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the bearer of bad news

razor wireIn 1998, I briefly worked as a process server in the County of Sacramento while attending college. I wrote this story for the Sacramento City Express while attending classes. Enjoy


I counted nine of them through the chain-link fence. The full-grown rottweilers must have weighed 200 pounds or more. Occasionally, one would throw itself against the aluminum slats of the gate. I cursed under my breath.

This wasn’t a home. It was a fortress. Brutal razor-wire spiraled along the fence, which traced the edge of the property on all sides. The house squatted, smugly secure, in the middle.

The king of this castle was threatening to unleash 1,800 pounds of canine fury unless I “got the hell off his property.” His daughter, a dirty fourteen-year-old girl, was screaming that I was a “Pussy!” over and over again. Anything I might have said in response was lost in a flood of snarls, threats and slurs. I got in my car and slowly drove away.

Just another day at the “office.”

I’m a process server. I suppose the job title requires a bit of explanation. I’ll give you the boiled-down version: I sue people.

I drive to their homes, their jobs, and I give them papers letting them know they’ve been sued by someone. I hand out lawsuits, subpoenas, restraining orders-never good news.

I also ensure that the defendants have enough time to prepare a good defense. I ensure that they were really notified they were being sued. I’m protecting their rights, too. Most of them don’t see it that way.

No, to most people I deal with I am more than a man. I am a symbol, a symbol of everything that has gone wrong in their world.

They are losing their car or their home. The credit-card companies are herding them towards bankruptcy or they are in the midst of a nasty divorce. And I’m the guy who is doing it to them.

There’s an old saying: “Don’t kill the messenger.” After five months of careful research, I would like to report that people need a refresher course on old sayings.

After the “rottweilers incident,” my girlfriend bought me a steel-cased flashlight, like the kind police officers carry. I call it my “dog repellent.” I’ve never used it.

A few people have slammed the door before I could remove my hand. I’ve been pushed once or twice. But for the most part, people trying to avoid a lawsuit don’t get physical. They lie.

“I’m not Barbara.”

“He’s not home right now.”

“They don’t live here anymore.”

I try not to let the prevalence of liars sour me on humanity. I am usually dealing with people under some stress, after all.

Some people with my job play dirty. You get lied to enough, you start to lie, too. I try to be straightforward with people-until they start to lie. Then I have a few tricks of my own.

I’ll talk to the mail carrier to see where their mail is delivered. I’ll talk to their neighbors. I’ll stake out their house. I’ll call them on the phone and when they say they’re just leaving, I’ll tell them, “That’s okay. I’m standing on your porch.”

My job is to make sure they get the papers, not to make sure they like it.

I had been trying to serve papers to a local attorney for several months. He was never at his office. I finally got him on the phone, and he told me he was in San Francisco all day, but if I called back that evening he would decide if he wanted to accept the papers.

That’s not the way the system works. A lawyer, an officer of the court, should know that. But I didn’t feel like arguing and hung up.

An hour later, I happened to drive by his office. His car was in the driveway-a long way from San Francisco. The door was locked but it was also clear. He was on the phone. I tapped on the glass.

At first I thought he dropped a pencil. Then it hit me: He was crawling under his desk to hide! That made my whole day. I couldn’t stop laughing. I taped the papers to his door, and noted his actions on the proof I filed with the court. Let him explain it to the judge.

You haven’t lived until you’ve made a lawyer crawl on his hands and knees.

There are some parts of this job I enjoy. Every now and then I get to serve a restraining order on some guy who’s been mistaking his girlfriend’s face for a punching bag, or I get to track down a deadbeat parent who owes thousands in back child support. Serving assholes like that makes me feel good.

But most of the time I just end up serving papers to poor people, people a lot like me. They just got too far behind on their credit cards, or they can’t afford the payments on their house. Or maybe they just hit someone in a car accident.

And just when it seems it can’t get any worse, I show up to prove them wrong. Reactions range from anger to depression-mainly anger.

I can’t expect too much. It’s not like I’m bringing good news. But if people will listen, I’ll tell them what their rights are and what they need to do next. Most of the time, they don’t listen.

Often the guy getting sued just wants to make sure I don’t think he’s a bad person. He paid that bill. The other guy was at fault. The company is screwing him over. I nod my head in sympathy.

I get a lot of people that want instant justice. They know they are innocent, so logically, they shouldn’t have to go to court to prove it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

No matter how much you tell me about your situation, no matter how well you prove your innocence to me, I am still giving you the papers. That’s my job.

I don’t think all of the people I serve are guilty. I don’t think they’re all innocent, either. I don’t have to figure it out. That’s what the courts are for.

And for every person who hates me for serving him papers, there is another person sitting on the opposite side of the courtroom who is grateful for my services.