Appealing for Cents


I rarely say this about people I’ve come to loathe, but the balding, sixty-something man screaming that he had no money in the foyer of his penthouse condo, three steps away from his in-home recording studio, filled me with awe. Are those words really coming out of his mouth? I marveled as he shrilly insisted I’d just worked twelve weeks for free. I quickly checked the hall mirror to make sure I hadn’t accidentally shown up in hair bows and Mary Janes, like the dumb little girl reflected in his eyes. Devoid of business savvy or common sense, she was going to have to learn the hard way. Wow, this is really happening, I nodded to myself as the shrieking continued. Clearly, nothing short of an apology for my behavior would appease my flushed friend, but instead I blurted out “I’ll see you in court!” and ran.

I had just spent three months translating a feature film script of Koba Zhopov’s[1]colleague from Russian into English, and another two politely requesting remittance. I might mention now that Russian is not my first language. I had studied it throughout college, including a semester in Moscow. But that would not compare to my five-year relationship with a genuine Russian immigrant. You really learn to pay attention when your boyfriend’s favorite pastime is a vodka-soaked dinner party with fellow ex-pats, who’d spent their week battling definite articles and the letter “h” and just wanted to relax. Precious few were eager to practice their adopted language, so I practiced mine.

It was at such a party that I’d met Zhopov. We ended up working together on a TV series, I as a script writer and he a music composer. Thus we’d been friends for several years when he asked me to translate the script. For a fixed sum to be delivered upon completion. With no written contract. And no advance. “And could you also punch up the dialogue? You’re so good at that…” I hadn’t had much exercise with the language since breaking up with my Rusky. My primary upkeep was with my friend Natasha, which consisted mostly of drunkenly yelling swear words in noisy night clubs, but it seemed like enough.

Unfortunately, I was rarely drunk as I trudged through the eighty-seven pages of unformatted text that was criminally labeled a script. Composed by a Kyrgyzstanian historian, the plot involved a prehistoric Kyrgyzstan warrior princess, reincarnated as a feisty New Yorker, who returns to Kyrgyzstan to wander the barren desert in search of a magical breast plate. So basically it was a much-needed star vehicle for Kyrgyzstan. The author, however, seemed intent on portraying his homeland as the most neglected, depressing circle of hell on earth, promising to do for it what “Apocalypse Now” had done for Vietnam. With its droning flashbacks, discomforting love scenes and dialogue such as, “What are you, a dare devil?”/”No, I’m American,” I doubted the author had ever written a movie before. Quite possibly, he had never even seen one. “This film will not be made,” my ex stated blandly when I came to him with polish-up questions. And yet I convinced myself it was worth the practice, if not the money. Looking back, it perfectly illustrates one of three truisms down to which my grandmother has boiled her ninety-one years: “If it doesn’t feel right, run.” Instead I sat right where I was and translated, and translated, and translated.

* * *

I began to prepare for my case. Like any responsible plaintiff, I wasn’t taking chances; I went straight to Google. The website for LA Superior Court and provided a brief overview and some forms. I also found the self-help site, which had a “Lawsuits and Mediation” section. After their initial advice (“Don’t get involved in a law suit”) the wisdom became a little more palatable. Don’t take your rights too seriously… Don’t think black and white about winning and losing… Keep a sense of humor. Noted.

Following my motif of illegitimate counsel, I also conferred with a law student. Of course, law students aren’t allowed to practice or even give guidance before they’ve passed the bar exam, but I don’t think my gal was risking anything. The whole of her advice was summed up in three words: “women rarely win.”

Less shaken than intrigued, I decided to preview my fate; I sat through an entire afternoon of small claims cases. And you know what? The women did seem to have a harder time than the men. That’s because some – not all – tended to argue against overdue bills and car accidents with, say, an unrelated tale of sick family members. They spoke of unfairness. They got emotional. In a nutshell, they acted like women. Guilty women.

The men, on the other hand, preferred the self-righteousness steam-rolling technique. Some – not all – acted as if they had been invited to court solely to recount their unwaveringly correct behavior as an example for others. A plaintiff had purchased, then returned, three different telephones that didn’t work. The male company reps calmly welcomed her to a fourth, but – so sad – it was not policy to issue refunds. Not that his Honor bought this; he delivered a guilty verdict on the spot. But I began to understand life from the bench. All day, every day, an endless parade of folks who plum didn’t like parting with cash. Sure, they might be wrong, but at Carnival Small Claims, why not step right up and try your luck? It doesn’t cost the defendant anything to fling his ping-pong ball of bullshit at the goldfish bowl of justice.   The plaintiff’s price of admission is twenty-two bucks, another thirty to have papers served – but what’s that with the chance to score ten, twenty, a hundred times over?

A unsettling thought struck. What if I was actually one of these shiftless gamblers? I’d accepted a friendly handshake in lieu of a written contract; wasn’t there a price for this irresponsibility? Back at the condo, one of Zhopov’s new requirements was for me to retype the whole script with his personal revisions. If I just did that, he swore, then he’d pay me. Maybe I should have bitten the bullet and accepted this compromise, spared the legal system my woes. Maybe, by the time I spent countless additional hours working for him, the money he said he didn’t have would miraculously materialize.

And maybe there was something to hauling jerks into court.

* * *

I organized my paperwork and aggressively memorized my key points. I rehearsed my story aloud, coached my sister, as witness, to do the same. Lucid, succinct sentences of competent testimony ran through my head on a near-continuous basis. I was a wreck.

Turns out not much of my worrying or prepping was necessary. The entirety of our exchange with the judge went a little like this:

Judge: “Did you do the work?”
Me: “Yes.”
Judge (to Zhopov): “Did you pay her for the work?”
Zhopov (Loud ding as he starts up his laptop computer.): “No, but—“
Judge: “Put that away.”
Zhopov: “But—“
Judge: “I said, put that thing away.”

Several minutes later my sister and I were trying to decide whether to buy snacks in the lobby or go out to lunch. I was trembling from joy. I didn’t have the verdict, but I knew I’d won.

Of course, Zhopov would be given the chance to appeal. And of course, he would.

This time, the outcome would be different. The Appeals judge, a much older man with a limp side, would demand again and again what proof I had of our agreement. Zhopov would have wizened up, too. Instead of stammering lamely, he wasted no time painting me as some girlfriend of a friend who was totally unqualified for the job and had consequently failed. “I even offered her a thousand dollars for her horrible work, but still she refused!” As lie after lie oozed past his lips, it was my turn to stammer. And the judge wanted none of it.

“Can I just say one more thing?” I blurted. His Honor sighed audibly. “I would have accepted a thousand dollars if he offered!” Then Zhopov was thanking the judge as I numbly exited the courtroom.

I ran home to compose a letter of retribution to Zhopov, with honest-to-God sentences like, “I look forward to spitting on your grave, old man,” and “When your doddering old corpse” etc., etc., but finally I abandoned it out of sheer exhaustion. Whatever the verdict, it was over.

* * *

Eight months later, I heard a little story. Shortly after the confrontation in the condo, Zhopov made a business trip to Moscow. He borrowed a sum of money, about $2500, from the production company he was working with there, with the promise he’d return it in two days. They hadn’t heard from him since.

“What did they do?” I asked my Rusky ex.
Smart people.

A week after our Appeals case, I was awarded $1000. One thousand dollars for, all told, ten months of translating, typing, proofreading, phoning, faxing, requesting, yelling, filing, researching, rehearsing, fretting, pleading and rejoicing, fretting, pleading, and rejoicing again. And then I had to collect.

But there was one final expenditure of time. I drove a crisp copy of “The Magical Kyrgyzstanian Breast Plate” [2] over to the WGA to register. Another ten bucks down the drain, but now it was mine. Forever and ever and ever.

Now that’s keeping a sense of humor.

(Published originally in the LA Alternative Press, 6 August 2004)

[1] Not his real name.

[2] Not the real title.


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