Friday, January 7, 2011

#294: Our Day in Court

The bank is gonna take our house back pretty soon. A year ago, this would have been an unimaginable tragedy. But cancer put some things in perspective for us. We aren't happy about the debts we can't pay or the things we're losing, but being alive to lose them is a pretty decent consolation.

We won't be living in the Honda down by the river. Our family is helping us through things. We will have a place to live and a place to keep some of our stuff. The safety net is there and waiting. 2011 will be another season of change for us. When we got married, Mrs P promised that we'd never be bored. Anyone who knows her knows she is a woman who keeps her word.

We are behind in our mortgage. By a long way. I'm not prepared to go through all the financial details in this space. Suffice to say, the past two and a half years have put a real dent in our emergency funds. The stone is now bloodless. Naturally, the bank is concerned about this. They've invested quite a bit of money in our house, and they'd like to see a monthly return on that investment. How do we know this? Let's just say they've been keeping in touch. We hear from them several times a day, seven days a week. They did take Christmas and Thanksgiving off, which I'm sure their tele-collection people appreciated. I know I did.

I feel bad for the people who have to make those calls. I mean, they chose their jobs, and they have to live with that choice. It's not a job I would do, but it still must be a hard gig. A lot of the people they call must have stories like ours. Lost jobs. Benefits gone. Medical bills. They have to feel some of that hurt, but they also have a script to follow. Their job is to get the money. Even when it obviously isn't there.Believe me, we've met a lot of these people in the past year, and while a few of them are jerks, ("Well, if he's so sick, maybe your husband should go back to the mental hospital,) most of them really seemed to want to help us resolve things. It's just that neither of us has the power to conjure money out of thin air. So today, we wound up in court.

Life among the grown-ups has never been a comfortable place for me. I have always chosen a more quirky, bohemian crowd. I mean, when it was time to go to college, I chose to study techniques for playing Shakespeare instead of learning how to get a grown-up job. I don't regret that choice, but there are times I wish I had been a lawyer or a lottery winner or something. I put on my suit, the one that fit me a hundred pounds ago, and Mrs P put on her "goin' to court" outfit. We drove down to the courthouse in a light snow. The air was cold, but not frigid. Though I was wearing my overcoat, a lot of the grown-ups with briefcases were dressed in just suit coats. The courthouses in Lexington are huge, Stalinist looking edifices, organized around a huge, empty square. Though there are a couple of fountains and a tree or two, it is mostly a big empty space that the wind rips through on days like this. We managed to find the right building from among the federal, circuit, and district courts. As we walked down the ramp toward the door, I could hear the "click click click" of a pair of expensive sounding heels behind us. I'm sure there are a lot more heels in the courthouse than there used to be, but I couldn't help but notice that most of them are very skinny this year. I guess even an attorney likes to feel pretty sometimes.

At the door, we went through a metal detector. I put my keys and cell phone into the dirty little plastic tub and the conveyor belt carried it through the X-ray gizmo. Though the only metal on my body was the buckles on my suspenders, I still set off the buzzer and a man with a wand waved at me a couple of times.No pat downs though. I was relieved. He was not a particular handsome fellow and his hands looked rough. I recovered my irradiated phone and keys, and we found our courtroom.

Everything is big in this building. The doors are tall, the stairs are wide, and the ceilings are very high. I guess this is all supposed to inspire a feeling of awe. It just made me think about how expensive it must be to heat the place. There are benches in the hall outside the courtroom, big enough for four normal sized people to sit. There was only one empty place, because a venerable looking lawyer had spread his papers and briefcase out across the seat. I let Mrs P sit, since she was functioning as our voice in this venture.

Mrs P has had to take over a lot of our affairs in the past year. There's a lot I don't know about any more. If I'm honest, I have to admit that there's a lot I would rather not know, too. I feel a lot of guilt about the situation we're in. She has taken a much more sensible attitude toward the whole thing. She had saved all the letters, all the denials of help, all the advice from experts telling us that we were screwed. We gathered tax returns and medical bills, and together we wrote our long sad history since I lost my job back in 2008. She is armed with quite a stack of documents. She also watches a lot of Law and Order, so she knows how to say things like "Your Honor" and "May we approach?" and stuff like that. I knew that we were in good hands.

Meanwhile, back out in the hall, people were gathering. Now and then, someone would tug the big brass handle on the big oak door. It was still latched. A large family in blue jeans and sweat shirts were in a circle, listening to a lawyer's advice about something. A lady tried to make a couple of phone calls on her cell, then jumped up, cursed, and walked off talking to herself about someone who was going to miss the meeting if she didn't get her ass there pretty soon. People in nice suits started gathering, and there was the sound of the lock on the big door opening. They started filing in. I asked Mrs P if we should join them, or wait to be called. She said we should wait. Then we noticed some civilians had started filing through, so we gathered up all of our paperwork and made our way into the courtroom.

I had been in this room before. Several years ago I was on the jury for the trial of a kid who had been pulled over for DUI. Though the police said that he looked drunk, and his lawyer appeared to be a stammering idiot, we voted not guilty because there was no hard evidence of his condition. I was hoping there was a little of that merciful energy left in the room. The judge came in looking friendly and kind. He began to read the docket, and I noticed something a little creepy. Nearly everyone who answered appeared to know what they were doing. They were talking about continuances and motions and objections and stuff. These people all had lawyers! We had a stack of papers and Mrs P's experience as a social worker testifying in child welfare cases. Well, and all those Law and Order episodes. Hearings were scheduled. Settlements were announced. People in suits and skinny heels came and went. Mrs P said I looked like a deer in the headlights. I wasn't surprised, since that's how I felt. Oh, my God, we were representing ourselves in a court of law. That never works out in the movies. The judge finally called our case. "Super Big International Corporation v The Pennsy family." We stood up like school children and Mrs P said, "Here, your Honor." She sounded like she knew what she was doing. I hoped the judge didn't think she was an actual lawyer. We were counting on his pity, not his professional respect.

By coincidence, the bank's lawyer was sitting right next to us. He made some kind of motion, but the judge said that he intended to schedule a "conciliation hearing" in his chambers. He explained to us that we will have a few more weeks to do some more paperwork, then sit down with him and the bank's lawyer to come to some sort of resolution. I said "Thank you, sir," instead of "Your Honor," and I felt every lawyer in the room give an inaudible gasp. A breech of etiquette! The judge pretended not to notice. The pity thing was working. Mrs P then asked if we could be dismissed, (I was so proud of her.) Out in the hall, we talked with the bank's lawyer for a few minutes. He was young and friendly. He explained what we should expect. Mrs P showed him our paperwork. He was politely impressed. Then, he gave us his card to call him if there was anything we wanted to talk about. I was confused by all this. I thought he was supposed to be a bad guy and our opponent and everything. I guess that he is, in a way. Those things are sometimes pretty hard to discern among the grown-ups.

So, we came away feeling like things hadn't gone terribly. Mrs P was wonderful. The judge was merciful. The plaintiff's attorney was helpful. I was pitiful. We all played our parts convincingly, I thought. And we have at least another couple of months before they come and change our locks. All in all, I guess we got our day in court. Something tells me, we may get a few more.


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