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Brief encounter

By Arthur Gilbert Ben Armistead | Nov. 6, 2017


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The news is saturated with disturbing accounts of sexual harassment of women by men with influence and power. This unacceptable phenomenon has occurred for decades with alarming frequency in all walks of life. It is not limited to the entertainment industry. It occurs in government, corporations, law firms, medical offices and universities. And this list is not exhaustive. Nor is the type of harassment. And it is well known that in the workplace discriminatory behavior usually is directed toward racial and religious minorities and gay and transgender persons. Denigration and discriminatory behavior seem to be endemic. But courageous people are coming forward to expose these disgraceful practices and bring them to an end.

The Legislature and the courts are catching up with the times where cases of discrimination are being decided with more frequency. In the mid-1970s when I was a municipal court judge, I ruled that a portion of Penal Code Section 647, subdivision (a), as applied, was unconstitutional. The statute made it a crime to solicit a lewd act in a public place. Undercover police officers would attend gay bars and strike up conversations with random patrons sitting next to them at the bar. The mere suggestion by the unsuspecting patron that they get a room somewhere and have sex resulted in an arrest.

The Brown Act legalized sex between consenting adults. In my first written opinion, I reasoned in well-wrought scholarly prose that, "if you can do it, you ought to be able to talk about it." The California Supreme Court in Pryor v. Municipal Court, 25 Cal. 3d 238 (1979), in a majority opinion by Justice Mathew Tobriner, came to the same conclusion, but expressed its rationale with a more nuanced mode of expression.

There are even situations where relationships involving consenting parties who are in love can be problematic. In Crosier v. United Parcel Service, 150 Cal. App. 3d 1132 (1983), an at-will manager with 25 years' service was discharged. He admitted he lied to a supervisor about cohabiting with an hourly female employee in violation of an unwritten company rule proscribing social relationships between management and nonmanagement employees. The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's summary judgment for the employer. The court held that the manager failed to show his employer acted in bad faith by using the company's nonfraternization rule as a pretext for firing him. I believe the author of the opinion assumed that the couple living together was in love, but that was beside the point. The factual and legal issues compelled the result.

The tawdry ways women have been treated by men who use their power to dominate have nothing to do with love. Neither did the reasoning in Crosier, although the employees may have loved one another. Idealized love has been expressed in sonnets by Shakespeare's contemporary Sir Philip Sidney in Astrophel and Stella. This is to be contrasted with Shakespeare's sonnets concerning his passion for the so-called "Dark Lady."

But now for a change. The balance of this column is devoted to love of a far different nature. It is intensely personal. It happened at the Oakland Airport where I was waiting for a flight home after speaking at a California Judges Association conference in San Francisco. Why write about this in a column? It is often easier to talk or write about intimate encounters with a wider, faceless audience than to a single individual.

I was waiting for my plane when I caught sight of a female, a complete stranger. She walked by and when I caught sight of her, I broke into a broad smile. I had to meet her. And by a sheer streak of luck, she sat next to me. I said hello and she responded immediately. There was none of this awkward meaningless drivel, what semanticists call "presymbolic language." A bonding occurred that was immediate and intensely intimate. The hugs and kissing that occurred produced no embarrassment. It felt natural and even appropriate, no matter that it occurred in a crowded public place.

And then the words that can incite a riot came over the loudspeaker. My flight would be delayed two hours. My fury immediately turned to joy when I learned that my new friend was on the same plane. The next two hours went by quickly as we grew to know one another. When it was finally time to board the plane, we became separated and I felt pangs of regret and loss. But after I put my bag in the overhead compartment, and was about to settle into my seat, she appeared, looking at me with the joy and expectation she did when we first met. Was it eons ago, or just two hours? Who knows? Who cares? We settled in and snuggled. She dozed off.

The flight landed and we took leave of one another. A wistful, unspoken goodbye. I had a kind of lump in my throat and knew we would never meet again. I thought about the 1946 movie "Brief Encounter," with Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard, for the title of this column. But my encounter was singularly different. Not quite like Dante and Beatrice, but with some similarities. I came home and told my wife Barbara about the meeting and laid bare the emotions and longing my brief encounter engendered. She was understanding and supportive. That did not surprise me and it made me realize how fortunate I am.

This short-lived relationship is over (it was more than a dalliance), but I have memories of this adorable creature. And to my joy she allowed me to photograph her on the plane. And, dear reader, you who have taken the time to read this maudlin love story, you are entitled to see her. Here she is (see above photo).

She is French and was accompanied by a nice young woman with a leash. I asked the name of my new affectionate friend, and the woman told me. It is Pooh Bear. Really? Pooh Bear? Please. She is not a bear, damn it. I suppose she could have been a character in an A.A. Milne novel, but she was not. If Milne has to be involved, why not call her Winnie? Still not appropriate, but Pooh Bear? Heavens!

I suppose it is just as well we never meet again. I refuse to call her Pooh Bear. And if I were to meet her again, and I were to call to her, and say something stupid, like "here doggy," she just might not come.

So why not simply get a French Bulldog, or better yet a mutt, at the dog jail? Barbara is all in favor of it -- when and if I retire. See Gilbert v. Chiang, 227 Cal. App. 4th 537 (2014).

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Ben Armistead

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