November 20, 2009

Tales From The (Legal) Trenches

Category: News — Ira @ 6:48 pm


It is unfair to believe everything we hear about lawyers.
Some of it might not be true.

—Gerald F. Lieberman

You’d never know it, just being around me. As most of my customers don’t. I never tell them. That I am an attorney. Fully licensed in PA. I’m just common old Joe Schmoe. Pleasant. Cheerful. Accommodating. I can even dredge up a passable chuckle at the same tired old attorney jokes every time they’re trotted out. And believe me, I’ve heard them all.

I don’t do much anymore, of the legal work. Mostly write wills for the Amish here in Lancaster County. Word of mouth gets me a number of clients each year. Works for me. Produce something tangible, and get paid for it. Otherwise, the system is so adversarial, so parasitic, so contentious that I left it years ago. The stress, and the seeming lack of tangible accomplishment, got to me. So far, no regrets.

But once in awhile, in the course of my duties as general manager of Graber Supply, it does become necessary to strip the veil. To show my true colors. Mostly that happens when customers can’t or won’t pay their bills. After I’ve cajoled them. After they’ve promised for the tenth time the check is in the mail. And it isn’t. About then they receive a very official looking letter, complete with all the legalese. Pay up. Or else I’ll see you in court. Signed: Ira Wagler, Esquire. General Counsel.

The letter works most of the time. But not always. And then, after some months of patient, if sporadic persistence, I head off to the small claims court. File a Complaint.

Yep. I sue. Without even the slightest tinge of conscience. A contract is a contract. And in PA, an uncontested debt is voided after two years. So the window for action is fairly limited.

It doesn’t happen often. At most, maybe twice a year. Oddly, the people I go after are usually Amish or Mennonite. Plain people. Or at least from that background. It’s strange. Maybe they think I’ll just let it slide. From their actions, or lack thereof, that’s what they must think. Either that, or if they ignore the problem long enough, it will just go away. It won’t. As some few of them have learned the hard way.

I do have a little trick up my sleeve. If you make me come after you, I’ll sue your business. And you personally. And your wife. All the names I can throw in there, I will. Whatever sticks, sticks. Whatever doesn’t, the judge can remove.

I figure most of the time, the slackers’ wives aren’t even aware of what’s going on in the business. If a guy won’t pay his bills, he may well be hiding that fact from his wife. Might as well do my part to inform her. It’s got to be a rude awakening, to be served papers stating that you are being sued in court for an overdue debt.

But mostly, I want the wife included in the suit because if we win a judgment, we can have the sheriff go in and sell their stuff. All marital property. Furniture. Fixtures. Tools. Vehicles. Even clothes. Not that we ever have. But it makes for a pretty hefty bargaining chip. Can’t be ignored, like before.

Last summer, I went after a local Amish guy. He’d merrily purchased a lot of building materials during the previous year. Seemed like a decent guy, with his fingers in a lot of projects. He paid on time. Until all of a sudden, after running up over ten thousand dollars in bills, he just disappeared.

It was not a good situation. We sent monthly statements. Called. Patrick even stopped out at his house a time or two. No luck at anything. The guy wasn’t around and he was sure not making himself available. After a series of increasingly threatening letters, I finally took his case to small claims. Filed suit. Against his business. Him. And his wife. We waited.

Within a week, a desperate call from the wife. She must have talked to her attorney. Could we please remove her from the suit? We were firm, but kind. Can’t do it. After we get a judgment, we’ll negotiate. But until then, we have to do what we have to do. The poor goodwife sighed and wept. She was expecting their third child shortly, she claimed. With all this stress, and her husband’s multitude of debt, she didn’t quite know where to turn.

I felt sorry for her. And even more irritated at her husband. Putting her through all that. She filed notice that she would attend the hearing to defend herself. And try to get herself removed from the proceedings.

“That’s all I need,” I grumbled to Pat. “Some poor weeping destitute Amish housewife, showing up to tug at the judge’s heartstrings. I won’t have a chance.”

On the day of the hearing, I sallied forth. Arrived a few minutes early, as usual. And there she sat, in the waiting area. Plump, pretty, thirtyish, heavy with child. No attorney. Most small claims cases are pretty informal. An English neighbor had brought her. Her husband was nowhere to be seen. I greeted her kindly. We chatted. She fluttered about, extremely nervous. No, terrified. We waited. And then the judge received us in the courtroom.

I sat at a table in front and to the left of the judge, she at a table on the right. The judge, a stern lady, sat behind her bench, robed, imposing. She recited the caption of the case. Graber Supply vs. ____. A suit for collection of unpaid debt.

The judge looked to me to begin. I was the plaintiff, the one bringing the suit. But before I could proceed, the Amish housewife interrupted.

“Please, please, may I speak?” She implored, rising to her feet. She trembled with tension and fear. The judge nodded. “I’m not here to dispute that the money is owed. It is owed, every penny of it. All I ask is that I be removed from the lawsuit. Please.” She suddenly burst into tears, short chopping sobs.

The judge was gracious. “You’ll have your chance,” she said kindly. “Let Mr. Wagler go first, then you can say what you want.” The poor woman nodded and sat down again, vainly trying to muffle her sobs with a twisted knot of a handkerchief already soaked with tears.

It was my turn. I plunged in. Gave the judge copies of past due invoices. Briefly stated how the husband had purchased building materials over the past year. And not paid. He wouldn’t talk to us, or respond in any way to our requests for payment. Or even come to the door when we stopped by. This action was our last resort. And, I said, since the wife had also benefited from the husband’s business, it was only right that she should be included. I asked the judge to keep her in.

Then it was her turn. In this terrifying moment, in this hostile frightening world, a gentle helpless lamb trapped in a den of lean and hungry lions, she struggled visibly for the inner strength for words to convey what she had come to tell us. She turned to me; her dark, deep tear-stained eyes reflected impenetrable depths of raw fear and grief and hopeless despair. She labored to regain her voice. And then, in trembling broken tones, she spoke.

“I have never gained anything from the things you sold my husband,” she choked. “Not once. There were many times in the past year when I didn’t know where I would find enough food to feed my children. I only found out recently that we have debts of more than sixty thousand dollars. We have no way to repay.” Lowering her face, she sobbed uncontrollably into her handkerchief again.

I sat there frozen. As did the judge. It was a scene straight out of a Dickens novel. The trembling broken heroine covering her face, cornered by her cruel oppressors. But bravely speaking truth to power as best she knew.

She turned to the judge and continued. “All I ask is that I be removed from this suit,” she sobbed. “If I’m not, and there is a judgment against us, they will send the sheriff to our house and he will sell everything we own. And…..I don’t want my children… little boys……to have to see that, to go through that…Oh….please…” Her voice broke abruptly, she leaned forward, under terrible duress, half collapsing onto the table, her body wracking with sobs. Otherwise there was no sound.

Her sons. That’s why she was here. Enduring this brutal ordeal. To protect her sons.

The judge looked on with open compassion and pity, greatly alarmed. As did I. For her and her condition. And all this stress might induce labor. A child might be born right here in the courtroom. At least the thought flashed through my mind. And through the judge’s mind, I’m sure. The English neighbor approached and soothed her, wiped away the tears. She struggled, breathed deep, grasped desperately for some semblance of composure. After some moments, she calmed down a good deal.

The judge then turned to me. Did I have any questions for the defendant? I did. I asked them gently. Had my boss not promised that we would not come out and take their stuff, as long as they made some effort to pay even a token amount every month? She nodded. Did she not believe him? She didn’t know, she just didn’t want a judgment against her. After a few more questions, I turned to the judge and flatly repeated my demand for judgment. Then sat down at my table. I felt unclean. And tired and old.

The judge looked somber. She would make her decision and we would receive it in the mail within a few days. We stood as she walked out. I held the door open for the Amish housewife and the English neighbor as they left. The poor woman, still shaking and weeping softly from the stress and fear, returned to the shattered wreckage of her desolate world, a world in which her shiftless lout of a husband had allowed her, in her fragile highly emotional state, to come to this place and face the music all alone.

I walked away knowing I had won. She had no documentation to dispute my claim. No proof of LLC or Corporation protection. Technically, the letter of the law was on my side. Back at the office, I sagged into my chair, exhausted. “It was awful,” I told Pat. “Just awful.”

A few days later the ruling came down. The stern lady judge had copped out. Found some obscure technical reason to postpone a decision. I think she just invented some-thing because she couldn’t bring herself to rule against the Amish housewife. She rescheduled another hearing. Thankfully, before that happened, a committee was appointed to oversee the Amish guy’s finances. The day before the second hearing, we got a call with an offer to settle for sixty-five cents on the dollar. We fell over our-selves to accept it. And so it all went away.

Maybe the judge was wiser than I first thought.

I was greatly relieved. For the poor housewife. And for myself. I’m not sure it was in me, to go back and do it all over again. Too many moral ambiguities, too much strain, too much stress. In a world where black and white all too often fade to murky shades of gray.

That’s why I don’t do this stuff every day anymore.

But once in awhile, it’s OK. Recently, I had my second action this year. Mainstream Mennonite guy, from the next county. Around four grand, he owed. Throughout the spring and summer, I called periodically. Always, he made promises. Next day. Next week for sure. He would send a check. Of course, he never did.

So in late September, I gathered my papers. Trudged off to District Court. Before leaving the office, I had a Google search done for his wife’s name. Cross checked to make sure I had the right person. In the Complaint, I included the business, and the husband and wife individually as defendants. Paid my filing fees. Then awaited their response.

They were tough. Refused to sign the receipt and accept service. The court sent me another bill for $75 for a deputy to personally serve the papers. That money went right down the rat hole, with all the rest. I’d add it to my final judgment, I figured. So I waited.

A few weeks later, a call from the husband. Shaken. “I don’t want to get sued,” he stammered. “Can’t we work something out?”

“Simple enough,” I answered. “Pay up.” He hedged. “I won’t drop the suit until you pay up,” I said. “You’ve lied to me too many times. Promised to pay. I’ve never seen a cent.”

“Can’t you at least take my wife off?” He begged.

“Nope.” I said. We hung up.

The weeks passed. I figured he might call to settle. He never did. So on the scheduled morning, I packed my papers in my briefcase and headed to court.

I arrived early. Waited. Maybe they wouldn’t show. Fifteen minutes before the hearing, they walked in. I’d never seen them before. Always dealt with him over the phone.

He seemed hunched down, resigned, beaten. She was strong, tall, stony faced. And nail-spitting mad. She marched up to me. Glared. “Why am I on this suit?” She snarled. “I’m not part of his company. It’s an LLC. You lied on the Complaint. I never was a part of this. You lied.” She spat the words at me.

I was in no mood to take it from her. “Look,” I shot back. “He didn’t tell me he was an LLC. He had an affirmative duty to do that. When he didn’t, he lost his LLC protection. If you want to be mad at someone, be mad at the guy next to you. And if you want to discuss lying, talk to him about the dozen times he promised me the check was in the mail. He didn’t pay his bills. That’s the only reason you’re here.”

Certainly my words were not conducive to their marital harmony. But it seemed like a perfectly sensible thing to say. No sense blaming me for their troubles. She sat there steaming, not even slightly mollified.

He desperately wanted to settle. She was determined to confront me before the judge and force me to remove her name from the suit. “Whatever,” I shrugged. “It’s not personal to me. I’ll settle. Or I’ll go before the judge. Either way, I’m getting my money or a judgment. If I get a judgment, it’ll be a matter of public record. And I’m coming after you. Believe me, I’m coming after you.”

The hunched down, beaten man recoiled visibly from my words. He seemed terrified at the thought of a legal judgment against him. He asked me to leave them alone for a few minutes. I walked away. Minutes later he called me back. He’d give me a check if I told the judge we’d settled. “Write the check first,” I said. “Then we’ll see the judge.”

So that’s what we did. He wrote me several checks, to be cashed monthly. The grim wife argued to the end about the actual amount owed. Accused me of fudging the invoices. They even came to the office to wrangle about the final amount. She fussed inordinately about a $5 late fee. We worked it out. She was still steaming mad when they left. Still spitting nails. Don’t know why. We could have settled over the phone. But some people insist on doing things the hard way.

And so I won. Recovered what was rightfully ours. But it was draining. I was flat-out exhausted. From all the confrontation, the bitter words, the tension, the harshness, the seething rage. In the end, other than having done my job, there was little satisfaction in my victory. It seemed hollow, empty.

And that’s why I don’t do this stuff every day anymore.

November 6, 2009

A Knife’s Tale…

Category: News — Ira @ 7:48 pm


…and find then in our hands some object, like this, real and
palpable, some gift out of the lost land and the unknown world,
as token that it was no dream – that we have really been there.
And there is no more to say…

—Thomas Wolfe

I’ve always had a serious weakness for a good knife. I don’t know what it is. There’s only so much you can do with one. A knife isn’t a gun. It can only cut and slice and skin. And stab.

I’m not sure why the fascination. It’s not like I have warrior genes or anything, what with my spotless credentials from a long line of nonresistant Anabaptist forefathers. Guess it’s a guy thing. Guys love to sit around and hawk and spit and pull out and compare their knives and regale each other with grand tall tales of the blood and conquest of the hunt.

I love a good knife. There’s nothing quite like holding a forged blade, to feel the solid grip of the handle carved from wood or bone, the heft and balance, the cold cutting edge of razor sharp steel. I gravitate to the fixed blades, hunting knives, survival knives, and especially a well crafted Bowie. Must have a dozen or more, scattered about. Including a couple of Damascus blades. Some were moderately expensive. Funny thing is, I hardly ever use my knives, especially the more expensive ones. The higher the price, the less apt I am to use it. To me, they are a thing of beauty, to be spread out and wiped down and admired. Then packed up and stored away again.

Some of my Bowie knives.

I don’t really remember my first knife. It might have been a cast off from one of my older brothers. Or something Dad bought for me at Uncle Pete’s harness shop. A cheap little multi-bladed pocket knife with faux bone, black plastic handles. And a swivel attached to one end, so as to tie it to my galluses on an old shoe string. From there, a long line of nondescript knives came and went. I remember a nice two-bladed Barlow, again with faux bone plastic handles. And later, after I could shoot, a cheap hunting knife.

I treasured them all. Wish I still had some of those old originals around, but they have all disappeared in the clutter of the past. Lost, misplaced, or simply left behind as I moved from place to place.

Today, my knife fever comes and goes. I buy in spurts, as the urge hits. I’m not a collector, just a guy who likes a good knife. I rarely attend a gun show without picking up at least one. In August, for my birthday, I splurged on a Kit Rae Sword of the Ancients. No particular reason to buy a sword. That’s so last millennia. But I wanted one. Just because. So I bought it. It hangs in splendor on a wall inside my home.

I’m addicted to the Saturday Night Knife and Gun Show, a two hour affair that runs from 8 to 10 every Saturday night. I watch, fascinated, absorbing the corny down home wisdom of Mike Politoski, a rotund good old country boy who expounds at length about his products, America and Jesus. In about that order. His slogan: “The round man with the square deal.” Most of his stuff is cheap junk, with a quality offering thrown in once in awhile. It’s all about as southern and hick country as anything out there. More so than Nascar, even.

Strangely, I rarely carry a knife anymore. But there’s always one within easy reach. At my desk in the office, in my house and under Big Blue’s driver’s seat.

As with most manly things, the knife’s reputation has taken a hit in recent decades. The nanny state shrieks hysterical disapproval. And about every week or two, it seems, we read of how some pompous constipated bureaucrats suspended some poor little six year old for two months for taking his treasure to school to show his buddies. It’s abominable, and it’s a barometer of where we are as a society. Every boy should have a knife. And be taught how to respect it and how to use it.

The old classic brands are mostly made in China now, and that’s sad too. Old standbys like Buck, Schrade, Remington, Winchester, Gerber, Smith and Wesson. And countless others. Old majestic mainstays whose very names used to evoke quality. All are available now at very low prices, but the quality ain’t what it used to be. The American models of those brands are worth quite a bit of money, much more than the new ones. A few brands like Case, Ontario, Cold Steel and others are still manufactured here. And their prices reflect that fact.

In the early 1980s, I think it was, I sent off for a knife catalog from Smoky Mountain Knife Works in Tennessee. Saw the advertisement in Outdoor Life. Some weeks later it arrived, a glossy tome, filled with pages and pages of colored pictures. All knives. All for sale. Some for a hundred dollars or more, a fortune for me at the time.

Not that I ever would have remotely considered spending anything approaching that amount. But still, one could dream. As I did, while perusing the pages. After a few days, I made my selections. A handful of cheap Sodbuster folders with white plastic handles. Lockbacks. Only a few bucks apiece. Naively, I imagined one might sell them for a bit of a profit. So I ordered six or seven.

I returned again and again to a certain page in the catalog. The picture showed a beautiful fixed blade hunter. Stag bone handles. Leather sheath. Uncle Henry by Schrade. A perfect knife, I figured, for hunting. Skinning out a deer or fox. The only drawback was the price. Around thirty dollars. I weighed the thing in my mind, set aside the catalog. Went back again the next day and the next. And finally made my decision.

I had never in my life paid that kind of money for a knife before. That was real money back then, especially for a country boy chronically short of funds. But I decided to buy it. Quickly, before changing my mind, I wrote out my order, enclosed a check, and mailed it off.

It seems so quaint today. To order stuff from a catalog and actually send a check in the mail. Knowing the item wouldn’t arrive for weeks. But that’s the way it was back then, before the internet age. Life moved at a more leisurely pace.

In about a month or so, the mailman delivered a small box, addressed to me. I tore it open. Examined the cheap Sodbuster folders. Nice enough. Made in China. (I never made a dime off them.) Then I opened the second little box. And there it was. Every bit as beautiful as pictured in the catalog. A fixed blade hunter/skinner. Full tang steel. Stag bone handles. A well stitched brown leather sheath. I hefted the knife in my hands and admired it. It was a thing of beauty and it took my breath away.

It was a treasure to me, too beautiful to use. And so I didn’t. Rarely, if ever, carried it in the field. Never used it to skin a single animal. Not once. It stayed securely stored in my desk in my bedroom. Once in awhile I extracted it and held it and wiped it down, kept it clean and gleaming. I showed it proudly to my friends, who emitted appropriate grunts of approval.

Some tumultuous years later, I packed my bags and left Bloomfield. With a bit of cash, a few personal items and some clothes. My Uncle Henry knife was among the few things I treasured enough to take with me on that journey into the unknown.

A few years later, after working through some major issues, I moved to Daviess County, IN, and began attending Vincennes University. Weekends, I worked at the Gasthof Restaurant, waiting on tables. One of the busboys there was a young fifteen year old Amish kid named Marcus Marner. Marcus and I got to be friends. He was talkative, eager to learn. He was also an outdoorsman, a hunter, a guy who actually used his knives.

We talked of many things, and one night I took my prize knife to work and showed it to him. His eyes gleamed as he held it in his hands.

I can’t for the life of me imagine why I said it, such a rash and reckless thing. But I did. “You wanna buy it?”

“Oh, yes,” he said. “How much?”

I didn’t need the money. I mean, I wasn’t starving or anything. Maybe it was just the thrill of the deal. “Thirty bucks,” I said. He agreed instantly. I gave him the knife. And the next weekend he brought me the money. A crumpled twenty and a two fives.

The money was soon gone, frittered away on trifles and staples like gas and food. After graduating from Vincennes in 1991, I left Daviess County. Haven’t lived there since. I rarely go back. Marcus soon faded from my mind. But I never forgot that knife.

It’s not like I really regretted selling it. It was just a knife I had bought a few years before. But still, I always remembered its heft and feel, the quality and beauty of it. My main regret was that I had allowed something so tangible from my Amish youth days to slip away like that.

But I had. And that was that. I didn’t see Marcus again for almost twenty years. Then in May of last year, he showed up at my niece’s wedding in Missouri. Friend of the parents. I wouldn’t have recognized him. Married, with a family. He knew who I was and introduced himself. I saw glimmers of the young Marcus of years ago in the burly, bearded Amish man standing before me.

Ira and Marcus Marner. May, 2008.

After chatting a bit, I asked the inevitable question. “Do you still have that knife I sold to you back at the Gasthof all those years ago?”

“Oh, yeah,” he grinned. “And boy, have I ever used it. I’ve hunted with that knife on me in a lot of different states. Skinned out a lot of deer.”

“I’d sure like to see it again sometime,” I said ruefully. “I never should have sold it to you. I’ve always regretted that I did.”

And that was that. Then last month I attended my niece Mary Ann’s wedding in Worthington, IN. The community where Marcus and his family lived. Upon arriving, I was startled to learn that the wedding service would be held in Marcus’ shop.

On the day of the wedding after the noon meal, as everyone sat around visiting, Marcus sought me out. “Come on up to the house,” he said. “I’ll show you that knife.” I followed him up the hill and sat on a bench on his windswept porch as he disappeared inside. A moment later he emerged. Handed me the old knife. And I held it again for the first time in twenty years.

The sheath was blackened with age and beaten by use. He had not been kidding. He had definitely used the knife. I grasped the stag bone handle protruding from the sheath and pulled it out.

The knife. Schrade Uncle Henry #144

Other than the blade having been honed down a bit from use, it was exactly as it was the day I sold it. Full tang handle. Heavy. Glistening. Sharp.

I sat there and gently ran my fingers back and forth across the edge of the blade, testing for any nicks or imperfections. And for a brief instant I was a skinny ragged Amish youth again, a lifetime ago in another place. So much, so much had come down since then. So many miles, so many years. So many hard roads, so much left behind. I’d pulled off some pretty substantial accomplishments. And endured my share of colossal failures. I had lived enough, it seemed at that moment, to fill a dozen lives.

I held it in my hands, this relic from the past, and looked up at Marcus, a lump in my throat. “Aww, it’s beautiful,” I breathed.

And Marcus stood there beaming, watching me. Then he spoke. “That knife is yours,” he said. “It always was. It will always be. It belongs to you. Take it back with you to its rightful home.”

It was a grand, sweeping generous thing to say. A hugely magnanimous thing. Deeply moved, I gaped at him. The thought had never crossed my mind. That he’d give it back. I had sold it to him, fair and square. It belonged to him.

“You don’t have to do that,” I croaked. “It’s your knife. It’s part of your life too. Part of your youth, your past. You’ve owned it for much longer than I did.”

He waved off my protests. And I shut up. One thing I’ve learned over the years, if someone is doing something unexpected, something generous for you, shut up and accept it. So I did. I thanked him humbly and profusely.

The knife now rests with all my others. Clean. Unused. Admired. Sometimes of an evening I unwrap it and return in my mind to the time I sent off for it in the mail, ordered from a catalog. Reflect on who I was, what I was, where I was, almost thirty years ago.

It is a tangible part of my distant past. One of very few such things that remain from the days of my youth in Bloomfield, Iowa. Callously sold without thought for a mess of pottage, lost to me for two decades. And then returned unexpectedly, against all odds, by a classy guy who instinctively recognized what it meant to me.

I treasure it for what it is, and what it represents. I always will.

And it’s home for good.