A Very John Waters Bankruptcy Hearing

As some of you may already know, I was recently distracted by a 65-page document.

It's not something most people want to talk about (their bankruptcy) -- but I simply cannot continue to think of myself as a truly sharing person if I refrain from regaling you with the following tale (every word of which I swear to Ceiling Cat is completely true and wholly unexaggerated) -- because the story is simply too quirky to keep to myself.

Shamelessly Truncated Backstory: Filed for personal bankruptcy. Received summons to "341 meeting" -- aka "meeting of creditors".

So, yeah, I was nervous.

Not nervous in the "I'm hiding something" way -- more in the "I realize that the trustee may be a raging homophobe, or be having a really bad day, or I might look just like his horrible ex-" kind of way. (Because -- yes, servants of the court are supposed to keep that shit out of it, but sometimes, they don't.)

I was that kind of nervous.

Now, I live in a tiny little town, so there was a bit of driving involved in order to get to my 341 meeting, which was to be held in the municipality that I shall simply call BigBoxStoreO'Ville (or, as it is referred to locally: BigBoxO'Hell -- the town that you go to if you want anything from Home Depot, Staples, or Petco, etc. -- but the town that you don't go to at all, if you can help it).

So, with the drive, I had an extra hour and and 15 minutes to feel that nervousness.

Two stalwart companions accompanied me. One of them drove while I checked and rechecked the Mapquest directions in the jump-seat of her truck. (I know, I know -- this doesn't sound so awfully quirky yet, but be patient -- it gets better.)

Five years earlier, I had accompanied a friend to her 341 meeting at the courthouse in downtown BigBoxOVille, so I thought I knew what to expect -- a tiny, run-down courtroom, clerks and attorneys and clients lingering in the hallways -- however, when I checked Mapquest against the address in my meeting notice, it didn't look like this was the same location that I remembered, but rather, some other place called: Gateway Center.

I knew that BigBoxOVille had been doing a lot of downtown renovation, so I imagined "Gateway Center" as some kind of chromy/glassy edifice -- a bustling hub of civic offices and civil servants -- all sexy-whole-foods-indirect-lighting and spacious entryways, with busy receptionists residing cooly behind sleek corian counters.

Which vision hadn't exactly made me less nervous.

There had been something tired but friendly about the old courthouse where I had sat with my friend in her hour of need -- a dumpy, frayed-around-the-edges feeling that carried a reminder that people in their thousands had passed through this place -- winning cases and losing them, being found innocent and guilty, being arrested and posting bail, marrying and divorcing -- it put the proceeding my friend was about to endure into some kind of perspective for me. Nothing new under the sun, and all that.

Imagine my surprise when, as we drew closer to our destination, I called out the address to my friend once more and she said:

"Huh? Well, then . . . this is it. We're here."

And here was . . . . ? A strip mall.


Not just any strip mall, either -- this was one of those tiny, sad strip malls from the 80s -- there were six spaces on the mall sign at the edge of the parking lot, but only four of them containing signage (and it turned out that two of the businesses listed were no longer in operation).

As we pulled into the parking lot, I felt a rush of relief.

I believe that what came out of my mouth was: "A strip mall? A fucking strip mall? A fucking dying strip mall?!?! Wow. If they don't have any more respect for themselves than this, what am I being all nervous about?"

Let me paint the scene: Dingy. Dismal. Shabby. Dinky. ("Not a nice place you have here, Joe.")

Two spaces were occupied at one end, and then a series of echoing, empty, glass-fronted caverns stretched to the other, presumably once occupied by entrepreneurs who, in their haste to depart, hadn't even bothered to retrieve their signage.

I scanned the markers above each door for "Suite D". There it was -- but it, too, was empty. (Turns out the Bankruptcy court met next door to Suite D -- more on this in a bit).

The two enterprises carrying on discernable trade in the mall were: 1) A rather cute coffee-shop/deli, and 2) A Dollar Store, prominently festooned with signs saying: "CASH ONLY!" and "NO Checks" and "Credit Cards Not Accepted".

Which just seemed so . . . . perfectly perfect. My relief deepened.

Being a believer in all things woo-woo, my compatriots and I had been affirming all the way to BigBoxOVille that today, we would navigate to the "Utopian Version" of Bankruptcy court. We declared that we would experience the day as affirming and uplifting and educational and expansive.

It was starting out well, I had to admit. The setting alone had stimulated my sense of humor.

Since I had insisted on arriving an hour before the actual meeting time (I have similar tight-assery around catching airplanes), we decided to explore the coffee-shop.

Imagine my delight when I found that they make their own doughnuts from scratch, every morning.

Heaven. We do not have a doughnut shop in our town, and I refuse to use the sacred word "pastry" when referring to the rubbery items passed off as donuts at the local Safeway.

AND! -- The barrista chap behind the counter was almost certainly a Friend of Dorothy, who connected with us in a manner that indicated that he suspected that we, too, had more than a passing acquaintance withToto's mistress.

Better and better.

We pretty much had the place to ourselves at first, as we sipped coffee (a rarity for me) and bit into what I like to refer to as: Wheels From The Divine Chariot.

People came and went -- some nervous and pacing, others calm and bored (the latter, by their dress, were no doubt attorneys waiting for their client's meetings) -- but get this -- I'm 95% certain that every single person that I saw during the three hours I was at that mall was there for not-Suite D.

Which was a whole 'nother interesting twist -- because that coffee shop would probably be filing for bankruptcy itself, if it weren't for . . . bankruptcy court. (I adore the occasional brush with ouroborian reality.)

Amongst the nervous-/pacing-type customers was yours truly.

I would get up from time to time, go out into the parking lot, through the entry next to Suite D, down the narrow hallway to the door with one little peeky-hole type window in it, and then I would wrestle with the choice of just going in now and seeing what was going on in there, or wandering back to Oz and Priscella Queen of the Dessert (who had also seen fit to bring some free truffles to our table, because he "just needed to taste-test them so that I could describe them to customers, and they're really too big for me to eat a whole one, but if I split them into four pieces, well, that leaves a piece of the maple-citrus and a piece of the almond fudge for each of us!").

So, we're all like: "Get out! -- free Chocolate? I love the Utopian Bankruptcy Alternate Universe!"

In one of my pacey/nervous moments outside, I ran into an acquaintance from a nearby town who used to be a client in the parking lot.

"Portly?" she queried.

I queried back, delicately, cautiously: "Are you here for . . . the same reason I'm here? . . . . . . Suite D?"

"Yes. Yes, I am -- but it's a good thing. Really." She looked into my eyes after we hugged, and repeated with more emphasis, "It really is a good thing."

As she walked off to her car, she added: "By the way, they're more than an hour behind."

Having now wired myself up with unaccustomed caffeine (and weighed myself down, with unaccustomed pastry), I decided to go into "the room".

It was an ordinary, large, conference-type room, with conference-type chairs, a low acoustic-paneled ceiling, and flourescent lighting. A roster outside the door listed, in alphabetical order, the cases that were being handled today -- fifteen or so cases to the hour, each hourly group organized from A-Z -- I was the last person on the roster for the day.

I squeaked the door open and tried to enter without drawing undue attention to myself. Forty or so chairs were arranged in rows at one end of the room, with a big desk up front, and a set of chairs off to one side where sat The Attorneys (or so I surmised, because I recognized one of them from his picture on the business card he had enclosed in the letter he sent some weeks earlier).

Oh, and about those letters -- those letters that began arriving in the mail the day after my bankruptcy filing became a matter of public record?

To date, I have received four letters from attorneys who all began their missives with "Dear Portly: I noticed that you are filing Pro Se, and would like to notify you of my services . . . . ", but who all also managed to end their missives with some variation of ". . . . . . because you really don't understand how dangerous it is to represent yourself in these matters". I have received four credit card offers, and 42 (count 'em! Forty Two!) offers of pre-approved car loans (at an average of $32G each -- which is something like $1,344,000.00 worth of car loans). As my Beloved said when these letters started arriving: "Oh look, dear -- vultures."

My compatriots and I sat and watched as each person or couple was called up to sit at the desk, where the Trustee swore them in and repeated the same basic script ("This is a copy of your petition. Did you see these documents before you signed them?", "Have you listed all your property on these documents?", etc., etc., etc.).

I listened to the little bits of their stories that the questions brought forth. Of all the 25 or so cases that preceeded mine, only one seemed the slightest bit questionable to me -- all the others were stories of health crises, business plans gone awry, unforeseen circumstances, or people just trying to make ends meet in tough times.

When the Trustee reached the end of the docket ahead of mine, he addressed the 11 am group (which I was in) and gave us a little briefing about what would happen next.

He was serious but kindly, and went through the speech (which he has probably given a nonnillion times) efficiently, while peppering it with a few wry witticisms that had this room full of nervous people chuckling aloud from time to time. He had a wonderful type of deadpan humor, but he maintained the decorum of his office at all times. I was impressed.

Especially when he said stuff like this: "So -- you need to cooperate with me. No, actually, you have to cooperate with me. It may seem unfair, but the truth is, this is an unequal relationship -- you have to cooperate with me if you want your bankruptcy to be discharged."

I appreciated his honesty, and his clear attempt to put us all at ease as much as he could under the circumstances. He was extremely funny in his serious way, and he looked tired -- and very human, which I also appreciated.

By the time my turn came, there were only the four of us left in the room -- my two compatriots, the trustee, and myself.

He called my name and I took my seat in front of the Big Desk.

Before he turned on the tape recorder, I said: "You know, you may have a future in stand-up."

He raised his brows a bit as he peered over the desk at me (uh-oh), and said: "Not gonna go there."

At which I straightened my ass up and did what I was supposed to do -- just affirmed that I would tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the blah-blah-blah, and answered simply "Yes" and "No" to his questions.

But I swear that there was a little twinkle in his eye.

I had the sense that he was in that difficult place where his role prevented him from connecting with me fully as a human, but I honestly had the sense that he wanted to make that connection. I can relate to that. When I was a social worker, I was often in situations where the requirements of my role as a professional impinged upon my ability to relate to my clients in certain ways. Which is one reason I stopped being a social worker.

I'm a stubborn little thing, though. Once the tape recorder was off, I said to him:

"Seriously. You helped put me at ease today, during an experience that could have been much more difficult for me. Thank you."

He didn't really respond to that, but there was that little tiny twinkle again, and he asked me about my tiny town and how it was weathering the current financial climate. Next summer, our peninsula will become a virtual island for 3 months, right in the middle of tourist season, because of a bridge closure. He said: "I just wonder how [tiny town] is going to hang on."

Then we left, and he left, and the lights went out in not-Suite D for the day.

My compatriots headed back to Oz for a few minutes, to get some of the day-old pastries to take home.

I went to the Dollar Store.

The CASH ONLY!!! Dollar Store.

Next to the bankruptcy room.

I spent five dollars and forty-three cents. The cashier there didn't need to use her cash register, because everything in the store is $1, and she has memorized the sales tax for every integer from $1 to $150 (I asked her). She just counts up your items and says: "Five Forty-three."

I purchased:
1. A pair of reading glasses (which I needed)
2. A pair of compact flourescent light bulbs (which I needed)
3. A package of those funky light bulbs that are supposed to look like candle-flames and which are the only light bulbs that fit the dining room fixture (which I needed)
4. A knife sharpener (which I needed), AND

5. A lobster cracker (which I hope to need someday)

Because it just seemed like a fitting end to the day.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 1:57 AM  

5 comments:

ouyangdan said... March 5, 2009 at 12:54 AM  

The way you are so open and honest, and also comfortable w/ your process is strangely refreshing.

I am so glad to see you looking at this so positively. I commend you for being so strong about this.

Just reaffirms that you, of course, rock.

NameChanged said... March 5, 2009 at 10:29 AM  

Thank you for sharing this with us. I am pleased it went so well, and I am glad you got the best donuts ever (I imagine).

(((Portly)))

Steve said... March 5, 2009 at 7:27 PM  

if the fates ever conspire to where we eat dinner together I'll steal the lobster and you can bring the lobster cracker!

Ralph said... March 30, 2009 at 1:33 PM  

hi. i've ready you at shakesville for a while, and missed you there.

recently lost my job (well, i'm terminated in june) and suddenly, all economic news/television shows/whatever speak to me in a very very gloomy way. this is the first time i've had that personal connection with a story but felt like maybe it will be ok. thanks. a ton. god, thank you. today is suddenly easier.

Anita said... March 30, 2009 at 7:58 PM  

I've been missing your posts. I'm wishing you well.

Post a Comment