Economy & Business

I Am Cancer

The view from eviction court

‘My check didn’t come.”

Eviction court is not the saddest place in the world, but if you were taking a Dantean descent through the underworld of underclass despair and dysfunction, it would be somewhere around the fourth or fifth circle. Because my Virgil on this journey is an actual attorney, with a suit and tie and everything, the judge has moved us to the end of the docket on the theory that there might be arguments in our case, that this litigation might turn into something resembling litigation. There are not going to be any arguments, but we get to sit through a few hours’ worth of very sad stories. I think the lawyer enjoys this even less than I do, even though he gets paid by the hour.

The woman whose check did not come is on disability. (There’s a lot of that here.) That is the check she was expecting, which did not come, for . . . some reason. But whatever her disability is, it does not appear to be the worst of her problems. She has a daughter and a man in her life (it is not clear whether he is her husband or the girl’s father or both or neither), and they are obliged to maintain two separate households, “because of the domestic . . . event . . . that happened,” she explains.

The teacher in me cannot help but notice that when it comes time to explain the facts of the case, the people in this courtroom rarely appear as the subjects in their own sentences. A “domestic event” just “happened,” and now the man in her life cannot reside under the same roof as her daughter — or Child Protective Services will take that daughter away. Which means that after her eviction (which is never seriously in doubt) she cannot rely on the person upon whom most people in her situation instinctively would rely.

She is not the only person whose check didn’t come. The passivity and subjectlessness of these narratives is striking, and strikingly consistent. Domestic events happen. Checks come or don’t come. (Mostly they don’t.) Husbands are sent to jail, children are taken away by the clipboard-toting minions of Authority, disease descends. The money isn’t there. And, in the end, they are evicted. Bad things just happen, and, today, I am the bad thing that is just happening to one of these luckless and unhappy children of God. I am eviction, I am CPS, I am the check that didn’t come. I am diabetic amputation. I am cancer.

I am, as it happens, evicting my mother’s fourth husband’s fifth wife from a modest house (much more modest than the condition I left it in) in which she resided rent-free for a decade or so. I inherited the house from my mother when she died, and her husband inherited a “life estate” in it, meaning a legal right to reside there so long as he kept current on the taxes and such. He remarried (these are marrying people) and lived there with his new wife until his life estate ended the way life estates end, and I came around to take possession of the house and sell the damned thing. They’d had years and years to prepare for this moment, and, of course, they hadn’t.

“Why are you doing this to us?” the woman’s daughter demanded. Because I am the bad thing that is just happening to you today, the unforeseeable event that has been hanging over you by a single hair of a horse’s tail for a decade, the inevitable end of a terrible lamentation.

But people love their sad stories. They feel compelled to tell them. Local law here is pretty straightforward on the matter of evictions: If you don’t pay your rent (mine is the only case today not involving rent), then you have to go. “Did you pay any rent in February?” the judge asks two dozen times. “Did you pay any rent in March?” The judge’s power in these matters extends only to ordering (or not ordering) an eviction and ordering the payment of unpaid back rent. If a tenant wants to sue the landlord for violating the lease, or if the landlord wants to sue the tenant for failing to pay an electricity bill or damaging the property, that is a separate action. But even though the judge repeatedly explains that the sins of the landlords are irrelevant at this moment to the immediate legal question before his court, the tale must be told: He didn’t return phone calls or text messages. There were repairs left unmade. There were bedbugs. Tenants put scarce and desperately needed money into making unlivable rental properties just barely livable.

“Did you pay any rent in April?”

It is different in other places that have laws making it more difficult to evict non-paying tenants. One Californian whose family owns a number of residential rentals reports that he routinely pays people cash to vacate properties rather than endure the trouble, expense, and uncertainty of eviction proceedings. I had had the same thought myself, but it quickly became clear that eviction would be the more economical route. They very much wanted to stay in the house, though not enough to offer to rent it or buy it. But certainly enough to sit tight and hope that the situation would somehow just resolve itself in their favor.

The woman I am evicting does not show up in court. (About half of those evicted decline to attend the proceedings today.) Her son attends on her behalf. My lawyer asks me five or six yes-or-no questions. The judge asks the son if he has a response. “No.” He asks if he would like to present an argument. “No.”

And that was that.

Of course, that’s never really that. Many people who have been evicted simply refuse to leave after being ordered to, which means that they will in the end be visited by constables who remove them and their belongings from the property, often to a chorus of wailing and lamentation. And another bad thing just happens to people who, for whatever reason, have no sense of agency in their own lives.

“I’ll give you a break on my rate,” says my lawyer, looking at his watch. He is the son of Mexican-American farm laborers, who learned at least one thing from his hard and poor childhood: Don’t be a farm laborer. Law looked like a pretty good alternative, and it seems to be working out pretty well for him. The idiomatic English would be, “He became a lawyer.” The better English would be, “He made himself a lawyer.” How did that happen? It must have begun with decisions he made as a child or as a very young man: A leads to B leads to C leads to a good income and a nice house and a bass boat.

A few months ago, I recounted the story of Preston Smith, a man from a very poor background (think outhouses and bare feet) who walked across a wide stretch of Texas to attend college at the beginning of a career that would see him become (make himself) a successful businessman and, later, governor of Texas. He and a friend made a living in college by opening up what at the time would have been called a “filling station,” a gas station/convenience store. By the time he was out of school, he had a few of them, and a movie theater, too. The reaction to that column surprised me: “That’s great,” critics wrote, “but he lived at a time when someone in his circumstances could open a gas station without backing and financing, and without all the taxes and regulation we have now.” As though the Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi immigrants who operate convenience stores from coast to coast show up in the United States with a $1 million line of business credit from Chase, an MBA, and a gas station waiting for them in Oklahoma. Next time you’re filling up in some country location late at night, take a peek around the back of the place, and see how many of those immigrants are quietly living in the gas stations they operate. It is not uncommon, for a time. But they don’t stay there long.

And while I am not much of a hard-ass on these kinds of questions (we have a positive moral obligation to help the poor, and not just the “deserving” poor), I cannot help but think of those hustling immigrants when I encounter the native-born sons and daughters of this sweet land of liberty who, if it were raining jobs and opportunity, would find a way to walk between the raindrops.

“My check didn’t come.” “Did you pay any rent in January?” “The factory closed down.” “The textile jobs moved to Thailand and Vietnam.” “My little town is dying.” “My check didn’t come.” “Did you pay any rent in February? In March?”

“My check didn’t come.”

Your check didn’t come. It’s never coming.

Now what?


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