My Secret Life Tracking Down Debtors

Only in America does a friendly substitute teacher with a mountain of medical debt spend her nights serving summonses to other desperate people like herself.

My Secret Life Tracking Down Debtors

“I hope my dog fucking bites you on your way out!”

The suburban housewife I’ve just served with a court summons yells that to my back as I hurry down the steps of her house.

When she first answered the door, the woman, a blonde in her 30s, had been friendly. I didn’t expect any problems, even though I’d noticed her dog barking its head off and hurling its big, dirty-white body against the front window. As I handed over the summons, the smile on her face quickly disappeared. And once I heard her threat, I didn’t linger, since I didn’t want to feel the dog’s sharp, snarling teeth tearing at my clothes or flesh. I also didn’t want to risk making this woman even angrier than she already was. I mean, she told me in person that she wanted to sic her dog on me. I don’t mess around with that.

I quickly get in my little gray Honda Accord, which is parked on the street. That’s not very “Minnesota Nice,” I think with a smirk. I turn the key in the ignition to give the impression that I’m leaving. I’m going, I’m going … don’t chase after me! But before stepping on the gas, I quickly snap a photo of the front of the woman’s house through the passenger side window, to prove that I’ve been there — a job requirement.

By day, I’m a substitute teacher, teaching K–12 students in Minnesota’s public schools. But in the evening, I moonlight as a process server, driving to debtors’ houses to serve them with court summonses notifying them that they’re being sued for unpaid bills. The debtors often look surprised to see me standing on their doorsteps: a petite young woman (I’m 5-foot-4) sporting a neat dark-brown bob, nerdy black plastic-frame glasses, and casual attire more befitting a soccer mom who shops at Loft than someone stealthily hunting down bill-evaders. I’m friendly, polite and seem harmless; they have no idea I’m going to thrust legal papers into their hands.

I actually hate the thought of ruining someone’s day by slapping them with a surprise court summons. Making another person feel bad for any reason fills me with guilt and shame. I’ve always wanted to help people — by being supportive, understanding, kind, loving and positive. Not by showing up at their doors and arguing about their medical bills for the entire neighborhood to hear. Even if I am just the messenger, I don’t like the messages I’m giving.

Usually the process goes like this:

Ding, dong

Knock, knock, knock

Ding, dong

Knock! Knock! Knock!

Unless I can hear it, I’m never sure if the doorbell actually works. Please be home … please be home! A wary face appears in the window, then I hear fumbling with the locks and the door slowly opens.

“Hi! Hello … sorry to bother you guys,” I say softly. “I’m here to see Sam Miller. Is he home?”

If it’s Sam Miller at the door and he admits it, bam! Served. If it’s Sam Miller’s wife, and she lives there and admits it, bam! Served. If I’m really lucky, Sam Miller’s teenage kid will answer the door and take the papers without any hassle (or eye contact). The other scenarios tend to involve a lot of irritating questioning, evasion, lying, and sometimes swearing and screaming and door-slamming. (To protect their privacy, I haven’t used the real names of any debtors in this article).

But usually, it goes fairly smoothly, and I don’t have to get tough. It’s only in certain situations when the debtor is being an extreme asshole that I will triumphantly exclaim those three magical, infuriating words:

“You’ve. Been. Served.”

How much do I get paid to risk my life (and self-esteem) every night as a bearer of bad news? I earn $26 per summons served. A friend of mine who runs his own process serving business is my boss. He works directly with the law firms, gives me stacks of papers to serve, and then deposits the payments into my checking account.

I can make good money — sometimes serving up to 10 summonses per work shift, if I’m fortunate — if the debtors or other residents are at home, I don’t get lost or stuck in traffic, and I can zoom from address to address quickly. Time is crucial. Keep going! One more address! One more paper! I often fall into a wired, adrenaline-fueled “zone,” as if it’s a contest.

Nine o’clock is my absolute latest cutoff time, then I give up for the night and go home. Some nights I only manage a disappointing two or three papers served, which makes me insanely irritated that I’ve wasted hours and miles and gas with little to show for it. It’s a frustratingly fickle job.

Process serving has changed and improved somewhat since I started doing it 13 years ago, before smartphones and tablets were ubiquitous. I used to drive around with a cumbersome, falling-apart map book and my little silver Nokia flip phone, which I mostly used to talk to friends as I was driving in circles in suburbia.

Today, I rely on my iPhone for GPS and directions, taking photos, doing paperwork (entering and submitting affidavit information to the law firms), and calling or texting debtors — usually about logistics (how to reach someone to deliver the papers). But I’ve had debtors joke around with me via text and even ask me out on dates, which I always politely decline. I don’t want to date someone who has even worse credit than I do!

One thing that hasn’t changed in the last 13 years of doing this job is its wacky-weird unpredictability. At each residence I visit, I never know who or what I’ll run into: a spiteful neighbor with binoculars, a slacker “bro” stoned out of his mind, people hanging out in their underwear, a devious debtor hiding in the garage.

Enter now through June 27

Win $3,000 and a lot more!

One chilly autumn night as I drive along the winding streets of St. Paul, I want to get one more summons served before quitting at 8 o’clock. I slowly pull into the debtor’s driveway and spot a man tinkering around in the open, semi-lit garage. A rush of nervous energy shoots through me.

Yes! This better be the guy. I quickly get out of my car and walk toward him, stepping into the garage while casually holding the papers behind my back.

“Hello! Hello?” I call out. He looks up, startled.

“I’m sorry to bother you. I’m looking for Peter Erickson. Is he home?”

“Why? Who are you?”

“I have a delivery for him.”

“What kind of delivery?”

“Legal documents,” I say hesitatingly.

“What kind of legal documents?” he demands.

“I can’t give out that information. They’re for Peter Erickson. Are you Peter Erickson? He really needs to look at them himself.”

“No, I’m not. Wrong address. He doesn’t live here. But what are they for?”

I don’t answer. I know it’s him. At an impasse, we stare each other down, playing an unspoken game of chicken. Who will give in first? If I try to confront him, it could get ugly. Finally, I give him a tired smile, sigh, and turn to leave.

“I’m sorry,” he says suddenly. “It’s me. I’m Peter.”

“Thank you for telling me,” I reply, handing him the stapled bunch of papers. “Here you go … read through it, and it will tell you what you need to do. Have a good night!” I briskly walk out of the garage, hop into my car, and get the hell out of there.

That’s one of my main serving hacks: Get the hell out. I don’t want to risk my safety by hanging around, because most people who get served with legal papers are not going to hug me or invite me inside for a cup of coffee afterward.

Another essential hack is to never go into people’s homes. You know, for obvious reasons: assault, rape, kidnapping, murder. I violated my own rule by stepping into the man’s garage that night, but I figured that since the garage door was open, I could always scream and run out.

This entire operation probably isn’t very safe, when I stop to think about it. Especially for a woman who resembles a mousy librarian instead of Dog the Bounty Hunter. But I try not to worry about it too much, this nightly habit of prowling around in strange, dark yards.

Yet sometimes, when I’m creeping along alone in dingy, deserted hallways in run-down apartment buildings, I think: I could totally get raped and murdered in here and nobody would know. Shit. Then I bang on a door, praying that someone will answer, so that I don’t have to come back again later.

I don’t want to die doing this job. Or end up stuffed into someone’s car trunk. Maybe I watch too much true-crime TV, but you can’t really trust anybody.

“You should be packin’!” says my good friend Jenna, who’s an attorney.

“Yes, or at least carry pepper spray or mace with me,” I reply.

We have a version of this conversation every few months, but I still haven’t bought pepper spray, mace, a rape whistle, or a set of nunchucks to swing at attackers. I do, however, try to take other precautions, such as carrying my phone at all times to dial 911, if necessary.

Most of the time, I don’t feel scared. I feel pissed-off, especially if I drive miles to someone’s house and they’re either not home, or don’t live there anymore, or worst of all, refuse to answer the door. There are nights when I can see them in there, with the TV on, living room lights ablaze, and they still won’t come to the door — no matter how much I ring the bell, knock on windows, or pound the door with my fist.

But this job isn’t only full of hiders, liars, vicious dogs, potential serial killers, and people screaming insults at me. A lot of people do answer their doors. Sometimes I’ll even get lucky and meet a sweet grandmother who graciously accepts the papers.

“I’m sorry your job is rubbish,” says a kindly, gray-haired woman in her 70s, gently placing her hand on my arm for a moment. “You don’t look like you should be doing this kind of work.”

Wincing, I hand her a packet stating she’s being sued for $1,500 for an unpaid medical bill. I notice it’s from the same provider I have also owed thousands of dollars to over the years due to a chronic illness I’ve had since age 18.

“I’m so sorry,” I say, turning to leave. “I hope it’s a mistake.”

Even worse, sometimes I’ll be greeted by someone in a wheelchair or a debtor fighting against cancer or some other hardship (a leg amputee shouted obscenities at me from his window the other night). I try to be as compassionate as possible, but the whole time I feel like a huge jerk and question why I’m still doing this awful job.

Thankfully, the process-serving gods take pity on me once in a while and provide a hilariously absurd situation that makes me actually love what I do for a moment — like the warm summer evening when I accidentally crashed a house party.

Hellllo! Come on in!” an obviously inebriated woman exclaims from the leafy backyard of the house. Other people shout friendly, tipsy hellos. This should be interesting.

“Hey, it’s the pizza girl!” someone else shouts.

“No, sorry,” I say. “I’m not the pizza girl.”

“Wanna beer?” a dude yells. Tempting.

“No, thanks,” I reply. “I’m actually here to see Richard Williams. Does he live here? I have legal papers for him.”

“Who? Ohhh, that’s Cousin Rico!” one of the partiers exclaims. “He’s fucking crazy! We don’t know where he is. He’s probably in jail. Shit, when is the pizza coming?”

“OK, thanks,” I reply, waving goodbye. “I hope your pizza arrives soon!” If only they could all be like that: cheerful, helpful, and if necessary, drunk.

Actually, most of the people I serve are nice about it, oddly enough. I could probably say something like, “Here are some legal documents for you, and I’m sorry, but your house is going to be demolished, your car repossessed, and your dog put down,” and many Minnesotans would smile and thank me.

But it’s the times that I get screamed at, threatened or insulted that tend to stand out.

“Look at you, you ugly little bitch!” a woman hollers from her front step, after yanking the papers from my hand. “You’re a piece of shit! You’re serving me and I have cancer. Cancer! Go to hell!”

Shaken, I get the hell out of there as fast as I can. But I can’t stop thinking about her for the rest of the night. I’m not a piece of shit, I tell myself. I’m not. It doesn’t help that earlier that evening I’d gotten into a screaming match with a debtor who was hiding in an outdated apartment building.

Apartment buildings are the worst. Parking is impossible. The buzzers outside are usually broken, and if they’re not, people ignore them. Sometimes I get lucky and find the door unlocked. In those cases, I fling it open and bound up the steps or rush to the elevator. Or if the door is locked, I sneak in as someone else goes in or out of the building, or I’ll ring a different apartment’s buzzer and say that I have a delivery for so-and-so, like I did this time.

“Susannah, I know you’re in there!” I yell through the door as I bang on it.

“Go away!” she screams. “Get away from my door!”

I continue my pissed-off door-pounding.

“OK, fine!” she yells. As the door swings open, a petite young blonde lunges at me.

Oh my God, she’s going to hit me.

This tiny, fragile-looking woman violently rips the papers out of my hand.

“OK, thanks, bye!” I squeak, then I get the hell out of there. I could probably take her in a fight, but I don’t want to wait around and find out.

As I sprint to the elevator, a young man holds the door open for me. By the look on his face, I know he’s heard the whole nasty exchange.

“I just had to serve her with legal papers,” I explain. “She wasn’t cooperating.”

“Oh, OK,” he nods, smiling weakly. “I’m just moving in today, actually.”

“Well, uh, happy moving-in day!” I exclaim. “Hopefully I won’t be back, banging on doors and yelling at residents.” We both laugh.

Just another day at the office, right?

One late afternoon, I set out on my route as usual, groaning when I see I have to serve another apartment dweller. When I arrive at the address, I notice that the debtor’s apartment number isn’t even listed in the directory. But I do have her phone number, which I quickly dial.

A generic voicemail message begins to play, so I hang up and send her a text.

“Hi, this is Angela. I just tried calling you. I’m trying to reach Sherri Davis. I have an important delivery I need to get to you.”

“Wrong number.”

“On Ohio Street. Do you know Sherri Davis?”

“I just told yo azz wrong number.”

Well, that’s a new one. “OK, sorry to bother yo azz,” I reply.

Send.

I wait. No response. I scribble a few notes on the cover sheet and walk back to my car. Time to get my ‘azz’ moving to the next address.

And on to the next house, the next cul-de-sac, the next broken doorbell, the next jungle yard, the next street closed off for construction (infuriating!), and the next debtor whose day I will inevitably ruin by shoving a summons at them.

How much longer will I be part of this day-ruining business? Not much, if I can help it. Ironically, the reason I work this crappy extra job is to help pay off my own huge mountain of medical debt.

“I might have to serve myself soon,” I sometimes joke with the debtors. “Wouldn’t that be funny?”

You’ve been served, Angela. Yo azz.

This usually gets a laugh, and I can feel the tension between the debtor and me start to fade. At this point a tiny, warm bond connects us briefly, and the debtor finally understands that I really am just the messenger. We’re not so different after all. Many debtors are fighting to pay their bills and make it through life in one piece — and so am I.

After serving my billionth summons to Mom, Dad, Grandma, creepy boyfriend, stepmom, Uncle Bill in the trailer park, teenage Josh who’s mad I interrupted his video game, or whomever, I walk calmly back to my car and hit the road again, ready to see what life will serve up next. Just please don’t shoot the messenger. Or sic your dog on her.