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 Links to this post  

Rush Limbaugh Needs Better Friends

I consider that some of the best friends I've ever had have been those who were willing to pull me up short when I was hovering at the abyss of assholery.

You know -- friends who are willing to say something to you like:

"Dude --- nobody elected you."

Posted byPortlyDyke at 9:30 PM 2 comments Links to this post  

65 Pages

You may have noticed that I haven't blogged much at all lately for nearly a month and a half.

You might say that I've been . . . . . distracted.

Yes . . . distracted . . . . . . .I think that's the right word.

One of the distractions was the preparation of a life-changing 65-page document.

But before I get into the nitty-gritty of that oh-so-distracting document, let's begin with this, shall we?

You see, the 65-page (as opposed to two-page) document that I was working up is called -- "Voluntarily Petition for Bankruptcy".

In truth, that's only three pages (the "voluntarily petition" part) -- the attendant forms and provision of detailed personal information comprised the other 62 pages.

Before we go any further, let me make a couple of things perfectly clear:

  1. The primary reason that I'm blogging about my bankruptcy is in the hope that recounting my experience might be helpful or supportive to someone else.
  2. I'm posting this after I've progressed through the hearings portion of the process, although I've been working on this post for some time.
  3. I'm surprisingly un-traumatized about the whole thing.
Let's go back to the beginning, shall we?

I took my first real job at 17, and was employed by someone else until I was 32, when I started my first business. For the past 20 years, I've been self-employed, and that was a good choice for me.

I've never remotely approached being "rich" by status quo/cultural standards (but that's never been my goal in life anyway, and I think that I'm "rich" by my own standards).

I was raised by hard-working school-teacher parents (one, the child of Kansas farmers who lost pretty much everything during the Dust Bowl, and the other, the child of an Arizona widower who managed to survive tough times in the mining industry during the Depression pretty well).

For most of my formative years, my parents were only separated from "working class" status by virtue of the prestige of their positions as teachers (certainly not by their salaries). I grew up in a Kansas farming community, and let's just say this: The Work Ethic Is Strong With Teh Portly Dyke (read in your best Darth Vader, of course).

That work-ethic has served me well, I believe.

I've never felt deeply deprived of anything that was really important to me, I once co-owned a house, and later, gave it up and went back to renting. I've never starved or been homeless. I've lived simply, but very well, and still do -- and I think that it's important to mention here that I have lived this way by choice, and according to my own standards.

I generally did well being self-employed and maintaining a simple lifestyle. I've had varying levels of debt over the course of my life, but in the past ten years, I'd never made a late payment or missed a payment on any debt I had.

I was "getting by", and that was OK with me.

In the past two years, though, things got a bit tighter.

I did what I usually did when cash-flow was tight -- considered purchases more carefully, didn't eat out, traveled only for work -- stuff like that.

After 20 years of self-employment, I'd seen slumps come and go, so I wasn't particularly concerned. In fact, I figured it was probably just the Universe nudging me to do something different, so I did something I'd felt strongly urged to do -- I started working on a project that a lot of people had asked me to get out into the world -- a video version of a class that I'd taught in person for the last ten years.

I figured out how to finance a lot of this project by offering a pre-purchase deal to the people who had asked for it, and used some of my available credit line to fund the rest.

Yes, this would mean my debt-load would go up, but from the pre-purchase response, I figured I wouldn't have any trouble recouping it once the project was released.

Then, early last year, one of the community-members that I'd lived with for five years (and with whom I shared expenses for rent and utilities) suddenly decided that he wasn't interested in continuing to live in community anymore.

His decision was abrupt and messy, and I was already in the middle of the project -- we didn't have a candidate to replace him, so we decided we'd tough it out through the Summer as I got the project finished, and remain where we were living.

I'd already decreased my regular bread-and-butter work for a few months so that I could focus on the vid-project, and it seemed like a huge (and possibly project-killing) distraction to stop production in order to make a major residential move at that time -- a move that would also involve dismantling the video studio that I'd just set up (and somehow hoping that we'd find a place where I could "re"-mantle that studio).

So we stayed where we were, with rent and utility obligations that had increased by a third.

We did "what you do" -- we cut back on luxury utilities like cable TV and down-sized our phone plan. We ate very simply, cooking from scratch most of the time, and always ate at home. We sold some stuff that we weren't using, or that was expensive to keep up.

That all felt pretty good, too -- it was more aligned with the way that I want to live.

So, by September, the video project was ready for release -- to a public that had lately been put on notice that its economy was a shambles (which meant that buying an expensive set of DVDs was probably very low on the list of fiscal priorities).

It didn't really phase me. I've never been the type of person who thought that anyone else "owed" me a living. I've always been realistic about the nature of my work, and have known that a) it's not everyone's cup of tea, and b) if it's a choice between food/shelter/warmth and some service that I offer, I would always encourage a prospective client to procure that food/shelter/warmth before working with me.

I just kept on keepin' on -- paid my bills on time and in full. I ate even simpler, and cut non-essential expenditures even more, and my Beloved and I started looking at the reality of our financial situation -- we were going to need to move, we figured, and that was OK, too (even though we love this place).

We might even have made it through without the bankruptcy, if it weren't for the people that I owed money to -- credit card companies.

Credit card companies that began raising interest rates and lowering credit lines, even though I was on-time and paying in accordance with agreements, starting as early as last Spring -- even before my debt-load went up -- and even though they knew that lowering my credit limits would screw up my credit rating (which was pretty damn good at the time) because the lowered limits would make me look like I was maxing out my credit line, which I wasn't (at least not until they lowered my credit line)-- which would then trigger other creditors to raise my interest rates and cut credit lines I might have with them, which would screw my credit rating further.

They did this even though I wrote them nice letters and had polite telephone conversations with them about the fact that cutting my credit line right now would probably result in a cascading clusterfuck of credit hell. They did this even though they told me, straight out, that yes, I'd always been an excellent customer, and they wanted to keep me as a customer.

They also said that they were doing it because they could, according to our agreement (and they were right about this -- they could do it -- the agreement said that they could change my credit line or interest at any time, and for any reason -- although they never did so until it was clear to them that it would be very difficult for me to simply say "no" and cash them out on the debt).

When I asked them why they were doing it, they said that it was because my recent credit usage made me look like a higher-risk customer -- never mind an 18-year credit history with only one late payment ever, and that due to the vagaries of the US mail (long before it was possible to check one's credit card statement online) -- never mind that I was current on my debt.

The irony is that they actually made me a higher-risk customer.

My increased payments were eaten up by increased interest rates (one card raised me from 9.9% to 26% overnight -- for no reason other than "our agreement says that we can change your rate at any time for any reason" -- another card attempted to raise me from 12% to 33% -- although they relented after a letter in which I threatened to close my bank accounts with them) -- and the resultant lowered credit rating that triggered other cards to jump their rates up or bring my credit line down was actually what tipped the scales for me in terms of the bankrupcty.

When we came to the end of one month and barely scraped our rent payment together because we had paid the credit card debt on time, I did something I had not wanted to do -- something I had chalked off the options list for myself -- I began considering personal bankruptcy.

It took a couple of months for me to get absolutely clear on it. I had those midwestern values to struggle with, and other options to examine, and that hope that springs eternal, blah, blah, blah -- that somehow, things were going to suddenly shift.

I think the real turning point for me was when I called a credit-counseling company and explained my situation, and the counselor there said:

"Well, we have this plan (blah, blah, blah), but honestly, I think I'm just going to give you the number of the attorney that we refer to for bankruptcies."

She said this, even though recruiting me to their "plan" would have involved me paying her company a lot of money for quite a long time. They would negotiate my debt and my interest, but by the time they added their cut on top of the monthly payments, I'd still be scraping for rent and my credit-score would be screwed anyway.

(Actually, it was nice of her to be honest like that, even though it meant that her company wouldn't benefit.)

So, I stopped paying my credit-card bills, and moved forward with the bankruptcy.

I filed "Pro-Se" (which is a nice Latin way of saying "can't afford a lawyer"). This is in no way advice or recommendation, but it worked for me -- my bankruptcy was very simple -- I don't own a house or land, my car is 13 years old, I had no investments, savings, or "secured debt" -- and my decade as a wage-slave in public service did serve me well in this regard: I'm pretty handy with a form.

That said, after filling out, checking and re-checking, and mailing those 65+ pages, plus communicating by phone and mail with the BK court myself ever since -- ?
-- I can easily entertain the possibility that most bankruptcy attorneys actually earn their keep.

The most difficult part (for me, at least) is over: Making the choice to declare bankruptcy at all.

It wasn't an option I wanted to exercise, but I came to a point where it seemed clear that it was the wisest choice for me to make.

I don't feel like a victim. I played in that game, and this is where it took me.

I participated with an industry that I knew from the start was relying on my sense of fair-play and responsibility, while knowing that said industry would skirt fair-play and avoid responsibility in every way that it legally could.

In truth, I think that the credit industry still made money on me, even with the bankruptcy -- I haven't totted up every single figure yet, but I'm pretty sure that over the last 18 years, they made every bit of their money back, plus profit -- which is what the game was all about, really.

So I don't resent them, and I hope they don't resent me. This was the game that we played together. It's like a casino, really -- you go in knowing that the odds are against you -- but you go in anyway.

The hardest bit has been dealing with my midwestern ethics thing -- examining those internal voices that might want to brand me a "failure" -- and getting past the cultural entrainment that we all have to Be AFRAID -- Be VERY AFRAID!

Truth is, operating my life on a purely cash basis feels pretty good.

We're still eating very simply, and our household could currently be used as a case study in the research project: "Creating an Antithesis to Conspicuous Consumerism".

But right now? -- I'm well-fed, and warm, and sheltered.

And really, what else is there but -- right now?

Yes -- there are times when I find this thought in my head: "What if an emergency happens and I don't have any/enough creidt?!?!?!"

-- but I also thought that same kind of thought when I had "enough" "available credit", and when I had a "regular paycheck", and when I owned a house, and when I had "extra" money . . . . . . . . and -- when I had no money at all.

So it's clear to me that this thought -- "What If Something Bad Happens!?!!??!" -- is a thought I could have at any time -- under any circumstance --

-- just as I could have the following thought at any time, under any circumstance:

"You know, I think Everything's Gonna Work Out Just Fine."
(Blog Note: Yes, I am back to blogging. Yes, I think that my hesitance to speak about this particular aspect of my personal life -- the bankruptcy -- created a big old Blog-Clog for me. Yes, I feel scared to share this, and worried that my internal midwestern-ethic voices will be reflected in disapproving voices from the Blogosphere.
And finally -- YES -- I will be blogging further about my "bankruptcy experience", because there are some stories from this process that are just too surreal and luscious to pass up. Watch for them.)

Posted byPortlyDyke at 11:59 PM 16 comments Links to this post