Let's cut right to the cliché: Southern California is a land of eternal sunshine, with friendly, honest inhabitants and as many paths to good health, peace and prosperity as a Malibu Canyon health spa. But unless you've been living in an orgone box and your reading has been confined to antique Southern Pacific Railroad pamphlets, you know this to be as accurate as a major studio's balance sheet.
In point of socio-statistical fact, Southern California can be a treacherous place. According to a recent survey factoring rates of murder, rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary and motor vehicle theft, California is the 10th most dangerous state in the nation. It's populated by shysters, muggers, gangsters, ragers and incompetent Range Rover repairpersons. True, we are not cursed with road salt, hurricanes, locusts, snow emergency routes, overcrowded subway trains, crooked aldermen, golf course alligators, chain gangs or humidity.
But in a place where even the sunshine that kisses the citrus can wreak havoc among the unwary, unheeding and skimpily clad, the ultimate aim of every prudent Southern Californian should be to calculate the risks, pry common sense from paranoia, and be ready to defend oneself at all times.
IF SOMEONE STEALS YOUR ...
Cellphone The most important thing to remember: When you call your wireless carrier to inform them of your loss, ask them to suspend—got that? suspend—your account rather than deactivate it. "If your account is canceled you lose your phone number, and then it's given out randomly to another customer," says Verizon spokesman Ken Muché. Also, he adds, try to report the loss as soon as possible. After, say, 30 days or so, wireless providers get testy about swallowing $4,000 worth of purloined calls to Cartagena or Bangalore.
Identity The very worst thing to do, says Linda Foley, co-executive director of the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, is pull the covers over your head and pretend bad things won't happen. They will. Unless you prefer going bankrupt or being arrested for another person's crimes to running a difficult and emotionally draining gantlet, you need to move fast. If your wallet or Social Security card is stolen, if you notice strange charges and debits on your charge or bank accounts, if your checks or credit card purchases are mysteriously refused, you may be the victim of identity theft. The steps for dealing with each situation are too numerous and complicated to list, but you can go directly to http://www.idtheftcenter.org or call the ITRC at (858) 693-7935. The California Department of Consumer Affairs also will walk you through the odious process at http://www.privacyprotection.ca.gov . Car Your worst move: Assume that you forgot where you parked your car last night, go back inside and plop two Alka-Seltzer tablets into a jelly glass. Your second worst: Dragoon a friend into driving you around the neighborhood hoping to locate it. Instead, notify the police immediately, even if it's just to learn that you walked home from the party or your illegally parked car was towed, says Det. Bob Graybill, head of the LAPD auto theft task force for the San Fernando Valley. "About 75% of cars are stolen by joyriders, and the rest go to chop shops or sit on the street to be vandalized," he says. "The faster you act the better the odds" that your car won't get chopped. Graybill adds that if your car is equipped with an electronic location device such as LoJack or OnStar, make that the first thing you mention to the police; it'll drive recovery of your car to the top of the cops' priority list. And, Graybill says, you surely couldn't have been so dense as to leave your wallet—or any document with your Social Security number—in the vehicle. If so, reread the listing for Identity Theft.
Mail Anyone who steals your mail is probably using it to steal your identity (see above)—and that's very bad. Your first step is to call or visit your local post office to determine if there's an internal mix-up, or if some special someone has forged a vacation hold or change of address form in your name. If that doesn't clear things up, contact the U.S. Postal Inspection Service. Its local office is in Pasadena; call (626) 405-1200 or (800) 729-3324.
Screenplay Naturally, you've registered your script with the Writers Guild of America, and written a date-stamped memo for your files every time you've taken a meeting about it with a producer. Heard that Bjork and Adam Sandler are on a project that sounds awfully familiar? Your next act is to hire an attorney who specializes in plagiarism. "If he takes it on contingency," says Cheryl Rhoden, a WGA assistant executive director, "you know you've got a good case."
IF YOU'RE ATTACKED BY A ...
Dog Pepper spray? No way, says dog trainer/author/TV personality Matthew "Uncle Matty" Margolis. "You have to hit him right in the eyes," he says. "Nobody's aim is that good." He suggests that you stand your ground, make a loud noise—preferably with a whistle taken along for that purpose—and turn to the left or right to present a smaller profile. If the dog keeps coming, try to place an object—such as an umbrella, backpack or bicycle—between you and the dog. Your last resort is to drop into a fetal position with your hands over your face. Margolis says "most dogs bite once, then stop."
Mountain Lion The good news, according to the California Department of Fish and Game: Since 1890 there have been only 15 reported mountain lion attacks on people. The not-so-good: There have been three attacks (two in Orange County) since January 2004. If you suspect a big cat has your number, a DFG brochure on the subject offers some helpful—though admittedly experimental—suggestions. They're available at http://www.dfg.ca.gov/news/issues/lion.html
Carjacker Keep that sixth sense turned on, says Greg Boles, a retired LAPD detective and now global director of threat management for the risk consulting firm Kroll Inc. Notice when you're being followed. When your car is stopped at a traffic signal, try to keep a car length or two of space around you to keep open a possible escape route. If there is space, and the carjacker looms, hit the gas and go. If not, don't trust your door locks or closed windows to stop a bullet or even a fist. Give up the car, making it plain to the carjacker that you are doing so. Then bail out on the unblocked side, if any, and run.
Kidnapper Your mantra: Don't go anywhere with him, says Officer Kathy Simpson, an 18-year LAPD veteran. "If you leave the original location, there's a good chance you'll end up dead. If they try to pull you into a car or van, don't go. This is when you should fight, yell and run. I would rather take my chances with someone shooting me in the back than getting taken. If the police are on the scene, remain still. Don't jerk your body around. Allow the officers to take the necessary action."
Mugger "Be aware of your surroundings," says Kroll's Boles. "Certain areas are safer than others, and you know which ones they are. Why go down a dark alley if you can take a well-lighted street?" If you are confronted, says Boles, give the mugger whatever he wants, then run away to a well-lighted area. "No mugger wants to be seen or even have attention attracted to him," says Boles. "If for some reason he's got you in a dark corner and he attacks you, it may be time to fight. But try talking to him first."
Blogger If someone with too much time on his hands calls you something awful on his website—say, a Dale Earnhardt Jr. groupie or a remorseless wasabi junkie—it's as libelous and as actionable as if someone called you that in this magazine. If the insult isn't that clear-cut, or you're not prepared to go nuclear, you might try a maneuver suggested by Ken Layne, editor of the news blog Sploid.com: Set up your own blog devoted to your many sterling qualities, and get all your friends to contribute. "That way, their compliments will drive the other guy's criticism way down your Google listings," Layne says.
IF YOU COME DOWN WITH ...
Severe Sunburn You shouldn't have fallen asleep in your Speedos on Dockweiler beach. It hurts and itches and you're the color of Michael Schumacher's Formula One Ferrari, but according to Dr. Jenny Kim, assistant professor of dermatology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, you don't need immediate medical attention unless you're very young or elderly or large areas of your skin are open to infection. Meanwhile, she says, swallow a couple of pain-relievers and soak in a cool tub. While you're in there, think about the long-term risks of premature aging and skin cancer. "A good way to monitor the damage," Kim says, "is to compare the skin on your face with the skin on your buttocks." (Not recommended for the muscle-bound, arthritic or morbidly ironic.)
Food poisoning You probably don't have it, didn't have it, won't get it. For some reason, says Dr. Bennett Roth, a professor of matters gastrointestinal at UCLA, people would rather blame their upsets on last night's free-range burger than more prosaic maladies such as allergies or flu. He estimates that 95% of all self-diagnosed food poison victims are mistaken. Most food poisoning, Roth says, doesn't produce nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and abdominal cramps for 12 to 24 hours after spoiled food is eaten. If the symptoms persist more than two days, he says, visit your doctor. If you have it, said doc will notify the health department and quiz you on your home food prep and storage methods. He also may prescribe antibiotics and possibly IV fluids or drugs to reduce the nausea. Medically speaking, says Roth, it's not the end of the world—even though you may feel like you can see it from there.
Road Rage The moron in the Porsche Cayenne cuts you off. Bile flows, and a clever plan of attack forms. "Our natural response is to feel angry," says George Anderson, one of Los Angeles' premier anger-management counselors. But that's self-destructive in a freeway situation. "So try this: Assume that the only thing you can control is yourself. Here's what I do: I tell myself that the other guy is disabled. That he's crazy. So I have to act to save myself. Which means forgetting about my anger and getting away from the situation."
Freeway Phobia If going 70 mph with 3,000-pound hunks of steel ahead of you and behind you sounds insane—well, so many of us wouldn't be doing something insane, would we? No, says Evelyn Goodman, a Culver City psychotherapist. Freeway phobia is a panic disorder related to stresses and anxieties in your life. The cure is to drive to the nearest exit, says Goodman, then work out the best treatment. That could include medication, talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy or a combination of all three. Goodman encourages the recovering freeway phobic to try again with a trusted friend sitting alongside. "Then," she says, "with someone driving right behind you. Then alone for just a few exits at a time when the freeway isn't congested. Try the little Marina Freeway. I recommend that one."
* IF YOU'RE ANNOYED BY ...
Noisy Neighbors You can knock politely on their door, slip a nice note into their mailbox, or take it up with the landlord or condo association. But if you're still reading this, you're probably long past those points. So before taking more drastic action—especially the one involving 3-Way Dual 10-inch floor-standing speakers and the "Patton" soundtrack CD—take a deep breath and contact the Los Angeles city attorney's dispute resolution program. It'll provide a neutral referee and set up a meeting between you and your sonic nemesis. It's free to Los Angeles County residents; call (213) 485-8324 or e-mail email@example.com.
Worse Than Noisy Neighbors If you're living among drug dealers, pimps or gangs, you have to decide whether to drop the proverbial five dimes. Your best bet is to pass up 911 and call the specialized task forces and confidential hotlines—for narcotics, vice and so forth—that all police departments maintain. Go to your local department's website, click on "Contact Us" or the equivalent, and find the appropriate phone number.
Graffiti Artists The public works boards in both the city of Los Angeles, (800) 611-2489, and L.A. County, (800) 675-4357, have hotlines for reporting graffiti so they can get it cleaned up. Get license plate numbers and descriptions of the defacer(s), if you can. A bonus: The city of Los Angeles offers up to $1,000 for information leading to convictions. Go to http://www.lacity.org/bpw/OCS/CleanSweep/gr.html .
Takeout Menu Distributors In this advertiser-supported and hyper-branded age, Post No Bills just doesn't cut it. However, in the city of Los Angeles an obscure law is on your side. Municipal Code Section 28.02 states quite simply that: "No person shall distribute, deposit, throw, place or attach any handbill to, in, or upon any porch, yard, steps or mailbox located upon any premises not in the possession of or under the control of the person distributing the said handbill which premises has posted thereon in conspicuous place a sign of at least twelve inches in area bearing the words, 'NO Advertising,' unless the person distributing the handbills has first received the written permission of the person occupying or having possession of such premises authorizing him so to do." And if the guy on the other end of the phone isn't cooperative or "pretends" not to speak English, give your local prosecutor a call.
Supermarket Express Line Abusers The general consensus is: Cool it. True, it's irritating to stand behind a guy pushing a cart containing 16 items in a "10 Items or Less" line, but consider the consequences of complaining. "You have to monitor your aggression level. In this day and age, they might whip out a gun," cautions Melinda Lee, host of KNX radio's "Food News with Melinda Lee." Complaining to management will yield a little more satisfaction. "We try to turn it into a 'teachable moment,' " says Lilia Rodriguez, public affairs manager for Albertson's. "The checker will say, 'Did you know that you're in a line for 10 or less? I'll take you this time, but next time try to be a little more careful.' That's our official policy. The most important thing is to make things easier for our customers. It doesn't help anyone to refuse them."
IF YOU'RE TRAPPED IN ...
A Railroad Crossing Scenario one: Your car is stalled on the tracks or is blocked by traffic, the barriers come down and the train is approaching. "Exit immediately and run as fast as you can parallel to the tracks toward the onrushing train—this prevents you from being hit by flying debris as the locomotive hits your vehicle," says Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca. Scenario two: You're neither stalled nor blocked, but you're trapped between the crossing gates. Hit the gas, says Oaxaca. "The gates are designed to break away. There's no resistance if you drive right through them, and don't worry about your insurance claim. We have a spot in our warehouse full of spare gates. They're not that expensive."
A Crossfire Once the shooting starts, try to get behind cover. Says LAPD Officer Kathy Simpson: "Cover means a tree, a building, something that provides protection. Your second choice is concealment—that means things like a bush or a bus bench. If they can't see you, it's more likely they won't hit you." If neither protection nor concealment is possible? "Hit the ground and be very still," she says.
An Earthquake Before the shaking starts, enter http://www.lafd.org/eqhbtext.htm into your browser, print out the Los Angeles City Fire Department's Earthquake Preparedness Handbook and read all the instructions. Basically, the website advises: "When you feel an earthquake, duck under a desk or sturdy table. Stay away from windows, bookcases, file cabinets, heavy mirrors, hanging plants and other heavy objects that could fall. Watch out for falling plaster and ceiling tiles. Stay undercover until the shaking stops and hold on to your cover." Also, forget the old saw about standing under a doorway. Some construction methods, which may not include door frames in the structural integrity of buildings, have made this precaution obsolete.
A Flash Flood Once the rain starts, it's too late to print out the extensive recommendations by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/om/brochures/ffbro.htm and the National Weather Service at http://www.nws.noaa.gov/floodsafety/tadd.shtml . In the meantime: "If advised to evacuate, do so immediately. Get out of areas subject to flooding. This includes dips, low spots, canyons, washes, etc." Be especially cautious at night. Do not attempt to cross flowing streams. Families should use only one vehicle to avoid getting separated and reduce traffic jams. Move to a safe area before access is cut off by floodwaters. Continue listening to the radio for information concerning the flooding. Never try to walk, swim, drive or play in floodwater. Do not attempt to drive through a flooded road. Do not drive around a barricade. If the vehicle stalls, leave it immediately and move to higher ground. Vehicles can be swept away by as little as 2 feet of water. If you come across a flowing stream where water is above your ankles, stop, turn around, and go another way. If it's moving swiftly, even water 6 inches deep can knock you off your feet.
An Elevator From the Elevator Escalator Safety Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Mobile, Ala.: "If you find yourself stuck in an elevator, remain calm. Use the emergency alarm button to alert someone, then use the emergency phone to speak to someone for help and advice. There is plenty of air in the elevator. Be patient. Never climb out of an elevator! Follow only instruction from professionals (elevator or building maintenance, firefighters or police). There have been cases where people have been severely injured or have fallen down the shaft while trying to climb out of an elevator. Be safe—stay in the elevator."
A Toxic Relationship Make a clean, decisive break, says psychologist Charlie Unger, who has a practice in La Cañada. "None of this 'let's still be friends' stuff," he says. "Don't try to hang on, or let them try to hang on. This is the antithesis of healing. If you really want to be friends, give it a full year of separation. And then, if you still want to, you can get back in touch."
IF YOU'RE RIPPED OFF BY YOUR ...
Employer That poster in the break room isn't just for decoration. If your paychecks are too light, rubbery or otherwise irregular, contact the Division of Labor Standards Enforcement of the California Department of Industrial Relations. It has offices in Los Angeles, (213) 620-6330; Long Beach, (562) 590-5048; and Van Nuys, (818) 901-5315, or you can go to http://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/HowToFileWageClaim.htm .
Bank If you think the error is in the bank's favor, and you get nowhere with your warm and pro-people-power megabank, the next step is to notify the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency in Washington, D.C. It takes complaints at (800) 613-6743 and customer.assistanceocc.treas.gov.
Lawyer If you suspect that you're not dealing with Atticus Finch, call the State Bar of California's Attorney Complaint Hotline at (800) 843-9053. A complaint analyst will tell you whether you've got a legitimate beef. Whatever the analyst says, you can start down the long road to disbarment by going to http://www.calbar.ca.gov , clicking "Public Services" on the left-hand column, scrolling down to "Lawyer Discipline & Complaints" and clicking your way into an epic confrontation.
Contractor First, make sure you're dealing with a licensed contractor by checking out the Contractors State License Board list at http://www.cslb.ca.gov . Keep a written record of all your agreements—and disagreements. If you and Bob Vila's evil twin can't work out the disagreements, the board will mediate. If you're still at odds, it will set up an independent investigative board whose expenses are borne by the contractor. If the contractor loses, then doesn't make amends, his license can be suspended and you can recover damages through the courts.
Cable TV Company Pastor Herrera Jr., director of the L.A. County Department of Consumer Affairs, admits that it's beyond his power to get your Zenith reconnected when the signal cuts out during the season finale of "Judging Amy." In fact, no governmental entity has the power to restore your signal immediately. So in the unthinkable event that the cable company's customer service department proves unsatisfactory, contact Herrera's department or the cable franchise authority in your city to complain. All cities and unincorporated areas have entities that theoretically oversee their local cable monopoly; you can find the phone number, usually in tiny type, on your cable bill. Once the franchiser gets into the action, the cable company has to respond.
HMO Unlike most states, California has an agency dedicated to clearing up disputes between patients and their managed-care providers. It's called the Department of Managed Health Care, and if you're denied the treatment you think you deserve, contact it at (888) HMO-2219 or http://www.hmohelp.ca.gov . Cindy Ehnes, the department's director, says that if the matter is urgent, her minions will set up a three-way conference call between you, your HMO and a staff nurse. For less urgent matters, the HMO has 30 days to clear up the problems. If you're still not satisfied, file a formal complaint with the department. And if you don't like the final opinion—well, at least you're around to hear it.
Parking Meter If you park at a broken meter in the city of Los Angeles and still get a ticket, call (877) 215-3958 to report the meter's number. If upon investigation the meter is indeed broken, your ticket will be voided. To contest an L.A. parking ticket on other grounds, go to http://www.lacity-parking.org/laopm/contest.htm for instructions. For rules in other cities, Google "parking ticket" and "[enter name of the city]." Good luck.
IF YOU WITNESS A ...
Murder "Don't approach the suspect," says the LAPD's Kathy Simpson. "Maintain your distance, keep yourself in a safe place." Things to notice: the number of suspects; what the suspect (or suspects) looks like; a license plate number; his direction of travel as he left; whether he was headed for a freeway entrance. "Put it all down on paper if you can," says Simpson. "If you see someone drop something, don't touch it. Call 911."
Home Invasion Robbery If you think someone is following you home, use your sixth sense, says Greg Boles of risk consulting firm Kroll Inc. Suspicion is reason enough to drive to the nearest police station and call home to warn your loved ones. If you're home when somebody breaks in, leave the house through another door. If you can't, retreat to the room with the sturdiest solid-core door and the sturdiest lock (which might be the bathroom). On your way in, grab your cellphone, because the invader may have cut the phone lines. Then call 911.
Drunk Driver When you spot a car weaving, driving at night with no lights or traveling against the flow of traffic, this may suggest an emergency, says California Highway Patrol Officer Ron Burch. Note the car's license number, location and direction of travel, then call 911 and report your suspicions.
Multi-Tasking Freeway Driver If the guy in the next lane is engrossed in his newspaper, don't honk your horn to get his mind back on the road. He might lurch into road rage mode. Burch suggests that you note the guy's license number, location and direction of travel, and report it to the CHP on its nonemergency number. The CHP will "at least try to contact the registered owner of that vehicle," says Officer Tomiekia Johnson, who does these phone follow-ups. "They're usually astonished we'd track them down."
Polluter The public works departments for the city of Los Angeles, (800) 974-9794, and L.A. County, (888) CleanLA, have hotlines for reporting illegal dumping and requesting a cleanup. Get the license plate number and description of the malefactor, if you can. A bonus: The city of L.A. offers a $1,000 reward for information leading to convictions. Go to http://www.lacity.org/bpw/OCS/CleanSweep/gr.html .
Public Display of Consensual Sex You can watch passively, marvel at the bad manners of homo urbanus or call the police. In Los Angeles it's a misdemeanor to touch the genitals of another person for the purposes of sexual arousal in public places. Other jurisdictions have similar statutes.