Bankruptcy Blues

One woman, three cancers, and a cash crunch

Julie White

Julie White
Ohio, USA
June 16
writer, editor, dreamer-in-chief
After careers in teaching and librarianship, as well as a stint at editing, I jumped ship to become a freelance writer. I have worked primarily in educational publishing. In 2009, I took a part-time job at a library, trying and failing to make ends meet. Bankruptcy followed. I'm using a pseudonym, because I have to write about money or the lack of it, trying to make sense of my life as an educated, underemployed, aging woman sliding into poverty status.


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DECEMBER 10, 2011 2:27PM

On Being Mostly Silent at the Hearing

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In one of the collects (opening prayers in an Episcopal service), we ask for grace to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Scriptures. I did not follow this formula with the letter Geri had sent me about appearing before the trustee; I knew what the letter was, noted the time and address. It clearly said, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, Room 309. I assumed that the court was in the courthouse, and that I knew where it was. Big mistake. Turns out I’d never really inwardly digested the distinction between federal and county-level hearings. I’d probably not even figured out that this was a federal case. Nor, in all the times I’d driven on Third Street, had I observed a massive three-story building with United States Bankruptcy Court carved into the lintel above the heavy wooden doors.

Geri had asked me to be there fifteen minutes early. No way was I going to make it; I was hoping to arrive in time for the hearing. Parking was the first problem—well, ignoring the fact that I needed to stop for gas, and that I ran into both construction and a high school letting out, clogging traffic. Then there were the one-way streets downtown. I finally ended up grabbing a space at an on-street meter two blocks from the courthouse, saving at least $2.00 in parking lot fees and feeling smug.

Once I mounted the five huge steps of the building, crossed a landing for another five steps and got inside, I had to go through security. Just like being at an airport, I thought, getting cleared for takeoff. I had time to take in the beauty of the old building and its dark wood. My demure purse slid through the X-ray machine, I stepped through the bars, and was directed to a window to ask where I should go.

Geri is unflappable. She was not in the least worried when I made my appearance, after walking past the open door once, because there seemed to be a confab of people at a round table in the room. When I retraced my steps and Geri waved me inside, I discovered it was more than that.

My prior experience with the judicial system—other than tv shows—had been limited to watching a trial once with a fellow teacher and his Civics class and being called for jury duty that didn’t end up in my being seated. It turns out that bankruptcy is not a private act. In the large room, which was divided into two sections, there was indeed a confab going on in the rear. Further in, a man with his lawyer sat near the back of the room, listening to the trustee question someone. Geri assured me that I was fine, and that there was someone ahead of us. We’d go in and listen, she said, so I’d know what questions were being asked.

This violated every sense of privacy I have, but when the man and his lawyer took their place at the U-shaped space (made from putting three long folding tables together), Geri marched us right up to the front row. I listened to his Q and A, just as another couple eventually listened to mine.

And then it was my turn. I know I looked like a deer in the headlights when the trustee, after a brief chat about another case with Geri, asked me to stand and place my right hand over my heart. I’d missed that part of the proceedings earlier, having run to the restroom. I promised that I was telling the truth, so help me God.

I wasn’t overdressed in my black pencil skirt, teal top, and teal-checked fancy overshirt. The trustee was wearing a suit (though he’d hung the jacket over a chair), white shirt, and tie. Geri was in a brown pantsuit. But it was hot, an unseasonably warm October day. The windows in the room were near the ceiling, barred and shut. I wasn’t so much overdressed as overheated.

The trustee had a tickle in his throat and kept coughing and apologizing, which helped me relax, and also made me want to tell him to drink some more water. He was a human being, despite his grave demeanor and his laptop and the recording device on the table. He went through questions that were already answered in the paperwork Geri had submitted: did I own real estate, had I sold any property in the past two years, was I expecting an inheritance, how many miles did my car have on it and what was it worth, was this my only bank account? He asked nothing unexpected, nothing about my cancers or freelancing career, how I felt about any of it, or how I intended to survive financially going forward. It lasted perhaps fifteen minutes.

Geri and I walked to the back of the room and she smiled and said, “That’s it.”

I’d been expecting more than the trustee’s cursory “Good luck” at the end of the session, some kindly assurance or pronouncement.

“That’s it? What happens now?”

“In about a month you’ll get a notice in the mail. There’s no trouble. Did you notice that he flagged something for the man ahead of you?”

Oh, yes, I had. This man had been unwise enough to have $6,000 in his bank account the day before he filed, which he withdrew to meet the requirement of having less than $400 on hand when filing for bankruptcy. He claimed, and I believed him, that the money went for a child’s college expenses. But the trustee wanted to follow up on that with the lawyer later, and I saw him put a post-it note in the file. I blessed Geri inwardly for being so thorough.

“He didn’t flag anything with you. You’ll have no trouble.”

She smiled and we took the elevator down together. Outside, we discovered our cars were parked in opposite directions. She gave me a hug, and I walked off, thinking I should have a neon B on my chest or something—passersby could see I’d been in bankruptcy court, with the designated purpose of the building etched in stone. (Actually, some law firms and a member of the United States Congress had offices there, but still.) I felt oddly hollow, much the way I’d felt when I learned I had cancer.

As I headed to my car, I saw what I’d not seen in my rush to get to the court—a church with a garden. I could see a white statue of Mary and a pool, so I crossed the street for a better look. I thought of the first time I’d had a panic attack riding on the subway in Philadelphia; when my friend and I emerged, there was St. Mark’s, with a solid iron fence to hang onto while I cried in relief at not being underground any longer.

This was Sacred Heart, an old urban church that a Vietnamese Roman Catholic parish had apparently purchased. They’d taken good care of Mary, who had painted gold stars scattered on her. Three votaries knelt to her left; on her right was a toddler Jesus and a lamb. At her feet, a small continuous waterfall landed in a pool, where a few koi swished back and forth. An iron railing featured the motif of a shepherd’s crook every few feet, with tiny pink flowers surrounding the whole thing.

Nearby, wooden benches circled a tree. I sat down with my back to the street and cried for a bit. Other than a personal finance class I would be required to attend, it was over. Oh, and the small problem of figuring out how to live, going forward.

I argued with myself about going straight home: I had things to accomplish for work, and needed to use my time wisely. But I went to Trader Joe’s anyway for a few items I can get nowhere else. There I ran into a friend from the cancer community and talked to her for a bit; her father had recently died, offering me another opportunity to give thanks—my parents had both died many years ago, and I was not facing that fresh grief.

Then I got off the interstate expressly to spend money. I’d trade the money I’d saved on parking for ice cream at a fancy store that makes chocolate ice cream with chocolate chips and globs of peanut butter. Tired of the interstate’s traffic and speed, I drove country roads home to begin my bankrupt babe life.


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