Dispatches From a Hangdog Bankrupt
What follows are diverting and cautionary reports on the Chapter 7 death and decay of an Austin rare-book dealership, written for the benefit of the chary startups among you by Bill Cotter, its former owner and sole employee. Cotter’s first novel, Fever Chart, will be published by McSweeney’s in August. The bankruptcy trustees will get half of his advance.
The Worst Period.
BY BILL COTTER
I took the advice of Mr. H, the bankruptcy lawyer I retained to assist with the recent, explosive disintegration of my rare-book and restoration business, and stopped answering calls from the many, many debt collectors coming after my many, many delinquent and wholly unmeetable credit-card payments I owed. I signed up for Caller ID so I could ID Callers. At their peak, calls numbered two hundred a day, every day, beginning exactly at 8 AM and ending at 9 at night. In the beginning, identifying a collector was cake. The area codes were always 800, 801, 866, 868, 636, 888, and a few others, now forever numerologically unclean.
Then one day I get a call from my own area code. I don’t pick it up. The caller leaves a message:
“Yo, hey, Bill, this is Cherry, what’s up? I haven’t heard from you for ages!”
Whoa, Cherry? Do I know a Cherry?
“So Bill, give me a buzz, baby, here’s my home number,” etc.
I Google the number. My old friend Cherry apparently lives at the I Love America Financial Recovery Resolution & Outstanding Account Settlementation Call Center, LLC, in Bemidji Minnesota.
Variants on this gambit abound. My girlfriend Annie, many of my family members, and, I’m betting, one or two former employers, began receiving like calls. By this time, collection letters daily betide the mailman. Bank of America sometimes sends theirs via Express Mail − that’ll loosen your pipes the first time, I assure you. Others disguise theirs as U.S. Treasury checks. Discover’s technique is to send at least one letter a day. Still others simply sell your debt to a third party. One of the sneakier third-party tactics was to send a demand letter in a big squarish hand-addressed anonymous pink envelope. On Valentine’s Day.
These third parties− usually dedicated legal offices or mass-market collectors or murky concerts of the two − are always bound loosely to any covenant of ethics. Before long the magnitude of the collectors’ sneakiness and quasi-ethical sallies rises to a point where I begin to feel less suicidal and even a tiny bit indignant. Even HumiliaTor, an alter-id of mine who is consecrated to magnifying my already-suffocating debtor-guilt, cuts me a little slack.
Then one creditor in particular, Citibank, does something that I really was not expecting.
It has never been in my nature to pick up a ringing telephone or answer a knock at the front door or respond to a tikitiktik of pebbles tossed at my window in the middle of the night. In confirmation of the soundness of this aspect of my nature, I’d like to point out that, in my experience, glad tidings are scarcely ever attached to a caller or knocker or tikitiktiker. And, ever since the grand failing of my rare-book and restoration business, and my consequent pursuit of Chapter-7 asylum from chuffy bill collectors, never has this natural disinclination of mine been more reliable. Except for once.
I had been expecting something exciting − don’t remember what, now − to be delivered by UPS that day. I’d checked the tracking number, which indicated my package was “on vehicle for delivery.”
Hark! The downshift of a grumpy diesel engine! I peeked out the blinds. There, parked under a beautiful spreading pecan tree, my beautiful brown delivery truck. I paced around my room until the delivery person knocked at the door.
Hark again! A firm, authority-backed rap at the door. I answered. Standing before me was a diminutive woman wearing not a penny-brown uniform, but a tan polo shirt and khakis. And she did not have a package. Out on the street the UPS truck has begun to motor away.
Just as I was about to say What’s with the merry new uniform? and Where’s my parcel? and Hey, your van is deserting you, I noticed that she had a holstered pistol battened to a fat black belt at her waist. So, in obedience to my dictum “Never be the first to speak when in the society of an individual with a sidearm,” I kept my mouth shut and waited.
She asked if I was me. I admitted I was. She announced that she was from the Travis County Constable’s Office, Precinct 5, and that she was here to deliver a citation initiated by Citibank South Dakota, N.A., and actuated through the offices of one of that creditor’s Texas attorneys. She handed me a sheaf of papers. I had been sued. What a relief. I had been thinking that this woman had been authorized to ventilate me with official bullets.
Annie, my girlfriend, who had just come into the room, asked the woman to come in.
“Would you like some coffee or tea?” said Annie.
“Coffee,” said the woman (hereafter Deputy M).
I didn’t have to sign anything. It was enough for the constable to simply give me the papers. I flipped through them. The second page was an ad for a private debt-counseling service.
Annie returned with three coffees. She thanked the constable for coming by, which took the woman aback; Deputy M said she was not used to being welcomed into a subject’s home.
This wasn’t surprising, given that a constable’s job description includes not only the serving of civil processes such as divorce papers, protective orders, and child attachments, but also the execution of sequestrations, evictions, criminal warrants involving family violence and child support, forcible entry writs, and lots of other awkward socio-legal détentes. Only the truly sociopathic, the DSM-IV-certified soulless jingoes, would like those tasks.
Annie made a joke about federal bailout money, and then asked if Deputy M wanted cream and sugar. Deputy M began to cry.
Annie sat her down on the couch, and we listened to Deputy M confess how much she hated her hypocritical job − she was in pretty bad debt herself − and how all she really wanted to do was play with her baby and start an organic lavender farm.
In the hour or two Deputy M was here, Annie persuaded her to quit her job, to consider bankruptcy (I gave her my bankruptcy attorney, Mr H’s, business card), and to chase her herbicultural dreams. Annie gave Deputy M a to-go coffee and some rubber tawdries left over from a cashed piñata to give to the baby.
Later we learned that Deputy M had indeed quit her job to reap lavender. A certain Deputy C took her place. Deputy C has come by several times lately to serve me another citation from Citibank. Even though he’d hammer at the door like a blacksmith for thirty minutes or more, I never answered. He always leaves a business card. I have a nice collection of them. I hope he runs out.
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