is superior and demeaning. Frankly, it’s disgraceful and the truth is: If you treat people in this manner you are simply incompetent and should be fired immediately.

Truth doesn’t prevail much in courtrooms.

Once inside you hear some more instructions from the unintelligible bailiff along the lines of “keep cell phones off, no recording of any kind” and “pay attention.” Then you watch a video explaining all the rights you supposedly have regarding your case. The judge arrives nearly an hour later than court was supposed to convene. Yet on the Minute Order detailing the proceedings I was handed after I entered my plea it claimed 9:00AM; a complete fiction.

In this court the judge is called a Commissioner His name is Taylor Culver. Commissioner Culver began by informing us we were there to be arraigned so all he wanted to hear was guilty or not guilty. First he handled the red light runners. If they pled not guilty he showed them a video of themselves. One woman went a car length past the line but she did stop. That’s running a red light, so make sure you stop behind the line at red lights.

One thing a defense investigator is good at is taking as close to verbatim as possible notes. I have had many a prosecutor try to trip me up on the stand to no-avail, and even been accused (falsely) of having a hidden recorder; my notes are good. In addition to rudely berating the defendants and making the statement that he is “the only one in this courtroom who is special.” I heard Commissioner Culver use the phrase: “What about the money?” no less than 18 times prior to my name being called, leaving no doubt as to his true function in that court. It was disgraceful behavior and didn’t bode well for my chances of winning if it went before him. The California Code of Judicial Ethics states:

“A judge shall be patient, dignified, and courteous to litigants.” Culver was anything but. When my name was called I went to the podium, said: “Not guilty and I exercise my right to a speedy trial.”

That was it; I took my Minute Order proving that I was in court and showing my new court date and got out post haste. I had been there three hours and forty-four minutes.

I called a buddy of mine from my misspent year in law school but he had cases in court the day of my trial. I then contacted a few other attorneys. If I was going to lose this money I’d rather it go to a lawyer than the state but nobody had any experience with a ticket like this and I was on my own.

I researched my case carefully. I took lots of pictures of other cars with similarly peeling plates, of city and county busses with similarly peeling plates and even of police car license plates at the Oakland motor pool all with plates that looked like mine. I blew them up, attached them to cardboard and labeled them as exhibits. I did not send a discovery request to the officer, DA or highway patrol. In this case I didn’t want to alert them I was putting up a serious fight.

 Following court rules I created the legal form list of exhibits and a number of other documents to support my case. I also drew-up a peremptory challenge even though I was sure Commissioner Culver would deny me my right to have someone other than him hear the case. I had to build-up cause for an appeal.

The day of my trial I arrived at court to see that another judge was going to be hearing my case. This was good news as far as I was concerned. As I waited I couldn’t see the cop who wrote the ticket. A section of seats close to the bench was where they sit. We waited for quite some time obviously to give all the cops time to show-up for court but finally it started. The judge announced that the following people were having their cases dismissed because the officer did not show-up.

I was one of those people. I was not unhappy that I didn’t get to present my case. I’ll take a win like this any way I can get it.

Now I have a dash cam and a couple of hidden cams. California Senate Bill 411 known as “The Right to Record Act” was signed into law by Governor Brown in 2015. You have a right to record the cops; don’t believe them if they tell you otherwise. It’s a double edged sword, but at least if you get a ticket for something you didn’t do you have proof.

I drive very carefully and don’t exceed the speed limit. I have a nice new set of shiny non-peeling license plates.

Episode IV

Sometimes when you are watching folks blatantly do something that could be very costly to them because it’s against the law you wonder where the cops are. As I watched a string of solitary commuters slowly pass in the HOV lane I didn’t have long to wonder. Highway Patrol, the cops were behind me with their lights on.

With traffic moving at about 15 mph and the fact that I had not changed lanes for a few miles, knowing my car is registered, smogged and insured; my first reaction was extreme irritation. It’s annoying to see the cops ignoring obvious lawbreaking to hassle you, when you know you haven’t done anything wrong.

My passenger side brake light was out. My general feeling about this is that it’s irresponsible for law enforcement to interrupt the morning freeway commute with stupid crap like a taillight stop. Stopping the productive class from going to the places where they are productive is interfering with commerce as far as I’m concerned.

To make it worse, the state feels they should also collect $25 for this interference. This is called a “proof of correction fee.” A taillight bulb is manufactured somewhere and then enters the stream of commerce. We consumers are not involved in the manufacturing or shipping of this product and therefore as long as it is properly installed it’s absurd that the state can collect money from us when it fails; not to mention the fact that we have to go find some other cop to sign-off on the ticket.

But this cop wasn’t done. He was up to something, making small talk about my license plate. As a highly trained and experienced public defense investigator I know how cops operate. He was trying to elicit some sort of incriminating response.

But why?

Did he think it was a stolen plate?

A stolen registration tab?

He asked me me how long I had the car, was the plate on it when I got it and other questions that didn’t add up. Then he went back to his vehicle where another cop was waiting. I gave him nothing; never admit anything to a cop.

Soon he appeared at my passenger side window and gave me the ticket instructions. Looking at the ticket I saw the tail lamp violation listed as correctible; but there was another violation marked non-correctible. It was CVC 5201.1 (c). Based on his questions I knew it had something to do with my plate but the ticket didn’t indicate it. What it means when it’s a non-correctible violation is that you pay the face value of the ticket or you go to court, get arraigned and then have a trial.

I looked at him. He was smirking; he knew it was bullshit and enjoyed it. I hope his mom is real proud of him.

I went home and looked it up:

(c) A person shall not erase the reflective coating of, paint over the reflective coating of, or alter a license plate to avoid visual or electronic capture of the license plate or its characters by state or local law enforcement.

In essence this officer was charging me with deliberately scraping the reflective coating off my license plate in order to evade the California surveillance state such as red light cameras and plate readers attached to police cars.

Total fine with fees: more than $1,104.00

Yes, my plate was peeling due to normal wear and tear, exhaust fumes, exposure to sunlight and so on. But I didn’t have anything to do with it. I bought the car that way and barely had it two years at the time of this incident. So there was no way they were taking my money without a fight. This is nothing but blatant money grabbing.

Never heard of such a thing? Here’s a link to a Sacramento Bee piece on it:


Next time: Off to court I go….

Episode III

It’s a fine morning. I managed not to hit “snooze” several times and I’m well ahead on time; slightly ahead of the sudden inexplicable massive slowdown that often occurs while descending into Castro Valley from Oakland.

I’m in lane number three doing slightly under the limit when I come across a rarity these days. It’s an early 70’s Datsun pickup looking like at some time over the last forty some years every square inch suffered some sort of impact. But these things were made out of a solid gauge of steel and could take some punishment.

For those not up on their automotive history, Datsun is now known as Nissan here in the U.S. Nissan was formed in Japan in the 1930’s and Datsun was a brand name. They phased out the brand in the late 1980’s but they used to make some pretty tough little trucks.

The punishment it was suffering now is that the new owner had lowered it to within inches of the highway. This was accomplished through a series of torsion bar adjustments and lowering blocks and creates a hopping effect when traveling over bumps in the road at any speed above ten miles per hour. It also creates sparks and changes the name of the occupants from driver and passenger to “shock absorbers.”

Every time he hit a bump the rear wheels hopped several inches to the left or right. Understandably he was driving quite a bit slower than the flow of traffic. If I experienced this sensation it would scare the heck out of me. In the automotive world there are these people called engineers. They design stuff with a purpose in mind and it usually works pretty well. Messing with the way cars are designed isn’t the best idea even if you think it looks cool.

But this guy probably didn’t care you see; he is the illest. About 20 stickers all over his rear window declared this status:


I presume it’s some sort of a lifestyle brand but when you put 20 stickers on a beat up 70’s Datsun it takes on a different dimension. One day his little side hop feature might hop him into a pothole on one of Northern California’s neglected stretches of Freeway and he will find himself the illest indeed.

Soon after, I see a dark sedan coming up fast in the number two lane. It is swerving, jerking, slowing and speeding. In these cases it’s tough to figure out where you should go. Is the person drunk? Suffering a medical emergency? It’s a late model black Mercedes.

I barely get out of the way in time and as it approaches and passes I see that it’s a couple engaged in a spirited domestic violence incident; really going at it. I finally breathe again as they get past me but fully expect them to careen out of control and end-up a fiery mess all over the road.

But they don’t. I never see another sign of them again. I hope they work it out. As for me, I survived another commute in the Bay Area.

Episode II

It’s been a while since I visited another state but here in California and especially in the Bay Area people love their stickers. Not just bumper stickers but all sorts placed just about anywhere on the car. In the Bay Area commute you have plenty of time to read them. You can learn a lot.

One thing I’ve found interesting is the evolution of the fish emblem. It started out with the basic Jesus fish, then came one with a cross inside. Some say “Jesus” or “Faith” or come with a bible verse designator. Of course somebody had to answer that and there was the “Darwin” fish with little prehensile limbs. We can’t forget the “Gefilte” fish followed by the “Satan” fish which spawned “fish & chips” and of course the “Science” fish with rocket fins. There’s “Evolve” and “Sushi” too. Everyone gets a fish.

For bumper stickers you have the dwindling yet classic “Real musicians have day jobs.” The newer generation of musicians doesn’t really drive cars so you won’t be seeing that one much. “Keep Tahoe Blue” is another California classic as is “Mystery Spot.” My personal favorite is one I saw in Berkeley more than ten years ago “End Unwanted Seismic Activity NOW!”

By far, the most popular stickers today are the stick figure family, which even come with stickers representing the dogs and cats. They are everywhere. I have seen one set stretched all the way across the rear window of the minivan. Are these people fertile or what?

A kid in the 4 to 9 year old range probably thinks a stick figure family is pretty cool. If I had a kid in that age range and they wanted a stick figure family I suppose I might put one up there. Maybe there are plenty of adults who are kids at heart or who are very proud of their families and didn’t do it for the kids at all.

Either way; so what?

A stick figure family has no effect on me or anyone at all and that’s why it boggles my mind that there are people who hate so much that there is a demand for stickers that say “Fuck You and Your Stick Figure Family.” If someone went out to a store or went online, bought a sticker like that and took the time to install it on their window there’s something wrong with them. Maybe they can’t have kids, or maybe lost them in a custody battle, or maybe suffering through the bay area commute day after day has them coming unraveled and they need a place to focus the impotent rage. No matter what the reason, posting your hate for all to see doesn’t do anyone any good and just labels you as a jerk. 

Episode I

By Thomas Johnson

Dropping down the U-shaped ramp I accelerate as it straightens out. A combination of over the shoulder looks and drivers side mirror glances tells me the lane is clear and I ease onto I-80 in North Richmond at the incredible speed of 13 miles per hour.

I scoot my butt around a bit trying to find the most comfortable position as I brace for the 42 mile drive to my job in Pleasanton; a trip that in current traffic will take me an hour and a half.

If I’m lucky.

Today I will spend at least three hours heading to and from work. Most days I can keep it down to two and a half because I take the back way for my morning commute past San Pablo Dam reservoir to Orinda where I catch Hwy 24 for a couple miles before taking the Hwy 13 ramp which allows me a reasonably traffic free bypass of the Albany/Berkeley/Emeryville shorefront clusterphuque that is the bane of many a morning commute.

But this morning I got wind of some road work backing-up the Dam road as we call it. I got wind of it via my small CB radio which beats any app on your cell phone any day and doesn’t depend on any grid or outside power source.

So today I join the masses on the long slog to the maze.

If you are a prudent and observant driver you notice many things. Things like the fact that your fellow commuters are not being very observant. They drive while texting and talking on their phones. Some are using electric shavers or applying cosmetics. Others are waving their arms around or violently shaking their heads to eardrum shattering beats or guitars. Some drive as if they are paralyzed, rigidly looking straight ahead never looking over their shoulder or at the mirrors. This is why you need to be a prudent and observant driver; it reduces your odds of becoming a statistic.

Things speed up a bit as we all approach the merge where I-80 and I-580 meet. To my left several single occupancy cars pass using the HOV lane. I am pretty sure a 2002 Chevy Camaro does not get a pass to be in that lane especially since the driver is the only occupant. Moments later my lane picks up and I leave the Camaro far behind. It never fails to boggle my mind why people would risk the very large fine and drive in a lane that is not even moving faster. Are they awake? Have they been doing it forever and never got caught? Do they think they could come up with a plausible excuse and get out of a ticket?

I see it every day and I wonder.

Finally, I get past the maze and merge onto I-580 east. The California Hotel vanishes behind me on the right as I pick up speed, pick my lane and set my cruise control hoping for smooth sailing. Total time to get from El Sobrante to this point: One hour.

Which I will never get back...