No Money, Mo Problems: An American Reality

I am terribly early. I walk through the metal detectors. Security asks me if I’m a lawyer, I smile and say no. They proceed to exchange my phone for a square block with the number 25 written in sharpie on it. I immediately feel untethered.

 I make my way to the second floor. As I walk down the hallway, I hear my shoes echo against the marble. It sounds deafening compared to the dead silence of the hallway. I feel painfully exposed.

The building itself is beautiful, marble and wood paneling abound. There are halls and halls of rooms, sequestered away behind doors with small labels. There is even still a row of payphone booths, with the phones ripped out in all but one that is labeled “international calls only.” Despite needing a place to sit and kill time, I don’t sit down in one. I feel the overwhelming need to remain hidden until the last possible moment.  I walk past them in the search for the women’s restroom. The hallway opens up to a large balcony that reveals the first floor, which is also eerily silent. Giant mustard-colored columns rise up from the first floor to support a latticed sky light that fills the two floors with the gray light of winter.  To my left is the women’s restroom.

I go in, it is dim and abandoned. I go to the last stall and close the door. I sit down, fully clothed on the toilet, and pull out my notebook.

I am to appear in room 2863, which as I had nervously walked passed it, I saw that it was not nearly as well appointed as the exterior hallways.  Room 2863 contains cheap, plastic office chairs and muddy brown carpets, which skew more green than brown underneath the bright, flickering fluorescent lights.

For now, at least, I prefer the handicap stall with its large black and white marble floor tiles and incongruent dusty-pink marble stall dividers. The restroom’s once resplendent marble and wood casings now just read as quaint, if a bit past their prime. It smells heavily of floral scented disinfectant, but it is not quite strong enough to drown out the notes of raw sewage that waft past my nose with every toilet flush.

But, I have privacy. I feel safe. So I’ll endure the smell a little longer. I didn’t think I’d be so triggered by today. It is perfunctory, just one more step towards the end. Yet, as I find myself writing in a dark stall of a women’s restroom, I see my hand shaking. It’s a new quirk I developed sometime over the past two years. Coffee makes it worse. I know it’s stress related, so I see the tremor as a physical reminder of how destabilizing my life has been lately.

I can’t decide if what I’m feeling is seething anger or an incredible amount of internalized shame. I just have to hang on a little bit longer, I tell myself. 

I have become so at home with uncertainty and precarity that I can hardly sense their accompanying emotions anymore. They are of no practical use for me. Perhaps my shaky hands are my body’s reminder that they are still there, even if I am ignoring them.

 I wonder how I will even explain my current situation to the judge. Where do I start? With my dissertation defense? With that which I still cannot remark on? Or do I just start with the defamation suit? Explain that I had foolishly thought my modest divorce settlement would more than cover the costs of defending myself and my first amendment right.

Or do I start with the last week of this October? When my lawyer told me that unless I paid $35,000 by November 2nd they would fire me as a client? Do I tell the judge that I had begged for a payment plan, and been denied?  How, standing outside of a bodega, I hung up the phone with my lawyer and bent over, grabbing my knees and trying not to fall over when I realized the grim reality of my situation.

A flush from another stall echoes through the still bathroom, releasing a nose bouquet of sewage from the drain next to my oxford-clad feet. 

It’s time to leave. I get up, give myself a long hard stare in the mirror, and go to wait in room 2863.

As I walk into the room, I see men sitting in those plastic chairs dressed in worker’s clothes—steel-toe boots, jeans, hoodies, and parkas. I see their sleazy lawyers, in cheap suits, slicked back hair, and arrogant energy consulting their clients, whose own body language conveys only the suffocating weight of what being in this room means.

I feel conspicuously out of place in my floral patterned silk pants and my well-worn navy blazer. But I am not out of place. I am right where I should be, at least for the afternoon. This is bankruptcy court, and I am filing for bankruptcy.

 

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I still have no idea what time it is. I spot a lanky lawyer whose thinning red hair is tied back into a low pony (rat?) tail at the base of his neck. He is jerkily shifting his weight from one foot to the other as he asks his client about the last time he used his credit cards. The man nervously answers everything correctly. By correctly, I mean, he has not used his credit cards in months, is dead broke and up to his eyeballs in debt. He is where he should be as well.

 I ask Rattail what time it is. It’s 11:50. I have 10 more minutes. Seeing my request for the time as a conversation opener, he asks who my lawyer is. I tell him, and he authoritatively states oh, he’ll be here soon, he’s usually never late.

If this were a better world, Rattail would have read my dismissive half-smile and break from eye-contact as a sign that I was not interested in speaking further with him.  Instead, he takes a step closer to where I am seated, clears his throat, and goes, well, I just have to say, if I were your lawyer, I would have been here early to make sure you were comfortable!

I can’t tell if he’s hitting on me. Given that it’s hard for me to summon a f*ck to give about filing for bankruptcy, I hardly have the energy to shut him down.

 Luckily, my lawyer breezes into the room, asks the perfunctory do you have any questions just as he prepares to turn away. I say yes. I ask my questions. I am terrified that the lawsuit will continue. I am terrified my former lawyer will not take bankruptcy for an answer for my inability to pay their $83,000 invoice. I am terrified that I will have more legal fees, on top of the invoice and the extra-expensive bankruptcy attorney I had to pay for, because, well, my case is complicated.

I’m not sure I get an answer to my questions, lawyers speak so quickly about such mundane things in a tedious display of smoke and mirrors.  To be honest, I stopped listening halfway through his answers and simply continued to nod and smile whenever there was a pause in his most likely bullshit answers.

Rattail turns and hovers around the two of us. I notice his bright paisley tie is darker and somehow shinier around the knot compared to the rest of the tie. I realize this is his Court Tie. He loosens it at the end of the day, without unknotting it, so its re-application will go quicker. From the look of the knot’s dinginess, where his hands touch it every day to loosen and tighten it, it’s clear he’s been doing this a long time.

Rattail interrupts our conversation to tell me the answer to a question that I had asked my lawyer. He answers wrong, of course, because my case is so very strange. He finally saunters off, looking over at us every now and then from across the room as his own client tries to ask him questions.

It’s time to move into the room with the judge. The judge’s chambers, as it were, is really just a few rows of plastic chairs in front of a large wooden table where the judge is seated. In bankruptcy court, everyone’s dirty laundry is aired for all in the room to hear. It’s like being an audience member on Judge Judy.  I hear the judge’s clearly articulated voice speak louder than the others. His tone is matter of fact, with his impatience and scorn for the debtors betraying him only once or twice as he grills a woman and her lawyer seated before him.

 The woman is apparently filing for bankruptcy due to her inability to pay a bank loan that she took out for 2 expensive luxury cars.  I lean in closer. She has $3,000 in her bank account and no savings. There is an FBI investigation. I hear something about how her identity was stolen by a group of Russian hackers (I shit you not) who took out the bank loan, bought the cars, and immediately shipped them to China. Or at least, that was where they were last tracked to. Her bank is suing her because she is refusing to pay back the loan.

 This is America, where punishing the victim is not just standard, it’s lucrative.

The next man up is a Pakistani immigrant who owns a food truck, and apparently, a 2018 Mercedes. He makes about $2,000 a month from his food cart, and his wife brings in about $1,600 a month from cleaning houses. The Mercedes payment is $1,000 a month. The judge demands to know how he thought it was a good idea to purchase a car whose payments were 1/3 of their total income. The man explains that he used to make money, but does so no longer. The judge asks him if he will sell the Mercedes. The man looks down at his hands and says, my son likes it, I want to save it for him.

Food trucks make $2,000 a month? In New York city? While the man is being judged (literally) for his financial decisions, I have a pang of sympathy for him. Yeah, the Mercedes wasn’t the best financial idea. But perhaps he just wanted to have one nice thing. I hope he gets to keep the car.

It’s now another man’s turn. He is dressed in jeans, muddy sneakers, a hoodie and a puffy coat. I am reminded yet again that I way over-shot by dressing so formally.  He sits down and launches into a monologue about domain names, driving traffic to his websites, and about how he spent $480,000 on ad revenue. I inwardly roll my eyes, because I know about his internet world, where scammers’ lazy business plans revolve around what they think they know about SEO. But there’s a catch that makes me keep listening: he has $600,000 in cryptocurrencies. The judge asks, with no attempt to hide his disdain, why is he filing for bankruptcy if that is the case. The man explains he cannot access the cryptocurrency because he forgot the password.

How… the actual fuck do you forget a password that cannot be reset and gives you access to $600,000? I’d get it tattooed on my body, write it down in books that no one else would check, whatever, but I wouldn’t fucking ‘forget’ a password to that much money. What an idiot.

Then it’s my turn. I step up to the front of the room and sit down next to my lawyer.  I raise my right hand and swear to God that I will tell the truth. The judge launches a perfunctory series of questions about my debt. I answer everything with a “no sir” or a “yes sir” or “I’m not sure of the exact amount sir.”

He asks me how much money I owe my law firm. I tell him. He furrows his brow and goes, “Well, for that amount, the suit must have been nearly done, how far did you get?”

“We were just entering discovery, sir.” I reply.

“And your bill was that much? What did they do for you? Why did you allow your bill to become so immense?”

“I don’t know, sir. To be honest, I don’t even really know what they did for me, sir.”

“Why did you hire them? Did you even do your research before putting down a retainer? That is not even close to how much your bill should have been considering you were pre-discovery.”

 “Yes sir.”  

“And the plaintiff is seeking monetary damages from you as well?”

“Yes sir.”

“You need to provide all invoices and a years’ worth of bank statements by January 9th.”

“Yes sir.” And with that, I am dismissed.

 

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I stumble out of the courthouse into the chilly afternoon sun. I blink a few times. Rage engulfs me. I think of Frederick Jameson’s proclamation that we are living in the era of late-stage capitalism. I realize I have no trust in the legal system or America as either a concept or lived reality anymore.

I send a prayer to Anita Hill and Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because I have experienced just enough to know the magnitude of what they continue to face for their bravery. I remember that Dr. Ford has had to move several times, has to pay for a body guard herself, and cannot return to teaching because of the death threats she receives.

I think how people read about Dr. Ford and mutter oh that’s horrible, and how I tense at that. How ‘horrible’ does not begin to describe the physical and psychological terror that grips her on a daily basis. How ‘horrible’ doesn’t account for the years of therapy it will take to maybe, just maybe, help stop her PTSD from being re-triggered.

 Compared to them, my troubles are nothing. A drop in the bucket. This is the price of speaking out against exploitation. For shining a light on things that those in power prefer to have steeped in mildewing darkness.

 And yet, I regret nothing. I would do it all over again, the exact same way. Because someone has to stand up. Someone has to speak out. Or we will drown in the approaching tsunami of capitalist greed, with no one ever having heard our dissent.

 As Bey says, I ain’t sorry.

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