Maestro Keys — Chapters 31 & 32

Andy Goldblatt
12 min readFeb 22, 2023

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Not one to share his private life beyond a few trusted souls, Arnold told Sterling Nesta only that Rudy wouldn’t be their go-between anymore.

“Little dude drop out of school?” Nesta surmised.

Arnold nodded. Rudy had withdrawn from class, too ashamed to show his face on campus. But it was more than that. Rudy had withdrawn from life. No amount of coaxing could get him away from his video game console and out of the house. Arnold and Linda didn’t know whether that was an appropriate reaction or a sign Rudy needed therapy. They decided therapy would behoove Rudy regardless, but were having trouble finding a counselor he liked.

“Too bad,” Nesta shook his head. “Hard to make it in the world these days without a college degree.”

Standing in the concrete plaza in front of the Alameda County Administration Building, awaiting his preliminary hearing inside, Nesta seemed nervous. To bolster his confidence and embarrass the campus, he’d brought along some twenty students, a Daily Cal reporter, and a who’s who of Berkeley street personalities. He made Arnold shake hands with every one of them, starting with the spavined, gray-bearded cross-dresser who rocked a headless doll in a baby carriage and wouldn’t look at Arnold until Arnold first said he hated him.

Next came Lamb Man, who claimed he was Jesus and acknowledged Arnold’s nice-to-meet-you with, “As I said in the Bible, lawyers are like tombs covered with whitewash, good-looking on the outside but full of dead men’s bones and filth on the inside. But I bless you anyway.”

“Thank you,” Arnold bowed, in no position to be choosy about where he got his benedictions.

After Lamb Man came an aged folk singer who spent his fifteen minutes of fame leading everyone at the original Woodstock in a four-letter cheer. His mother had been the patron saint of the Berkeley tenant movement, a city councilwoman who screwed landlords at every turn until she finally died at the age of a hundred and ninety. “I’m a big fan of your music,” Arnold lied as he shook the man’s hand.

Musician Country Joe McDonald in late 2016 or early 2017.
Gimme an F! Country Joe McDonald in late 2016/early 2017. His son owns a popular toy store in north Berkeley. (From

Greeting him next was a pudgy, elderly jester in clownface whose voice grated like a sandpaper calliope. Another original Woodstock participant, he sponsored a summer camp where kids learned to juggle in time to Grateful Dead tunes. He once ran for a seat on the Berkeley city council under the slogan, “Put a real clown in office!”

Wavy Gravy in clown make-up holding up a Nobody for President in 1976 bumper sticker.
Wavy Gravy during his Nobody for President campaign in 1976. (From

Arnold would have shaken the hand of the next person, a short, plump, older woman in a dowdy black peasant skirt and orange tam, but it was wrapped around a tiny wand. She plunged the wand into a brown plastic bottle, waved it at Arnold, and inundated him in soap bubbles. Then she limped around the plaza, cleansing it of bad karma with her bubbles and offering books of self-published poetry to passersby. “You and Sterling are going to win,” she predicted after baptizing him a second time.

Berkeley poet Julia Vinograd at a bookstore poetry reading.
Telegraph Avenue fixture and “Bubble Lady” Julia Vinograd reading her poetry in 2013. (From

A hyperactive but well-dressed, well-kempt young man in T-shirt and jeans handed him a leaflet dense with print. “This is your next case,” he informed, then put a hand to his lips lest Arnold express gratitude too openly. “It’s all right here. How Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, and Stephen King conspired to assassinate John Lennon. You need more proof, I’ve got it.”

“I’m sorry,” Arnold shrugged apologetically, handing back the leaflet, “I thought everybody’d heard by now. Ringo’s confessed.”

Last in line was a solidly-built, polite young Latino with close-cropped hair — and not a scrap of clothing. Arnold had just enough peripheral vision to notice the attention-getting advocate of baring it all wasn’t circumcised. And, actually, was kind of small.

The army of campus irregulars marched behind Arnold and Nesta into the building, sailed through security (the guards weren’t the least fazed, waving Naked Man by without requiring him to pass through the metal detector), and filled the hard wooden benches of the courtroom gallery. Arnold half expected them to chloroform the bailiff and kidnap the judge. They’d hold her hostage in the back of a school bus painted psychedelic colors and not release her until Barack Obama personally interceded. The fanatics among them would demand Obama’s endorsement of a bill to make Mario Savio’s birthday a holiday, but the reasonable ones would settle for having People’s Park proclaimed an independent nation.

Nesta’s hearing was second on the docket and went quickly. The prosecutor told the judge he’d offered a lesser sentence if the defendant pleaded guilty, but the defendant refused to negotiate, leaving the prosecutor no choice but to move forward. Asked by the judge how he pleaded, Nesta stood and in a ringing voice cried, “Give me liberty or give me death. Not guilty, Your Honor!”

The real work occurred in the plaza afterward. Accosted by the Daily Cal reporter and another from Berkeleyside, Arnold expressed outrage that fifty years after the Free Speech Movement and just a few months after the Yiannopoulos mess, the University of California was stifling freedom of expression.

Lamb Man stepped forward. “My children, I confirm today that Sterling Nesta has been seduced by Satan. He has less of the holy spirit in him than any man on earth. But if Sterling can’t speak freely at a tax-supported institution, then no citizen can speak freely at a tax-supported institution. And if the court rules otherwise, it sins against me.”

The students amened and snapped fingers.

“That’s what we should do! Have a No-Speech Day on campus,” proffered the cross-dresser. It had been hot in the courtroom, and his mascara and lipstick had run. But he liked the look and hadn’t neatened up. “For one whole day, nobody will say anything. In classes, on Sproul Plaza — “

“That’s right. Nobody will say anything,” chimed the clown. “Nobody will support free speech. Nobody will care about the environment. Nobody will house the homeless. Nobody for president in 2020!”

A few laughs, more finger snaps.

Arnold had lost control of his media event, but didn’t mind. He’d made his point. He had to get back to the office to prepare discovery responses in the Williams case. And Albera had been calling twice a day wanting to talk to him. Maybe if there was time this afternoon he’d find out what the lip-shifter wanted. He waved goodbye to Nesta and hastened to his car.

He would have preferred listening to classical music as he drove the short distance across Oakland to his office, but KDFC was playing a tedious Telemann oboe concerto. None of the CDs in the glove compartment appealed, so he scanned the AM dial. He got Rush Limbaugh.

There were people at BK&S who swore by Limbaugh, but he never made much sense to Arnold. Occasionally he had a good point, but for the most part he was arrogant and mean. Arnold listened to the man with the most popular radio program in America and an income in the tens of millions of dollars whine that liberals were oppressing him. “Jeez, everyone’s a victim,” he muttered.

The Alameda County Administration Building in Oakland, California.
The Alameda County Administration Building. The plaza is in the foreground to the right. (Photo: LocalWiki Oakland)


Cormick Albera had consulted another attorney, who told him Arnold had bungled the case. But the attorney also said the case was too far gone to salvage so Albera should take Arnold’s suggestion and settle.

Albera declined to reveal the attorney’s name. That was his prerogative. But Arnold suspected there was no attorney; professional ethics prohibited lawyers from meddling in each other’s cases. Perhaps Albera poured out his frustration to an acquaintance whose son or daughter was a lawyer, and based on that one-sided account the kid (who probably did something like tax law) opined that it was conceivable Arnold had screwed up. More likely Albera was lying to protect his ego. Blaming Arnold made it easier to accept the humiliation of compromising with the tenants.

If that was the only way his client could bring himself to settle, okay. Arnold was a full-service attorney. He would get the tenants out of the building, restore Albera’s cash flow, avoid the hazards and expenses of trial, and play the scapegoat to boot.

Arnold had been wanting to ring Matt Donalson for days. Now that he had a reason he wasted no time. “Cormick Albera is willing to settle on mutually agreeable terms,” he announced.

“Oh yeah? Just like your partners in the Williams case?”

“Different case, different client.” His door was open, so he lowered his voice. “I was just as mad as you when they refused to settle. Those guys defy understanding.”

“Oh, and Albera is clear as a San Diego sunset,” Donalson hooted. “I tell you Arnold, if you understand Albera, that makes you a club of one.”

“Come on, Matt. I’d never pick on that mousy little client of yours for having the nerve to allege someone would sexually harass her. But if you’re going to make fun of — “

“Arnold, I can’t believe you would say something so offensive!” Donalson thundered. Then, after a second’s pause: “She is kinda mousy, isn’t she?”

“She didn’t do much for me.”

“Me either.” Donalson laughed. “Listen to us. We’d be the scourge of social media if anybody heard us talking.”

“Point taken. I withdraw my objections to your client’s appearance.”

“Besides, for a woman to do anything for you she has to sing an aria.”

“Guilty as charged.”

Donalson got serious again. “The thing is, I don’t know if my clients want to negotiate. They feel very strongly about this case.”

“So does mine. All clients do. But there’s a lot of exposure on both sides. Everyone’s better off settling, even if it bruises their egos.”

“Actually, I don’t see much exposure on our side.”

“Don’t give me that! You know a jury’s going to wonder why your clients are still living in a building they claim is uninhabitable.”

“Irrelevant, and I’ll probably make an in limine motion to that effect. The case is about whether violations exist and the eviction is retaliatory. It doesn’t matter whether the tenants have lived there a day or ten years, they don’t have heat, among other things, and that’s illegal, just as it’s illegal for the landlord to evict them for informing him of said lack of heat. Besides, as a practical matter, once you served them with eviction notices they couldn’t move. Not unless they wanted to lose their leverage.”

Arnold disagreed, especially about the in limine motion. He was confident the judge would default to letting the jury hear those facts. But this was the wrong time to get in a shouting match. What he wanted from Donalson was a settlement — and more.

Like most lawyers, Donalson didn’t wait for a response. “I’m not saying I don’t think this should settle. I just don’t think we have nearly as much exposure as you do. Which means the onus is on you to come our way. So what do you propose?”

“Well — “

Arnold hadn’t really thought about that. Albera had been the last thing on his mind recently. He made a mental note: next time he called opposing counsel with a settlement offer, he should have some idea what the offer was.

“Your clients would have to move out, of course,” he forayed.

“And in exchange?”

Arnold seized the chance to slip the noose of initiative around Donalson’s neck. “What do your clients want?”

“To keep the rent money they’ve withheld, for starters. And then a sticker-shock amount of damages.”

“Care to name a figure?”

Donalson did.

“Albera doesn’t have that kind of money.”

“My guess is his pockets are a lot deeper than he’s let on, even to you.”

“Do you know something I don’t about his finances?”

“We did a search on him and found out he owns other rental properties. Plus his insurance doesn’t cover litigation but he’s paying you on time, right? There’s money.”

“I feel like we’ve had this conversation before. And that it’s my turn to say my financial relationship with my client is none of your business. On the other hand, it is true that I’ve had my share of deadbeat clients,” he needled.

“Yeah, well, if you want to talk about Williams, call me back after you get today’s mail.”

“Do I have a surprise coming?”

“It shouldn’t surprise you. But it might. Call me when you get it. Meanwhile, Albera.”

“Your number’s not going to fly, which I’m sure you realize. You have some homework too, lowering your clients’ expectations.”

“I’ll let them know we’re exploring settlement and share the number I’ve given you. And I’ll explain the process so they’re not unduly insulted by your first counter.”

“Okay. And, Matt? One more thing.”

“I told you, don’t talk to me about Williams until — “

“It’s not about Williams. It’s personal.”


Arnold tried to keep his throat from clenching. Had he ever asked a more awkward question? Maybe the first time he asked Linda for a date. “My son was in a car accident. He hit someone.”

“I’m so sorry.”

“I need a criminal attorney. No one here does criminal law, and frankly I can’t afford the people they recommend. If you know anyone good who specializes in DUI and has reasonable rates, I’d appreciate a referral.”

There was silence as Donalson mulled the request. Then his fingers snapped. “I know who could help you. Remember Toni Lefferts?”

“How could I forget her? She was opposing counsel when Elliebeth was my client.”

“She got out of landlord-tenant law, you know. She does criminal defense now, including DUI. She says it’s more lucrative, as if that isn’t true of every other legal specialty.”

“Toni Lefferts. Let me think about that.” He swallowed painfully (so much pride to get down at once), then — finally — broached the real purpose of his call.

“There’s also going to be a civil suit. How much experience do you have defending personal injury cases?”

“Arnold! I’m flattered. I’ve always represented plaintiffs in PI cases, not defendants. It would be interesting to work the other side of the street. But oh,” he caught himself. “I don’t think I could or should while we have cases pending against each other.”

“All the more reason to settle, isn’t it?”

“I guess. I’ve always made more from PI than from landlord-tenant. I tell you, if I based this practice solely on representing tenants I’d have become homeless years ago.”

“Solo practice is tough,” Arnold acknowledged.

“Everything’s stacked against you. You’re always out-resourced. Even if you win, the settlement or verdict is almost always low value. And when you look at the Bar Association website for who’s been disciplined, it’s always solo practitioners or people from small firms. Never lawyers from the big firms. You can’t tell me lawyers in big firms don’t make mistakes.”

“Yes I can.”

“I’ve got some outdated summons forms in my file cabinet that say otherwise.”

“I was joking,” Arnold huffed, glad Donalson couldn’t see his flushing cheeks.

Realizing his dig had stopped the call’s momentum, Donalson made sign-off noises. “I’ll talk to my clients. If they give me the go-ahead I’ll send you the demand in writing. Meanwhile, you try to talk some sense into your bosses after you get the mail.”

Arnold should have been happy when he got off the phone, but that discordant ending left him feeling like he had ash in his mouth. He couldn’t escape the irony that he’d sought help for his son in the ranks of his enemies. Something was wrong, either with himself or the people he considered allies. It would be best to figure out which before heading into the grimmest phase of his life. But Arnold wasn’t much for introspection. All it did was depress him. So he sat at his desk staring absently at his monitor, aglow with a listicle of DUI defense lawyers near him.

He was rescued from torpor by Darlene, who bore in hand the day’s mail. “Thank you,” he called as she left, having made a mental note to show more courtesy to the staff in his last days at the firm.

Donalson’s missive was a surprise, and a delicious one: a Code of Civil Procedure Section 998 Offer by Defendant to Compromise. Elliebeth Williams was using the statute to offer ninety-seven thousand and one dollars in resolution of the case, upping the stakes on Shipler’s decision not to settle. If the case went to trial and the jury awarded BK&S even a penny less than the amount offered in the 998 motion, the judge could require BK&S to pay all legal costs Elliebeth incurred from today.

Donalson was betting Shipler a jury wouldn’t award a downtown law firm more of an elderly widow’s estate than was owed — no attorneys fees, no other costs, no interest. It was a savvy gambit. Donalson risked nothing, since a verdict for ninety-seven thousand was an all but foregone conclusion. But if the jury awarded only ninety-seven thousand, Elliebeth would recoup so much in expenses the case would cost her less than if Shipler had accepted the earlier offer of eighty thousand.

The ashes in Arnold’s mouth dissolved. He had made the right choice for Rudy’s civil counsel.

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© 2023 Andrew Goldblatt. All rights reserved. This work may not be used in part or in whole for any purpose without the author’s prior written consent.



Andy Goldblatt

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four printed books and one e-novel on Medium, ectomorphic introvert.