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Passion in the Court Room: The Sentencing of Tony Serra

Last week I got a one-page flyer from the staff in lawyer Tony Serra's office. Tony was due to be sentenced for "misdemeanor willful failure to pay income tax," and his staff was asking people to attend the sentencing. "Stand Up for Him As He Has Stood Up For Us," it said, and listed the date, time, judge (Joseph C. Spero), and courtroom in San Francisco. Tony is a legendary defense lawyer, defender of civil rights, who often takes on impossible cases, often pro bono, and has had an extraordinary career in the San Francisco area and the rest of the nation. He lives a spartan life, drives junker cars. He is colorful, with a long grey pony tail, and wears suits he gets at the Salvation Army. About 10 years ago, 60 Minutes did a piece on him. The movie True Believer was about one of his cases, with James Wood playing Tony. A Google search turns up about 7000 references to him, and he's described as "radical," "flamboyant," and "renowned."

I've known Tony for over 50 years. We both grew up in San Francisco and then lived in the same fraternity house at Stanford. He graduated 6 months before I did and took off for a tour of Europe on a motorscooter with his first wife Judy. He wrote me letters from the trip, one of which I remember vividly, about staying up all night on a boat from Barcelona to Palma de Mallorca, and dolphins criss-crossing in front of the boat making phosphorescent patterns in the sea, with stars shining overhead. As soon as I graduated, my wife and I did the same thing, caught a ship from NY to France, hitchhiked to Milan, bought a new Lambretta scooter, and spent 3 months touring all of Europe, two California kids away from home for the first time — all because of Tony.

In the early '60s he went to work for the public defender's office in Oakland and I was working as an insurance broker in SF. In about 1963 we both smoked pot together for the first time, and by 1965 he had switched to private criminal defense practice and I had quit my job to work as a carpenter. We both were profoundly influenced by the cultural revolution of the times. In the early '70s he and his girlfriend Mary Edna rented a house from me in Bolinas and their first two (twins) of 5 children — Shelter and Ivory — were born there.

I got to the courtroom about 10 minutes late yesterday. It was packed — about 100 people — with about 30 people milling around outside. I decided to try my Shelter Publications press pass and darned if it didn't work: they let me in, the last seat. Tony's attorney, Randy Darr, was in the midst of an impassioned plea to the judge. This guy had a silver tongue and he went on at length. Tony admits his guilt, Tony has a "dysfunctional" relationship with money (true), there'd be no purpose in sending him to jail, Tony would pay $1500 a month to the IRS. Blah blah.

The IRS claimed Tony owed over $500,000 in taxes and had only paid $60,000, and wanted a one-year sentence. A probation officer was recommending a 5-month sentence.

Then about a dozen lawyers, mostly of the criminal defense variety, spoke to the judge. Tony had been a great influence in their lives and careers. He was their hero, he had defended the poor and downtrodden, he belonged in the courtroom and not in a jail cell. Blah blah, and I do mean blah blah. I haven't spent a lot of time in courtrooms, but I'm of the editorial persuasion and found these speeches long and tedious. You could have cut about 2/3 out of what each person said in the interest of clarity and succinctness, but I guess these guys are used to addressing juries and hammering home their points. Throw bombast at the wall and see what sticks. Plus they didn't really have a leg to stand on. Tony admitted his guilt. In retrospect this wasn't a display of reason, but rather of passion, of emotion, hallmarks of Tony's dramatic courtroom appearances. This was theater. At one point one of the lawyers asked Tony's five kids to stand up, which they did; they'd flown in from New York and LA to back their dad, and they looked wonderful.

Everyone gave it their all. It was a court appearance, but it was also a celebration of Tony's dedication to justice, and of how much he means to so many people.

It went on for about 3 hours and then Judge Spero said to take a 10 minute break and he'd impose the sentence. People chatted, Tony went around hugging his friends, until the judge returned. The judge acknowledged the good work Tony had done, representing the poor, influencing other lawyers, but said Tony wasn't above the law and sentenced him to 10 months (in Lompoc federal prison camp) and to paying the feds 100K at $1500 a month once he's out of prison.

Tony will do OK in prison. The other inmates will love him. He's a philosopher, a voracious reader. Once at Stanford he locked himself in a closet for 3 days with just bread and water so he could experience isolation. Maybe he'll take the time to write a book. He has to report to Lompoc in January 2006.

Northwest Coast Trip Epilog

It's a sunny summer morning here in Louie's shop, and I'm looking through my notebooks from the trip for a few out-of-sequence trip notes and thoughts, before heading south for home. I'm homesick! (However I plan a brief stop-off to skateboard at Sea Ranch, where thanks to a sympatico friend who lives there, I now have a pass to be on the grounds.)

Three Quotes (I ran across while on this trip)

"Creativity is the ability to go from failure to failure with undiminished enthusiasm."
-Winston Churchill
(This resonates with me!)

"Genius is the ability to observe something until it reveals its nature." - Sir Isaac Newton
(When I read Lloyd House the Churchill quote, he snorted and muttered something not complimentary about Churchill and recited the above Newton quote, and it's a perfect guideline for his work, where he has found say a piece of unique wood on the beach and has studied it until it reveals to him how to use it in a building.

"Well building hath three conditions:
• Commodity
• Firmness
• Delight"

-Sir Henry Wooten
(This from John Raabe. "Commodity" in the sense of "commodious," "firmness" meaning well-built, and — delight, yes!

Migration South to North

People can sell their home in say Santa Barbara or the Bay Area for big bucks and move north and buy a nice house and have a lot of $$ left over. It's happening in all the great little towns up the coast. Home prices are rising. Ferndale is a pretty little town just south of Eureka, most of the buildings Victorian, set in a dairy farming valley. I like Ft. Bragg, it's still a working town, unlike Mendocino, which I think is disgusting in its precocious sell-out to tourism. There are special towns all over the country (also islands) that are typically first found by artists, then discovered by the gen'l public and prices escalate. There were a lot of places discovered by hippies in the '70s that were cheap back then and spiralling out of sight now.

This is Not the Bay Area

Had a beer in a The Ice Bar, a biker bar in Vancouver, WA. A huge Harley-man sitting at the stool next to me had the scarf-on-head and a biker coat that had decals on the back, one of which was a confederate flag, with the message: "Try burning this flag, asshole."

Three-dot Journalism

I got to Pt. Townsend, Oregon on a rainy morning. Had been there before, but hadn't looked around. It's been getting the typical tourist treatment and influx of out-of-staters for some time now, but it's a big place and a thriving seaport and there are still lots of workers and true sea people there…In his last email before I left on this trip, Godfrey said he hoped my trip north would be "fraught with adventure."…On this trip I slept in my truck or at friends' houses 8 nights, otherwise I stayed in motels. I've sort of had it with B&B's; I don't really want a room filled with antiques. I prefer a characterless clean motel room (with wi-fi preferably)…There's nothing like going down a road you've never been on before. I'm hunting, scanning the landscape for barns, houses, anything of graphic interest. In shooting buildings I try to show them at their best, from the most complimentary angle. It takes a lot of stalking…Builder Tom Larsen wonders why no one has built a house with baled newspapers, like straw bales. He says they won't burn.Hmmmm…

Sweet Home

I love the places I visited on this trip. Victoria is a spectacular, clean, uncrowded, mellow city, the Gulf Islands are beautiful and peaceful and fertile, the people in B.C. are wonderful, and yes I do like the excitement of travel and seeing new places and meeting new people BUT on the way home when I headed out of the hot Sacramento Valley to Boonville and started the climb over the mountains to Pt. Arena and the ocean, something kicked in: home turf. Boy, I'm excited to be back.

End of 3-week Northwest Coast Trip

On Saturday (this is Tuesday), I spent the night at architect John Raabe's house on Whidbey Island, Washington. John runs a unique website offering home building plans inexpensively, and has a great builders' forum:


The next morning I caught a ferry to the mainland. They had a cop with dog sniffing under all the cars waiting to get on the ferry, looking for explosives. Ah me! I drove through to Seattle (Mt. Rainier is magnificent, it dominates the landscape in that part of the world) and then down to Medford Oregon, slept a few hours in the truck and then dropped in on my friends Bill and Judy Pearl at 5:30 AM in their gym, where I knew they'd be. We had breakfast and then yesterday I headed south. It was HOT. I stopped in Redding, and trespassed on an upscale trailer park land to get access to the swiftly-flowing Sacramento river, jumped in, and it was ice water! Talk about refreshing. Then about two hours later, I detoured off Hwy 5 to the town of Colusa, where I'd lived off and on as a teenager, found the old swimming beach and swam in water that was about 20 degrees warmer. Then decided to come back to Louie's place on the way home, finish off this blogging from the trip, show Louie some of the pix, and start trying to figure out to do with this ton of wonderful material I've amassed. For one thing, there is a whole new level up building in the northwest. It was like stepping on another planet.

Did I mention the last builder I met, Bruce Atkey? Bruce is a big strong surfer dude/builder who lives in a little cabin overlooking one of the northwest coasts lesser-known surf breaks and has built cabins and houses on remote sites along the west coast of Vancouver Island (north of Tofino), felling and splitting all the wood on-site. 40 miles by boat to get there.) He's also building a steel sailboat from scratch, almost finished (maybe 35' or so). To see and photograph Bruce's work and Lloyd House's place (also reachable only by boat), Bruce offered to take me in his speedboat out of Tofino if I would pay for gas. Would I! We'll either do it this fall or next spring. There could be a book on just these northwest coast builders.Hmmmmm....

Then there is the art work of Chief Tony Hunt. What a book this would make. I'm going to visit Tony on my next trip to Vancouver and talk about the reality of such a book. His art still has the awesome power of the coast's native people. And how about this: Tony recently built a "long house" for the Salish and Ontario people in Ft. Rupert, Vancouver Island with carved corner posts of logs 4-1/2 feet wide, 22 feet high. The building is 80' by 120' and seats 1300 people.

Well, that's it f-f-f-f-folks. Over and out from Louie's this sunny afternoon. I'm gonna go jump in the local river.

Sculpture in Homebuilding

This is a stunning house built by Dean Ellis on a beautiful site looking down grassy meadows to the blue water. I missed Dean, but he told me to go in and shoot photos. Not only is it unique in design, materials and construction (it's framed with steel tubing), but it feels incredibly good inside.

Sod roof helps it blend into site.

Kitchen counters (as at left surrounding stove) are welded, polished steel.

On the Island, Off the Road, In A Ditch

Oh yeah…

I mean I've been stuck before — in the mud, snow, sand, and even in ditches — but never like this. Backing down a narrow country road on Hornby Island one evening, my left rear tire went into a 3' deep ditch, the truck went wham! There was broken glass, I couldn't believe it, I was watching it happen in slow motion, saying this can't be happening. I pulled myself up out of the upper door and walked to the closest house. This happened to be Wayne Ngan, a gentle soul and, it turns out, an internationally known potter. Wayne called a guy who might be able to get me out and about an hour later Tim Biggins arrives in a big flatbed truck. Within 5 minutes we had established that he knew my book SHELTER well and further, that his own house on the island had been in the book HANDMADE HOUSES, THE WOODBUTCHER'S ART. Tim studied the situation a long time and concluded we should come back in the morning, so I went home with him and slept in the loft shown below. Tim is a story himself, a cowboy of the northwest, builder, welder, trucker; he reminded me of Neal Cassady.

Pole rafters are radial, all at a differnt level, and bolted to a central log.

Exterior of Tim's house

We got up at 6, had oatmeal and good coffee, loaded his truck and set off. In about 2 hours, with a combination of come-alongs, cable around 2 trees, various jacks and luckily a neighbors tractor, the gringo's truck was gently lifted back on the road. Whew, broke one window, some denting, but nothing that can't be fixed. Sometimes I think the Lords of Karma watch over me and send along the right people to get me out my dumb predicaments.

Builders of the Gulf Islands

Here are pix of homes on two of the Gulf Islands, off the east coast of Vancouver Island. I don't need to name the islands here, they already get plenty of publicity. There's been a high level of design, ingenuity, and craftsmanship in this part of the world. For me it was photographer's wonderland.

Michael Dennis left his job as a professor at UC Medical School in 1980 and moved to B.C. He milled his own posts and beams from timber on his land and built a large and elegant house. It feels a bit like a wooden medeival hall, with light shining on broad-width polished flooringn.

Robbie, who's retired, lives a very simple life in moss-roofed "Mossy Hollow," built on a forested hillside and reachable only by trail.

Swann moved to the islands in 1968. He built a house in the '70s that burned down in 1985, so rebuilt it on the same spot. He and his wife, (prolific) artist Sudasi Gardner live and work in this light-filled colorful home.

Bedroom. Quilts, pillows, art on walls all by Sudasi.

Bathroom infused with light

Driftwood house built on a remote beach on Denman Island by John Moreland in the '70s.

Architect Michael McNamara built his own house in 1971. It has good vibes and a good fung-shui feel and is sited in a grassy meadow and surrounded by gardens.

Alexander Cockburn's Living Room

In a small town in Northern California

Greg Smith

Bedroom in Greg Smith's beautifully executed rammed earth house. It's in a sunny meadow sitting above a large river in northwest coastal California.

Poured concrete floor made to look like large fired Spanish tiles.

Tony & Julie's Hillside House

A work of love. In the '70s, Tony and Julie Anderson built this liitle multi-level home on a coastal hillside overlooking the Pacific Ocean.


A Great Wednesday in Victoria

A good part of the reason for this trip is due to my friend Godfrey, painter, woodcarver, artist extraordinaire, native of Vancouver Island, a sailor, a boat builder, enthusiast for all that's beautiful in life. I met Godfrey in Yelapa, a small town in Mexico in 1964 (it's a long story), and we've been in touch on and off over the years.

It was Godfrey and his friends who gave me people to visit and places to see the past week. I've been in the territory north of Victoria for about 9 days and now back in Victoria and heading south, I plan to photograph the work of Sun Ray Kelly in Cedro Wooly, Washington and then visit John Raabe, an architect doing wonderful work, who lives on Whidbey Island off the coast on Washington.

This morning I went out to Godfrey's and met — I can hardly believe it — Tony Hunt, chief of the Kwaigulth (what the white man refers to as Kwaikiutl) tribe and extraordinary woodcarver and artist. Tony helped his grandfather, Mungo Martin carve all the totems and build the large wooden "Big Houses" in Thunderbird Park, adjacent to the Victoria Museum in downtown Victoria. This work is POWERFUL! It was a privilege to meet him. He showed my photos of his work and brought along a moon mask he was just about finished carving. Godfrey grew up with Tony and met Mungo when he (Godfrey) was 12 years old, and that's another long story…

So after I left Godfrey's I ended up having lunch at Swan's Pub on the Victoria. After lunch I asked if they had a room. Yes they did, but it was a suite over the pub and there'd be music until 1:00 AM, therefore the room was substantially discounted. What kind of music, I asked. "West coast blues," he said. Well all right! So I am at the moment ensconced in a great room, on Wi-fi with my laptop, about to go down and hear the band's last set and will return to try to get some blogging done later on. The Bill Johnson Blues Band, and they are excellent. Big crowd.

From Vancouver Island on a Rainy July Night

I've been on then road for a little over 2 weeks now, it seems like 2 months. This trip has been rich, so much so that I haven't had time to blog until now. The idea was to take 3 weeks going up the Pacific Coast, visiting and photographing builders' work along the way, ending up on the islands in waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, where I'd heard for years there were some wonderful houses.

I started by visiting my friend Louie in Mendocino county, whose house, due to late rains, is only reachable by riding a bosun's chair on a 500' cable across a river. Louis and I share a passion for wild duck (my Dad was an avid duck hunter) and we've gotten into the habit of preparing dinner together, we have shots of tequila while making a salad from greens growing in pots on the deck, a little rice, ducks split open, marinated in red wine, then barbecued on high heat, along with Louie's homemade inky-red Zinfandel. Two old guys, in their clubhouse in the woods.

When I left the next morning for points north, Louie handed me a bag and told me it was lunch. After about five hours of driving, I was hungry and found a meadow in the woods, pulled the truck in and opened the bag. One whole duck, a bottle of Zin, and a green apple. Yasss!

The Eel river was beautiful, crystal green, clear, lively with late spring rains. This turned out to be Hank Williams day, the CD was just right for the countryside.

That last long day she said goodbye,
Well Lord I thought I would die,
She'll do me, she'll do you,
She's got that kind of lovin'
Lord I love to hear her when she calls me
Sweet Da-a-a-a-a-dy

A perfect song.

I spent a night in the old hotel in Arcata, a pretty cool college town (except for the draggy burnouts who seem to occupy the main square). Went for a run in the woods, saw these kids sailing frisbees through pretty densely forested areas. What were they doing? Playing "Frisgolf," where instead of a ball, they sail the frisbee. In place of the holes were posts with pieces of pipe attached, that clanged when the frisbee would hit it. Kids all through the woods playing, an Arcata invention I guess.

You know, I started out writing this in sequence, the order of my trip, and it now occurs to me that if I were to go on at this rate, it would take me about 20 hours to just highlight what's been happening, so I'm going to skip around, OK?

The most spectacular part of the trip has been visiting Denman Island and its sister, Hornby Island, reachable by short ferry rides from the east coast of Vancouver Island, maybe a couple hours north of Victoria. I've never seen such a collection of wonderful homes. People have told me for decades about the builders up here, and they weren't kidding. Oh my!

Most of the guys I met on the islands were expatriate Americans who came here in the '70s to avoid Vietnam, and became Canadian citizens. Every single builder I talked to knew our book 1973 Shelter well, and each guy would tell me to go see this or that place. In the course of doing this I made friends, some wonderful people who I'll be in touch with forevermore, plus I saw the work of a builder that just stopped me in my tracks. It was the same kind of experience I had when I met Louie a dozen years ago. This was just another level of tuned-in design and building. And the name of this guy, whose work I hope to feature in my book on builders, is — Lloyd House. Was this meant to happen or what?

I'm now in an internet cafe in the town of Courtenay, east coast of Vancouver island after getting back from those beautiful islands, reason I'm here is that I spent 2 hours with Lloyd House yesterday, he's a most unusual and delightful and (sorry for the overworked cliche), but he just blew me away. Wow! He now lives on an island off the west coast of Vancouver Island, 9 miles by boat from the town of Tofino, and I plan on visiting him on my next trip.

I met a wonderful designer/builder developer today in Courtney, Tom Larsen, who has built over 100 simple little houses for older and/or handicapped people in town. His latest project is a work/live complex of buildings in a light industrial area, where a young person can have a shop or office on the ground level and live in an apartment on top. The buildings are sided with corrugated metal, sited nicely, there are gardens and trees, it's a grass roots little village, no government grants, just good design, good construction, at a good price.

This unit has woodworker's shop below, with spacious-light-filled apartment above.

Then tonight Tom's 29-year old son Olaf took me skateboarding in the hills above town. This is such a nice part of the world. I'll try posting some pics from the trip next chance I get. I'm heading over to the west coast of Vancouver island next. Have shot over 1000 pics.