Harold Cowan, 82, went to lunch with his 64-year-old girlfriend at the Claim Jumper in Valencia last fall, and the tab topped 600 bucks.
The Cobb salad and diet soda they shared cost about $20.
The other $600 or so was for the tickets that followed.
"It's one of the most outrageous tickets you'll ever hear about," Cowan said in a message he left on my answering machine.
Cowan is a retired advertising man who lives in Universal City. He says he came up with the Squirt soft-drink promo: "\o7The drink that's in the public eye\f7"; and with the Helms bread jingle: "\o7Here comes the Helms man. Toot, toot. Save a trip to the store, just go to the door\f7."
His girlfriend, Louise Levanti, is a medical transcriptionist and lives in Sylmar. She says she met Harold nine years ago at Priscilla's Coffee Shop in Burbank. They spend lots of time together, but both value their independence at the end of the day. It's the perfect relationship, the happy couple told me.
When I met Harold and Louise at the Claim Jumper on Monday, they were in their Sunday best, Harold in a coat and tie.
A waitress told me they're among the restaurant's most frequent customers -- definitely in the top five. They decided to share another Cobb salad and talked me into one too.
"Get the cheese bread with it," Harold advised. "It's terrific."
Then he launched into his story. After lunch Sept. 29, they were on their way back to Louise's house in the 1989 Mercedes she bought a couple of years ago for $4,000. That was when a CHP officer pulled them over on Interstate 5, south of Santa Clarita. They said they had no idea what was up until the officer pointed out that Harold, the passenger, wasn't wearing his seat belt.
Harold and Louise explained that it had jammed earlier that day, but Officer Bejar began writing tickets for both of them.
Was the cop kidding?
Harold was OK with his ticket, but why should Louise be punished for his transgression? "I got out of the car and went to tell him it was cruel to give her a ticket too," he says.
While arguing his girlfriend's case, Harold reached into his pocket for the little root beer candy that comes with every Claim Jumper meal. He popped it into his mouth and walked back to the car in a huff, only to have the officer follow him with an unpleasant surprise.
"He says, 'I'm giving you a ticket for littering too.' I said, 'What?' He tells me I threw a wrapper on the highway," Harold said. "I threw a wrapper? I was so mad I didn't even remember it. But it's a little 2-inch piece of cellophane. You know what's on the side of the road? Beer cans, cigarette butts. And I'm getting a ticket for a root beer wrapper?"
Harold started to protest, but Louise threw an elbow to clam him up.
"If she hadn't been with me," he says, "I would have gone to jail."
He's lucky he didn't realize until later that they were cited for four violations between them: Louise for having a passenger who wasn't using a seat belt and also for having an inoperable seat belt, and Harold for not wearing a seat belt and for littering.
Since then, they've made three trips to the Santa Clarita courthouse to post bail (it came to $587 between the two of them) and appear in court. The topper came Jan. 30 before Commissioner Kevil W. Martin, when Harold tried to contest the littering charge.
According to Harold and Louise, Officer Bejar testified that Harold threw the root beer wrapper.
"I offered to take a lie-detector test," says Harold, who still couldn't recall littering.
The commissioner took a pass on that offer and found Harold guilty as charged, ordering him to do eight hours of service with a Caltrans highway cleanup crew in addition to his fines.
Harold couldn't believe his ears.
"I said, 'Judge, I'm 82 years old,' and he says, 'So what?' "
The only good news was that Louise's citations were waived, as she understood it, but she hasn't received a refund yet. I'd gladly tell you what Commissioner Martin and Officer Bejar have to say about all this, but they didn't return my calls.
Harold reported to a community service center, where he had to shell out another $20 for the privilege of scheduling his highway cleanup duty, which was to be completed on or before March 2.
"Take work gloves," says his Caltrans instruction sheet, which instructed him to bring his own lunch and wear boots if he has them.
When I called Caltrans in Santa Clarita, a supervisor told me he's never seen anyone in their 80s on cleanup duty. The oldest were in their 60s, tops. "You've got to be able to move fast if there's an errant vehicle moving toward you," the supervisor said.
I suppose it's possible Commissioner Martin figured that an 82-year-old man with a 64-year-old girlfriend must be pretty nimble. And truth be told, Harold doesn't look his age, maybe because of all the Claim Jumper salads. But he was more than a little concerned about standing out on a highway with cars blowing by at 65 miles an hour and faster.