by Christopher Bacas
Eviction begins with a sheaf of papers, hand-delivered, addressed to the tenant, known thereafter as “Respondent”. Attorneys employ a process server to ensure proper service. Any improprieties are grounds to dismiss and the Petionner files anew. Respondents often agree to waive this technicality. They are standing in front of a judge in a packed courtroom. They’ve taken off work, made arrangements for family and already waited four or five hours. Unless the tenant disputes non-payment itself, it’s better to proceed.
Our papers arrived in the mail; envelope a bulging fish, its paper crinkled into rows of scales and ball-point lettering murky. When I opened it, bracing saline flooded my belly. The terms were stark: without a timely response, Marshalls would forcibly remove us and all our possessions. My family home was remarkably stable. As a young professional, I’d spent 600 nights in motels, I wasn’t prepared to spend much time on the streets.
Eviction papers require a tenant to answer in person. In each borough, a special court convenes for housing cases. In Brooklyn, the court building is downtown, wedged in a sprawl of vertiginous modern gantries, gaslight storefronts and acres of cheap, street-level shopping. The entrance floor is a glassed box, furnished with two walk-through metal detectors, their conveyor belts, and steel tables stacked with tubs for personal items. The hard faces and surly voices of the entry guards clarify the tenants’ place: slightly above farm animal. Beyond the gauntlet, a bank of elevators, squalling up and down on greaseless cables. Indicator lights broken, mostly shuttling between upper floors, they arrive every 15 minutes or so. Even for the infirm, the stairs are quicker and actually, more dignified. Officers of the Court enter quickly on the side, through a secure door into a private elevator.
The document room is steerage: mothers with clinging children, shuffling elderly and ten languages rolling in breakers against institutional walls. Each Respondent holds an identical paper sandwich. Everyone is tense, none more than the clerks behind heavy glass. Eviction is a suit; Respondent counter-claims, files and leaves with a court date. The clerk’s job is to make a cogent legal reply for each tenant. They wince and scribble while listening to fantastical tales of deplorable conditions, management’s negligence, or financial woe. The relevant legal construct is the “warranty of habitability”. Without a valid counter claim, the case is solely about money; a debt collected pitilessly and in full by the Judge’s attorney.
After taking a deli-counter number and waiting, I give my papers to the clerk, answer crammed into the allotted lines. He takes my sheaf and copies the court information onto a fresh form. Then begins writing my answer himself, not even glancing at my form. I squirm and try to see his words.
“I’m counter-suing for breech of the warranty-of-habitability and for…”
He cuts his eyes above the paper.
“You want me to do this or you want to get outta line and take another number?”
“I just.. I want…I need to make sure that the answer..”
Exasperated, he drops the pen and glares through six-inch glass.
“Look. I do this every day. You gonna let me DO my job?”
“Please, do your job. I’m sorry.”
He resumes writing. When he finishes, he clatters a keyboard, squints and writes the court date on the top of the paper, then shoves a carbon copy under the glass.
“Thank you, sir”
Terrified my case is compromised by a misplaced bit of legalese, I stoop to read the answer. Immediately, he mashes the call button and a new number flashes above his window.
Another desperate tenant pushed past me with their documents.
The trial date is only a few days after the counter-claim. The first time we were summoned, I saw the hearing as mediaeval town square; we’d approach the bench under a hail of public opprobrium and parry vebally. In reality, the process is much less shameful and far more violent.
Every day, lawyers representing landlords have multiple cases in multiple courtrooms. When called, tenants stand and wait while someone looks for Petioner’s counsel. Officers of the court are colleagues and friends; after arguing a case, they have pastrami sandwiches together in a private lunch room. When an attorney is missing, they’re accorded the deference of friendship, humor borne of familiarity or a paternal sigh. Each judge decides when to call the next case and every delay stacks against others, ensuring a full day for tenants in an airless room.
Management retained as counsel Stuart Jacobs; a dumpy man whose clomping walk matched his careless dress. Under a kippa, the remains of his hair clung damp on his temples and ears. Making arguments to one of his Judge pals, he reminded me of a records-room schlepper; climbing awkwardly on the rolling ladder, retrieving a battered opinion and disinterestedly dropping it on the partition.
In the courtroom I recognized an elfin, red-haired man, Jacob’s employer, Mr Miller. From behind, the yarmulke capped his oversize head like a piece of eggshell. As Petionner, he didn’t have knowledge of tenant’s rights or patience for the stultifying pace of court. When he spoke, he cocked a scrawny shoulder, grimaced and fired words from a clip held in his tight mouth. Miller made clear Jacobs worked for him. Jacobs’ bulk attended him closely, the inversion of the tiny birds who ceaselessly peck the flesh of lolling whales.
Miller turned to study us. He held the seat back tightly, as if his slight frame might slip through it. Jacobs talked in his ear. He appraised us like a fighter: taking note of our reach, how we telegraphed our punches and how low our gloves dipped afterwards.