Monday, February 1, 2010

My day in court

Bankruptcy Court.

For too many years, I had spent beyond my means, buying things I really didn't really need in the hopes they would somehow fill a void I felt within myself. It took a quarter century before I confronted my folly and began changing my behavior, but by then, it was too late. My only financial asset was my home, and by 2008, its value had sunk to less than the mortgage note. Then, my business declined dramatically as many of my long-standing clients went bankrupt themselves. Now, it was my turn.

I had gone to a credit counseling course the week before my court date, and the counselor told us not to fret: the Meeting of Creditors was a mere formality that would take 5-10 minutes, tops. My lawyer reassured me that at my level of debt, there would be no cut-throat lawyer from Citibank to grill me mercilessly about the fiddle strings I purchased in July of 2006.

Still, I spent the night before my court appearance tossing and turning, cobbling together 2-3 hours of sleep. The next morning, armed with a shower and with two double espressos spitting random sparks across my cerebral cortex, I approached the federal courthouse door.

I've passed through many doors my life, but this time it felt a bit like I was crossing the threshold into Shawshank Penitentiary. The stone facade of the courthouse enhanced the effect. Would they let me back out again after the court was finished with me? The double dose of espresso shifted my already overactive imagination into overdrive, and visions of a ten year stretch at a Halliburton work camp danced in my head.

After a few wrong turns (I now knew where all the restrooms were located), I found my way to the entrance to bankruptcy court. A short hallway lined with conference room doors and benches lead to the traditional-style courtroom, replete with wood trim and a Wopneresque judge's bench.

Outside the hallway, the day's schedule was posted on a clipboard. My name was many pages down the thick stack. I should have brought a book with me!

I took a seat in the courtroom gallery, as instructed. I quickly realized this is not the place to see and be seen. I never saw a group of fidgety folks trying so hard not to be seen, though if they'd thought about it for a minute, they'd realize that everyone around them was in the same boat. So who cares?

After 20 minutes, my lawyer popped his head in the door and announced to his clients that it would be at least another 90 minutes before his cases would be heard. He had two novels under his arm, so he obviously knew the drill. If only he had shared that knowledge with us! I should have brought a thick book with me!

I lingered in the main courtroom to listen to some of the early cases. There was no judge - a trustee from one of the local law firms rolled up his shirtsleeves and reviewed the paperwork, skimming through the pages quickly, asking a few pertinent questions about this asset and that. The bunkruptcy petitioners gave short, respectful answers and sure enough, within 5-10 minutes, it was over. If a facial expression exists that conveys the thought, "Wow, that was anti-climatic!", that would be the expression on peoples' faces as they left the counsel table. The tension in my shoulders released a notch, and I ducked out of the courtroom to stretch my legs.

With time to kill and the furrow easing from my brow, I considered that this would be the only opportunity in my life (hopefully!) to experience bankruptcy court, so I surveyed the area much as a reporter or writer would do. I took a seat on one of the benches in the hallway, and glanced around at some of my fellow debtors.

Most folks looked pretty tense. Lawyers flitted between the hallway and conference rooms, chuckling to each other about the latest anecdote they had to share. The lawyers' light-hearted demeanor only served to increase the anxiety of those around me. Coming to court was a day-to-day routine for our lawyers, and they were as relaxed as a trustafarian on a tropical vacation. To someone unaccustomed to courtrooms, however, a carefree lawyer seems like a lawyer who's not on the job. As if suddenly remembering this phenomenon, the lawyers then devoted a little time greeting and reassuring their clients.

The most obvious character in the waiting area was seated in the opposite corner with his wife. He was a jolly, portly fellow with a head of long white hair and a face adorned with a long white beard. He wore a green plaid shirt and red suspenders.

"You know times are tough when you see Santa Claus going broke", I thought to myself, hoping I wasn't thinking too loudly. I must have thought it too loudly, because a second later, the gentleman next to me leaned toward the bearded fellow and said, "Man, you know times are hard when you run into Santy Claus at the bankruptcy court!"

The Santa Claus man lit up with a chuckle and started talking a blue streak about how times would have to get a lot tougher before he'd stoop to doing the department store gig. He then launched into a litany of his physical maladies until interrupted by his wife, who grunted, "Shouldn't've got 'im started."

That conversation was the ice breaker we all needed. People relaxed into snippets of small talk. The woman next to me was writing poems, and shared one she had just written to our lawyer. The central theme was his late arrival, and its meter and rhyme was consistent.

Many of the folks around me were 10-20 years older than myself, and spoke of Asheville in the mid-1900s. They were surprised that a younger transplant like myself knew where the Woolsey Dip was located. I didn't know that it was the site of the Civil War Battle of Asheville. The most recent clash I knew of at that location had occurred a few years ago between a decrepit brick building and a compact car. The compact car won (see photo at right).

Reminiscing about the past seemed natural. I think we all wished we could be transported back to the halcyon days of financial prosperity.

A few hours later, I heard my name called in the courtroom, so I  grabbed my notebook and scurried in. I put my hand on the bible, though maybe I should have told them that that swearing on a book that didn't jive with my belief system was hardly an effective way to ensure my honesty. Maybe putting my hand on R. Crumb's illustrated Book of Genesis would have been more effective, given my reverence of Crumb's rendering skills.

The trustee asked that I furnish a few more bank statements, asked about real estate (I no longer own any), and about the monthly stipend that I send to my fixed-income parents.

"That's all", the trustee mumbled. I heard her, but I wasn't sure I heard correctly. I had barely been in the chair 45 seconds, if that. They should have loaded my chair with a spring, I was in and out of it so quickly. Every other case I saw took at least 5 minutes to review. Was I so destitute that the review of my cut-and-dry case didn't even allow me to warm the courtroom chair?  I turned to my lawyer with a quizzical look on my face.

"Yep, that's it", he said. "Talk to you later."

There was no judicial lecture, no lofty admonitions, no rap on my knuckles with a metal ruler. To be sure, my credit was hosed for a good many years. But given the recent behavior of most lenders, that's a blessing. Now, all I have to do is wait for the final discharge of debt.

I stepped out of the courtroom door and into the refreshing 20° air. Sure, bankruptcy would bring its share of challenges in the coming years, but I would sleep like a baby tonight.

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