When I got the divorce papers for service on the eighty year old wife, I could see drama spelled out on the pages like a sarcastic soap opera, featuring the kind of characters you’d see in a film like Raising Arizona. The real-life setting was just as disturbing — a rural double-wide trailer, someone on medication and an angry son protecting his elderly mother. This was going to be a long day.
At this point in my life, I had been serving papers for over twelve years and knew what I was in for. The client would have to write a bigger check. Otherwise, I wasn’t doing the job. Fortunately, they agreed and off I went to find the trailer, marked only on a map with a circle along some dirt road near the freeway. Yeah right. Even my topographically programmed GPS wasn’t going to help me with this one.
I know that service of service of process can be dangerous. Armed with the divorce papers, my legally concealed handgun, a fully charged cell phone and a piece of spearmint gum — I began driving up and down a major U.S. Highway in a very rural part of an un-named California county.
“Where is this place?” I peered through my truck’s passenger window for an unmarked dirt trail which would lead into the scrub of the high desert and wondered why I had an ache in the pit of my stomach.
“And why am I doing this again?”
That’s right, it was the money. You know – that stuff the wife talks about all the time. Speaking of wives, I better call mine when I find this trail and tell her where I am so they can find me if anything goes wrong.
Deciding to stop at a horse ranch and ask for directions, I noticed an intercom at their secured gates. I pushed the button and got the rancher. Within a few minutes, a sunburned cowboy with a large rancher’s hat arrived at the gate in his flat bed pickup. Tails wagging and tongues darting, the rancher’s two black & white border collies stayed on the truck bed without leashes. He had no idea who I was talking about, but pointed to a trailer over the distant, brown desert hill and explained that the entrance was a quarter mile down the freeway, marked by a large tumble weed (no joke).
Well, he was right. There was a large tumble weed where the trail was. I called my wife and gave her all the details of the case. I also told her that if I didn’t call her in an hour, she was to call the California Highway Patrol. My wife was used to this kind of thing, but after describing the road and how it winded up into the desert for miles, she sounded nervous.
Slowly, I drove my truck down the double track dirt road toward the double-wide mobile home which was supposed to be down there somewhere. After finding a gate with several “No Trespassing” signs, I was almost relieved. If it was locked, the job was done. I don’t go through locked gates. If it was unlocked, I would have to push it open and continue. It was unlocked.
After another mile of driving and I came across a second set of gates with more “No Trespassing” and “Stay Out” signs wired to them. Again, there was no lock and I pushed them open and drove through. When will this end? How will this end? I was surrounded by desert, tumbleweeds, dust devils and rolling hills.
Finally, I saw the trailer ahead in the distance. It was standing on a hill with a junk yard of broken vehicles, tires, furniture, ice chests, trash and a mess of random metal scrap. In my years of experience, I knew what a yard of junk meant for what kind of attitude I’d expect from the resident. This was worse, since I was alone in the middle of nowhere, on private property in the high desert past two gates with signs warning people to stay out. If you’re asking yourself this question for some reason…yes I left all the gates open in case I had to drive out of there really fast.
Before I could park, a man was standing between me and the trailer with a holstered .357 magnum revolver and a very large chip on his shoulder. I opened my driver’s door and said hello while gripping my concealed pistol out of sight. In a fighter’s stance, the man demanded to know who the (expletive) I was and why I went through his gates. This wasn’t going to go well. In fact, this could be my worst nightmare if I don’t play this right. Immediately, I went into my psychology mode. How do I get this angry resident with a gun to go from “ready-to-shoot” to “greet the nice guest with manners”?
My response: “Oh, (long pause). You’re not going to be nice?” I admit that it was a strange question but, that’s what I went with. With all the adrenaline pumping through this guy’s veins, he wouldn’t have heard a word I said otherwise. Especially if I tried to explain the papers, unlocked gates and my purpose there.
With a half smile, I held out my “Court Process Server – California” flat badge, (yes I carried one of those for years because it’s a great tool). Then I said, “I’m here on official business. Sorry I startled you.” The look on the man’s face completely changed.
“Oh, sorry. You’re here to serve my mother? Come on up. I didn’t know who you were at first,” he said.
Great, I thought! I have the right address. If you have spent any time serving papers, you know this could have been another nightmare in itself.
Secretly re-holstering my pistol from behind the door of my truck, I paused and then asked if he could just produce his mother outside. Under normal circumstances, I never enter anyone’s house for any reason while serving papers.
The man replied that he would go get his mother and be right back.
While I stood outside the double-wide trailer, I surveyed the junk yard and hoped this would be over quick and easy. The mother will come out. I hand her the divorce papers with a smile and then get the heck out of there. This might be easier than I thought. The man calmed down. The mother is home and is on the way out. I looked at my watch. Just in time to get some lunch, I mused.
Of course, I knew this wasn’t going to be the case when the man stepped back out of the trailer without his mother. I simply stared.
“She’s in the bathroom right now,” he said.
I was thinking to myself that between the time he went to get his mother and now, they had decided to evade service with the old “bathroom” excuse. Personally, I thought the “shower” excuse was always better, but it was just as well. At least it wasn’t the “taking a nap” excuse. That one always ticked me off.
“I’ll wait,” I said.
“Well, she’s going to be in there for a while. Maybe you should just come back another time,” he said.
Yeah right, I thought. I’ll just leave and come back. That’s a good one. I was born yesterday. I’ll just come back later to your locked gates while you laugh at me from the tattered screen door of your home on wheels. No, I’ll stick around and get the serve done.
“I’ll wait,” I said. “It’s no problem. I have time.”
The man put his hands in his pockets. I didn’t let my guard down. The revolver was now missing from his hip, but that could mean anything. This was no time to relax or lose my polite demeanor either.
“You could come in and serve her if you want,” he said.
“I normally don’t do that,” I stated flatly. “It’s a policy.”
What is this guy up to, I thought.
“She’s going to be in there for a long time. It might be your only option.”
“What do you mean, a long time? Like all day?” I asked.
“She has medical problems,” he said. “We’ll just open the door and you can serve her.”
“Open the bathroom door? I’m not sure I can do that,” I said nervously.
“It’s okay,” he replied. “She won’t mind.”
“Maybe you can get her to the door of your trailer and I can just see her face?” I asked. “If you do that, I can just leave the papers in her presence and won’t have to bother you folks any longer.”
The man agreed and went back into his trailer. After a few moments, he returned.
“Nope, sorry. She’s sitting on the toilet right now and can’t get up,” he said. “You can come in and serve her in the bathroom or come back another day.”
I considered my options. Serve a woman on the toilet? Was I really going to enter this dude’s trailer and get myself shot over some lousy divorce papers? I can see the headline now: Evil process server shot while trying to assault naked woman on the toilet.
My brain was yelling at me, “No you idiot! It’s not worth it!” My gut was telling me to go for it. Life’s too short to not serve someone on the toilet, right? Who else can say they served someone on the toilet? The closest I came to this was when I had to wait for a golf course restaurant cook at the bathroom door. I was there to serve him child support papers and he wasn’t getting away this time. This was my fourth trip there and I finally had him. I could hear toilet paper roll spinning forever and thought to myself, “He’s evading service via the “extra toilet paper” tactic!”
Go ahead and laugh.
I have served famous people and everyone in-between. Some of the situations I’ve been in would curl your hair. Besides, I had a fat check waiting for me if I got this done today. I know what you’re thinking. The truth is, that the biggest motivation for me was the mission and accomplishing it. Some of you may understand and some may not, but that’s what it was.
As we walked into the trailer, I noticed the interior wasn’t unkempt at all. To my surprise, the place was neatly organized and clean. I don’t get it…a junkyard outside but spick and span inside? Did I miss something? Aside from everything else, this oddity really freaked me out.
The man pointed to the bathroom door, “She’s right in there.”
I paused again. “Can you throw a blanket on her or something? I don’t feel right about invading her privacy like that,” I said.
This request accomplished two things: One, I would be able to see him go in with a blanket and hear the conversation. If this was an ambush, I would be able to tell right away. And the second thing was to save his mother’s dignity and cover my own metaphorically-exposed behind.
The man entered the bathroom with a blanket and covered her. He came out and gave me permission to enter the bathroom and serve his mother. Slowly, I opened the door and braced myself for whatever kind of smells there might be, but there were none. I pushed the door a little more and caught sight of a frail, little woman, cowering on the toilet under the blanket.
Instantly, I felt terrible for this poor lady. I was embarrassed. If someone had told me I’d be serving an old woman on the toilet today, I would have laughed, but now there was nothing funny about it. What kind of son would allow me in there and what kind of husband would abandon her and send me with divorce papers?
As uncomfortable as it was for both of us, I had to do my job and complete the service. I took a couple of steps into the bathroom and held out the summons and complaint. Her eyes were wide, skin wrinkled, face pale and her hair was a shoulder length shrub of gray curls. For a second, I thought it would be possible for the son to shut me in there with her, like some kind of prisoner. Maybe she was a prisoner and the son kept her in the bathroom like a cell. With that thought, I put my boot at the threshold of the doorway. Anything was possible at this point.
With the nicest possible tone, I apologized to her for my intrusion and briefly explained that I was handing her legal papers. She didn’t say a word, but just mumbled something and quivered under the covers.
I walked out of the bathroom and told the son in a nice way that I was done and wanted to leave them in peace. After saying that, I felt stupid but I needed to get out of that trailer. The quicker the better. Of course, the son wanted to have a conversation now. I opened the trailer door and began walking toward my truck. The son followed me and was talking about supporting the local sheriff. Then he named off a few politicians and asked if I knew them. I wasn’t sure where that was going, but I was so done — and ready to get the holy heck out of there.
Every response from me was something like, “Well, thanks for all your help, but I really think I have intruded in your personal business enough for one day. Thanks again and take care.”
For some reason, that statement was like an invitation for more conversation with this guy. I smiled, nodded and finally just started my diesel engine, shut the door and drove away waving. The hair on the back of my neck stood up as I peeled away from that lonely trailer in four wheel drive.
After leaving the property (and closing the gates as I went), I called my wife to let her know I was okay. Then I called the client to inform them of the completed job. They were happy and my check was on the way. The male legal secretary was astonished by the story. They had heard about my ability to track people down, but they never expected this. I didn’t either.
Serving papers can be interesting, dangerous, hair-raising, stressful, frustrating, sad, tragic and down right funny at times. I started out thinking this job was dangerous. I quickly found that it turned bizarre and then finally – sad. Later that day I was angry and within a week all I could do is try to forget. My emotions about the situation were not something you can pin down. If you don’t understand what I mean, let me put another way. This elderly woman wasn’t just a respondent or freak service. She is a human being. The woman had a long life. I’m sure at one time she could tell stories about her childhood in the 1930’s or something, but instead these unfortunate set of circumstances had her sitting on a toilet in a double-wide trailer in the middle of nowhere. Does anyone stop to think about stuff like this?
Most people haven’t a clue what process serving is about. There are real human dramas played out. Every once in a while, we have some odd-ball situation to deal with and it requires some really fast thinking on the job, instantly and with common sense. You have to leave your emotions at the bathroom door, every time.
I think the moral of the story, if there is one, is to expect the unexpected in every aspect of life. Always carry the right tools no matter what you’re doing, keep a positive attitude and remember your wits. I’ve aborted plenty of missions over the years because they were too dangerous, not worth it or logistically impossible. Sometimes you have to remember that Kenny Rogers song and know when to hold em, fold em, walk away and when to run.
Scott A Schlefstein is a former deputy sheriff and firefighter who ran his own legal support business for 14 years. Currently, he works as a writer and serves on a county commission for business & economic development. Scott lives in Northern California with his wife and two kids.
His newest book, Dream Tide, is available online through major retailers.