Sunday, March 12, 2006

Mr. Schprock’s Day In Court

Perhaps you regular readers may remember my two ex-tenants, Guildenstern and Rosencranz. If you don’t or need a quick refresher on how they enlivened my otherwise humdrum life, or if you’re not a regular reader and want the full scoop, then here’s the main story. If, on the other hand, you’re in a hurry or not much into links, I’ll sum things up for you quickly: we had two guys in their late twenties living in the upstairs apartment of our two-family house. One of them, Guildenstern, didn’t want to follow our rules and took liberties. He met stiff resistance from my wife. A cold war ensued, resulting in both of the roommates breaking the lease and moving out. During their final two months living in the apartment, Rosencranz the Good faithfully paid his half of the rent while Guildenstern the Bad did not. Eventually we had a constable serve them a notice to quit and then I filed a claim against Guildenstern in housing court to recover the lost rent. The hearing took place last Monday, on March 6.

Let me begin by saying that taking someone to court is a gutsy thing for a shy guy like me to do. I’ve never been much into confrontations — after all, I’m more about peace, love and understanding. But in this instance I felt duty-bound to not let this guy go without some resistance; my pride wouldn’t allow for it, and the Universal Fitness of Things dictated that a person who acted the way he did should be called to some account. So at 1:30 in the afternoon, on the fourth floor of the Edward R. Brooke Courthouse just outside of courtroom 14 and a full half hour before the session was to begin, I seated myself on a bench in the hallway and nervously thumbed through my papers, ever conscious of the violent beating of my heart and the clamminess of my hands.

In small claims court here in Boston you appear before a clerk magistrate; there is no Judge Judy or Judge Wapner. The towering judge’s bench, which dominates the room and is constructed of impregnable paneled oak, remains conspicuously unoccupied during these sessions and no court officer will ever announce the arrival of such an esteemed, black-robed personage to mount its steps and preside from up above. Before and below the judge’s bench rests the clerk’s desk, at floor level and given no prominence at all, and there an ordinary person, someone just like you or I, sits. This person wears no special garment; indeed, the woman I saw seated there when I entered the courtroom took no more care of her appearance than most people would. For all the world she could have been just another person on the bus or another pedestrian crossing the street. And she was short.

But she had an authoritative manner and, after it turned 2:00 and the courtroom doors were closed, she explained the rules in a no-nonsense way and suggested that many of us would probably be better off choosing mediation rather than rushing headlong into a hearing. Some followed her advice, but when it came my turn to declare which way I wanted to go, I opted for the hearing.

So after a while Guildenstern and I were conducted to another courtroom where there sat another clerk, a woman also. This second courtroom was a duplicate of the first one; like the first, facing the judge’s bench and the clerk’s desk stood a wooden witness stand which was flanked by two tables. Guildenstern took the table to the left and I took the one to the right. I noticed the leather chair I sat in was very comfortable and slid easily on its casters as I organized my papers on the table’s surface. I tried to appear calm and I believe I succeeded — I don’t think anyone would have known that underneath my combination knit sweater and turtleneck the underarms of my T-shirt were sopping wet. The clerk, a woman in her late-fifties with short, iron-grey hair, seemed friendly, and the atmosphere didn’t feel oppressively formal. Besides the presence of an intern, a young, athletic-looking guy in a shirt and tie who sat silently off to one side, we were the only ones in the room.

The clerk was acquainted with why we were there and asked me some preliminary questions: my address, what kind of apartment was involved in the dispute, what I charged for rent and so on. I handed over the first lease and the current, broken lease for the intern to make copies of. Then I explained very briefly that the start of the trouble began with an incident involving Guildenstern’s brother, Horatio; things took on a life of their own after that and could never settle down. I suggested Guildenstern could describe the events from his point of view and then I could comment on them when he finished.

Readers may know from previous posts that I am a stutterer. In general, it’s a mild stutter — some days are better than others, and the really bad days are counterbalanced by those when my speech appears virtually free of the defect. Happily, I was in fine form as I spoke then and this blessed fluency continued throughout the rest of the proceeding. Every word came out straight and true and I said exactly what I wanted to say. However, my opponent, Mr. Guildenstern, is a salesman; he earns his living by his wits and by a considerable gift for oratory. He is also quite skilled in the fine art of “slinging it,” a mastery of telling things that are intentionally misleading but seasoned with just the right amount of logic and facts to give his bullshit the flavor of truth. He knows how to look you straight in the eye, smile a disarmingly sincere smile, and make you feel like you’re his best friend; you wind up sure you couldn’t meet a nicer guy. And he always has an answer for everything; explanations for this or that leap to his tongue as if unbidden and of their own accord. He’s sharp, I have to give him that. Sometimes, in spite of myself, it’s almost fun to watch him.

To recap just a little bit, Guildenstern’s brother, Horatio, who plays no small role in this melodrama, was literally run over by a truck 13 years ago. He has (or so the story goes) since been hospitalized many times over the years and requires medication to manage his pain. On the night in question, Horatio flipped out while on the phone to a hospital pharmacist who wouldn’t give him the emergency medication he asked for at 11:30 at night (his painkiller kit was stolen). He shouted every bad word in the book both to her and, after hanging up the phone, to his brother. He stomped about and slammed doors and generally put on a very scary performance, one that was transmitted with perfect clarity to our part of the house. This led to a row between Guildenstern and the missus and resulted in a lot of bad blood.

In court, Guildenstern chose to spend ten minutes describing his poor brother’s plight. We heard about the filter that was installed in Horatio’s heart; he spoke of the medical specialists who were flown in from all over the country to save Horatio’s life and reconstruct what was left from his crushed skeleton and traumatized organs. He acquainted us with the emotional and physical disabilities that were the result of such a tragic accident. On and on and on, blah, blah, blah. And the clerk encouraged him all the while, wanting to know more, hanging on his every word. His speech lasted so long it had me drumming my fingers impatiently on the tabletop. When he was finally through, I swear Guildenstern had transformed his brother into a veritable Tiny Tim complete with the little crutch and stool by the hearth. God bless us everyone! Oy!

Now, something I could not say (nor can I tell you how I know) is that Guildenstern’s poor, crippled brother — who, by the way, appears perfectly normal if you ever met him — has a police record as long as my leg and, on top of that, his own mother has filed a restraining order against him. He’s recently divorced and has two children (that last part did come out, and when the clerk inquired more into it, Guildenstern waxed poetic on what a miracle it was that Horatio could father children). Folks, believe me: Horatio is no Tiny Tim. He’s a criminal.

Without boring you with specifics, my main contention wasn’t so much Horatio wigging out that night, nor was I insensitive to his physical and mental infirmities, but I strongly objected to his apparently moving into the apartment, particularly as his name does not appear on the lease; all that blather about his brother’s condition was beside the point. Guildenstern disputed my assertion, and on we went.

Two things I quickly learned during my little foray into the judicial process: you can say anything you want in a courtroom and a smooth presentation can be better than the truth. No matter how good a form I thought I was in, Guildenstern’s glib and practiced tongue outpaced me; I simply couldn’t stay up. I was handicapped by honesty. As a debater, I must have appeared as something of an oaf; I just couldn’t parry all of his jabs. Throughout most of the exchange, I moronically put down most of his aggressive massaging of the facts as simply “his version of the truth.” I thought in many instances Guildenstern was merely mistaken when he stated things not precisely as they occurred. Timelines were changed and he quoted me saying things I never said, or least not in the words he chose for me. Inexpert liar that I am, I assumed he wasn’t so much dissembling as merely getting the facts muddled, a natural thing to happen when you mean to be persuasive.

However, right at the very end, Horatio said two blatant lies. When he uttered the first one, I immediately asked myself, “Did that really happen?” Then, after puzzling over it for a moment, I wondered, “Is he mistaken?” And then, much later, I determined to my dawning amazement: “Why — he was lying!”

Well, duh!

The second lie I disputed without quite calling it a lie; I weakly countered that I “didn’t recall that ever happening.”

When I left the courthouse and cut through Boston Common and the Public Garden as I walked back to the office, my impression was that Guildenstern, with his superior communication skills, held sway, but I scored my share of points and might have impressed the clerk with my complete lack of guile (my wife calls me “an open book”). I was proud of myself; I didn’t let Guildenstern get away scot-free; I dragged his ass into court and made him answer for his actions. If I didn’t receive a penny from any of this, at least I had the satisfaction of knowing I put him to some trouble. This attitude buoyed me up and I arrived at the office in fine spirits. I knew I did the best I could. Nobody could say I didn’t give it my best shot.

As the week wore on, however, and as I replayed everything that happened in my head over and over again, I thought of a million “shoulda saids.” I regretted not being quick enough and letting him get away with so many half-truths and outright lies. As I recollected this and that, I came up with several clever ways in which I could have exposed him as a liar and thereby thrown discredit onto everything he said. But there was no longer any clerk to hear such witty repartee; my time was past. My effort in the courtroom, however valiant and earnest, had to stand with all its imperfections. The more I considered things, the more I despaired of recovering any of the rent Guildenstern owes me and attaining the feeling of vindication that would come along with it.

Last Friday, a letter from the Housing Court Department arrived in the mail. Here’s the important part:

“I [the clerk magistrate] find that he [Guildenstern] is liable for 90% of the rent due for December and January, $1620.00. Accordingly, judgment shall enter for the plaintiff in the amount of $1620.00 plus costs of $40.00 for a total of $1660.00.”

In other words, when all is said and done, Guildenstern saved himself exactly $140.00.

That means he lost.

19 Comments:

Blogger LL said...

'Taint easy is it. But it does get easier the more you do it. You've already realized several of your mistakes and would try to remedy them the next time, not that there will be a next time, mind you, but anyway...

You need to make sure the judgment is recorded, that way if he doesn't pay you, you'll have to go back to court, and you can execute the judgment.

You know the funny thing? Out of the blue this morning, I wondered whatever happened with Guildenstern...

7:55 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"You need to make sure the judgment is recorded, that way if he doesn't pay you, you'll have to go back to court, and you can execute the judgment."

There is already a date set for me to appear in court if he doesn't pay. And, unfortunately, he has the right to appeal (I don't). We'll have to see.

8:09 AM  
Blogger Farrago said...

Bravo, Schprock, for givin' 'im whatfer!

You stutter? I never knew. It certainly doesn't show in...your, er...writing.

Bravo, again.

2:39 PM  
Blogger LL said...

"And, unfortunately, he has the right to appeal (I don't). "

If he does appeal, you need to argue that you deserve the full amount. Never settle for the $1660 as the 100% figure.

But I'm glad you prevailed.

3:54 PM  
Blogger Flash said...

Congrats on the win!

Sales people are the worst, and getting them into court is the hardest thing. congratulations on standing up for what you believe in, and for future sake, I hope no more of these "type" of tenants grace your doorstep.

7:24 PM  
Blogger Yoda said...

While I may not be a glib sales person and face some speech defects myself, I've found myself to be a clever debater. There is nothing better in an argument than facts.

You can talk and talk and talk. But you cannot beat facts. As long as you can create a clear time line and present the crucial facts, you've won the debate.

9:18 PM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"You stutter? I never knew. It certainly doesn't show in...your, er...writing."

Ha ha! I guess it helps that I'm not dictating, right?


"If he does appeal, you need to argue that you deserve the full amount. Never settle for the $1660 as the 100% figure."

Good advice. Wouldn't it be funny if things came out worse for him on appeal!


"…and for future sake, I hope no more of these "type" of tenants grace your doorstep."

Well, if I do, at least I have experience now.


"You can talk and talk and talk. But you cannot beat facts. As long as you can create a clear time line and present the crucial facts, you've won the debate."

Absolutely, Yoda. I'm glad I stuck to the facts. It probably showed.

4:26 AM  
Blogger Scott said...

Excellent! You had me going there, had me thinking you were going to lose and that slimy worm-tongue got the best of you. I would have been nervous too. Great story; great post.

4:40 AM  
Blogger LL said...

"Good advice. Wouldn't it be funny if things came out worse for him on appeal!"

Funny? No. Just deserts? Yep.

If he does appeal, here's the phrase you need to remember: "While there's no arguing that his brother's been through a horrifying experience, it is irrelevant and immaterial because his brother's accident doesn't give Guildenstern the right to dodge the obligations that he agreed to by signing the lease."

6:55 AM  
Blogger mr. schprock said...

"Excellent! You had me going there, had me thinking you were going to lose and that slimy worm-tongue got the best of you. I would have been nervous too. Great story; great post."

I probably didn't quite do my speaking performance the justice it might have deserved; I think because I was so keyed up I might have been — for me — on top of my game. I tried really hard.


"While there's no arguing that his brother's been through a horrifying experience, it is irrelevant and immaterial because his brother's accident doesn't give Guildenstern the right to dodge the obligations that he agreed to by signing the lease."

Awesome! Raymond Burr couldn't do better!

After I say those lines, I'll pause a moment to let those words take their full effect, then moon the courtroom.

7:51 AM  
Anonymous Dreadmouse said...

Well done, Herr Schprock. I, too, would have been in dire need of some drycleaning (and a stiff drink) after a court appearance. I enjoy a good debate, but not when somebody is literally judging me.

I hope Guildenstern actually does you the "honour" of paying you.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Wordnerd said...

Score a point for the good guys! Very happy for you!

11:06 AM  
Blogger trinamick said...

Way to go, Mr. Prosecutor! If you ever decide to move to NE and need a job, we can always use another legal eagle around these parts. You could start by firing New Girl, and then suing her for being stupid.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Irb said...

Actually, if Guildenstern appeals, you might try doing the Al Pacino "You're out of order! The whole system is out of order!" speech. Most courtroom officials find it enduring and humorous.

Congrats on your fine day in court, Sr. Schprock!

1:52 PM  
Blogger NYPinTA said...

Bravo. My faith in the system has been restored... for now.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Kathleen said...

Woohoo!!! I was so hoping that the magistrate was so used to the charming salesman type that she could see right through him. Of course, she wouldn't really care about the lies, she only cared about the law and I'd say that's why you won. He had a lease which he broke, but he had to pay his rent. Cut and dried.

I'm proud of you, though, because I would have been all flustered and gotten really upset with his lies.

9:08 AM  
Blogger Beth said...

If, on the other hand, you’re in a hurry or not much into links, I’ll sum things up for you quickly

Mr. Schprock, you know I love ya more than my luggage, but when do you ever sum up quickly? Haha.

I'm so glad he didn't end up getting off scot free! When you're not a liar, you're always taken off guard by those who do so fluently. Us non-liars are like, "Huh? Did you just LIE to me?"

It's good to be good though. =)

12:18 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

A toast - to the right winning out (for a change) in our twisted legal system!

6:13 PM  
Blogger Ultra Toast Mosha God said...

Come on!!

Victory!

4:50 AM  

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