December 22, 2007

Baby I Got My Money!

I've been keeping a little quiet about my exploits in the New York small claims, civil, and county courthouses because I didn't want to jinx myself. And I didn't want my debtor to catch wind of what I was doing to get my money from them, in case randomly somebody were to forward my blog to them.

But now that I've got my money, I can tell the story. As briefly as possible.

I had done some freelance work for a couple of years for a record label, who always kind of seemed sketchy - but as long as they were paying me, I kept working with them. When my monthly payments started to come only three times a year, I didn't mind so much as long as they came. When they stopped coming, I would have to withold services and stop working until they sent a check. Eventually, they stopped caring and didn't need me to work for them anymore. The problem? I was still owed four months' worth of payment.

So after years of trying to be nice and get it directly from them - and even having a friend try on my behalf - I took them to small claims court, and won a judgment against them. The only problem? I still had to get my money.

There are a lot of spammy companies out there who will try to collect your judgment for you, for a hefty percentage, but I was determined to do it myself. Of course, the process is long and arduous, so I actually procrastinated several months before I even started.

There are a bunch of things you can do, but there's really no one resource of information, so you've really got to do your research. I suppose I could have approached it in a variety of ways, but first I sent an information subpoena to the debtor's representative in their Department of State listing. Unfortunately, their rep returned it to me blank saying that they didn't represent the debtor. I tried to hold them in contempt of court, which is totally within my legal rights, but I got caught in a tug-of-war between the small claims clerk and the civil court clerk, each of whom thought the other should handle it. Apparently people don't do this very often. I gave up, even though I wanted to hold every person involved in contempt.

I also sent an information subpoena to the company itself. If you get one of those things in the mail, you have to send it back within seven days under threat of contempt as above, so I could think of nothing better than actually holding my debtor in contempt. Unfortunately, the company had moved and left no forwarding address, so the letter got returned to me. If I didn't even know where they were, how was I going to find them to get my money?

More investigative work resulted in copious Googling of the company to try to find a current address. In a random yellow-pages-like listing online, I found one address on Fifth Avenue that I'd never seen before, and since it was on my way home, I decided to walk by there myself and take a look. They weren't listed on the outside directory, but when I went inside and tried speaking English to the night security guard, I noticed the building directory hanging behind him, the letters that spelled out my debtor's name reflecting dollar signs in my eyes. Gotcha!

But I still had to figure out how I was going to actually get the money from them. The best way to do it, of course, is to get a bank account number or a list of assets like real estate, cars, etc., but this was New York - they were likely to rent and not have a car. This might take a while.

In my research, I realized that I could file a transcript of judgment which would basically remain on the company's permanent record and make it really difficult for them if they were to try to purchase real estate or sell off anything really significant. I also realized that if two other people had filed transcripts of judgments that remained uncollected, I could sue for triple damages. Big money! No whammies!

So I asked the small claims clerk if they had any other uncollected judgments on record. They said no, and asked me if I was an attorney. I giddily said no, and  I didn't stop there. I ventured into to the basement of the county court, to the dusty records room with the broken copy machines and the Wargames-era DOS computers, and find every court case on file against a defendant. Edith and I were like Cagney & Lacey, digging through files and finally uncovering a hilarious $20 million lawsuit - as yet untried - that claims fraud, conspiracy, extortion, money laundering, and operating "sham enterprises" that apparently was a much bigger problem for them than my little four months' worth of pay.

The best part was that the supreme court brief - which had clearly been written by a New Yorker with strategic use of quotation marks around words like "expertise" - gave me some ideas of more people to subpoena. In fact, I went subpoena crazy.

Fortunately they don't limit how many subpoenas you can send out, so you might as well send out as many as you can. In my case, I sent one to their record distribution company, their digital distributor, the company that was suing them, and finally - in a stroke of Googling genius - the management company of their office building. Shortly thereafter I got the golden ticket from them, the information subpoena back with a bank account number.

But again, it doesn't just stop there. You can't just call the bank and say "Give me my money." Number one, there's no way of knowing if the bank account will even have enough funds, but your biggest fear is that the debtor will find out what you're doing and close or move the account. And then you've got to start over again.

So as quickly as I could, I went down to the Sheriff's office and filed a request for execution, which basically empowers a sheriff to go to the bank in person and get your money. But of course, with all this bureaucracy, nothing's immediate, so the bank has 90 days to even respond - but by that time, you've at least made things uncomfortable for the debtor, and there's nothing they can do.

Those sheriffs may be slow, but they get your money. Deputy Lopez promised that I would have it, and lo and behold the check arrived in the mail today. Even better, they had accounted for some of my legal fees AND interest, adding up to a total that was definitely more than I expected.

So was about $4K worth all the hours of running between courthouses, poring over legal documents, and searching terribly uninformative court websites? Maybe not in terms of the total hours spent on this project, but justice has been served. I do feel vindicated, and all it really took was a lot of diligence and patience.

It's too bad because most people who have cases in small claims don't seem like they're of the fortitude to be able to actually ever get their money. From what I observed, many don't speak English well or at all, most are in some kind of service industry or blue collar work, and I think nearly all of them just wouldn't have the time to dedicate to the endeavor. And yet they're the ones who probably need those small amounts of money the most.

For me it was more about ego. And I had enough interest in the legal system to not go crazy. And I did it all myself, without the help of an attorney (except maybe the budding one inside of me).

December 17, 2007

Safe Return

Back from Syracuse last night after a somewhat harrowing drive. I'd decided to rent a car because of the horrible holiday price gouging on airfares, but I also like driving back so I don't have to ship presents back and so I can stop and eat junk food at my leisure. Unfortunately, I'd gotten a nasty stomach bug on Christmas which sent me to bed all day (bah!), so Waffle House in Clarks Summit, PA was definitely out of the question. Although I really wanted to drive through the Poconos because of the scenery, I decided to take the Thruway instead so I could have the option of stopping on a regular basis if nature called.

National Car had also run out of actual cars so they gave me a gigantic SUV, which I was a little worried about navigating on mountain roads and smaller highways. I figured I was safer on a multi-lane interstate. Unfortunately, I encountered a TON of traffic. And lots of trucks.

My back massager didn't work in the cigarette lighter of the car so I was on my own with the leather bucket seat, but it was actually really comfortable and I made it all the way past the Tappan Zee Bridge without stopping, a good four hours into my trip. By the time I got past it, though, I was really dying for a break so I finally stopped at the mythic towering Stew Leonard's, which I've passed so many times and never explored.

Stew Leonard's is the family-run, down-home grocery store that's mecca to residents of Westchester. I really thought I was going to come out with armfuls of groceries to bring back, but instead I only got a little Italian take-out sandwich as a snack. Of the store-made Italian specialties, meats, cheeses, dips, chips and everything else, the portions are HUGE - definitely family-sized. Even the packaged goods are gigunda and extremely inappropriate for single little me in a studio apartment. I don't even have room for all those big multi-packs.

But it's cool to walk around there, and they have a whole liquor store inside with really good wine prices and a decent (though relatively mainstream) selection. Still, I was wishing it was Wegman's, with all the free samples and the smell of food cooking in the aisles. Although I did manage to get one of their famous peanut donuts while home, I didn't actually get to go there.

The rest of the drive home was ok, though it was hailing when I left Yonkers. I saved some time by skipping the traffic-ridden and tolled Triborough Bridge and taking the free and empty Third Avenue Bridge instead (genius shortcut taught to me by Eric), but the entire trip still took about six hours, a good hour and a half longer than it should with normal traffic and weather.

By the time I got to my apartment and unpacked my stuff, I was so sick of that huge car, I didn't even bother trying to park it on my block. I have a hard enough time parallel parking compact cars, so I returned it early and tried to immediately reclaim my normal life. I got a last minute pedicure at closing time, and had dinner and some frozen margaritas at Rodeo Bar. Ah...home.

I had a great time hanging out with Maria and her family while in Syracuse, but I desperately need a manicure, a massage, and a pilates class. Thank God I don't have to go into the office this week (though I do have to be reachable).

And as glad as I am to be back in NYC, I've already started planning my next trip: to one of the country's best cities, San Diego. Hopefully a nice weather vacation in March will help chase away those winter blues that always dog me.

December 13, 2007

Another Weird Cab Ride

I was hanging out in Jersey with Dan, who usually drives me all the way home, but tonight I offered to take the PATH back. Once I got to 23rd St, though, I didn't want to wait for a bus that was not in sight, so I took a cab the short ride home.

Immediately upon my entering the backseat, the driver started to call me Miss America and Miss Universe and acted like he knew me. I can't say I recognized him, though being called Miss America - and his protesting of not knowing what the f- is wrong with guys in this city - did seem familiar. When he said he was going to miss his job and I asked him where he was going, he said, "Take a good look at my face. Do you not recognize me? I am famous!"

He then pulled out all these laminated newspaper clippings and started namedropping every TV network and radio station he's been on. He is the Matchmaker Cabbie.

I don't know how he wasn't more on my radar. I mean, the whole thing sort of sounded familiar, but I had no idea the amount of attention that this guy has gotten for the marriages he's instigated and the long-term relationships that he's assembled.

Apparently he's leaving his post behind the wheel to star in a reality show, brokered for him by William Morris. But that didn't stop him from taking my email address down and promising to send me a match by Sunday.

Normally I wouldn't be so free with my contact info, but this guy seemed legit and a real character. Sometimes you've got to take those moments in life and say "what the hell."

So let's see what he sends me. He promised me something good.

Further reading:
Matchmaker Cabbie Connects New York's Lonely Passengers - The Seattle Times
Cabbie Becomes Matchmaker for Lonely New Yorkers - The Chicago Sun-Times

December 12, 2007

Let the Celebrations Begin!

Conveniently timed during Hanukkah, I went to my first bris last night. Catered by Katz's and replete with Manischewitz, it was a lovely event, for a tiny, cute, bedheaded baby boy. I tried to put aside my own convictions about circumcising innocent little ones (see "The Rights of Baby Boys" - The New York Times), turn a deaf ear to the crying, and knock a few bagels and lox back.

I actually had three parties to go to last night, the next one being the Adventure Society holiday party. I'm on their mailing list and even though I've never participated in one of their excursions, I really want to. I decided to go to the party and drink their bizarre cocktails (including one made with Italian herbal liqueur Fernet) and try to meet dudes that want to hang glide with me.

Unfortunately the party was in a cramped office space and wasn't very social. Everybody there was in their late 30s or 40s and ... well... not attractive. And not interested in me anyway. The best part of it was when I let the wine girl go to the bathroom and I manned her station. I think I only poured a couple of glasses of wine (besides for me and Edith) but I really enjoyed being "behind the bar." Helped fulfill that fantasy I have of opening my own place...

After that we made a late night stop at the Hog Pit for some fried chicken, mashed potatoes, mac and cheese and a goodbye kiss to Brad, who's moving to London. That's too many fantasies for one night - it feels like all my friends are getting jobs and moving to London, and I want to be next.

More parties to come this holiday season, including our office party next week...And boy could I use it. I've got some bells to jingle.

December 09, 2007

Christmastime in the City

Santa InvasionYesterday I finally kind of got in the Christmas spirit. We went to Grand Central for the annual light show and holiday fair, and even though the light show is sort of unimpressive, it was nice to hear Christmas music piped in so loudly. We were heading to the Transit Museum Store's train show when we stumbled upon SantaCon, and the entire concourse of Grand Central was overtaken by santa's. Pimp Santa, Darth Vader Santa, Scooby Santa, Sexy Santa, Robin Hood Santa, all singing carols, some giving out candy, and most looking kind of drunk at 1 in the afternoon.
We also managed to make it to the Bryant Park fair, the BUST Holiday Craftacular (averting the block-long line somehow), and a festively-decorated Bar Jamon where we met a hot waiter and drank Spanish wine.

Drunk on holiday spirit, I finally gave in and took a look at the Christmas trees across the street in front of Duane Reade. In past years, I've haggled pretty good prices for some nice trees, all a little too big for the size of my shoebox studio apartment. One year I even went all the way up to Food Emporium six blocks away to get a better price for a bigger tree, and had to roll it home in a shopping cart. This year, I had my eye on two trees: one short, round one and one tall, skinny one. The tall skinny one looked like the runt of the litter, but at $30 - half the price of the short one - it seemed like a great deal and I brought it into its new home.
Oh, it's not perfect. The branches are patchy and weak. But it's over six feet high, towering above me and fitting perfectly into my little nook by the window. Besides, I'd bought so many Christmas tree ornaments as souvenirs over the past year, I was dying to display them on something.
A little more wine, a little Christmas music, and some tinsel and I was suddenly READY for the holidays. Just have to get the Claritin ready for that allergic reaction to pine....

December 08, 2007

Til the Cows Come Home

The naturopathic doctor suggested I eliminate dairy for a couple of weeks to see if that's what's been causing some of my physical problems. In hindsight I realize agreeing to it was a big mistake, with me more stressed than ever, working harder than ever, and just not mentally strong enough to support eliminating one of my favorite things out of my life.
I've done detoxes before, eliminating alcohol and sweets and even eating in restaurants altogether, but the results are immediate: you lose a boatload of weight quickly. Eliminating dairy made me hungry, depressed, deprived, and crave other salty things like chips and fries to replace the cheese that would normally satisfy that.
I fell off the wagon a couple times - eating a little onion dip at Michelle's party last week, eating shepard's pie (made with grits instead of mashed potatoes) which had butter in it at Jimmy's No. 43 - but nothing major til Thursday night, when I sat down at Rodeo Bar and demanded steak soft tacos (cheese) and a big pile of sour cream. It had been a rough day.
Then last night, after managing to resist lunch at Murray's and cookies from Julian, I more than willingly ate dinner at Arturo's, my favorite pizza/Italian restaurant in the city. And it was a veritable cheese binge.
We had garlic bread with cheese, which I topped with parmesan cheese.
We had baked clams which most certainly had some kind of buttery garlic sauce with it.
We had arugula salad with big strips of parmesan laid across the top.
And we had the cheesy Fiesta pizza which I also topped with more parmesan cheese.
Most dairy I can go without. I don't drink glasses of milk, I don't really eat yogurt, I don't have butter or sour cream in my home...But once you start checking, you realize everything is made with some kind of dairy product. Whether it's butterfat or some isotrope of lactose or was just made on a machine that also processes dairy products, nearly every box listed "CONTAINS MILK" under the ingredients, or had a D on the front. And God only knows what restaurants use to make your food. Forget about it.
So when I was off dairy, I tried to find some replacements. I can't eat soy so the whole soy cheese / soy milk route was out of the question, but I did try rice milk. It sounds disgusting but I don't know, it's pretty good. I like it better than cow's milk. It's really good on cereal. But it's actually not that good for you, because it's basically carbs instead of protein. Argh.
I also discovered baking chocolate that's sweetened slightly but as no milk or butterfat in it. Pretty good and a little better for you. Definitely good for times I'm dieting and I fall off the wagon. But note: 100% cacao baking chocolate does not taste good by itself.
My "dairy fast," as I've been calling it, was supposed to end altogether on Monday, but I don't know if I'm even going to bother eliminating it for the rest of the weekend. This is just the worst time of year. And because I didn't feel one bit better off the dairy, there's really nothing encouraging me to keep depriving myself besides just stubbornness of doing what I said I was going to do.
I think in general cutting down on the amount of cheese in my life is a good thing, but again that's more for weight loss. My cholesterol is great and it seems like anything in moderation is probably OK.
The naturopath will still suspect I have a food allergy but I don't think I'm willing to cut out other foods people are commonly allergic to (wheat, tomatoes, eggs....).
Back to the drawing board.

December 05, 2007

Another Irate Cabbie

I LOVE the credit card machines in cabs. They're so convenient! But boy, do the drivers hate them.

I took a cab home tonight from Naked Angels mostly because it was cold out but also because I'm just so tired lately. When we got to my corner, I swiped my credit card with glee, and asked for the receipt (which the screen TELLS you to do).

The cab driver got really defensive immediately and started saying, "Just wait, just wait" and holding up his hand, like I was harrassing him or something.

When I asked him if there was a problem, he started going off about how long the credit card takes and how it "wastes three minutes."

I said, "It's not my fault. It's not my fault for taking advantage of a service that's being offered to me."

He snapped, "Yes! It IS your fault! You do not have cash for $6 cab ride and you make me wait for credit card!"

"Blame the Taxi & Limousine Commission," I said, and he handed me my receipt.

I opened the door, making sure that I would be able to safely exit the backseat (remembering my Saturday night). I then jutted my head through the partition in the bulletproof glass and I snarled, "Oh, and by the way, I did have the cash."

He started yelling at me but I'd already slammed the door and started sauntering away, so I couldn't hear his tirade.

And it's true. I did have the cash. But I need to save that for tipping bartenders and paying for cabs that don't take credit cards.

December 02, 2007

What Are You Gonna Do To Me?!

That's what I kept screaming at the taxi driver last night. Michelle and I had hopped in a cab after 2 a.m. on the Upper West Side to get a drink or two in at George's bar before last call, and the guy drove like a maniac the whole way. I was already feeling nauseous (from ending my dairy fast? from eating steak tartare?) and the ride made me carsick on top of everything, and extremely agitated.

I'm really into the new credit card swipe in taxis since I'm often short on cash, so I was glad to see that this cab was equipped with the new technology. When I first swiped, the driver said, "It's not working." A likely story - taxi drivers are notorious for trying to encourage you not to use the credit card payment, since they have to pay a fee for it. I had just been reading an article in Time Out about what your passenger rights are, so I wasn't about to give up.

Once I swiped and it went through, the driver started to say I had to sign the receipt. He gave me a pen, I looked at the receipt, and I said, "I don't have to sign this, here" and gave the pen back to him. The guy lept out of the front seat, ran around to the back right passenger seat where I was about to depart, and became very threatening - waving his arms around, pointing his finger at me, shouting, all right in front of the swank Bowery Hotel.

Of course, I wasn't having it. I got up in his face and said I wasn't a tourist and he wasn't going to intimidate me, if he had just been nice then we could have worked something out but now I wasn't going to do anything for him. He became more violent and threatening and we started to collect a crowd, notably a shivering girl who'd been waiting for a cab for a long time. I started to pick on her, shouting "Do you want this guy to drive you home? Do you trust this guy to get you where you need to go?" And then I went back to the driver, channeling a very Phil-like "Is that how you're going to act?"

And then because he wouldn't back down and because he was blocking me from leaving the backseat, I got up in his face and started growling, "What are you going to do to me?!"
When it comes down to it, you don't have to sign the receipt unless the trip is over $25 (which it wasn't). In the back of my mind at the time, I thought there was a chance I was wrong and that prior cab drivers had just never asked me to sign, because the whole thing is still new and we're all still getting used to it. And with the old credit card swipers (that weren't in many cabs at all), you did have to sign and you did have to tell the driver ahead of time that you were paying with credit card (you don't now). But I became so infuriated at the way he acted, the attack he engaged on me, thank God in a very public setting and not in the dark corners of, say, Greenpoint where I used to get chased down by cab drivers.

All that, for a dollar fee he thought he was not going to get reimbursed.

I think the shivering blonde girl took the cab after I walked away, but I departed so swiftly and determined that I didn't bother to look back and check. I even lost Michelle, who was so dumbfounded at what just happened that she didn't notice which way I walked and ended up wandering in the opposite direction.

It didn't occur to me at the time to take down the guy's medallion number. I could have reported him to 311. I could have sued him probably for harrassment and mental anguish (something I would love to do considering my recent escapades in the New York Small Claims Court system). But in the end, no harm done. Yelling at him totally dissipated my nausea and I was able to have a decent time for the rest of the night.